Game Level Design: 35 Ways to Guide The Player

Think about the last video game you played. How did you know where to go next? How did you know to interact with a character or jump up onto a ledge? What made you decide to take a left instead of a right? What about the game before that? How can game developers make this conveyance accessible to players from multiple countries with differing abilities?

Pip-Boy map markers [1]

Some games definitely make this more overt than others. For example, in Fallout 4, the player can see objectives on screen [1] and can access map markers to assist them in knowing what to do and where to go next. In other games, text boxes pop up on the screen with instructions on what to do next or tell the player exactly what key to press in order to “jump,” or even more specifically, to “jump up on the ledge.”

Many games, however, make use of subtle conveyance techniques to help guide the player to the appropriate places or to perform specific actions. Fallout 4 not only uses overt methods for conveyance, but also makes extensive use of subtle conveyance. This is an important thing to note because in order to successfully guide many different types of players to achieve the same result, it is wise to use more than one method of conveyance per result the developer is looking for the player to experience. For example, if the goal is for the player to choose between a door with a green light over it or a door with a red light over it, how does a color-blind player know the difference? If text appears on the screen with instructions on where to go next, in English, how does a Spanish-speaking player know what to do? How does a 6 year old comprehend what is written or know what to do?

After hearing some fantastic lectures, watching a couple videos, reading a few awesome articles, and trying my hand at level design that incorporates different types of conveyance methods, I decided to write this comprehensive article (please check out the sources at the bottom of the page for more in depth information on each method).

The list below describes 35 ways level designers can convey goals (or hazards) to a player. For best results, designers should aim to incorporate two or more methods for each goal the designer is hoping to convey to the player in order to reach as many players as possible.

35 Ways to Guide The Player

(Short simple list at the bottom of the article)

1. Pinching
Pinching (or funneling) is great way to steer a player in linear gameplay or can be used to bring a player to a specific point and set them up for the perfect boss encounter or framing position (more on that later). Essentially, the designer is only giving the player a single path to travel. There may be a few closet doors off to the side, or some nooks and crannies to pick up extra health packs and ammo, but at the end of the day, if the player want to continue, they only have one direction to go and one path that can be taken.

Player pinching [8]

2. Landmarks and Weenies
Landmarks (and weenies) are a great way to orient the player to where they are in an open world type of map (although they can be used in other games also). If a player is unsure about where they are on a map, or they are trying to figure out how to get to a certain point in the world, towering and unique landmarks in the distance can give the payer a general idea where to head towards. Likewise, weenies are smaller types of landmarks that help the player to identify what space they are in right now, which helps them to learn where in relative space they are to those massive landmarks. This method is not only used in video games, but also in real life. For example, Disney uses landmarks extensively in their theme parks to show the visitor their general location in relevance to the park’s major attractions.

Disney castle as landmark [6]

Likewise, Fortnite uses landmarks and weenies, in conjunction with a map, to help the player navigate where they should start running in the fast-moving storm.

A few icon places that can be seen from afar [7]

3. Framing
Framing is used in a few different ways, but the result is to manipulate the player’s behaviors to force them to be positioned in a precise way, at a specific point during gameplay. The reasoning for using framing is usually an effort to ensure the player sees something before it is too late or before the player is confused by the gameplay. Often, pinching will be used in an effort to have the player face something that is framed upon exiting the pinched area. Another method is to have a player walk into a doorway and immediately be faced with a centered view of the intended framing goal.

Pinching (red) leading to a framed landmark (blue) [9]
Framing the next area a player should try to reach [10]

4. Color & Pattern Themes
In any given playscape, consistency is import in terms of color and patterns (or shapes #24). Perhaps, all doors follow a consistent theme in a specific level; black and gray door tend to be locked, while doors with bright colors tend to open. Maybe, all double doors have a blue border and requires a passcode. Of course, doors are not the only thing; perhaps, all hazardous pick-ups and traps in a level have an orange tint to them with rough materials, while all pick-ups and spaces where health can be gained have a blueish tint and smooth materials.

Color theme for climbable ledges [4]

5. Contrasting Colors
Contrasting colors are often used for defining the player’s critical path but can also be used to guide the players eyes to an item or clue.

