Leading Players Through a Level


One of the biggest challenges in level design is create an environment that is easy for the player to navigate. When creating a level you know what the layout is so it can be very easy to think that a level is easy to navigate but when it goes to testing players get lost easily. This not only shows the importance of QA testing it also presents the question: How does one lead a player through a level? There are several ways to give a player hints about where to go in a level without blatantly telling them such as: lighting, enemy placement, and items. Now lets explore each of these ways to lead the player through a level.


Lighting is important in any game, lighting can be used to generate a certain mood and it can be used to aid in player navigation. Horror games often use lighting to build mood and also lead player through an area. The eye is naturally drawn to lights and when a player is in a dark area they will move toward a lit area. A great example of this is in the Half-life 2 level Ravenholm. This area is a horror themed level where the player has to fight through a zombie infested town.


Half-life 2 Ravenholm- The player first meets Father Grigori

The picture above shows the first time the player meets Father Grigori, a survivor who helps the player through the town. The player is drawn to this area due to the huge bright fire in front of the building. Above the fire there is a very bright light coming out of the open door where Father Grigori appears. This is intended to draw the players eye to where Grigori shows up, this is important because the level designer  uses this scene to teach the player that there are traps in the town that the player can use against the zombies.

Enemy Placement:

The placement of enemies can be used to guide players as well, however since the enemies are going to move towards the player this method does not always work. An amazing example of this being used well is also in Ravenholm. Immediately after the player meets Father Grigori (shown in the picture above) the player walks past a boarded up room.  As the player walks by two zombies start breaking through the boards and attacking the player. This draws the player to the room where the zombies just came from, and in that room the game teaches the player that they can turn on gas in certain areas to create fire. This is important later in the level, when the player has to turn off some gas to move on.


The placement of items in a level can help lead a player through an environment. A rule of thumb I use in games is that if I think I am getting turned around I start to scan the area of pick-ups, if an environment is picked clean I assume I have been there already. The Unreal Tournament series used very small heath pickups to show players different paths they can take through a level. Another example is in Bioshock, when the player acquires the shotgun. The weapon is placed in the middle of the room where the player can easily see it from the doorway. This causes the player to go into that room and get the weapon (although they are ambushed immediately after).


There are many different ways to give the players hints on how to navigate the level or area. There are many ways that I didn’t get to discuss such as sound effects and environment clues. The biggest problem with levels that are not fun to play is that they are frustrating to navigate. A great level shows the player where to go without directly telling them, an amazing level subtly tells the player where to go without them realizing it.

Asymmetric Levels


Last week I talked about symmetric level design so this week I decided to look at the other side of the coin. Asymmetric levels offer unique design challenges, the biggest pit fall is having one side of the map be more desirable then the other. This can be a big issue in a team based game type, if one team spawns on a side with better weapons or power-ups the balancing will be off and one team will have a much easier time winning. If an asymmetric level is balanced well it can be a very interesting experience for the player, since each side of the map is different the players must come up with different strategies depending on where they spawn.

Asymmetric Maps:


Escalation – Gears of War 1

The map Escalation from Gears of War is an excellent example of fantastic asymmetric level design. The map takes place on a large stair case one team spawns at the bottom and has to work their way up the stairs, the other team spawns at the top of the stairs and works their way down. This map may seem unbalanced but Epic Games used weapon spawns and the geometry of the level to keep things balanced. The team that starts at the top (the Estate Spawn in the picture above) has the advantage of being able to see the surrounding area better as well as superior firing positions. Since Gears of War is about taking cover during combat the players at the top of the map have positions that allow them to shoot down at the other team allowing them to get around the attacking teams cover. Their elevated position also makes it hard for the team coming up the stairs to hit the opposing team. The team that is advancing up the stairs (the team that starts at the Allfather Spawn) is given two sniper rifles to help even the odds. The team moving up the stairs has almost all the weapons spawn close to them, this helps them fight against an enemy with a superior position. The sparsity of weapons is very intentional, besides the sniper rifles there are only three other weapon pick-ups two of which are pistols and the last is some grenades. This makes the sniper rifles very powerful on this map since there aren’t any weapons to counter the snipers. Gears of War’s multiplayer works on a round system, when everyone on a team is killed the round ends and the teams trade spawns. This makes it so both teams have opportunities to take advantage of the high ground and the snipers respectively.


