What is Level Design?

Article content

  1. How to design a level
  2. Give the player an objective!
  3. Orientation
  4. Challenging the player
  5. Building the puzzles
  6. Game flow
  7. Weapons, space and enemies
  8. Visuals and Sound
  9. Conclusion

Before I start with the article I think it’s important to answer this question, what is level design? People seem to forget that level designers have one of the most important jobs while creating a game. They are responsible for putting everything together, from 2D/3D art to visual effects, and artificial intelligence, it’s up to the designer to make it all work. Let’s not forget also, that the first element of interaction between the player and the game is the level, and as such we should pay extra attention to how the player plays the map.

Basically all the topics covered in this article are summed into one thing: put yourself in the players' shoes! You’re making the level for the player, and you should give him the best and most enjoyable experience you can, if you know how the player will act/react to certain situations/events of your map, you can design your level to fit those actions. There are three things that the player should never experience: frustration, repetition and unfairness. At the same time there are three things he should always feel: fun, sense of accomplishment and challenged. We will go deeper into how to do this in our level later in the article.

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I would also like to say that there are no rules while designing your levels, what I’m giving here are guidelines, and it’s up to you, the level designer, to decide which you want to use.

How to design a level

I’m starting the article with some guidelines of what you should do before building your level in whatever editor you use. It’s good to always think on what you want to do before you start doing it, and to avoid forgetting it, always write it down on paper.

To start you should understand how the game you’re mapping for works. If you’re part of a game/mod team, you should always talk with the game/mod designers and understand all the features and gameplay elements that can influence the way you design the level. If you’re not on a team, and are just doing some freelance work, sometimes it’s even easier, because someone else already wrote an article or tutorial explaining the game mechanics. Nevertheless it’s very important to not skip this step, either a single player, or multiplayer map, you should always know what the game needs.

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The city plaza, the 'climax' of the introductory levels in Half-Life 2

Next step is to give a theme to the level, try to define it with just one sentence, for example the first level of Half-Life 2 can be described as “An introduction to city 17”, this description can either be made by you (the level designer) or by the game designers (if you’re working on a team), but just by reading that sentence I’m sure that immediately you will get lots and lots of ideas on what elements the map should have. The next thing you should do is to think about the climax of your map, every map is designed to take the player to a particular setting, and it’s easy to see on professional maps what that area is, since it’s usually the one in which most effort was put on. Taking the latter example of Half-Life 2 first level, you can clearly see that the town centre is the climax. The lights, the architecture, the sounds, everything is more detailed in that area then in the rest of the city. So why spend so much effort in one single area? Like I said in the introduction, put yourself in the player shoes. The player won’t remember every single section of your level after finishing it, but he surely won’t forget the climax, and that setting will probably be the “visual trademark” of your level in the future. It’s a good idea to start your map by drawing that section on paper, you don’t need superb drawing skills for this (although it helps) as long as you understand what the drawing is supposed to mean. If you have a theme and a climax established, the ideas for other areas will flow in naturally, you just have to make sure that they fit with the theme, and that they create a logical path to the climax.

I think it’s also important to draw an overview of your map, and point out key gameplay elements that you want to add to it. In single player maps you should mention which scripted sequences you want to add, what weapons or enemies you want to introduce and where, what puzzles you want to add, etc. For multiplayer maps the gameplay elements are usually where the weapons and objectives should be placed in the map, but you can take it further by adding areas for specific weapons to be used, chokepoints, etc.

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A scan from Valve's book 'Raising the Bar' - showing a sketch of a section of Nova Prospekt

Now having just this won’t make a good level, there are other important aspects that you should know about and use in your maps, so lets talk about them now.

Give the player an objective!

This is the most important rule of level design, everything in your map should be made around this sentence, and not having an objective is the number one mistake of level design. You can create the most visually appealing map, but if you don’t have an objective the player will just wonder around the map once and never play it again.

The first moment the player enters your level he needs to know what he has to do, it doesn’t matter if its single player or multiplayer, deathmatch or objective orientated, every single level needs to give the player something for him to do. Deciding what the objective should be is not the hard part of the design, the hard part is to decide how to transmit to the player that objective. In single player maps there is usually a small introduction (usually a scripted sequence, or a F.M.V.), which situates the player in the game plot, and tells him where to go next, sometimes even a NPC will give that information to the player, the important thing is to make sure that he gets the information you’re trying to send. If for example there is an NPC giving important information in the middle of a fight the player won’t get the message. This was something that happened in Half-Life 2 a couple of times, and that caused some plot bits to go unnoticed by most players. Even visual effects can distract the player, so think about where and when you should transmit to the player his objective.

