Design Concepts (UPDATED)

11 years, 2 months ago 4
Posted in: Projects, Samples, Videos

Great game designers use similar concepts when creating game worlds. If you’re in the industry, you know what works and what doesn’t. Some of them you knew naturally, some others only through trial-and-error.

Each person has their own personal checklist for these. On top of that, each company or team brings another layer of labels to keep track of these. Providing a common language for these ideas can help you share ideas, suggestions, and feedback with others quickly.

Presented here are all of those that’ll make your levels and gameplay great! It’s a constantly evolving collection, so check back once in awhile.

2008 Presentation

I presented an older version of this to the Six Days in Fallujah team a few years ago. That Powerpoint talk is included below. Be warned though… parts of it are out-of-date. Watching it will give you the general idea, however.

There’s plans to update this presentation with all the latest concepts (including open-world games) and substantially more visual aids.


  • Overview (UPDATED)
  • Conceptual Elements (UPDATED)
  • Layout Elements
  • Missing Elements
  • Level Rhythm
  • Game Zones
  • Combat Zones


To create moments in our game that will have players talking about it months after they’ve finished it, each encounter needs to be slightly more challenging and innovative than the last. Keeping gameplay fresh motivates players to continue to the next encounter and hopefully finish the game – still wanting more!

Some of the following ideas discussed come from several sources:

  • Josh Bridge’s The Anatomy of a Combat Zone
  • Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces
  • Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City
  • Brian Upton’s Narrative Landscapes

And remember, there are always exceptions to the rule. The following ideas presented here should be guidelines to help us develop games. We should always re-evaluate them for ways to improve the process – keeping in mind, of course, how to keep it simple and focused.

What is a Level?

Most will say it’s the physical place the game takes place in. It’s actually the medium through which the game is presented to you. Without the level there is no game. It’s so much more than simply a location. Consider it the vehicle that drives the game to new gameplay. It affects the speed, style, and skills the player will encounter moving to the next event.

Why are Level Designers Needed?

In today’s market, people pride themselves on being specialists who excel in one area. A good level designer understands layout — a great level designer is a jack-of-trades and understands all aspects of game development. Don’t confuse someone who constructs a level with someone who pulls an experience together.

Level designers are conscious of not only the layout, but how architecture, lighting, and composition affect the player’s emotional reaction to the moment. They need to tell stories without dialogue and others time provide compelling dialogue. They need to be able to code, script, and design gameplay. They also need to build models and understand timing and animation.

Level Designers are the glue for Art, Audio, Gameplay, and Story.

Some believe an environmental artist who plays games is the essence of a level designer. After all, artists can create the layout, envision the gameplay, and monitor performance. Unfortunately an artist will always choose aesthetics over gameplay. That’s their job in an age where screenshots trump gameplay in the media.

A typical team has 2-3x more environmental artists than level designers. Don’t let that imbalance suppress gameplay needs without offering equal or better gameplay. After playing the game for a handful of hours, players will pay more attention to gameplay than how stunning the graphics might be.

Artist should be considered co-developers, however. It’s important for them to be part of the level design process from the beginning. Concept art influences a level’s development. By sharing the evolution with them they’ll become part owner and defend the effort when other people poke it before it’s ready for review. Never asked them to contribute without understanding how the game will use their efforts. A simple change to the look of something can completely break the game.

Conceptual Elements

Players orientate themselves inside of, and contemplate, and analyze the environment around them down to even subconscious levels. Being able to describing this push & pull psychological response in video games isn’t new. It’s been around long before we picked up a joystick or slid a mouse. These ideas have been used in City planning, theme park design, and almost any general landscaping. They use these concepts to provide the inhabitants direction, Areas-of-Interest, and create a sense of wonder to the area.

Here’s one of the most well-known game levels in the world. Millions of people have played through it…


Fig 1: Disneyland’s Main Street USA

Theme park design parallels that of level design. It passively shapes the interactive experience by using architecture and landscape to amplify the narrative content the visitor will be witnessing.

At Disneyworld, you start in Main Street USA – a long, shop-filled entry that eventually leads to Cinderella’s majestic castle in the distance. But it’s a hundred yards of just souvenir shops… no attractions, no rides? How lame is that? This pacing however, secretly sets a psychological tone for adventure!

At the beginning of any story, a baseline is set which describes what’s come before. By declaring what’s normal, we can show growth with future events…

In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it describes this story pattern that’s existed for centuries. People want and expect this pattern for a satisfying excursion into make-believe land.

Act 1


Main Street USA establishes normality where the participant is comfortable in a familiar setting and the castle serves as a Call-To-Adventure for the hero inside of us.

