Level Design Guidelines

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Level Design Guidelines

Postby Marth8880 » Thu Feb 19, 2015 9:51 am

Hey all. I thought I'd post a sort of level design guidelines "checklist" that my Level Design 1 instructor compiled over the years. Some of the things mentioned in it apply more to the UDK (Unreal Dev Kit) than Zero Editor, but the things mentioned in it still largely apply.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/j9a5oig4fbtc8 ... cklist.pdf

Note: BSP/CSG refers to the UDK's sort of "temporary art" geometry. ( http://www.ferdthenerd.com/2012/05/29/b ... on-in-udk/ ) If you have any questions about any other things mentioned in this document, ask away!

More interesting docs:
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0IFen ... sp=sharing
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0IFen ... sp=sharing

LevelDesignChecklist.pdf contents:

Level Design Checklist

Thing to avoid for GLAMOR and GAMES: 11 principles of tech and design

This checklist identifies specific things for each principle that will result in fewer points being awarded.

6 Tech Principles

+ SCALE: Geo is compelling and believable, scale is right, flag run is 30-40 seconds
+ FLOW: Pathways are clear and flow into one another, can run through whole level without turning around
+ POSITIONS: Positions talk to each other, line of sight consideration gives each strengths and weaknesses


  • CSG brushes with co-planar polygons (single vertex moved inward, with diagonal lines, brush is toast)
  • Brushes overlap with possibility of strange collision bugs
  • Brushes not lined up, with small/weird gaps or bumps, and messed up lighting or player flow
  • Too many brushes used when less would be fine, which cause nightmares when tiling materials

  • Ramps too close to a wall (at bottom or top) that make it awkward to get on or off
  • Ramps seem to allow player to jump off but prevent doing so with floor of upper room
  • Steep ramps look climbable but aren't
  • Steps so big the player has to jump to climb up (should just be able to move forward to go up)

  • Overly complex jump puzzles distract and don't add to play
  • Too many double jumps breaking flow and slowing player movement
  • Geo looks jumpable but is too high or requires more effort than it should to manoeuvre
  • Gaps are too far to jump easily on the main player path

  • Only one floor, no height involved
  • Ceilings too high, dwarf the player
  • Ceilings too low, cause camera to clip through CSG
  • Ceilings all the same height
  • Floating platforms or other impossible physics without explanation
  • Main rooms only have few exits and take players by surprise (ie. no hints or glimpses elsewhere first)
  • Map is asymmetrical, one side has advantage of time to flags, pickups or position
  • Map is too symmetrical, level is mirrored in more than one way (same layout on multiple heights/sides)
  • Level too vast for meaningful action in a short period of time

  • Flag rooms don't have anything particularly interesting about them or aren't rooms
  • Flag rooms are too easy or too hard to protect (3-4 exits)
  • Rooms too wide open and empty (either too big or not enough mesh/pickups)
  • Less than 3 exits in each room (ie. it's a hallway)
  • Rooms too far from play, never used by players or bots
  • Windows ledges too high, can't snipe from them
  • Too many solid walls, needs more doors, windows or vents between rooms
  • Constricted rooms prevent epic close combat as players fight with collision instead of each other

  • Sniping spots aren't used, don't offer sensible line of sight or cover
  • Sniping spots are camped, don't have a weakness or way to dislodge
  • Limited options for full or partial cover prevents strategic combat, players just try lucky dash
  • Room positions don't speak to each other, aren't aligned or designed (too powerful or irrelevant, not facing)

  • No stealth options for players who take the long back way or crawl through shortcuts
  • Hallways long and unbroken
  • Hallways all same height/width
  • Hallways/doorways look passable but too tight to get through
  • Main pathways too narrow to allow manoeuvring
  • Dead-ends break flow

  • Terrain is not smooth, camera goes spastic as player runs around
  • Elevation does not indicate passable/impassable terrain, player must guess
  • Sinkholes trap player with no way out
  • Holes cut in terrain allow vehicles, cause major bugs (flying into the sky)
  • Transition between terrain and CSG not covered with mesh

Shadows reveal dimensions, and lights bring unity and establish mood with colour and brightness. Light creates
movement with variation, and importance in repetition. Focus on:

+ MOOD: Lighting creates different moods in different areas of the map by varying colour and brightness
+ FOCUS: Key areas multi-light setups, include spotlights and emissive materials
+ MEANING: Lighting directs player activity and patterns are established to indicate gameplay elements


  • Lighting too bright, washes out shadows
  • Some areas completely unlit
  • Point light radii overlap needlessly, strain build time
  • All lights same brightness
  • Over-reliance on few bright lights rather than many dimmer ones
  • No contrast in rooms/hallways feels static (missing bulbs, panel flicker or space for shadows between lights)

  • Lights all same colour
  • Light colour makes material look plastic or not real (red does this a lot)
  • Random colours used all over, no sense of repetition, intention or style
  • Real lighting colours absent (red, orange, yellow, light yellow, light blue, dark blue -
  • not default white!)
  • Transitions abrupt, suddenly introduced to bright saturated tone without less intense lights leading up to it

  • Dynamic lights
  • No 3-point lighting setup with spotlights for main Points of Interest

  • Light meshes not all present, light coming from nowhere
  • Different light meshes too close in terms of associated light colour/brightness
  • Single light mesh has too many colour/brightness variations

  • LightmassImportanceVolume not present
  • Edges of CSG bleed light (ie. not perfectly aligned and/or overlit)
  • Map needs to be rebuilt with Lightmass Production settings
  • Lighting Channels
  • Shadowmaps not attended to

  • Too many dynamic lights cause lag
  • Conflicting lights cause confusion, colour combinations that are out of place

  • Too bright for surrounding area
  • Too dim (ie. washed out by other lights)

+ MOMENTS: Pickups grouped in meaningful gameplay moments that can pay off immediately
+ INTENTION: All starts, pickups, pads, portals and nodes placed for a reason and useful to players and bots
+ PROGRESSION: Actors show restraint and hint at each other, guide players forward, give reason to explore


  • Player starts don't capture a moment or give bad first impression of the level (a wall)
  • Player starts all clumped together without a reason
  • Player starts too close to the middle
  • Player starts too close to the flag, making it easy to flag camp

  • Pickups of different types are all clustered together (no caches!)
  • Important pickups aren't given special spots (mega-health, mega-armor, u-damage, berzerk)
  • Pickups don’t lead me anywhere
  • No obvious use for a weapon or u-damage/berserk when it is picked up, seems useless
  • Pickups don’t escalate (ammo, then weapon; health vial, then super-health; armor belt, then body)
  • Pickups aren’t on the main player path
  • Pickups on uneven or angled ground like ramps or staircases
  • Pickup doesn’t fit the mesh it’s on or space it’s in
  • Pickups of the same type are on two different paths, cutting player choice
  • Ammo doesn’t lead to weapons
  • Bigger health appears without smaller health leading up to it
  • Pickup placement not symmetrical

  • Jump-pads send players to strange areas
  • Portals create a jarring experience and throw off the game balance
  • Portals don’t fit with theme (don’t use them unless you have a really good justification)

  • Only fire once if they are part of an event that happens multiple times
  • Fire before they are supposed to (no level loaded event to turn them off)
  • Too big or too small for what they are meant to signify
  • Cause lag due to over-use (ie. reduce the number of emitters to get the effect, use fewer, larger)

+ COHERENCE: Work together well, establish place through similarity without too much causing vertigo
+ APPLICATION: Applied properly, resized, rescaled and rotated to fit surface and seams hidden with mesh
+ DEPTH: Robust materials chosen/imported that stay fresh throughout level and keep high 3d standard


  • Surface materials not aligned
  • Not all surfaces textures in game on game day
  • No created material, or material is not used
  • Wrong textures used (transparent or UV maps)
  • Mismatched textures
  • Textures too similar, creates vertigo
  • Materials are stretched or too tiled
  • Seams are not hidden
  • Light chosen for textures make them feel flat or unreal
  • Materials don't have normal maps

  • No path material to guide players along elevation, around hills, through passable points in water
  • Too many terrain materials cause ice cream acid to appear (reduce complexity/number of materials)
  • Tiling of terrain materials too high or low (change in terrain material)

  • Stretched because mesh is too big or small (use multiple meshes instead of one big one)