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An NPC conveying important information - this is done at a 'quiet time' in the action.

For multiplayer maps the objective is more straight forward, and easy to understand, since basically the gameplay is the objective, if you know how to play the game, then you know how to map for it. But with these type of maps you need more creativity on how to give the player his objective; this was especially well done in counter-strike. Before starting every map there is a small briefing telling the player that if he is in the terrorist team he needs to plant the bomb at one of the bombsites, if he is on the counter-terrorists team he as to protect the bombsites and defuse the bomb. This simple text, although being often skipped by experienced players, is very valuable for new players, and makes it easier for them to understand the game.

Sometimes there is no easy way to explain the player what his objectives are, and it will require him to play several times before he does. Your job in these situations is to reduce the amount of tries needed as much as you can, by either telling the player why he failed, or giving him different tips on what he has to do. If you are designing a game or a mod sometimes it’s better to spend some time working on a training map, then spending it writing long text manuals, or having you explaining to everyone what they have to do. If the player doesn’t get the objective then the game/mod/map has failed its job.


Orientation is another often missed step of level design. There is no point on creating a level if the player can’t navigate across it, it would be like walking in a dark room with your eyes closed. At the very least you should make the goal of the area the player is on visible, usually that goal is an exit, other times is a button/switch, no matter what it is, the player needs to see it, and needs to understand how to get there. There is no point on making navigation complex, the player shouldn’t had to worry about where he has to go, the only thing he needs to worry about is what he needs to do to get there. But knowing just how to get out of the area isn’t enough, the player also needs to know how to get to the level objective (read previous topic). Making the player get to the objective is the hard part, the most usual method is to use a landmark which can be seen all across the map, you have a great example of this in Half-Life 2 which is the citadel, you know you need to get there, so you move in the direction that takes you closer to it. This is a very effective method, but that doesn’t mean it will work every time. Another solution is to place directions on the map itself, an example of this is the spray paints in counter-strike which point to each bombsite, just a simple arrow with a letter in the middle help the player know where to go.

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The citadel was almost always visible throughout your progress in City 17.

The way you texture your level can also influences navigation, this is something usually seen in multiplayer levels, but hard to implement in singleplayer, the reason is singleplayer levels usually use a consistent theme, so there isn’t much difference on the textures used, on the opposite side multiplayer levels are all about having as many different areas as you can. Having unique textures in unique areas make it easier for the player to recognise them each time he plays, say for example that you’ve a map with two areas a forest and a cave, if the player is in the forest and want to go to the cave he just has to look around and see where the cave textures start, and them move in that direction, the same happens with having distinct type of areas, specially having variations of inside and outside sets, that make it easier for the player to know where to go.

The last method I’m going to mention is a bit controversial. I call it the “linear gameplay” method, and it’s the method in which you make the map as a single line so that the player doesn’t need to choose on where to go, he just has to follow the same path. This method only really works on single-player maps, since multiplayer have circular designs (not even fy_iceworld is linear), the problem with using this method is that it makes the player feel like the game is controlling him, instead of him being the one controlling the game, so while using this method try to give some choices to the player whenever you can, so that he can at least feel that he changed something in the game. This method was used in Half-Life 2, but it’s really noticeable in Half-Life 2: Episode One, especially on the exterior maps, you can see that there is only one path, and one place to go. If this is a good or bad method to use in a map is up to you to decide, but always think first on what is better for the player.

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A basic but effective example of giving the player a choice in de_dust2

This brings us to the next point...

Challenging the player

Like I mentioned earlier while designing the map you need to think about the player, you need to keep him motivated and entertained enough so that he won’t quit playing, or even get him to play more then once.

