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Beginning Level Design, Part 1

To become a successful level designer, not only do you have to understand player expectations, you have to have a recognize the advantages and limitations of the computer game medium. Veteran game designer Tim Ryan presents the first of a two-part series targeting aspiring level designers, in which he concentrates on level design theory.

April 16, 1999

21 Min Read

Author: by Tim Ryan

This article is the first of a two-part series covering theories behind level design, establishing some rules for level creation. The intention is to aid those new to the field who want to design levels for pleasure or pursue a career in level design.

Level design is the data entry and layout portion of the game development cycle. A level is, for all intents and purposes, the same as a mission, stage, map or other venue of player interaction. As a level designer, you are chiefly responsible for the gameplay. This article will give you insight into developing good levels for any type of game, whether they are military missions for your horde of tanks, aerial encounters for a flight simulator, a dungeon for a role-playing game, a board for a puzzle game, or a map for a world conquest god-simulator.

I will present some theories behind level design, starting with an exploration of what good level design means. Then it delves into the non-electronic roots of computer game design from chess to GI Joe action figures, and how we can learn from their success. Finally it takes a thorough look into the theories behind storytelling and how we can apply them to level design.

What Good Level Design Means for Players

Players are the consumers who paid good money for your game or dedicated a half-hour of on-line time to download your custom level. If you are working or have desire to work for a developer or publisher, the consumers are those giving you your dream job. As any modern business school will tell you, creating an affordable product that satisfies the consumers is what it takes to make it in business. As a level designer, you must become very aware of what satisfies the consumers if you want to be successful.


A player buys a game to escape from his or her reality. Good levels and hence good games will immerse the player and suspend their disbelief. From the moment the title screen comes up, you have their full attention. From that point on, they should see and do nothing that reminds them that they are anywhere but in the world you have them in.

You must furnish a setting and actors that meet the players’ expectations. That is, you need to design a map that not only looks like it could fit inside the world they are playing in, but contains elements that help to draw that reality in the players’ heads. A player’s sense of escapism and suspension of disbelief can be ruined by a variety of common errors. These include bugs such as graphics glitches or crashes, but from a design standpoint, these also include inappropriate content. For example, a McDonald’s Golden Arches on the skyline of a medieval town is obviously out of context. Similarly, if a player is told by a character to hit control-T on his keyboard to teleport, then it would remind him that he’s typing at a computer and not in some fantasy realm. Generally, to maintain the players’ sense of escapism all content should be appropriate to what would be seen, said or done in the game setting.

Challenge – Testing the Players’ Mettle

Players buy games to be challenged. If there is no challenge, they might as well be interacting with their word processor or spreadsheet software. Challenge should always come in the form of testing the players’ skills at the core gameplay. A shooter should test their aim and reflexes. A wargame should test their tactics. A strategy game should test their strategic sense. Some games successfully combine forms of gameplay to offer a variety of challenges, such as Command & Conquer, which has both planning/building and tactical gameplay.

Challenge comes from difficulty. The trick to good level design is to present challenges that are difficult enough to merit the players’ attention and make their heart or mind race, but not so difficult as to always leave them failing and disappointed. It’s a delicate balance based on what is perceived as the median player skill, and it is a variable constantly adjusted up until the game ships.


Like a good television show or book, the game must maintain a player’s interest. The introduction of conflict, the revelation of the setting or back-story, the acquisition of new assets, the display of new art, and the increase in difficulty must all be deliberately spaced to keep the player interested and looking forward to the next level.

One boring level can be the kiss of death to a game, especially if it’s one of the first few levels. Game reviewers and most players only give a game that much time before they praise or trash it. Good level designers have learned to be objective about their own creations and when asking themselves, "Is this fun?" The hard part for many designers is that what they find fun may not be what the target market finds fun. As a level designer you need to understand the core gameplay, which is part of the vision expressed by the producers and lead designers. You need to try to understand and become that target market.

Something that helps designers tremendously is to play competitors’ games. Often producers and lead designers will name successful games that they are trying to emulate. Play and study those titles. Make sure your levels entertain, thrill and excite you as well or better than the competition’s levels.