Accented critical path comparison to environment [12]

6. Contrasting Lighting
Contrasts in lighting can also show the player interesting places to explore. Oftentimes, contrasting lighting is used to point out doorways and pick-ups.

Contrasting light area with dark background [11]

7. Leading Lines
Leading lines are another trick used in real world applications, particularly in the marketing industry. The goal with leading lines is to guide the players eyes to some specific area of the screen, page, photo, poster, or billboard.

Alien’s tail leading to the movie title [14]

In the game industry, they are often created in the form of detail props to offer more conveyance to things the player needs to see in order to have a better experience in the game; it typically happens later because playtests of game prototypes often reveal where players get frustrated. That being said, it is helpful for a designer to think ahead about where a player might experience frustration and try to correct the issue proactively before game testing.

Flowing lava streams cause the player to naturally look down and see landing platforms [13]

8. Signs and Arrows
When used sparingly or seamlessly integrated into the world props, signs and arrows can be used to help guide the player exactly where they are supposed to go.

Cupid’s arrow and game-world signage directing villagers to the town’s detective agency, and the player [15]
Highway sign meant for the inhabitants of the city also guides player [16]

9. Environmental Clues
Environmental clues can not only reinforce the narrative or help the player dive deeper into the game’s lore, but they can also guide the player to areas they might explore next. Some clues can be overt with text, and other more subtle with imagery or suggestive depictions.

Note found in game with possible locations to explore [17]
Messy alley with residents being bullied sets the tone of the story [18]

10. Dialogue Instructions
The most straight forward way to tell the player what to do next is to use a direct message prompt. While not a bad choice, it does have its risks (i.e., younger payers or players with different native languages). This method should be used sparingly in order to have the player engaged in puzzle solving and other gameplay instead of simply following steps.

Direct message telling the player where to go [19]

11. Dialogue Hints
Sometimes in dialogue, whether in conversation or in words that pop up on the screen, the player learns about something but isn’t directly told to go to any place or perform any specific actions. Instead, the dialogue causes the player to think about what was said, and then the player decides what they actually want to do next. When done correctly, the player will choose the path that the dialogue hints at in that moment, or later after they finish the mission they were already engaged in.

The player learns of a reward for locating an item; player could choose to search for that item [20]

12. Animations
Animations can be used for a variety of reasons and in different ways. Often, games will use animations to draw the player’s eyes towards an object or opening. For example, a player may walk into an invisible trigger box, and an animated sequence begins playing several hundred in front of the player; perhaps that sequence is the side of a cliff collapsing to form a bridge for the player to walk across. In the following video clip, the player is guided toward a rocky path after seeing cave pieces fall onto it: https://www.youtube.com/embed/qC5KtatMcUw?start=180&end=200

Animations can also be as simple as animated flickering lights, moving arrows around a curve, pick-ups with animated labels, or pulsing speed boosts in a racing game in order to make these already-implemented conveyance items stand out even more. .

Animated boxes to draw the player to interact [22]
Animated arrows around curve [23]

13. Visual Effects
A form of animation you could say, particle systems are often used to draw attention to pick-ups or openings in a path but can also be used to create atmospheric conditions such as smoke rising up from lava helping the player know to stay away.

Weapon pick-up with animated base [24]

14. Dynamic Music
Games can also use music in creative ways to inform the player of game state changes. For example, the music may change when the player reaches a certain area of the map letting the player know they are back in their hometown; this helps orient the player to their location in a larger world, just like landmarks. Game music can also let the player know they might want to turn around and go back, or at least take out a weapon. This is because, combat music can be triggered on when an enemy is approaching which gives the player a heads up. Dynamic music is a complex topic and can be used in many ways:

[25]

15. 3D Sound Effects
3D sound effects are also a good way to orient the player or let them know that something is happening nearby. For instance, the player might overhear people talking, but cannot see them; this might cause the player to search for them.

Players might hear shots fired and move towards the sound to engage in combat [26]

16. Text Boxes
Text boxes can be used to communicate to the player how to interact with an item or space.

Press button to interact [5]

17. On Screen- Objectives
Objectives on the HUD, when listed one at a time, can be a helpful and direct way to remind the way what they should be searching for or what location they should be heading towards.