What you want to achieve with your levels is to create something that average players can play without any problems, but that at the same time gives an extra challenge for the more experienced. To do this we must remember to always be fair to the player, if we take something away from him, we should give him something in return, for example in Half-Life 2 the last level in which the player is stripped from all his weapons, but he gets a new and more powerful one. But you shouldn’t make it that easy, if the player wants to get a more powerful gun, then he most be given a harder challenge, for example, imagine you have a map with two corridors equal to each other. At the end of the first one there is a Railgun, at the end of the second there is a Shotgun. If both ways are exactly the same then the player will always choose the path with the Railgun, making the other path unnecessary, and you may as well remove it from the map, but if you put more enemies in the Railgun then in the Shotgun, the player will have to make a choice. He can choose the easy way and get a weaker gun, or choose the hard way and get a better gun. Just by doing this you’re immediately entertaining the player, he now has to make a choice, he knows that the action he takes will change the way he plays the rest of the game, and we get the player curious to play the map again to see what would happen if he had chosen the other path.

What you should never do is be unfair to the player, if you give him a hard challenge he must get a good reward, this applies to both singleplayer and multiplayer maps, never make the player have to kill 50 enemies to get nothing in return, unless you’re trying to take away some of his resources and make the next part harder. Still this isn’t a very good practice, there are other methods of making it harder for the player to progress in your level without having to take anything from him, and that’s what we are going to talk next...

Building the puzzles

Building puzzles in a map is an art by itself, most of the times it will require lots of trial and error before you get something challenging and entertaining for the player, but if you use some common sense, player psychology and have an assorted number of testers, you can reduce that amount of tries drastically.

First things first, what do we qualify as a puzzle? A puzzle is everything that stops the action of the game to make the player think of what to do next, this can be anything from finding a way to open a door, to having to kill an enemy.

There are several types of puzzles, the ones that require the player to think, the ones that require the player to master a certain skill, and the ones that require him to use a certain weapon against a certain enemy. You may think that this only applies to single player levels, but that is far from true. You need to take every little challenge that the player as to face as a puzzle. For example if the player needs to block a door so that the enemy won’t attack from there then that’s a logic puzzle. If the player needs to do a special jump to get on a ledge and grab a new gun that’s a skill puzzle. And lastly, if the entire level is one big “kill the enemy” puzzle, so it should be made to follow the rules for this kind of puzzle.

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The player sees his reward, and now must work out how to solve the puzzle.

The first type is usually the more fun for the player, they make him think that he is smart, but are the hardest ones for the mapper to add efficiently. This happens because the mapper knows the game and the level better then everyone else, and he will always be the worst tester for his own creation, this is why you should get some friends to test the puzzles for you. Just let them play your map and never give them any tips, observe how they face your puzzle, and how hard it is for them to find the solution, if they can’t find it it’s time for you to go back and redo the entire thing. Always leave it in the hands of others to see if it works, never trust yourself! To make it easier you can use some gaming common sense, this means using things that have been seen in other games, and that any gammer will automatically recognise, just give it your own interpretation but leave the core of the puzzle like it should be. For example when a player sees a high ledge and a jumpad, he will immediately think that if he jumps on the jumpad he will get to that ledge, if you make the jumpad kill the player for example and the solution was something unexpected, your puzzle has failed. You should also use day-to-day common sense. If a player sees a door with a handle he expects it to rotate, not to slide. If the player sees a barrel with a “danger explosive” sign on it he expects the barrel to explode. You need to take all this things in to consideration while building the puzzle.

The next type of puzzle is the skill puzzle. This is the type of puzzle that requires the player to use a certain skill to pass a certain obstacle, sometimes it’s a special jump, others it’s a different way of using a weapon, or even a power-up.

The secret with these type of puzzles is to make sure that the player has mastered, or at least knows how to do the required skill. The exception is the first time you show this puzzle to the player, that’s why we should discuss a new topic which is game flow.

Game flow

What is game flow? Game flow is turning your game/mod/map into a progressive element; basically the player should start by having to use a certain number of skills, and gradually be required to use other more complex ones. In other words the level should start easy and then gradually turn harder and harder. There are 3 techniques for this, the first is to have a linear progression, in which the level starts easy, and ends harder. The second is the parabolic progression, in which the level starts easy, turns hard in the middle (more effective if this happens in the climax), and then gets easy again. The third is the multi parabolic progression, in which you have several hard and easy moments mixed up. You need to choose which one is better for your map, the first is the most usual type of game flow, and you will find yourself using this most of the times. The second is used to give more relevance to a certain area, you will use it if you have a really important area in your map that you want the player to spend some time on and absorb all of its content. The third is used to keep the player jumping on the chair. You give him a challenge, then a false sense of safety, then another challenge, then safety again, etc, etc. You should use it in areas in which you want the player to run through, and don’t stop.

