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L4D2/1: Visual Reference Guide to Level Design

Category: Source: L4D 1 & 2
August 14, 2010

The following Visual Reference Guide to Level Design can be applied to most game environments you are creating, not just L4D1/2.

61 ways to better design your campaigns in L4D2 or L4D1. Grab a coffee and a notepad to take notes. The following article is long. 2800+ words and over 150 images. It contains 61 ways you can better design your L4D2/L4D1 campaigns. It includes all Valve's released campaign maps from L4D2. Although, same tips apply for L4D1.

Use this guide to help you plan your campaigns. Each of the following techniques were used in the game.

Lets begin.

1. Storytelling Your Level Design

What is your maps story? Why is the player there? What is the purpose behind your environment? The depth of your game world will reflect how long you've spent on designing the background story.

From the Dead Center to The Passing Campaign, each has a story to tell.

2. Become a "Method" Level Designer

"Method acting is an acting technique introduced by Stanislavsky in which the actor recalls emotions or reactions from his or her own life and uses them to identify with the character being portrayed." (source)

To help you become better level designers, become a method level designer. Put yourself in the environment you are creating. Think of how would the environment came to be? What is the story behind each prop placed? How did it get there?

Traffic jams, people panicking:

Electricity would be out. Food would spoil, etc.

3. Story Telling Environments

Your environment should always be designed to tell a story without having to explain it. Set dress your level to have "character". Put clues into the level that if a player looks around, they could piece together a story of what happened here. That is why you see construction infected workers in Hard Rain and Ceda security in Dead Center.

The environment reflects the story being told in the level:

Environment design should tell a story and let the player put the puzzles of the environment together. Visually show the environment's story through set design. Let the player fill in the gaps.

Wedding in The Passing:

4. Pick a Theme

Theme is a unifying idea. Theme is the consistency of your environment. It shows through story, from one map to another. What is your theme for your environment?

All of the campaigns in L4D2 stay consistent with their own theme. Pick a theme and stick with it for the rest of the campaign design.

Hard Rain:

Dark Carnival: Amusement Park

Swamp Fever: Swamps.

5. Make Deliberate Level Design Choices

Start off your campaign in interesting locations that makes sense within the story you created. Think of how the player got there. Where will they be going? Does it make sense?

The environment has to stay within the theme you chose. Constantly make deliberate and conscious choices of why the environment is there and how it relates to the player.

Why are the streets blocked off with cars? How did they get there? Why is the specific prop placed there? How did it get there? How did each room became to be this way? What happened?

6. Side Rooms

Side rooms allow for the player to experience a bit more choice and freedom in the environment, rather then following a linear approach. Let the player explore without taking them away from the main path too far. You can include items, spawn infected and create rescue closets within the side rooms.

7. Environment Danger

Introduce dangerous environments. Here are a few choices:



Back drafts:

Weather System (low visibility):

Smoke (low visibility):

Cornfields or Forests (low visibility):

Create your own or use combinations of the above.

8. Foreshadow the Next Location

Foreshadow the next location in your campaign. What is up ahead? Let us see the next location behind a window or a fence. This can be within the same map or within a larger campaign.

Parish Campaign foreshadowing:

Safehouse in Dark Carnival location before we ever get to it:

Dark Carnival Roller Coaster in the distance:

Foreshadowing within the same map in Parish, looking over truck's cargo:

Dead Center hotel view looking down to the safe room location after we get through the burning first floor:

9. Previous Locations

Just as with foreshadowing future locations, make sure to show previous locations where the player came from.

Looking back up from previous screenshot.

Hotel view from second map in the campaign.

Roller Coaster after we've gone through it.

10. Scripted Events

Show the player that the environment is alive and changing. Bridge explosion, the path player was on gets destroyed by fire or something blows up etc. Make the player react to your environment and make the environment react to the player.

Bridge explosion that forces the player to go down into the cemetary.

Fire explosion that blocks the hallway.

Scripted events can include simple things such as lights on/off, gates/doors to open/close.

11. Elevators

Break up the pacing and add more tension. Elevators allow the player to relax, heal and get ready for what maybe up ahead.

12. Blocking Off Outer Boundaries

Block off the non-playable areas believably by adding objects, forests, rocks, hills, fences without calling attention to them.

Using vehicles:



13. Low Visibility Adds Tension and Atmosphere

Use fog, haze, smoke, fire, and weather system/rain, snow.




14. Reduce Draw Distance/Optimize

Hammer Source was not designed to create open-ended expansive worlds. As designers and gameplay artists we need to create worlds that play well, look believable and visually pleasing. Make sure that the draw distance in your map isn't open where you can see from start of your map to end. Blocking off visibility by using buildings, terrain, fog, having interiors and exteriors to close off with portals will help to optimize your levels.

Use fog to reduce draw distance:

15. Interactive Environment

Nothing helps to add believability to the environment then having the player interact with their surroundings. Make the player's choice matter.

16. Open/Close Doors

Ability to open and close doors adds interactive element that we talked about. Being able to close doors behind you, allows the player to control their environment. Infected will need to break through the door first.

