Jesse Cortez blog header photo
Jesse Cortez's c-blog
Fronts 108Posts 0Blogs 60Following 0Followers 104



Dtoid Community Discusses pt 15: Level Design

Hey there!

Sorry for the day late DCD, but I had an EPIC day of volleyball on Sunday, which cause me to pass out really early and not have time to put this together.....but its here now, so you can stop writing your congressman about the lack of Dtoid Community Discusses this Monday :P

Anyway, this week we have an interesting topic for several of the Dtoid Community members to discuss, and that would be Level Design. This is the prompt as sent out to the panel:


"Level Design. Its an integral part to gaming, and can easily make or break a game. A game that does it right will pratically be unnoticed, but a game that does it wrong makes you curse the developers.

Interestingly enough, out of all the games that have been made, the same sorts of levels show up. Underwater levels and temples, lava levels, ice worlds....all these are traditional aspects of level design that either make for very interesting levels, or very VERY frustrating experiences.

What are some of your favorite levels? What are your least favorites? What games have really good level design and which suck? What levels would you like to see that sort of break the mold of what we currently see?"

This week's panel consists of GBreaux, Aborto thefetus, RonBurgandy2010, and Ok_Abacus. Read on to find out what they had to say!


To touch on the topic of levels repeating themselves in various games (i.e. lava and water levels), it's a structure that is easy to fall back on as a designer. Not to mention that game designers today are the game players of yesterday. We all remember playing through Mario and Zelda for hours and probably never once though about level design. But we call say, "YEA you remember the desert part, with the like likes?!" The levels of yesteryear are stuck in our head and when trying to design levels of our own, we revert to what we know. So its no surprise that game designers fall back on what they remember and are fond of. It also doesn't require too much creative thinking when you can just do a grass level or an underwater level, which allows for the designers to focus on other aspects like mechanics or story. Personally, if done right, level design should be as big and meaningful as game mechanics, as subtle and memorable as the music, and as fluid and challenging as game progression.

One aspect of level design that I always find intriguing is this notion of escapism. My oldest memories of playing video games was to leave the real world around me and spend hours in Hyrule, adventuring. This also lead to hours spent in the woods behind my house fighting of Skultullas (banana spiders). Good level design also incorporates immersion. For a player to feel like they have left their surroundings you have to make the in game settings become a second home. The levels should be as real and memorable to the players as the world they left in the first place. You have to give the player a reason to keep coming back. Having the art and mechanics congruent with the rest of the game helps present a realized, believable world. One of the easiest ways to lose players is bad level design. If a player doesn't feel like they belong in the world you present to them, game over.

Zelda wouldn't feel the same if it was in a big city like San Andreas and vice versa. Levels have to fit the setting and action appropriately. Don't give me an underwater level if the game is based on the moon.

In closing, I would say that Psychonauts is one of the best out there as far as level design. The levels stayed challenging, presented something new each level, and nothing ever felt repeated or bland.


Well there's a certain part of level design that's just a continuation of old video game-isms that need to die out. There's a need for variety in levels in a game but the problem is that they end up falling into the "ice level, fire level, earth boss, wind boss".


I know alot of people have problems with the stereotypical fire, water. etc. but personally, I have no problems if a game has levels like these as long as they do something that differentiates itself from other Fire/water levels in other games. Skullmonkeys, one of my all time favorite games, has a lot of levels like this but the games style and humor make these levels stand out and feel drastically different despite having similar settings to other games.

Really, I don't think the setting in a level constitutes bad level design. It could make bad level design insufferable, but a dull setting doesn't always ruin a games level design. What I think makes a game's level design bad or good is how easy it is to navigate through it. If you know what to do and understand what needs to be done to progress in the game then that is good level design. If you reach a point in the game where you have no goddamn idea what it is you are supposed to do or where you are supposed to go, that is bad design. Probably the best example I can think of this is a game I used to play on the Sega Genesis called Chakan. If you never heard of this game, keep it that way. Pretty much every level is like this where you reach a point and you have no idea what you are supposed to do. One level just ends at a brick wall and I had no idea what to do until I learned completely by accident that there were invisible platforms that allowed you to progress. If that isn't bad level design, I don't know what is.

Yes...the floor is LAVA. Yet again.


