Architectural Functionality in Game Levels

When I play games I feel like I can tell if playspaces were built with architectural logic in mind, or if somebody is just grinding out gameplay zones and putting artistic themes on top.

The identity and personality of a game space is stronger if the place makes sense in the game world. Area identity and ‘functional logic’ improves player pathfinding and immersion. As a level design lead, I see huge value in helping Level Designers to identify the function of spaces before building them for a video game.

Gameplay Functionality Is First And You Knew That

(Again, ‘scuse me for being obvious.) The whole purpose of a video game level is to provide spaces for the player to experience gameplay. Game mechanics let players do various cool things to overcome challenges, and level designers create spaces in which to experience those challenges. Fighting games have flat arenas, adventure games demand exotic variety. Cover shooters have.. cover. You get the idea.

As a level designer, the thing you concern yourself with primarily is always gameplay. If the space isn’t convenient for gameplay, nothing else really matters.

But weird, bad levels happen when designers are focused on ONLY gameplay.

Architectural Logic Brings Value Even In Unrealistic Games

Whatever the space “is”, there are logical assumptions associated with the identity. In real life and in your game fantasy, spaces exist for some reason, and the way the space is built should support the functionality.

For example, let’s say your level is a hospital. Hospitals have long corridors with lots of small rooms or curtained chambers for seeing patients. If your hospital level doesn’t reflect this, it’s not going to look or feel like a hospital no matter how much art magic you throw on top of it.

Castles are built up of layers of secure courtyards leading to massive keeps. Train tracks and major roads mostly run straight and take a long time to curve 90 degrees. Massive structures aren’t supported by large rooms with no pillars. Nobody makes their employees jump over the conveyor belt to reach the bathroom. Etc.

Even if your level is “The Dungeon of Crazy Lord Dark”, you can draw logical rules for the environment. What mechanism drives the traps? How do minions move from one part of the dungeon to another? Who brings in the gruel for the prisoners, and from where? What’s the purpose of each area? Analyzing and asking yourself questions will help make the places make sense.

When your places have a purpose, players can find their way around more easily, areas have more personality, and it’s easier to build gameplay sequences that seem cohesive with the game world.

Macro LD Blends Gameplay With Fantasy-Functionality

Every level design in a video game is a solution to a set of needs. Designers are assigned a mission in a story, or a multiplayer game mode, or somebody’s variety matrix spreadsheet, and you have to make a place that is fun to play while telling that story, or playing that game mode, etc.

I tell level designers to “stay macro for as long as you can”, i.e., think about the level functionality in-fantasy and for gameplay from ‘high above’ the level before you get into details and start building.

For example, let’s say I’m making a spaceship level in a science-fiction stealth game. I’ll start by identifying what the spaceship does in the game fantasy universe. Does it transport soldier-bots? Is it for exploration? Is this a mining vessel that drills into asteroids? How many people work inside this ship? Is there gravity inside? Answering these questions will help me define what kinds of areas I should include in my spaceship.

Once I have my macro guidelines from the world fantasy, I’ll try to gather macro rules from the gameplay. Is this single-player or can you play with friends? What gameplay mechanics can the player use to stay in stealth? What’s the goal of the mission?

Defining each area by functionality and matching each area to gameplay mechanics the player can use BEFORE I start actually building my space will help me end up with a place that has strong identity in each area, and I will feel confident that the place will “make sense”, while supporting good gameplay.

Landmarks vs Generic Props and Player Navigation

The identity of a space in a level should be clear by looking around the space. Typically, strong unique landmarks or areas with unique architecture are what helps the player say “this is new” or “I’ve been here already”.

In game production getting your landmarks to really shine and “stay unique” is a constant process of checking and re-checking; it’s very common for AAA levels to be built out of collections of generic assets and it’s very easy for key areas to lose their identity. Watch the player camera and pay attention to how often the ‘special’ components are showcased. Your landmarks should highlight the fantasy-functionality and identity of each space. You want players to be able to call out the identity of each area without struggling.

Bend The Rules When Useful

We make video games, so gameplay will always matter most. The metrics of the game matter more than adherence to realism. If it’s slightly ridiculous that there’s a person-sized vent right above the security desk but it produces great gameplay… do the thing that’s best for gameplay.

But defining the functionality of each space in your level will help you focus on creating spaces with strong identity, and players will navigate better and be able to communicate with each other better when they play your game.

Keep asking yourself these questions, and you’ll make better levels:

  • What does this space for in gameplay?
  • What is this space for in the game fantasy world?
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