Secrets of the Sages: Level Design

Gamasutra has the privilege of publishing a chapter from Marc Saltzman's book, Game Design:Secrets of the Sages. All sorts of industry heavies - from Roberta Williams to John Romero to the Fat Man - contributed to this compendium of videogame know-how. Here, we've published the chapter on level design.


The worldwide PC gaming community hasn't been the same since id Software's Wolfenstein 3D was unleashed in the spring of 1992. More than a quarter million people scrambled to download this racy, 700KB shareware game from their local bulletin board system (BBS), and thus, the first-person perspective 3D "shooter" was born.

The next seven years yielded many memorable shooters--Doom, Dark Forces, Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Jedi Knight, GoldenEye 007, Unreal, Sin, and Half-Life--and in so doing, it launched a specialized and necessary art form, known as level design. Loosely speaking, level design pertains to creating the architecture of maps in the game, plus dealing with object placement, mission or goal of the map, and often mini-missions within the level as well.

So what makes for a well-laid-out and challenging level to complete? What are some of the more common mistakes found in amateur level design? Is there a science to it? You bet. This chapter features the world's top level designers and their invaluable opinions on what makes or breaks level architecture in 3D shooters. Keep in mind that many of these pointers can also apply to other 3D games, such as third-person perspective action/adventure hybrids (e.g. Tomb Raider).

The classic Wolfenstein 3D almost single-handedly diffused side-scrolling "platform" games on the PC. But with this new perspective came new obstacles...(Used with permission by id Software)

Tim Willits, id Software

As level designer on Ultimate Doom and Quake and lead level designer on the legendary Quake II and the upcoming Quake III: Arena, Tim Willits has gathered quite a bit of knowledge (and respect in the industry) on how to create a successful map for 3D shooters. He shares with us his words of wisdom on this exciting facet of 3D game development. Before Willits sits down to create a map he asks himself, is this going to be a single-player map or Deathmatch map? He expands:

Before you can do anything, you need to figure out what kind of level you want. It's a lot easier if you stick to either Deathmatch (DM) or single player (SP). Though it can be done, making a map great for both DM and SP is a very difficult task. Usually if it's great for DM it'll be too circular for SP, and if it's a fun SP map it's usually too straight for DM.

Note: Deathmatch, or DM, refers to non-team-based multiplayer maps typically played over the Internet or on a LAN with other human players. It's a "kill or be killed" scenario where the goal is to stay alive and rack up as many "frags" (points) as possible. Kill a player, get a frag; die yourself, lose one. Hence the name "Deathmatch."

While many of the same principles can be applied to creating both SP and DM maps, Willits breaks up his advice into separate groups for SP and DM:

Single-Player Levels

According to Willits, there are a number of rules to adhere to when devising successful single-player levels. The following are the most significant rules to keep in mind.

Focus and Continuity
Of the utmost importance in Willits' opinion is focus and continuity of the task. And as he explains, it can be easy to lose both during a game's cycle:

Every game has one overall mission or goal. The game then is made up of many single levels. Every level in turn must also have one overall mission. And every map must have a reason why it exists. It's important that the designer doesn't forget this--it happens a lot. A designer will be working on a level with a goal in mind. And then something happens--sometimes a technology is introduced into the game or a technical problem arises and the focus of the map shifts. Sometimes the designer doesn't even realize that they've lost focus on their original goals of the level, but they have. When this happens, the designer must step back, look at where things are going, and focus more attention on the overall design and goals of the level, sometimes reworking areas or changing the goals to accommodate the map's mission. Basically it's crucial that designers stay focused on their ultimate goals in designing a level.

As a side note, Willits reminds level designers that there must be one person who focuses on the entire design process, to ensure that levels don't stray too far from their original goal. A fresh set of eyes from someone no too close to the level designing is ideal for all games.

Architecture Design and Gameplay Elements
According to Willits, SP maps require a pretty linear flow, and they need to guide the player through the level with both architecture design and gameplay elements. To clarify, architecture design is basically how the areas are constructed. There should be natural breaks in levels that separate the major components of that level, as well as the level's mini-missions (Willits gets to this in a moment). Gameplay elements, on the other hand, follow the events orchestrated by the story of the level within the game. Willits cites an example:

If the player's mission on the power station level is to destroy the nuclear reactor, then the level may be broken down into areas such as the control center, waste pumping station, core reactor, and coolant subsystems. Each one of these areas must look like they're supposed to look, as well as perform some function in the overall level. The player may need to enter the security codes in the control center to grant access to the coolant subsystems. Once in the coolant subsystems, the player could drain the core reactor's coolant, causing an unstable heat exchange within the core. Finally, the player could reverse the waste in the waste pumping station, creating a chain reaction that would destroy the entire nuclear reactor.

