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Navigation Nodes in 3D Level Design

by Jerome Bodin on 01/26/16 01:34:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Lecturer in video game design schools for 6 years, I've decided to turn some of my lectures into blog posts. They will cover Game Design, Level Design and Ergonomics.

Navigating in a virtual 3D world with a controller is hard. It seems natural to many developers and designers because they actually have spent many years learning to do it right. It's like driving a car, It's a knowledge so deeply learned that it's complicated to empathize with others who don't have it.

To realize how true this is, simply observe a playtest with someone who never played a 3D game before, handling a Xbox or PS controller for the first time. You'll notice, most of the time, that the player will have a very hard time finding its way, and moreover an extremely hard time using the right stick to control the camera. It's pretty normal, as this skill, "using a stick to look at things", is almost never replicated in the "out of game" world.

Also, even if we target hardcore gamers that know how to control the camera, doing so is often an unnecessary workload if the game challenge resides mainly in skillfully interacting with objects in the world.


Our job as designers to make sure that:

  • Navigating in our world isn't a pain in the a**
  • Information about our world and the challenges within is clear and accessible without unnecessary workload (i.e. manipulating camera)

Navigation Nodes

What I call "Nodes", in the context of Level Design, is a place where we know what the player is seeing. Typically, after a challenge in which we know what the player is going to do. Or, after a corridor where there's no choice of what to do and to see.

Identifying and creating nodes in our 3D Level Design is a great tool which serves many purposes.

First, most of the time, we want to clearly show what the next challenge before the player actually gets into it. For a simple reason: tactics. In most 3D games, knowing how the topography is and what the challenge is is critical for decision-making. Using image composition in a Node is a great way to present a challenge to the player.

A little bit better if we're able to get a sense of what to do, right?
Higher camera = more info = more tactics


Most of the time, you want to show as much as info as possible to the player. You can use the Nodes to show a great amount of info, using composition, lights, colors, props, characters and so on. If done right, a player can stop at a node and elaborate safely a course of action for the next 2-3 minutes of challenge, simply by observing the 3D world.


Tactical view!

Of course, composition is huge field of study on its own. Understanding how a picture works and its influence on how the viewer understand things can be a great resource for any Level Designer. 


If your Level Design MUST make the player turn the camera at a corner, there are many way to make sure the players do so, at least to strongly encourage them.

Among them, colors and Lights.


In some way, you can see those corners as Nodes that carry only limited set of information, including "PLEASE LOOK IN THIS DIRECTION". The thing is, for many people, using a tool to move the camera can be complicated, so if you care about these players, try to avoid those corners as much as possible.

So, Nodes. They're your friends. The more you know about them, and the more you learn how to put information in them, the more you will chose what the player knows or doesn't know at any given time, giving you a great control over its experience.

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