I’ve designed amateur levels for a while now.¹ For each level, I’ve attempted to explain the rationale behind my specific layout or weapon choices, yet I’ve never written about a general theory of multiplayer level design. That is the point of this post.
Below are several abstracted principles, and though I’ve written them as absolutes for clarity’s sake, they are my subjective observations. The first three principles should be apparent; these are my advice for new level designers. The last three are debatable, so I have attempted to defend them in the text below.
1. A successful design follows from familiarity with the game. Play until you understand.
2. Playing games is necessary, but not sufficient, to understand them.
3. Understanding differs from skill. Inept players can be capable designers.
4. Levels do not exist in isolation.
5. Mechanics inform, but do not determine, level design.
6. Levels are the medium through which players encounter a game’s systems.²
In early 2008 I purchased Unreal Tournament 3 because it had a level editor, not because I loved Unreal. My early levels were flawed by this; they played like Call of Duty, Halo, or whatever I was playing at the time. This isn’t a problem that goes away either. My latest designs are visibly influenced by Quake III. The solution is to be aware of these influences when designing.
In the early Unreal games, there was no codified style. Unreal suffered from imbalanced and redundant weaponry. Although UT99 reduced these problems, the level style was inconsistent. Compare Inoxx’s SpaceNoxx or Pyramid to Akuma’s Viridian or Malevolence. The divergence of styles made UT99 many games in one.
UT2k4 and UT3 were more consistent. Separate styles bound the levels to their respective games. Checker’s Ironic belongs to UT2k4, not UT99 or UT3.³ This same stylistic consistency is true of Quake III, Team Fortress 2, and Counter Strike. I could build Dust in Unreal, but I would be ignoring both mechanical and stylistic differences between the two games. Dust would not be an ideal expression of “Unreal-ness.”
Yet, when modding for UT3 was at its peak, ports of Quake III levels were common. From a mechanical view, these two games are almost identical. The movement, the weapons, and the power-ups are similar. They could be the same game. The style of their levels is incompatible, though, and it’s at this point that most ported levels failed.
One-way paths, dead-ends, and narrow corridors are typical of Quake levels. These elements reinforce strategies built around timing pickups. Many paths are pointlessly dangerous without timing items correctly. UT2k4 and UT3 levels avoid this style of design. Although timing is a part of strategic play, predicting the enemy’s location relative to one’s own is more important.
There are exceptions in both games, though. Quake III’s Vertical Vengeance is compatible with UT3 (Moonflyer built an excellent port), and Inoxx’s UT99 levels are arguably more compatible with Quake than with Unreal. Despite these exceptions, I think my points about the role of level design still stand.
This summer I had a brief, freelance level design gig. An independent programmer needed levels for his mechanically complete game. He requested something like Quake or Unreal, and though there were several design restrictions, he gave me enormous freedom. By designing the first multiplayer level for the game, I was central to defining the style, and—by extension—defining the game.
In designing levels, even as an amateur, be aware. No level exists in isolation, and familiarity with a game’s style and mechanics is essential when designing levels for it. Reviews seldom mention level design, and indies are quick to cut corners, but its role can’t be ignored. If nothing else, remember that to design, you have to play.
¹ I use “amateur” in both senses of the word. I design my levels out of love for the process, but I’m also not paid for my work.
² In games like Skyrim, I consider both the main world and individual dungeons to be levels. There are also many games without levels; this principle doesn’t apply to them.
³ Checker’s Ironic was originally built for UT2k3, not UT2k4. However, the two games and their level design styles are much more similar to each other than they are to UT99 or UT3.