  • No mask for alpha channel, background is not hidden properly
  • Only one texture used but blend mode not set to Modulate and Add an Lighting set to Unlit

+ PLACEMENT: Paths created out of mesh force non-linear movement without impeding player flow
+ FUNCTION: Useful for players (cover, access, cushion) and designer (seams, floor space, art style, detail)
+ QUANTITY: Many instances (1000+) fill world, fewer unique (50-100) ensures consistency/playability


  • Not enough meshes on the ground, space feels empty, not enough cover
  • Meshes which are supposed to serve as cover do not have collision
  • Meshes aren't confined to a specific area

  • Seams are showing when they could be hidden by mesh

  • Too many different meshes to create recognition or pattern
  • Not enough re-use of the same mesh
  • Meshes are not clustered together, seem lonely/isolated/haphazard

  • No mesh chosen as landmarks to present focal points for each room or area
  • Focal mesh does not have supporting mesh to make it look more awesome
  • Focal mesh does not have any similar mesh elsewhere to hint at it and prepare players for its awesome

  • Collision meshes interfere with player experience and should be removed
  • Overly complicated collision used when simple 6-DOP or a BlockingVolume would work

+ DEBUG: Smooth operation adds to play, edge cases are controlled, experience not disrupted by bugs
+ DESIGN: Rules follow a plan, elevators shafts built, door timing has a purpose, defense nodes add challenge
+ FEEDBACK: Easy to understand, usage is obvious, feedback given for every interaction (animation/lights)


  • Paths clip level geometry rather than plotting out a visible path above ground
  • Bot paths connected but bots can't get somewhere important, move to shorten jumps and flatten angles
  • Paths don't work, bots can be seen clumping in start rooms or other areas

  • Only a door or lift has been scripted but not both
  • Elevators aren't built with a believable mechanism, such as shafts, wires, pulleys
  • Doors don't have a frame or other supporting mesh
  • Script is buggy, easy to cause unwanted behaviour (lift not returning, leaving too soon, door jamming)
  • Bots do not know how to interact with scripted elements, can't ride lifts or go through doors
  • Poorly designed, design not executed properly (door too slow for no reason, lift goes so fast players fall off)
  • Triggers only work once when they are supposed to be continuous

  • Scripted element is not clear about its purpose or function
  • Feedback is poor, player doesn't always know when interacting, unsure of the result or why it matters
  • Doors open too slowly, have to stop before it enters

  • No blocking volumes to prevent players from going off world
  • Collision too bumpy, not simplified by a blocking volume placed on top

  • Animation is jumpy, does not begin/end smoothly, doesn't feel believable
  • Animation is too fast or too slow, disrupting player experience
  • Animation downward moves faster than player falling, causes suspension in mid-air

  • Too loud in an area
  • Sound wffects clash with one another
  • Can be heard outside of the area in which it is meant to have effect
  • Does not match the action it is supporting
  • Not timed properly with the action it is representing

5 Design Principles

+ CHALLENGE: Two or three strategies emerge of equal value, catering to different styles of play
+ ESCALATION: Gameplay climbs staircase with new options and higher stakes once map is learned
+ COMBOS: Multiple steps lead to useful reward, with small payouts along the way if player fails/bails


  • No obvious strategies emerges
  • One overpowering dominant strategy
  • Pickups don't add to gameplay
  • Map too confusing to move beyond basic understanding within first play
  • Players aren't continually given options, every pickup leading to two more, with different options

  • No 1-2-3 combo moves

  • Hallway leads abruptly to danger (wide open, sitting duck, big fall) without warning player first
  • Zones intended for combat are not obvious, don't have enough pickups or cover to fuel ongoing combat

+ FAMILIARITY: Level occupies certain space and time, all elements work together to reinforce this
+ DESIRE: Production value high, lights, material and objects work to keep players immersed in the world
+ POLISH: Extra art pass on all key art features and central areas shows prioritized workflow


  • Environment is not a believable space
  • Art style is not coherent
  • It doesn't feel like somewhere
  • Borders end abruptly don't provide window into the world surrounding the level

  • No focal points/ points of interest
  • Some materials or meshes feel out of place
  • Over-use of an element makes it feel boring
  • Under-use of an element makes it feel out of place
  • Light color, brightness and mesh do not combine to create a style guide for each part of the level

