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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 4 of 9 Next

Paul Jaquays, id Software

Paul Jaquays is a "jack of all trades," but at id Software he provides level design for Quake II and game and level design for Quake III: Arena. Now who wouldn't want to be in his shoes, eh? When Jaquays heard about this Secrets of the Sages project, he wanted to offer a large collection of do's and don'ts on level design, as well as more general advice on the art of map creation. Without further ado, let's first jump into his collection of handy design tidbits.

Jaquays' 26 Level Design Tips

  1. Know what you want to do with a level before you start. Don't expect a map that you start as a single-player map to be easily changed into a multiplayer map. The reverse holds true for trying to make a Deathmatch map into a single-player challenge.
  2. Sketch out a diagram of the map to use as an initial guide.
  3. Don't start with grandiose projects. Try making something fun with a few rooms.
  4. If possible, build your level with a "gimmick" in mind--some tricky gamism bit that players will remember. Popular gimmicks that have been used in the past include wind tunnels, numerous portals, lava maps, trap maps, water-filled maps, maps with large, slow-moving hazards, and low-gravity maps.
  5. Try to be fresh and original with every new design. Do something that you haven't seen done before.
  6. Test gimmicks of gameplay, tricks, and traps in test levels before building them into your game level.
  7. Do architecture and texture studies ahead of time to establish an architectural style. Stick to that style.

    Above, Jaquays roughly sketched out a complicated puzzle and trap for Quake 2, involving modularized, moving prison cells as a part of the Laboratory sequence. The concept was not implemented in the final game. Below, Jaquays began one of his first Quake 3 arena maps by roughly sketching out the major game features and their relationship to each other. The final version of his arena map carried several of the original concepts through to fruition, even though much of the layout and geometry was changed. (Both images used with permission by id Software, Inc., copyright 1998)



  9. Block out your level with large pieces of geometry. Think of the architecture you'll use, but concentrate more on how gameplay will flow through the level. At this stage, I try to keep my map grid at the largest possible setting (in Quake II or Quake III, that's the "64" grid). Avoid fussy details at this point and go for massiveness. At this stage of development, try to keep your frame-rate speeds well below the amount allowed by the game (for Quake II, we aimed to be below a maximum count of 500 triangles of architecture in any view). A good rule might be to try for no more than a third of your total possible polygon count in the worst views in and near your larger rooms.


    This 64-player map is taken from the Quake II DM Pack 1: Extremities expansion CD. Jaquays reminds level designers to make sure that large maps have distinctive memorable play areas. (Used with permission by Activision)


  11. Once the flow is established, you can start adding architectural detail and refining hall and room shapes.
  12. Build in a modular manner. Make prefabricated pieces that be can fit together easily to make your level. Build tricky pieces of detailed architecture (such as door frames, complicated cornices, or furniture) once and set them outside the boundaries of your map. Clone them as needed for placement in the map.
  13. When designing architectural elements, study the real world. Try to duplicate the look and feel of impressive works, but with less complicated geometry. Set yourself challenges in this regard.
  14. Strike a balance between the use of real geometry and textures that imply three-dimensional depth when building architectural details. Textures that appear to be 3D should be used with caution. When viewed from a distance, they can fool the eye into believing that the architectural geometry is significantly more complex than it actually is. But the same texture viewed up close and at eye level completely destroys the illusion of depth.
  15. Compile the map often. Don't wait until everything is placed to see what things look like (or if you have leaks in the map hull).
  16. Complete your map geometry before adding monsters and items.
  17. When building single-player game maps, don't put every game feature in the level. Having every monster possible in the game in a single game level is a glaring sign of amateur work. Generally speaking, the only place you're going to see all the monsters at once is in the AI programmer's test level.
  18. The same goes for tricks, traps, items, weapons, and power-ups. Unless your map is as massive as the 64-player DM maps created for Quake II, restrict the number of different items you put in the map. Use a few things cleverly, rather than many poorly.
  19. Small maps can be relatively similar throughout. Large maps should have distinctive, memorable locations that the player can use to orient himself in the map. "City64," a large DM map for Quake II, featured a huge canyon area, a massive alien temple, underwater caverns, a vast deep tank with water in the bottom, and numerous stretches of twisty corridors. The corridors were often similar, but they ended in distinctive large play areas.
  20. For DM maps, give the players frequent opportunities to avoid pursuit and dodge for cover. Long hallways with no exits are bad. Avoid forcing players to make long trips to dead-end rooms--even to get good power-ups.
  21. Place lights to achieve drama. If you have a choice between under-lighting an area and over-lighting it, err on the side of darkness. Just don't go overboard. Dark levels may look nifty, but stumbling around in the dark while playing gets old fast.
  22. Light as you go--even if you're only placing temporary lights.
  23. Don't forget the audio elements of a map. Sounds can provide important game clues.
  24. If possible, allow multiple solutions for puzzles. You can still reserve the greatest rewards for players who solve them in what the designer has decided is the "best way."
  25. Give the player a variety of game experiences and challenges in each map. All combat or all puzzles can get old quickly.
  26. Be kind to your players; don't over-challenge them unnecessarily. Well-placed environmental hazards add to the tension of game play, but falling into lava or slime every third step or being crushed to death by falling weights every time you turn around quickly becomes frustrating.
  27. Study maps you like and make an effort to duplicate or even improve situations and settings.
  28. Finish what you begin.

