How To Become A Video Game Level Designer

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This interview is part of the Quest for Your Career series. We focus on each specific job in the video game industry by interviewing an expert in the field. Learn what they do, how they got started, and whether it's a good job for you.
Mandi Grant, Video Game Level Designer

“Playing games is the best education, if you’re thinking critically as you play.”

Meet Mandi Grant, Level Designer

Mandi has been in the game industry for a long time, and has played many roles in the design as well as the art departments. Today we’re talking with her about her job as a video game level designer.

Pay special attention to her advice on how artistic talent plays a critical role in the level design process. 

In just a few sentences, how would you describe what you do every day?

I would describe level design as creative and enjoyable. As a level designer, I work on levels (also called maps) in stages. The very first stage is planning the entire game’s set of maps.

In planning, I answer the following questions:

  • How many maps will there be total?
  • How many art sets will be needed?
  • What does the “difficulty curve” look like?
  • What special “one off” features will each map need?
  • What story beats occur in each map?

This planning step establishes a framework to build in. It’s like mapping out a new neighborhood.

The next step is to plan each map “on paper” (which usually means in Adobe Illustrator). This step is like creating blueprints for each house in the new neighborhood. This is where the designer identifies recurring features that can be recycled across maps and develop standards, such as jump distances and spawn point locations. These blueprints also allow other members of the team to critique the plan, before too much time or expense goes into coding or making art for a map.

Finally, the maps are built “for real” using standardized 2D or 3D building blocks. Committing to standards is critical, so oftentimes I work with predefined tile pieces to ensure consistency across all maps, placing them roughly in accordance to the planned design. These tile pieces aren’t pretty, just unadorned “boxes”.

Schedule permitting, I am sometimes able to play the map in this “whitebox” form, which lets me find and fix problems before handing the map off to the art team.

While the game artists add props, textures, animated effects, etc, I am busy writing scripted events in a scripting language and hooking them up to nodes within the map. Breakable objects, spawn points, hazard zones, and cutscene triggers are all added.

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How did you come to be a Level Designer?

I personally came into level design from an artist role. At my first job, level designer and level artist were the same role, so I would design the level and then create the art for it. At my second job, those roles were separated, and I landed on the “designer” side.

“doing a good job as a level designer requires a strong sense of space, pacing, and composition.”

Level designer is one of the most common “new designer” responsibilities, but doing a good job as a level designer requires a strong sense of space, pacing, and composition. Designers without a knack for it are quickly moved out of level design.

READ  How To Become A Video Game Producer

What’s your favorite part of the job?  What’s your least favorite part?

My favorite part of level design is building a world and running around in it. It’s very rewarding to create a space, explore it, and then improve it. I also love finding the right place to surprise the player with a scripted story sequence.

My least favorite part is a scheduling gripe. Compressed schedules oftentimes mean the level “white boxes” are built and handed off to artists before the code allowing for playtesting is written. It is very difficult to modify an “art complete” level without incurring additional development expense, so it’s quite scary to hand an untested level off for final art. On projects where this happens and I can’t play the levels until later, I find things that could have been done better and feel bad that there was no time to find and fix them before they were “frozen” by art.

What aspect of the job would be surprising to people looking in from the outside?

There’s quite a bit of planning and standardization involved, and yet, it’s mostly an intuitive and artistic process that can’t be boiled down into a formula. I think to some people on the outside it looks like playing a game, since so much of the testing process is playing it, but it’s also about thinking critically about your own work.

What kinds of talent and personality does it take to succeed at your job as Level Designer?

So many – persistence, empathy, and humility come to mind.

“You have to step into the role of a new player over and over again, even as you yourself become very familiar with the level you’re building.”

Crafting an experience requires critically looking at your own work and improving it. You have to step into the role of a new player over and over again, even as you yourself become very familiar with the level you’re building.

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A level designer must be receptive to feedback from playtesters who veered off the map’s “designed” path. Players are good at doing the opposite of what you intended, and you’ll be reworking your level when all of them keep getting stuck in the same way.

What advice would you give to somebody in school, who’s thinking about Level Design as a career?

Learn a mainstream 3D modeling package. Build environments in 3DS Max or Maya – if you love it, great. If you hate it (and a lot of people do) at least then you know level design isn’t for you. Intro to 3D Modeling is the weeder course. Even the 2D titles I worked on were made using assets created in 3D. It’s everywhere!

Strongly reconsider your desire to become a level designer if you’re not at all artistic, because level design is an art. You’ll basically be building environments, even if you aren’t the person putting the decorative touches and lighting in.

