Infusing Realism into your layouts

A level design approach for open world locations

Reasons! Reasons!

There’s a method for generating interesting layouts and designs based on preexisting architectural constructs.

This procedure involves identifying a location with a great potential for game-play opportunities and turning it into a game-play space.

The identification part relies on exploratory work done outside the editor in search engines like Google Images or Google maps and relies on using our ability to identify familiar game-play affordances within real world locations.

If it works in real life it should work in game, if it doesn’t work in real life but it looks like it might work, then it should work in game.

The perfect example of affordances transcribed to games could come from taking a look at how parkour artists see 3d space.

In video games we have metrics that tell us exactly how tall barriers needs to be in order environment interactions to happen. We have minimums and maximums and we can interpret space based on that.

The second part involves the actual transformation of the that space in order to fit the design criteria, I mentioned this previously in my other blog posts nd atwitter threads:

  • The game metrics are there to ensure that the location supports the game-play. This is not about putting game-play where there is none. It’s about ensuring that game-play can happen there.
  • Spaces should not be built to contain game-play, they should be designed to support it. If they support it they can contain it.
  • Real places tend to be really big compared to game-spaces and attempting a brute force re scale of the entire place can lead to some unexpected loses in terms of location feel.
  • There are also a lot stuff in the real world that we might not want to use in our map, simply because it would over-scope our production effort. When dealing with fluctuating production goals and intention, grounding our needs/wants vs how much we can finish in time can mean the difference between a product released on time and a dreadful project delay.

So! How do we do it?

We go to google:

And we type in stuff that we are interested in:

Puente Nuevo is a real location in Spain.

What I am interested at this stage is to spot interesting bits inside this context. So I take a bunch of ref pics and slowly start to build my self a reference library.

If I was interested in building the entire town I would actually try to go for a more general view of the entire place.

Something like this:

Building an entire city is always a very costly affair that involves a lot of planning and site management and If you want to read more about it you can simply follow this link here:

Location Scouting

However what we want to do this time is not to focus on building a big picture, instead we will consider that the big picture already exist and we will try to identify some cool location and then turn them into gameplay space.

At this stage we are looking for a few things:

  • Interesting geometric patterns
  • Interesting variations in height
  • Openings in the housing blocks structures:

Stuff like this:

Some Considerations:

  • We want our locations to be iconic
  • We want them to be built like fortresses

If they meet both conditions we can move on.

Location 1

Iconic locations are nice to look at. They can be used as landmarks. They don’t necessarily serve a game-play function unless you have the budget to produce it.

One example of a location that does both is Notre Dame in AC Unity:

Our little church… not as much. If however It was a bigger structure, like let’s say Uppsala Cathedral then perhaps the discussion would have been different.

In terms of fortress properties I would say “Let’s not push it!” because it’s not that cool.

At this point I would give it 1 star and move on.

Location 2

Location 2 has all the makings of a fun map full of affordances, however players traveling trough the world would have hard time finding it without a map.

Also the size of it would be hard to justify in terms of art cost, so 1 star.

Location 3

This location is something else. Is it iconic? Well it’s one of the tallest buildings in the city.

Is it a fortress? Not really but it could contain a lot of indoor game-play, that would be cheap to produce (maybe). I am a level designer and I am flawed so I will give this 2 stars for being a (maybe) better pick the the other two. Don’t worry, we will reallocate the stars at the end. There are a lot of maybes in level design.

Location 4

Location 4 has an iconic arena tied to a interesting park space with memorable and maybe usable game-play space?

It might work so I would give this 3 starts and move on.

I am very fond of the fact that it has a huge vista:

Now if you would ask an art director and a art lead about this location they would most definitely say scrap everything besides the arena. But for the sake of showcasing a method we will try to ignore this piece of advice for now.

Skipping ahead

The rating looks like this:

I won’t bother going into details with the other ones since they are either too boring, too iconic, or don’t have enough game-play spaces in them to matter.

So we are going with number 4:

Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda

At this stage if possible I would like to learn more about the location from a historical stand point. It’s obviously been here a while so there are probably many stories it could tell.

A visitor says:

“ (Original) Arena più antica di Spagna. un pezzo di storia di questo paese e’ meglio munirsi di audio guida molto bello il monumento al toro e non solo tutta Ronda merita di essere vista. panorami stupendi”


“The oldest arena in Spain. A bit of history that would benefit from an audio guide. Very nice Bull monument, but the entire Arena deserves to be visited. Awesome panoramas”.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a wiki page for it. I did find some awesome references in regards to other bull rings in Spain and around the world.

In Madrid the arena is structured as follows:

I won’t bother you with the details because there is a lot to learn about it.

If you are interested in more go here:

Normally by this time I would actually try to compose a narrative structure in regards to what might be happening here:

  • Bets gone wrong
  • Bull trading and speculation
  • Local mafia trying to increase their influence
  • Private bullfighting matches for high profile targets
  • Sabotaging a Bullfighter to actually get injured in the ring so you can win/lose a match.

Anything goes as long as it stays within the fantasy of the location.

The Layout

Now here comes the fun part:

  • We scouted the location
  • We identified some cool things about it
  • We found out what some of the flaws involved may be
  • We have an idea about what sort of stories we might want to tell with this place

Let’s assemble the layout!

We start with a top down view of the map:

We try to identify the key areas in the map:

We then try to simplify the problem and reduce the amount of actual detail that we have available in our open world map.

We can now use this information to formulate a relationship chart in order to see how our map should look like from a molecular stand point:

Note! This is important for a series of reasons:

  • It helps the art team estimate the art scope of the location
  • It keeps the LD team focused on how big the location is
  • It prevents feature creed. If you know what spaces you have in your map it makes it to you avoid waking up with a bunch of random things in your map that you haven’t planned for.

360 Approach

This moment is also a very good moment for introducing the onion layering inside your layout:

In theory the open world should only connect with the Outer Sanctum. The Outer Sanctum always connects with the Open World and the Inner Sanctum. The Inner Sanctum (the hard layer) should only connect to the Outer Sanctum.

If for some reason you need to connect it to the open world, make sure that it is separated by a locked gate. Also having the player pass a hard check/test/challenge to get into the red area is advised. Red area is red for a reason.

The number of layers you want to add to your layout depend on how complex you want the layout to be.


You should also consider gating your layout in a way that would make the player explore the Outer sanctum layers first before going to the inner sanctum.

Also please consider the fact that the players might want to change paths if one strategy fails so make sure your layout has a lot of interconnected paths.

Try not to confuse the player too much however.

At this stage the enemy placement is more or less speculative, but we can do some arrangements based on their actual density.

Depending on what layer your are targeting, the density of NPCs can be higher or lower.

In stealth games, the limited footprint of each layer will affect the density of NPCs. This will spike the difficulty curve.

Also take a moment to lock down your Main and Secondary Objective.

If you have any special encounters that would make the location memorable add them now:

For example:

  • The players need to infiltrate the complex and assassinate a target in the Amphitheater.
  • There’s a car battery can be stolen from the Outer Sanctum
  • Some bad guys are feeding the Bulls steroid in one of the side courtyards and they have to be stopped.
  • You might even have to fight a bull yourself in the middle of the arena.
  • Maybe there is a even going on in the Bullpen that might help you get by undetected
  • Etc.

Possibilities are endless.

Next step would be preparing the layout of turning into a more in dept version focusing on minute to minute game-play.

But this will be the focus of another posting, some other night.



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Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu

As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Senior Open World Designer. #Leveldesign #Open World #Design @notimetoulose.