Enemy Based Level Design

Varun Bajaj
13 min readOct 12, 2021


There are various approaches one can take to design a level. However, my research is focused on how levels can be designed based on the enemies present in each level.

Lightless( https://lightanic-studios.itch.io/lightless ), a game I worked on with a team of students from Rochester Institute of Technology, has a variety of distinct enemy types that have their own characteristics. This not only affects the general layout but decides the nature of puzzles that each level features. Each enemy has a different attack pattern, as well as different strengths and weaknesses. These distinct characteristics helped shape the levels I designed and lead to some very interesting design choices, which I have highlighted in my research. Using my research, I hoped to design interesting and engaging levels that made enemy encounters seem fair, well-paced and continuously challenging, keeping players on their feet at all times. I planned on researching about how games have handled enemy-placement in the past and how enemies impact the design of a level and used that knowledge to create levels from the ground up, specifically tailored to the enemies in our game ‘Lightless’ in which the player must use light to solve puzzles and navigate the environment, while keeping in mind that the enemies in the game are attracted to light.

I planned to analyze levels from similar games and games that focus on a variety of enemy types. Having different types of enemies open up the possibilities for designing distinct layout that not only provides variety in gameplay but also encourages the player to come up with his/ her own unique strategy to get to the end. The design of each level depended on the player-enemy, enemy-environment, and enemy-enemy interactions as well, which I thought would be one of the most interesting aspects of my research. With Level Design being my primary responsibility, I got the opportunity to use all the knowledge I gained from my research to make the levels more fun and balanced. Designing handcrafted levels based on the enemies made sure that the player experienced the game exactly how I intended, with him/her being in a state of complete flow from start to finish.

An Overview of the Research Space

Analyzing levels in games having different enemy types -

This is a shallow dive into the layouts of games that feature multiple enemy types like God of War (featuring enemies of different levels of difficulty, ranging from small orcs to large bosses) and The Last of Us (featuring different kinds of infected enemies like runners, clickers and bloaters that need to be dealt with differently) that were inspirations for some of the layouts of levels from Lightless, specifically focusing on what I learnt from them and how I applied them during the development of Lightless.

God of War Level Design Analysis

There are a variety of different enemies that roam the world of God of War. Each of them have different strengths and weaknesses.

This is the first time the player encounters an enemy in the game. The area is wide enough for the player to move around the enemy and let the player take their time. This is the weakest enemy in the game and appears alone when first introduced.

Figure: First enemy encounter in God of War

In the immediate next section, the player is faced with more of these generic enemies with a much larger space for the combat to take place in. It gives the player more freedom to tackle the encounter and serves as target practice to help improve the player’s skills.

Figure: Large open spaces to deal with multiple enemies

This is a similar example of a wider open space/level where the player is made to face multiple enemy types. The enemies in this level (the troll and the minions) have to be defeated in different ways since they have different weaknesses and react to the player differently, and the large open spaces help the player plan his/her attack.

Figure: Wider areas to help players plan their attack against multiple enemy types

The Last of Us Level Design Analysis

The Last of Us has 4 main enemy types:

  • Runner — They run at the player when the player is spotted.
  • Clicker — They are blind but sense when the player gets too close/ makes a loud sound.
  • Bloater — They are the final stage of the infected and are the strongest to face. They throw balls of dust at the player that explode on contact resulting in damage.
  • Humans — They are generic enemies with weapons, but can pose a significant threat when in large groups.

This is the first time the player comes in contact with a runner. The runner is facing away from the player giving the player a chance to sneak up and perform a stealth kill. This teaches the player that the runner needs to see them to be aware of their presence.

Figure: First Runner encounter in The Last of Us

The clicker is introduced very cleverly. An NPC companion throws a bottle to distract the clicker to another place in the room. The room is big enough to give the player an option to either use their limited ammo to kill the clicker or sneak past it to the next room/area.

Figure: Introduction to Clickers in The Last of Us

Just a few minutes later, the player reaches an area that has both runners and a clicker. Using the knowledge gathered about them so far, the player has to deal with the runners first, ideally using stealth to avoid alerting the clicker. The level provides a variety of different routes the players can take to decide how they have to kill all the infected present there.

Figure: Tackling both Runners and Clickers at once
Figure: Level allows for coming up with different strategies

The last stage of the infected i.e. the Bloater is introduced in a large room since it is also good at ranged combat. This gives the player enough space to not only dodge its projectiles, but also take care of the other runners in the room without making the scene seem too crowded.