If level design is the right path for you, showcase your talent with a portfolio that includes at least two or three very different level designs. Include renders from the player’s perspective as well as from outside the level, showing its layout. Label story moments, breakable props, hazards, whatever’s important. Imagine this level you built is being given to someone else to put into the game, and include everything you’d want that person to know.

What would you recommend for education, books, or other learning to start down that career path?

“you never know what you’ll be making next in this fast-paced industry”

Play games – games are the best education if you’re thinking critically as you play. Working for a commercial developer, the levels you design will need to “speak the same language” as other games, and the more of this “language” you know, the better. Play a mix of old and new, and play outside your preferred genres once in a while. My early titles as a level designer were 2D adventure games, but I later worked on several 3D titles. Be familiar with the conventions of both – you never know what you’ll be making next in this fast-paced industry.

You can reach Mandi at her artist/designer portfolio site, majoh.com. If Mandi’s advice was helpful, share it with friends on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

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39 comments on “How To Become A Video Game Level Designer
  1. Dalton Land says:

    Hi Ms.Grant I am an avid gamer and I think I could realy get into the map designing and structure building that you mentioned. However I have little experienc doing so, I was hoping you could point me in the right direction to get into this field. I would also like to mention that I’m not the artistic type meaning colors or findnig out how much shadow a builing would put off and so on. What I am good at is finding pauses in action or points of intrest in a game, also where to put hidden things excedra.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Dalton, I hope you don’t mind me answering this question for you. It would be helpful if you have some art skills, but game designers normally do not have to do things like choose the colors of the environment or create the lighting in the game levels. You should continue to develop your skills at pacing, dramatic tension, and level layout (the things that you mentioned) and that will serve you well in the game design field.

      • James Jankowski says:

        Since you seem knowledgeable in this career, Mr. Bay, may I ask if there is a lot of coding involved in the day to day work of a game designer? My father is adamant that this career I am interested in is all coding not at all what I expect (artwork, modeling, creative brainstorming, CAD) and I would very much like to prove to him the fallacy of this idea.

      • Jason W. Bay says:

        Hi James, good question. First of all, I’m glad to hear that you’re talking about career stuff with your father. Parents can be a great ally when you’re trying to find out what to do with your life.

        Both you and your dad are “sort of” right. Game design jobs are very different depending on which company and which job you’re in. Some designers do a lot of coding/scripting and some don’t do any. Some do a bit of artwork and modeling, but most don’t, because artwork and modeling are handled by people on the Art teams. Designers can do a lot of creative brainstorming, but they also “roll up their sleeves” and do hard, hands-on work like tuning numbers in giant Excel spreadsheets.

        Check out the Quest for Your Career articles and read the interviews with Designers and Artists, to hear about what they do in their jobs every day. That should be helpful for you.

  2. Lynn says:

    Hi, my 13 year old son is very interested in level design as a career. He has been practicing online on gaming websites for about a year now. I would like to know what books or programs would be good for him to learn more about level design.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Lynn, most of the level designers I know started by modding existing video games. Many of the popular PC games come with level editors. Beyond that, level design is probably too specific of a career for him to shoot for directly – he’d probably want to shoot for a general game design career path, and then try to specialize into level design once he got a job after school.

      There’s been a lot of interest in this career path, so I’ll try to do more interviews or write a detailed article on it soon.

  3. James Perkins says:

    Great information here. I’ve been enthralled by video games since my very first time playing the little Italian dude on my grey box. My only expierence with level design/map creation is using the editor in delta force black hawk down which most people don’t even remember these days lol. The more sophisticated creation tools have always confused me, any advice on learning to use a universal level creation tool?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi James, I remember the grey box and Delta Force Black Hawk Down. Although my first level editor was for DOOM II. 🙂 There aren’t universal level creation tools, because the level editor needs to match the specific game engine. They’re all a little different, but if you learn one then you can learn the others without much trouble. Lynda online learning has a great series of Unity 3D tutorials that I recommend.

  4. Se hun Kim says:

    Hi, I’m a 18 years old korean(south) student currently studying at high school.I’m very interested in becoming a level designer and hopefully become one of them in the future. Is it too late for me to study level designing form now on? Hope my grammars were correct…

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      안녕 Se Hun, your English grammar is very good! 🙂 It is not too late to start studying to become a game designer. I didn’t start until I was about 27 years old, so I think you have plenty of time. Start now!

      • Se hun Kim says:

        Thanks for replying! I have been searching for information about a level designer and found out other jobs like environment artist, 3D artist, technical artist and level artist which really confused me. Are there difference between these jobs? And is Maya better than 3Ds Max?

      • Sadpanda says:

        What about someone who’s 30 ?:P

      • Jason W. Bay says:

        Heh, 30 might seem “old” to you, but you’ve still got a few decades left to try other careers. It’s never too late – check out this article about changing careers for some inspiration and advice.

