Troubleshooting Your Level: An Inside Look Into Level Design Techniques



Games are starting to get too… “hand-holdy.” Not even 10 minutes after I’ve started playing a brand new game, and I’m already reading a wall of text about how to scorch my enemy with a fireball, how to swing my sword, or how to jump. The intro story is laden with break after break. I’m over-burdened with too much information at once, and I’m not even sure what’s going on with the story! The first couple of hours of Final Fantasy XIII were a nightmare; let’s face it. It’s hard enough trying to figure out what a fal’Cie is, but throw in a complicated menu and battle system, then sprinkle some multi-page tutorials in the mix and you have a recipe for disaster.

On the other hand, Portal is a masterpiece from top to bottom, and their level design stands out amongst the accolades. What’s ironic is that the majority of game players don’t even realize they are being led through the levels and are being introduced to game mechanics until they’ve already done it. There are no lengthy menus or breaks in the action that spend 500 words trying to explain what a portal is, you just kind of… figure it out. Very few developers really know the art of level design.

I had the chance to spend some time with one level designer, who had some special insight into level design techniques that are sure to make your game top-notch.

Enter Jesse Tucker.

Jesse is currently a level designer for Runic Games, the masterminds behind the wildly popular game, Torchlight, but his experience doesn’t stop there. Prior to working with Runic, he was a level designer for Bethesda Games and had a hand in developing for Fallout 3 and its award-winning DLC packs. Jesse had a lot to say about the difficulties of level design and provided helpful feedback for those who are currently learning to perfect the art.

Visual Cues

Moving a player from the beginning to the end of the level, while keeping the fun-factor high, is more difficult than it may seem. For the designer, it may seem like common knowledge for the player to take the path to the left instead of the one to the right, but many players will become frustrated when they can’t determine the best route without trial and error. The player wants to have some idea of the consequence or reward that takes place, when they decide to go right. Jesse explains that visual cues are a very basic and useful techniques that lead players to the suggested path. The path that leads to your next objective may be the one with neatly placed columns, while the side path will be narrow or harder to see. Some gamers will choose the path with the overgrowth and dead bodies, rather than the path with the beaming light, because they want the challenge. This is all part of the risk and reward that a level designer provides to the player.

Audio Cues

The sound in a game plays a much larger part than you might think. A deep rumbling from a side room could warn the player of danger, or serve as a signal to fight a looming beast in the distance carrying a high-level battleaxe. On that same note, a melodic piano tune may ease the player’s nerves by informing them of a nearby safe-zone on the brink of an imminent attack. Portal utilized this technique with their sarcastic character, GLaDOS. GLaDOS was an ever-present audio technique used to tip the player off, when they were headed in the right direction. If GLaDOS was silent, chances are you weren’t making progress. Even though her snarky comments seemed like humorous narration, they had a strong effect on leading the player through the puzzles.

Offering Opportunity

Jesse also offered a specific example of how he used level design in Fallout 3 as a means of teaching the player the consequences of using a laser pistol near a gas leak. In one particular area of the game, the player has the opportunity to equip themselves with a laser gun. Not too far ahead, there is a hallway with a dangerous gas leak guarded by an enemy. Instead of trusting that the player would automatically make the connection, Jesse placed a context specific “Laser Gun Manual” nearby, to warn that firing the weapon near the leak would cause a consuming explosion. Once the player was introduced to the enemy, surrounded by gas, they had a chance to fire the gun from a safe position into the hallway, where the enemy lurked. The combination of the safe haven and the “Laser Gun Manual” allowed the player the opportunity to test what they had learned without distractions or fear of being attacked. Giving the player too much stimulation can often distract from the mechanic you’re trying to teach them.

Removing Distraction

How many times have we spent 30 minutes or an hour back-tracking through a maze of rooms and hallways searching for the next destination, only to get frustrated, throw down the controller and flip off the system? What about when you’re talking to an NPC, trying to get some valuable story information, and that chatty citizen interrupts the conversation and tells you about how his wife keeps complaining that he spends too much time at the pub? “Why don’t you do us all a favor and glitch yourself off of that cliff?!” These are the moments that pull the player out of the experience and ruin what the developers worked so hard to achieve. Jesse wants to teach designers that removing distractions, and drawing the player’s attention to the desired point of interest (ie. a newly opened door), is essential to keeping the player happy and having fun. When you are designing something in a game that players need to see, give them the opportunity to experience it. Don’t pile on the distractions. Wait until after the explosion before you make the previously locked door fall off its hinges.


It’s very easy for a game designer to get so wrapped up in their work that they occasionally forget, despite their constant involvement with a specific game mechanic, that gamers haven’t experienced it yet. Jesse says, “When you’re designing a system, it’s impossible to view it with a fresh set of eyes. You already know how the whole system works together, and your mind doesn’t have to make the same mental links that someone who is new to the system would.”

One of the biggest points that Jesse stressed is that, as a designer, you are going to fail hard at getting people to understand what you want them to do. One useful tip is to grab someone who isn’t familiar with the new mechanic, and watch them play through your instance. Jesse states, “Once you watch someone play through your experience, you figure out where the communication is failing. Then you have to figure out some creative mechanism that lets the player understand what you want them to. It’s different in every situation. The key is that you need to understand that the experience won’t be perfect at the start, and you need to watch others play through your spaces.”

Level designers need to be willing to bend in response to moment-to-moment design. The techniques listed above are not all-inclusive, and it’s likely that you will be faced with demands that don’t fit nicely into the problems we’ve discussed. Be willing to bend, and occasionally break, in order to find the right fit for your levels.

Know where you want to lead your audience, and take them there in as many interesting ways as possible, without making it too obvious. Jesse finished with the following comment, “The most important thing is to listen to other people’s issues with what you’re working on and try to improve on that.”

Torchlight 2 is Runic Games’ next title, which should be releasing soon. Check it out to get a glimpse of Jesse Tucker’s dynamite design techniques.

Michael Johnson is a games industry marketing professional with a focus on feature and review writing, as well as social media management.

Jesse Tucker is a level designer at Runic Games, and is currently working on Torchlight 2. He also did level design and trap design for Fallout 3 and its expansions during his time at Bethesda.


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