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What is good level design?

Physiocrat

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Recently there was a thread on the single best designed level in any game. The thread had numerous responses. What I am interested in is what posters think makes good level design. Some commented on how in many modern games that you just go from A to B following a way marker whereas some older games were labyrinths in which you could get lost and had to properly navigate you through it. That seemed to be a common theme with the latter being better level design. There were others factors but that stuck out.

So what do you think makes a level well designed?
 

Mr.ODST

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What makes a level well designed is a well designed level.

On a serious not as a trained level designer its hard to pinpoint as there are "pillars" that need to be incorporated for each different genre and it also depends on the player.

The one part that can be changed across every genre is the pacing and if that matches up with the gameplay, great games make sure pacing clicks with gameplay, terrible games dont.
 
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Guilty_AI

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Really depends on the kind of game.

Deus Ex for example had good level design because you had lots of different ways you could progress based on your skill set, and there were a lot of secrets in the level that made exploring rewarding (and again, relied on the skills you invested in).

A platformer with lots of secrets, little places to explore or ways to speedrun, relying on how you use and exploit the mechanics, could be considered well designed too.
 
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Depends on what you want.

I love a level designed in a way that allows multiple approaches/strategies. Games that offer that are what impress me the most.

Some are impressed most by giant set-pieces with tons going on. I could do without those entirely.7
 

cormack12

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No stupid checkpoints (like ones that trigger just after you enter a fight and fuck you up, looking at you WaW)
No optional paths that cut off backtracking if there's a collectible
No cut scenes after a checkpoint
Objectives you can see, then have to figure out the puzzle. Not obscurely hidden treasures that you never would guess to look there
Easy to traverse - that means no I don't want to get stuck on a piece of debris half an inch high.
Visual cues and wear and tear where applicable
Lets the player make use of the mechanics to inject a bit of skill/fair into the mix (Ori for example)

What is good art? Please describe it in a mathematical formula, so I can create my own.

art != videogames
 
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RPSleon

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What i find interesting is levels that are designed with subtle visual cues that pull you in the correct direction. I think stuff like that goes towards it.
 

Guilty_AI

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What is good art? Please describe it in a mathematical formula, so I can create my own.
 
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This is probably very subjetive but I'll try to post what I think using DOOM maps.

Good design:



The classic E1M1 from DOOM. The player starts at A, and while immediately having some options it's very rare to get lost thanks to clever level design, like having windows from where you can see almost all the layout of the map and branching paths that end almost immediately, like the room with the 4 shotgunners right at the start.
It has multiple branchs, secrets that can alter the progression of the level and encourages exploration, but as I said it's rare to get lost in part thanks to rooms that serve as landmarks because they look pretty different from each other. (Computer room, green goo room, stair room, etc).


Bad design:



DOOM 2 Map 13. An absolute clusterfuck just for the sake of making the map look like a city. The level designer even felt the need to draw an arrow on the map to make clear where to go. Fuck this level.
 
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tommycronin

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Good level design to me is when im not even thinking of the level design itself. It should just be a natural thing that doesn't impact your brain whatsoever. The less you realise that you're being restricted from the layout the better it is. There's a reason games get called hallway simulators for having no variety.
 
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killatopak

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Depends on the game and genre.

A good level design is highly dependent on the tools that are given to a player.
 

JLB

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Play Fallen Order and you will have the answer.
 
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DunDunDunpachi

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The dev gives players a set of basic tools. Move forward, backwards, strafe. Jump. Swing a sword. Etc.

The level should be a "playground" for those tools, and a good level should teach the player how to use the tools properly and introduce them to the full scope of the tools' capabilities. I think level design would include enemy placement, correct? If so, this would tie in with the overall goal of providing the player a "playground" to use their tools and to teach them how to use them better. A hidden machinegun that kills you when you walk down the main pathway might be a cheap death, or it might be a clue to throw a grenade or walk around it or otherwise deal with it with your wits. I appreciate that kind of design because when I fail it means I didn't understand or use the tools properly. It was my own fault. Good games make you feel like it's your own fault when you fail.
 

Barry Burton

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A lot of the things I like have already been mentioned, but I'll add that good level design allows me to navigate an environment without the need for a mini-map (which I like to turn off whenever possible) or without becoming too reliant on opening the map screen all the time to know and understand where I am in the level/world.
 

Loke

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Bad design:



DOOM 2 Map 13. An absolute clusterfuck just for the sake of making the map look like a city. The level designer even felt the need to draw an arrow on the map to make clear where to go. Fuck this level.
That`s funny cause none of the levels in Doom 2 even resemble an actual city. Just a cobbled mess IMO.

Hollywood Holocaust from Duke Nukem 3D is the epiphany of great level design. Multiple ways to reach the end, can finish it in less than 15 seconds, really cool and memorable setting. And of course works perfectly in multiplayer due to its non-linear design.
 

amigastar

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That`s funny cause none of the levels in Doom 2 even resemble an actual city. Just a cobbled mess IMO.

