On Valve Level Design
By Dwip July 10, 2010, 11:44 pm Comments (6) RSS Feed for this post

One of the interesting things about Half-Life 2 and its sequels, among a great many things that are interesting about Half-Life 2 and its sequels, is that in Episodes One and Two, Valve added commentary tracks. For those of us who enjoy the process of game design, there’s a lot of very interesting stuff in there. Indeed, instead of the post you’re about to get, you almost got a 6-post series based off those commentaries before I realized I was being inane.

But there is one thing I want to talk about, because at least a few of the people reading this are modders, and that’s Valve’s approach to level design, which I think has some good application for other games, including Oblivion.

Put roughly, the approach taken by Valve for the Half-Life series boils down to this:

– Have an area bounded in some way. Usually this is a building, or a complex of buildings. Usually interiors, but often exteriors or partial exteriors are included.

– Often there will be what Valve refers to as vistas that bookend the level. Think of them as scenic overlooks, showing the player where they’re going, showing them what they’ve accomplished, or sometimes both. A lot of the time they use these as a sort of reward for accomplishing something, because they look cool.

– Somewhere in the level will usually be what Valve calls an arena. Big, usually open space, bounded by exits, and usually the site of some kind of boss battle.

– Each area usually has some sort of overarching goal. Usually this is a puzzle of some sort, but sometime’s it’s just to make it through one end and out the other side. This is usually broken down into several sections which take part in various sub-levels of the big level, and is broken down into several sub-tasks to accomplish the big task. Once the puzzle is solved, there’s usually some kind of boss battle, then you move on.

Inside each sub-level, there will usually be stretches of combat, broken up by little mini-puzzles – how do I get up to that pipe, or how do I get past the door, or what have you. Valve talks a lot about how they do this to combat player fatigue – too much combat gets to be unfun, while too much puzzle solving is likewise unfun. If you mix the two, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

– There is, of course, also the constant thrill of exploration and finding new stuff.

The Valve Example:

To demonstrate, let me use some handy Youtube footage of the Episode Two chapter Freeman Pontifex, about half-way through the game. This whole video series is about 30 minutes, so feel free to skip to the time stamps I note, and skim the rest.

The video starts with a vista, showing a bunch of enemy troops marching on your side’s base. It’s meant to serve as a reminder of what your ultimate goal is in the story, having just spent the previous chapter rescuing Alyx Vance, your companion.

Immediately thereafter it moves into a fairly large arena area where the player fights some random antlions, and beginning at about 2:35 turns into a boss fight with two large antlions. You’ll notice the large structure approached at about 2:30, which is a sort of safe zone the antlions can’t kill you in, but from which you can’t kill the big ones – you need to go grab the explosive barrels for that.

As a boss fight in an arena, I find a couple of things intriguing here. The first is that multiple enemy fights are almost always more interesting than single enemy boss fights, although you need some of those, too, from time to time. The second is the interesting terrain. Wide open spaces are pretty boring, but being able to dodge, snipe, and hide when necessary makes things more fun.

This whole fight is sort of the concluding act of the last chapter, where you got chased around a lot by the big green antlion guard, but couldn’t fight back.

Starting around 5:25 is a short little puzzle. It’s not one of Valve’s best ever, but it serves as a nice little transition between areas, and gives you something more exciting to do than just walk somewhere.

After a short bit of random hallway and some neat atmospheric storytelling at about 6:53, you hit another vista at 7:20. This shows you the area you’re about to traverse, which looks cool and gets you excited about the next part. Note Alyx pointing out your immediate goal. One of the neat things about Half-Life 2 is that your companions don’t suck, but that’s for another post.

Starting at about 9:00, note the combination of very brief little environmental puzzles with brief amounts of combat – usually an enemy or so at a time. Also note the use of vertical spaces. It’s not as in evidence here as it is in some other multilevel areas, but it is there.

In the second video, the first three minutes or so is more of this environmental puzzle interweaved with combat thing in very short bursts, followed by a section at 3:06 or so. It’s combat, but rather uniquely your companion gets to help out. I’m not sure I know a way you could accomplish the same thing in, say, Oblivion. Similarly, it would be reasonably difficult to add in the use of the environment by yourself and enemies, exemplified by 4:14.

At 5:00, we transition from indoors to outdoors. Hard to do in Oblivion (although not impossible), but the point isn’t indoors/outdoors so much as terrain variance. You CAN change tilesets.

The bit from 5:18 on is another arena, now with companion assistance and a bit of fun with the environment. Having been through it, I’ll say that this is a pretty unique fight scene. The guy in the video is a lot more proactive about it than I am – I lured them all out so Alyx could shoot them. I think the point here is that the choice of using differing strategies can offer a lot.

