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Secrets of the Sages: Level Design
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Secrets of the Sages: Level Design

July 23, 1999 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 9 Next

The Levelord, Ritual Entertainment

Much of the excitement and anxiety experienced during bouts of Duke Nukem 3D, Quake: Scourge of Armagon, and Sin can be directly linked to The Levelord's miraculous touch. So what's his secret for keeping you awake until 4 a.m.?

The Levelord's three commandments may seem obvious, but according to him they're quite often neglected or overlooked: the "fun factor," game action/player interaction, and authenticity of setting.

The Levelord has requested that we keep his written material the way it was submitted, so this is the Lord speaking throughout. Hear ye! Hear ye!

The Fun Factor

The first and foremost question to be answered about any game, whether it's a shooter or whatever, is "Is it fun?" This applies to the game itself, of course, but it also has great bearing on each and every component of the game, including level designing. As a game is developed, this question should be answered many, many times. The Fun Factor is often forsaken for cutting-edge flash, and much effort is taken away from the game itself due to the ever-increasing computer performance on which games are played. Nonetheless, it seems paradoxical that many games simply are not fun; they look great, but they aren't worth playing. Cutting edge is indeed fun when it adds cool weapon effects and faster game performance, but it's not cool when a developer spends too much time with research and development, only to forget the main purpose of a game: fun! The Fun Factor is also frequently back-seated to realism. This is not to be confused with a game being realistic or authentic, but is rather a seeming side effect of the "reality" portion of our games' virtual reality. Too often fun ideas and features are shelved because developers say things like "Hey, you can't change momentum in mid-air in real life!" or "A real bullet doesn't do that!" when the more important statement at hand was "That was so much fun!" There are no defined rules for fun and the only way to ensure the Fun Factor is to play test. The easy part about adding the Fun Factor is that most all of us have the same concept of fun; that is, if you the game developer think it's fun, then the game audience is likely to think so, too. The Fun Factor is not transient or ephemeral, either. It should survive countless trials and tests and still be entertaining in the end. This is the only way to ensure that a game is fun--to play test it over and over.

Puzzle-solving is an intergral part of 3D level design, says The Levelord. This "heated" scene is from Scourge of Armagon, the first official add-on pack for Quake. (Used with permission by Ritual Entertainment)

Game Action and Player Interaction

A strong sense of authenticity is the groundwork of any killer level. Remember the movie theater or football stadium in Duke Nukem 3D or the opening bank sequence from Sin? Her's a look at Sin's jungle level. (Used with permission by Ritual Entertainment)

First-person shooters are no longer the simple "shoot, find the key, and shoot some more" games that they were a few years ago. These games are now fully interactive environments, and what used to be considered randomly placed and sparse Easter Eggs are now the standard norm. If a level has a phone or computer, they had better be functional, and the player had better be able to blow them up. The player must be able to destroy just about everything! As a level designer, I spend a lot of my time making things destructible, but it's always worth the while. Take the time to become a good demolitions expert, because destroying things is not only good action, it is also never-ending fun. Another important aspect of the action in a first-person shooter is puzzle solving. A good level should be a series of challenges and rewards. The challenge can come before the reward, or after, but don't just haphazardly strew goodies and bad guys through your level. The players should feel as though they are being run through a gauntlet of contests and prizes.

All of these forms should be as animated as possible to improve feel of action. Make the player work for the rewards. Do whatever you can to make the player say "Ah ha!" Make as many secret areas as possible, too, as discovering secrets is one of the most fun puzzles in a game.


Littering your maps with secrets is also an important consideration in level designing, deems The Levelord. Anyone find this in Duke Nukem 3D? (Used with permission by 3D Realms, Inc.)

Related directly to level designing, the third question to be answered is "Are you there?" First-person shooters in particular rely on the sense of immersion. The most important duty you have as a level designer is to ring the player "into" your level. It's not until after this submersion that issues like action, game play, and even the Fun Factor enter the game. The more of your level to which the player can attach himself via familiarity, the stronger the player's sense of "being there" will be. Real-world situations usually make good levels because it's easier to capture the reality.

The closer that the player can relate to your level, the deeper the player will be submerged into the level. Continuity is also an important factor of a level's immersion.

Continuity is related to the level's main theme, and this theme must be maintained throughout the entire level. Too often I see levels that are patchworks of various themes. Your level must seem like a continuous place.

The almighty Levelord has spoken, and deems these as the true foundations of any killer level. "These seem apparent, but they can be the biggest burdens a game designer, especially a level designer, can face...without them, most every other aspect of a level will be missed or forgotten, and the game as a whole will suffer."

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 9 Next

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