When I’m designing a level…

People ask me sometimes where my ideas come from.

Well, that’s not exactly true, nobody asks me that, but all kinds of famous people say people ask them that so I figured I’d jump on the bandwagon.

But if they DID ask me, this is what I’d say (at least as far as level design). I design a level one “setup” at a time, then I link all the setups together to form a level. When I’m thinking of a specific setup, here is the basic process I go through:


Bullets R Boring! Gimmeh some pictoorz!

Bullets R Boring! Gimmeh some pictoorz!

Intensity Curve

  • How many setups are in the level?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, rate each setup in terms of how intense (difficulty + energy) it should be. These numbers should go up over the course of the level, but we should have some noise in this regard (see image below).
"Interest Curve" As defined by Jesse Schell in The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses

"Interest Curve" As defined by Jesse Schell in The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses

Difficulty / Intensity

  • Where is this setup located on the “intensity” curve of the level?
  • Does the intensity curve want a combat setup or a non-combat setup here? If we want the intensity to die down a bit, non-combat setups help with that.
  • If it’s a combat setup, based on the intensity curve, determine the number of enemies and the combination of enemies in the setup.
  • Never repeat a setup. Always introduce an enemy before you use multiples of that enemy or use the enemy in combination with other enemies. (Enemy A, Then Enemy B, then two A’s, then an A with a B, then two Bs, then two As and two Bs, etc). Choose the enemies based on “archetypes” (see below).

Terrain Features

  • Gaps: Horizontal separators. Need to determine:
    • Width
    • The path around or over the gap
    • The fiction or type of the gap (cover, a river, a pit, etc…)
  • Ledges: Vertical separators. Need to determine:
    • Height (usually in two increments: Short and Tall)
    • The path to the top of the ledge
    • The fiction or type of the ledge (a car, a balcony, a platform…etc)

Gaps and ledges

Gaps and ledges

Area Shape

  • Determine the size (Should it feel tight, normal, or vast)
  • Make sure enemy entrance or spawn points are visible from the player’s entrance point
  • Reveal VS Recon (Is the player surprising the enemies or are the enemies surprising the player. This should vary based on the intensity curve)
  • Make sure the area contains or has a view of some kind of focal point. The action should revolve around or serve to frame this visual focus.

Tight Space

Tight Space

Enemy Archetypes

  • Near: Attacks close-up
  • Far: Attacks from far away
  • Heavy: Can be near or far, but should be player’s top priority if all else is equal
  • Popcorn: Can be near of far. Not dangerous unless in groups. Should make the player feel strong.

Near / Far / Swarmer / Heavy

Near / Far / Swarmer / Heavy

Enemy Idle Behavior

  • If the player is surprising the enemies, what are they doing before he triggers them? (Patrolling, idling, juggling, etc…)

Enemy Intro Behavior

  • How is the enemy introduced?
    • Spawn-in: The enemy appears (Teleport, jump in, etc)
    • Run-in: The enemy comes in from off-screen (run ,fly, etc)
    • None, the enemy is already there when the setup starts
  • These should be varied based on the intensity curve.

Enemy Trigger Zones

  • Where does the player have to be for the enemies to activate and begin attacking?
  • Where does the player have to be for the enemies to stop following him once they’re activated?
  • Where does the player have to be for the enemies to deactivate?

Enemy Location / Placement

  • Must be visible to the player from the entrance to the area
  • Do we want enemies to clump or be spaced out?
  • Are the enemies close to or distant from the entrance
  • How close or far do we want them from terrain features? (Over a gap, up on a ledge, behind cover, etc…)

Place important items

  • E.g. Explody barrels, health, etc
  • Usually place close to a wall or suggestively (an explody barrel right next to a group of guys)

Coin placement!

Coin placement!

Place gravy items

  • Rewards: (Crates, coins, etc)
  • Pure gravy: E.g. Breakable scenery
  • Visual gravy: Non-breakable scenery, usually to provide movement or points of interest. (Blinky lights, scrolling water, plants, etc…)


'What are you trying to say? That I can stop bullets?'

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One Comment

  1. For enemy idle animation, I always think of Ratchet when Tony asked the animators for extra enemy animations, and then had them play rock-paper-scissors. 🙂

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