Act II


Ignites when we cross a threshold – such as passing over the drawbridge – and start a series of adventures.



We return home, back to normality, but now forever changed by the experience.

The design of Main Street USA sets the tone for the entire experience. It puts people into the hero’s mindset. Without the dramatic beats and anticipation, there would be no payoff, no sense of discovery, no adventure!

One of the purposes of this document is to show how you can structure levels to create these types of storytelling moments.

Where Campbell’s book describes the story’s structure, Kevin Lynch’s book The Image of the City describes the location’s structure. In it, he shares the labels used in theme park design, city planning, and landscaping. It establishes the theoretical underpinnings of how people conceptualize cities.

For example, by interviewing residents of Boston, he was able to breakdown each area within the locale:


Fig 7: Aerial view of Boston and its primary roads

By drawing weighted paths and directions to showcase memorable areas, Boston’s landscape was matched with the things people remember about it.


Fig 8: Boston based on people’s impressions

The Image of the City provides us with a critical language for us to discuss our levels in the abstract.

If our games are going to give the player a rollercoaster ride beyond the immediate reaction to combat, use these storytelling and landscape formulas to our advantage.

Finding Inspiration

Steal ideas! Don’t feel awkward or disguising your idea as something new if you believe in it. Why spend time struggling to think of something no one else has done before? There are no original ideas. Anything new is influenced by past ideas; both good and bad. The important thing is your idea needs to be better than any previous idea. So, take something you’re inspired by and make it your own. By the time it evolves through development and comes out to see the light of day, it’ll be a fresh idea that can stand on its own.

Layout Elements

By using a common language to describe key elements, we can move beyond initial intentions to reach collaborative innovation. Here are five core elements every level should have…


Landmarks lend a feeling of uniqueness and a sense of scale. Players use these for triangulation so they won’t get lost. By creating something interesting, players will naturally move towards it. They also act as a point-of-reference for sharing the experience with others.

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Fig 9: Famous landmarks


A path is a route that connects two areas. Not all routes are paths, however. For example, you can have a street that isn’t considered a path, because it doesn’t lead to anything interesting. If a path is never used, remove it to prevent confusion.

Remember, players take the path of least resistance. The smallest path can attract a player’s attention, while the smallest obstacle can turn a player away. Paths can also be defined by momentum. Unless pulled off by something interesting, when a path ends, players will tend to keep moving in the same direction.

Paths come in two varieties:

  • Explicit Path – uses by hard lines, such as trails, hallways, streets, etc.
  • Implicit Path – suggested by gaps and obstacles. The negative space that surrounds an area.


Fig 10: An explicit path


Fig 11: An implicit path

These variations can be used to control the player’s movement, particularly if the level is open and freeform.


Edges are the boundaries between areas. Once the line is crossed, something new is introduced! Crossing this threshold should reveal a vista, ambush, or reward. Edges might be defined by doors, hard corners, or ridges in the terrain.

They change the context of the moment. Because of this, they become dramatic beats – or what some call a “Reveal”. By managing edges, a designer can control the scope – the moment-to-moment emotion – of traveling through the game world.


Fig 12: Reaching an edge


Fig 13: Peaking across the edge

Games like Rainbow Six use Edges almost exclusively. They even have a game mechanic built around the Edge itself: “sneak a peak at who’s on the other side!” Once the door is opened, action explodes, and gameplay unfolds…


Fig 14: Crossing the edge


Fig 15: Crossing the edge at a window


Points-of-Interest (POI) can be rooms, forest clearings, or town centers – say something like the Farmer’s Market or even the train car downstairs in the lobby. They can be a place for gathering, resting, or thinking where to go next. POI are defined by how the space is organized. The boundaries of them don’t have to be a literal wall, they can be bordered with “conceptual walls”, such as trees or hills. They give the area a sense of place and can add a dramatic weight to it. Things tend to happen at a Points-of-Interest. See Breadcrumbs for more usage.


Fig 16: Stonehenge


Lastly, a district is a collection of areas which have an overall theme or set decor. It’s not about the raw geometry. Consider them “localized atmosphere” – for example, Chinatown or Willy Street. Every district should have at least one landmark to give it a purpose or focal point.

Theme parks like Disneyland are all about Districts. Each area specializes in a theme that encompasses the group of attractions it contains. Frontier-Land, Tomorrow-Land …even Main Street USA.


Fig 17: The literal division of districts in Disneyland

Missing Elements

When a level is confusing or uninteresting, it’s probably due to a missing layout element. Here are eight common examples of missing elements…

“The Same Damn Corridor”

Everyone’s probably seen this in some game – that “Same Damn Corridor.” It happens when the level looks the same everywhere, becoming boring and repetitive.

