Level Design: What Is It and What Makes It Successful?

Diana Ipacs

December 18, 2023

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Level design in video games: where creativity meets strategy. Discover techniques for crafting captivating worlds that engage players.


Level design is a crucial element in creating successful and engaging gaming experiences. Every game has different levels that need thoughtful consideration to keep the player engaged. From classic arcade games to modern open-world adventures, level design sets the tone of a game and keeps the player motivated. This is what defines the game world, setting the rules of the game, and laying the foundation for a player's adventure. Without proper design, a game can become dull and frustrating for the player.

Level design involves more than just deciding where to place obstacles. It includes elements such as pacing, difficulty, navigation, storytelling, and aesthetics. Good level design should ensure that all these elements harmonize and fit together seamlessly to create a holistic experience.

In this article, we will explore the evolution of level design, tips and best practices, the importance of adding obstacles and rewards, and the different planning stages involved. We will also analyze successful examples of level design in video games and highlight what makes them stand out. Let's jump in!

Level Design – Bluebird Blog

The Evolution of Level Design: A Short History

Level design has come a long way since its inception. From basic textures and simple layouts to complex, detailed, and immersive environments, its evolution has been a gradual process that has taken place over many years. Its history can be traced back to the earliest video games such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, where the levels were nothing more than basic platforms and obstacles.

As gaming technology progressed, so did level design. Games like Super Mario Bros. introduced multi-layered levels with hidden secrets and power-ups, giving players more freedom to explore the environment and interact with it in unique ways. The use of 3D graphics in games like Doom and Quake revolutionized level design, allowing for more intricate and complex environments with varying heights and depths.

In the modern era, level design has become an art form, with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption 2 offering immense worlds with detailed landscapes and immersive gameplay elements. The evolution of video games has taken us from simple, rudimentary levels to fully-realized, lifelike virtual worlds.

Tips and Best Practices for Effective Level Design

Creating levels that engage and challenge players is a complex task that requires careful planning and attention to detail. Here are some practical tips and best practices for creating well-designed levels:

1. Focus on Layout

To ensure players navigate the level easily, always start with a clear and intuitive layout. Group similar elements together and avoid creating dead ends or areas with no purpose. Consider the player's movement and guide them towards points of interest.

2. Control the Pacing and Difficulty

The pacing and difficulty of a level are critical for keeping players engaged and motivated. Gradually introduce new mechanics and increase difficulty in a reasonable and consistent way. Allow players to rest between challenging sections to avoid frustration or burnout.

3. Use Storytelling Elements

Storytelling can enrich the player's experience and provide context for the challenges they face. Use visual storytelling and level design to convey important information and emotions. For example, ambient sounds, environmental details, and visual cues can all be used to tell a story without words.

4. Test Your Levels Thoroughly

Testing is crucial for identifying and solving issues in level design. Playtest your levels extensively and gather feedback from playtesters to improve navigation, pacing, difficulty, and storytelling. Iterative testing helps you create better-designed levels that are more enjoyable for players.

Obstacles and Rewards: Adding Challenge to Level Design

Level design is not just about creating visually enticing environments - it's also about crafting gameplay experiences that keep players engaged and motivated. And one of the most effective ways to achieve this is by incorporating obstacles and rewards into level design.


Obstacles can range from enemy encounters and puzzles to environmental hazards and platforming challenges. They create a sense of challenge and tension, forcing players to strategize and plan to overcome them. Additionally, obstacles can serve as a tool for storytelling, reinforcing narrative beats or character development through gameplay.

Well-designed obstacles strike a careful balance, providing a challenge that is difficult enough to be satisfying but not so hard that it becomes frustrating or discouraging. It's crucial to consider the player's skill level and adjust the difficulty curve accordingly.


Rewards, on the other hand, incentivize players to take on obstacles and make progress through the level. These can come in many forms, such as collectibles, power-ups, or story revelations. Rewards have an immediate psychological impact on players, giving them a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that encourages them to keep playing.

It's important to note that rewards should not feel like busywork or padding. They should be strategically placed to motivate players to push forward and explore. Too many rewards can also undermine the challenge, making the obstacles feel trivial.


