A level is a part of the game in which all player action takes place until a certain goal has been reached or an end condition has been fulfilled.
One way that games can divide gameplay into separate sections or chunks are to spatially constrain players into different parts of the game world. These separate parts are typically called Levels.
The difference between Levels in a game may be in content, aesthetics, or a combination of both. Commonly used differences between levels in early arcade games, such as Missile Command, are different color themes and speed of enemy units, thereby creating different levels of difficulty. By contrast, most of the current first-person shooters and real-time strategy games have new environments to be explored in each level, i. e., each level presents new enemies and puzzles for the player. In some games, the levels can also have different primary activities the player has to perform repetitively.
Note: this pattern is not about the concept of character development through 'Levels'. That concept is described in the pattern Character Levels.
- 1 Examples
- 2 Using the pattern
- 3 Consequences
- 4 Relations
- 5 History
- 6 References
- 7 Acknowledgments
Many early computer games included Levels but where the difference was only in theme or difficulty if there was any difference at all. Examples of such games include Asteroids, Pac-Man, and Missile Command and the primary use of Levels in these games are to signify progression and repopulate the game world, and this is still found in some puzzle games such as Bejeweled, Staries, and Zoo Keeper. However, many other puzzle games have different configurations or game elements to offer new challenges. Examples of this include Braid, Continuity, Cogs, the Incredible Machine game series, Sokoban, and Portal series. Other computer games that make use of Levels to offer new challenges include Marble Madness, Mercury Meltdown, and the Lemmings series, as well as racing games such as the Gran Turismo series, the Need for Speed series, and the Wipeout series.
Many other computer games use Levels to gradually increase the difficulty while at the same time developing a story of sorts. Examples of this include The Legend of Zelda series, the Super Mario series, the Doom series, the Quake series, the Left 4 Dead series, NetHack, the Diablo series, and Torchlight.
Computer games with large game worlds sometimes use Levels to handle issues of system resources and keeping various monsters and non-player characters from moving freely. The Elder Scrolls series and the Fallout series are examples of such games. The instances found in some Massively Multiplayer Online Games, e.g. World of Warcraft, can be seen as a similar form of Levels. These allow subsets of the players logged on to particular servers to together try to complete specially designed challenges without interference or support from others; in fact several different groups can be in their own instance of the same Level and have no effect on each other, and this is the source of the name for the game concept. It should be noted though that players often have the possibility to leave these Levels without completing some goal.
Although not as common as in Computer Games, some Board Games can be seen as making use of Levels. Examples of this includes the missions of both Space Alert and Space Hulk, which are described as part of a larger story even if each game instance only typically makes use of one of the Levels. The dungeons found in many Tabletop Roleplaying Games can be seen as weak examples of Levels - they are often described as such in supplements but in many cases players could leave them whenever they wish.
Using the pattern
When implementing Levels in a game, game designers must decide how many Levels the game contains, how they differ and relate to each other, and if they are parts of a larger Game World (e.g. through Instances) or constitute the Game World. Another aspect is how much Randomness is to be used in the creation of the Levels for each game instance (one reason may be to try and provide more Varied Gameplay). Whenever Randomness is used the option of letting players provide Explicit Random Seeds emerges which can allow players to choose between having Randomness or replaying specific setups. While most of the comments about how Levels can be designed below assume that these are created by game designers, games such as the Advance Wars series and LittleBigPlanet have built-in support for players to create and share Levels as a form of Player Created Game Elements. An alternative is to create algorithms that create Levels, making them into Procedurally Generated Game Areas (and typically meaning that Randomness becomes a big part of designing the Levels). While Levels are usually designed as a continuum of the Game World populated with game elements, they can also be created from Tiles (this is done for example in Space Hulk). Levels can be created through creating Game Boards.
Themes are an easy way to differentiate Levels (see diegetic aspects below) but this needs to be tied to changed gameplay if this should not just be an visual difference. Another way to differentiate between Levels is by changing the end conditions and the primary activities of the players. Having different types of goals that require different fields of expertise guarantees Varied Gameplay and includes the possibility of having Unknown Goals as the player progresses from level to level. This either increases what is required for having Gameplay Mastery of a game or requires flexibility to be part of Gameplay Mastery. Ever Increasing Difficulty can be added to a game by steadily making Levels more difficult; combine with Procedurally Generated Game Areas this can be true past any players ability to complete Levels, otherwise it ends when finishing the game.