Risks and Rewards
Risks and rewards must be peppered throughout SP maps to challenge the gamer while plowing toward the end of a game. Willits believes it's essential that each new area contain these kinds of obstacles. Here's an example:

Levels should contain mini-missions within them--that is, obstacles and objectives aside from just enemies. In this example from Quake 2, the player must get across this broken bridge somehow without landing in the molten lava. (Used with permission by Id Software, Inc.)

The player enters a new area of a map and there's a slime pool that's too far to jump across. On the other side of the slime pool is a button that extends the bridge, but it's guarded by a monster. The player's mini-mission is to extend the bridge. The obstacles to accomplishing that mission are the monster and the fact that the button is on the other side of the slime pool--too far away to push. To accomplish this mini-mission, all the player needs to do is shoot the button from his side and then avoid the monster while crossing the bridge; that's it. Simple. It may not seem like a mission, but it is. It's a challenge that the player must face and overcome in order to continue with the game. A single-player level is a collection of these mini-missions tied closely around unique areas in some cohesive manner.

As an example of not rewarding the player enough, Willits recalls:

I once played a game where there was a tower in the middle of a courtyard with some monsters in it. It looked important and it was a centerpiece of that courtyard. I killed the two guys in the upper portion and navigated to the top. I was pretty disappointed when I finally reached the top and there was nothing there. Every time you have an area in the map that looks important and there's a fight to reach it, you need to reward the player with some "goodie."

Environmental Feel, Teasers, and Flow
An important consideration of an SP map, according to Willits, is the overall environmental feel. Aside from looking good and playing well, what does he mean by this?

A designer must make the level look the way the player expects it to. If the designer calls a map a warehouse, then there better be some crates lying around, because players will be looking for them. Also, a designer must try to make the level seem like it fits into the rest of the world. Don't mix time periods if you're not traveling in time, don't mix construction materials along similar time periods. For example, don't build your first map out of sheets of metal and have the follow-up map made mostly of brick and stucco. Players want consistency; they're comfortable with it because it surrounds their everyday lives.

Another nice touch in creating a good environmental feel is to build the map with the hint that there's more out there. "Create fake facades that can be viewed through windows but unreachable on foot. Have boxes come out of walls and vanish through other walls on the other side of the room. Create architecture that sweeps out past the playing area," says Willits. If these items are placed in the levels by the designers, players will feel like they're involved in something "bigger."

Along with these "teasers," a few outstanding visual scenes or landmarks will also help capture the environment that the designer wants to create, says Willits.

Detailed outer buildings and other eye candy are important for the "wow" factor in games. Level designers and artists work together to create memorable locations, such as the top of this control center in Quake 2. (Used with permission by id Software, Inc.)

Spend some time developing a spectacular view. Maybe a grand entrance, a detailed outer building, or even a super advanced control center. Make players turn a corner for the first time and say to themselves, "Wow." It stays with the players, and they remember the level long after they completed it if they were impressed by something cool-looking. This isn't so important in DM maps, mainly because once you run past it no one cares what it looks like time after time. Don't spend too much time on something visually stunning in DM; spend more time on flow.

In terms of flow, the levels need to start out pretty easy and then advance in difficulty, maintains Willits. As a rule, he builds the first level as a training level.

If you want to build some cool objects that move or some sort of complex geometry to showcase the engine, put it out of the path of the player. For example, air vents with spinning blades look just as good horizontal behind grates. Or moving pumps along side walls is another good use of moving things that are non-threatening. I know you want to add a lot of interesting things in the first couple of levels, but just keep them as non-intrusive as possible.

Perhaps you're only interested in creating top-notch multiplayer maps? If that's the case, pull up a chair to Willits' DM 101 and a few pointers on Capture the Flag--style games as well.

Deathmatch Levels

There are basically five popular styles of Deathmatch levels: arena, circular, linear, location-based, and theme-centered. Many of these styles can be included in one map, and some have crossover traits, according to Willits.

In a nutshell, arena levels usually have one central area where most of the combat takes place. Most of the hallways and passages either lead from this central area or to it. Says Willits:

The map has very few other large rooms or areas of significance. The arena style of DM is very focused, very refined; the maps are quickly learned and easy to master. Players will always know where they are and should never get lost navigating the hallways around the arena area. Players will find these maps fast paced with high frag limits, which will be reached quickly. An example level is map07 from Doom II.

