The Restaurant Analogy of Level Design

Today I want to talk about something that seems to confuse a lot of design students: the difference between a level designer and an environment artist.

Both a level designer and an environment artist have to work together in order to create a finished, polished, level that looks good and plays well.


The level designer is most focused on “plays well”. They are trying to solve problems like:

    • What is the player doing in this space?
    • How long is the player in this space?
    • Is there combat in this space?
    • How big does the space have to be for the player (and allies) to fight the enemies (and/or bosses)?
    • Are there puzzles? Where? What is the structure of the puzzle?
    • Am I making the player traverse through the environment vertically as well as horizontally?
    • What are the different areas? Is it just one big flat landscape or are there twists and turns? Is it claustrophobic and oppressive or open and exploratory?
    • I need to put the player into a small, narrow hallway. What is the length of the hallway? Where are the turns?
    • I am hiding a piece of intel in the level. Where do I put it?
    • There will be combat in this room. Where is the enemy’s front line? Where is the player’s? How do enemies enter the room? Where do they enter from? What are they defending? Is there cover? Where? How much? What size? How close to each other?
    • Where do the doors go?

The environment artist is most focused on “looks good”. They are trying to solve problems like:

    • It is manmade architecture or organic forms or alien?
    • Is this an open space or an enclosed space? It is an exterior, with a sky and atmosphere and wind and plants, or an interior with ceilings and windows?
    • Is it a modern building? Or one in a traditional style? What style – art deco? Renaissance France? 1890’s Japan? 2090’s post-apocalyptic space station?
    • What is the texture of the walls? Stone? What kind of stone – granite? Sandstone? Concrete?
    • Are the rooms sized realistically? Are the ceiling heights normal? Are the doorways the correct size? Does the ceiling need support columns?
    • Was there battle here previously? Should there be broken glass and bullet holes and bodies?
    • Was the place vandalized? Does it need graffiti and rubble?
    • There is a piece of cover that is 4m x 1m x 1m needed for combat. What kind of prop matches the environment and this size? Is it a pile of crates? A planter? A conspicuously shaped rock?
    • What is the mood of this place?
    • What do the doors look like?

(I apologize to the environment artists who read this. I am obviously a designer and not an artist).

You need both the level designer and the environment artist in order to finish the game, and they need to work together and negotiate the aesthetics of the level.

Unfortunately, a lot of student designers are applying for jobs with subpar environment art portfolios, rather than good design portfolios. Usually these students have one big thing going for them – they have a portfolio of work created in 3D engines similar to what’s used at AAA studios (Unreal, Source, Unity). Unfortunately, their work is very light on design, and very heavy on environment art skills, but they actually aren’t trained artists.

It’s confusing to us, too, because we have to ask “So what job are you applying for again?”


Look at it this way: think of a level as a restaurant (a very simple restaurant for the sake of this example). To get the food on a diner’s plate, you need someone to cook the food and someone to take the order and deliver the food. We’ll call these the chef and the waiter.

If you’re applying for a  job as a chef at a restaurant, you don’t say “I want to cook the food” and then show off how well you talk to customers and refill their glasses. You don’t apply for a job to serve at the front of the house to wait on the customers, and then go fry up some bacon on your interview. Unless we’re talking food trucks, these are totally separate jobs. A manager looking for a new hire is going to think you’re an idiot if you confuse cooking with waiting tables.

The same is true for level design and art. You don’t apply for a level design job and then show off a portfolio full of pretty plants you modeled in Maya, textured in Photoshop, and then decorated your Unreal map with.  You don’t present a video walkthrough of your level highlighted the “moodiness” and “ambient sounds” and “custom animation of trees in the wind” and expect to get hired for a level designer job.

Similarly, you don’t fill your portfolio up with grayboxed multiplayer maps, combat scenarios, custom boss battles, and devilish Portal 2 puzzles and expect to get a job decorating rooms with carefully crafted rubble. (I’ve never actually seen a designer apply for an art role, though).

When a designer fills up their portfolios with art and barely a piece of gameplay, they are basically applying for a position as a chef, and then completely avoiding the kitchen.

Would you trust a chef that refused to cook for you? Would you trust a chef that didn’t know any recipes? Would you hire a chef that refused to talk about food and instead told you about that time a customer tipped them for recommending the lobster? Or how they handled the family of forty people that arrived without a reservation? If I am hiring a chef, I really don’t care. I care that you can cook.

A designer doesn’t care about polys or normal maps of what kind of stone goes on the walls. A waiter doesn’t care about the difference between a saute pan and a skillet. They care about the end result – the level or the food – but their expertise lies in different domains.

Now, there are the “food trucks” of game development – smaller studios, non-traditional studios that merge roles, indie developers that buck trends. They might look for someone who can cook and serve customers – someone who can build the level and create the art assets and maybe place sounds and fx and create simple cinematics. It’s a much rarer role these days than it was ten or twenty years ago. I’m not entirely convinced that role exists in AAA anymore. Our roles are much more specialized and well-defined these days.

So when I get a portfolio from a level designer that is full of art and moody environments and not a single puzzle or enemy or GAMEPLAY to be found, I look at them like they just applied as a chef and then started taking orders from the customers. It  tells me they don’t understand the very obvious (to me) role breakdown at a game company. It tells me they don’t understand what “design” means. It tells me they are clearly unsuited for the job.

(Unless that level is called “Dear Esther”…)

I write this not so much to rant, but because there’s a lot of students out there with portfolios targeting the wrong job. Any design student would be wise to look at their portfolios and ask themselves, “Is this a design portfolio or an art portfolio?”