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Tutorials to Becoming the Best Level Designer and Game Environment Artist (since 2008)

How To Plan Your Next Map

Category: Level Design
October 06, 2008

I am in the process planning my next map. I thought I would share my planning stage of how I come up with ideas on what to do next. So this workflow is up to the point of opening up the editor.

Back in the day I would have an idea for a map but I would get stuck of not knowing where to go from there. So my initial response was to open up the editor and start building.

Usually that didn't turn out good. Actually that process never turned out how I really wanted. So I developed a planning stage process that has worked great for me. I hope it works for you as well.

A lot of people have opinions on how long you should spend on the planning stages. Some spend a lot of time, others nothing at all. In my opinion and experience I spend as long as I need to know what my map will look like. You should have all the necessary aspects covered such as knowing the style, atmosphere, lighting, models, and gameplay. So dedicate and spend the time in planning, sketching and gathering references. It can only help you.


My Sketchpad: first I go through my sketchpad and read over ideas that I have been writing down. I always carry an idea pad with me everywhere I go. Anything that is remotely interesting, I write it down. This doesn't just stay with level design, this goes for any t-shirt designs I want to do, websites, articles to write, drawings, paintings, models etc. So keep a sketchpad with you. It doesn't have to be big, preferably small enough to put it in your back pocket or front pocket. Also you don't have to be excellent at drawing. Good enough to sketch something that only you understand is good enough.

Concept Art: the amount of talent out there creating artwork is astounding. There are so many amazing artists on the forums producing art every single day. Keep a folder and collect concept art that you seeon websites. Going through it usually will inspire something to create.

Concept Art

Feng Zhu

Feng Zhu

Feng Zhu

Personal Experiences: if you traveled anywhere, this offers a lot of ideas. This past year I traveled to Switzerland, Bahamas, NYC, New Orleans and Oklahoma. Traveling opens up your mind. I already have a dozen ideas per each place I have visited. Think of places you have been to. They don't have to be outside of your hometown either. They can be in your own backyard.

AlexG in Switzerland

Your own environment: look at the world around you. Any place you visit can offer a map idea. You may have become too comfortable in your own home. Start looking at things with a kid's curiosity again. Look at things with a new perspective and start questioning if it would make a great environment or not. Even just a cool object can become a center where a whole map would revolve around.

Excitment: What do you like? What do you dislike?

The awesome part is you get to choose. If you were working at a game studio you don't really get to choose which world you want to build. That is pretty much picked out for you. So look at what kind of things you like, your hobbies your passions. This is a strong indicator of what you might want to design.

I personally love open-ended environments. I love mountains and snow. I love cityscapes like NYC and underground tunnels. I love tropical islands. I love train stations and eastern European architecture.

Movies: offer a wide variety of beautiful worlds. Just watching movies keep a note of the places you see and that resonate with you. First movie that comes to mind is Lord of the Rings. Gorgeous worlds.

My suggestions though, don't create a map from the movies that someone else designed, be inspired by them to create something of your own. I want to inspire you to innovate not duplicate.

They don't have to be actual worlds either. Movie can have a certain atmosphere or a feeling you want to communicate in your own map. So look and study the atmosphere, style and light.

Lord of the Rings and Apocalypto

Lord of the Rings & Apocalypto

Blade Runner

Blade Runner

History: offers a wide variety of environments. From Mayans to Egyptians to the Feudal Japan. I love watching the discovery and history channel. I always keep my sketchbook with me to sketch or write down ideas I see.

History section in a bookstore will also offer variety of ideas and it will give you reference images too.

Ancient Rome

Books: I love the Smithsonian books. They are a bit expensive but through Amazon you can save 15-20 bucks. I also love national geographic books and magazines.

I often flip through photography books as well. One single image can give me a whole map to build.

Videogames: being inspired by videogames is another way to generate ideas. Bioshock's underwater world, Assassin's Creed Jerusalem or Stalker's Chernobyl. All provide great ideas for a map setting. Just head to gamespot.com or ign.com and look at any videogames screenshot gallery. You will find hundreds of inspirations.