And a word of caution to designers:

Try not to make the arena areas too architecturally complex. This is the area where all the fighting occurs, so it has to run fast. Complex architecture may look good, but it only slows down the game. Try to build this area as simple as possible.

As the name suggests, these maps are circular in design, or as Willits says, "built in such a fashion that the player would never need to stop and turn around along its main path." He expands:

Build with as few dead ends as possible--they're best built with none. Use numerous entrances and exits around its central core, which would allow free-flowing movement without hitches. The map would also need good weapon distribution, where either side would not have an advantage. There would be as little holding ground as possible. (Holding ground is a place where a player can stock up on health and ammo in a room and camp.) An example level here is dm6 from Quake.

Linear maps are built with only a few alternate paths. Willits amplifies:

The architecture becomes a roadmap, where people instantly know which side of the map they're on. Nice open areas or wide hallways where players can enjoy jousting-type combat. Even weapon distribution to force players to move back and forth. Have the ammo for the weapons on the opposite side of the map, forcing players who want to stock to travel. An example level is e1m1 from Doom.

Location-based DM allows players to always know where they are. You may not be able to figure out how to get somewhere else fast, but you immediately know your location. These maps are not free-flowing as in circular or linear maps, but instead are made up of many unique identifiable areas. Each area should have some distinct combat areas or mini themes included in it. For example, in dm3 from Quake is a water area for swimming, a thin staircase for vertical fighting, and a computer room made for close fighting. Each area has a special weapon or power-up that fits the environment. These maps are great for team games.

And last on the list for DM maps are theme-based maps. As Willits put it, a theme-based map uses something unique to combat and over-exaggerates it all over the map. Perhaps this is better explained by an example:

An example of this is e1m4 from Quake, a.k.a. The Sewage System. This map is covered with water; most of the fighting is in or around water. Everywhere the player looks, he sees water or something related to water. In almost every area, the player can enter or exit the water. The water is the "theme" or the special combat characterization throughout the map. Theme maps are great for players who enjoy something totally unique. Theme-based maps are also more difficult to navigate through, and should only be used for medium or advanced play. Themes need to enhance gameplay, not detract from it. Note: Good id Software examples of theme-based maps include wind tunnels (Quake, e3m5); low gravity (Quake, e1m8); low light, such as the mine levels in Quake 2; hazardous materials such as lava, slime, or pits of death (Quake, dm4); torturous devices such as spike shooters or security lasers (Quake 2); wide and open areas (Quake 2); teleport craziness (Quake, dm1).

Capture the Flag

"Capture the Flag" is a popular team-based multiplayer game where the object is to steal the other team's flag and bring it safely back to your own base. There are now many new custom variations of Capture the Flag (CTF) games. In the following section, Willits offers advice on creating maps for CTF fanatics.

Symmetric Levels
With CTF games, it's important that levels be nearly mirrors of each other to make things even between the two teams. Willits maintains, "In theory it's possible to have two bases look different, but even in practice this has rarely worked." He cites a bad example of a CTF map from Quake 2, and why: Strike is a fairly big failure in that regard due to BFG and teleporter placement (putting red team at a large disadvantage). Also, there are more methods of entering the red base than the blue base, making blue base easily defensible. This map also has uneven ammo and weapon placement; the blue base has far better resources within. All this is solved very easily by making both sides identical.

Asymmetrical Levels
Willits says if the level is not symmetrical there should be a balanced strategy that needs to be employed by each individual team. For example, if one side is largely covered by water, the team should be given rebreathers. Similarly, protective environment suits should be accessible on the slime side.

Random Tips for CTF Maps
Willits grants us an assorted medley of tips on creating CTF maps:

There should be a good supply of weapons and ammo near a base, but don't overdo it. This makes the base too easy to defend and difficult to attack. If a designer is using power-ups, they should never start off within the base. While still making it defensible, there should be multiple entry points and exits to a base. Centralized placement of major power-ups is a good idea. The power-ups still need to be located far enough from each other to prevent players from using a single power-up and crushing everyone on the map. Create some good sniper locations but, if players are going to snipe, they should be vulnerable in some way, too. There should be obvious color coding of areas, but don't rely on colored lighting, since colored lighting tends to neutralize player colors and you can't see what team they're on. Use colored textures instead. Focus on good weapon placement and think it through. Weapon placement may be more important in CTF than normal DM because it can greatly shift the balance of power from one side to the other.