+ SETUP: Little hints and micro versions of the magic moment set up the stage for a big payoff
+ COMPLEXITY: Magic moment contains multiple pieces of tech that are misunderstood for a single thing
+ PAYOFF: Central memorable moment defines experience, feels good


  • No central memorable wow moment
  • Tech doesn't work together to create a single experience
  • Magic moment is not reinforced and hinted at throughout the rest of the level

+ QUALITY: Quality is consistent, bugs don't throw game off, level properly built, works well with engine
+ STYLE: Signature of the designer is discernible without overpowering the experience
+ EXPECTATIONS: Things behave 'as they should,' trust in the designer is maintained


  • Level works against UDK and exposes engine flaws rather than working with it
  • Elements don't deliver on promised possibilities, level feels like it knows what it's trying to do but can't
  • Lack of intentional use of tech makes level feel thrown together, doesn't feel tested or polished
  • Ideas with no follow through to knit them together, bunch of little moments, not a unified experience

  • Doesn't work in game mode
  • Cannot score
  • Level not built properly on game day
  • Major FPS drops, parts are like being drunk in jello
  • Regularly crashes editor or game
  • Paths not all connected/built
  • Lighting not built
  • Collision not working properly

  • Can fall through world
  • Too many bugs distract from gameplay

  • Underscores or spaces in map name or folders
  • Map is not named VCTF-LastnameFirstname.udk
  • Package is not included, or instances in level do not point to the right meshes
  • File size huge, extra materials included in packages that aren't used, or unnecessary packages included

+ HUMANITY: Level was once inhabited, evokes questions about who was there before and why
+ EMOTION: Specific moments in the level make player feel something: panic, anger, excitement, awe
+ CLIMAX: Intensity builds, moments paced out for optimum tension, kicks into high-gear for the end


  • No sense of backstory, of an inhabited place
  • Not enough meshes used to create a sense of lived-in space
  • No reason to care about one team or hate the other

  • Too vast to feel anything for
  • Too small to allow the questions to build
  • Lack of contrast makes emotions feel shallow
  • Too many conflicting art styles/meshes/experiences to make a coherent story
  • Placed object or pickup just feels arbitrary, not organic
  • Moments don’t evoke feeling (fear, excitement, momentary confusion, awe, discovery, strength)
  • Generic materials/meshes don’t provide any detail about the place

  • No progression, nothing changes or even appears to change throughout the level
  • The stakes don't feel any higher or riskier after a few games, level feels flat
  • Everything already discovered, no strategies or easter eggs to discover, nothing held back
Last edited by Marth8880 on Wed Dec 06, 2017 3:03 pm, edited 6 times in total.

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Re: Level Design Checklist

Postby jedimoose32 » Fri Feb 20, 2015 10:12 pm

Thanks for posting this Marth. I just skimmed it while at work and it looks awesome. I'll have a better look when I get home.

Geo looks jumpable but is too high...


Edit: Can you elaborate on the 5-Star G.A.M.E.S. concept? I understand what the 5 points are, but the little line graphs are confusing me. I don't understand, for example, how desire is a function of polish over time and why polish should go down over time like that.

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Re: Level Design Checklist

Postby Marth8880 » Sat Feb 21, 2015 12:16 pm

Regarding the 5-Star G.A.M.E.S.:

Game: As a player spends time progressing through a level, the difficulty should ramp up gradually.

Art: The more time a player spends playing a level, the more he'll/she'll notice any mistakes in the art.

Magic: Show off your level's "magic moments" one at a time instead of all at once and don't start with your best one.

Experience: The more time a player spends playing a level, the greater his/her expectations will be in general.

Story: It's basically the standard story progression curve with the introduction of characters, rising conflict, climax, falling action, and resolution.

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Re: Level Design Checklist

Postby jedimoose32 » Sat Feb 21, 2015 1:24 pm

That makes infinitely more sense. And now those graphs are understandable. Maybe I'm the only one who didn't get them though... :P Thanks!

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Re: Level Design Guidelines

Postby AQT » Sun Mar 01, 2015 3:47 am

Very helpful checklist. Thanks for sharing!

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