Design Concepts (UPDATED)

5 years ago 4
Posted in: Projects, Samples, Videos

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


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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