Level Layout Types

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In this article I am going to tell you about some of the types of layouts you will see in level designs regularly and now they are used to benefit game play.

I am going to discuss different ‘Flow Types’ in level design so you can learn how to examine your own levels to see if you have made the correct decisions about how to control player movement.

Linear

A Linear flow model is the most commonly seen type of level flow model.

The Player starts at one end of the level, progress through a single linear route and finishes at the opposite end of the level. Along the route, the designer will have created specific interactions that the player is required to do, to continue progressing through the level, such as kill the enemies, unlock doors, solve puzzles and more.

Linear Game Glow Diagram

The Linear level design is often seen as a negative when the game is being reviewed, however linear level design does still have its place in the current generation of games; used correctly it can show some real strengths over other flow models.

Linear flow means that the designer will know where the player will be and where they will be coming from; This allows the designer to build a strong narrative and exciting set-pieces for the player to witness. Some games rely on the linear design to create very powerful, story driven game play. An few example of this would be the Call of duty games, Half life Series or SOCOM: US Navy Seals.

Bottlenecking

Bottlenecking flow model works very much like a linear level, however the designer can build multiple paths throughout the level, giving the player a few options as to which route they take. Each path will lead the player towards the end of the level, but each path gives the player different challenges and experiences.

At certain points in the level, where the player is required to complete an objective or action, the paths will converge into a linear path again. After the required action is completed, the path can split again.

This gives the player a feeling of choice and gives them an incentive to play through the level more than once to experience the different challenges of each path.

Bottleneck Game Glow Diagram

While this Flow model allows the player to feel like they have more choice, it is not without its drawbacks; if it is poorly designed, it can create a level which is confusing to players. The branches need to be a clear choice and you must make sure the player doesn’t get turned around and mistake a previous path as a new branch, otherwise they will end up returning to the start and getting annoyed with the confusing layout.

One choice is to make sure the entrances to the bottleneck area are one way; don’t allow the player to back track, but this can be irritating to players, if they left a health pick up in-case they needed it later.

A great example of bottleneck design is Deus Ex.

Branching:

What if you don’t want to require the player to hit the specific points of the level, as you do with a bottleneck design? This allows you to give the player the freedom to choose where to go and they can go through the whole level more than once and the only area they will recognise is the starting point.

The way this works is that the player will start at a specific point in the level, the path will branch just as it did in the bottleneck flow type, but the paths won’t necessarily re-converge. The paths can branch multiple times and each branch can cross other branches, create a network of paths which the player can navigate.

With a range of paths you could decide to still have the paths all eventually converge together to a single end point, or have multiple ending places.

Branching Game Glow Diagram

The Main drawbacks of this kind of game flow is, much like the bottleneck design, you need to be careful to design the level in such a way that the player will not become confused and end up back tracking through one of the branches. It also means that the designer needs to create alot more content than the player will see on their play through; This may be enough reason for the player to replay the level, or it will be content they never see, which can be seen as a waste of time.

A great example of this kind of level design is the arcade outrun games.

Open world:

Open world flow models are becoming much more common place in games these days; with many action games giving you freedom to explore an environment and decide on the best way to tackle the challenge using their own initiative.

Rather than having a specific start and end area, the player could start in multiple places and end the game when ever they fulfill certain criteria such as completing certain objectives.

A benefit of this Flow model is that it allows the player the maximum amout of freedom that a level designer can give them; You set them an objective and they can tackle it in any way they like. If the objective is to kill [Character A] then you could run up to them and beat them down, trap them in an area and blow them up, snipe them from long distance or race in and run them over with a car.

Branching Game Glow Diagram

The biggest strength of this game flow model is the sheer level of choice that it gives the player to complete their objectives.

However, This does create a problem for the designer; how do you plan set pieces or item drops if you don’t know where the player is going to be when they complete their objectives? or if they can find ways to bypass bosses or big fights.

The biggest examples of this model are GTA IV, Saints Row, Driver and Skate.

Hub / Spoke

A hub and spoke Level flow is a structured level which is centralised around a main hub point. This is an area where the player will continue to return to after completing objectives in each of the spokes, unlocking the next spoke, until they unlock either the exit or the entrance to the next hub area.

For example, the player could be on a spaceship which has been attacked and is now drifting towards a black hole. The player needs to escape by accessing the escape pods. Unfortunately the pods are ar the read of the ship and they are currently trapped in the control room. The Could be a route that allows the player access to a maintenance shaft where the player can unlock a door back at the control room, which then leads a route to the environmental controls, where the player re-pressurises a hall way which leads from the control room to the back of the ship.

As you can see from this example, the player would be completing an objective in each spoke, before returning to the hub to explore the newly unlock path, until finally they gain access to the exit from the hub; either to another section of the level, or the finish point of the level.

Linear Game Glow Diagram
Many games use this flow model, but sparingly as it has a few major drawbacks.

The major flaw in this design is the inherint backtracking the player will need to do after each objective is completed; this can get very tiresome for some players as the biggest reward for progression is constantly seeing new area’s and scenery; but backtracking means around 50% of the time, you will be progressing through area’s you’ve already been through.

Another issue is that the player can get confused much easier the more pathways they open; If the hub has 4 spokes and an exit, then with 3 paths open, it would be easy for the player to get turned around and think a spoke they have already completed is the latest open path. This adds to the time spent backtracking and frustrates the player even more.

This flow model is often seen in adventure games which feature dungeons and temples such as the Zelda or Tomb Raider Games.

Conclusion:

That are the main Flow models that you will see on a regular basis in video games; they are often well disguised and mixed together; creating a mix of all the different flow types to create an interesting and varied environment for the player.

Used effectively these different flow models can be used well to control the pacing of the level; choosing when to let the player just head to the end, or when to encourage exploring and completing multiple objectives before allow the player to progress.

I hope you found this article interesting and remember to return to VG-LevelDesign soon for more Tutorials, Tips, Tricks and Theory of level design.


6 Responses to “Level Layout Types”
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Stanford Haynes Says:

This is the perfect blog for anyone who wants to know about this topic. You know so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I really would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a subject thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!


Jazmine Eron Says:

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Sterling P. Says:

Thank you so much for posting! I’ve been searching the ‘Net for stuff like this, trying to get some idea of how to plan out my levels. I certainly hope you continue these articles; I’ve started work on a new “game”, of which you can see a test here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8n5c5jaQrA

I have no problems with creating and detailing intricate set pieces, but I have trouble actually linking it all together and coming up with compelling level layouts. If you have time, would you be available to give some advice over email?


Chantelle Migues Says:

Fantastic article. Awesome.


admin Says:

Sterling P – Check the contact page for my email. I try to help people out whenever I can, so shoot me an email with some Q’s and I’ll try to help as much as I can. 😀
The vid is interesting; be interested in what you do with it in the long run.


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