17. Panic Events

Create interesting ways to introduce panic events and various Crescendo. Spend time planning out interesting ways to include these in your campaign. Use the environment and your campaigns theme to your advantage. Let the players hold down an area or make them turn off a switch down the street.

18. Delivering Items

Set up interesting set pieces in your campaign to make your level stand out. The soda bottles scenario in Dead Center is a great example.

19. Trap the Players

For finales it is important to trap the players in an area for them to fight and wait for the escape vehicle. You do not want them to run into areas where holding off and defending the position will be a simple task. Valve does this all the time. Using ramps that drop off or holes in the ceiling that players have to jump down to.

Swamp Fever Mansion Finale drop off:

Elevator in Dead Center:

20. Finale Preparation

Allow some time and place items for the player to prepare for the finale. Items being weapons, gas cans, canisters etc. Don't start finale, let the player get ready and activate the finale. Give the player control, don't take it away from them.

21. Psychology of Guiding the Player

We tend to seek light and higher ground. You can guide the player subconsciously to locations in your level by using lights and having higher ground (make them go up the stairs for example). If presented a choice with going up the stairs to a lit room or going downstairs into a dark basement, majority will choose the stairs going up to the light without consciously thinking about it. Use this in your own campaign design.

22. Gas Cans (Scavenge)

Use gas can finales also known as scavenge in collecting the gas cans to: generator, powering up lights, filling up the gas can for a car, boat, plane etc. or design your own.

23. Car Alarms

Great way to introduce danger in the environment.

Parish campaign Car Alarm set piece:

24. Foliage

Use trees, bushes, hills to spawn infected from to surprise the player.

25. Character Commentary

You can have characters speak and comment on the environment they are in, helping to guide and point to where the player should go.

26. Walking vs Exploring

Design your environments in 2 ways. One is simply to have the player go from point a to point b. Straight through, covering distance. Two is to have them navigation through the environment and explore, as they go to next area. Make them go through various rooms, buildings zigzagging their way through.

Example of A to B in Dark Carnival Campaign:

Example of navigating through the environment in Dark Carnival Campaign:

27. No Way Back

Way to add tension to the level is have the player drop down to the unknown, such as a hill slope or sewers. It helps to build tension. From level designers point of view it helps with performance by closing off the area where the players have been with portals.

Dark Carnival:

The Passing, dropping down into sewers:

28. Walking in the Water

Walking in the water is a lot slower then on land. Design the level where you could include water to slow down the players. Sewers, swamps, flood.

The Passing construction site:

Hard Rain floods:

29. Safe Rooms

Create interesting, story driven safe-rooms. Use story of the environment and design safe rooms that have character and communicate a story through set design and location.

You can also use graffiti writings on the wall, but this has been over used. Create your own custom graffiti to tell your own story.

30. Open Safe Rooms

You can create closed safe rooms, where the player is inside a building with a red emergency door blocking the entrance. You may also create open ended safe rooms that are open to the exterior and are more dangerous. For example cargo train seen in Fever.

Create safe rooms that make sense. Since the map switch will lead them to another area, the next area up ahead has to make sense from where the players came from. This is where having a good story and a theme in your environment comes together and helps you out.

31. Wall Posters

Use posters on the wall to foreshadow where the player maybe heading. This is a great way to subconsciously tell the player that is where they will be going before they actually get there. Implicitly guiding the player to their next location with posters, billboards etc.

Dark Carnival Campaign Posters:

32. Multiple Pathways

Give the player ways to get to the same location different ways. Give them an option of going a or going b. Give them freedom to choose. (This isn't Director conrolled pathways. See 33 for this.) Either choice leads to the same location, but having the freedom to choose is important.

The Passing shop:

Swamp Fever, go left or go right:

33. Director Controlled Pathways

You can set up multiple pathways of which the player can go. Use the director to randomly choose which way will be open and which one is closed. Parish first map and Parish cemetery offers this.

This can be seen a lot in Parish Campaign:

34. Safe House Direction

Always reinforce the player with visible cues of overlay safe house. This way they do not need to question themselves if they are going the right way. This becomes subconscious. Reinforce it by saying implicitly "You are on the right way."

Safe house overlay in Swamp Fever:

35. Higher/Lower Elevations

Design areas where there are vertical option of navigation. Higher and lower levels. If the player falls down, they will have to get back to higher ground. Good example is Swamp Fever.

Remember to make getting back up near by. Do not frustrate the player and make them track back to a ladder or a ramp too far away. Make it easily accessible. You want them to think, "Shit, I have to get back up." And not "Shit, I have to walk back all the way back there to get back up?"

36. Finale Vehicles:

Various finale vehicles are Boat, Helicopter, Car.

37. Ladders

Use extensive use of ladders when needed. Allow players to climb up on rooftops, second floors etc. Options, without leading the player too far from the main path.

38. Infected Spawns

Use broken ceilings to spawn the infected from, bushes, side rooms dark foliage, hidden walls that get busted open. Think of interesting ways to spawn infected from. This way you will never run out of infected in your level. Infected spawn from areas not seen by the player.

