Could you imagine playing a video game with no quests, no dungeons, no goals, and no world? Why, that would be a rather sad game to play, I think. Core requirements of games this day in age definitely involve quests and level design. Both are vital to gameplay, immersion, and game cohesion. Today I am going to tell you a bit about level design (as one is needed for the other to be successful) and different ways to go about level design.

What are Level Design and Quests?

I have three simple words for you: Designing of spaces. That’s exactly how to define level design. It is the combination of physically designing where a player character will go in the over-world, as well as dungeons/temples/caves etc. that they will explore during their quests. Speaking of quests, I will give a brief definition: An event the player must overcome, solve, or otherwise conquer to receive a reward. This reward can be materialistic or simply further advancement into the game. It is important to have obstacles for the player to solve or conquer to make sure that questing is actually an interesting and enjoyable experience.

How is Level Design Accomplished?

It is important to understand that level design is very much a part of immersion and, even if the rest of the game is on par, bad level design can completely deter someone from playing your game. Something I have learned through my few years of game design is that you will never notice miniscule details that make an engaging game atmosphere, but you sure as heck will if they are not there. Your mind is used to certain things – for example: A subway station in New York in my mind is dirty, full of people, loud, advertisements covering the walls. Each person has this pre-determined image of every type of person, place, and thing that they know about. If you make a subway station set in New York with pristine white walls, hardly any people, and quiet as death, your player will immediately pick up on the things that are not present that their mind is otherwise used to. This is vital to remember when adding, ‘fluff’ (extra stuff to make things look occupied or otherwise detailed) to your level.

Core mechanics are also an element that must be put into account when level designing. The actions that you can perform as a player are the core mechanics. Usually, they are the verbs of the game, such as: run, jump, shoot, climb, bite, etc. This happens to be where quests tie in as well. Through the use of core mechanics, a player character will complete quests. To accommodate this, keep in mind the idea that level design’s purpose is to test the player’s abilities with core mechanics. This concept I learned from my Professor, Jeff Howard, in his book Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives . A prime example of level design can be taken from the movie Inception. The ‘Architects’ represent level designers. It is their job to build the world around the other peoples’ abilities on the team (core mechanics). If you’ve never seen that movie, definitely go to YouTube and search for a clip of Cobb recruiting Ariadne to be his new architect. Not only is her end design innovative, it also demonstrates iterative level design – quickly making new designs and scrapping the old to find the best fit.

Macro Level Design

Macro level design is based around the over world. Types of things that you will be designing are the placement of countries, cities, towns, as well as bodies of water, mountains, or any other terrain that might exist inside your world (Howard). A widely known example would be Skyrim – most of its terrain being mountains and snow. This is something to be sure to make consistent within your world to prevent confusion unless you have a valid narrative reason why out-of-place terrain is where it is. Quests come into play with the terrain as well. In macro level design, obstacles that you will use for quests will include all different types of terrain such as lava or the arctic tundra.

When designing placement of cities, Howard suggests the use of hubs. The main city being the player’s first hub, this is where they would receive their first few quests. As the player becomes more capable, they may move to other cities that are smaller hubs and are further away from the safety of the main hub. World of Warcraft uses this type of design with their cities, making it progressively harder and longer to travel for quests as you become more powerful.

Micro Level Design

As one might assume, micro level design is the act of making dungeons, caves, or other explorable places for players to do quests in. These areas are specific to certain parts of the over-world and will include obstacles such as enemies, traps, puzzles, dead-ends, and branching roads. Within micro level design Howard introduces ascending, descending, labyrinthine, and mazes (Howard). Here I shall briefly explain how each works and an example of a game which demonstrates that type of design.

Ascending: As the word suggests, ascending design means upward travel. This type of micro design is nice because the player will automatically know that they need to continue upwards if they are in a tower which only goes up. This eliminated the need to drive your player through the level. Oblivion uses this in the main story-line for the Oblivion gates.

Descending: Opposite ascending, descending is the act of designing downwards. It shares the same convenience of not having a drive for the player to go through the level, as it will already be known to them that they need to plunge deeper to continue. Dante’s Inferno is the best example of this, as you travel deeper into the pits of hell to save your love, and it is clearly known descending is the only way to progress.

Labyrinthine: Labyrinths are known to have only one solution. This is representative of games with linear progression. There may be many pseudo paths to follow, but only one will progress you within the game. The first twenty hours of Final Fantasy XIII exhibit this type of level design, being very linear. Remember: linear gameplay is not bad, but it must be accented with explorable paths to create the feeling of choice and adventure within the player.

Mazes: Much like labyrinths, mazes have many paths. The difference between the two is that mazes have more than one way to be solved - sandbox or branching dialogue games.There needs to be a bit of a driving force here, that can be implemented with different types of quests, and there lies the importance of quests within games. DragonAge: Origins does a great job with maze design. Not only are you allowed to travel where ever you wish on the over-world map, but once the four main quests have been given to you, you may choose the order in which you do them.

In Closing

As an integral part of game design, it is important to know the basics of level design. The information I have provided are just the core bits of knowledge used to make a decent level. The best way to synthesize this type of information and learn more is to ‘actively’ play video games – playing while paying very close attention to details. Note the things you don’t like, the things you do, and reasons for both. In my experience it is most fun to play games you already have before while doing this. Give it a try, you might be surprised to see what types of details keep you the most engaged.

Source: Howard, Jeff. Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives . Wellesley, MA: A K Peters Ltd., 2008.