Level design for beginners: paths, secrets and shortcuts

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Level design is the art of creating paths that lead the player to the objective. With bad level design the players don’t know where to go, and, as a result, don’t go anywhere and quit the game. With good [level design] the players know exactly where they need to go to follow the main quest and where to look for additional rewards.

level design

So, how do you design an interesting level? There are no formal laws, but we can teach you some tips of good level design for beginners. In this article we will tell you why the levels may be boring, how to build secondary paths and how to start with level design.

What is a path in terms of game level design

A path is some routine and often time-consuming actions that lead the player to some game event. In more common meaning, a path is a road that leads to something. In linear games there is only main path where the player can go. Open-world games can work without prebuilt paths: the players can go whenever they like to.

a game path example

For the game and level designers a path is an instrument, which they use to attract the player somewhere, to set up a specific gameplay experience or to entertain the player with beautiful locations.

The goal of level designer is to create such paths, that the player will easily read the directions and understand where to go. And if we are talking about non-linear games, where the character’s build defines gameplay possibilities, the level design must give hints. For example: “If you storm the gates (balck), you’ll get in a big fight. If you try to find the backdoor (red), maybe things will be easier. And maybe you’ll find a secret (green)”.

path in a castle example

In conclusion, the level designers make paths to guide the player. And they know the secret art of doing this well.

How many paths the game must have

Obviously, the game must have main path that leads to the [main quest]. Like in Call of Duty, Doom Eternal or any other typical FPS. The main path (green) is filled with enemies, cutscenes and ammo. That’s all. Red arrows doesn’t lead anywhere.

fps level design

Open-world non-linear RPG games are where the fun starts. The game designer must give the player possibilities to make decisions not only by choosing dialogue options, but also with choosing different paths. Here’s an example: the player is traveling through the forest. If he will follow the main track, he will be ambushed by bandits. If he goes the small trail, he will overhear the bandits and get a chance to attack them from behind.

So, the trick in [game design] is to make a path for every possible play style. In immersive simulators like Dishonored the player can stealth his way through by hiding on chandeliers and furniture (red), or fight all the way (green). In Fallout series the player can use skills like Charisma, Intelligence or Luck to take different paths in one quest. And in Cyberpunk 2077 the player can storm the entrance, hack the back door, or jump on the roof to go through a roof window.

dishonored level design

Let’s imagine, your game has two play styles: stealth and action. So, its needs minimum two paths he can follow.

Additional paths in level design: side quests, secrets and shortcuts

We described the main principle of main quest level design (blue). But there are more paths to add in the game: side quests, treasures, secrets and shortcuts.

level design example

Side quest (red) is a level design trick to entertain the player. While main quests are dead serious and epic, side quests often are short and funny. For example, in The Witcher the player could frazzle out the silent monk, help one mad man to collect feathers and make a chicken-suit or fight the bureaucracy in a bank. To find those quests the player had to turn aside from the main path and explore towns and villages.

Treasures and secrets (green) are often placed in dead ends. While in side quests path the player may meet some enemies, treasure’s path is often free to go. But the player have to solve a riddle to get the treasure. The best of this kind of riddles is not to press the hidden button, but to find this particular path to treasure. Level designer may hide the entrance behind waterfall, in a cave or in a side alley. Sometimes it even won’t show on the map as a path and the player have no hints — that’s why it is called “the secret”.

Shortcuts (black) are the rarest kind of paths, because only a few games use Metroidvania level design. Metroidvania is a level-design style where the player is constantly lurking back and forth. To make the player’s life easier, level designers leave shortcuts from the levels to the hub location. But the players can open those shortcuts only from the other end. For example, in Dark Souls 1 the player can enable the elevator from the Undead Burg to Firelink Shrine, but he has to beat a mini-boss for it. In open-world games shortcuts are player-made paths. For example, instead of going down the streets in Whiterun the player can cut through gardens and jump over fences.

Tips for path creation in level design

The main challenge that lies before the video game level designer is to make paths readable and interesting. For example, a main entrance to the location must be obvious: giant doors, ark or a clear wide way. At the same time, the side path must look less desirable. It may be hidden behind rocks or bushes, or the player has to turn around to see it.

labyrinth level design

The second challenge is to pick the right length for every available path. For example, the main path has to be the longest one, be the most beautiful and contain many challenges. The path for the side quest has to be shorter, and dead end with a treasure should be the shortest, so the player won’t be bored by walking back. Or at least place a one-way shortcut from treasure to main track.

And the third challenge is to make a path look good and natural. The player will easily spot when the road or location look too artificial and “designed”. For example, you need to design a village near the road. What are the common villager’s needs? Food and water, of course. By this logic, the village has to grow near the flat land to harvest food and near the river to get water. Town, on the other hand, always gets food from nearby villages, so there’s no need to place fields in the nearest distance.

Also, don’t forget about the logic: the road must lead to some place which is important to someone living in the game world. If there’s forester’s hut hidden in the forest, there must be a trail leading to it. You can object it with “But the forester doesn’t need a trail to find his hut!” And how the player will find it, if there’s no clear signs he can follow?

Game designers can use the environment to signal, that there is something interesting in that direction. A pointer directed to the stone ridge may show that there is hidden cave. An unusually high monument or tree may interest the player. And a police car near the open door will say “there’s something suspicious”.

typical level design

More tips for level design beginners

The players don’t want to follow predesigned roads that looks too long. For example, in Skyrim the Dragonborn has to get to the other side of the central mountain. The obvious choice is to go around the mountain, but most players decided to pass the mountain like alpinists. Even if they won the fight with physics and climbed the rocks, they still lost fight with yetis. In the result, they got angry because of wasted time and left the game.

skyrim level design

So, if you want the players to not get bored by wandering around, don’t make long paths hooked. It’s better if the player can go from A to B in an almost straight line.

The players love to explore every possible path. Be sure that you’ve left a treasure in every possible dead end, so the players won’t be disappointed!

If you made a detour to some important location the player will often visit, made its exit facing some clear landmark. In the other case, the player may get lost in the level.

level design landmark

Level design outsourcing

Level design is complicated because the game developer must make path that would be both obvious and interesting to explore. We, in Kreonit game art outsource studio, managed to learn this secret art.

Our approach to level design is based on functionality, aesthetics and narrative. Every path must lead somewhere, be remarkable and tell a simple story. If you want your game to be the next Witcher 3 or God of War 4 — contact us and let us make levels for you.


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