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
Secrets of the Sages: Level Design
arrowPress Releases
June 14, 2021
Games Press
View All     RSS

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


Secrets of the Sages: Level Design

July 23, 1999 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 9 Next

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.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 9 Next

Related Jobs

innogames — Hamburg, Germany

Junior Game Designer - Elvenar - Event Design & Live Ops
California College of the Arts
California College of the Arts — San Francisco, California, United States

Unranked, Adjunct Faculty, Animation Program
Insomniac Games
Insomniac Games — Burbank, California, United States

Technical Artist - Pipeline

Loading Comments

loader image