“Locate the reactor” [27]

18. Map Markers
Map markers can be used to identify places on a map. When the player location is marked, the player can see what direction they need to travel in to get to each marker.

Map markers in Fallout 4 [31]

19. GPS/Radar Systems
Player tracking systems comes in a variety of shapes, forms, and sized, but all do a very similar thing: tell the player where they are in the general world space. Some systems show the player if enemies are close by and other systems show the player how close they are to other locations on the map.

Mini map shows the player their location on the track and where opponents are in the race [30]
Radar [bottom left] showing enemies in radius of player [33]

20. Follow NPCs (Non-Player Characters)
Especially when other conveyance methods will be non-efficient uses of time, or lead the player to experience long travel times with zero action moments, having the player follow an NPC to a location may be a better way to convey to the player where to go next. There can even be some obstacles along the way that both the player and NPC tackle together (i.e., wildlife encounters). Even more complex, the follow itself can be part of a side quest on the way to the next part of a main quest.

The player (p) follows the NPC (n) out of a building through a series of combat encounters [32]

21. Pick-ups
Pick-ups can be used to guide the player towards a specific area. The designer can use a single pick-up to attract the player (like a solitary sniper rifle in deathmatch level), or the designer can place a string of pick-ups to denote a critical path, like a Sonic level where coins are strewed along the loops.

The secret tape pick-up is above the quarter pipe and has an emissive glow enhancing it viewability [34]

22. Background chatter
Whether it’s a quiet sidebar conversation between two NPCs at a bar, a news anchor speaking on a nearby tv, or the sound of a radio announcer talking about a new exhibit at the museum, background chatter is a good way to inform the player of new places to checkout or places to avoid. Even better, have dialogue boxes that capture the chatter on the HUD.

TV in background discussing the state of the world [35]

23. Cut Scenes
Like animations, full cinematic cutscenes can help the player understand what is going on and where to go next.

A fiery weapon is launched at the player’s ship signaling where the enemy is located [36]

24. Shape Psychology
Shapes, when used consistently the same way in a level, can help the player psychologically determine where to go, where to avoid, and what things around them may be available for interaction.

David Shaver explains the psychology behind different shapes in a GDC talk [28]
In a GDC talk, David Shaver shows where shape language is used in gameplay to guide the player [28]

25. Affordances
Affordances take into consideration what the player may know based on real life experiences. While it is always important to remember that each person’s experiences and culture may be different, many people experience similar things in day to day life universally.

Ramps for walking across [4]

26. Anti-Affordances
Affordances can also be used to show players what is not accessible. These are also based on real life applications. An elevator with sparks flying out of it, likely means that the elevator is broken, and the player must find another way.

Doors and windows with boards over them are a denial of affordance; the window is accessible [28]

27. Breadcrumbs
Breadcrumbs are used to guide a player to a specific point in a close by area. Often, breadcrumbs are stones for paths or floor clutter leading to a door or other small area or opening.

A Minecraft user’s enchantment room; lily pads as breadcrumbs to the enchantment table [29]

28. Alluring Map Areas
Players are naturally attracted to some areas such as interesting looking archways, cave entrances, or giant holes in the wall from damage. Instead of placing a simple entrance, adding an interesting feature that opens into that space may better attract the player.

One entrance to the facility is through the shark’s mouth (cave entrance) [37]

29. Gates
By implementing a gate into a level, designers can prevent players from reaching a specific area until a condition has been met. Conditions can be anything from defeating enemies to collecting items to being a certain skill level.

The player cannot move to the next part of the game until Kellogg is defeated [38]

30. Valves
Valves are mostly used in linear games. Their purpose is to block the player from returning to a specific part of the world. In order to cause the player to keep moving forward, designers will implement valves into the game. An example of a valve would be to require the player to jump down from a ledge but give the player no way to climb back up onto that ledge.