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Ravenholm, players experienced non-stop combat and also times of fearful anticipation.

Now taking the last topic about skill puzzles, they are affected by how the game, or level, flow is given to the player. He needs to learn a certain skill, then he needs to use it, and finally he needs to master it. So for these types of puzzles you should create an introductory puzzle in which the technique is explained to the player, or in which the player has more time to think about it. Next you should create a puzzle that makes sure that the player has learned that skill and that it wasn’t just a lucky move, and finally you should create an ultimate, harder puzzle and in which the knowledge the player has about that skill is put to the extreme. I’m sure you all are recognising this progression from somewhere. It was used on several games, but most recently in Half-Life 2 with the gravity gun. The player is first introduced to the gun by Alyx, and he gets to practice using it by playing basketball with Dog. After that the level designer knows that the player as mastered the use of the gravity gun and can give him more challenges that require its use without having to worry about teaching the player that skill.

So in conclusion never ask the player to do something that he hasn’t done before!

Next we will talk about the enemy/gun puzzle, for that we will again require a new topic.

Weapons, space and enemies

The third and last type of puzzle are the “kill the enemy” type of puzzle. This is the kind of puzzle that no game can live without, no matter what, you will always end up having to get someone killed. Now most level designers just add the enemy and a couple of guns and hope that the player finds a way of killing him, the truth is that it isn’t that easy. For this type of puzzle you need to have in consideration three things: the weapons the player has or needs, the space in which the battle will take place, and the enemy that needs to be killed.

First the weapons, usually there is one weapon which is more efficient against a certain enemy, we will call it the “ultimate weapon”, there are also others which will inflict some damage but will hardly kill them, and lastly the ones that don’t do anything to the enemy. You need to balance the amount of ammo you give to the player for each weapon so that the battle isn’t too easy or too hard. The ammo for the “ultimate weapon” should be harder to get but not so hard that the player won’t find it. The ammo for the less powerful guns should be easy to find, and should be all around the battle area. These guns are the ones the player will resort too when the ammo for the ultimate weapon ends and he needs to get more, so always be sure that he gets enough ammo for them. The ammo for the ineffective guns should never be added to the battle area; they will just distract the player, and will force him to do an unnecessary move to get them.

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Giving the player a sniper rifle in this situation will cause much frustration.

If the battle you’re creating is going to introduce a new gun, then you need to take in consideration the game flow mentioned earlier. The player is using that gun for the first time so you can’t give him 10 enemies that will require the use of that gun to be killed. You should start with a small number of enemies, and then gradually add more around the map so that the player gets enough time to learn how to use the weapon.

Our next topic is space. On modern games weapons have different ranges, some have splash damage, or other similar features, which make them effective to use on certain types of scenarios. Basically you will have 3 types of weapons, short range weapons (including melee weapons), mid range weapons, and long range weapons (which can include sniper like weapons). For creating a battle you need to understand what the range of each weapon is, for short range weapons you should create an arena with lots of small corridors and corners, avoiding as much as you can to have big open areas. Since this type of guns usually does less damage you don’t need to add much cover for the player. This will create a faster battle, in which the player keeps moving to avoid getting killed.

For the mid range weapons you want to create an area that is open, but gives a lot of cover at the same time. These are the type of weapons that usually have things like splash damage, so you don’t want the player to keep dyeing because they shot a rocket against a wall near them. Long range weapons are a bit harder to map for, this is because they are usually to powerful and require large open areas to be effectively used. What you need to create is a situation in which the player only feels confident to fire one shot, and then has to hide and wait for a new opportunity. You do this by having large areas with not much cover, but the type of cover that is provided is enough to make the player feel safe. A nice example of this is the last battle of Half-Life 2: Episode 1 against the strider. The player starts with a lot of cover, but gradually gets less and less cover, forcing him to try to inflict as much damage as possible in the first moments of the battle, so that later he only has to worry about one single shot at a time.