From about 7:50 on, we change back to puzzle/exploration mode. There are a couple of enemies, but nothing serious – the goal is to get out of the room. Note that the solution of pulling the lever never even occured to me – I always treated it as an environment puzzle, and stacked boxes on top of the forklift to jump from. The claustrophobic vent tubing is, of course, a nice change of scenery, leading to another nice change of scenery to outdoors at 9:10.

The third video begins almost immediately with what would be a retread of the last arena with Alyx and zombies, but also features some toxic sludge as an environmental hazard. It doesn’t work as well as it might, but it does work well enough.

At 1:38 they start combining things – large environmental puzzle, plus combat. Alyx can only sort of help you out of this.

At 3:35 or so, you’re up the other side and to another vista if you care to look, showing you all that you just crossed to get to this point. 4:10 continues this, with a stunning reminder of what’s going on in the main plot that also sets up the grand finale puzzle. The fact that everything in this section looks awesome is a further reward for everything you just went through.

Everything from 5:35 on is exposition, setting up for the next chapter and acting as a reward for having braved all that danger.

Applying It To Oblivion:

Now, let’s talk for a bit about how one might apply this sort of level design to a game like Oblivion. I find, somewhat to my surprise, that it actually maps quite well, although there aren’t any particularly good examples of it in the vanilla dungeons that I can think of. So for an example, I’m going to reach into AFK_Weye a bit, and talk about the entire dungeon of Kerrach.

It will be helpful to keep the CS open for this bit, as I’m not going to screenshot any of it.

Start in the Breakneck Lair (AFKKerrach01). There are a couple of major features of this part of the dungeon that I want to highlight, which I think are in keeping with the superior way Valve does things:

– There are, more or less, two types of architecture present here. The normal cave parts, plus the addition of some fort ruin architecture. This provides a contrast to almost all other caves in the game, which use nothing but the cave architecture, which can become monotonous when used over and over again.

– Use of vertical space. This is hard to do in Oblivion, because unlike Half-Life 2, you can’t, say, have soldiers rappeling from rooftops, and the AI doesn’t always handle this well, but by adding the central tower area, I did attempt to provide a little vertical space. This could have possibly been handled better, but was hampered by the other drawback that the modeling in Oblivion really isn’t set up for it very well. I try to take advantage of this where I can, however.

– In Oblivion, it’s much harder to make use of environmental objects as weapons or impediments as in Half-Life 2. What we do have, however, is traps, which can either be used by or against the player. In the Breakneck Lair, there are two log traps that provide some amount of flavor. These probably could have been handled differently, and there are more varied ways of doing traps, but they do serve to spice things up a bit.

– In the cave tileset especially, it’s important to spice things up so that you don’t end up with bland walls everywhere. In the Breakneck Lair, the way I did this was obviously through the tower, but also through lighting, such as the ceiling shafts, and the fires which indicated goblin activity.

– I mentioned two types of architecture here, but there’s actually a third. Behind the locked door at the very bottom, in the basement of the tower is a bit of Ayleid architecture, with the dremora who provides a boss for the dungeon. This is a tease, meant to entice players and draw them deeper into the dungeon.

– This part of the dungeon doesn’t feature vistas or arenas per se (although the dremora room might count if you squint hard), but it does have an overarching goal – to rescue Elahai, and find Thalonias’ shipping manifest. Both of these break up the combat a little bit, and give us a reason for being there.

– The other thing lacking here is puzzles of the sort found in Half-Life 2. This is something of a failing throughout Kerrach, although I sneak a couple in.

Now to Kerrach Molag Garlas (AFKKerrach02):

– The area where you first enter serves a number of purposes. First, it’s a vista of sorts, combining Ayleid architecture with caves and lava to give the player a glimpse of what lies ahead, and to entice them further in. Second, the fight here with the dremora archers over the mined bridge is meant to provide a different sort of combat experience. It’s fairly rare to fight more than two enemies in Oblivion in the first place, and usually not with many if any environmental concerns. Perhaps misfortunately, this section is somewhat hampered by the lighting and enemy AI (they rarely shoot at you across the chasm).

– Most of the rest of this fairly short level is straight up exploration and combat, ending in the large room at the top of the stairs, which serves as a not quite Valvesque arena with multiple enemies, which is again fairly rare in Oblivion. The thing missing here for the full experience was some sort of environment, but the spectacle of dremora in an Ayleid ruin is hopefully enough.