  5. Austin says:

    Do you know any affordable programs with which I can practice level design? I am in high school and would like to see if this is a good career path for me before applying for colleges. This website has been amazingly helpful. Thank you 😀

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Austin, I don’t personally have any programs I could recommend, but for level design you might want to google for some game modding communities or discussion groups. Taking an existing game and modding it to add new levels and adventures is a good way to start out. Have fun!

  6. Kynam Moore says:

    Hi Jason,

    My names Kynam, I’m 25 and currently a professional dancer (lol), I have been considering a career in game design, namely level design post research as it sounds more akin to what interests me. I feel like I am very old going into this but I know my experience will help also, I am a very hardcore gamer and it has probably been my one true passion in life, I am obviously an artistic person coming from a dance background etc but my hand drawing ability is abysmal (I am looking into an art course). My question to you is that when we are talking about artistic ability in this article is this in programs like zbrush and maya, are we talking about hand drawings or is it just an artistic mindframe and the ability to conceptualise?

    I ask because as I said I want become better artistically regardless but I want to try and be as specific as possible. I want to get into this world as soon as possible because I know it will be the best teacher for me. Thanks for any advice, and thanks for this article!

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Kynam, you’re right that I’m talking about an artistic mindframe, and the ability to talk to artists in their own vocabulary. Game designers usually don’t make art that gets shipped with the game, so it’s totally okay if you aren’t a master of Zbrush and Maya. (Although some studios may have you use Maya for level design work, you wouldn’t be making art in it.) I hope that answers your question!

      • Kynam Moore says:

        Yes that helps clear it up a tad! Thanks Jason.

      • Andrew says:

        Hey I some questions. I have been trying to figure out what type of courses to take in college for game design, specifically level design, as I already enjoy drawing landscapes and immersive enviroments. I intended to purchase skyrim or fallout on steam and download the creation kit to gain some experience on that front, but having a educated background is always good to have. so any suggestions?

      • Jason W. Bay says:

        Hi Andrew, there aren’t any hard and fast rules about which courses to take for level design. Mandi mentions 3D modeling courses. You could also try architecture, any general art classes, and I actually think creative writing would be helpful since your levels need to tell a story. There are degree programs for game design, which would cover level design as well.

  7. sarah says:

    hi Jason,

    i am currently in my final year, doing my bachelor in applied visual imaging (Major, Moving image) and i have a research and analysis assignment and i am looking further in to video game level design and what its about, steps i need to take to become a level designer.i found this guide useful and inspiring and i was wondering if you knew of current practitioners i could research into.

    also do you think it is essential to have computer science degree?

    any advice is much appreciated 🙂

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Sarah, a computer science degree is not required for to be a level design / game designer. Take a look at this article on game designer education requirements, you’ll see that people in game design jobs come from many different backgrounds.

      A great way to research people currently doing level design, would be to search on LinkedIn: Search for “level designer,” filter down to “people” and take a look at all the people who have held that role. From there, you can see where they went to school, what degree they got, and even send them an InMail to ask them questions. Good luck!

  8. Chris says:

    Hi Jason.

    I will be 18 in a month and will be going into senior year. I am looking into a career in game design, particularly level design. I would like to know if there is any actual making of art or assets involved. I am NOT a good artist, but I do have a keen eye for knowing where things best fit and what a player should do where and when, etc. When I first heard of level design, I was thinking it would be a simple matter of dragging and dropping assets into a level, but apparently it’s not that simple.

    Are level designers required to make the assets that go into the game or is that a job for another to fill?

    Also, how might an inspiring high school student get hired as a level designer? How would one go about showcasing their work regarding level design on a resume? I have played around with the Unity 3D game engine and made a couple small games that are incomplete since I have very basic scripting skills. I have even made my own version of the classic New Super Mario Bros. which is really fun! According to this article, making custom levels for classic games is a good way to start, so would I want to show these levels off?

    Thanks in advance!

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Chris, in general, level designers do not make art for the game. At many studios, a level designer might use a 3D modeling package to create what are called “white boxes” of the level – it’s a simplified version of the game level that’s used to plan out the jumps, level flow, encounters, etc. but doesn’t have any art. Then the environment artists take that white box and build the art into it. For your portfolio, any games or levels you’ve made would be helpful to show an employer, as long as they showcase your skill at creating a compelling game level.

  9. Dillon says:

    Hi Jason, are there any college courses that are specifically for level design or no and also what are some programs that are available for people to play around with to see if this is a route for us to consider?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Dillon, I don’t know of any programs that are specific to level design – most degree programs/certificates are game design in general, possibly with courses in level design. You can get experience by modding or creating new game levels inside the engines of PC games you may already own (many come with modding tools), or you could build some levels using free game engines like Unity 3D.

