Level Design vs Environment Design: Common and Distinguishing Features

Rohan Mathew

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One of the most important aspects of creating a video game is the development of a space that the player will have to explore and trample back and forth in order to successfully complete the game. It is often difficult to come up with a clear list of traits that define a good level or environment design. And here’s an interesting point – does it make sense to separate the concepts of environment and level design? Isn’t it the same thing?

It’s time to shed some light on this very curious question. Does this difference really exist? Rest assured, we’ll figure it out.

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What Is Level Design?

Wikipedia immediately creates controversy and places in question our research. It argues that the concepts of level and environment design are the same: it lists them separated by commas as the same term. Well, then we will have to give up its services, sadly.

Technopedia kicks off a little more hopefully, claiming that level design involves creating different stages, locations, and even missions. The developer uses special software for this, called the level editor. But then everything is again generalized, equating to the design of the environment. Maybe we’ve gathered here in vain? But why, then, are there two terms?

But we won’t stop here: let’s turn to research by people directly involved with game design. And here we find something much more interesting.

Defining level design is hard to fit into one sentence, but we will try. First, we are talking about creating interactive elements of the environment with which the player can or should interact in order to move on. In the days of 2D, level design was about placing obstacles, walls to break, enemies to defeat, platforms to jump onto, and more. 3D broadened the direction a little: the players had a greater number of motion alternatives, objects to influence and suddenly appearing enemies.

Level design in modern games is an even more complex process, requiring knowledge in many areas, from architecture to psychology. It is necessary to think over the mechanisms of the behavior of the game world elements in response to the impact, scenarios for the development of events depending on the chosen behavior of the player, the reaction of enemies to the player’s movements, etc.

Nowadays, level design is not created by one person, as it requires too large-scale complex work taking into account the smallest details. Artists, designers and programmers work together to provide a harmonious gaming experience and a clear level structure, no matter how large and versatile it may be.

What is Environment Design?

If, when developing a level, experts first of all need to think about its liveliness and ability to provide interaction, this is not the focus when designing an environment. Focus is on creating a coherent and logical world that evokes the emotions and reactions the developer intended. This is especially important for open-world games since players can walk anywhere. Video game environment design is responsible for making the player believe in the reality of the virtual world.

Developers need to think through every corner of the world where the player can wander. The design of the environment is responsible for the aesthetics, the desired style, the completeness and integrity of the impression of the world.

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Level Design vs Environment Design: So What’s the Difference?

Without environment design, there is no level design. On the other hand, you can turn over these statements and say that there will be no sense from the environment without level structure. And it is right.

Environment is the development of aesthetics. The art of creating a level is being able to make this aesthetic work in the name of keeping the player interested. To do this, experts, for example, create so-called checkpoints where something happens. Moreover, this all takes place in a given, thoughtful and carefully drawn environment. Which would be empty if it was not written into the level concept. It would be like a beautiful picture that you can only look at and nothing more.

But this is not about modern games. And this is for the best.


So, there is no one without the other if we want to get a high-quality, stand-out game that gets attention.

The best results are achieved in cooperation with the best 3D art studios, whose professionals know exactly the difference between level and environment design. When developing a game, choose your team wisely: a huge share of the project’s success depends on the integrity of the visual components of the environment and the fascination of interactions at different levels.