Design Concepts (UPDATED)

6 years, 4 months ago 4
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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.

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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