Remember the first Halo? Every other location looked just like these!


Fig 18: Halo corridor ‘A’


Fig 19: Halo corridor ‘B’

This problem occurs when there are:

  • Missing Landmarks – no unique eye-candy or reference points
  • Symmetrical or repetitive – including the overuse of instanced geometry
  • Too many Paths – full of routes that lead nowhere, where nothing really happens

“The Secret Passage”

This happens when players miss a turn. Unless prompted by something of interest (like a Landmark), players tend to travel in a straight line. Every turn should be obvious – at least in the beginning. If you can use early levels to teach the player to look for alternate routes and to adapt to the changes, you may be justified in making the player work a little harder to find those options in later levels.

For example, can you find some clue where a secret passage might be in the left image below?


Fig 20: Where’s the Secret Door?


Fig 21: …hiding around a corner!

In this area, the gameplay kind of requires you to eventually use it. It should be a little more obvious! Not tucked around the corner, way up high, only viewable from one perspective.

In this next area, the secret passage is where most people expect it to find it in a room with a big waterfall. It’s obscured from a passive glance but in plain view for ones that stop to look.


Fig 22: Where’s the Secret Door?


Fig 23: …right in front of you!

The reasons for this confusion are:

  • Missing Landmarks – no unique eye-candy or reference points
  • Poor Path weight – the important route is not emphasized enough
  • Off-screen Edges – frame important changes, to ensure the player can clearly recognized it

Depending on your audience, you might actually want an obscure passage, but then it should never be critical for completing the level.

“The Road to Nowhere”

This is a common example of poor level design. When nothing of interest exists, it can crush a player’s feeling of accomplishment and question why he’s wasting his time playing this game.


Fig 24: Shooters don’t have this bird’s eye luxury


Fig 25: Rewarding exploration with… a dead end.

Exploring should lead to something cool. Petering out or ending abruptly is frustrating! Be careful of:

  • Missing POI

“The Wrong Doorway”

Similar to the above problem but more specific when crossing an Edge – if a fantastic door reveals a storage closet, it harms a player’s expectation.

For example in Ico, if you fight your way up to a massive door, only to discover a small empty room, you’re going to feel like you’re missing something obvious. Is there a secret door or switch you overlooked? An elaborate Edge should reward the player with something equally elaborate.


Fig 26: A monumental doorway to…?


Fig 27: A simple doorway to…?

The opposite applies, too. A simple hole-in-the-wall should lead to a simple area. What if a seemingly trivial, closet lead to a secret winter fantasyland? Well, the exception in CS Lewis’s tale is that the Wardrobe is an Point-of-Interest the player is made aware of early on. In any other game, where this would be a trivial piece of furniture, players will get confused over its lack of presence.

To prevent this confusion watch out for:

  • Poor Edge scale – for POI or Landmark
  • Poor Path scale – for POI or Landmark

An incorrect scale can fail to foreshadow the scope and importance of the next area. A good rule of thumb: the distance traveled should never be smaller than the size of the destination’s Edge.

“The Weak Corner”

When elements are revealed in a slow, gradual pace, it results in a lack of drama and creates an ambiguity to the role of the next location. This happens when you forget that a corner should be considered a vertical Edge.


Fig 28: No big reveals here.

  • Missing Edges – remember to use corners. They’re a great place to trigger events!

“The Missing Wall”

Similar to too much of the same thing, too little can create a sense of uncertainty in the player. An ambiguous location with no clear boundaries might cause the player to explore an unintended Path, diluting the purpose of the area.


Fig 29: Where’s a compass when you need one?

  • Poorly defined POI – No Breadcrumbs to lead the player. “What is this place?”

“The Trackless Forest”

Similar to the above example where the player has no direction – this time there’s too much of the same thing. To avoid this problem, create and organize an artificial sense of structure to the area.


Fig 30: Too much of the same…


Fig 31: …prompts confusion in destination.

To remove this problem, look for:

  • Missing Paths – causing players to continue along a straight line
  • Missing Edges – to tell the player why and where they’re traveling

In a linear event-driven game, this free form aspect might be okay to use in the level. In the Resident Evil series, exploration is restricted by camera angles and screen edges, limiting player options in direction.

“Fire Hosing”

When POI are stacked on top of one another, the experience becomes flat and exhausting. Events should have an ebb and flow to its intensity to help stir up emotional responses from the player. If the game doesn’t have this rhythm, constant intensities quickly become the new baseline for all future encounters.

Fig 32: More and more and more and more and more action!

  • Too many POI – preventing time to build anticipation to the next event.