As many other programmers, artists, animators, musicians, and level designers have stated in the past, this last point on finishing a project instead of starting 10 new ones is essential, and not easy for beginners.

Paul's Advice on Game Design

Throughout his career in the gaming industry, Jaquays has accumulated quite a bit of knowledge on the art of game design. While he covered many individual pointers in the preceding section on map creation, the following details serve as more broad advice on game design, drawing from his own personal experiences as well.

Stop Imitating Yourself

I started in the game business as a designer of game adventures for the new (at the time) game called Dungeons & Dragons and later for the game called Runequest. There was a time when I was considered one of the best adventure writers in the field. One of the reasons that I quit designing pencil-and-paper-type role-playing games was I found that I had started to imitate myself, rehashing the same storyline over and over. I was no longer fresh. Thankfully, I had other career options within the game business that I could pursue. But the problem still remains: how to keep your ideas alive and new.

Choose the Unconventional Solution

There's a tendency in game design to use familiar or tried-and-true solutions to design. In the latter part of the Golden Age of Video Games (the classic 8-bit years), the solution for nearly every game based on a character or movie license was to create a side-scrolling game. During my tenure at Coleco, we were given very few opportunities to create new games. Most of our work was to analyze and translate arcade titles. The War Games movie license gave us the opportunity to create a game that broke the mold. The conventional solution would have been to make a side-scrolling "solve the puzzles, find the hidden goodies, and avoid the bad guys" game until at last you confronted the computer in the last scene. At that point, the game would start you back at the beginning and ratchet up the level of difficulty a notch. After seeing a special preview screening of the movie War Games, I was inspired by the sequence near the end of the movie in which the computer runs simulated scenario after scenario in which the outcome was always the same: nuclear war and complete world devastation. I was taken by the graphics that plotted the arcs of missiles as they approached their targets. If I could convince the powers-that-be, that short sequence of the movie would be our game. The actual gameplay derived from several unrelated concepts. The goal of the player would be to stop bombers, subs, and missiles (which were drawn on the fly as lines--no simple trick in the 8-bit pattern tile game systems of the day), from reaching their targets on a map of the United States. In a way, it had similarities to the popular arcade game Missile Command, where the player fires anti-ballistic missiles at incoming missiles dropping down from the top of the screen. Unlike the arcade, the play took place on six separate maps simultaneously. Like the juggler who keeps numerous plates spinning at once atop thin sticks, the player had to rapidly switch his attentions between a radar map showing the whole USA and six sub-maps that contained closer views of target cities and military installations. The player had to rapidly commit resources (missiles, interceptor planes, and attack subs) to deal with enemy attacks, then shift to the next map and do the same. If the player had the right stuff, he or she could defeat the game.

Blending Flavors

Some of the most popular foods are those that blend unlike or even opposite flavors together in one tasty package. Sweet-and-sour Chinese dishes and Chicago-style hotdogs are just two examples. What does this have to do with game design? One of the products of which I am most proud is a book series called Central Casting. The purpose of the products was to create vivid back-stories or histories for characters in role-playing games. I created separate books that covered three distinct genre groups of games: fantasy, science fiction (or futuristic), and 20th century games. Players rolled dice and compared the results against a series of tables and lists. Roll by roll, they selected events and personality traits that they could use to define their game characters. Quite often, the results of dice rolls would seem unlikely to be combined together, but with a little creative thought the widely disparate events would blend together, like the myriad of flavors in a Chicago-style hotdog, into a uniquely original result.

Make It Real

Even if you plan on making your game setting wildly fantastic--that is, nothing you would ever see in the real world--take care to make it seem real. This is something I learned as a fantasy illustrator, painting covers for games and books. The way to make the fantastic elements of a painting believable is to realistically paint the mundane things in the picture. This establishes a setting that appears as if it could actually exist somewhere. You then paint the fantastic elements in the painting with an equal amount of care so that they partake of the reality of the rest of the painting. The same holds true when making 3D game levels. Give the player one or more familiar elements that he can relate to. By comparison with the real elements, the unreal things in the game should seem more real, or perhaps a better explanation is that they seem more plausible. And by contrast with the mundane, they will seem that much more fantastic.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 9 Next

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