– As a whole, Kerrach Molag Garlas is basically a connecting area, with no real goal except to get through it. There’s a minor goal when confronted with the locked door to move on through to Kerrach proper, which can be solved by getting the key from the boss, but this can be bypassed if desired.

Next up is Kerrach (AFKKerrach03):

– This is the main part of the dungeon, it starts with a sort of vista, of the Ayleid king fighting dremora (which the player can simply watch if they choose), which turns out to be a scene where the player recieves two quests and a number of goals – rescue several ghosts, plus retrieve the two artifacts needed to go on and defeat the boss. Oblivion doesn’t make much use of jumping obstacles, so I made sure to use one here to give a little flavor.

– The balcony overlooking Kerrach is an almost perfect vista in the Valve sense. It gives the player the opportunity to survey the areas they are about to enter, itself a large arena, and offers the prospect of an entire Ayleid city drowned in a giant lake of lava inside a cave, a spectacle rivaling many outdoor scenes. This is all means of exciting the player (and a bit of a reward for the last two dungeons).

– The islands at the bottom of the lake are a large arena, filled with enemies who aren’t particularly threatening by themselves, but together offer a different sort of combat experience – many weak enemies. This includes some dremora up in the towers with bows – a little bit of vertical space usage for flavor. As an arena, this one features walls to dodge or hide behind, and it’s sometimes possible to knock the dremora into the lava, which is also a danger to you – use of the environment.

Going into the leftmost tower takes you to Kerrach Ageasel (AFKKerrach04a):

– Most of this level may be thought of as an exploration puzzle punctuated by a few traps and some combat.

– The very first room offers up the puzzle: clearly to proceed you’ll need to choose a portal, and two of the portals warp you back to the same room, suggesting that this is a maze. In addition to the goal you already have (retrieve the item that lets you proceed), the Ayleid ghost in this room offers you another goal for the level, another thing to solve inside the main goal.

– The second room, with the lightning stone, is a sort of environmental hazard arena, where players are forced to run through an open area to get past the lightning-shooting stone. Besides acting as a possible change of pace, the stone serves as an inducement to players to pay attention, since warping back several times to this chamber will prove costly to them. The other chambers in this section of the area are mostly straight up combat, which serve to punctuate the other hazards, and include a mini-arena that recalls the bigger one at the end of Kerrach Molag Garlas. Over everything, of course, is the meta puzzle of finding a way through the maze.

– The third room offers a different vista (lava) from the first two, keeping with the idea of varying the interiors as much as possible to provide a unique experience. The summoning circle with the daedra in the middle is a trap, meant to keep players a little alert and spice things up a bit after (or during) the dremora fight. Again, it’s possible to use the environment here, bottlenecking enemies or knocking them in.

– The fourth room is yet another differing vista (trees), and aside from the hostile deer, the sights and sounds are meant to provide a respite from the traps and combat of previous rooms, although the puzzle is still intact, and indeed one of the goals for the level can be found here if searched for – a bit of a mini-puzzle.

– Apart from the dremora, the fifth room is meant as a puzzle within a puzzle, a capstone to the area. This is one of the very few logic puzzles in AFK_Weye, let alone Oblivion, and provides another unique change of pace. In addition, the almost pure Oblivion cave provides a much different feel than the Ayleid ruins previously.

The Storm Spire (AFKKerrach04b) serves a number of roles in one small area:

– As a vista. The spire is fairly unique, being as it is in a void, and its un-ruined appearance provides a contrast to everything the player has just gone through, as well as a glimpse of powerful magic beyond their knowledge.

– Use of vertical space. The entire area involves going up while surviving the environment.

– As a use of environment for and against the player. It is possible to be blasted by lightning while climbing the spire stairs, and falling from them results in death. This hopefully heightens tension, while providing a possible asset or hinderance in the battle to follow.

– As an arena. The spire is the boss battle for this entire subsection of the dungeon, and as you enter the topmost portion, you are immediately confronted with a hostile dremora who shoots you with lightning from a distance and summons an atronach. This provides a very tight and hectic battle, where the environment plays a large factor in what occurs.

The rescue of the ghost and restoration of the well with the Waters of Anu serve as the emotional climax and reward for this section.

Going in the rightmost tower takes you Kerrach Buroseli (AFKKerrach05a):

– Thematically, this is much less varied than the Ageasel, and closer to what you saw topside – Ayleid ruins and lava, but now punctuated with some Oblivion cave architecture as well.

– This area is mostly combat, with some puzzles and traps for variety.

