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An Architectural Approach To Level Design ##TOP##

Written by a game developer and professor trained in architecture, An Architectural Approach to Level Design is one of the first books to integrate architectural and spatial design theory with the field of level design. It explores the principles of level design through the context and history of architecture.

an architectural approach to level design

Now in its second edition, An Architectural Approach to Level Design presents architectural techniques and theories for you to use in your own work. The author connects architecture and level design in different ways that address the practical elements of how designers construct space and the experiential elements of how and why humans interact with that space. It also addresses industry issues like how to build interesting tutorial levels and how to use computer-generated level design systems without losing the player-focused design of handmade levels. Throughout the text, you will learn skills for spatial layout, evoking emotion through gamespaces, and creating better levels through architectural theory.

Chris Totten is Game Artist in Residence at American University. He has contributed to several independent game productions as an artist, animator, level designer, game designer, and project manager. Totten is also an active writer in the game industry, with articles featured on, GameCareerGuide, and Gamasutra. He has also published a book entitled Game Character Creation with Blender and Unity. Totten's writings on interdisciplinary approaches to game design have earned him guest speaking appearances at GDC China, Dakota State University's Workshop on Integrated Design in Games, and East Coast Game Conference.

Released on June 12th by CRC Press, An Architectural Approach to Level Design integrates architectural and spatial design theory with the field of level design. The book explores the principles of level design through the context and history of architecture, providing information useful to both academics and game development professionals.

Presenting architectural techniques and theories for level designers to use in their own work, practical elements of how designers construct space are addressed along with experiential elements of how and why humans interact with this space. Throughout the text, readers learn skills for spatial layout, evoking emotion through gamespaces, and creating better levels through architectural theory.

This article contains several excerpts from the book showing basic architectural elements that can be applied to practical level design applications along with illustrations from the book taken from my own gameplay and design journals. These sections prepare the reader for further explorations of methods for visual communication, producing emotional responses in players, encouraging social interaction, and other things important to game worlds. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing it. The book can be purchased at

These ways of seeing for level design, as well as the architectural and gamespace precedents found in the rest of this chapter, will guide our explorations of spatial design principles for level design.

As level designers, it is our job to design to the realities of how player avatars and other gameplay elements move through levels. Traversing levels is comfortable when level spaces comfortably accommodate metrics. As we will explore in later chapters, gameplay drama can be achieved when we create spaces that push metrics to the limit. Such spaces include gaps that require the farthest possible jump a character can do such as the one found in world 8-1 of Super Mario Bros. (figure 2.45) or tight corridors that restrict movement in horror games, such as Resident Evil (figure 2.46.)

When developers have moved from prototyping off the computer to prototyping in digital form, they create test levels through a process known as Whiteblocking. Whiteblocking is when a level designer creates a level out of simple geometry, most often white or simply-textured blocks (thus the name), to test whether levels accomplish the gameplay goals they want. Early on in the design process, when designers are trying to define gameplay metrics of player characters and other things, Whiteblocking can help determine what gameplay measurements should be. Likewise, designers can draft the spatial characteristics of their levels in a parti-like way, testing the sizes and shapes of certain environments for different gameplay experiences, before specific environmental art is added to a level (figure 2.51.)

The geometry used to Whiteblock level spaces is usually the simplest needed to simulate the colliders that will be used in the eventual final level design. Colliders are a component of objects in game engines that simulate the interaction between physical objects. A box collider attached to a piece of level geometry, for example, will cause that object to interact with other objects as though it is the shape of a six-sided box, regardless of the shape of the actual environmental art (figure 2.52.) Colliders can be simple geometric shapes or can be made to tightly fit organic shapes.

As an iterative process, Whiteblocking begins with almost parti-like interactive forms of levels and moves designers towards more art and ornament-centric design decisions that are not unlike interior design. As level geometries become better defined, standard pieces of environment art can be defined as well, eventually becoming the building blocks of levels.

With these differences in mind, spatial designers for games can take advantage of architectural lessons within the freedom of game design environments. Some of these lessons even have conceptual links to how levels are constructed in many modern game engines.

In Chapter 2, we discussed the Nintendo Power Method of level design, where the designer creates a macro-scaled parti or plan of their level, then distributes highlighted moments of gameplay as though developing a map for a game magazine. Each of these highlighted moments of gameplay; be they enemy encounters, movement puzzles, or helpful stopping points; have potential for their own Genius Loci. Are these places for rest or for battle? Should the player feel relaxed, tense, or meditative in these gamespaces? The answers to these questions depend highly on the game you are building, but can help you determine the kind of feel you want for your levels.

What I learned while studying for my architecture degree wasn't so much construction as design process: the study of taking an idea and developing it to it fullest potential. After I graduated (and promptly dumped the standard career route), I started work as a level designer at LucasArts. I immediately noticed the parallels between architectural design and level design, and for a videogame junkie with an architectural education, this was an epiphany. It seemed the processes I used in school could easily be adapted to level design, so I started to focus on my design process as well as my designs. This article describes these lessons I've learned about level design.

Although my examples in this article are based on the first- and third-person shooter genre (because I just finished one such game -- Star Wars: Bounty Hunter), it doesn't mean that this process only applies to those types of games. No matter what game you're working on, you can adapt elements of my level design process. Take note of the process structure, not the literal examples, and see how these processes could work for you.Also note that the majority of my drawings probably contain a little more artistic flair than is necessary. Draw at whatever skill level you're comfortable with, or use an illustration program -- it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that you attempt to represent your work in the simplest and quickest manner early on so you always keep your focus on the "big picture".

Colored pencils come in handy at this stage. I use them to color-code items and to help readability. You also might want to use grid paper to get an idea of scale and possible modularity. In the map shown in figure 5, the level was a forest layout so I had a little more freedom from orthogonal form.This final drawing should be a comprehensive layout of all the spaces in the level, drawn to relative scale, and it should include basic "contextual hints". Contextual hints are simple drawings that give the artists on your team a basic understanding of the space. For example, in the level drawing shown in figure 5, I drew some green trees and rock formations so the artist would understand where forests and cliffs were. (They are not to be taken as literal art direction - just clues to help the artists understand the spaces.) Make sure you do a few versions of this map with design reviews in between. Each version should be a little more detailed than the previous one and should incorporate feedback from the reviews. 041b061a72


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