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Open World Level Design: The Full Vision (part 3/5)

At this stage, the design team has defined the role that the open world will play in the desired game experience and has chosen one or more player progression strategies. It is time to "draw" the open world itself.

Pascal Luban, Blogger

May 19, 2020

9 Min Read

In the first two parts of this chronicle devoted to the level design of open world games, I dealt with the first questions that design managers must ask themselves during the design phase of such a game. But once the answers are defined, the level design team has to face the "white sheet" and must start drawing the map. This is the subject I deal with in this third part.

At this stage, the design team has defined the role that the open world will play in the desired game experience (see the first part of my chronicle) and has chosen one or more player progression strategies (see the second part of my chronicle). It is time to "draw" the open world itself.

The mission of the team responsible for the design choices of the open world is therefore now to define a high-level document that describes its fundamental characteristics. The task is complex because they have to respond to the constraints imposed by the previous choices, respect the golden rules that apply to any good level design and give clear instructions to the level designers who will build the map.

I recommend using the following method. It allows you to ask the right questions, in the right order.


Question # 1: Should the open world consist of a single gigantic map or of several contiguous maps?

Both cases exist. The games in the Far Cry series use a huge map which is loaded into memory as the player progresses. On the contrary, the world of The Long Dark is made up of a dozen medium-sized maps; switching from one to the other interrupts the game for the map to load.

Both options have their merits. The first option is more elegant from a technical point of view and more comfortable for players, but the second is better suited to gigantic worlds like a continent, an entire planet, or even a portion of the galaxy. Why? Because focusing the level design on limited areas is better than offering a gigantic seamless world that is repetitive or filled with emptiness.


Question # 2: Should the map be uniform or offer differentiated zones?

The games in the The Division series offer a uniform map while Subnautica features different areas; we discover them as we unlock the ability to dive deeper and deeper. This last option offers multiple advantages: To fight against the monotony of the environment, the possibility to highlight new gameplays, to contribute to the feeling of progression of the player, etc. but it is expensive in terms of graphic assets and is not suitable for all themes.

Finally, let's not forget an economic alternative to offer diversity to players: To alternate between day and night. This approach was implemented by the developers of The Black Death, a semi-realistic survival game set in the Middle Ages. The map changes between day and night. The topology remains the same but the behavior and density of predators and certain NPCs change.


Question # 3: Can players visit the entire map at any time?

Does a “gating” mechanism artificially limit their movements?

Allowing players to visit the entire map at any time enhances the fun associated with exploration and freedom of movement. It’s also more realistic. But many open world games limit players movements. Thus, in The Witcher 3, it is the progression of the main narrative that unblocks access to new areas, while in Far Cry Primal, players must unlock the grapple hook to access certain areas in altitude.

Between these two strategies, complete freedom or constraining mechanism, some games use mixed systems which allow great freedom of movement while discouraging players from going everywhere. Thus, in The Division 2, all the districts of Washington DC are accessible on foot but players quickly understand that if they have not reached a minimum level, they have no chance of surviving against the enemies which populate certain zones.


To help players navigate an open map, there are two strategies: To use navigation aids only (mini-map or augmented reality icons) or to let players interpret the topology around them to guess where to go.

The right choice depends on the role assigned to navigation in the gaming experience.

If the object of navigation is to go from point A to point B in an open map, the first strategy is the best. There is no point in complicating players’ experience by pushing them to find the right route. This is the case in GTA series games where navigation aids are ubiquitous.

On the other hand, if the search for routes, the discovery of hidden passages or places of interest are part of the challenges that players will have to face, then the second strategy must be developed. This is the case in The Long Dark. As in reality, players do not have "magic" tools to find their way. They can only count on their sense of observation to know where to go and to find the passages. In this case, it is necessary to give clues which will allow the players to foresee the existence of points of interest or paths. For example, a road sign makes it possible to guess that a road is hidden under the snow, a stream naturally becomes a way of travel, smoke in the distance points to a place of interest, etc. Thus, the topology channels players and rewards those who show logic and have a sense of observation. Zones must therefore be constructed by planning the main traffic routes, placing points of interest logically and providing clues to give players a chance to find these two elements.


Question # 5 - How to position the resources that players will have to recover?