Asymmetric maps can live and die based on the balancing, its very compelling as a player to have two different sides that require different strategies to attack and defend. The biggest challenge that one must overcome when designing a asymmetric level is making sure one side is not more overpowered then the other, if one side is clearly at an advantage nobody is going to want to start on that side which can lead to players quitting early.

Symmetric Levels


There are many different types of levels in video games, two very popular types of multiplayer levels are Symmetric and Asymmetric. Both of these types of maps have advantages and disadvantages depending on what kind of experience you want your players to have. Symmetric maps are very common in team based objective game types (such as capture the flag) since neither side will have an advantage due to where they spawn. This post will explore symmetric maps and the ways they can be compelling.

Symmetric Maps:


Figure 1 Halo 3 – The Pit 

The Halo 3 map The Pit is one of my personal favorite symmetric maps of all time, This map is a great example of why symmetric maps are so compelling. This level was used for both deathmatch and objective game modes and was widely considered one of the best maps in Halo 3. The areas that both teams spawn in (represented below by the red and blue boxes) offer the players three major routes for player to get to the opposing teams base, there are more ways to get across the map however but the examples I am going to talk about are the most direct.

The Pit Spawns .jpg

Figure 2 The Pits Spawning Areas

The spawns offer more then just a base for the teams to start in, both teams have sniper rifles at the towers beside their spawns. This allows skilled players to quickly begin an offense play or a defense play. The areas in front of the sniper towers are very open however there are many safe ways to maneuver around snipers. Each side also has a shotgun that can be used to defend in the close quarters of the spawn area.

The Pit Common Routes.jpg

Figure 3 Routes

Figure 3 shows three of the many routes to get from one side of the map to the other. The purple path takes the player from the base past a sniper rifle, they then have two options: take the lower path witch is a long hallway with no cover or take the upper path which is a small square room. The hallway route is dangerous but also has a Overshield (a health power up), the hallway route is very quick and direct but it leaves the player exposed to a lot of enemy fire. The room route has very close quarters and also has an energy sword (one of the most powerful close quarters weapons in the game), this route offers more cover but it can be easily held down by one player with a close quarters weapon.  The Green path shows the routes that bring the player through the center of the map. The center of the map has a rocket launcher in the middle of a hallway, this area is easy for both sides to see and is often the area where the first kill of the game happens. The other hallway next to the rocket launcher has an invisibility power up which is very useful in objective game types. The blue route is the quickest way to get to the other side of the map but it requires the player to run at the other teams sniper tower this is very dangerous and there is not much cover available. This route has a few weapons but no super powerful ones, this route is more about speed then getting equipment. The thing that these routes all have in common is the center of the map has weapons and power ups that the players will fight over. The best symmetric maps (in my opinion) create reasons for the players to fight in the center of the map.



Creating Good Level Design Documents


When making levels for a game it is important to document your ideas, this way if your on a team everyone is on the same page and if your working by yourself you have something to work off of. A one page level design document can make the process of creating a level much easier. The methods that I am going to discuss have worked well for me but like anything in agile game development none of these rules are set in stone.

Level Drawing:

The first thing I like to do is make an illustration of the level this can be done in any program you prefer such as: Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, or even Google Docs. If you have created a concept sketch digitizing that will make the process easier. It’s important to remember that if your level is 3D then you are making a 2D drawing to represent it, this can lead to confusion. In the cases where I have intricate 3D levels I like to have a top down drawing and a side drawing, this will help anyone else who sees the document understand the space. Once the drawing of the level is complete I like to draw arrows to the most important parts of the level and have boxes of text explaining any special mechanics that happen in those areas. If you document is for a single player level it is important to make a golden path. The golden path is the most ideal path a player can take to complete a level. Multiplayer levels do not have golden paths because where the player needs to go changes as the match progresses. The last thing you need once your drawing is complete is to make a key to show what certain symbols represent.

Asset List:

Another important thing you need to have in a level design document is a asset list, this is a list of every art and sound asset that the level will need to be completed. This is very helpful if you are working with artists and other designers. The list will also give you an idea about how long it will take to complete making the level.


Level design documentation is very important if you are working on a team but it can also help you if your working by yourself. When making a level design document remember that no matter how good of a level idea you have it does not matter if your document is not readable.

