Level design

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2D level editor (Kmud Mapper)

Under Level Design (often abbreviated as mapping or editing called) is defined as the creation and editing of 2- or 3-dimensional levels and similar game worlds for computer games . The computer programs required for this are called map editors .

There are different types of level design, as the structure of computer games can differ greatly. The level designer has the requirement to find a balance between architectural design, gameplay and performance. In addition to the architectural or landscape design of a level, the level designer also creates a suitable soundscape and lighting for the virtual world with today's game engines . In the case of levels for the single player mode, which is supported by a narrative structure, the level designer also creates environment-based puzzles and places the opponents or monsters and, if necessary, NPCs .

Level design is not to be confused with modding , as the latter also changes the game mechanics. Rather, level design is often a part of modding.


With the advent of PCs and the spread of computer games among home users, there was a growing interest in expanding these games with self-created levels. At first, this was only possible by changing the binary code of the games and was therefore reserved for specialists only.

The development of the Internet and the success of the first-person shooter gradually created larger online communities around the games. In these communities there was a lively exchange between the level authors, which included both technical and design aspects. The exchange of maps has also been simplified considerably. The developers of the games also recognized this, so they gradually sold special editors for the games or, more often, made them available free of charge. In addition, hobby level designers are now increasingly qualified through their work as youngsters for professional game development companies. There is now hardly a larger PC computer game that does without a free level editor.

Due to the increasing complexity of the games, the demands on the map author have increased significantly. Knowledge of 3D modeling , computer graphics and scripting languages ​​are almost mandatory in order to meet the demands of the community.


The requirements for a map depend on the gameplay. For simpler games it is usually sufficient to place map boundaries and objects with the help of coordinates, which can be done with a simple text editor . In modern 3D computer games with their complex geometry, however, it is necessary to use a specially adapted editor.

Often the maps created in this way are only available as source code , which you have to compile in the following .

The process of creating a map can be divided into three phases:

  • First, the basic framework should be created. This is like plotting a story. Basic properties such as level limits, accessible areas, walking paths and other basic things that depend on the game principle are to be defined and incorporated into the map. It is also important to observe the rules of the game and game mechanics in order to make the map interesting for the player.
  • Once this basic structure has been established, the aim is to give the map a character, an atmosphere. This is done by embedding it in a very specific setting, e.g. B. Science-Fiction , Fantasy , Second World War , Orient or other. This can be achieved, for example, by selecting certain textures , designing a characteristic architecture, placing suitable objects, a differentiated soundscape and lighting and much more. Professional map authors create maps with an atmosphere that is almost like a movie.
  • In between and especially at the end, the map must be checked for a wide variety of aspects. This includes technical function, playability, level mechanics and, especially in games based on 3D geometry, the game speed. For this purpose, it is common to subject the created map to a test phase. This phase may be the most extensive.
  • Among the maps created by players as a hobby, those for the multiplayer mode are the most common, as they are far less complex to create than single-player maps: For these, so-called scripts are required, which describe the behavior of e.g. B. opponents determine you can cut scenes ( cutscenes use) and also construct an exciting mission, which must meet the players. This is why single player maps are sometimes created by entire teams, and creating one alone takes a considerable amount of time.

Creating cards for 2D games

There are lively editing communities not just for first-person shooters. There are / were mappers for strategy games and even for some platformers . As these two-dimensional games have become less important, their communities have also disappeared. Creating maps for two-dimensional strategy games works differently and much easier than for first-person shooters:

  • The editor is usually included and can be accessed via a menu item in the game. The mapper chooses from objects such as B. trees and animals and put them on his card. Many convenience functions make it easier for him to create scripts and missions.
  • Creating a full-fledged mod for a 2D strategy game is difficult because a lot of new two-dimensional graphics have to be created by hand, but in first person shooters 3D objects have to be textured, and it is difficult that the image created is not distorted.

Tile design

Tile graphics are mainly used in 2D games. The level is split up into so-called tiles, which usually have a fixed size (for example with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System 8 × 8 pixels). The level is composed of several parts of these tiles, which together make up a map. Famous examples of this design are Super Mario (platformer) and Final Fantasy I-VI. In the past few years, tile design - in the professional field - has been almost completely replaced by the "real" three-dimensional calculation. Tile design is still very popular among hobby developers, as no knowledge of 3D mathematics or similar subject areas is required.

Was / is mostly used for:

Indoor design

Example from Cube that contains various textures and objects

This type of level design is probably the most typical level design of first person shooters since the spread of the first first person shooter. A level is set up in the form of several rooms that are created with a 3D editor such as Valve Hammer Editor for Half-Life 2 . The editor makes it possible to create the architecture of a room without any limits. The main problem, however, is that the rooms should be displayed in as much detail as possible, but most of the time the computer cannot completely render a level without accepting dramatic drops in performance. The rooms are therefore divided into logical view sections, which are usually separated by so-called VIS blockers (the term VIS comes from a rendering process of the Quake engine for level files, in which the computer divides the rooms into logical view groups). The point behind this is that the computer only has to calculate the current VIS section and the adjacent VIS sections and can thus save performance. However, this type of level structure is hardly suitable for outdoor areas or large, detailed rooms, since there are usually hardly any or no VIS blockers, which is why newer engines are less and less pure indoor engines.

This type is common in first person shooters and action adventure games .

Outdoor design

This type of level design mostly uses an elevation map. Based on these so-called Heightmap the engine calculates the game geometric forms and displays them. (The Heightmap in the level design is not to be confused with the scale used for the creation of textures technology of bump mapping , though there are also bump mapping height mapping method). With a heightmap, mostly only the heights can be changed, which is why quite organic surfaces are created. However, since mostly only heights including textures can be directly influenced, this type of level has often only been used for strategy games. However, first-person shooters such as Battlefield 1942 are also implemented with an outdoor engine. Surrounding graphics such as houses and trees are models that are placed on the map. Outdoor engines are being mixed more and more frequently with indoor design, provided the engine used can do this. However, since the computer cannot calculate the entire level map in real time, objects that are far away are simplified by the so-called LOD ( Level of Detail ). With 3D games there is also a maximum view range after which the computer stops drawing the level. Most of the time, this transition is obscured by fog or, in strategy games, limited by a fixed camera angle. In strategy and development games, the limitation of the range of vision is due to the gameplay and mostly not to the limitations of the graphics engine (see Fog of War .)

This type is common in real-time strategy games and first-person shooters .