The combination of theme, end condition, and primary activities sets the boundaries for what diegetic game elements should be used in a given level. The use of game elements such as Alarms, Props, Big Dumb Objects, Boss Monsters, Controllers, Clues, Enemies, Environmental Effects, Game Items, Helpers, Installations, Landmarks, Obstacles, Pick-Ups, Resource Generators, Self-Service Kiosks, Switches, and Traces are all common. These, and the spatial relationships between them such as Laning, can be used to subdivide the Levels into areas with distinctively different gameplay, including Arenas, Choke Points, Flanking Routes, Galleries, Safe Havens, Secret Areas, Sniper Locations, Strongholds, and Transport Routes. Of course, they may also make them into Inaccessible Areas. Designing parts of Levels to be traversed mainly by Vehicles can make them into Vehicle Sections.
Many of these are inherently Strategic Locations while others can become this due to rarity or their position in relation to other game elements. In addition, using different setups can provide further Varied Gameplay and Surprises. In addition to these diegetic elements, Levels can be populated with non-diegetic elements such as Geospatial Game Widgets, Check Points, Save Points, and Spawn Points, of which the latter provide the possibility of Game Element Insertion during gameplay on the Level. Where Spawning of players' Avatars occur is especially important as this determines the starting conditions for the players, and this can be used to create Tension if it puts them in danger from their very appearance - this can be avoid by putting the Spawn Points in Safe Havens. Warp Zones can be created both as abstract entities or Installations, and can be used to either connect together different parts of the Level or provide the means to move to other Levels. Diegetically Outstanding Features can be used to draw players' attention to any of these elements in the Levels, or to draw them towards Red Herrings.
The use of Territories can be used to shift focus partly from what is happening in the Levels to the attributes of the actual Levels.
There are some options for Levels that affect the overall travel through them. The first is the option to let them be Backtracking Levels, that is Levels that one first moves through and then has to move back through. The second, which is a way is an opposite, is to provide Quick Returns so that players do not have to go through parts of Levels they have already been in unless they wish to do so. Setback Penalties can be used to make players traverse Levels, or parts of them, due to some failure on their part. Of course, one can introduce Traverse goals besides the one typically present of getting to the end of a Level. Automated Responses when entering Levels can give players a presentation of the them before actual gameplay begins.
The spatial construction of Levels affect how players can be made aware of the existence of further Levels, and how they perceive that they can reach them. Being able to directly observe the other levels through Invisible Walls or Inaccessible Areas is an obvious way to do this, but Game State Overviews as well as Clues and Helpers can also be used. The latter option is in some cases easier to fit within the Thematic Consistency of the game. Providing several different Levels played can chose to play, found for example in the Super Mario series, gives players a Freedom of Choice. However, it is very common to open up Levels for play through Facilitating Rewards, of which the simplest form is probably the ordering of Levels in a sequence and making the completion of one Level the requirement for opening up the next Level in the sequence for gameplay. While Facilitating Rewards can be used to automatically move players to new Levels, Access Rewards can be used instead to open up for players to choose which Levels to attempt next.
Game designers can with relative surety make Levels have Casual or Challenging Gameplay since they can decide on a quite exact level what types of challenges the players will met. This can be used to create Smooth Learning Curves by making the first Levels small or easy so that players can get familiar with interfaces and core gameplay, and when they have completed these they can proceed with more challenging ones.
A common effect of finishing a Level is the Quick Travel to another Level, and this is typically also a form of One-Way Travel. While simply reacting a specific location may be enough to change level, the use of Conditional Passageways can tie the completion of Levels to other goals than just Traverse. This may be done through Ultra-Powerful Events when the end condition for completing the Level has been reached, or be activated by players by the use of a Warp Zone - the latter can allow players the possibility to handle Character Development and collecting of Loot before moving on to the next Level.
As for Game Worlds, both Diegetic and Thematic Consistency affect how players perceive Levels. In contrast to Game Worlds however, Levels can also help create Diegetic Consistency since they can show imply larger Game Worlds than are shown by representing different parts of them. Being limited parts of these Game Worlds, Levels provide natural points for creating Game World Exploration and Traverse goals. Finishing Traverse goals are often symbolized by the activation of a Controller, such as opening the main door to the next level, or by defeating a Boss Monster. Regardless of what specific goals are used in a Level, game designer creating Levels need to consider how players should be able to do Game World Navigation (Big Dumb Objects can play roles here), and between which parts of the Levels the exists Line of Sight. Optionally, one may consider if one should actively design to support Speedruns.
In order to be perceived as part of the same game, Levels need not only share the same core gameplay but also have Diegetic Consistency between them. As the change from one Level to another typically signifies a change from one location to another, this can be used as a means to change theme, e.g. from a forest to a cave or from a railway station to a factory. The theme can then be used to set the boundaries for how much the Diegetic Consistency can be stressed; changing the theme too much to introduce new gameplay can however become an example of Alien Space Bats.
