QOTW: Which Game Has the Best Level Design?

Level design is the creative and technical process of setting the stage for gameplay and player immersion, so what is great level design? Which games have the best level design? Find out here as the GameSpot editors discuss the finer points.

   


Half-Life
No One Lives Forever
Thief: The Dark Project
Clive Barker's Undying
Deus Ex
Myth
Serious Sam
Unreal Tournament
Unreal
EverQuest
Team Fortress
Quake
Counter-Strike


 

   

Take me to the Question of the Week Archive One of the hardest aspects of game design to define is good level design. There is no set formula for organizing a layout, sculpting interrelated structures and objects in an environment, using visually pleasing textures and lighting techniques, or designing flow in virtual space in the pursuit of atmosphere and, ultimately, the suspension of disbelief and fun. And how do you build a convincing world that will be fun when "fun" is an abstract concept? The stakes of level design today are especially high, and they increase with every new generation of graphics accelerator, new engineering technology, and faster computer memory. In particular, real-world locales and realistic environments have made their mark in recent and upcoming games like Max Payne.

So what makes great level design? There are many theoretical approaches--some world builders study real-life architectural spaces for design ideas--as well as practical things to consider: dramatic landscapes, terrain, continuous player movement and ease of navigation, geometric themes, nonlinear spaces, interactivity, memory requirements, graphics acceleration, and more. And since levels in single-player games are akin to chapters of a book, designers also have to make their creations into the best framework possible for a developing narrative. There are many ways to set the stage, indeed. This week, we're throwing around some of our ideas and asking, "Which game has the best level design?" If you agree with one of our picks, vote in our Instant Poll. If you have an opinion on which games have the best level design and would like your letter to be considered for publication in our next feature, send us your e-mail. We're also posting a few letters from readers who talk about their favorite games so far this year.

If you're curious about games or the game industry, please send us your question. It could be selected as our next Question of the Week!

First: No One Lives Forever

 
Greg Kasavin
Executive Editor

Though the notion of level design isn't really limited to action games, I do think action games--shooters in particular--best exemplify what good level design means today. Some would argue over whether Valve's 1998 shooter, Half-Life, is one of the most influential games ever made. I definitely think it is, by and large because of its level design. Unlike any game before it, Half-Life introduced the idea that, during gameplay, not everything needs to happen strictly because your player character caused it to. As a result, the world of Half-Life seemed alive; you'd stumble onto events in progress, and you'd set events in motion without even realizing it. The level design in Half-Life was far superior to that in any previous shooter and remains some of the best in any game ever made. In their effort not to compete directly with Half-Life, other more-recent games have clearly been inspired by it, but for better or worse haven't tried to replicate its approach directly. Some of these turned out quite good, though I'm not convinced any have turned out as well as Half-Life.

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Since the release of Valve's shooter, I think the single best example of creative level design in a shooter is from last year's No One Lives Forever. It was quite a long game, and yet the scenario design was consistently original. Together with the noticeably effective artificial intelligence of the enemy soldiers in that game--they could often be seen ducking for cover, attacking in groups, sounding alarms, checking on their injured comrades, and more--the level design in No One Lives Forever was probably the best thing about it. Well, the great dialogue also deserves a lot of praise. But you'd never have bothered to get through the game were it not for the fact that all the levels were so interesting. Many of the levels took place in fairly mundane locations--city streets, warehouses, offices, military bases--and yet the designers would often throw in enough interesting little details to make most all of these really intriguing. From cigarette butts smoldering in ashtrays to signs pointing to restrooms and reception areas, something about the levels in No One Lives Forever was so self-consciously mundane that it made it seem exciting to have to sneak and shoot your way through them.

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No One Lives Forever also had a remarkable amount of variety. The levels took place all around the world, above and below the surface of the earth--and beyond! At one point in the game, you need to escape from a sinking ship, even as its hull begins to buckle under untold thousands of tons of pressure from the ocean water. Later, you need to uncover a lost item in that boat, so you return to the wreck with scuba gear. Simply describing these scenarios in these terms gives an idea of how interesting so many parts of the game could be; and yet they don't prepare you for the actual events that transpire during the game.

It's true that some of the levels in No One Lives Forever could be frustrating. Sometimes you'd automatically lose if ever you were detected by an enemy soldier or a security camera. The game made it suitably difficult to try to get past such defenses without being seen or heard, but fortunately, you could use gadgets to distract guards or to lure them away from their posts. Though the levels in No One Lives Forever were tightly scripted, they still gave you enough resources to let you get through them, using your own style.