Frustration can also kill a game. Players stop being entertained when they encounter technical problems like slowdowns or graphics glitches. The level designer can avoid a lot of these bugs if they pay attention to technical limitations and to the instructions of the artists on how to place the art. Designers can, of course, create their very own frustrating bugs, like broken AI scripts or door triggers that never trigger, or missions that don’t always end when they are supposed to. Even worse, designers can create what are commonly called "show stoppers". Show stoppers are unbeatable missions or unsolvable challenges or unavoidable traps that frustrate players. A good level designer can spot these problems and resolve them with careful and rigorous play testing before consumers get their hands on it.


Player’s don’t like playing, or indeed, buying, the same game twice. Of course, like Star Trek fans and readers of the prodigious Gor science fiction series, some players will continuously buy into the same formulae or even the same game with just slight variations in plot, setting, characters and art. The same can be said for level designs – people don’t like playing the same level twice. Not only does it ruin the entertainment value, it also fails to spark the imagination. It’s therefore incredibly important that levels introduce some variation in the plot, challenge, setting, and characters (i.e. the enemies).

The Roots Of Computer Game Design

Computer game design has its roots in earlier forms of entertainment that predate the joystick and personal computer. Board games, paper and dice games, toys, and the ancient art of storytelling all have methods that continue to capture the human imagination and joy. Level designers can learn by studying these methods and understanding what each form has contributed to the art of computer game design.

Board, Paper & Dice Games

Games predate civilization. Some of our oldest games still survive to this day, like mangala (or stones), dice, checkers, tic-tac-toe and chess. What gives them their lasting power? What can we gain from them as designers of complex computer games? Simplicity and elegance.

These games keep the gameplay and the rules simple. Almost anyone can grasp them and quickly perceive the strategies and skills necessary to achieve victory. Elegance comes from years of refining the rules and components to maximize and balance the gameplay, and provides lasting entertainment value.

Simplicity and elegance should be your goal in level design. So many designers (I being one of them), have fallen into the trap of creating complex games and levels that make it difficult for players to grasp the rules, objectives, strategies and indeed the fun. Designers often fail to play test their level enough to uncover any unbalancing factors and make improvements. So keep it simple, and submit your level to a lot of play testing so you can polish it.

There’s a lot more that can be learned from non-computer games, such as the value of symbolism, statistics, and role-playing, but this goes beyond the scope of level design and should be left for a future article on computer game design.

Toys – Train Sets, GI Joe and Barbie

Toys have always fascinated children of all ages. Train sets are the ultimate interactive toy. You can be designer, builder, painter, passenger and engineer (or even God if you like creating natural disasters). GI Joe and Barbie both have interactive features such as movable limbs and changeable clothing and accessories and even vehicles and play sets. They cash in on kids’ aspirations and dreams. One of my favorite quotes from a paper game industry veteran and former toy maker is, "Who knew that a doll with tits would sell so well?"

The more you can interact with toys and the closer they get to peoples’ aspirations and dreams, the more they are appreciated. The same can be said about level design. Think of your level as a train set. Consider how can you make it interactive with all the bells and whistles and other special effects. Think about how you are portraying the player and what you are having them do. Let them feel like a general chasing down a retreating tank corps or a squad leader breaking ranks and charging a hill. Let them feel like a deer hunter chasing down quarry. (Think about the few million units that the latter type game has recently sold.)


The most ancient form of entertainment, storytelling, has riveted mankind since the spoken word. Stories of adventure, triumph and disaster all pull at our hearts. They take us through a ride in someone else’s skin and often challenge our own convictions, illuminate our soul, or simply lighten our spirits. As game designers, you’ll concentrate on the latter.

Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis

Stories essentially come in three parts:

  1. The thesis, which is the introduction to the setting, the characters and the hero

  2. The antithesis, which is where the conflict and villains are introduced and is what amounts to the majority of the story

  3. Synthesis, where there is some form of resolution, be it triumphant or tragic.

We can see this model followed precisely in the three-act play. We see it in film scripts, and indeed, all the forms of entertainment that evolved from storytelling.

In games, your player is easily identifiable as the hero, and the game as a whole can be seen as one story, where each level is a portion of the antithesis, the interplay and conflict between the hero and the villain. The depth of the thesis may be limited to a cinematic that explains who you are and what the setting is. Some sequels will gloss over the thesis and jump right into the conflict, assuming you’ve played the prequel. The synthesis is everything that happens at the end of the game. You’ve either won or you’ve lost, and you may see a cinematic or read a few lines of narrative before you see the credits. Like Hollywood movies, the synthesis is never very long.

