Ex-Dishonored 2 and Bioshock Infinite Level Designer Steve Lee shared insights on eight of the most common problems in level layout design, how to avoid or fix them, and how to create stronger, more unique player experiences that stand out from the crowd.
Hey there, I’m Steve Lee. I was a Level Designer on some big AAA games including Dishonored 2 and Bioshock Infinite, and I’ve since worked on indie stuff like John Wick Hex, and the lovely Alba: A Wildlife Adventure.
I’ve been making levels and level layouts professionally for over 15 years now, and I made the video you see above to talk about what I think are the most fundamental and common problems I see in level layouts and blockouts by junior designers.
Here’s a quick rundown of what they are, why they’re a problem, and what you can do to avoid them:
1. Too Big
The first, and by far the most common problem, is that layouts and spaces can be way too big!
I think people gravitate towards large spaces and huge vistas, because they seem grand and “epic”, and they imply more freedom and player choice. But neither of these things requires levels and spaces to be huge – and they’re never an excuse to make them bigger than they should be.
Huge spaces can be a problem for all kinds of reasons, for example:
- They can make NPCs, gameplay objects, and other players look really tiny on the screen, which never looks or feels good.
- They can force the player to sprint all the time, simply because it would be boring not to sprint (which as far as reasons go, is really bad).
- Really big spaces create way more work for you, and any poor level artist who has to make your level look nice, which will inherently reduce the quality of what you both do!
- Big spaces (especially busy ones) can make it really hard for you to focus the player's attention on the things you want them to notice, and they create a lot more room for the player to waste time doing stuff, or being distracted by things, that you didn’t intend.
So if you're not really sure how big a space should be, I suggest leaning towards smaller spaces. If you test them out and they really feel too small, then you can make them bigger later. But never make them huge just for the sake for it.
2. Too Symmetrical
It can often feel natural, or easy, to make a level symmetrical (from left to right). Sometimes this can be fine, but if you’re not careful, it can create big problems with player orientation – making it harder to tell which way you came in, which way is forwards etc.
Another thing to bear in mind here is that as level designers, we're designing interactivity and choices – and symmetrical choices are just inherently less interesting, right?
Generally, we're trying to make choices feel distinct and meaningful, which means that they have to be different from each other. Symmetrical layouts, whether it's symmetrical in terms of enemies being placed identically on both sides of the player, or the shape and contents of a room being the same whether you look left or right, all of this stuff just takes away from the meaningful choices that the player is making.
Sometimes though, you might have to work with an environment or space that is symmetrical. In these cases I suggest experimenting with ways to populate the layout, or position the player, in an asymmetrical way – breaking the symmetry in the way that the player experiences it.
Here’s a diagram to show you what I mean. Notice how on the right, with the same symmetrical layout, and even a fairly symmetrical population of the space (relative to the player), the way the level has been populated means that the player’s experience of space, and gameplay implications of the choices the player makes as they play through it, now feel much less symmetrical, and more interesting:
3. Too Flat
A common, but sometimes problematic way of starting out to build a 3D level is to create a huge flat space, and then just fill it up with a load of stuff. This can result in layouts that are super flat, which means that you're missing out on all the variation, drama, and gameplay interest of verticality and height differences.
Whether it's the player looking down on things from above, like this kind of situation in Dishonored 1:
Or being down below and looking up at things, like in this section of the level I worked on in Dishonored 2:
All of these height differences have a different feel and perspective, and therefore can bring new layers of contrast and drama to the gameplay and experience of your level. Don’t make your levels flat and boring when they don’t need to be!
4. Too Open
Related to the first point about levels often being too big – levels are often way too open. This can introduce problems like performance issues, if the player can see too much of the world in front of them, and the game struggles to render it all on screen.
But from a design perspective – in single-player games, really open layouts can also introduce scripting difficulties. Whenever you want to do things that we level designers like to do, like spawn new enemies, or change an object or area when the player can't see it – if the level is super open and there aren't any parts the player can't see, then you have nowhere to sneakily script things like this, without the player seeing things pop up or change right in full view!
The final thing is that layouts that are too open and don't have any things blocking the player's line of sight, can really undermine the player's ability to EXPLORE. Because if you’re in an area and you can already see everything, then there's no need to explore it to see more, right? Super open layouts mean no corners to turn around, to reveal new things or trigger new scenes and events as the player progresses through the level.
So it's usually really useful and important to break things up a bit – to give yourself more creative opportunities, and to encourage the player to explore.
5. Too Empty
It’s surprisingly common that I see level layouts that just feel… really empty? This can result in the player spending a lot of their time just running through your level, which isn't very interactively interesting, and also seems like a shame given the amount of time you and an artist might have put into making it! It doesn’t matter how pretty the level might be – if there’s not enough in there to be engaged with interactively, then the player’s probably not going to have a great time.
As you can imagine, levels feeling empty often comes as a byproduct of spaces being too big, and too open. So just as I recommend that you lean towards making smaller spaces, I also recommend that you generally try to make spaces rich and dense, rather than empty and sparse (unless of course, you're doing this intentionally, which is obviously fine!).
6. Too Linear
Less experienced level designers often seem to design spaces that feel too linear. By this, I definitely don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with linear games. What I'm saying is that even deliberately linear games, with linear level design, are still played by thousands, tens of thousands, maybe millions of players, all of whom will interact with it and experience it in a slightly different way.
Some players will make mistakes, some play will miss things, some players will find it too easy, while other players find it too hard. So in this case when I’m talking about linear design, what I mean is that you should never design a level as if everybody will play it in exactly the same way – because chances are, they won't. It’s on you as a level designer to embrace the fact that you're always making a possibility space, that (hopefully) lots of players will interact with, and experience in different ways.
7. Too Similar
Sometimes, I see layouts that clearly feel too similar and samey throughout. You never want your level to feel like the same thing over and over again, or like a huge space that’s just full of the same kind of stuff.
Contrast, in all its forms, is a really important, fundamental aspect of good level design. Think about ways that you can make every part of your level both visually and interactively distinct from each other. Make sure that it feels like your level has a beginning, a middle, and an end - and that it goes on a meaningful journey that ends somewhere different to where it started. And if you want to emphasise the epic scale of something, don’t just make everything huge - think about what you can make smaller, so that people really feel the difference.
8. Too Generic
Finally, I think a lot of level layouts I see (in level design portfolios, and to be honest, even in shipped games) feel too generic. And by generic, I don't just mean boring (although that's obviously a problem too).
The thing is, you don't usually want to make level layouts that feel like they would fit any game in whatever broad genre you’re working in. A lot of great level design really emphasizes what is uniquely cool and interesting about the particular game it’s for, and this often needs to be reflected in the layouts.
Gears of War, Uncharted, and Max Payne might all be AAA third-person shooters with cover systems, but all the best level design in these games showcases what is different and unique about them, not what they have in common!
So, regardless of whether you're making a third-person cover shooter, or a story-driven walking Sim or a 2D roguelike tactics game, you need to understand and focus on what is different and uniquely interesting about your game, and then create levels that showcase this to the player!
I hope this article helps and inspires you to create better, more dramatic and engaging levels. If you’d like to see more advice and level design insight like this, keep an eye out on 80 Level for more of my articles, or check out my YouTube channel for more videos.