Figure: The level is wide enough to introduce the Bloater (ranged enemy) and contain Runners

Lastly, the humans as mentioned earlier can pose a threat if in large numbers. Since they have weapons too, encounters with them are very different from the ones with the infected. In Lightless, every enemy kills the player on contact, however, the way each enemy reacts to the player is different, just like the enemies in The Last of Us. The humans in the game have patrol paths just like the monsters in Lightless. Patrol paths that we Level Designers decide, not only help us deliver a custom tailored combat experience, but also lets the player choose which path they want to take/plan they want to execute. Their paths also affect the design of the level.

Figure: Enemy paths play an important role in Level Design
Figure: Giving the player the freedom to choose their own path

Enemy Placement in levels from existing games and its effect on flow and pacing -

Here I look at how level designers place enemies in their games, specifically on the number of enemies they place and the rate at which they want the player to face them as they play through the game. Specifically, I will analyze levels from God of War and Batman Arkham Asylum (the spacing out of combat areas and puzzle/exploration areas).

God of War Enemy Placement

Things start to get very interesting when multiple enemy types start getting introduced. For example, the first time an axe-resistant enemy is introduced, the player is never told directly that it is resistant to the axe. The player only find that out after he/she sees that their axe is not inflicting any damage. This enemy is placed alone initially, and is later grouped with multiple axe-resistant enemies so the player is not overwhelmed.

Figure: Introducing an axe-resistant enemy by itself
Figure: Making the player face off against multiple such enemies later in the game

On the contrary, a relatively easy enemy with low health like the enemy that throws a projectile, is introduced along with other enemies, and not individually. This ensures that there is no sudden drop in the level of difficulty, and that the player remains in a state of flow.

Figure: Weaker enemies are not introduced by themselves

Stronger enemies like the mini-trolls are introduced alone and are later coupled with other enemy types so the player gets a hang of tackling multiple enemy types at once. This helps maintain a steady pace that makes for a better experience.

Figure: Facing off against multiple enemy types
Figure: Facing off against multiple enemy types

There are some enemies introduced later in the game that have to be dealt with completely differently from others, like the Stunner in Lightless. An example of one such enemy in God of War is the teleporting witch. It can only be killed by first stunning it with Atreus’s arrows and then attacking it when it is stunned. These are scattered around the game sparingly as they can be difficult to deal with, and there are never more than 2 of these appearing together in the game.

Figure: Introducing an enemy type completely different from other enemies in the game

Batman Arkham Asylum Pacing

The main takeaway from the levels in Batman Arkham Asylum was the way they helped pace the game. They kept the gameplay varied, constantly made the player face new and exciting challenges, and made the enemy encounters feel fresh and engaging by spacing them throughout the game and making the player deal with multiple combinations of the different enemy types. The puzzle/ investigation sections and combat sections are placed strategically to avoid player fatigue and to keep the player interested with variation.

This detailed flowchart by Filip Coulianos demonstrates how Arkham Asylum provides this variation. Every cell represents one minute of gameplay.

Figure: Batman Arkham Asylum Pacing and Flow

In the levels I designed in Lightless, I made sure that the gameplay is varied as well. I wanted to ensure that the player’s interest is never lost, which is why I maintained a healthy mix of puzzle, exploration and combat areas with enemy encounters.

Too many enemy encounters one after the other would make the players feel overwhelmed and would not give them enough motivation to progress. This way, when the players deals with an enemy encounter in Lightless, they are given some breathing time where they are usually made to learn a new mechanic/ solve a puzzle. Solving puzzles at a constant rate also makes the player feel a lot more rewarded. While I designed levels based on the enemies in the game, I also kept in mind that these other areas were equally important and that they were visibly safe so the players knew that they did not have to worry about enemies attacking them at that point. The enemies in our game have the following behaviors:

Runner — They run towards the player when the player turns on the lamp/flashlight

Lunger (Cut)— They leap/lunge towards the player when the player turns on the lamp/flashlight

Stunner — This enemy is stunned temporarily when the flashlight is shined on it. It is also attracted to the player if their lamp is turned on.

Figure: The distribution of Combat and Puzzle areas in Lightless

Implementing this in Lightless

The Plan : Designing levels in Lightless based on enemy types -

Here, I share layouts and plans of the levels I designed based on the enemies in our game, namely the Runner, Lunger and Stunner. I also explain my entire level design process and how my research helped me create levels in Lightless.

My level design process -

I started off with paper layouts, and iterated on them based on feedback from my team. Here, I focused on designing levels tailored specifically for the Runner, Stunner and Lunger. After the paper layouts were made, I created greyboxes for the layouts in Unity, which would then be playtested. After incorporating the feedback from the playtests, I usually worked on polish and world-building.