For multiplayer maps you need to add areas to cover all types of weapons range, let’s take for example a counter-strike map. You have the short range weapons which are the pistols, and knife. You then have the mid range weapons which are the sub machine guns, and finally the long range weapons which are the rifles and snipers. In the map de_dust2 for example, the corridors that connect bomb site B with the middle are great for short range weapons. The middle and the stairs to bomb site A are great for mid range weapons, and the long connection to bombsite A and B, plus the middle connection to both bombsites are made for long range weapons. You should look at de_dust2 as a good example of extremely well done game play and level design for counter-strike. Pretty much all the elements mentioned in this article are present in that map.

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Take note of the weapons you give the enemy, don't leave your player ill-equipped.

Last topic here is the enemy. The enemy is probably the most important part of this type of puzzles; you need to know as much as you can about him to make your battle work well. First you need to know his strengths and weaknesses; you then have to build your arena so that you have areas in which those strengths are more effective, and others in which his weaknesses are easy to explore. Basically you need a “safe area” and a “kill area” for the enemy. For example in Half-Life 2 when you fight the antlion king in the prison showers, the enemy strength is his “run attack”, his weaknesses is that he takes to long to turn back to the player once he has done that attack. So the level is made to give the antlion enough space to do his attack, but at the same time allows the player to get on the enemy back and shot him while he is recovering. There should always be a moment in which the player has to run for his life, and another in which he has the opportunity to make the kill.

Visuals and Sound

The last topic we will cover is what most people think as the most important aspect of level design. Although looks and sound are important in a level, if you think globally no matter how pretty your map is, if the gameplay is bad no one will play it for to long. So visuals and sounds should be added as a complement to the gameplay.

Lets start by talking about the visual side of designing your level. This is where most mappers spend their time, trying to polish every brush, texture and model to make the map look perfect. The problem is that many times they only add elements because they think it will look cool, without ever wondering about how they will affect the map.

The brushes are the first part of the visual design, they are the elements which define the format of your map, format is almost the same as layout, and having a good layout is very important, especially on multiplayer maps. Before adding brushes it’s a good idea to draw an overview of the level, you can start by drawing a floor plan, much like a house blueprint, and then add some blocks around that floor plan representing the buildings (or trees, or rocks) that will be the limits of your map. This is where you establish all your gameplay elements, and its better if you create this part in the editor as soon as possible, and test it to see if the gameplay you imagined works. If something fails at this stage it’s easier to fix, then in the final stages of the level development. Once you have all the gameplay problems solved you can start to turn your blocks into more accurate representations of what they are supposed to be, but remember to never add small details at this stage, they may be turned later into models or textures, so you’re just wasting time! The way you build your map is up to you, but I think its more effective to build it by areas, this means start with areas that have the same theme, and finish them before moving to others. The advantage of this is that you can use the same set of textures and prop models for those areas, making the map more consistent.

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A basic area of a map can look very eye-catching with a striking use of lighting.

After building your brushes it’s time to think about lights and textures. These two elements should always be added at the same time since they depend on each other. Like I mentioned earlier textures help on navigation, same goes for light, they make it easier for the player to recognise areas in which he has been before. They also help on making it easier for the player to detect important parts of the map; well lit and bright textured areas immediately catch the player attention, while dark areas are usually the ones which he will explore later. Another thing you need to have in consideration is that the colour of the lights and textures transmit certain feelings to the player, and you should always make sure that the player will face something that matches those feelings. There is much to be said about this, I could write an article as big as this just on this subject, but I’ll try to sum the more important aspects of this. The darker the colour the more unsafe the player will feel, bright colours give the opposite feeling. Dark blue tones usually create a scarier environment, while if they are too bright they can create a heavenly or cold room. Dark red tones can transmit a warm feeling to the player, if they are too intense the “warm” can turn into “burn”. Soft yellow and blue tones give a sense of balance.

Now talking about each subject separately, and starting with the textures. Textures in terms of design show how much effort was put in the map, things like misaligned textures, or lack of borders and trims, show that this was a sloppy job. You need to make sure that you aligned all the textures (sometimes it’s not possible I know), and that they have the same scaling and resolution. Whenever a texture meets another texture there needs to be something to break the two, usually referred to as trims. The same goes for brush boarders, don’t just let the texture end where the brush ends, instead add a different texture around the brush borders to make it look more polished. You should also try to avoid having one single texture covering an entire wall, use different variations of that texture, or even a totally different one to break the monotony. This isn’t easy though, since you want to create something that isn’t too repetitive, but that at the same time looks different everywhere you look. The secret is to select a set of textures with are consistent in colour, resolution and type (photo realistic, hand drawn or cartoon/cell-shaded), and then stick with that set in the area your working on. If you make these elements consistent then you can have variation (in the shape, and material) but still keep a solid look.