The movie series Pirates of the Caribbean is notorious for having every scene blasting with over-the-top action. Creating a plausible intensity will eventually fail – and break the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Once this occurs, the player no longer believes in the world that you’ve created for them.

Level Rhythm

Level Rhythm is one of the most basic ways to control the player’s narrative experience. Every encounter (in books, movies, games) has highs and lows to the experience. Use the level’s structure to control the pace of the game from moment-to-moment and help stimulate an emotional response from player.

Level Styles

Different patterns can result in different emotional states for the player.


Gameplay involving fast, reflex reactions by emphasizing continuous motion with few Edges and POIs are Path-Dominated. These are typically long, linear levels like classics such as Gran Truismo or Sonic the Hedgehog.


Fig 33: Gran Truismo


Fig 34: Sonic the Hedgehog

In racing games, Edges and POI risk slowing the player down. When an Edge does occur, it tends to be soft, with very long vistas.

Path-Dominated levels feature:

  • Long linear levels
  • Few Edges
  • Few Areas-of-Interest
  • With an emphasis on continuous motion


In contrast, Edge-Dominated levels create high-tension using short sight lines, possibly as hallways and doors. This constant beat emphasizes a continuous stream of dramatic reveals. For example: Resident Evil. Every threshold is a major event for the player.


Fig 35: Resident Evil


Fig 36: Surprise!

Edge-Dominated levels feature:

  • Short sight lines
  • Many corridors and doorways
  • Continual dramatic reveals


The last of the more commonly used game-type rhythms involve levels dominated by POI. These awe-inspiring games are defined by open spaces with many things to interact with, coupled with a general lack of time pressure (see Exploration and Puzzle Zones discussed later).

For example in Ico or Mario World, exploration is the player’s reward for time spent.


Fig 37: Ico


Fig 38: Mario World

POI-Dominated areas feature:

  • Open spaces
  • A variety of interactions
  • No time pressure

Funny how both these screenshots (I didn’t take) have a castle in the backdrop, serving as a focal point for the experience.

Examples of Games

Let’s apply some of these ideas to two action shooters. Their gameplay is polar opposite from one another, yet they exist within the same genre.

Rainbow Six: Vegas

  • Claustrophobic – tight interiors with constant edges, acting as cover
  • Short sight lines – creating small, intense kill zones
  • Many corridors and doors – levels takes place in a landmark buildings
  • Paths are safe – serving as transitions from one encounter to the next
  • Edges are dangerous – breaching to the next room reveals conflict

Ghost Recon inverts Rainbow Six’s formula. Fear of close combat has been replaced with a fear of open spaces, inverting the safety / danger relationship.

Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter

  • Agoraphobic – open spaces with scattered cover
  • Long sight lines – large, flexible kill zones
  • Few interior spaces – levels takes place in a larger district or region
  • Paths are dangerous – long or wide streets to survey the conflict
  • Edges are safe – serving as transitions from one encounter to the next

Guess the Game Style

What type of game is Uncharted? ANSWER

What type of game is Mirror’s Edge? ANSWER

What type of game is Heavy Rain? ANSWER

Additional Helpers

Some other tricks-of-the-trade to not to be overlooked can be used…


Breadcrumbs are a series POI or events in the game that direct the player.

  • Following an ally – the most direct way to lead a player to an area!
  • Spotting an enemy – where they attack from can prompt the player to seek that area.
  • Cutscenes – a short camera cut or zoom to an object can spotlight its importance.
  • Decals – subtle or blatant, such as blood stains, wall scratches, or graffiti.
  • Lighting – light and darkness, color and value, even animated lights.
  • Motion – moving objects can draw attention, such as a closing door or animated sign.
  • Pickup placement
  • Signage – subtle or blatant, like a big glowing arrow or a “You Are Here” map.
  • Sound – sometimes more difficult to count on, audio is another element players react to.

UI Helpers

Beyond shaping the physical environment, the game’s interface can be used to help the direct the player. This can vary from game to game. These methods should be used when all else fails (or the game by its nature is more open).

  • Maps (or automap) – a screen or portion of the screen devoted to describing the layout. It can be static or dynamic, revealing all or only what’s been discovered.
  • Pointers – pointing to key locations out-of-sight. Sometimes attached to a mini-map or reticule.
  • Augmented Reality – highlighting key objects in the environment.

Framing Interest

A final note about how all this information is delivered to the player.

Games are presented through the video screen. This box of pixels frame the game world for the player, making the direction and position of objects on the screen critical to understanding what’s going on in the game world.

If an object or event is pivotal to the player, it should be presented near the center of the screen. While there’s no guarantee where the player will be looking, we can expect them to be usually facing something of interest. A player will typically be pulled face-first into new game material.