Half Life 2

News and Current Events: anything that is currently in the media will also suggest interesting environments and scenarios. For example right now there is a lot of talk about Russian and Georgia. Georgia is not something we are used to seeing on TV all the time, so there you go, perfect opportunity to research the environment. Beijing could be another one. These are just quick ideas to get you on the right path to thinking in new innovative ways.

Exaggeration: anything exaggerated is great for an environment. Think of close ups of any object. Fore example mushrooms. Those have been done to death before but someone looked at them and though what if the whole world is set out of mushroom and grass and you are a size of an ant in them. Any map that is set in Rat's point of view is another example.So as you can see ideas are everywhere. Keep your mind and your eyes open and you will never, ever run out of ideas.

Exeggeration in color, size/scale, mood.





Excitement and Passion.

What jumps at you the most when you look through your ideas? Perhaps you already know what you are doing. Great go to the next section.For those who are struggling to which idea start moving forward on, ask yourself.

What environment excites you to see come to life?
What would you enjoy playing in?
What would you want others to experience and see?

When you create an environment, your creation says something about you. You communicate your personality, your identity through your creation. Your self is always coming through. So follow your intuition. What feels good to you and what would you spend the next few months working on? Which world do you want to bring to life?


What is your vision for the map? How do you see your map? Visualize. You should be able to see your map come to life when you close your eyes. The atmosphere, the mood. Visualize yourself walking through your map. Most of concept art is grand vision of the a particular environment.

Know the vision for your creation.

Craig Mullins

Craig Mullins


You need reference. There is no way you can know everything. Not to say it will be easier for you to create something rooted in reality. Exaggeration is life of animation. So if you start from reality and exaggerate it, your design will be stronger.

Collect reference.

Best place is images.google.com

Books and magazines are also great place.

Gather reference on landscapes, environment, buildings, cities, lighting, props, vehicles, atmosphere and sound. Anything that will help and create your map better.Keep a folder where you put everything in.What I do is I open up new file in Photoshop 17x11 inches and at 300 dpi (personal preference) and I start adding all the reference images in there. This way I have one file with all the references. I always would have this file open in the background to remind me of my vision.

Here is some of my collected reference for an upcoming Warfare map.


At this point I start sketching out gameplay ideas. Flow of the map. I am not worried at this point of any details or where each element will go. I am defining the flow of the map. You want to think of your design as almost like a figure eight, always going into it self. Flow. You don't want to design anything that resembles a cross with dead-ends. Focus on the flow.Once you get through that then its time to start planning where each element will go. Good question to ask is what is your focus element of your map? Is it an object? A terrain based location? City?

I often think of the map as a painting. There should be one main focal point of the map. It can be as big or as small as you want it but there has to be a focal point. So plan your top down sketch and sketch of different locations. They don't have to look good. These are just for you. I don't' spend a long time on them but I do try to get a clear understanding of my environment.Once I figured out of how my map is going to flow and I have a good top down sketch drawn I sometimes scan it into Photoshop and create a more detailed outline. Other times I just have a scanned sketch in the reference folder to look back on.

Counter-Strike Source

Counter-Strike Source


For the final refinement of my idea I developed an easy guide of questions to follow and answer that helps me to follow my vision.

You have to have a grand vision of your map. If I ask you to close your eyes you should be able to close your eyes and see your map come to life, that's how clear you want to know your creation. You don't have to have all the details in place, that's not what its about. But the big grand vision, the style, the atmosphere. The heart of the map to me is its atmosphere. That's what you should have down before you do anything.


Be flexible.

What you have on paper is not what may be in your final product. Once you get into the editor you will often times find yourself tweaking a lot of geometry and terrain to make room for gameplay. Planning stage gives you a strong foundation to change what you want yet stay true to your vision.Stay true to your vision.


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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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