All open world games offer a wide range of resources to collect: Plants, minerals, various objects, animals, etc. They meet several objectives: To contribute to the progression of players, to provide them with micro-rewards and to justify the open dimension of the map. But how do you position them? Two strategies are possible: Sprinkling and concentration.

The sprinkling strategy consists of distributing the resources in a largely random manner over the entire map. This approach has the merit of pushing players to visit the whole map and reinforces the gratification of players when they discover a scarce resource. It also simplifies the work of designing the map.

The strategy of concentration pushes designers to concentrate resources around points of interest or specific places, for example, the banks of a river or the foot of a cliff. This method limits the value of an open map but makes discoveries of resources more predictable. It rewards players who have the intelligence to learn that certain resources are only found in certain places, for example, mushrooms are only found in forests of a given essence. It is indeed more rewarding for players to find something because they have made good reasoning than to discover them by pure chance.

The first strategy rewards players who spend a lot of time exploring the map, while the second is more interesting for players who make the effort to get to know their environment.


Question # 6 - What should be the open world level design grammar?

A level design grammar sets building rules that must be common to all levels of a game or to an entire open world map. These rules mainly concern the following points:

  • The points of appearance of resources. Even if the sprinkling strategy has been selected, resources should not appear in preposterous places; players would not understand that they could find gas cans in the middle of a forest.

  • The location and behavior of the animals. If the latter are prey or predators, they are not simple decorative elements, they play a role in the gameplay. The game system and the IA ​​define their behaviors but it is up to the level designer to position them so that players can anticipate their presence. If the game offers day and night environments, it should be taken advantage of. Thus, wolves will avoid contact with players during the day but will attack at night and get closer to houses.

  • Visual cues intended to facilitate the movement of players. In order for players to move as instinctively as possible, players must be able to distinguish, at a glance, the openings that can be opened or crossed, accessible ledges, climbing areas, etc. They must also identify the main axes of movement. These graphic elements, as well as their rules of use, are also part of a level design grammar.

  • Size and volume templates for paths and objects with which players will interact. That covers width of the doors, the height of the obstacles that can be crossed by a jump or even the cover points behind which a character will protect himself from enemy fire. These templates will ensure that the animations will be consistent and that the gameplay intentions are respected.


Question # 7 - How to animate the environment?

If you want to immerse players in a credible universe, it must be animated: Effects of wind, smoke, flock of birds, characters or vehicles moving in the background, rain, torrents, etc. These animations do not necessarily contribute to the gameplay but make the players' experience more immersive.

It is therefore necessary to predict and position the most spectacular ones at key locations on the map, or even stage them by "guiding" the players towards them. Thus the discovery of a waterfall, whose presence was suspected thanks to the crash of water, can become a memorable moment and serve as support for a point of interest.


Question # 8: Can we include a "wow" moment in the map?

Finally, if possible, it is wise to plan one or two spectacular scenes. These will feed the buzz and contribute to communication on the game.


In the next episode…

In the fourth episode of my chronicle dedicated to the level design of open world games, I will tackle an issue that is gaining more and more importance: Good practices for level design to support the narrative dimension of the game.


Pascal Luban

Creative director & game designer, freelance


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Pascal Luban


Pascal Luban is a freelance creative director and game designer based in France. He has been working in the game industry as a game or level designer since 1995 and has been commissioned by major studios and publishers including Activision, SCEE, Ubisoft and DICE. In particular, he was Lead Level Designer on the 'versus' multiplayer versions of both Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, he designed CTF-Tornado, a UT3 mod multiplayer map built to showcase the applications of physics to gameplay, he was creative Director on Wanted – Weapons of Fate and lead game designer on Fighters Uncaged, the first combat game for Kinect. His first game for mobile platforms, The One Hope, was published in 2007 by the Irish publishers Gmedia and has received the Best In Gaming award at the 2009 Digital Media Awards of Dublin. Leveraging his design experience on console and PC titles, Pascal is also working on social and Free-to-Play games. He contributed to the game design of Kartoon, a Facebook game currently under development at Kadank, he did a design mission on Treasure Madness, zSlide's successful Free-to-Play game and completed several design missions for French and American clients. Pascal is content director for the video game program at CIFACOM, a French school focusing on the new media industry.

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