If an object or event is not critical to the game experience, it can exist anywhere on screen. The only things not in view (that is off-screen) should be truly secret items which are only used in special cases. For example, if the player needs to climb up a cliff to a secret cave, and a ladder isn’t present at the base – to lead his direction upwards – then an obvious clamber point should be visible below the top of the screen – not out of sight, off-screen.

  • Critical Elements – within 50% of screen center
  • Non-Critical Elements – anywhere on-screen
  • Secret Elements – can be off-screen

By understanding the physical pieces to an effective layout, we can guarantee each area in the game is interesting and has an escalating rhythm to the encounters.

Inspiring Layouts

A designer is faced with the challenge of presenting the same core gameplay over and over again. To keep things fresh and interesting, it’s critical to present new layouts that feel different from previous ones.

The desired results for each encounter are:

  • The player has “memorable moments” – a compelling encounter within an exciting location.
  • The player doesn’t want to stop playing – they want to continue to the next encounter eventually to the end of the game.

Inspirations for creating exciting layouts can come from a variety of sources:

  • The story beats and plot points within the story.
  • The time of day and weather conditions (particularly if these have an effect on gameplay).
  • Key landmarks for the area (and architecture in general).
  • Movies, books, other games – and not those even in the same genre or topic!

Creating wonder involves: long paths, imposing landmarks, upward slopes, and changes in scale. Creating a sense of triumph demands “Terminal Points-of-Interest” – POI for big climatic events. They feature frequent foreshadowing and a level-long approach to the target. To an extent, the plot in a video game corresponds to the level geometry in much the same way a music score is composed. There are embedded arcs – highs and lows, reflecting the hero’s emotional state – building to a climax. …A rhythm to the level.

Game Zones

Action games create a universe that’s unique to it. Zooming in from the larger game world concept, several boundaries are crossed, starting with Realms:

  • A Realm has an overall style that differs from other Realms. It contains Districts.
  • A District has a unique art theme that complements the style (a typical level). It contains Action Zones.
  • An Action Zone can be a neighborhood (a typical sub-level prefab). It contains Regions and *Zones.
  • A Region is a specific area of items in an Action Zone. It contains Node Groups. A Node Group is a collection of items used by the game logic. For more details on Regions and Nodes, read Level Design Structure.
  • A *Zone is an organic area within an Action Zone. They are used to label what type of gameplay will be primarily used in the area (Combat, Exploration, Puzzle, Story). It can crossover between Regions and Node Groups. *Zones usually don’t overlap. They don’t necessarily outline the extents of the interactive area and can have a soft edge.

Fig 41: The breakdown of a game world

NOTE: With the exception of Districts and Action Zones, all other groups are conceptual or game objects. Only Districts and Action Zones are physical files (a level and sub-level prefab).

Action Zones

Levels are divided into Action Zones (AZ). Within those AZ is where the game takes place! If you’re fighting a big tank or chasing down a prey, it happens here. In game terms, AZ and transitions to other AZ become the first steps a natural high and low rhythm.

AZ are not limited to combat however; they can also involve story events or areas to explore. This multi-purpose area is where the bulk of resources and time go to making the game exciting and memorable.

AZ should be self-contained chunks of gameplay and geometry. Because of this, they offer the largest part of a level you can give to dedicated strike teams for ownership.

Ensuring an AZ is isolated from other AZ provides a variety of game development advantages:

  • AZ can be saved as prefabs within the larger level.
  • AZ allow multiple people to work on one level at the same time.
  • If level memory or performance concerns appear, an AZ can be more easily moved or removed. Only the path that links two AZ together needs to be adjusted.

*Zone Types

Areas defined by their general purpose in AZ are *Zones. With the exception of Chase and Transition Zones, all others should be associated to only one AZ. Some of these can overlap others, like a Puzzle Zone inside of an Exploration Zone.

Combat Zone

Substantial portions of the game are spent in this area relying on key game metrics. So give it proper attention! For more details see the Combat Zones section below.

Chase Zone

A “rail-ish” sequence from Point A to B… no casual strolls through high-detailed environments. Chase sequences are the only event that can span other AZ or *Zones. These areas can also be used for slower-paced Track n’ Trail gameplay.

Exploration Zone

Physical navigation or “platforming”, offering non-linear discovery of the area. These can also be used for areas that involve searching for key items, like Player Resources.

Puzzle Zone

Similar to an Exploration Zone, except they’re focused around a Point-of-Interest, requiring time to solve before continuing.

Safe Zone

A place the player is guaranteed no life-threatening events.

Story Zone

No combat allowed; usually cinematic areas. (MMOs would also have Social Zones.)