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Besides No One Lives Forever, the game that I remember most fondly for its design and architecture is Thief: The Dark Project. The game's industrial-medieval setting was distinctive in itself, but specific levels, like the crazy mansion of a collector named Constantine, were truly impressive. The game's 3D engine wasn't anything to write home about, but the levels in Thief were so diverse and so sprawling that you couldn't help but feel like you were part of the game. Another great touch was that you wouldn't have any kind of artificial automap feature to help navigate, but instead would often have to resort to a hand-drawn sketch of the area, which was often provided by an informant. These helped give a general sense of each area without giving you too much information about what to expect around each corner.

Ultimately, I think games such as Half-Life, No One Lives Forever, and Thief all demonstrate that there really are no apparent limits to how creative and interesting an area of a game can be in this day and age. You can become really immersed in these sorts of games, particularly in their unique settings, because of their level design.

Next: Are you serious, Sam?

 
Sam Parker
Hardware Editor

It's difficult to articulate what makes good 3D level design stand out. Interesting architecture, good-looking textures, and surprising graphical details all play a part. Then there are the intangibles: atmosphere, pacing, and player motivation. It takes an all-around creative effort to make truly great levels. I'd nominate a few games such as Clive Barker's Undying, Deus Ex , and even Serious Sam.

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What is perhaps most distinguishing about Serious Sam is its pacing. You're always moving--often running backward, guns blazing--but there are plenty of suspenseful moments in which you're creeping around columns, listening and looking for hidden attackers. The music changes when creatures are near, helping key you into the action sequences and adding atmosphere. Fortunately, the action isn't completely relentless. The game occasionally gives you a moment to stop, catch your breath, and pick up much needed ammo, armor, and health. But you can't stay off guard for long since you'll always need to spend that ammo almost as soon as you pick it up. A few times, I even found myself thinking that the designers were out to kill me--why couldn't they leave me in peace for a few minutes longer? That just goes to show the level of immersion the game makes possible.

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Serious Sam is perhaps most tense and exhilarating in the middle of the game, before you get the really big guns, but you're getting into big, potentially deadly battles seemingly around every corner. Later, the game almost self-consciously reflects how ridiculous it is to be facing such massive numbers of enemies single-handedly. At one point, the skeletal creatures you've been fighting in ever-increasing groups stampede at you in a herd numbering in the hundreds, and even your powerful rocket and grenade weapons can hardly slow down the herd. Time to get out of Dodge. It ended up being time to discover that, indeed, it's possible to rocket-jump in Serious Sam. Once you're safely over a deep, spiked pit, the herd careens in.

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While Serious Sam's developer, Croteam, had originally envisioned the game to encompass three separate worlds, I'm glad that the first installment focuses just on the ancient Egyptian setting. If anything, there's more nuanced variety because of it. Much of the early game, where you're not yet using massive area effect weapons, occurs in dimly lit interiors, but there are still enough small exterior arenas to introduce you to some of the bigger beasties, which you'll see a lot of later in the game. The game handles the exterior/interior transitions remarkably well, and even when you progress to the stages in which you're fighting it out in the desert, you know you won't be stuck there for long. I particularly liked the labyrinthine outdoor city settings, where enemies come popping out behind every building for some close-quarters shootouts.

Admittedly, the game's impressive graphics engine helps it out a lot in this respect. It's very cool to be battling it on the sandy approach to a city and to find out that as you get closer, the buildings along the horizon aren't just a flat bitmap but are really 3D modeled. Putting your goal in view but out of reach is something that Serious Sam does well. It might be a simple arcade game convention, but I'm all for it when it makes the game more focused and more fun as a result.

Next: Unreal level design

 
Andrew Park
Managing Editor

Designing levels has gotten a bit more complex.

The term "level design" can be a bit misleading, since it seems to imply the layout of relatively small, discrete levels in action games like first-person shooters or platform games. But level design has come a long way since the days of making Doom maps with a WAD-editing utility, and at game companies, level designers are often referred to as "world builders," as they often do more than simply design a gameworld's layout and items. Among other things, they must populate the world with nonplayer characters, scale an area's relative difficulty to adjust to the player's abilities, and make sure that the entire area's buildings, objects, and geometry are technically feasible, especially if there's a group of character models running through it.

Welcome to Freeport's Academy of Arcane Science.