We'll return later to the masters at id Software. But first, we've got some divine intervention. Bow your heads because next up is The Levelord.

The Levelord, Ritual Entertainment

Much of the excitement and anxiety experienced during bouts of Duke Nukem 3D, Quake: Scourge of Armagon, and Sin can be directly linked to The Levelord's miraculous touch. So what's his secret for keeping you awake until 4 a.m.?

The Levelord's three commandments may seem obvious, but according to him they're quite often neglected or overlooked: the "fun factor," game action/player interaction, and authenticity of setting.

The Levelord has requested that we keep his written material the way it was submitted, so this is the Lord speaking throughout. Hear ye! Hear ye!

The Fun Factor

The first and foremost question to be answered about any game, whether it's a shooter or whatever, is "Is it fun?" This applies to the game itself, of course, but it also has great bearing on each and every component of the game, including level designing. As a game is developed, this question should be answered many, many times. The Fun Factor is often forsaken for cutting-edge flash, and much effort is taken away from the game itself due to the ever-increasing computer performance on which games are played. Nonetheless, it seems paradoxical that many games simply are not fun; they look great, but they aren't worth playing. Cutting edge is indeed fun when it adds cool weapon effects and faster game performance, but it's not cool when a developer spends too much time with research and development, only to forget the main purpose of a game: fun! The Fun Factor is also frequently back-seated to realism. This is not to be confused with a game being realistic or authentic, but is rather a seeming side effect of the "reality" portion of our games' virtual reality. Too often fun ideas and features are shelved because developers say things like "Hey, you can't change momentum in mid-air in real life!" or "A real bullet doesn't do that!" when the more important statement at hand was "That was so much fun!" There are no defined rules for fun and the only way to ensure the Fun Factor is to play test. The easy part about adding the Fun Factor is that most all of us have the same concept of fun; that is, if you the game developer think it's fun, then the game audience is likely to think so, too. The Fun Factor is not transient or ephemeral, either. It should survive countless trials and tests and still be entertaining in the end. This is the only way to ensure that a game is fun--to play test it over and over.

Puzzle-solving is an intergral part of 3D level design, says The Levelord. This "heated" scene is from Scourge of Armagon, the first official add-on pack for Quake. (Used with permission by Ritual Entertainment)

Game Action and Player Interaction

A strong sense of authenticity is the groundwork of any killer level. Remember the movie theater or football stadium in Duke Nukem 3D or the opening bank sequence from Sin? Her's a look at Sin's jungle level. (Used with permission by Ritual Entertainment)

First-person shooters are no longer the simple "shoot, find the key, and shoot some more" games that they were a few years ago. These games are now fully interactive environments, and what used to be considered randomly placed and sparse Easter Eggs are now the standard norm. If a level has a phone or computer, they had better be functional, and the player had better be able to blow them up. The player must be able to destroy just about everything! As a level designer, I spend a lot of my time making things destructible, but it's always worth the while. Take the time to become a good demolitions expert, because destroying things is not only good action, it is also never-ending fun. Another important aspect of the action in a first-person shooter is puzzle solving. A good level should be a series of challenges and rewards. The challenge can come before the reward, or after, but don't just haphazardly strew goodies and bad guys through your level. The players should feel as though they are being run through a gauntlet of contests and prizes.

All of these forms should be as animated as possible to improve feel of action. Make the player work for the rewards. Do whatever you can to make the player say "Ah ha!" Make as many secret areas as possible, too, as discovering secrets is one of the most fun puzzles in a game.


Littering your maps with secrets is also an important consideration in level designing, deems The Levelord. Anyone find this in Duke Nukem 3D? (Used with permission by 3D Realms, Inc.)

Related directly to level designing, the third question to be answered is "Are you there?" First-person shooters in particular rely on the sense of immersion. The most important duty you have as a level designer is to ring the player "into" your level. It's not until after this submersion that issues like action, game play, and even the Fun Factor enter the game. The more of your level to which the player can attach himself via familiarity, the stronger the player's sense of "being there" will be. Real-world situations usually make good levels because it's easier to capture the reality.

The closer that the player can relate to your level, the deeper the player will be submerged into the level. Continuity is also an important factor of a level's immersion.

Continuity is related to the level's main theme, and this theme must be maintained throughout the entire level. Too often I see levels that are patchworks of various themes. Your level must seem like a continuous place.