Hollywood Holocaust from Duke Nukem 3D is the epiphany of great level design. Multiple ways to reach the end, can finish it in less than 15 seconds, really cool and memorable setting. And of course works perfectly in multiplayer due to its non-linear design.
It's called abstract level design.
 

AV

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Depends what the intention of the level is, but I feel strongly about 1-1.

1-1 in SMB is a really good example of "show, don't tell" and instructing the player how to play the rest of the game without babysitting them through every single step. Follow along with the video below:
  • I cannot go left, I must go right
  • If I run into the enemy, I will die, I can hop over them or onto them
  • I can jump onto the brick, or I can hit them from below
  • If I pick up a mushroom, I go bigger
  • If I get hit, I am small again, so it's like a shield
  • I have to hold jump for longer to get over bigger obstacles
  • If I fall in the gap, I will die
  • There are other powerups like the flower that act as a shield with a bonus ability

All this in the space of a few minutes, and you use all of that information for the rest of the game. No level one only gimmicks, no endless tutorials. It's an incredibly simplistic example by today's standards, but it's demonstrative of how well our brain picks up and stores vital information. Modern level design should be exactly the same. It should demonstrates to a player the mechanics of the game and teach them how to interact with them without having walls of text every time you got to something new, that many people will just gloss over and ignore, because they aren't being given the opportunity to find it out for themselves. Imagine if you go to the first goomba in 1-1 and were greeted with a paragraph explaining how to jump on enemies with some shitty flavour text akin to "whoa, watch out Mario!". It's the same reason Demon's / Dark souls level design is so good, it does exactly the same thing.
 

Con-Z-epT

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Good question! And a difficult one to answer.

Might be even philosophical.


There are just so many different ways of designing a level.

From linear set piece driven encounters to wide open worlds or cities, the possibilities are pretty much endless.
Puzzle and racing games come to mind.

Layout, appearance and functionality are key aspects of creating.


I like the interconnected worlds of From Software games.
They are weird and interesting to look at and traverse.
And they try to teach you a lesson about the game.


I could say the same about most Super Mario games.
Odyssey was so much fun to play.
Mario has such a deep controlsheme and corresponding levels to make it all work.


I could think about this question for days. Maybe i will.
 
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Josemayuste

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Prey 2017, good level design is one wich comprehends a wide variety of playstyles, visual narrative, movement and traversal options as well as an environment thought for it, and not the opposite way, the metroidvania genre is usually the best at doing it.

Even tough other honorable mentions would be: Demon's Souls, Dark souls, Bloodborne, Hollow Knight, Dishonored 2, Outer Wilds,
Dying Light, Cyberpunk 2077 (yes, really) Breath of the wild.

Those come to mind, but fortunatelly there are a lot more examples of good level design.

TL;DR: The game wich accomodates all of its gameplay systems and design to its gameplay loop and environments.
 
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Retinoid

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Good level design should naturally guide the player through its environment and be fundamentally interesting to explore via interesting visuals and clever use of space. As a bonus, there should be gameplay mechanics that tie into exploration of levels and reward out of the box thinking to get somewhere. Shortcuts and looping interconnected levels are nice, but they don't automatically make the level better designed than those without such features.
 
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th4tguy

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04:23 1- Good level design is fun to navigate.
06:47 2- Good level design does not rely on words.
10:46 3- Good level design tells what to do but never how to do it.
13:35 4- Good level design constantly teaches.
16:06 5- Good level design is surprising.
21:07 6- Good level design empowers the player.
25:16 7- Good level design is easy, medium, and hard.
28:13 8- Good level design is efficient.
32:55 9- Good level design creates emotion.
37:26 10- Good level design is driven by mechanics.
 

nkarafo

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For me, if i enjoy exploring a level, it means it has good level design. If it feels boring, it's bad level design.
 

kyussman

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I don't know how to describe it....but it's what From Software have been doing since Demon's Souls.....oh,and Arkane....their games all have memorable level design.
 

meech

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Alternative pathways to reach a point are always good. Like the Virmire level in the first Mass Effect.
 

Jeeves

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It starts with a strong vision for what kind of level it should be and how the designer wants to make the player feel. From there, it's about how well the level achieves that goal. That's it, at the broadest level that you can apply to all genres.

I don't think 1-1 is the best level ever or anything, but it is a great example of a level with a clear vision/purpose (to teach how to play) that is well-executed.

Not every level needs to teach the player how the game is played, obviously, but it generally is good for it to teach any new concepts fairly and organically (i.e. without excessive tutorial prompts).

That's an example of a level that's focused on mechanics, but other levels might be more designed with an intent to tell a story. Mechanical considerations are still important here, as they are in all types of levels, but a level that tells a story might need to use different techniques too.

A level designed to unsettle the player, or to make them feel lost? These also have their own toolboxes to draw from.

There's no one size fits all, because even within the same game different levels are going to have different goals driving their design. But at the core it's all about how well a level can deliver on the idea/concept it was created for.
 