Some of my favorite "levels" aren't levels at all, such as the towns of Freeport and Rivervale in Sony's online role-playing game EverQuest. Longtime EverQuest players know that the town of Freeport more or less has it all: It has training guilds for nearly all of the game's character classes, supply stations for nearly all of the game's trade skills, and is the starting point for all sorts of different quests. Because Freeport is a settlement that's run by opposing factions of both evil- and good-aligned guards, characters of nearly any race (good or evil) can walk the streets if they work on their faction standing long enough and can use Freeport as a base from which to travel quickly to many major locations on EverQuest's original mainland continent of Antonica, including the troll town of Grobb, the dark elf city of Neriak, the dangerous Highhold Pass, the desert of Ro (which has boats to the continent of Kunark), and the halfling city of Rivervale. Rivervale itself is also an excellent city, not only for its convenient location, but also for its great atmosphere. Rivervale is a quaint farming village of halflings, a usually peaceful race of pint-sized humanoids called to war against neighboring goblin tribes. Everything about the town--its upbeat background music, its amusing "Zorro" guards, and its bright, green surrounding areas populated with animals, insects, and mischievous goblins--seems like a perfect fit; it's all much like you'd expect a village of halflings would be, if such a place existed.

The Longest Yard!

Then again, some of my favorite "levels" are actually levels from action games like first-person shooters. When it comes to first-person shooters, I tend to prefer fast-paced maps with tight corners, liberal weapon and item placement, and good connectivity. For instance, one of the best first-person shooters ever made, Quake III: Arena, shipped with excellent capture-the-flag maps, such as Q3CTF1 and Q3CTF2, as well as outstanding deathmatch maps, such as the close-quarters combat level Q3DM13 (Grim Dungeons) and one of the most popular Quake maps ever, Q3DM17 (The Longest Yard). And I've also made PlanetQuake's level of the week, a permanent bookmark in all of my browsers, as it's a good place to look for new user-made maps.

Next: Team Fortress for Quake

 
Craig Beers
Downloads and Media Editor

The red base on 2fort5.

Level design is important to the longevity of a game, especially a multiplayer game. One of the reasons I loved playing the Team Fortress mod for Quake for so long is that the most popular maps were made very well. The first type of map I have to talk about is of course the classic 2forts-style map. It has a neutral courtyard, usually with water separating the bases. Each base has a big room called the ramp room, where there are stairs leading to the second floor or an elevator to the basement. The 2fort4 map was used in several early Team Fortress tournaments. While it was popular, I personally disliked it because you could kill someone in the basement right next to the flag, only to have them respawn in the basement right next to you. The 2fort5 was a remake of that map and is now one of my favorite maps because of the improvements. Players can no longer respawn in the basement, making it harder to defend. There are two short entrances to the flag room instead of one long one, also making it easier for the offense to capture. I also liked the Bam4 map, which is similar to 2fort5. It features a small courtyard, so you don't see too many snipers on the map. The ramp room in each base is very large, so there's a lot of room to do fancy rocket or grenade jumps past any defenders. Well6 is also another one of my favorites. It's a large map, so it encourages teamwork because running to the other base, only to get killed when you have no backup, gets frustrating. Three entrances to the flag room make sure that your team has the base protected.

Spaz4 looks like a sports arena.

There were a few different styles of Team Fortress maps that I liked playing from time to time as well. The 4fort4 map is interesting because it lets four teams compete for each other's flags. Players also get the grappling hook in this map, so you have players constantly flying across the screen. Needless to say, it's a sniper's playground, with so many people out in the open. Spaz4 is also a four-team map with a slight variation in gameplay. This time, all the teams try to possess a ball and then take it to an opposing team's base and place it in a slot to score against that team. Once a team has scored against another five times, the losing team is knocked out of play. I've played in spaz games that would last for hours because if the last two teams were of equal skill, the ball would go back and forth. Canalzone is a capture-and-hold map with eight capture points spread around a citylike map. It's a hard map to play in tournaments because you have to make sure your team knows what's held and what area needs to be taken.

Courtyards on well6 are a killing field for snipers.

A couple of oddball maps with completely different rules are also fun. Border1 has three teams: red, blue, and yellow. The red team spawns with 50 health and only an ax and has to travel across the map to freedom. It can either hop over a wall or travel by truck. It's not as easy as it sounds, however. If it touches the road or strays too far off the side path, it dies. The blue team can pick almost all the classes, so having a soldier with a rocket launcher in your way can be a problem. Fortunately, the yellow team is there to protect the red border jumpers. Playing as any of the teams is really fun, but of course, being blue and raking up hundreds of kills is the best. There is also a map called sawmill, which is pretty pointless but is still fun to play. You have a couple of heavy weapons guys mow down other players with 50 health and an ax. The disadvantaged players try to get to a switch pad, where they are awarded with quad damage and hack the heavy weapons guys to pieces. Hunted is like the VIP maps in Counter-Strike. One player is the president, who must get to an area of safety. You have one team trying to assassinate him, while the other team tries to protect him.

