So You Want to Learn 3D Level Design

Maybe you are a student of game development and want to specialize in level design. Maybe you are a game developer already, but want to learn some new skills. Or maybe you’re a hobbyist and want to build strange new worlds. Whatever drew you to 3D level design, you may not know where to start.

If your goal is to make an entire game, or if your focus is learning the tools used by professional level designers, you should look into learning the Unreal Engine or Unity.

However, if your goal is to learn the conceptual skills of level design, to go beyond learning the tools and practice design, then you are in the right place! Practicing design requires a context, and with level design that means building levels for a game. If you build 3D environments without that context, you will learn the tools, but you won’t learn design.

With this goal in mind, this tutorial series covers the basics of designing a level for Quake.


E1M5 loaded in the Trenchbroom level editor

Why not Half-Life 2, which has stronger thematic variety and more assets to draw from? Or why not Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which has an active mapping community? Why Quake?

  1. Quake has modern tools that are easy to learn and use. This lets us minimize our time learning the tools so we can focus on design fundamentals instead.
  2. Quake has a tight focus to its gameplay. There is a small range of weapons, enemies, and environments, and these constraints keep the design context simple. These constraints also let us avoid the distracting features of modern game engines.
  3. Quake has an active mapping community that will playtest, offer feedback, and help you check your design ideas against reality.

But, learning 3D level design through Quake comes with some downsides: the beneficial constraints can be an expressive limitation; we don’t have preview lighting in the editor, which makes lighting a little tricky; and also, some of the construction paradigms are specific to Quake’s tools.

Once again, if your goal is to make an entire game, or to learn the tools of professional level design, you should look into tutorials for the Unreal Engine or Unity. My goal with the tutorial series here is to help you practice design skills with minimal technical obstacles.  And whatever your goals are, I hope these tutorials will offer some new insights!

In Part 1, I walk through the setup for the game and the tools. In Part 2, I cover the map compiler and the basics of level editing. From there, we’ll explore the design patterns for Quake, and how to create memorable levels.

Making Your First Map in Quake (Part 1)

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