Ultimately, the interplay between obstacles and rewards creates a cohesive gameplay experience that keeps players engaged and challenged. Well-designed levels should not be too easy or too hard, striking a balance between obstacles that provide a challenge and rewards that motivate players to push through that challenge. When done right, level design can create a sense of flow and momentum that keeps players captivated and wanting more.

The Stages of Level Design: From Concept to Playable Level

Developing a well-designed level in a video game requires a series of deliberate and interconnected steps. Here are the key stages of level design:

Concept Ideation

At this stage, designers brainstorm ideas, draw rough sketches, and create concept art to envision the level's look, feel and mechanics.


Once a concept is selected, designers create a basic prototype of the level to see how it plays. This includes testing out functional mechanics, placement of objects and obstacles, and determining the feel and pace of gameplay.

Testing and Iteration

After the initial prototype is created, the level goes through testing. This is where designers gather feedback from players to evaluate how the level can be improved upon. Designers iterate and refine the level based on the feedback until it's ready for the final stage.


At this final stage, the level is polished to ensure a seamless experience. This includes refining the look and feel of the level with lighting, sound design, and additional details, as well as testing it to ensure fine-tuning of difficulty, pacing, and player flow.

With these stages of level design in mind, designers can create immersive and enjoyable levels that contribute to an engaging gaming experience.

Characteristics of Good vs. Bad Level Design

Well-designed levels are essential for creating an enjoyable and engaging gaming experience. Here are some key characteristics that distinguish good level design from bad:

  1. 1
    Player agency: Good design gives players a sense of control, allowing them to make choices that affect the game's outcome. Bad design restricts players' choices and forces them down a linear path.
  2. 2
    Flow: Good design creates a smooth and seamless experience, with a natural progression of challenges and obstacles. Bad level design can lead to frustration and a disjointed gameplay experience.
  3. 3
    Intuitive design: Good level design is easy to understand and navigate, with clear visual cues and logical layout. Nonintuitive design can leave players confused and disoriented.

Keeping these characteristics in mind while designing levels will contribute to a gameplay experience that is both challenging and enjoyable for players.

Good Level Design: Best practices

Clear and Engaging Objectives

Ensure that each level has well-defined goals that are both understandable and motivating for players.

Balanced and Intuitive Layouts

Design levels that provide the right mix of challenge and navigability, guiding players naturally and avoiding confusion.

Consistent Difficulty Curve

Gradually increase the difficulty in a way that feels natural and rewarding, avoiding abrupt spikes that can lead to player frustration.

Incorporate Player Feedback

Regularly use feedback from playtesting to refine your levels. This helps in making adjustments that enhance player experience and enjoyment.

Purposeful Space Utilization

Design every area of the level with a specific purpose, whether it's for advancing the narrative, presenting a challenge, or offering exploration opportunities.

Varied and Creative Challenges

Include a diverse range of puzzles, obstacles, and enemies to maintain player interest and prevent monotony.

Seamless Integration of Story Elements

Use the level design to complement and enhance the game’s narrative, making the gameplay experience more immersive and coherent.

The Importance of Surprise in Level Design

Level design can make or break a gaming experience. One of the challenges level designers face is combatting boredom and keeping players engaged. Incorporating surprises and unexpected moments into level design can prevent players from losing interest.

The key to creating successful surprises is to make sure they fit into the overall gameplay and story. A surprise must be more than just a gimmick; it must add value to the experience. For example, surprising players with a hidden passage that leads to a powerful weapon can keep them engaged and excited about exploring the level.

Surprises can also be used to subvert player expectations. For instance, many games have trained players that an enemy will always appear in an empty room. But what if no enemy appears? This kind of surprise can break player expectations and keep them on their toes.

Another way to add surprise is to change the environment. For example, in the game Bioshock, the player enters a level set in a seemingly normal dentist's office, but as they progress, the environment changes into a horrific dental torture chamber. This drastic change in setting and environment creates an unnerving sense of surprise and makes the level more memorable.

Incorporating surprises into level design doesn't just combat boredom, it can also enhance the emotional impact of the story. A well-crafted surprise can shock players and make them more invested in the game's narrative.

So all in all: adding surprises and unexpected moments to level design can keep players engaged, combat boredom, and enhance the overall gaming experience.