There are just so many more maps that I can list from Team Fortress. Maps such as aztec1, bases, h4rdcore, rock1, sewer1, and street1 are all very good maps in their own right. I really can't name any other game in which I have liked basically every map that most servers are running. It's one of the reasons I played the game for so long, and I'll play Team Fortress 2 whenever it's released.

Next: A world, not levels

 
Jennifer Ho
Features Editor

When the subject of level design comes up in game forums, reviews, or debates on game design, it seems that a lot of people first think of levels in first-person shooters or 3D action games. In message board forums or in-game, you'll hear gamers comparing maps and mods and debating the advantages and disadvantages of each for different game types. While action games get a lot of attention for their levels, level design in other genres can be just as tricky.

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I think it can be hard to make interesting and complex levels for 2D games. One of my favorite 2D games of the past, Jazz Jackrabbit 2, had great level design. Jazz Jackrabbit 2 is basically a shoot-'em-up platformer that features a cartoon rabbit named Jazz and his brother, Spaz. The levels in the game are humorous takes on pop culture and history, with such themes as the psychedelic "Purple Haze" maze. While the goal of the game is pretty much to gather up as many gold coins as you can, kill off wandering enemies, and complete the obstacle course, the puzzles and obstacles are cleverly arranged so that you feel challenged, and all the different projectile weapons are fun to shoot. The rabbits also have this ear-spinning helicopter fall, which makes dangerous drops from the tops of levels safe. In addition, the levels use parallax scrolling, which basically gives each level the illusion of depth in an otherwise "flat" game. The characters' moves, the weapons, the humorous settings, and the colorful themes all make the game's level design funny and interesting. I had this platformer on my hard drive for a long time, and it was especially fun to play co-op mode on airplane rides.

A 3D overview of EverQuest's Veeshan's Peak zone

But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention some 3D games with interesting level design. When I think of level design in 3D games, I tend to think of expansive gameworlds like Unreal, whose single-player indoor/outdoor levels made an impression on me when the game was released. In an online role-playing game, immersion and the suspension of disbelief are crucial, and EverQuest's diverse indoor and outdoor zones really exemplify well-thought-out design. The landscapes represent all types of terrain, including oceans, and have a night-and-day cycle as well as weather effects, which actually affect your ability to see and navigate. The indoor zones, which include 36 dungeons, are well laid out. They also have complex, nonlinear structures and exude atmosphere.

When walking on ice, don't slip, and don't look up or down...

For example, Velketor's Labyrinth from The Scars of Velious expansion is a very cool maze with slippery ice ramps, creatures that can detect your invisibility, towering statues of dragons, traps, and fatal drops, and what's more challenging is that any form of levitation is impossible such that you're forced to walk on the slippery ramps and fight through difficult areas. The zone really sets the stage for dungeon crawling, and the imagery creates a chilly atmosphere of trepidation, as giant spiders stare through you with their many beady little eyes. The Crystal Caverns underground dungeon is another great indoor zone, with plenty of tunnels twisting through rock and shimmering blue crystals, much like the first caves in Unreal but much larger and deeper in scale. The most difficult thing about some of these dungeons is that you can't always count on specific landmarks to get around, and getting lost inside is quite common--this is where survival skills really matter. This gameplay approach is not about hack and slash but about scouting out the area and setting up a strategy for deeper exploration; it can also be out making a narrow escape with your life. And this is what makes exploring the unknown in an online RPG such an exciting thing.

Next: Counter-Strike please

 
Giancarlo Varanini
Assistant Previews Editor

Level design is one of those things that can either make or break a game. If a game has levels that are horribly designed, the rest of the game suffers regardless of how good it looks, plays, or sounds. A perfect example of this can be found in this Viking-themed action game, Rune. As expected with just about anything powered by the Unreal engine, the game looks fantastic, and it plays well if you like the rather simplistic hack-and-slash gameplay. But its major problem is its level design, which is so inconsistent qualitywise that it makes you want to stop playing the game. One of the early levels features a small town area, where Ragnar runs around and gathers information from various villagers before moving on to the next area. However, because of the awkward town design, a simple task like finding a door that leads into the next area becomes a chore because it's not exactly obvious where the door leading to the next area is--it's almost like trying to find a hidden area.

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The design in some of the later levels gets better, but there are still some serious flaws, like the fact that you have to go through what seems like an endless series of caves, which you either walk or swim through. The walking portions aren't that bad since there are plenty of enemies--like the giant crabs--to fight, but spending an hour or so in areas that look nearly identical takes the fun out of the game rather quickly. In addition, there are a few water areas in the caves, where it's nearly impossible to tell which direction you're going in. And when you do find the correct exit, it's usually because of luck.