Transition Zone

These types connect AZ to each other. They provide a bottle neck for visibility and performance reasons. Nothing of major interest should exist in these areas.

Transition Zones also counter-balance the highlights found in AZ. They provide a lull in the action, giving the player time to prepare for the next encounter. Down moments can exist in an AZ by controlling gameplay or stepping into a safe area, but these are optional. The only area that always provides downtime is the Transition Zone.

The simple nature of separating encounters from one another enforces content clarity, making it easier to manage, add, or subtract encounters in the game.

Transition Zones provide:

  • A safe area to rest and regroup.
  • A “reset button” to the base-line adrenaline.
  • A place to save the game.
  • Opportunities to stream in new content for the next encounter.
  • A spot the level can easily be split into two for performance reasons.


A good recipe for an encounter requires the right ingredients – here’s a checklist:


The type and scale of gameplay helps determine the density of detail:

  • Street to Street – lowest detail, usually only building facades. (ie. the GTA series)
  • Building to Building – exterior & interior mix. (ie. the Uncharted series)
  • Room to Room – highest detail, ideal for close-combat or deep searches. (ie. Batman Arkham series)


Specialized objectives help to focus the flavor of most gameplay found in the game:

  • Acquire – get an item
  • Capture – get a person
  • Chase – pursue a person
  • Combat – fight a person(s)
  • Escape – find a way to exit the area
  • Escort – protect a person (or item)… usually slows movement and limits attacks.
  • Infiltrate – sneak into an area
  • Locate – find an item (or area)
  • Track – find a person

Action Zone (and *Zone) Modifiers

Initial gameplay and dynamic minute-to-minute gameplay can affect how difficult the scenario can be.

  • Cover density – amount, static, dynamic, destructible, and even ambient NPCs as hostages.
  • Faction type, amount, density, & ratio (Mafia, Cops, Gangs, etc.)
  • Partitioned – not all within view, such as multiple floors or platforms (promotes climbing).
  • Population density – More NPCs typically mean less enemy AI count and complexity.
  • Resources – ammo and health availability.
  • Size – large or small (within the context of the Location types noted above).
  • Verticality – taking scenario elements and raising or lowering them. (higher / lower)
  • Visibility – light, fog, smoke, etc.


Combat Zones

AZ are not limited to one encounter, several can occur within that space. Areas designated for fighting are Combat Zones (CZs). CZs may or may not be defined by physical boundaries – it could be a courtyard, it could be an open field. Players should be able to easily recognize a CZ by identifying core gameplay elements like: a goal, an exit, cover, chokepoints, secondary routes, and of course enemies!

Every battle can be broken down into its tactical elements:

  1. Recognize Opposition – Find the bad guys!
  2. Recognize Environment Variables – Where’s the cover? Where’s the Kill Zone?
  3. Plan the Attack
  4. Attack Opposition – Kill!

The Layout

What’ makes a great CZ? The layout! It defines where the player will be looking, moving, shooting, taking cover, and being shot from. The first step is to create a 3D draft of the area and placement of all key objects that will define the CZ.

By no means should this be the final version! The 3D draft should be far along enough to convey the uniqueness of the layout, however.

Arena Shape

Most battlefields fall into one of the following three shapes:

  • Corridor – hallway or street
  • Field – rooftop or room
  • Bottleneck – features a tapered region (for example a hourglass chokepoint).

The World Isn’t Flat!

Most common, and easiest to produce are flat layouts with random pieces of cover. Possibly okay as an early training level, with little to no need for free-looking. Through the course of the game, that gets boring – “been there, done that.” To avoid these doldrums, fully exploit the fact that the world is 3D by creating layouts that offer a variety of paths, cover locations, and firing positions for the player to take advantage of. One key to remember is that “above” and “below” are great places to direct the player’s attention with new threats and opportunities.

Give the Player Choices

Let a player decide if he wants to open fire and go in guns blazing, or use stealth and sneak up on enemies ahead and prevent them from knowing he’s around.

Different play styles are supported by Action Shooters: run & gun, pop & shoot, or sneak & kill. When designing your CZ layout, accommodate these different play styles to ensuring not only that the player has options, but that different players can use their preferred style of play. Is there way to circle the enemy undetected? Does the player have a variety of cover options? Can the player exploit something in the level to “trick” the AI into behaving a certain way? This can be something as simple as luring enemies into a chokepoint or as complex as creating a distraction that draws enemies away from where the player wants to go.

Is it Obvious?

Giving the player multiple choices and paths within a CZ add lots of replay value. But, all is for naught if the player can’t see it. Avoid trying to hide alternate routes and options.