Understanding and Developing the Thesis in Level Design

Each level in itself is its own story. As level designers, you set up the thesis by preparing the initial situation. You position the player and perhaps indicate his initial arsenal or force or set of spells or pieces. You render the setting with your map or your puzzle board. The setting and the situation can change over the course of the level as portions of the level are revealed to the player or new characters or other elements are introduced such as power-ups or new player or enemy forces. As games are interactive, you have to be very conscious about every possible situation a player can be in at any given time or place over the course of the playing the level.

Each encounter has its thesis – that moment right before the battle when your fear, adrenaline, and anticipation kick in, and how observant you are of the situation right then and there will influence the fight. For example, a player may stumble into a rats’ nest of bogies and realize at that moment right before the fighting begins, that just next to the head rat is a large fuel tank within easy range of a missile salvo. But we cannot assume that players will always do the same thing and come from the same direction. A level designer has to plan for that and reward that behavior. Using the previous example, a player may come from a sneaky route from the opposite direction and see the fuel tank in his line of sight before he sees any of the bogies. Does he blow it up now to be cautious or walk on through? What if the enemy chooses to use it against him? To complicate matters, let’s say that there is a nice but destructible power-up right next to the fuel tank. What should the player do? In this situation, you don’t have to make it a single choice. Indeed, you really don’t want to make it a single choice. As part of the thesis, you need only present options to the player and he’ll decide what he wants to do.

Introducing and Refining the Antithesis in Your Level

The antithesis is where the players interact with your level. By positioning enemy forces and scripting their behavior, or by setting the timing and speed of the bugs they have to zap or the puzzle pieces they have to place, you are creating conflict. This should be where the core gameplay of your level is. If it’s not, then you’ll have a level that requires too much planning in the thesis stage. In other words, if the player doesn’t plan things out right from the beginning then the level is over before it began, and if the player plans correctly then there’s not much to it. Most people, with the exception of strategy wargamers, hate this kind of level. Players need the ability to resolve conflict as it arises – you can’t assume they are omniscient or psychic. A common mistake designers make is presenting challenges that are absolutely unbeatable unless you’ve played the level before and know what to expect. It is essential that players be capable of resolving the conflict and tackling challenges the first time they encounter them.

The antithesis is where you present the knife’s edge to the player. It divides the good players from the bad, the experts from the novices, and the dedicated from the dilettantes. Ideally there is more than just one victory to be won, because indeed the division of skills is not black and white. If only experts can beat your level, then you’ve lost 90% of your market and your game won’t sell well. Likewise, if any mediocre player can beat your level and reap all the rewards, then it’s not satisfying to 50% of the players who weren’t challenged. But if your level had a satisfying victory for the mediocre players and optional challenges to entice and reward the good and expert players, then you’re presenting multiple edges to challenge and satisfy a diverse group of players.

Synthesis – Making Your Levels End in a Satisfying Tone

Synthesis is the result of an encounter or the entire level. It’s a moment of reflection for players to evaluate the encounter or level and what they got out of it. Whether players fail or succeed, they should be able to recognize why and how they might do better next time. This keeps them interested in trying again or just replaying for a better score or reward.

Victory or failure should be obvious. Players should understand why they lost. Victories should come as the direct result of the final acts of the player, not as the result of something the player does midway through the level (the latter tends to make players bored). Ending the mission on a big, satisfying note leaves a player feeling good.

Worthwhile Content

Stories maintain your interest by presenting worthwhile content. People don’t buy a book or see a movie just to hear characters talk about the weather, unless the weather itself is the villain (as in disaster movies like Twister). All the details that a well-written story contains are those that render the setting, develop the characters or move the plot. While books can get away with including an awful lot of detail, films cannot. Films are aimed at short-attention span people who want to experience the whole story in 90 minutes or less. Films try to focus on the most important details and these usually are the ones involving character interaction.

The same can be said with level design, except that you have an even shorter amount of time to tell your story. As a result, you must focus even harder on character interaction details, especially those that involve the player. Everything the player sees or does must further the story. All of the players’ accomplishments should move them toward the completion of the story or pull them further into the conflict with the villain. As the game is played, players should discover more about themselves and their opponents. This can be achieved when players develop new talents, find new weapons or upgrades, gain insight into strategy, or encounter new enemy tactics and new enemy types. All of these suggestions may sound obvious to you, but you would be surprised how often designers make the mistake of spending a lot if time working on setting details that are rarely, if ever, seen by the players.

