One of the most important things in a 3D game is level design. Changing the way something plays can turn a terrible game into an okay one and a good game into a mediocre one. The problem with level design is that it is not easy. I’d even go as far to say it’s one of the hardest parts of making a game, because even if you are skilled at your level editing program and make your map look nice, you still have to do a lot of research into how the map plays.
There are many different aspects to level design. Different layers, if you will. There’s the art layer, the action layer, the interactive layer, and the logic layer. The tricky part is getting all of these layers to work perfectly alone and together. A map could look great but have terrible action, or another map could have great puzzles but a confusing layout.
These mountains force the player to follow a certain path.
The surface layer is the art layer. It doesn’t often contribute to gameplay, but it can greatly affect how someone views a map. For example, maps in games like Battlefield 3 have a better art layer than maps from Counter-Strike 1.6, not taking into account system limitations. Although this is the case, it does not make Battlefield 3 maps inherently better. The only time the art layer interacts with any other layer is when the details within a map are used as instructions or obstacles. Some examples of instruction would be signs leading the player toward his goal, or lighting in a dark level, leading the player down the right path (or wrong one, if you’re feeling a little evil.) The other way they interact is obstruction. You could have curtains blocking the view of a window, or darkness used for the sole purpose of making it hard to see.
The level design of Counter-Strike is known for being balanced and fun.
The action layer is what I call the simple level design of the map. This includes pathways for the player to travel along, doorways to pass through, stairs to climb, and ledges to jump off of. The action layer is arguably the most important layer of level design. If your map isn’t fun to play it doesn’t matter how good it looks. It’s extremely important to have this as your first priority when in the beginning stages of designing your map. In single-player games, the main goal is to make sure that the levels are complicated enough to provide a challenge, but not so complicated that they make the player give up in frustration. This is the downfall of some games. In multi-player games, it is important to make your map balanced. Balance is when the map is designed so that neither team has a geographical advantage over the other.
The interactive layer is important to gameplay, but is probably the least important if you had to order them. A multi-player map does not even require an interactive layer, although it can still have one. This layer consists of things that the player interacts with in order to advance the game. This can include a multitude of things, from buttons, levers, and control panels in a single-player game, to flags and control points in multi-player games. The interactive layer adds extra depth and complexity to a level.
An example of logic entities.
The deepest layer is also the layer that the others are most dependent on. You cannot actually see the logic layer, as it consists of entities and scripts that make the map work. This includes scripts controlling enemies, events, flag captures, and the like. Without these, the map won’t work.
Many people say that they can map, and that it is easy. Maybe, maybe. But they must take into account the many layers of level design in order to make a good map. All the layers must be functional on their own and in tandem with the others. After that, then it’s smooth sailing towards engaging gameplay.