Risk and Reward

There’s nothing wrong with letting the player feel empowered and godly, even if it is for a short period of time. The hunted becoming the hunter can be very compelling (Pac-Man eating the power pellet). Within the layout, consider the placement of objects or items that will give the player a huge advantage in the battle. For example; a powerful weapon prominently displayed in the middle of the battlefield – the player can choose to play it safe by staying in cover while continuing to fight it out, or try risking his life and dive for that weapon.

Unorthodox Cover

By using similar looking cover objects throughout a level, the player starts to see the game mechanic and loses immersion. The player can recognize an upcoming battle. As the player gets close to an area with a bunch of similar objects placed in a way that suggests a “dash & cover” path, the element of surprise is lost. Try to use a variety of different objects to provide cover, and consider whether it looks natural or not. For example, why not use the corpse of a fallen creature or vehicle for cover?

Dynamic Cover

Ideally, the game engine supports dynamic cover. There are two aspects to dynamic cover: reducing it or building it. Cover is reduced by allowing cover objects to take damage. As the object takes damage, cover is degraded, perhaps eliminated. Cover can be built up by allowing cover objects to be moved or constructed during gameplay. A simple example is to move an armored vehicle in such a way that the player can take cover behind it. A more complex method that depends on deformable terrain is to treat craters caused by explosions as cover.

Justify it

Why is the cover there? Let’s answer this from the ground up:

  • Is the terrain smooth, rolling, jagged, or drop-offs?
  • Is there a stream, river, or dried-up creek bed?
  • Is the vegetation sparse or dense?
  • Have buildings or trees been knocked down?
  • How do people get in and out of the area?
  • Is it old or new?
  • Is the cover man-made? Why are they here?

To re-enforce the suspension of disbelief, the layout needs to be believable. This isn’t to say that structures in the real world always make perfect sense, but when you encounter something goofy in the real world you accept its existence and shrug it off as weird. In a game however, players perceive this as laziness on the Level Designer’s part and it impacts their suspension of disbelief.

There are a few things to keep in mind that help preserve their immersion:

Functionality – The layout must appear to be functional. The exception is only when oddly placed objects are needed for an effective CZ. For example, if it’s a warehouse, then how do items get loaded and unloaded? Can everything fit through the doorways? Lots of games feature tons of crates scattered mindlessly through areas that wouldn’t logically have crates in it… why?

History – How long has this area existed? If it is old, does the layout reflect this? Is it broken or in disarray? Thinking through the history of the layout helps to generate ideas about the structures and their state. If it’s an old area, could you just walk in through the front door? Is it overgrown? Is it decayed? Maybe another way in through a collapsed part of a perimeter wall would fit better with the age of the layout.

Characters with purpose – Nothing breaks the illusion more than enemies that are patrolling predictable loops or just standing and idling, waiting to be killed. What is their role? What should they be doing when you enter the area? If they just arrived are they setting up base and unloading? If they have been there for a while, what do they do to waste time?

Justifying it creates a believable environment that simply isn’t a random assembly of objects strictly serving the purpose of creating a memorable CZ.

Stacked Combat Zones

Be careful of having several CZ active at one time. By putting more than one CZ on the back burner, it risks “Fire Hosing” and diluting the player’s experience or confusing the direction the player should be advancing.

Combat Zone Companions

Several elements help create an effective battle…

  • Kill Zone – crossing the critical threshold for life and death.
  • Defense Zone – at the edge of the Kill Zone to help decide how to deal with it.
  • Safe Zone – not always present, these can offer short ways to bypass conflict.
  • Strategic Points – places that can tip the scale to victory.
  • Attack Direction – from a tight, focused direction all the way to being completely surrounded.

Kill Zone

A Kill Zone is defined as an area in which the player or AI is without cover, under fire, and likely to be killed. This area can be visible (landmines on the ground) or virtual (tracer fire). The effectiveness of the Kill Zone determines difficulty of the firefight. Without an effective Kill Zone, the player doesn’t need cover and eliminates one of the key ingredients intended for gameplay.

Make it Challenging!

As the player gets used to the concept of a Kill Zone, gameplay runs the risk of becoming stale if CZs begin to feel predictable and static. This is especially true if the player is simply performing a “pop & shoot” from the same Defense Zone throughout the battle. Designing Kill Zones that change angles and positions force the player to find a new Defense Zone. This helps create the impression of a dynamic world and the illusion of intelligent AI.

Ways to achieve challenging Kill Zones:

  • AI flanking the player’s Defense Zone
  • AI fallback or charge – depending if the player is whittling their numbers down, or if there has been a standoff.
  • Destruction changes in the zone
  • …Buildings or trees fall and change the layout
  • …Destroying a bridge, causing enemies to fall
  • …Walls can be knocked down, or have large holes made in them
Make it Effective!

