Ramon Huiskamp, No Brakes Games' Level Designer and the founder of Roofkat, an indie game studio, explains what motifs are and how to use them in level design.
The author starts by explaining what a motif is, and when talking about level design, it is a small section of a bigger whole. It could be any of the gameplay that takes place within your game (e.g. a puzzle, a battle against your enemy, and other tiny little components of the in-game experience). However, it is not a final piece of the level, it is more of a draft version of what is going to be in the game.
A lot of games were created using motifs including Sackboy: A Big Adventure and Titanfall 2. There are certain game genres where motifing might be more useful than in the others and those are, for instance, platformers, action games, and logic puzzles. If you are creating a narrative game, motifing might not be that important as a part of the development process. It is especially useful when you are not entirely sure about your gameplay and you need to prove out that it works or when you are building your level.
Ramon Huiskamp then explains the stages of the motifing process by showing an example project — a 2D top-down game where the player has to attack enemies. Once you know what your game is going to be like, you need to make a list of motif ideas, find mechanic combinations that might work, and select highlights if your list gets too long.
The next stage is freeform motifing where you need to come up with a variety of interesting level motifs for different situations and mechanics. Here is where you create, test, and iterate your motifs. It's all about testing out how well your ideas work.
After that, your task is to choose motifs that will make it through to the next stage of the development process. You need to select and review freeform motifs that seem to work better than the others. Make selections based on the quality of the motifs and don't forget to list the missing elements if you realize there are some.
The next step is focused motifing where you have to get all of the motifs you need to make a level. It almost overlaps with the next stage which is the layout phase where the goal is to create a fully playable version of the level and make it look finished and ready for gameplay.