Where to begin with learning level design

Hi all. I’m fairly new to game design (not so much development). I’ve made the mistake of learning all the programming stuff before design, and since I’m a solo developer and for the time being I think I’m going to be staying that way, I think I’m in a bit of an odd situation.

I’ve watched hundreds (and I’m afraid I’m not exaggerating) of tutorials on game design. I’ve bought and read books (specifically Scott Roger’s Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design, which was a fantastic read by the way), watched numerous GDCs, planned out my own GDDs, sat down and just played games and tried to figure out what might have been the designer’s thought process for each thing, what makes it fun and unique, etc. That said, I still am not sure how to make a game. Possibly it’s just because I’m not the most creative person.

I understand the programming side of things, and the engine itself. I’ve been working with it for quite a while, but I suppose the issue is that most of the decisions I make design-wise are completely arbitrary, no matter how much planning I put into it. Here is my general workflow and thought process when designing and developing a game, from the point where I come up with the idea to where I begin to work on it. This is an actual game idea that I am currently working on.

** I’m watching this video when I realize that a game like it would be interesting. I’ve got my inspiration for a game now - there are cops, citizens, and a murderer. Murderer kills a specific person, cops have CCTV footage everywhere and citizens all over the town to give them leads. The murderer has to cover his tracks (or try his hardest not to get noticed in the first place) and escape from the cops. The murderer gets 10 minutes after committing his crime, in which he can hide while the cops try to track him down.

  • I begin planning it out in more detail. I’m getting more and more ideas, and now I’ve got a full GDD set up. The general idea of the game is the same, but now I’ve decided some of the more specific things. To save me some typing, I’m just going to copy and paste some screenshots of the overview from my GDD (screenshots because of formatting - there’s quite a bit of it and I’d rather not have to go back through and fix it all up to work on the UE4 forums).
    General game overview:
    Overview for this gamemode, which I call Murder (I plan on coming up with more in the future and implementing them at some point or another):

  • Using HackNPlan, I write out each and every task that needs to be accomplished and how long I think they will take. I write down their priority level from unimportant to urgent, and I write out the dependencies for each and every task - for each task, I know which tasks have to be done first, if any.

  • Cool, I’m ready to start on the game now. But that’s the issue - I don’t know how. I’ve got all these bits and pieces of a game, but I’m not sure how to put them together.

  • A little bit discouraged already, having not even started the project yet, I open up Unreal and start up a new first person project.

  • Alright, I guess I can start with the HUD now. It’s not a priority, I know, but I should be able to get it done pretty quickly… then I can at least say I’ve gotten something done and I can feel good about myself.

  • Cool, I’ve got the main menu HUD set up. I’ll implement it later on.

  • Now I guess I can start with the level. I’ll start by coming up with a layout for it. Well, I know I want it to be a city… fairly small, only two cops are watching over it so it can’t be huge… wait, how do people plan out levels? Do they just start making things and see what sticks? No, I guess I need to draw an overview. Well, I mean, if I’m going to block out the map anyway, do I even really need an overview? Blocking the map out IS my overview. Alright. I’ll do that. I’ll block out the map. Well, I mean… I’ve got modular building assets. Do I really need to block it out? I guess not. Alright then. I’ll just start making buildings and stuff. Uhh, this building is going to go here. It’s gonna have some windows, and uh, a kitchen. Buildings have kitchens. Sometimes. Gonna add a porch, uh, and some furniture… Cool. That’s done.

Wait. This is a house scene - arch. viz. at the most. This isn’t a game level. Alright, I’ll just copy and paste this a dozen times. THEN I’ll have a game level, a fun environment to play in!

Wait. This is just a bunch of copy-pasted houses. This isn’t a game level.

  • Okay. I’ll just work on the character mechanics for the Murderer for now - knifing, shooting, inventory, stuff like that. Forget about the level. I’ll make that later. Well, on second thought, it’s gonna be awfully hard to test the murderer’s mechanics without having something to test it against. I’ve got no other characters… I don’t have the cops or the citizens. How can I make one character without having the other? How can I make the Murderer be able to shoot and stab, if there’s no one to shoot and stab? Inventory - how can I make an inventory without items? Okay, I’ll start with items. Wait, how can I make items if I don’t have a world to put them in…? But I don’t know how to make the level.

  • I start thinking more about how this one house should be laid out and how it would affect gameplay. Well, the murderer might be hiding in here. Let’s give some places to hide. There’s a bathroom - it has no windows, and it’s closed off from the rest of the house. Cool, the murderer could hide in here. I suppose. I’ll also add a couch by the window - the murderer could crouch behind the couch so as to not be seen through the window. Cool! A house that makes sense from a gameplay standpoint, and looks aesthetically pleasing.

