Epic Games on Level Design Psychology

By Published April 10, 2015 at 8:30 am

The East Coast Game Conference often feels like the “Epic Games Conference.” The show is indisputably dominated by local heavyweight Epic Games of Unreal fame, leveraging its home-field advantage to offer paneled insights on the game development process.

In hot pursuit of Bioware's humbling keynote on storytelling and narrative, we attended an Epic Games panel on the topic of Unreal Tournament's symbiotic, community-based development endeavors. The panel was headed-up by Senior Designer Jim Brown, an industry veteran who agreed to an on-camera discussion pertaining to oft-untold level design tactics.

Brown took the opportunity to explain the power yielded from data collation, a process enabling Epic Games to analyze usability data of its players' in-game interactions. Depending on the game tested, data often includes heatmapping of the game's levels (also discussed in the Bioware keynote) -- a powerful tool for determining map balance and locating heavily-used and regularly ignored corners of any given map. Other data can include popular weapons, location of deaths and kills, finding where chokepoints are and when the frontlines fall (and what triggers that collapse), and so forth.

Epic then deploys this information for its benefit, applying a dab of science to level design to ensure gameplay parity for multiplayer titles. There's more to it than that, though – level design is also equal parts immeasurable social science, Brown informed us. Player psychology dictates predictable behavioral patterns exhibited during level exploration; players will respond differently to ramps than they might respond to stairs, Brown indicated, further noting that players like going “up” when given the opportunity. Another example we gleaned from a Valve interview informed us that Valve has observed players typically tend to follow columns when given no other competing cues in a level.

Brown highlighted the importance of lighting in level design, speaking on-video to the efficacy of manipulatively lit hallways and corridors as a means to guide a player's path.


Good designers know how to guide your in-game behavior without directly cluing you in about it, which is a fascinating aspect of game design to take into consideration. Next time you're playing through de_dust2 or Unreal Tournament's newest maps, think about all the ways your movement is being dictated by subtle cues, then see if there's a contrarian urge to move against the grain. It could lead to new strategies – or, you know, death.

Lots of it.

View the video above for further insight to this unique, interesting aspect of level design and game development. Contribute to Unreal Tournament's development (or just play it for free) at this link.

Editorial: Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.
Film & Video Editing: Keegan "HornetSting" Gallick.

Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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