Penultimate Level Design

{July 11, 2008}   Physical Level Design Tools – Part 1, Lego
Post apocalyptic Lego scene by Legohaulic

Post apocalyptic Lego scene by Legohaulic

So, I was thinking…* Level design is not only a funny beast, but one that is done differently in every company, as far as I can see. It’s interesting – some companies don’t need any level designers, some have artists who fulfil the role, some call them Level Builders and have them create the final art while they’re doing it, while others are Level Scripters who don’t do any of the art, and instead finely tune the programming-language-like scripting.

I am most familiar with Level Designers who are not responsible for the final graphics, but who are responsible for the rough layout of the level/environment, and the eventual scripting of the gameplay within that (arted up) level. The early phases of this process vary dramatically from studio to studio – the roughing out of the layout. Some historically have used Lego, others use sandpits, some use graph paper, yet more go straight into a 3d package, and some use Visio. This, is what I’m interested in.

Things like Lego, sand and paper models – my worry is that they initially seem like an excellent idea, but might ultimately be more limiting than enabling. Imagine, for example that we’re making our level layout in Lego:

  • Easy to use – Unfortunate indeed is the level designer who’s unfamiliar with Lego and its easy to use bobbly blocks. Even without ‘custom pieces’ you can build vehicles, buildings and basic shapes very quickly.
  • Available – Need more? Go buy some or start asking around the office to see how many others have secret stashes in their lofts from their childhoods. But it in bulk, buy it online, buy it by the bucket, buy it piece by piece – there’s so much of it! You could probably buy lots off Ebay – only lightly chewed!
  • Thousands of pieces – Custom pieces range from sharks and daiseys, to lightsabers and space buggy wheels. Moon scape panels, road shapes, grassy panels – hundreds(?) of themes from the everlasting and reliable ‘City’ range, to the classic Space series, the sorely missed Ninja theme and the old favourite Knight theme.
  • Permanence – Lego is tough for its size. If you build it, it can stay up for weeks (barring small children attacks) and when you take it down it’s completely reusable.
  • Modular – You can easily duplicate Lego creations if you have the parts, and even if you only have one of each ‘lump’ of level, you can move them around without them falling to bits, usually.


  • Expensive – Lego is costly! If you’ve not bought a Lego kit for a while, then you might not realise, but even a small kit will set you back a tenner or so! If you’re going to be building large level spaces, you’re going to need a LOT of Lego.
  • Angular – This is where it gets important. Lego is built on 90 degree angles, and trying to deviate from that is likely to involve custom pieces and headaches. This may influence your designs and cause you to lean towards right-angled levels, even when it’s not appropriate!
  • Small – Lego has a very particular scale, if you intend to use their custom pieces, and that scale is rather small. Nothing is smaller than a single ‘stud’ in size, and on the other end of the scale if you want to make large things, then no Lego block (as opposed to panel) is much larger than half a CD box. I suppose fidelity is a better word – or granularity, for extra pretention points.

Now, of course you can get around some of these problems, but the 90 degree problem is the most important one I see here. Level design is a very squidgy thing, and the slightest influence in the earliest days can carry through to the final game – so even if you try very hard to resist he 90 degree problem, it’s likely that your end result will still bare the scars.

Other mediums have their pros and cons, of course, and I might go into those in subsequent posts, but Lego as a level design tool isn’t going to be my first choice. The 90 degree problem has mostly scared me off, as I am personally very averse to overly angular levels. I can see, however, that for other game styles or genres, Lego would be excellent – creating Sci-Fi or urban levels set in modernist architecture, for example, would be super-quick to mock up in Lego. I don’t think it’s my thing.

*This is a phrase I use a lot, usually followed by my latest bonkers thought.


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