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This simple but clever use of fence props breaks up this ceiling perfectly.

Lights are another important aspect of the design; it’s almost a science to make a well lit map. The basic rules are, always have a source for your light, always make sure that the source fits with the amount of light coming from it and with the size of the area that it’s on, and to add a colour that fits with the environment. The science comes in choosing the proper colours. You should start by choosing two colours that go well with each other from a limited palette. Due to the nature of how light is created you will understand that the colours you can use are red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. These are the colours which you have to select from, now it’s just a matter of understanding how well they work with each other.

After having brushes, textures, and lights, it’s time to fill your map with junk (props). Props are usually models; they can also be world brushes, but their job it’s always the same: to make your environment more believable! So while adding props you need to think what would the player expect to see in the environment that you created, if it is a garage you could add tires, or car parts, if it is a old abandoned building then bits of walls or barrels could be used, its just a matter of understanding the theme of the area you’re working on. Sometimes props also become gameplay elements; they can be used as cover, or even as a weapon (half-life 2 gravity gun for example). If you’re using them as cover then you need to think carefully on where you will place them according to what we discussed on the topic about enemies puzzles. If they will be used as a gun, then you should analyse them as a gun. Get their range, weaknesses and strengths, and all the things that we discussed before.

Sound is also an important part of level design, and the one which is least used. Sounds, like everything else, make your world more believable, they are what makes the player enter your world and imagine it as being real. For a level designer the only sounds that matter are the ambient sounds, and the character sounds. Ambient sounds are the most important to create a real world. It’s very rare for you in real life to stay at a place where you can’t hear absolutely any sound at all. Taking that in consideration while creating each area of your map, besides choosing textures and props that apply to the theme, you should also choose sounds. You should choose from two different types of sounds, the background sounds, and the unique sounds. Background sounds are the ones that always play in the area you’re creating, for example if your creating an engine room then you should add a engine background sound. Unique sounds are the cherry on the top of the cake, they are the sounds that break the boring and repetitive loop in the background, and many times aid on giving certain feelings to the player. This are sounds that are not played as often as the background sound and are usually attached with a certain action, examples can be an explosion, a thunder or a scary scream, basically anything that makes the player think that something else is going on besides of what he is seeing at that moment.

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Dr. Kliener's lab, a perfect of example of visual, audio and interactive level design techniques.

Now on to character sounds. Character sounds are any sound that comes from an enemy, the player or an NPC but since we are discussing level design we will just talk about enemy sounds. The enemy sounds are as important as a gameplay feature because they usually allow the player to know that an enemy is coming before seeing him. After killing a certain enemy a couple of times, it’s more then usual for the player to know which sounds belong to each enemy. You can use them to make the player feel uncomfortable while playing, or in other words scared, by playing that sound and not giving to the player the battle he is waiting for straight away. There are other possibilities with enemy sounds; it’s just a matter of finding the right moment to play them.

Last part of this tutorial are the special effects, which are usually a combination of a visual effect (animation) and a sound. Special effects include fire, sparks, explosions, lasers, and many other things. These are the small things that show how much effort the mapper has put in to his map, you should add them as much as you can since they usually help on creating a believable environment, and immerse the player even more into the game. Taking my previous mod experiences, NightFall was one of those that did this extremely well. In the first levels there are several explosions, which have extra effects like dust particles, debris, smoke and fire, that make it even more spectacular. In the end that’s all that really matters when adding special effects, to create a spectacular environment, and take the player to places and situations that he has never been before.


And this is the end of the article. It was a long journey, but I hope you have appreciated it. To summarize what was said here, the most important thing is to treat the player the way he deserves, give him a great experience while playing your map, try to immerse him as much as possible into the game, and take him to places that only existed in his imagination. Originality is the key for this, and although there is nothing wrong with taking ideas from the experts, you should always add something unique, something that has never been seen before, something that you can call yours.

Thanks for reading, Sérgio “BK” Duarte.