In my opinion, there are two main types of level design: open-world and linear. The open-world approach gives that designer the opportunity to create a living, breathing, believable world that these characters live in and the story takes place. When done properly, like in Fallout 3, exploration is a reward in itself. During my time in the wasteland I uncovered a mad scientist, a town with a fluctuating government, and a vault that became the home of some demented cult of clones. All of this added to the sense that I was in a living, breathing world that wasn't just the backdrop of some game; I felt like I was there and felt close to the events and bizarre discoveries that came up.

Linear gameplay, while offering much less freedom to explore to the player, gives the designer more power over what the player will feel here, what they will see, what they will do.

Open-world games give the player freedom, but take away freedom from the designer. Think about the Half-Life series. By taking away the option to explore, Valve has instead decided to tailor the limited surroundings the player will encounter to have the player feel and do as they want. In Fallout 3, you don't have to enter that creepy-looking building; there is not really any motivation other than curiosity. In Half-Life, you do the things you do not only because you are forced to by the designer, you want to. There is more motivation than curiosity in play here. Thinking of Ravenholm, you didn't keep going because forward was the only direction; you kept going because you wanted to get the fuck out of there.

There lies the balance that must be maintained. By taking freedom from the player, the designer is able to create a more memorable experience and one that is more likely to give you an adrenalin boost. By giving the player the freedom to explore, the designer is able to make a living world for the player to dick around in and explore. The decision in what approach to use lies in what kind of game experience are you trying to present- focused one or an open one?

Personally, I prefer a linear approach because I tend to keep interest. Some open world games just don't offer any reason to explore and then I lose interest.


As far as linear and non-linear level design, I prefer linear mainly because I find that developers haven't mastered non-linear level design. For the most part, I find the level design or world design or whatever you want to call it in open world games to be really boring and repetitive. Like Ronburgandy2010 said, non-linear level design should reward exploration and I don't think alot of games do that outside of collectibles hidden throughout the world. I really like Elder Scrolls Oblivion, but I have to admit the design behind that world was very poor and I never really had the interest to go out and explore the world outside of the quests because a lot of the world felt like the same patch of forest repeated over and over again. Fallout 3 was definitely a step up from that because the world felt a little more varied and there were alot of things I could find, like the aforementioned vault of insane clones and a crashed alien spaceship with an incredibly powerful weapon at the crash site. I'd definitely like to see Bethesda's next game if the drastic difference in environmental design between Oblivion and Fallout 3 is any indication on Bethesda�s abilities.


Exploration has been a staple in games for decades. Things like Easter eggs, secret weapons and powerups are rewards that have been around for a while, given the player is interested in the game enough to explore. The exploration element really doesn't belong to one type of level design any more than the other. It's just that in open-world games, the designer is building a game around the exploration element of games as a means to give the player more to do, some games just don't really offer much incentive to. Linear games rely much less on exploration, usually offering some bonus content like concept art or the like as a reward, if the game has anything to be found in the first place.

You know who likes to explore and find shiny hidden packages? That guy.


Elder Scrolls definitely had an issue in the open-world design in that there was nothing to do for most of it except walk from point A to point C, occasionally stopping at point B. Which is part of the reason I never understood the hype for the massive game world in Fallout 3. If there's nothing to do, then what�s the point?

GTA4 remedied many of these issues since the game world was packed with a lot to do whether one was on a story mission or not. There were random side missions or people on the street that asked you to do mini-missions. But there was still an issue when it came time to travel on certain story quests or go from one island to another (although getting a taxi and skipping the travel resolved some of that). It injected the constant action, goal-oriented gameplay from linear games into the non-linear or open world scope. That being said, I'm not sure how a game would overcome all the problems of having a massive game world.


I'm not really sure there's anything that can be done to make open-worlds more interesting. Think of your daily life. You are living in an open-world setting, there's a world going on around you. You want to explore the city, go ahead, the only reward you may find is a hobo and a mugging. Games have a base in real life (somewhere), and in the open-world design, there's not much else they can do. I really can't see open-world level design evolving much more.

There lies the balance that must be maintained. By taking freedom from the player, the designer is able to create a more memorable experience and one that is more likely to give you an adrenalin boost. By giving the player the freedom to explore, the designer is able to make a living world for the player to dick around in and explore. The decision in what approach to use lies in what kind of game experience are you trying to present- focused one or an open one?


