Level (video gaming)

This article is about video game settings. For character levels, see Experience point. For other uses, see Level (disambiguation).

A level, map, area, stage, world, rack, board, zone, or phase in a video game is the total space available to the player during the course of completing a discrete objective. The term "level" can also refer to difficulty level, as in a degree of difficulty.[1]


The use of levels in video games dates back to Namco's shoot 'em up Galaxian, released in 1979 during the golden age of video arcade games.[2] The term level used during this era of arcade video games represented a difficulty phase or defined section of a given game, as in Galaga (stage 2) or Dungeon.

Another early example of the term "level" is from early role-playing games, where it referred to level of a dungeon—the setting most such games were played in. Players would begin at the bottom (level 1), and proceed through increasingly numbered levels (of increasing difficulty) until they reached their freedom at the top, or they would start at the top (which would also be level 1), and proceed through increasingly numbered (and difficult) levels until they reached the treasure at the bottom.


In games with linear progression, levels are areas of a larger world. Games may also feature interconnected levels, representing locations.[1]

Each level usually has an associated objective, which may be as simple as walking from point A to point B. When the objective is completed, the player usually moves on to the next level. If the player fails, they must usually try the same level again or perhaps return to the very start of the game. In games with multiple human players, the level may simply end once a limit in points or time has been reached. Not all games order the levels in a linear sequence; some games allow the player to revisit levels or complete them in any order, sometimes with an overworld in which the player can transition from one level to another. An example of this is The Legend of Zelda.

Programming constraints such as a limit on memory with which to store graphics and sound necessitated that games be split into levels if they were to offer a great deal of variety in the game. Variety in a game's environment could not have been achieved at the time without a level system, since the hardware could not hold multiple sets of game data (such as the level plan or the tileset that defines its look and feel) at the same time.

Some modern games have attempted to gain the benefits of a level system while giving the impression that the games are continuous—i.e., one long game rather than levels. In these games, data required for an upcoming level is loaded into memory in the background as the player approaches it, a process known as prefetching.

A practical advantage is that levels divide the game into manageable sections, giving players a chance to rest at periodic intervals. Games can be automatically saved at these points and the gaps can help build suspense.

Levels are usually laid out as a continuous 2D or 3D space, but in games such as Super Mario Bros. 3, the spaces may be separate, with some form of teleportation in between. The space may have varying elevation and physical obstacles. The level will usually feature entities (usually characters) that commence some sort of procedure after being triggered by the player standing in a particular area or perhaps interacting with an object in the level.

Although the challenge in a game is often to defeat some sort of character, levels are sometimes designed with a movement challenge, such as a jumping puzzle, a form of obstacle course.[3] Players must judge the distance between platforms or ledges and safely jump between them to reach the next area.[4] These puzzles can slow the momentum down for players of fast action games;[5] the first Half-Life's penultimate chapter, "Interloper", featured multiple moving platforms high in the air with enemies firing at the player from all sides.[6]


As games became more varied and specialized, terminology has arisen in level design as shorthand to describe a specific type of game section or segment that are often seen in certain genres or accommodate to specific game designs.

Term Description
Act/chapter Levels that, along with most of the rest of the game design, are built and designed to specifically accommodate and sync with an existing story or narrative provided by a writer (as opposed to constructing a level for more traditional means such as for setting or gameplay).
Area An area is used to define a level that, literally, physically coexists amongst multiple levels, in that the player can progress from one "level" to the other simply by using the game's physics. Despite coexisting spatially, each area presents its own themes, rewards and challenges. Access to areas is often designed to require learning and progression gained from other areas. An area that serves as the only direct access to all other areas is known as a "hub".
Board An archaic term used in first and second generation games to represent any type of changing stage that cannot be classified as a wave or round. Used in modern times to represent levels in board game-structured games or puzzle games where all levels share a common basic geometry, such as The Adventures of Lolo or Umihara Kawase.
Dungeon/overworld A subset of "area/map" terminology which is commonly used to describe stock "hub-to-areas" level design; in this case the "overworld" functioning as a hub to the "dungeons". The overworld is often designed to resemble a true landscape, replete with civilization, economy, and expansive terrain design. The player can access dungeons from the overworld, which are areas that more directly challenge the player's abilities, usually using enemies, exploration, and puzzles. This design format is commonly seen in RPGs and action/adventure games, where they originated; they have become so prevalent a concept that the terms are used even when a medieval fantasy element is not present. The overworld is also known as a "world map".
Episode Used in game publishing to describe a series of levels that are sold as an extra add-on to a game already established in the marketplace. Also commonly referred to as a "mission pack".
Map Used to describe arenas in competitive multiplayer games in which the gameplay is heavily dependent on terrain design (such as real-time strategy games and multiplayer first-person shooters). This term is also often carried over into single-player games, also to describe levels with a high degree or scope in terrain design, or simply as the sum of all the game's areas.
Mission Often used to describe a "level" in objective-based gameplay, in where the majority of the action takes place all within one area or scenario, and the player's ultimate goal is to simply complete all the objectives central to core progression. This term is sometimes supplanted simply with the term "objective". Occasionally, a synonym for quest, in modern-day or futuristic MMOs.[7]
Round Usually refers to a particular game design in where the overall challenge must be overcome across more than one (up to infinity) identical or near-identical attempts. The core challenge and rules remain the same, and changes to gameplay across rounds is limited to an increase in stakes and/or to difficulty. Typically seen in fighting games (i.e. "rounds" during a martial arts match), this concept is also often seen in puzzle games, party games, and titles that are driven by mini-games. They can also be localized into specific gameplay such as a boss encounter that is broken into rounds.
Stage Similar to wave and round, a designation for sequential levels: first stage, second stage, etc.
Track The environment that a race occurs on.
Wave A level purely defined by overcoming (or killing) a number of enemies. The core gameplay is simply defeating or surviving the foes present, with little-to-no gameplay elements that would otherwise diminish it (such as exploration).
World A series of levels all revolving or subsisting on the same theme, elements or concepts. Worlds allow a designer to propagate specific gameplay themes across several levels without having to create a level that is too large and unwieldy. For example, several levels containing lava and flame hazards that are all part of a "fire world".
Zone Especially in MMOs, an area, map, or dungeon, the verb 'zoning' is used to describe the passage from one zone to another.[7]