Wait. This is a single house. I need to make a city. This is a house. You know, just… one house. This isn’t enough - how can I test gameplay mechanics for a city-based game in a single house?! I suppose I need to make the entire map now, then.

  • At this point, I’ve just copied and pasted a metric crapton of houses all over the map, having yet to add the key places like the camera room and the banks. I plan to do that later.

  • Okay, this isn’t working. All I have is a level full of a hundred copy-pasted houses. THIS ISN’T WORKING. OH MY GOD.

  • I exit Unreal, and I refuse to touch it again for a month. Rinse and repeat.*

I think the two main issues here are in workflow and understanding of level design. I’ve read a lot of World of Level Design posts and I get the general idea of it. There should be points that the player can use as reference - such as the Citadel in Half-Life 2. There should be inspiration for it - a setting and a theme. An urban city in my case. Objects of interest should stand out - like the way all objects of interest in Mirror’s Edge are red, in contrast to the white on grey color scheme of the environment. Scale is important - keep things to scale with the player. Small details matter. Make things make since in terms of gameplay. I get that - truly, I do. But how do I make a level, from the creative standpoint? How do I come up with the idea for the level - how do I plan it out? When I’m sitting down with a pen and paper, how do I know where to put each building? How do I know how far away to space things? How do I know how many buildings to have? How do I know what kinds of buildings to have? How do I decide how it should look? The choices I make - I want to have a solid reason behind them. Not just “I thought this might work, so why not.” This issue actually is more prevalent in platformer and puzzle games that I’ve tried creating in the past. I don’t know how to plan these things, so I make them up as I go. Usually for a platformer, I’ll open up the editor, throw some random platforms around. Some will be high up, some lower, gaps in between so you can jump across. Why not add an obstacle here and there. I have no more ideas by this point, so let’s just finish the level here! Now for level two. Let’s add random platforms here, an obstacle here, and the level ends here! Level three… wait a second, this is the same as level two and one except just laid out a little different. I guess the game ends there! For puzzle games, it’s the same thing. The player will pick up this cube, and put it on this button. Okay, next puzzle. The cube is in a different place, and they put it on a different button! Coolio! This time, it’s a SPHERE and the button isn’t a button… it’s a hole! They pick up the sphere, and put it on the hole. GASP! Now for the next level. How about… there’s a sphere, AND a cube! Genius! And there’s both a hole, and a button, and they have to put the sphere and cube in the right places! Now level four… Well, let’s have a doorway here, and uhh… you place the cube on a button, right? And so it opens up the door. And then behind the door, there’s a sphere. And you put the sphere into a hole, and it opens up ANOTHER door back in the starting room. A door that you never even saw before! So now you have to turn around, go back through the door you previously opened, and into the new one. I’m fresh out of ideas now. I guess that’s it. Game’s finished.

Anyway, sorry for this massive post. Any suggestions, tips, or advice would be fantastic. Thanks!

Take a look at level design theory, you’ve learned some it already, like visual signposting with the different coloured items in Mirrors Edge. There’s a lot more to it obviously but it really helps to know why you build a level in a specific way. I made a presentation about it that I use to get my points across when working with a new team. You may find it useful.

You can see some of my work here:

There should be inspiration for it - a setting and a theme. An urban city in my case.

Keep the basic idea in mind, yes. Making a city layout is different to making a medieval castle for example, but think game play first. Keep the grey box (in BSP or basic meshes) simple, the art pass can make a massive difference to how the level is perceived.

How do I come up with the idea for the level - how do I plan it out?

It seems to me your missing a key part of the process, the mechanics. What do you need your player to be doing in the level. Are there any new gameplay elements they need to learn? Any new items that they can use. The rule of three can help cover this from the presentation for example (showing the player a simple section of gameplay and slowly expanding on it over the level). Once you start teaching these mechanics and building them up you have a few to choose from to mix them together in later levels making creating the set pieces in a level easier.

Think of a level designer as someone who shows off the cool ideas that the game designer has had and that the programmer has made in fun, engaging ways.

When I’m sitting down with a pen and paper, how do I know where to put each building?

With the mechanics again, if you need the player to collect X weapon a little way into the level that is the place for a police station maybe? Or long ranged set piece on a the freeway? Your paper design will change.

Plan it, then build it, but improve it constantly with play testing. The initial stages should never be rigid.