  10. Scott says:

    Hi,

    I’m a seasoned professional working in architecture as an “urban designer” and planner. I’ve master planned cities, colleges, hospitals and more. I’m familiar with architectural and landscape design on a conceptual level. I don’t do Maya or Max but I use Sketchup and other 3d programs like Lumion. I’m interested in level design and think my skill set in laying out urban spaces could be an asset – but I don’t have a super spectacular portfolio of highly detailed renderings. Most of what I’ve done is high level and conceptual – but I’ve also kept a pretty good hand sketching journal.

    Do you think the game industry has any interest in me or need for my services (even as a consultant or contract basis??). or would I need to beef up my portfolio more if I wanted to work in the industry full- time? I’ve always been interested in the design of public spaces and cities and also have a love for writing/narrative and of film — I’m thinking gaming might be my true calling but haven’t really tested the waters yet…

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Scott, I do think your skill set could apply well to game level design, or even environment art. Check out this interview with Caleb Parrish, he started with a similar background as you and later made the transition to become a game environment artist. So he’s got some advice about what he did to get noticed. I wish you luck!

      • Matt says:

        Hi Jason,

        This is a very interesting article and like Scott I work in a field that I wonder if my skills could be utilised in game design. I’ve been working in the Cartographic/GIS industry for over 15 years and have a experience in 3d Spatial data and map design, but I also have background in physical geography (geology & geomorphology) and have mucked around with created my own “worlds” – think Slartibartfast in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. So rather than urban environments, my preference is designing physical worlds.

        Obviously it might depend on the game, but could there be a niche my skills might fill?

      • Jason W. Bay says:

        Hi Matt, I wouldn’t expect there to be a full-time game job doing just the GIS stuff you described. A couple of things to consider might be 1) put some thought into what skills and talents allow you to do what you do well, and think about how those skills/talents could translate into other activities in the game industry (e.g. around game design or environment art). And 2) explore some game-related fields such as “serious games,” simulation, or visualization – they may have needs more aligned to your background since they often deal with real-wold datasets.

  11. Austin M says:

    Yes hi, i was wondering what course in college i would take? would it be video game design or video game art

  12. Zen says:

    Hi, Im a 25 year old and do coding during my spare time. I want to be a game developer but game developer is a broad term nowadays. Lately Ive been doing some 2D games with sprites. I got no talent at all in art. I enrolled to an art school for 3 months and realize that 3D model isnt as fun as I thought it was. Theres a lot of grindy things you gotta do. But with VR getting popular I kinda want to learn level design. What can you recommend for people who are more of a logical thinkers(programmers) and less of an artistic mind, to learn level design?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      If you want to focus on the gameplay aspects of level design, and less on the art side, try learning how to do “white boxing” in a game engine like Unreal, and start building a portfolio of game levels that are white box but have some fun, interesting game play to demonstrate.

  13. Patricia says:

    Hi Jason,

    It’s really inspiring meet that site, thank you for that incredible work.

    I’ve a bachelor in System Analisys and worked as a game programer, but I’m really interested in work with level designer. What you think I need do to as a researcher to teach level design and/or be a level designer using my programer skills?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Patricia, the skills used as a level designer are mostly different from the skills needed to be a programmer. There is some overlap, though: many game editors use programming languages (or programming-like languages) to create the game and character interactions, so that will be helpful for you.

  14. Gabrielle says:

    Jason,

    I am in a difficult position. Currently I work retail and have started my own game development team. Myself and 3 other individuals. Progress is going well, but I have been made a job offer as a CAD Drafter with a local company. I have sent out at least 50 applications as a 3d Environment Artist/Level Designer, but have yet to hear back from any of the aforementioned prospects.

    The pay increase isn’t a dire need at this time, but I am unsure as to if experience as a CAD Drafter would help me towards my goals at all. In my mind CAD Drafting experience is “okay” but I feel as if a game studio would want prior experience with other game studios, not a CAD Drafter. The new role would definitely take away from the time I currently have to pursue my indie project. I am currently our Environment Artist, Level Designer and Game Designer. Any insight you could provide would be tremendously helpful.

    Thank you,

    G.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Gabrielle, that is a tough decision. First of all, it’s important to be financially stable no matter what, so if the CAD job is a big pay upgrade from your retail job then that does look attractive. Secondly, I do think that CAD experience could help you towards your goal as an environment artist, in fact here is an interview with an environment artist who got his start doing 3D visualization for an architectural company. I think that interview will be helpful for you, because he got his start by doing non-game work but doing game art on the side, which seems like a good strategy for you as well!

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