Game designers often use other terms to suit the game's theme, such as "book", "camp", "floor", "land", "phase", "room", etc. Designers may also avoid actually using level terminology at all, instead referring to each level only by its title or location (town, city, country, etc.), usually to maintain a sense of immersion.

Choke point is a small area that controls transition between levels.[1]

Focus node is a location of a shared resource, increasing player interaction.[1]

Level design

Main article: Level design

A person who creates levels for a game is a level designer or mapper, the latter most often used when talking about first-person shooters where levels are normally referred to as maps. The computer programs used for creating levels are called level editors. Sometimes a compiler is also required to convert the source file format to the file format used by the game, particularly for first-person shooters. Designing levels is a complex art that requires consideration for visual appearance, game performance, and gameplay. Creation of levels is an integral part of game modding.

Secret levels

A secret level is a level that is hidden from a player. A secret level is usually accessed by performing actions that a player would normally not perform except through coincidence or prior knowledge (such as jumping on a block seven times and then punching the air). In many cases, secret levels are accessed by locating a hidden goal or location in another level. Other times, a secret level is accessed by performing exceptionally well (such as in Super Smash Bros.), or by performing an exceptionally large task (such as in Sonic Adventure 2). Sometimes, a level can be accessed simply by watching the credits (such as in Call of Duty 4) or completing the game.

Bonus stage

Main article: Bonus stage

A bonus stage (also known as a bonus level or bonus round) is a special level designed to reward the player or players, and typically allows the player to collect extra points or power-ups. Often a bonus stage will have no enemies or hazards, or may contain them but player character is invulnerable to attack from them and cannot be harmed. Some games have bonus stages where the player character can be harmed by enemies or hazards, but will not lose health or lives if killed, instead the stage just ends and play continues with the next regular stage. Many bonus stages need to be activated or discovered in some manner, or certain conditions must be satisfied to access them, also making them secret levels. Sometimes bonus stages are not secret but compulsory and must be played, often after completing regular stages. In some games, bonus stages have an interface and game paradigm that is completely different and disconnected from the rest of the game, as in the slot machine bonus stage of Super Mario Bros. 2. Other bonus stages use the same gaming paradigm as the rest of the game, as in the car smashing bonus stage of Street Fighter II or the bonus stages in Super Monkey Ball where you collect bananas to earns extra points and lives. In the Bomberman series, they also have enemies in bonus stages with the goal being to defeat as many enemies as you can to earn items and power-ups. In addition, the player won't lose a life from touching the enemy or being caught in a bomb blast during the bonus stage. Many games feature bonus stages somewhere between the two extremes.


Main article: Minigame

A minigame (also spelled mini-game or mini game and sometimes called a subgame) is a short video game often contained within another video game, that can be accessed through reaching a specific location or condition, in the regular game. Sometimes it may be accessed through menus at the games title screen, either all the time or after being unlocked. A minigame is always smaller or more simplistic than the game in which it is contained. Minigames are sometimes also offered separately for free to promote the main game. Some minigames can also be bonus stages or secret levels. If played well some minigames may grant rewards that help play in the regular game it is within, such as in game currency, power ups, health, or other items, while some minigames offer no bonuses and are simply for fun.

See also



  1. 1 2 3 4 McGuire, Morgan; Jenkins, Odest Chadwicke (2009). Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology. Wellesley, Mass.: AK Peters. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-56881-305-9.
  2. "Galaxian - Videogame by Namco". Arcade-museum.com. Retrieved 2016-05-24.
  3. Jamie "Thrrrpptt!" Madigan (June 2001). "Half-Life: Blue Shift". Archived from the original on December 16, 2008. Retrieved 2009-04-02.
  4. Andrew Park (2002-10-11). "Batman: Vengeance Review". GameSpot. Retrieved 2009-04-02.
  5. Kevin VanOrd (2008-11-11). "Mirror's Edge Review". GameSpot. Retrieved 2009-04-02.
  6. "Chapter XVII: Interloper". GameSpy. Retrieved 2009-03-27.
  7. 1 2 "Getting Started on Rubi-Ka" (PDF). Game Guide. Funcom. Retrieved 2008-08-17.
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