Sound Design

This week I started working on the sound design for Space Dunk, I am not in charge of making the music but rather all the sounds effects. The sound effects in a game give the players vital feedback that they can’t necessarily get from just visuals. The sounds in the game need to accompany each interaction however it is easy to add too many sound effects and then the player will be overwhelmed. The hardest part about sound design is finding the happy medium between too much sound and not enough sound. I started this process by making a list of all the sounds we need for the game. I separated the sound into three groups: Crowd Noise, Announcer Lines, and Game play Sounds. The crowd noise is cheering and chants that you would encounter at a sporting event, these noises are essential to help immerse the player. The Announcer sounds are also used to help immerse the player but it also gives the player feedback when someone scores a point. The sounds that give the players the most feedback are Game play sounds, these sounds are what is played when there is any interaction between players. Instead of finding samples to use I am planning on recording my voice and using synths to make all the sounds. Once all the sounds are recorded I will begin mastering them so that the volume levels on all the sounds are appropriate. Sound design is a lot like programming, it requires you to keep making tiny changes until something feels right. Sound is one of the most important aspects of a game, it gives the player feedback and also helps make the world you create feel more alive.

Creating Level Concepts

This week I have been working on creating as many concepts as possible for potential arenas for the game Space Dunk. This process is one of my favorite aspects of game design because it allows me to flex my creative muscles and create a compelling environment for the player to explore. I wanted to use this blog post to give some insight into my process and hopefully help someone else who is stuck in the concept stage.

Starting Out:

When starting out a new level there are a lot of things to think about and this can get very overwhelming. The first thing I like to think about is: “What is this level teaching or emphasizing to the player” this gives me a jumping off point. When thinking about what the level is emphasizing to the player I don’t necessarily mean a set piece moment (although that can work too), but rather a primary game mechanic. One example of this in Space Dunk is a level concept I created that was made to emphasize passing the ball, passing is one of the primary mechanics in Space Dunk and by making a level centered around it I can help the players master this mechanic which will help them get better at the game. Once you have an idea about what you want your level to emphasize the next step is to begin sketching.

Drawing Your Level Concept:

I like to sketch out my ideas before I make a digital version, I find it easier to get all my ideas out. The most important thing I can tell you about drawing level design concepts is: do not be afraid to start over if an idea isn’t working out, that’s the beauty of sketching things out, its supposed to be quick and rough. However if you do end up starting over NEVER throw away your old design, even if you hate it. It always good to keep things around to inspire you later or just to remind yourself what NOT to do. It’s not important for the sketch to look nice, I am not very good at drawing but this step allows you to just put down as many ideas as possible as quickly as possible.


The last step is to show it to your group members to get feedback before you continue forward. If your working by yourself show it to someone who plays games. I have always found it useful to get a second pair of eyes to look at something, sometimes they notice something obvious that you have overlooked. Once you are happy with your level concept it is time to move on to making a Level Design Document and then blocking out the level.

Joining a New Team

The Senior Capstone class at my college (Champlain College) is set up so that after the first semester half the teams working on games are cut and added to other teams who are also working on their own games. My team was unfortunately cut however I was given an offer to work on a game called Space Dunk.  The team liked the level design work I did on Korku and wanted me to do level design work for them, I accepted their offer but it got me thinking about what its like to join a new team and work on another persons creative property. I would like to use this blog post to talk about the integration process to hopefully give people in the same situation some ideas about where to start .

Meeting the Team:

The first meeting we had as a new team was very helpful, we talked about what the original members of the team wanted the new members to focus on. I had the advantage of going to class with many of the members of my new team so learning everybody’s name was easy. I asked the team to see their design documentation so that I could familiarize myself with the game systems, if I want to design good levels I need to know how the game works inside and out. After everyone was acquainted we decided to hang out as a group to get to know each other better. We went to a bar and talked for a while, it was a very friendly environment and I really recommend doing something similar to this (although it does not have to be in a bar). By meeting everyone in a non work environment it was easy to get to know each other without the pressure associated with a formal environment. The meeting was a very helpful way to get acquainted with the team and I am super excited to work with them further.