The almighty Levelord has spoken, and deems these as the true foundations of any killer level. "These seem apparent, but they can be the biggest burdens a game designer, especially a level designer, can face...without them, most every other aspect of a level will be missed or forgotten, and the game as a whole will suffer."

Paul Jaquays, id Software

Paul Jaquays is a "jack of all trades," but at id Software he provides level design for Quake II and game and level design for Quake III: Arena. Now who wouldn't want to be in his shoes, eh? When Jaquays heard about this Secrets of the Sages project, he wanted to offer a large collection of do's and don'ts on level design, as well as more general advice on the art of map creation. Without further ado, let's first jump into his collection of handy design tidbits.

Jaquays' 26 Level Design Tips

  1. Know what you want to do with a level before you start. Don't expect a map that you start as a single-player map to be easily changed into a multiplayer map. The reverse holds true for trying to make a Deathmatch map into a single-player challenge.
  2. Sketch out a diagram of the map to use as an initial guide.
  3. Don't start with grandiose projects. Try making something fun with a few rooms.
  4. If possible, build your level with a "gimmick" in mind--some tricky gamism bit that players will remember. Popular gimmicks that have been used in the past include wind tunnels, numerous portals, lava maps, trap maps, water-filled maps, maps with large, slow-moving hazards, and low-gravity maps.
  5. Try to be fresh and original with every new design. Do something that you haven't seen done before.
  6. Test gimmicks of gameplay, tricks, and traps in test levels before building them into your game level.
  7. Do architecture and texture studies ahead of time to establish an architectural style. Stick to that style.

    Above, Jaquays roughly sketched out a complicated puzzle and trap for Quake 2, involving modularized, moving prison cells as a part of the Laboratory sequence. The concept was not implemented in the final game. Below, Jaquays began one of his first Quake 3 arena maps by roughly sketching out the major game features and their relationship to each other. The final version of his arena map carried several of the original concepts through to fruition, even though much of the layout and geometry was changed. (Both images used with permission by id Software, Inc., copyright 1998)



  9. Block out your level with large pieces of geometry. Think of the architecture you'll use, but concentrate more on how gameplay will flow through the level. At this stage, I try to keep my map grid at the largest possible setting (in Quake II or Quake III, that's the "64" grid). Avoid fussy details at this point and go for massiveness. At this stage of development, try to keep your frame-rate speeds well below the amount allowed by the game (for Quake II, we aimed to be below a maximum count of 500 triangles of architecture in any view). A good rule might be to try for no more than a third of your total possible polygon count in the worst views in and near your larger rooms.


    This 64-player map is taken from the Quake II DM Pack 1: Extremities expansion CD. Jaquays reminds level designers to make sure that large maps have distinctive memorable play areas. (Used with permission by Activision)


  11. Once the flow is established, you can start adding architectural detail and refining hall and room shapes.
  12. Build in a modular manner. Make prefabricated pieces that be can fit together easily to make your level. Build tricky pieces of detailed architecture (such as door frames, complicated cornices, or furniture) once and set them outside the boundaries of your map. Clone them as needed for placement in the map.
  13. When designing architectural elements, study the real world. Try to duplicate the look and feel of impressive works, but with less complicated geometry. Set yourself challenges in this regard.
  14. Strike a balance between the use of real geometry and textures that imply three-dimensional depth when building architectural details. Textures that appear to be 3D should be used with caution. When viewed from a distance, they can fool the eye into believing that the architectural geometry is significantly more complex than it actually is. But the same texture viewed up close and at eye level completely destroys the illusion of depth.
  15. Compile the map often. Don't wait until everything is placed to see what things look like (or if you have leaks in the map hull).
  16. Complete your map geometry before adding monsters and items.
  17. When building single-player game maps, don't put every game feature in the level. Having every monster possible in the game in a single game level is a glaring sign of amateur work. Generally speaking, the only place you're going to see all the monsters at once is in the

Latest Jobs

Sucker Punch Productions

Bellevue, Washington
Combat Designer

Xbox Graphics

Redmond, Washington
Senior Software Engineer: GPU Compilers

Insomniac Games

Burbank, California
Systems Designer

Deep Silver Volition

Champaign, Illinois
Senior Environment Artist
More Jobs   


Register for a
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Account

Game Developer Newsletter


Register for a

Game Developer Account

Gain full access to resources (events, white paper, webinars, reports, etc)
Single sign-on to all Informa products

Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more