Gamasutra is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
GDC 2001: The Architecture of Level Design
View All     RSS
August 4, 2020
arrowPress Releases
August 4, 2020
Games Press
View All     RSS

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:


GDC 2001: The Architecture of Level Design

July 16, 2001 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

The bar for the visual quality of environments in games keeps getting higher with each new generation of hardware and software. To meet that bar and push it even further will require the integration of real world design skills as well as a keen sense of gameplay and game design. Attending an architectural design or any sort of design school is of course not absolutely necessary to be a good level designer, but it can help widen your scope of experience. Architectural Design and Level Design are two very different pursuits, the point is really to investigate how looking beyond traditional and often overused game design references and approaches can help to bring an added dimension to the experience of making and playing games. What we would like to do is give you an overview of what you might learn in the first year of an architectural design studio and given our own experiences, how that ended up tying into wide variety of games.

Going to an architecture school these days is much less about the technology of how buildings are built and much more about looking at how human culture continues to express itself through shelter, one of our most basic requirements. Technology and the expression of design ideas and gameplay also seem to be becoming less closely tied together. We in the industry are witnesses to the explosion of licensable engine technologies and subsequent number of games with the same core technology but very different game ideas. Without the technology games like the kind we've all played and worked on are just crazy game ideas and without those crazy game ideas games become just slick technology demos.

The most important thing you learn in architecture school in the first few years is; what's the difference between an architectural idea and an architectural device. Basically, an architectural idea is an idea that says something meaningful about how people experience a given piece of architecture; an architectural device is what specific means you use to express that idea. For example, a window is an architectural device to get light, air and visibility into a building and can be as simple as a hole cut in a wall. An architectural idea about that window might be something like how that window is made to separate the pedestrian public view from a space that's supposed to be private. To express this idea you might frost a piece of glass or place the window very high up; suddenly that window becomes much more than just a hole cut in the wall. The same approach goes for level design. It's important to have a clear idea for what a level is about. If you say, "I'm going to do a deathmatch level", that isn't a level design idea, it's just a vehicle for expressing an idea. You could think of the term "deathmatch level" as a vehicle or device for expressing some idea about people getting together in a space for the purpose of killing each other until someone reaches a certain score.

Having an architectural idea or level design gameplay idea is the most important thing in either pursuit, and beyond that finding an appropriate means to express that idea is the real trick. You will often discover in the process of finding that means of expression whether your idea was any good in the first place, or in the case of games whether or not your idea was any fun. Let's assume that you have a really great idea for a game and its levels, how do you go about coming up with ways to express that idea?

We can start by defining what the qualities of a level are. Level design is very architectural in nature. Levels are spatial experiences of environments that are usually inhabited by you as some sort of avatar and a host of other vaguely humanoid creatures. They have a program in the architectural sense of the word, meaning basically a list of functions like living room, conference room, mad-scientist experiment room, temporal anomaly generator room, etc. They require expenditures of time, labor, funding, and to some extent natural resources, and they are constructed by human hands. So, applying an architectural design methodology makes a certain degree of sense. In order to apply such a methodology to games, it is useful to describe some of the basic elements of spatial design. These elements are really architectural devices in the form of basic design principles for organizing and developing space. They are applicable principles instead of physical objects like the window. It's kind of like the principle in games that puzzles should be hard to do, not hard to figure out what to do. A-lot of this presentation will be a description of those basic principles as they apply to level design, in the hope that they will help you to more clearly and more inventively express your ideas.

Games are ultimately about having a fun, entertaining, and meaningful experience. What we're interested in here is in how you get from a great starting idea to a final finished game. Designing that experience is not unlike the process of designing architecture. Level design, like architectural design, is about finding the appropriate means of expressing your ideas about gameplay. What follows is an investigation of how using the approaches and methodologies of a very closely related field can serve to enhance the process of designing games. Some of the key concepts to design and evaluate architecture are introduced. Path or circulation, how you move through a building, will be outlined. Tools to organize a scheme will be described, and then we will discuss event and character as it relates to level design.

The first book many architecture students are required to read is, "Architecture; Form, Space and Order", by Francis Ching. There are many introductory architectural texts but this one is the probably the easiest to understand and best illustrated texts for the uninitiated. It gives a-lot of examples of built work and has some really great diagrams. A-lot of what we refer to in this lecture is also described in more detail in this book. It's a great way to get an idea of how architects all over the world have been exploring the same basic principles of design since people have been constructing shelter.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Related Jobs

Disbelief — Chicago, Illinois, United States

Senior Technical Artist
innogames — Hamburg, Germany

Junior Game Designer - Level Design - New Mobile Game
Plarium Michigan Studio LP
Plarium Michigan Studio LP — San Mateo, California, United States

UX Designer
Airship Syndicate
Airship Syndicate — Austin, Texas, United States

Senior VFX Artist

Loading Comments

loader image