Once the player completes a level and goes into the elevator, the player cannot return to a prior level without a workaround [39]

31. Pavlovian paring
A trick straight out of the field of psychology: a designer can train the player over time to respond in specific ways when they hear or see certain trigger — most commonly sound-based. A designer, for instance, might have the game trigger a distinct sound effect and a particle system moments before a large enemy appears to fight player; the sound and particle system is paired with a delayed enemy spawn and this, over time, trains the player pretty quickly that when they hear a noise, they should prepare themselves for a fight which means they can scoop up some health and ammo quickly.

Warning noise before the Battle Royale circle closes in in Fortnite [39]

32. Operant Conditioning
Another approach from the field of psychology, rewards and punishments can be used to alter the way the player psychologically plays the game itself, which can alter the path the player decides to choose. Generally, these systems operate in four quadrants:

Operant Conditioning Table [40]

This concept can sometimes be confusing; so, here are some examples that a designer might use in game:

Positive Reinforcement:

Collecting coins (Adding to inventory) gives the player perks [41]

Positive Punishment:

Adding bananas to the track (Adding hazards for other players) [41]

Negative Reinforcement:

Player is awarded points the less they use available cover (Remove cover) [43]

Negative Punishment:

Player is awarded fewer points if they repeat a move in a string (remove point possibilities) [42]

33. Bait
Sometimes, simply putting a shiny item on a rock serves as bait to lure the player to move in the direction of that loot. Once the player approaches the loot, they may discover a secret path, an enemy encounter, or some other magical experience baked into the level design experience.

Loot boxes placed off to the left of the track to lure the player into a shortcut path [44]

34. Seeking Safety
One way to get the player to pursue a specific point on a map is to make that spot a place of refuge. Similar to bait, once the player reaches the area, more of the over goal becomes apparent: a shortcut, a quest giver, a new special ability pick-up to get through the next section of the level, etc. Safety spots could be a place to rest momentarily or take cover, like a house the player can enter and shut the door. They could be bushes that provide no cover at all, however, they hide the player from opponents until discovered. A safety target may not even be a place to hide at all; instead, the player might see a floating pick-up in the distance and know that it will provide invisibility, invincibility, speed, health boosts, or some other mechanic that offers the player added measures of safety. The player might run for these places and items seeking safety, and then, once they have arrived, realize there is a shortcut path leading from that spot that was not known to them prior. Perhaps they run into a bush which is also a trigger that spawns a cut scene to guide the player’s next move.

A haystack provides invisibility for the player while they visually scan the area looking for their next goal to run towards — a red barn [45]

35. Emotional Tugs
Psychological in nature, emotional tugs can be used to make the player feel emotionally obligated to help an NPC or interact with the game in some way. Maybe an animal is drowning in the water and the player can’t help but save it. Maybe there is an NPC beating on a younger or weaker NPC and the player intervenes. These types of reactions are based on what a person may do in real life. Once the player saves the NPC, for example, an event is triggered, and the NPC becomes a loyal companion helping the player to defeat enemies with you going forward.

A damsel in distress which is used to lure the player into a situation of some sort [46]
[43]

How many of these have you tried?

What methods are missing from this list?

How can these be incorporated into your current project?

Short Simple List:

1. Pinching
2. Landmarks and Weenies
3. Framing
4. Color & Pattern Themes
5. Contrasting Colors
6. Contrasting Lighting
7. Leading Lines
8. Signs and Arrows
9. Environmental Clues
10. Dialogue Instructions
11. Dialogue Hints
12. Animations
13. Visual Effects
14. Dynamic Music
15. 3D Sound Effects
16. Text Boxes
17. On Screen- Objectives
18. Map Markers
19. GPS/Radar Systems
20. Follow NPCs
21. Pick-ups
22. Background chatter
23. Cut Scenes
24. Shape Psychology
25. Affordances
26. Anti-Affordances
27. Breadcrumbs
28. Alluring Map Areas
29. Gates
30. Valves
31. Pavlovian paring
32. Operant Conditioning
33. Bait
34. Seeking Safety
35. Emotional Tugs

References:

[1] https://www.ign.com/wikis/fallout-4/Automatron_Pip_Boy_Minigame
[2] https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1025179/Level-Design-Workshop-Invisible-Intuition
[3] https://www.smu.edu/Guildhall/People/Faculty/Myque-Ouellette
[4] https://80.lv/articles/blockmesh-tips-from-david-shaver/
[5] https://twitter.com/MiriamBellard/status/1038708902299234305/photo/1
[6] https://howtodisney.com/how-to-do-walt-disney-world-in-5-days/
[7] https://gameplayerr.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/fortnite-floating-rings-at-steamy-stacks.jpg
[8] http://level-design.org/?p=1249
[9] https://twitter.com/JustinAndyReeve/status/1257921117215322112/photo/3
[10] https://tombraiders.net/stella/walks/TR11walk/details/jungle-4.html
[11] https://i.imgur.com/tKjPryz.jpg
[12] https://gamingbolt.com/the-witcher-3-wild-hunts-vast-open-world-mastered-in-these-two-new-videos
[13] https://spyro.fandom.com/wiki/Magma_Cone
[14] https://www.dailybillboardblog.com/2018/01/the-babs-best-advertising-billboard.html
[15] https://imgur.com/gallery/a2e5f
[16] https://www.behance.net/gallery/30178663/Level-DesignBlockout-Post-Apo-City
[17] https://imgur.com/gallery/a2e5f
[18] http://highwayseventeenrevisited.blogspot.com/2010/08/5-half-life-2.html
[19] https://www.pirate101central.com/wiki/Quest:The_Silk_One
[20] https://www.ign.com/wikis/the-legend-of-zelda-breath-of-the-wild/Things_to_Do_First_in_Breath_of_the_Wild
[21] https://www.youtube.com/embed/qC5KtatMcUw?start=180&end=200
[22] https://i.gifer.com/IM7z.gif
[23] https://thumbs.gfycat.com/CreamyThatAnkole-max-1mb.gif
[24] https://cdna.artstation.com/p/assets/images/images/014/662/742/original/pawel-margacz-weaponpickup.gif?1544906992
[25] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFEVGRJFcVg
[26] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVXFpbpNQDc
[27] http://warframe4beginners.blogspot.com/2013/10/hud-drops-and-hacking.html
[28] https://ubm-twvideo01.s3.amazonaws.com/o1/vault/gdc2018/presentations/DShaver_Invisible_Intuition_GDC2018.pdf
[29] https://www.reddit.com/r/Minecraft/comments/bmqonm/just_finished_up_the_enchantment_room_in_my/
[30] https://www.techeblog.com/fzero-snes-nintendo-30th-anniversary/
[31] https://d1lss44hh2trtw.cloudfront.net/assets/editorial/2020/01/fallout-4-lock-picking-bobblehead-map.jpg
[32] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bd1mjF8CvUU
[33] https://i.ytimg.com/vi/bJ5Ytiru87Q/maxresdefault.jpg
[34] https://twinfinite.net/2020/09/tony-hawk-pro-skater-2-hangar-secret-tape/
[35] https://randombattlesblog.wordpress.com/2019/01/02/new-game-fallout-4/
[36] https://thumbs.gfycat.com/DevotedLimitedDobermanpinscher-size_restricted.gif
[37] https://d2skuhm0vrry40.cloudfront.net/2020/articles/2020-02-20-11-48/fortnite-map-changes-additions-7013-1582199312098.jpg/EG11/thumbnail/750x422/format/jpg/quality/60
[38] https://i.ytimg.com/vi/qB07u4zJ5BU/maxresdefault.jpg
[39] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6vRlHO5PAQ
[40] https://wikispaces.psu.edu/download/attachments/56633350/Operant%20 Conditioning.jpg
[41] https://gamewith-en.akamaized.net/article/thumbnail/rectangle/11993.png
[42] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L8vAGGitr8
[43] https://proofthatblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/question-mark-300x300.jpg
[44] https://www.powerpyx.com/wp-content/uploads/crash-team-racing-shortcut-crash-cove-1.jpg
[45] https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/Wa7Jh3uvNNGzzfo2SFx9pU-1200-80.jpg
[46] http://cdn.escapistmagazine.com/media/global/images/articles/article/7741/lotro23_sara1

★World-Building Level Designer with a background in the education sector https://www.jacobryanwheeler.com