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To be fair, it's much easier to pick out less-entertaining levels since the flaws are so obvious in comparison to well-designed levels. Levels are usually good because they combine a number of different things well, like the first few levels in Unreal. These could've been the same as any other level, but because of a few touches here and there, they're one the most memorable for me. I remember the first time walking through the air vent and seeing one of the Skaarj at the end of the tunnel; this one scene did an excellent job of setting up an Aliens-like atmosphere, where you tread through the fallen ship carefully, watching every corner for the monster you just saw in the air vent a few moments ago. It all culminates in a scene in which the lights go out, something behind you growls, and the lights start flashing as you're assaulted by one of the Skaarj.

There are other examples of excellent level design, ones that are based on technical rather than aesthetic merits. An example of this is Quake maps, like DM2, are similar in that they really enhance the overall experience because they force you to learn the ins and outs of a game.

Next: Serious Sam again

 
Trey Walker
PC News Editor

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Serious Sam may not have the best level design of all time, but I've really enjoyed the game's levels. They tend to flow together nicely, and it isn't always completely obvious where the objective is and what you're supposed to be doing, aside from running around backward, killing everything in sight and trying to survive. In some ways, good level design should work like a good movie score--players in the game shouldn't really notice the level design itself; they should instead just enjoy the game and maybe realize the quality of the level design afterward. This is how I've felt playing Serious Sam, although occasionally I've noticed particularly cool parts of different levels.

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I like how the levels in the game match the straightforward nature of the rest of the game. I haven't found anything convoluted in the game so far. It's been refreshing to progress through a game without having to find keys and solve puzzles. The levels also have good geometric variety: There are cramped, narrow corridors lined with alcoves; rooms full of large columns; courtyard spaces with bridges and fountains; and wide-open desert spaces with nothing to hide behind. The differences in these spaces make it necessary to use different survival tactics, which keeps the game interesting. There's also a nice combination of enemies in the levels, and while there's no good explanation of why these creatures are in the places they are, it's fun to see the difference between fighting a large homogenous group of enemies and fighting a group of enemies made up of several different kinds of creatures.

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Admittedly, the game doesn't have the same kind of varied experiences that more-complicated games like No One Lives Forever have. There's no jumping out of planes or sneaking around. And there aren't any hostages whom you need to be careful of not shooting. Despite the different kinds of environments and enemies, the gameplay in Serious Sam still boils down to running around and killing everything, and the level design encourages that behavior. So while the levels themselves may not be masterpieces of art, they do meet the all-important requirement of being fun to play.

Next: Readers talk about their favorite games so far this year

Reader Letters


What's Your Favorite Game This Year?


Regretfully, this is the first time I have disagreed with GameSpot's rating on any game. I've been playing RPGs ever since Dragon Warrior on the NES, and I have assembled a selection of favorites. Summoner is close to the top. It is the game that I believe will be known in the future as the game that started the 3D RPG explosion. It is true that it is not the first to have three dimensions, but it is the first to be completely 3D.

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Another reason this game is my pick for the best game this year is its plot. This is one of the key elements to a good RPG. Also, the soundtrack for this game is one of the best I've heard. This, combined with the great ambient sounds and battle clashes, makes for great sound quality. The graphics--what can I say, they are stunning! The fact that you can rotate your camera around a spell while it's being cast and see all sides of it, as well as the awesome detail, just amazed me. The bottom line is that Summoner, in my opinion, was judged harshly by game reviewers because of a few bugs and camera problems. Summoner is a breakthrough game. Almost every 3D game of any genre has camera problems, so I expected glitches (though personally, I had none). Summoner, if given a chance, will become an addiction. This is why my vote goes to Summoner!

--Adam Stengler


I'm not the biggest game buyer, but this is my opinion: Serious Sam is the best can of whoop-ass you can ask for in a CD. After doing network administration troubleshooting all day, the last thing I want to do is to train my damn ape in Black & White to water trees again and again and again.

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But Sam gets back to the adrenaline-pumping, stress-relieving twitch fest that I recall so well from Quake Thunderwalker CTF back in college. A guy, a target, and double-barrel shotgun. How can it get any sweeter? A screen full of Age of Empires II Goths swarming out of the barracks is a close second, but that's another argument.

--Jamie Fullerton


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I'd definitely have to say NASCAR Racing 4! No racing sim has captured the heart-pounding action of the real thing like this game from the Papyrus team. Black & White is unique, and Fallout Tactics may truly be the epitome of strategy, but NASCAR Racing 4 takes the award. I can't get enough of it.

--Drew Vane

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