Bad Level Design: Things to Avoid

Creating good level design in video games is as much about what you avoid as it is about what you include. Here are key pitfalls to avoid for effective level design:

Lack of Clear Objectives

Players need to understand their goals. Confusing or unclear objectives can lead to frustration and disengagement.

Overcomplicating Layouts

While complexity can be good, overly complicated layouts that confuse players can detract from the gaming experience. It’s important to strike a balance between challenge and navigability.

Poor Pacing

Throwing too many challenges at players too quickly can be overwhelming, while too few can make the game boring. Good level design requires thoughtful pacing that gradually increases in difficulty and complexity.

Inconsistent Difficulty

Levels that spike in difficulty unexpectedly or fluctuate wildly can frustrate players. Consistent challenge scaling is key.

Neglecting Player Feedback

Ignoring playtest feedback can result in missed opportunities to improve levels. Player feedback is crucial for understanding how your game is experienced by others.

Underutilized Space

Every area in a level should have a purpose. Filling a game with empty or irrelevant spaces can make the experience feel hollow and unengaging.

Ignoring Storytelling Elements

Levels should contribute to the overall narrative or theme of the game. Neglecting storytelling can make a level feel disconnected from the game’s world.

Inadequate Testing

Without thorough testing, it’s easy to miss bugs, balance issues, or design flaws that could negatively impact the player's experience.

Forgetting Accessibility

Not considering different types of players, including those with disabilities, can limit your game's audience. Accessibility should be a key consideration in level design.

Overreliance on Tropes

While familiar elements can be comforting to players, relying too much on clichés or overused design tropes can make a game feel unoriginal and predictable.

Bad level design, with its unclear objectives, confusing layouts, and erratic difficulty levels, often frustrates players. However, by recognizing and avoiding these issues, game developers can craft better and more engaging games. Focusing on clear, intuitive design and balanced challenges allows them to create memorable gaming experiences that resonate strongly with players.

Creativity and Fun: Harnessing the Power of Imagination in Level Design

One of the most exciting aspects of level design is the limitless potential for creativity and fun. From fantastical worlds to epic challenges, level designers have the power to transport players to new and exciting places, immersing them in unique and memorable experiences.

Whether it's designing a stunning environment, creating challenging puzzles, or crafting an engaging story, design offers endless opportunities to flex your creative muscles and have fun in the process. The best level designers understand the importance of balancing creativity and fun with solid design principles to keep players engaged and invested.

Through clever use of mechanics, pacing, and dynamic storytelling, designers can create experiences that are not only fun to play but also evoke a sense of wonder and excitement in players. A great game has levels that challenge players while also transporting them to other worlds and realities.

In short, creativity and fun are at the heart of successful level design.

Level Design Case Studies: Successful Examples

Effective level design is critical to creating immersive and engaging video game experiences. Let's take a closer look at some notable games that excel in level design:

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

This open-world game from Nintendo is praised for its creative level design, which encourages exploration and experimentation from the player. The game's mechanics, such as climbing and gliding, are seamlessly integrated into the world, making traversal feel intuitive and exhilarating. The nonlinear structure allows players to tackle challenges in any order they choose, and the puzzles and enemies are smartly placed to promote critical thinking and combat strategy.

Hollow Knight

This indie game is celebrated for its intricate, interconnected level design that creates a strong sense of place and atmosphere. The sprawling map features hidden pathways, complex layouts, and branching paths, all of which contribute to an engaging sense of exploration and discovery. The game's lore and story are also carefully woven into the world, encouraging players to piece together its mysteries as they progress through the levels.

Super Mario Odyssey

This classic franchise entry from Nintendo showcases how a 3D platformer can utilize level design to create memorable, fun gameplay. The game's colorful and diverse environments range from bustling cities to psychedelic worlds, and each offers a range of challenges and secrets to uncover. The game's mechanics, such as Mario's ability to capture and control enemies, add a surprising amount of depth and variety to the platforming gameplay, keeping it fresh and exciting throughout the journey.

These games demonstrate that effective and innovative level design is crucial to creating immersive and enjoyable video game experiences. Combining elements such as intelligent enemy placement, creative puzzle design, and seamless mechanics integration will result in worlds that feel alive and engaging.

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