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L4D2 Level Design Tips Part 1

Category: Source: L4D 1 & 2
December 11, 2009

Part 1/2 Left 4 Dead 2 Level Design tips.

Read L4D2 Level Design Tips Part 2 here.

1. Interesting Locations and Scenarios:

L4D2 offers interesting and unique locations throughout its 5 campaigns. Dead Center, Dark Carnival, Swamp Fever, Hard Rain and Parish.

Dead Center starts off strong and ends strong, but it is one of the campaigns where the middle is weak. Chapter where you enter the interior of a mall.

L4D2 Dead Center

Dark Carnival is one of the most memorable campaigns. It takes place in an amusement park and continues throughout to a grand finale.

L4D2 Dark Carnival

Swamp Fever campaign sets a great atmosphere in the Louisiana swamps. Swamp Fever has a lot of tension and open spaces.

L4D2 Swamp Fever

Hard Rain is a memorable campaign with a lot of attention paid to a new weather system in Source. This campaign features a lot of backtracking through the environment that is being flooded. As the weather progressively getting worse.

L4D2 Hard Rain

Parish is an urban environment set in New Orleans. Lots of close quarter battles Parish ends in a grand finale that takes place where you have to cross the bridge.

L4D2 Parish

All of these campaigns offer an authentic and fun take on the Deep South. It takes a theme and keeps its theme through out the whole game. Offering variety of gameplay styles.

By playing and studying the environments that stand out to you in L4D2, begin to take notes of what it is that makes these environments fun and different.

Each of the environments has a focal point, and an important primary element that continues through out the map. Weather, gameplay based elements, landmarks, etc.

2. Environment Participation

In L4D2 environments you are not a player who just travels from one place to another. You don't just go through the environment as a visitor; you are a part of the environment. You interact with the environment. Interaction with your environment helps establish a connection with the environment. The choices you make in the environment have consequences.

In Hotel level in Dark Carnival you don't just go through the environment. You are required to go through the hotel.

Going up the roof, then second floor, going through the rooms. Up and down, in and out. The hotel environment requires participation.

This is very apparent through out the entire game.

Don't make players go from point A to point B in a straight line. Take them for a ride through the environment. Make them go inside buildings, up and down rooftops, open and close doors, gates. Turn on and off switches.

Adding gas cans and propane tanks help to add participation in your environment. Elements of danger.

Block your environment off. So that the player has to navigate around obstacles and its not easy for them to get from A to B.

3. Overlapping Environments

L4D2 level design offers a lot of overlapping environments.

Overlapping environments is where you get to see a bit of the environment where you will eventually end up in.

A sneak preview of what is up ahead.

Parish, first chapter. You get a glimpse of the park coming up in the next chapter.

Dark Carnival's third chapter, you can see the safe house way before you ever reach it.

How can you overlap your environments for a more interesting map design in your levels?

Give players a sneak peak at the environment, interesting snippets of what is to come. This will add a lot of depth to your levels.

4. Backtracking Environments

Backtracking in L4D2 is where you go through an environment once, only to come back through the same environment later in the campaign. Only to see how it has changed since your last time there. In Hard Rain campaign you start off at a boat dock at sunset. You have to go through the map, pick up gas cans and go back to where you started. By the time you reach the finale, you are back in the same boat dock during a hurricane.

Same environment, different scenario.

Think of ways you can include this in your maps.

  • Daytime and nighttime
  • Use the new weather system in Source
  • New and old environment. Time has passed
  • Damaged environment. Such as a fire has passed through it since the last time

I wrote a bit more about it in Horror Level Design article.

5. Map Story

Each campaign has a story. Each map in the campaign stays true to the story.

Every environment in L4D2 tells a story.

In the dark carnival map you get to see a Ferris Wheel in the distance. A preview.

In the Dead Center Campaign, you see signs that tell you that you will be going to the mall.

The environment, each map supports the campaign's story. Everything refers back to where you are going.

Consistency in the environment is very important to a successful campaign.

Develop and design a story for your campaign. Even if you are creating a single survival map, have a story that relates to the environment. The story of your map will tell you what should be added and what should be taken away.

Spend some time and go through the Map Guideline List and answer all the questions.

Map Guidelines will help you to know your maps storyline.

6. Guiding the Player

One thing I am impressed with in L4D2 level design is I never felt that I was lost. The map design was done in a way that I intuitively knew where to go without actually knowing where to go. I started to look at why this was true. I began to notice a few things.

There are a few ways that L4D2 level design does this.

Landmarks and Lighting.

Throughout the L4D2 campaigns there are multiple landmarks in the environment that help the player know where to go, which way they need to navigate.


Overpass in Parish spans the entire map, and which actually leads you to the final scenario.

Gas Station sign in Hard Rain as you run through the cornfields.

Smoke in certain maps from the barrels help create the contrast that the player intuitively follow.

Ferris Wheel and Roller Coaster in the distance in Dark Carnival.

The lights in L4D was put to good use in the original game. Being set at night, lights were often used to guide the player to important locations in the environment and guided the player towards the end of the map.

In L4D2, the game is set in daytime. More of the guiding of the player was done though the use of landmarks in the environment. Use of lights is still used in L4D2.

Hard Rain and Swamps used lighting to guide the player to the next part of the map. Having lights on inside certain houses draws the player to them.

Another way of guiding the player is through use of silhouettes

7. Silhouettes. Directing Attention.

Silhouettes are one of the most important elements in design. Character designers often begin with a silhouette first, making sure it is strong and reads clearly. During my animation projects at Ringling I often had to make sure that my animation was clear to read and was understood. So what I would do is turn off my lights in Maya and just watch the silhouette of my character, making sure that the animation was clear and my character design was readable.

L4D2 uses the same principles. From character designs to map layout. With the fog system in L4D2 it is simple to create an element in the distance that can call attention to that specific location. Using the rule of contrast, it brings attention and guides the player.

What do you think? Did you notice more level design insight from the game?

Read L4D2 Level Design Tips Part 2 here.


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About World of Level Design

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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