Based on past experience, some issues with creating an effective Kill Zone exist:

  • The player has no true Defense Zone
  • …AI behaviors allow them to attack the Defense Zone without any care for their survival.
  • …When destructible cover used as the only Defense Zone cover
  • …When attacks bypass the use of cover; such as explosive splash damage.
  • The player cannot recognize the Kill Zone. Without this, the Defense Zone is also unknown.
  • The player cannot see alternate paths or gameplay options.
  • …If it’s hard to find as a designer, it’s invisible to a player.
  • The Kill Zone extends beyond the intended area.
  • …Due to AI sight distances, they continue to fight well past the Defense Zone
  • …AI should fall back when the player reaches a certain distance from the battle
  • Every battle isn’t necessarily the FINAL battle. Be willing to throw the player some “gimme” battles within the level as part of pacing and letting the player feel powerful

The player is likely to backtrack from a Kill Zone they perceive as too tough and resort to long distance sniper tactics to whittle down the opposition. The result is a drastic reduction in pacing and intensity. The player gets the impression that the game is impossibly difficult unless they play super cautiously… and the player loses interest.

Defense Zone

The required companion to a Kill Zone is the Defense Zone. It’s an area in which the player or AI is safe behind cover. Without it, the game boils down to shoot or be shot. This requires several cover options for the player to use – preferably of different shapes and sizes and strength (whether it is permanent or degradable.)

Safe Zone

A Safe Zone can provide a couple options:

  • Regroup Point – a place to give the player time to think about how to proceed.
  • Secret Flanking – a way for the player to flank the enemy’s Defense Zone undetected and sneaking through parts (or all) of the Kill Zone.

Strategic Point

Within any of any of these sub-zones (Kill Zone, Defense Zone, or Safe Zone) there might be locations that give someone the upper hand. These are Strategic Points. For example, the crest of a hill in the Kill Zone is too soft to provide any cover, but it does provide height above the masses. A Defense Zone might have a murder hole facing the main gate acting as a Strategic Point (a Kill Zone chokepoint).

Freeform vs. Defined

There are two main types of CZs:

  • Defined – explicit chokepoints in which the player has to cross and overcome a Kill Zone.
  • Freeform – a loose, exploration based CZ in which the Kill Zone isn’t strictly enforced and could come together at various areas within the CZ.

A level that contains a balance between the two types helps prevent player fatigue. Defined CZs are usually more demanding of the player’s skills. From an overall difficulty curve throughout the course of an entire game, later levels could feature more defined CZs than freeform CZs.

It should be noted that a freeform area with plenty of enemies could end up surrounding the player making for an impossibly difficult situation.

Switching it up

Is it possible to design a CZ that begins as freeform and then becomes defined or vice versa? The switch could be an exciting component and make for a “memorable moment”.

Increasing Difficulty

Consider ways to increase a CZ’s difficulty when creating them. Some obvious ways involve enemy numbers and placement. Another way would be the location of inventory and weapons. More creative options could affect the actual geometry like changing cover to create a smaller Defense Zone or larger Kill Zone!

Attack Direction

From a tight, focused direction all the way to being completely surrounded. (Details coming soon).


By understanding the ingredients to an encounter, it becomes easier to prepare a great event. What will players remember that makes this event different from the last one?

Top concepts to remember when designing on a new location:

  • The layout
  • Key structures
  • Cover objects
  • Multiple choices
  • Effective Kill Zones
  • Safe Zones

To create tension, a level must press a conflict between safety and danger. If there’s no downtime, it’s hard for there to be an up. The game must establish anticipation with consistent threat cues. For example, Resident Evil meticulously defined corridors at the beginning of the game as safe zones – only to send a zombie dog crashing through a window a short while into the game, breaking the sense of security the player has built up and giving a sense that nowhere was absolutely safe. Be on the look out for write up “Designing Fear” !


For more details on making great levels, read PART 2: Design Structure.


4 Responses

  1. You’ve been doing some really interesting posts on your blog lately…good read’n, and the vintage video(s), so good.

  2. Glad you’re enjoying ’em, Kevin! It takes a little bit of effort, but I’m sure I’ll appreciate it when I’m 80 years old and wonder what the hell I use to do when I was spry.

  3. Now that’s cool… As someone that plays some of these games, I’ve sometimes felt that something “really worked”, or “seemed broken”. This actually breaks down the concepts and the lingo enough to figure out what it is!

  4. Hey Chris! Yeah, I spot these all the time now. Just saw a couple in Diablo 3 the other day — like always finding a dead body to loot at dead ends. Cool to hear it made sense to you (as a player not a maker).

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