How do I know how far away to space things?

Playtesting again, you don’t want the player too constricted and cramped, nor do you want them in a massive space where orientation to the next section will be a problem. Its a difficult question to answer because obviously a city square is a different thing to a corridor in a space station. Its just a case of what feels right when you play it and test it with others.

The choices I make - I want to have a solid reason behind them

The theory helps with this a lot :slight_smile:

Usually for a platformer, I’ll open up the editor, throw some random platforms around. Some will be high up, some lower, gaps in between so you can jump across. Why not add an obstacle here and there. I have no more ideas by this point, so let’s just finish the level here! Now for level two. Let’s add random platforms here, an obstacle here, and the level ends here!

I’ve done a lot of platformers. Building mechanics, the rule of three and thinking of a level hook all help with this. Look at a Mario level, its one idea riffed on many, many times.

I’m more than happy to help with any questions you have if needed.

This was pretty fantastic advice and the slideshow was very informative. Thanks for that!

After taking all of this into consideration, I sketched out a map layout on my phone (it was two in the morning and I made it on my phone - my apologies for the low quality :D).

The first four buildings to the very right would be the Murderer’s possible spawnpoints - four of them so that the two cops aren’t able to just immediately rush to the Murderer’s spawn, automatically knowing where he is. There’s a bit of randomness to it. Then there’s two other sets of four buildings that are just there for environmental purposes. The green area is a park, with trees and stuff the player could hide behind. The blue areas are walkways, streets, alleys, etc. The boxes labeled with a B are banks - these are the three banks the player can rob. The closest one rewards the player with $100, the middle one rewards the player with $150, and the furthest (and closest to the cops, therefor the most risky) one rewards the player with $250. This would give him some incentive to go to one bank over another, and also provides some randomness so that the cops don’t automatically know where the murderer will be. The other buildings that aren’t labeled are just there for environmental purposes again, and I suppose they make the map a little more maze-like, providing more hiding places for the murderer. The building labeled with a C is the camera room, and the place where the cops will start. It’s closer to the banks to give the murderer a challenge - making his escape before the cops can come down and catch him. Additionally, it forces the murderer to explore before he reaches the bank, so that he’ll have a somewhat decent idea of the layout of the map and where he might be able to hide and run afterwards.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and get any suggestions you could give. Thanks again!

No problem! I’m happy to help where I can.

My first thought looking at the map and knowing there are only 3 players was size and complexity. There are way too many variables on the map for both players, there are a lot of streets on there (which is essentially dead space as they contain little gameplay) that both players can get lost in and totally avoid each other, it also expands the map boundary massively. Also, if the cops commit to the bank with $100 and the player goes for the bank with $250, have they got enough time to correct their error and still save the game? Will both players circle the streets never finding each other and never knowing where the other team is?

In my head the basics are coming across as a Counter Strike style attack and defend scenario but with a little more cat and mouse involved? It could be that each team of players are playing both roles and they need to be a little more defined? The police are the cat, defending the cheese, big and strong but not very bright. The murderer is the mouse, weak but fast and cunning. The mouse has to use its cunning to distract the cat from the cheese for long enough to take a bite, but its always aware the cat will return so the bite can never be to big? Its a nice see saw of abilities and tension between the two teams.

I would break it down a little more, from the mechanics to the map. Do some research into the creation of Counter Strike maps, the different routes and choke points will help a lot here I think. Also, look into Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, that had a great multiplayer mode along the lines of what you’re are looking at here.

The park seems a great place for the murderer to begin, he can blend in there and watch the police move around and set up the mouse traps. No need for a lot of streets and spawn points if his appearance is random and mixed among many other NPC’s looking similar. Already you’ve lost a third of the map by doing this. Next I’d look at the banks, drop down to one and work out how to infiltrate it and how the police will defend it, build up the mechanics you need for it and design the level around it. Also, what can I do as murderer in the park for risk/reward (obviously killing) that can interest the police and draw them out?

These are just ideas, they may be some use or they maybe not, don’t worry either way. I’m just making a lot of assumptions from the information I have. Its difficult without having a list of mechanics or a GDD to look over :slight_smile:

Well, I see that you have started sketching up your idea but…having a GDD (Game Development Document) in which you specify the basics of the game, the mechanics, characters, GUI, gameplay, etc. Personally I find it very useful to have a defined scope of what I am going to do and then we start with the character design, level design, stuff like that.

It is great that you have read a lot about game design since it is a HUGE topic but you need to experiment and do some crazy stuff in order to improve your creativity, break the mold!

Hope this small advice helps