Design Concepts (UPDATED)

6 years, 4 months ago 4
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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.


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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