Adding Members:

I have had experience with getting new members on a team that I have been working with. The last game I worked on was originally a team of five and grew into a team of ten. The biggest tip I can give to teams that are getting new members is to be open to changes they want to make. New members of a team are always worried about making too many changes and stepping on the original team members toes, however a new set of eyes on a project can open up doors the original team did not even think about. Even if you don’t like an idea show them that you are grateful that they are trying to help make the best game that can be made, if you make someone feel uncomfortable about speaking early on they may not bring up good ideas later in the project.  When I had new members join my team last year I was worried that my vision for the game would be changed but I was pleasantly surprised with the awesome ideas they contributed to the game.  Working on new teams can be a scary experience but it will help you grow as a designer and as a teammate.

Designing Weapons

When designing a shooter game creating fun and interesting weapons is one of the most important parts of the design process.  The weapons are going to be used by the player for the entire play experience so they better be compelling and fun to use. When designing weapons there are a lot of details that need to be considered for example: how many weapons the player can hold at once, if the weapons have alternate fire modes, what kind of ammo does the weapon use, and how much damage it does.

Less is not always More:

There are a lot of things to take into consideration when deciding how many weapons the player can carry at once. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method and its important to pick the one that supports you game better. Many modern shooters (such as Halo, Call of Duty, Destiny, and Gears of War) limit the player to only a few weapons, this allows for a more realistic feel since in real life a person can only hold so many weapons. The limited weapon method also allows for more resource and choice driven game play, the player only has a few weapons so when they start to run low on ammo then they are forced to search for more or get rid of the weapon. The limited number of weapons also creates player choice since the player can’t hold the entire arsenal they have to make choices about what weapons they want to hold. The player may need certain weapons to get past certain areas so they are forced to drop a weapon they are holding. On the other side of the coin is letting the player hold the entire arsenal, this method was used a lot in older shooters (such as Doom, Half-life, and Quake). The advantages of allowing the player access to the entire arsenal is that it allows them the freedom to approach each combat situation the way they want to. The big draw back of this method is that it becomes very important to balance each weapon so nothing is too overpowered. Each of these methods can improve the experience of a shooter if its used in the right way.

Fire Modes:

When designing weapons one way to make the weapon more interesting is to give it multiple fire modes. This allows a weapon to have more versatility in combat. There are many games that have weapons with alternate fire modes such as: Bulletstorm, Unreal Tournament, and Painkiller. Different fire modes create the opportunity to make a weapon more memorable, or help compensate for the weapons short comings. In the game Unreal Tournament there is a weapon that shoots a fast beam projectile but the alternate fire shoots a slow moving ball, if the ball is shot by the primary fire the projectiles explode for extra area damage. The alternate fire does not need to be a different projectile, in the game Perfect Dark Zero there is a weapon that has an alt fire that turns it into a turret. Weapons with multiple fire modes give the player more options of how to deal with enemies and in a shooter the more ways the player has to deal with the enemies the longer they stay interested.

Weapon Design In KorKu:

The weapons in KorKu were designed around the level and the enemies. We wanted a long range weapon so I created a laser that had a slow rate of fire but had long range and high damage. The laser was the most popular weapon in testing due to its accuracy and damage. The other weapon the pilot has is the shotgun, this weapon has a high rate of fire but lower damage. This weapon was harder to aim but the spread allowed player to shoot multiple enemies at the same time. The second player had one weapon which was a heavy weapon on the shoulder. This weapon did the most damage but the projectile moved slow so the player had to lead their targets.  We designed this weapon to he harder to use but very satisfying when it was mastered. The cannon could kill any enemy in one shot but hitting that enemy was another story, this created a challenge for the second player to master in order to succeed in combat.

The Devil is in the Details

Designing games is one of the most fun things you can do, however many people don’t realize how many tiny details need to be tweaked and iterated on. One of the things that my team and I worked on a lot is the targeting reticle. A reticle is and UI element that is used in video games to show the player where they are aiming their weapons. The reticle may seem like a small detail but if the reticle does not read well the shooting will not feel as refined. It was a really interesting experience working on a reticle and I wanted to share it with all of you.


I decided to look into other shooter games to see how they handled their reticle design. The first games I looked at were other mech games such as the Mechwarrior series and Chromehounds. The biggest thing I gained from looking at games like this was that most of the reticles were designed to look like targeting systems that are found in modern fighter jets. The look in games like this is supposed to remind the player of military equipment, this is due to the fact that the game wants to give the experience of being in a futuristic military setting.  A lot of the more modern shooters have much more simple designs for their reticles. Many games want to keep the UI as minimal as possible to make their game more realistic.

