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Reward Systems, An Excerpt From Level Design: Concept, Theory, and Practice
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Reward Systems, An Excerpt From Level Design: Concept, Theory, and Practice

June 24, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next


A level is a virtual construct. It may have its own set of rules, logic, physics system, ecology, and other internal systems, but they all take place in a virtual setting. The disadvantage of this virtuality is that somebody needs to design and implement all of these things. The advantage for level designers is that in this need, or put to put it differently, in this license to do so, lies a huge amount of freedom and power. In game levels with a non-realistic setting, the level designer has the license to fantabulate.

New rules

Within a fantastic virtual construct, we are free to create many things or situations that simply would not work in the real world, all with the approval of our audience. Not only may we invent these new rules; we are positively encouraged to do so.

We have already concluded in Chapter 2, "Teaching Mechanisms," that part of our responsibility lies in teaching the player the rules of the available gameplay activities. In a fantastic setting this is especially important, as the rules may be unknown in real life.

For example, we may have to teach players that summoning a fire elemental is an extremely effective way of deterring packs of ice wolves from attacking[2].)

The real fun lies in the fact that players who enjoy these kinds of things, and there are many, many millions of them, also really enjoy learning about this new world they find themselves in. Within an escapist mindset, experiencing new fantastic concepts is an attraction in its own right.

If we go back to our earlier example of Tolkien, we see a work of fantasy that partly excels because of its sheer scope of invention. The book creates a very deep sense of wonder, partly because it consistently and thoroughly showcases a new world with an extremely detailed and well-thought-out set of rules. This applies to almost anything in the world, including its history, its ecology, and its magic system. Reading about all of these things is a large reason for the success of the book.

Level designers have to do the same thing. They need to interpret the new rules of the world and teach them to players in such a way that it creates a great sense of wonder, as well as teaching them how to play the game.

New environments

Hand in hand with new world rules come new environments; and once again, a great amount of work and a great amount of freedom for the level designer. A great amount of work because within this virtual construct somebody has to do the constructing. This does not mean that the level designer has to create all the environments solely by himself or herself, although at times this is feasible or necessary. In most cases, this work must be done in partnership with the art department.

But the level designer does need to design all the gameplay space, and the way it is used. This gives level designers a great amount of freedom because they are the authors of a new gameplay environment, and to a large degree, of a whole new gameplay world. This is one of the reasons why level design is such an enormously fulfilling profession; it literally gives a designer the power to create worlds.[3]

So far, so good. In fact, this is no different from most other forms of level design.

Where level design featuring themes of escapism and wish fulfillment in a fantastic setting differs from more reality-based design is in some of the intrinsic goals. A big reason for the existence of the levels is to present a gameplay environment and a virtual environment that appeals enough in its own right that the player wishes to engage with it and spend time sampling its content.

This means that it is reasonable to include enjoyable areas that don't feature much gameplay (but aid in escapism), or to go further and assert that exploring these areas is part of the gameplay appropriate to the goals of such a level.

A big mistake that many people in game development make is to assume that all gameplay spaces must feature active challenges and encounters. It is actually important to also include gameplay space that celebrates escapism through the medium of exploration, or other ways that the player can just enjoy the world. These are some of the reasons that so many games feature a fantasy, sci-fi, surreal, or otherwise fantastic setting. For many reasons, these genres are especially suited for this kind of design.

Providing the player with many level design scenarios to achieve these goals is an important way to allow for deep and interesting elements of wish fulfillment and escapism. Level designers should always ask fundamental questions about the scenarios they create. In the case of a fantastic setting, these questions can include:

  • Can I reach that strange but beautiful area?
  • How do I study that new dangerous creature?
  • What else can I use this artifact for?
  • Who built this structure?
  • How do I reach that floating fortress?

These are just a few random examples, but each one shows that interesting level design scenarios are just around the corner. And answering questions like these goes very far in providing the player with what he or she wishes for, and constitutes an effective use of a powerful reward mechanism.

[2] Yes, I picked this cliché on purpose, for illustrative clarity.

[3] If you are interested in level design and that doesn't appeal at a very basic level, you may ask yourself some questions.

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