Book review: The Hows and whys of level design

Staff Writer By: Sergio Rosa (nemirc)


Book review: The Hows and whys of level design | The Hows and Whys of Level Design, Sjoerd De Jong, book review, video game design

Disclaimer: I purchased this book a few months ago from the author's website. However, he has stated he is working on an updated version so this one can be downloaded for free.

Game development is a craft that requires a combination of different disciplines, and one of those disciplines is level design, a subject that can be taken for granted because some may be inclined to think it's only a matter of placing a terrain, obstacles and enemies, and various "game elements."

However, this discipline is more complicated than it sounds.


I previously reviewed a book about this particular subject, and while both books overlap in some cases, The Hows and Whys of Level Design by Sjoerd De Jong offers an interesting (and different) take on the subject.

The book lends some basic knowledge on different theory elements, so you are familiar with the terminology, different aspects of gameplay, level goals, global game goals, etc. Those are important elements that need to be taken into consideration, not just when you start designing a new level, but when you start designing the game itself.

For example, what's the theme of the game, or what's the core gameplay of the game, and then what's the gameplay of that specific level? Maybe you are working on a platformer, but at some point, you want to have some emphasis on story, so maybe even if the core gameplay is platforming, in some level you ditch platforming altogether to focus on the story (thus making the level gameplay about exploration, not jumping around).

On the other hand, the book also provides a lot of practical elements or examples. Part of the examples are meant to give you a better understanding of those principles, but some examples are very "hands-on" related to level paths, item placement, etc. One of the problems with level design is that some elements can be difficult to grasp, and this is where practical examples come in.

As I said before, these examples include things like in-level paths or item placement. There's an example the author gives about putting an item in a dead end, and then he starts talking about the risk-reward aspects, meaning that getting that item might be risky because you may end up being cornered by enemies, so that item must be really important so it is worth the risk.

Games are an audio-visual medium, and that means audio is as important as what you see on the screen. Many games tend to ignore that, giving the impression that, unless it's shown on the screen, it doesn't matter and audio is just a cosmetic thing.

The reality is that audio has a very important role in level design, be it for environmental elements, or gameplay elements. De Jong's background includes multiplayer maps for Unreal, so it is not surprising to see he puts a lot of emphasis on this, mentioning different aspects like player spawn sounds, items spawn and pick-up sounds, or game type-specific sounds. However, he doesn't stop there, as he also mentions things related to sound in general. As a matter of fact, the author references his work in the Unreal games (as well as those games in general) a lot in this book.

De Jong's background includes multiplayer maps for Unreal, so it is not surprising to see he puts a lot of emphasis on this, mentioning different aspects like player spawn sounds, items spawn and pickup sounds, or game type-specific sounds. However, he doesn't stop there, as he also mentions things related to sound in general. As a matter of fact, the author references his work in the Unreal games (as well as those games in general) a lot in this book.

Some people may feel tempted to think this book is outdated now that I mention "Unreal," a series of games that began nearly 20 years ago.

However, the thing about level design, and game development in general, is that, even if the technology changes, the principles are the same, and, even if you used Unreal Engine 4, Unity or Unreal Engine 2, a bad level design will always be bad if the principles are not applied correctly (just like in animation, if the principles are not there, it doesn't matter if you use MotionBuilder or pen-and-pencil).

If you are interested in level design, and you want a practical book, you should definitely get The Hows and Whys of Level Design, as it can be a very useful reference book that will be very helpful and interesting.

Relevant links: hourences.com/books-and-media

Sergio Aris ROSA, Sr. Staff Writer
Blog: nemirc.wordpress.com