39. Stationary Guns

Stationary guns give an edge to the player, but they are limited in where you can shoot at. Make sure to put the stationary guns that don't give the player upper hand. Use it sparingly.

40. Weather System/Storms

Weather system in Source allows to randomly generating storms within your environment. Make sure the weather system you include in your map makes sense and is used to elevate the tension of your environment.

41. Navigation, Guiding the Player

Use signs such as arrows for various locations. Mall, garage sale, gas help to guide the player to their next location. These signs should make sense within the levels story.

42. Traveled Rooftops

Design for players to travel via rooftops to another area. Such as in Hard Rain.

43. Walking the Plank

Use narrow navigation and environment danger such as narrow wood planks, pipes, ladders, rope.

44. Backtracking Locations

Design your campaign so the player starts in one location then has to come back to the same location. Vary the time of day; time in the future, weather.

Study Hard Rain how this was done effectively. Player starts during a slight summer sunset rain and by the time they return to the same area, it has been flooded, it is nighttime and it is during a sever thunderstorm.



45. Landmarks

Use landmarks in the distance to guide the player and help them orient themselves in the environment. Parish with the bridge and Skyline and Hard Rain with the playground, and gas station sign.

Sign during the storm in Hard Rain:

Gas Sation sign in Hard Rain during cornfield sequence:

Spotlights in the distance in Dark Carnival:

Bridge and skyline in Parish:

46. Physics Objects and Jukebox

Simple interaction with your environment. Tables, chairs, jukebox etc.

47. Obstacles

Make the player navigate around the obstacle. It could be a hole in the floor or a bus/truck in the way.

48. Quarantine

Setup ways to quarantine the area off with using a stationary van such as in Parish level. Close one door before opening another, seals off the previous area for the player.

49. Sewers

Dark, and slow moving areas because of water add tension. You can't see but few feet in front. Make these areas very simple to navigation through. Make sure that you can see where you need to go by placing a simple light in the distance or making the player only move forward. Do not create mazes. Simple straightforward approach works best for the sewers. Keep it very simple.

Dark, but linear approach to dark tunnels:

Putting some lights up to let the player know where to go, in The Passing:

50. Infected Climbing

Infected can climb over fences, walls. Introduce a way infected that can climb up to second story or third story windows. Design you levels to include pipes or boarded up windows, so even though it may appear the player is safe on higher floors, they are not. Again, think of clever ways to spawn infected and have them reach the player. It was a great surprise in The Passing when infected climbed up the second story.

51. Urban Foliage

In urban environments adding foliage helps to add contrast and break up the monotony of the urban setting. Add a park, few trees and bushes. Adding foliage can also help to add where infected will spawn from.

52. Allow Natural Light

If you have predominantly interior environment, allow natural light into your environment. Put some windows, or an atrium. This will help to create more believable environment and it will help with a sense of scale.

Dead Center:


53. Cool vs Warm Color Palette

Color theory is very important to designing the feeling and emotion of your environment. It has a huge impact on the visual quality of your environment. One of the ways is to balance cool vs warm color palettes. With using color correction or simply control the color of the lights, you can control your levels color palette.

54. Guide with Light

Use lights to guide the player from one area to another.

Use fire, smoke, or headlights on cars. Use contrast of lights, such as lights being on vs lights being off.

The lit up arrow points exactly where the player needs to go in The Passing:

Headlights on the car is a very common way Valve guides the player:

Smoke/Fire in Parish:

55. Attention and Contrast

Show where the player needs to go with contrast. Broken wall holes, or holes in the floor. Broken tree stumps among the forest. Use silhouettes that add contrast and grab attention of the player.


Contrast of objects out of place:

Contrast light vs dark:

Contrast in geometry:

56. Powerlines

Use power lines to guide the player.

57. Details, Details, Details

Add details in the environment for more believability such as floor fog, flies, firebugs, various objects/props on the ground etc.

58. Sun Lens Flare

Blind the player by using sun lens flare.

59. Locked Doors

Locked doors in L4D1-2 do not have any doorknobs. Use that to create doors that do not open. You can also use wooden boards, furniture. Visually show which doors can be opened and which doors cannot. Do not make the player look and try to open every door just to find out they are all locked.

60. Interesting gameplay spaces

Design interesting gameplay spaces. Spend time researching your location, setting up the story and picking a theme. Don't open the editor until you have something interesting that hasn't been done before. If it has been done, just make it your own way and better.

61. Love Your Idea

Remember to love your idea. There is nothing worse then workingon a map that you don't like. That is why spending time in pre-production is important. Pick ideas that you are in love with and want to see come to life.

What do you think? Do you have any to add?

Recommended L4D1-2 Articles:

L4D2 Level Design Tips Part 1

L4D2 Level Design Tips Part 2

L4D1-2: Campaign Design - Why Less is More

12 Terms from the Left 4 Dictionary


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My name is AlexG. I am self-taught level designer, game environment artist and the creator of World of Level Design.com. I've learned everything I know from personal experimentation and decades of being around various online communities of fellow environment artist and level designers. On World of Level Design you will find tutorials to make you become the best level designer and game environment artist.

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