Rat Rage

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Good level design depends on the kind of game you wanna make. Level design is part of the overall "gameplay", which in turn is the sum of all the actions the player is doing/the developer(s) wants them doing. Level design, therefore, is the sum off all the visual elements the developer creates (whether that be 2D or 3D) that forms a certain "playground" for the player to perform actions in. Now... GOOD levels design is it, if the developer achieves to make that "playground" interesting, immersive, exciting, challenging, audio-visually pleasing and overall "FUN" to "PLAY", all within the context of the overall game design/game concept. GOOD level design helpes to make the actions of the player feel enjoyable during the whole gaming experience. However, there can be many different types of game design/game concepts that all represent a different kind of "enjoyment", e.g. the whole philisophy of Dark Souls is to be hard and keep the players on their toes - so that kind of difficulty IS the particular enjoyment this games wants the players to feel -, while, on the other hand, a diving simulator like Blue Ocean on the Wii wants the players to explore it's world in a relaxed manner and make them feel enjoyment this way. That's why good level design depends on the games design/concept and what kind of enjoyment the game tries to create.

TD;LR: Good level design is the sum off all the created ideas that help the gameplay/game concept of a game to achieve its particular style of enjoyment.

Example "2D Platformes": their particular style of enjoyment/goal is to make the player have "fun jumping from left to right". So, good level design is the sum of all the created ideas that help the player to have "fun jumping from left to right" (that includes stuff like placement of platforms, enemies, items, collectables, secrets, surprises, etc. - so in short, all things/ideas that help the overall game's style of enjoyment/goal)

Therefore, good level design can only be judged in the context of a games overall design and what kind of enjoyment this game tries to create. Yet, this makes it also a bit tricky to judge. It goes without saying that good level design, however, doesn't depend on a players personal preference, just like good gameplay doesn't depend on a players personal preference.
 

cireza

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To me, a well designed level :
- has me use some skills and/or has me use my brain
- is fun to play through
- has optional places secrets to add to the fun (might be during first visit, or when coming back later)
- and when it is really good, it offers several ways to play through

You don't find many games that checks all of these honestly. Hitman series is the most recent example that does it.
 
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Kuranghi

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Really depends on the kind of game.

Deus Ex for example had good level design because you had lots of different ways you could progress based on your skill set, and there were a lot of secrets in the level that made exploring rewarding (and again, relied on the skills you invested in).

A platformer with lots of secrets, little places to explore or ways to speedrun, relying on how you use and exploit the mechanics, could be considered well designed too.

I would add that I believe an important part of platformer level design is to reward the player, even if its in a very small way, when they fail at the platforming. Best seen in Mario games, like Bowser's Fury recently, when you fail to make a jump often there are hidden coins or blocks at the bottom of the pit. Being such a pro-gamer (/s, kinda) I used to not see these "fail-reward areas" as much until I starting playing with my niece and she fails every jump a few times due to difficulty with the controls rather than not knowing what to do and we spent a lot more time in these areas than I ever did.
 
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Kuranghi

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To me, a well designed level :
- has me use some skills and/or has me use my brain
- is fun to play through
- has optional places secrets to add to the fun (might be during first visit, or when coming back later)
- and when it is really good, it offers several ways to play through

You don't find many games that checks all of these honestly. Hitman series is the most recent example that does it.

Nowadays people don't want to work for things as much and confuse mastery of a level/replayability with speed running. Which I find annoying, I have no interest in speed running for a leaderboard/to be the best in the X. I just love discovering shortcuts in games, which ofc Hitman is based around/king of.

The effort that went into the pathing of the NPCs in Sapienza specifically is absolutely masterful, the timing is down to the second for you running from various starting locations, its beautiful design.
 
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Fbh

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It's really hard to give a single answer because it will often depend on the type of game you are making.

I think ultimately good level design needs to be a part of the experience, something that engages the player and elevates the other game mechanics. In a stealth game like Dishonored 2 it can do so by offering multiple ways to approach a given scenario, in a game like Dark Souls it can do so with rewarding exploration and a sense danger, in a shooter by encouraging you to move around and find different vantage points instead of saying behind that one crate, etc.

I think the absolute worst offender of bad level design is the modern Ubisoft inspired open world. The sort of game where outside of combat you almost don't really have to look at the world and you can basically get everywhere by looking at your minimap and moving in the general direction of the current waypoint or objective marker.
 
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Fredrik

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Super Metroid is still the king, there are so many genius little things they’re doing to guide you without stupid hand holding.
 

kyussman

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I know one thing,I've spent more time clearing bandit camps in recent years than running through memorable levels.....i enjoy open world games,but I do miss the fact they generally don't feature much in the way of actual level design.
 
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Recently there was a thread on the single best designed level in any game. The thread had numerous responses. What I am interested in is what posters think makes good level design. Some commented on how in many modern games that you just go from A to B following a way marker whereas some older games were labyrinths in which you could get lost and had to properly navigate you through it. That seemed to be a common theme with the latter being better level design. There were others factors but that stuck out.

So what do you think makes a level well designed?
For me, good level design: a level is so good I can't go past it
Take Tanker in mgs2, for me could have been the whole game, I often put the game on just to replay that

Basically, a videogame Luna Park in which you can do many things and have lotta fun doing it