Most gamers have a short attention span, especially those who play console games. They don’t have as much patience with minor details and game subtleties. If you present them with too much detail, or if your gameplay hinges on the player understanding the significance of minor details (like a single dialogue message), then you will lose them. It’s very hard for non-computer game designers and RPG designers to not populate levels with all sorts of irrelevant content. Often this focus on details works to the detriment of gameplay. If you’re not making an RPG, then you have to understand that the finer details of the story come second in level design.

Spending a lot of time working on non-interactive details can be a waste of time and resources, although it’s important to put some effort into it because the player will pay some attention to it. For example, it’s ludicrous to spend a day creating the details of a farm that a player will pass in three seconds on his way to a tank battle. It’s better to just take a minute to sprinkle a few objects that give the player the feel of a farm, like a farmhouse, barn, silo and a few cows. Even if you have all the time in the world to create all sorts of non-interactive details, it’s still not a good idea. Players get distracted and suffer sensory overload from too many details. They also can get frustrated as they try in vain to interact with non-interactive details.

It would be even better to make all the details of the setting interactive somehow. Duke Nukem did an excellent job of this. Even the toilets had some purpose, if only to give a little humor. The bar had a working pool table and the arcade had a Duke Nukem machine that prompted you to say, "Hmm, I don’t have time to play with myself." The extra effort it took was well worth it. The interactive setting created a great allure and set this game apart from all the other Doom clones.

Verisimilitude – When to Stay within the Realm of Probability

Verisimilitude is the technical term used by writers to describe the readers’ acceptance of the facts and events within the story. When the story steps out of the realm of probability, the readers get frustrated.

Works of fiction must suspend the readers’ disbelief if they want to keep the reader. Readers are only willing to accept so much. How much varies with the reader, which often separates the readers of classical fiction and literature from those of fantasy and science fiction.

Computer games have it easy because their target market is much more likely to be readers of science fiction and fantasy. Though the so-called "break through" titles which establish new genres of games often go beyond the sci-fi and fantasy market. Titles like Sim City, Tetris, Civilization, Deer Hunter, and sports games of all types don’t make any grand leaps of logic or fantasy, and they entice players who’ve never shot a single alien. Even so, sci-fi and fantasy oriented games are the vast majority of games made today.

So assuming you are working on a sci-fi or fantasy game, you do have certain latitude (or indeed, a certain obligation) to extend the realm of possibility for the players. But it’s important to know when and where and how far to stretch reality. Players like the realm of possibility extended more for themselves than for other characters. While this seems one-sided, it’s what players want. Players feel cheated if the AI enemy kicks their ass by doing something amazing and beyond their capabilities. They prefer to have their butt kicked by an opponent who’s limited to what they can do. Then they can at least be impressed and comprehend that it is just a skill issue.

On the other hand, players enjoy pulling off amazing feats beyond the scope of the AI capabilities and romping the AI for a spell. So give the players what they want. Let them enjoy themselves with a little god-like power. But be aware that giving that ability to players all the time can lead to a dull, unchallenging game. The trick is to balance it so that players don’t always have that edge, either by limiting the use of the ability or by countering it with enemy powers. In an ideal level, the players will face overwhelming odds and overcome them by leaping beyond the apparent realm of possibility. That way they can feel like they have done the impossible and that they’re real heroes.

The lead designer should describe the boundaries of the game reality to level designers. This will give you a concept of how the fantasy world works and what you can do.

Additionally, this reality often evolves as the core gameplay is balanced and new ideas are introduced, because preconceptions often fail when the game is complete enough to play. The so-called "fun factor" outweighs the unsubstantiated premise every time. However the boundary is set, it should be maintained throughout the game. Having one level that distorts players’ sense of the game’s reality and their own limitations can break the verisimilitude and potentially ruin the game.

Armed with this understanding of level design theories, you can begin creating your own levels with greater confidence and a clearer insight into what will make them successful. Next week I’ll present a set of rules for level design and offer advice to aspiring professionals.

Tim Ryan is an independent game designer working under the pseudonym "Muse of Fire Productions". He has been working in the game industry since 1992 and published numerous games on a variety of platforms. His recent work can be seen in the hit PC game MechCommander. Direct questions or friendly comments to [email protected].

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