Designing for Korku:

When designing the reticle for Korku my artist and I first started by talking about the kind of sights that would be found on WW 1 artillery. My artist created a bunch of different ideas for the reticle and as a group we discussed the pros and cons of each design.

img_20151111_165422_1024 This picture shows the first pass on the different reticles. The biggest complaint with our original reticle is that it was very large and did not feel like it was accurate. We quickly decided that each player would have a different reticle depending on what role they were playing (Pilot or Engineer). The pilots reticle ended up being the square one in the bottom row. Since the pilot had a shotgun we wanted something that showed where the spread was going to go. The final design for this reticle did not have the dots in it, we felt that the dots gave players the wrong idea about where each shot is going to go. The design that we picked for the engineers reticle is number 12, the engineer had heavy cannons as their weapons and we decided that we wanted a reticle that looked like an old artillery sight.  We made a few changes to the original design, we wanted the bottom of the reticle to come together like a V, the dot in the middle was where the bullets were going to go and player responded really well to it.


The biggest lesson I learned from designing a reticle is that the first thing to do is decide what kind of weapon the reticle is representing. If the weapon is very accurate you probably want a small reticle, if the weapon is futuristic you may want to help show that with the design of the reticle. The biggest thing to remember is that if the reticle does not read well the player will feel like the weapon is not very accurate. The reticle may seem like a small detail that will go unnoticed but its going to be something the player is looking at the entire time they are playing your game so it is important to make it interesting but also useful to the player.

Project Update

I have been using this blog to discuss different design practices based on what I was working on for my Senior Capstone game, this update will show where the game has gone from the beginning of the semester. The team I have been working with has been hard at work creating an interesting co-op mech experience that is as fun to play as it was to make.

Humble Beginnings:


The gif above shows the game at its earliest playable form, at this point in the project we had basic movement and shooting as well as the radar set up. This version of the game was pretty rough but it was just a proof of concept so most of the mechanics had not been developed yet.  As the game advanced we added a second player to the mech which created one of our biggest game mechanics. One of the biggest hurdles that we had to overcome was getting the shooting to feel satisfying, in this early build when the player aims the targeting reticle it moves around the screen as opposed to most FPS games where the reticle is locked and the entire screen moves when the player aims. When we finally got aiming feeling satisfying it felt like an entirely different game. The next big task the team needed to overcome was dividing up the tasks that each player will have to complete to be successful. We used QA testing to help us narrow down what the tasks could be and how to best divide them. We ended up taking the two most popular divisions and combined them together to make our current gameplay.

Bringing the Experience Together:

As the semester went on we started focusing on making changes to our established gameplay to make the game feel more interesting. One of our mechanics was a buffing system where the second player could route power to different systems in the mech to aid the first player in combat. The mechanic started out as a puzzle style game as you can see from the gif below.


The system was based around rotating arrows to direct power to the nodes (the squares with circles inside). We wanted the second player to focus more on combat so we decided to make the system more of a resource management system. This not only streamlined the gameplay for this mechanic but we also found through testing that it was more popular with the players.


The new buffing system was easier to understand and looked a lot cleaner. We spent a lot of time getting this system looking right and feeling right. I spent a lot of time at the end of the project balancing all the different buffs to make sure none of them were too strong or too weak.

Final Push:

In the weeks leading up to the final presentation the team was working on getting all the final tweaks into the game. I spent my time working on level design with my artist Kody. I was given a lot of objects that I could populate the world with to give it a more realistic feel.  I would make changes to the level and then I would send them to Kody of feedback, he would give me ideas about how to better use the play space. The picture below shows some of the feedback he would give me.


The communication between the art and design disciplines made making changes to the level easy, I also feel that it never hurts to have a second pair of eyes looking at a problem never hurts. We also added a lot of our art and animations in during our final push, this not only helped our game space feel more realistic but it also helped give the players more feedback. The team really came together in the last few weeks to make a product that everyone is really proud of.


Our game did not move forward into the next phase of senior production but we did come a very long way from our game’s humble beginnings. The team worked really hard on this game and I have a feeling that this is not the last time people will be hearing about Korku. Check out the gameplay video below to see what the final version of the game looked like.