Figure: Example greybox for designing a level tailored for a Runner (The red circles being the alert radius of each Runner)

This was the initial introduction for the Runner(which runs in the direction of the player) where the level was designed to give the player enough space to move around, and also had a large pit to help the player trap the runner in it using the light from his/her lantern.

Figure: Runner Intro Layout

This was the initial introduction for the Lunger, which would lunge towards the player, take a pause and lunge in the player’s direction again. The idea behind this section was to have a narrow path so the player has to come up with a strategy to get past it. The strategy would be to turn off the flashlight and walk along the corners of the narrow path to avoid getting caught by the Lunger.

Figure: Lunger Intro Layout

This next layout was the initial introduction for the Stunner. The Stunner gets stunned by concentrated light, like the light from the flashlight for example.

Since this was the first time the player interacted with the Stunner, I made it a smaller space so the player would in most cases shine their flashlight at the Stunner, which would show them how it reacted differently to light compared to the other enemies in the game.

Figure: Stunner Intro Layout

This next layout was for the first time the player would face more than one enemy at once. Like in God of War and The Last of Us, the level will now make the player use different strategies for each of these enemies to get past them, making the level a lot more interesting in my opinion.

Figure: Facing off against multiple enemy types

Another similar example of a layout I designed would be when the player is given a gas can to light a trail of fire. The Runner runs straight through the burning fire and disintegrates, however the Stunner just gets attracted towards it and stares at it till the fire burns out. The light activated door at the end also ensures that the player can’t just run past them without dealing with them first.

Figure: Different enemies require different strategies

I also made it a point to design puzzles specifically tailored for these enemies. For example, when I introduced the spotlight mechanic, I placed a Stunner in the area to showcase how the beam from the spotlight can be used to stun it continuously. (seen in Puzzle 1 in the layout below)

Figure: Spotlight mechanic layout
Figure: Spotlight and Stunner Combo

Another example would be when I used the prism to split light into two beams to stun 2 stunners at once.

Figure: Prism and Stunner Combo

How it turned out : Levels in Lightless and Player Feedback -

In this section, I share levels from the game showcasing how the levels were built around the enemies in the game and what playtesters felt about them.

In general, the players seemed to really like the level sections featuring the enemies. They were never stuck not knowing how to get past an enemy, which I thought was pretty nice. They seemed to learn the differences in the enemies pretty early on and enjoyed coming up with strategies to get past them, some of which I hadn’t even thought of myself. We kept getting a lot of useful feedback after every playtest, which I kept incorporating with every iteration.

Feedback included:

  • Areas being too wide/ too narrow
  • Areas being too dark/ too bright
  • Not having enough space to deal with certain enemies
  • Some enemy encounters being too difficult/ challenging

I made sure that all these issues were taken care of, and that the levels made the enemy encounters feel fresh, fair and rewarding.

Here are some sections from the game that I discussed about designing earlier.

  • The Introduction to the Runner: This was very well received and people seemed to really like making the Runner fall into the pit.
Figure: Game Screenshot : Runner Intro
  • The Introduction to the Lunger: Here, the players really liked coming up with the strategy of turning off the flashlight to sneak past the Lunger. The Lunger would always get them when their flashlight was turned on.
Figure: Game Screenshot : Lunger Intro
Figure: Game Screenshot : Narrow path with a Lunger
  • The Introduction to the Stunner: The players would learn how the Stunner reacted differently to light, and would always be surprised since this is the only enemy in the game that is not attracted to focused light, which was the aim behind the design if this section of the level.
Figure: Game Screenshot : Stunner Intro
  • Taking on multiple enemy types at once: While the players initially found this section pretty challenging, they realized that if they took their time with it, and dealt with the Stunner and Runner separately, it would be much easier.
Figure: Game Screenshot : Taking on multiple enemy types at once
Figure: Game Screenshot : Runner in the same area (Taking on multiple enemy types at once)
  • Using mechanics like the Prism and the Spotlight to deal with enemies: The players really seemed to like the way the objects placed in the level can be used to deal with enemies. With light being the most important resource in the game, players enjoyed using it in different ways to get past the enemies — https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6850067142797271040/
Figure: Final segments I made that teach the player to face off against enemies using the prism and spotlight mechanics, and the end of the game.
Figure: Game Screenshot: Placing tools to help deal with enemies(Prism)
Figure: Game Screenshot: Placing tools to help deal with enemies(Spotlight)

All in all, people really seemed to enjoy facing off against the different enemies in the levels that were designed tailored specifically to them. The difference in layouts that the encounters took place in and tools placed in the levels to help deal with the enemies managed to keep the players interested and constantly challenged.

Hope you found this research helpful! Thanks for reading!

~Varun Bajaj(www.varunbajaj.me/ Twitter-@VarunBajaj22)