Bioshock played the line very well in design between linear and non-linear. On one hand, the game was fairly straightforward with clear goals and confined spaces, however it explicitly rewards players for exploration with the audiotapes and the weapon upgrade machines. Even in working in the small area underwater, it manages to combine action with exploration in ways that I'm not sure the Elder Scrolls or Fallouts of the world do.


Yeah, Bioshock was one of those games that appear to give more freedom than is actually offered. While it promotes exploration, it has a very rigid, very linear design. It's not linear to the extreme that the Half-Life series is however. It gives the sensation of an open-world/linear world hybrid.

In Bioshock, the player is placed in a number of individual, self-contained levels throughout the course of the game, likening back to a time when your progress could actually be expressed with a level number. Each of these levels is a collection of hallways, courtyards, theaters, etc. What gives the player the sensation that they are in a large, open world is that the levels are set up so that they span in all directions with hallways and corridors connecting the level and making it traversable by many points. The levels are large in themselves, not necessarily keeping a major theme throughout the area (the ice level, water temple, etc.), which makes the environments much more varied and divers, feeling more like a world rather than a section of it. The idea of randomly wandering enemies is another brilliant way in which they gave the impression of a large, breathing world without actually making one.

However, I feel that it stays strictly with the linear genre, it's just crafted so that it feels like a hybrid, it's still very much a linear game.


Well what I've gotten from this DCD is that Bioshock is one of the best games ever made and Fallout/Elder Scrolls are terribly overrated. Please send any and all hate mail to Tactix :)

RonBurgandy2010 (who is utterly amazing)

Wow, that's grossly incorrect.


You can only send me hate mail if its in the form of a song :P


RonBurgandy2010 (did I mention he is brilliant? Brilliant.)

I searched "fuck you" on youtube and got this, I didn't even bother listening to it.


Well, thats all for this week! Hope you enjoyed the discussion, and as always, if you want to be a part of a future discussion, PM your email address to me and I can add you to the list! Until next week!

HEARTS! <3 <3 <3
Login to vote this up!



Please login (or) make a quick account (free)
to view and post comments.

 Login with Twitter

 Login with Dtoid

Three day old threads are only visible to verified humans - this helps our small community management team stay on top of spam

Sorry for the extra step!


About Jesse Cortezone of us since 4:34 AM on 01.13.2007


I am a Ph. D. chemist from the University of California, Berkeley. I have been playing videogames since as long as I can remember! My past favorite games include Secret of Mana, TMNT: Turtles in Time, the Resident Evil series (Jill is SUCH as master of unlocking), FFVII, Smash Bros Melee, and many others.

I've definitely gone through phases in my gaming "career". I used to LOVE fighting games in the time of Tekken Tag and Marvel vs Capcom II (my favorite fighting game), but now I find myself drawn to the more story driven games, and very recently, the music games....:)

But....fighting games are making a comeback! SFIV! MvC3! BlazBlue! Beware everyone, Tactix has put a quarter on the screen and is challenging you for battle!

It was mere chance that brought me to Destructoid back in early 2007, and through it all I've stayed because of the great writing staff, a community that cares, and lots of new internet and IRL friends. Destructoid has changed my life. True story.

If you live in the SF Bay Area, check out the DtoidSanFrancisco C-blog and join the Google Group!


Check out the past installments of my DTOID COMMUNITY DISCUSSES! Series:

Part 1: DLC
Part 2: Achievements
Part 3: Gaming Journalism
Part 4: Next Next-Gen Consoles
Part 5: Retro Renaissance
Part 6: Games That Suck
Part 7: Educational Games
Part 8: Evolution of Gaming Music
Part 9: Gaming Merchandise
Part 10: Iconic Games
Part 12: GDC
Part 13: Videogame Movies
Part 14: Competitive Gaming
Part 15: Level Design
Part 16: Emulation and Game Modding
E3 Edition: Microsoft
E3 Edition: Nintendo
E3 Edition: Sony
Part 17: Triple A Titles
Part 18: Fighting Games
Part 19: Digital Distribution

Card courtesy of TheGHost

Rock Band tag courtesy of CutieHoney

Thanks guys!

Last but not least, Chad Concelmo and I are the same person. Go ahead and ask him. :P

Xbox LIVE:Tactixpimp
Mii code:0680 0947 9731 1775


Around the Community