– The first couple of rooms serve as the thematic introduction to the area, before breaking things up with the room with the hole in the middle, which gives the first serious fight, as well as a reward in raising the cave and rescuing the ghost.

– A brief fight or so later sees the player at a potentially hazardous environmental puzzle – platforms to jump on, which may or may not be safe. Continuing left from the other side, the player is exposed to another trap – falling rocks. After that, a hallway full of skeletons to break up the traps with a more conventional combat experience. After that, the player hits one of two traps, which breaks up the skeleton combat with the dremora combat at the end of the area.

Like the Storm Spire, the Rending Spire (AFKKerrach05b) is designed to fulfill a number of roles:

– Although not as vista-worthy as the Storm Spire, the Rending Spire breaks things up a bit by offering slighly more pristine Ayleid ruins. As use of vertical space, the elevator is fairly unique and offers something new and different to the player. It leads up to an arena, where the player is shortly trapped in a very small area with a powerful and homicidal dremora. As an added environmental danger, it’s possible to fall through the hole in the center, which provides an interesting challenge.

– The reward for all of this is later, when the player returns the pommelstone to the statue, which gives a nice display of fire, and adds to the Kerrach vista.

The Spire of Shattered Hopes (AFKKerrach06a) and its sub-areas all provide yet more varied themes for the player – Ayleid ruins and Oblivion towers, a sort of nightmarish daedric garden with clannfears as pets (straight combat), a bit of quest dialogue (the ghost) to break things up, some more straight combat, and then some more quest dialogue and a section of pitch black traps to round things off before the player can exit back out to Kerrach.

The other side of Kerrach offers the player a reward in that they can now look back out over Kerrach and see what they’ve just accomplished, as well as witness the fire of from the statue, which is also a little bit of a mini-puzzle while players learn they need to fix the statue before they can proceed.

Like the tops of all Oblivion towers, the Throne of Destruction is a large arena, populated with several dremora in a multi-level battle. It differs slightly from normal Oblivion towers in that there are a few more dremora and the main one is harder, but otherwise it’s more less a fairly straight up battle with a couple of neat visual differences to the arena.

The cutscene at the end of Kerrach is a showy reward for a job well done. It reuses existing areas, providing some retroactive importance to them, and by having the player go back up and down the stairs on the other side of Kerrach, it lets them see a new version, allowing them to see what they’ve accomplished.

Some Concluding Thoughts:

As I said at the beginning, there are a number of admirable elements to Valve level design that I think work well in Oblivion.

– Vistas are somewhat difficult to pull off in the Valve style, since so much of Oblivion is confined to interiors, and much of the exterior space already offers excellent and scenic vistas. Through very large interior cells and small exterior worldspaces this is still possible, however, and can also be achieved by creating a new look for an existing tile set or area.

– Arenas are pretty common to all games of the type, of course. Where Oblivion differs from Half-Life 2 is that generally Half-Life 2 arenas are much more varied, with more interesting combats, and often offer scripted sequences where enemies will break down doors or use the environment in some fashion.

– Dungeons in Oblivion should have goals, generally quests. At this late date, there’s very little less exciting than a pointless dungeon crawl.

– Rewards should involve more than mere loot, and should include things like character interaction and approval as well as interesting cutscenes and the use of vistas.

– Environments should vary where appropriate. Combining tilesets is an easy way to accomplish this, and provides a lot of bang for the buck. Breaking up the monotony of a large dungeon is important. Use of vertical space where appropriate and applicable is nice.

– Perhaps most importantly is varying the tempo of the dungeon. Mix up the types of enemies, mix up the types of tasks – add some puzzles, add some environment challenges, add some traps. Combine when necessary. Although Oblivion lacks the robust Source physics engine, it’s still possible to create interesting puzzles through hidden areas, switches, and logic. It’s also possible to create scripted traps that behave differently than vanilla Oblivion traps, or to use the old traps in new ways.

Computer Games - Elder Scrolls Series, Computer Games - Uncategorized, Gamecraft Comments (6) Trackback URL for this post RSS Feed for this post
Comments on On Valve Level Design
avatar Comment by Hanaisse #1
July 11, 2010 at 1:18 am

All through reading this I was nodding, cause I can see the parallels you were making between Kerrach and level design.

I have to say, without bias, that Kerrach is an awesome place. It’s far from a vanilla dungeon crawl to get 200 gold at the end. I loved it. Especially the runestone puzzle. I would really love to see more mods with puzzles to challenge me, and I don’t mean trying to interpret vague journal entries either. But I digress..

– Dungeons in Oblivion should have goals, generally quests. At this late date, there’s very little less exciting than a pointless dungeon crawl.

