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What is Game Level Design & Why Do Video Games Have to Have It?

Gamers love Dark Souls for its spectacular game level design. 

Some say the interconnectivity of levels makes for exciting gameplay. Others, like Zeboyd Games founder Robert Boyd, argue it’s the complex yet clear map in which the player journeys.

Does it then mean that interesting gameplay and a distinct yet clear map are instrumental to excellent level design? 

You may be having a difficult time wrapping your head around the relevance of both to game level design. But believe us when we say they’re all connected. So if you found this article while searching for an explanation of level design in games, this one’s for you. 

Read on to discover what level design is in video games and how it significantly improves a player’s experience.

Image credits to Canva

What is Game Level Design?

You can find level design in any type of game, and it’s also present in those we wouldn’t think about having levels. 

In a post by game design and development professor Rob Howard, he says even the classic hand game Rock, Paper, Scissors has elements of level design. It’s a game where the spatial relationship between players matters. 

So what does this have to do with level design? What is this seemingly elusive game development concept?

Game level design is as the name suggests. It’s the design of a game’s level or the space where gameplay occurs. But the subject’s scope is pretty vast and encompasses more than just space. 

Level design doesn’t merely cover game location or ambiance. Rudolf Kremers, author of Level Design: Concept, Theory, and Practice, gives a practical explanation. Level design is the implementation of game design

If game design deals with conceptualizing a game’s mechanics and systems, gameplay, and player experience, as game developer Robert Zubek said, level design brings all that to life.

Even open world games require level design, albeit in a nonlinear structure. All that you see in a video game’s setting is a result of painstaking work by level designers, whether it’s environment art, game maps, or anything a player will need to enjoy and progress in their gaming experience. 

You might be scratching your head a bit over this — does this mean level design is the same as environment art?

Is It the Same as Environment Art?

The simple answer is no. Game environment art and level design overlap, but they’re not the same thing. They have similar goals that ultimately fork at the end of the game development process. 

Environment art builds an atmosphere and improves a player’s experience by immersing them into the game world visually. And level design aims to give players a dynamic gaming experience (and implement game design, as Kremers said).

It’s true that game environment art also contributes to a video game’s mechanics and gameplay, limiting the space where a character can or cannot travel. But game elements like objects and characters do that as well, and they’re still a part of level design. 

In other words, game level design also deals with game assets, level obstacles, and pathing, among other elements.

So while environment art and level design are not exactly the same, the former is still a part of the latter. Whether you’re implementing a game’s mechanics and assets or figuring out how to design a video game character for a specific level, they all fall into the elements building toward the design and structure of a game level.

Image credits to Pixabay

Why It’s Important: The Goals of Game Level Design

The art of level design is a balancing act.

You don’t want to spoon-feed players by making every level easy to pass through. In the same way, you don’t want to sprinkle your video game with puzzles even Einstein couldn’t solve. (Fun fact: this could be a reason why Wordle is an addictive web game.)

Ultimately, you want gamers to keep playing your game, whether that means getting them to finish it or encouraging them to play it again.

Given this overarching goal, you can segment it into smaller and more specific objectives.

And for this, we’ll refer to the work by game designers and researchers Fares Kayali and Josef Ortner in the book Level Design: Processes and Experiences, edited by fellow game designer and professor Christopher W. Totten.

In their research titled Level Design Practices for Independent Games, they enumerate the qualities that make level design good. We can translate these qualities into goals of good level design.

In essence, good level design:

  • Strikes a balance between the spaces in which characters may freely roam and the spaces they must avoid or are blocked on the map
  • Gets players to combine game objects and actions or skills to build game mastery, which authors write could motivate players to play a game again
  • Presents risk and reward, incentivizing riskier routes
  • Encourages players to resolve or fulfill the video game’s narrative
  • Guides players to the next task or level through blocking, landmarks, and other game elements

The Level Design Process

A precise, foolproof level design method doesn’t exist, but it helps to have a starting point.

Of course, you can be as chaotic or organized as you want. However, having a system will help you work smart and work productively, and it lets you know where you’re headed. 

Just ask level designer Jon Michael Hickenbottom who took a course on level design taught by Naughty Dog lead game designer Emilia Schatz.

In an article in 80 Level, a platform for artists and developers, Hickenbottom describes the process he’d undergone during the course. He relays the following steps:

  1. Opening game development software, such as Maya and Unity, for blocking
  2. Using reference images
  3. Determining the size of the environment or game area
  4. Refining composition starting from a certain point and removing excess elements
  5. Using near and distant landmarks to signal where players are or give them a hint as to where they can or should travel to next
  6. Setting up districts and nodes

Granted, this course served as an exercise for the level designer. It doesn’t look into the other elements of game level design comprehensively. But it tells you the general process. More broadly, the level design process can look something like this:

  • Conceptualizing
  • Referencing
  • Drafting

However, apart from a solid level design process, what you need is a solid team of digital artists, level designers, and technical artists.

So whether it’s 3D modeling for video games or environment art that your team members specialize in, each one can contribute significantly to your game’s level design and, of course, to the overall output.

In Summary

According to game designer Rudolf Kremers, level design is a process that implements game design. It covers environment art, game assets, characters, pathing, and other elements relevant to a level or game arena.

Video games need to have a good level design plan to effectively encourage players to finish the game or play it again, depending on the development team’s goals.

If you need a complete game development team, check out NarraSoft. You can outsource game developers, artists, software engineers, and more by partnering with us.

Don’t hesitate to contact us at sales@narrasoft.com or send a message our way using the contact form or chat box on the bottom right corner of your screen. We can help you bring your game to the next level!