Level Design by Subdivision of Space


I have been doing some twitter design fixes lately and people seem to have been picking them up without hesitation.

However I am noticing that, in spite of my efforts, I keep forgetting to mention why I do some things and people keep getting the wrong idea.

This post is designed to fix this problem.

What is Level Design by Subdivision of Space?

In modern AAA Open world video games we are often forced to work under certain restrictions.

Some times these restrictions include space restrictions.

In these kinds of cases the job of a level designer becomes similar to that of a urban planer or an urbanist.

You just need to build a building in a place where it might not fit and it needs to meet certain conditions.

Some of these conditions are dictated by the Master List document that is delivered by the world director.

Others come from spacial conditions.

Usually this kind of restriction comes in the form of a site that has already been established by the road network.

The road boundaries defines where the building is going to be built and in real life you rarely have the privilege of moving streets to readjust locations.

To make this really easy to understand consider this diagram

By splitting the space into parcel we can afford to work from larger high level concepts into smaller and smaller concrete game-play spaces.

In an open world video game the road network might be represented as follows:

When planning these kinds of things it is very important to try to follow some composition rules so you can make sure that when the process is done you won’t have to just reconstruct the layout in order to fit in artistic need.

I do this by trying to incorporate some composition rules really early.

The first thing is to try to define the Axis of the streets in a way that is easy to read and understand.

The simplest way to do this is to use a red intermittent guide line or axis:

For example:

  • If we consider a square we can observe that this square has 4 equal sides
  • If we draw the red line trough the middle of these sides, perpendicularly we will get an intersection.

Each side of the cube is subdivided into smaller sections.

If we impose onto ourselves to only subdivide the sides of the square at their middle we can take this rule and apply it on more complex structures:

If we want to fix this we need to understand how the axis work and what they can do for us.

Every Primitive Geometric Shape in nature is subjected to having it’s constituents aligned to a center axis.

So in a way the axis dictate the proportions of an object to some extent.

And we can use them to interpret the space that we want to build at least from a design perspective, before we can actually build it.

Here’s a more complex example of what you can do with these things from a city building perspective:

In this example the intersections dictate the nodes of interest inside the city block. That is why all the building in an intersection are colored white while the buildings away from an intersection are colored in gray.

Unique shapes would suggest in a way a more interesting place to be in, while generic shapes are there to fill the space.

They are there to say “Hey! Don’t mind me! Look over there!”

But going back to the subject of this post, you might find yourself in a situation where you might need to build a level within an enclosure created by some roads.

This means that all the axis that you need to use will without a doubt align in one form or another to the streets surround this area.

If we follow this thread here, we can assume that the width of a road could be estimated at around 8 meters for one lane.

If the road network axis look like this:

Then we can assume that by applying this metric scale early on:

We can dress this up like this:

We can now safely assume all the roads are 8 meters in width with 4 m sidewalk on each side.

Subdividing the space according to the rules dictated above should lead to a result like the following:

If we want to added other roads or paths we can even do the following:

We could in fact subdivide this to the an extreme case however this is not the point. What we want to do is try to understand how to use this method to beyond subdivision.

Let’s consider our previous example:

If we try to clean this up we will get a grid of sorts.

The clean-up process involves several steps:

  • Making sure we don’t have any overlapping guidelines
  • Aligning guidelines to each other in order to generate better possible sight-lines
  • Getting rid of unnecessary shapes that have no actual function at this stage.

I am going to break the grid:

A naked axis system, free from the constraints of form would look like this

Adding a 45 degree angle to it changes the feel of the system.

If we reintroduce form to the entire setup we can reach this format:

Inkscape note!

If you have multiple shapes selected you can always use the the Ctrl++ command to United them. This option is also available under Path/Union.

At this stage it might be a good idea to start considering scale.

In the example above the corridor is 4 meters wide.

We are going to asume it’s 4 meters for this simple reason:

We want 3 players, or 1 player and 2 Ai to be able to pass each other in the hallway and we also want the ability to place a 1 meter cover next to a wall.

This is a hard rule that we take it upon ourselves not to break.

We can also safely assume that we will have doors in our entry ways.

A 2 meter clearance for a door is a good number even if the door is smaller then 2 meters (1.3) in this case.

Also note the 1 meter clearance on the side of the door.

This is something that we will deliberately do because we want to achieve several things:

  • We want a clear art corner where cover can be placed
  • We want to make sure that the covers in the art corner don’t end up in the players walking area.
  • We also want to make sure the the player can navigate the space safely within his 3 meter clearance metric rule.

This is where the blue lines in all my layouts comes in:

The blue line separates the two spaces marking the location of cover and prop placement.

Bare in mind that since the we are dealing with a 2 meter clearance between the art spaces, we need to make sure that the way the cover is placed does not invalidate the metrics.


One way to accurately measure this is using the circle/sphere method.

Generate a circle/Sphere with a 3m diameter and run it around the space to see if it fits between these objects.

If it fits the metrics are being respected.

If it doesn’t fit, the props need to be readjusted:

Please not that some games have a cover to cover mechanic that dictates that the player can travel automatically from cover to cover if the cover is withing a certain distance.

Watch Dogs 1 does it at 10 meters max. Gears of War does this as well.

So putting covers between 3 to 10 meters around the player is a nice rule of thumb when considering cover placement.

Applying this rule to our layout leads leads to this:

Due to our diligent alignment of axis and entry ways we get some clear sight-light in the core areas of our layout.

The process of subdividing the bigger rooms within the restriction of the metrics means that bigger rooms can be successfully opened up to create exploration spaces and combat loops inside the environment.

Returning to the previous previous layout:

The way we can approach this is identical, however it requires a lot of patience in laying out the entire plan.

In this kind of situation the purpose is to try to find the functional. What is it used for? What are the people doing there?

From this point on you can go into as much detail as you want.

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

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