100% agree. Nothing I hate more than spending 20 minutes roaming a dungeon to get 200 gold at the very end, then having to run all the way back out the way I came.

– Rewards should involve more than mere loot, and should include things like character interaction and approval as well as interesting cutscenes and the use of vistas.

I would love to see more quests like this.

– Environments should vary where appropriate. Combining tilesets is an easy way to accomplish this, and provides a lot of bang for the buck. Breaking up the monotony of a large dungeon is important.

100% agree here too. When I first went into Breakneck Lair and came out of the cave to a half-ruin on one side, and a pit on the other side of the space I went “wow”. It definitely captures interest.

Use of vertical space where appropriate and applicable is nice.

I think this needs a caveat of actually using the space to an advantage and not just a useless vast wasteland of space such are Ayleid ruins.

– Perhaps most importantly is varying the tempo of the dungeon. Mix up the types of enemies, mix up the types of tasks – add some puzzles, add some environment challenges, add some traps. Combine when necessary.

Again, 100% agree. I would love to see more of this.

And now, I will be using these rules like a bible whenever I get around to making awesome mods like you and Samson do.

avatar Comment by Samson #2
July 11, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Very interesting material. I got lazy and didn’t watch the videos but the gist of it still comes through just fine. Maybe Bethesda will pick up some of this philosophy from the acquisition of Id, who also were masters of producing devious level designs.

Pretty sharp contrast in modding styles too. Dwip clearly sits down and plans everything out ahead of time. Whereas ye olde undead Iguanadon is much more random and spontaneous and does no pre-planning at all, or very little of it in the form of a skeletal outline. There’s obviously something to be said for both methods, as they produce great results, if I may say so myself :)

avatar Comment by Dwip #3
July 11, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Another thing I didn’t really talk about, because it doesn’t really apply well to Half-Life 2, but in dungeons one ought to mix up the difficulty of fights, too. If I recall the mix advocated by the D&D 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide, it’s something like a 2:4:1 ratio between fights that are weaker than the player, fights evenly matched to the player, and fights harder than the player would normally take on. This too keeps the fights from feeling the same, and allows the player to feel like not every fight is some desperate struggle – a breather of sorts, if you will.


I think this needs a caveat of actually using the space to an advantage and not just a useless vast wasteland of space such are Ayleid ruins.

That’s more or less what I’m trying to say here. Having tall ruins is fine and all, but what I’m after is genuinely vertical combat.

A couple examples of this from Half-Life/Half-Life 2:

– In Half-Life 1, there’s an entire section of the game involving cliffs that the player has to crawl along, sniping enemies as they go, and making jumps and watching out for threats from above and below.

– In Half-Life 2, there are several sections of the game involving the player being on a street or somewhere, and enemies rappel down from above, or appear along the rooftops and start shooting.

– Perhaps slightly more applicable to Oblivion, there’s a lot of places, especially in Half-Life 1, involving elevators and ladders going up to areas with more enemies. The only problem with that in Oblivion is the basic uselessness of the Oblivion towers with elevators in them.


In fact I do plan fairly meticulously. Which reminds me that I have a half-written forum post I never got around to finishing for Ntom’s thread about how I go about designing and creating quests. I guess I could finish it up and post it here if anybody’s interested.

That said, I try to combine the best of both worlds. Generally I’ll try to have a general outline, then fill in important bits as they arise. I generally leave landscapes to a certain phase, for instance, and think really hard about them once I get to that stage.

I do try fairly hard to at least have things like I’ve talked about here floating in the back of my mind when I’m thinking about things, though. And I do try to have a pretty firm idea of how I want my quests to go. I find that it helps a lot for the bigger ones.

avatar Comment by Samson #4
July 14, 2010 at 2:24 am

I’ve never had much of a nack for pre-planning things. Which is why projects that require it tend to drag on. I’m sure Faregyl would appreciate it if I’d stop letting it drag on :P

I don’t necessarily go in totally blind. I try to have some general idea of what I want, but 9 times out of 10 the end result was the product of a whole lot of “oh, hey, that’d be cool!” kind of planning.

Funny thing is, someone commented that I’m an extremely prolific modder. I never really thought so until I started looking at profiles for others. A whole lot of big names have maybe 2 mods at the most under their belts. Me? I have 13 entries on Nexus. Perhaps they’re right :)

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[…] play, with the sorts of features I wanted to see. I was pretty explicit about that in my 2010 post On Valve Level Design where I break a lot of my design decisions for the dungeon down. I’ll paraphrase some of that […]

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