Mini-maps are quite common interface tools to help with the Game World Navigation of Levels. Level Summaries can be used after a Levels are completed to provide players with information on how well they completed the Levels both regarding required and Optional Goals.
Unless created completely by Randomness, Levels are Predetermined Story Structures and can thereby be used to progress a narrative as gameplay progresses like Scenes can. Finale Levels are Levels specifically design to create a more important narrative closure (i.e. more important that simply the completion of the Level), e.g. the encountering of a Boss Monster. In other cases, present Boss Monsters or Environmental Storytelling can be more likely to be encountered by players through how they are herded through the Levels.
Levels are basically Scenes with well-defined boundaries. As such, they let game designers delimit Game Worlds and thereby the complexity of the game - especially for Game World Navigation - as well as giving players Limited Foresight. The also bring natural Closure Points since they have an end, and this is especially noticeable when leaving a Level is an Irreversible Event. In games with Movement, this typically means restricting that Movement to a Level until it is completed.
In games with Hotseating, the completion of a Level can be a natural point for a new player to take over playing the game. Levels can also be used to progress the Narration Structures in a controlled fashion since they can be Predetermined Story Structures and make the rest of a Game World into Inaccessible Areas. This can be used to make the Levels into Campaigns, as for example the Advance Wars series, Memoir '44, and Left 4 Dead series does.
Besides what actually take place in the Levels, this progression of stories can be done through Cutscenes between the Levels. Since entering new Levels put players in contact with new game elements, they can provide Game Element Insertion into the game seen as a whole.
Except when used as smaller part of a Game World (as for example The Elder Scrolls series and World of Warcraft does), the existence of a Level assumes the existence of a next Level or the completion of the game. This provides explicit short-term Game World Exploration goals of finding the next Level. The completion of a level thereby provides strong Hovering Closures and Anticipation, and the former can be increased further if Save Points only exist between the Levels. These types of Levels create Goal Hierarchies and provide a form of Access Rewards, be it linear, as is the case with the many First-Person Shooters such as the Doom series, or structured in a more elaborate way, as is done for example in the different worlds in the Super Mario series.
By being different both as to structure and gameplay, Levels can provide Varied Gameplay and Surprises. Combined with Environmental Effects or Switches this can become Varying Rule Sets and only some rules apply on some Levels. Levels partly or wholly created through Randomness can vary gameplay further and in this can also supports Replayability (as for example in NetHack). Levels also have the possibility to support Game World Exploration and Traverse goals, the former which may be extended to a larger scale if players have a choice between the order in which to complete Levels.
Movement between Levels create Quick Travel unless games are explicitly designed to not have this. One example of how this can be avoid is present in the Left 4 Dead series - here the safe rooms are present in both levels and changes occur when all doors are closed so the noticeable difference of having changed Levels is minimized.
Levels can instantiate Extra Chances since they are portions of the whole gameplay in a game and failing one of them can be separate from failing the whole game.
Anticipation, Campaigns, Casual Gameplay, Challenging Gameplay, Closure Points, Diegetic Consistency, Ever Increasing Difficulty, Extra Chances, Freedom of Choice, Game Element Insertion, Game World Exploration, Game Worlds, Goal Hierarchies, Hovering Closures, Inaccessible Areas, Limited Foresight, Game World Navigation, Predetermined Story Structures, Quick Travel, Scenes, Smooth Learning Curves, Surprises, Traverse, Unknown Goals, Varied Gameplay
with Environmental Effects or Switches
with Irreversible Events
with Puzzle Solving
with Spawn Points
Can Be Instantiated By
Can Be Modulated By
Access Rewards, Alarms, Alien Space Bats, Arenas, Automated Responses, Big Dumb Objects, Boss Monsters, Check Points, Choke Points, Conditional Passageways, Controllers, Clues, Diegetic Consistency, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Enemies, Environmental Effects, Environmental Storytelling, Explicit Random Seeds, Facilitating Rewards, Flanking Routes, Galleries, Game Element Insertion, Game Items, Game State Overviews, Geospatial Game Widgets, Helpers, Inaccessible Areas, Installations, Invisible Walls, Irreversible Events, Laning, Landmarks, Level Summaries, Line of Sight, Mini-maps, Obstacles, One-Way Travel, Quick Returns, Pick-Ups, Props, Randomness, Red Herrings, Resource Generators, Save Points, Safe Havens, Secret Areas, Self-Service Kiosks, Setback Penalties, Sniper Locations, Spawn Points, Spawning, Speedruns, Strategic Locations, Strongholds, Switches, Territories, Thematic Consistency, Traces, Transport Routes, Traverse, Vehicle Sections, Vehicles, Warp Zones
Possible Closure Effects
Potentially Conflicting With
A revised version of the pattern Levels that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design.
- Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.