Exploring 3D and 2D Game Level Design Differences

October 6, 2023

On its surface, level design seems to be only about creating stages, maps, and missions. But at its core, it's about shaping player behavior: it subtly helps them overcome challenges and grasp game mechanics. 

Good level design is nuanced, and we must make creative choices to achieve it. This article will focus on how these can differ greatly between 2D and 3D games.

Let's see an example from each one, from two beloved titles.

Good 3D Level Design

Early in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, the player has to find and complete three sanctuaries. At this point, the player could make several different decisions. Luckily for them, a great 3D level design is on their side: right after the player finishes the first sanctuary, the camera's position subtly reveals another one, far away. Even more, an unskippable dialogue starts, during which the third one is visible in the background.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom - The two missing sanctuaries‍
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom - The two missing sanctuaries

This throws hints at the player — it lets them connect the dots instead of serving the answer on a platter. It's more satisfying and less intrusive than an obvious UI arrow or text. Simply put, it's a good level design.

Good Level Design in a 2D Title

Now let's see one of the best 2D level designs example (and a much older one) from the first level of Super Mario Bros, called by many "the perfect level."

Super Mario Bros - Level 1-1
Super Mario Bros - Level 1-1

This 2D level design seems simple on the surface. At first, players see barely anything — this lets them experiment freely with what Mario can do: move, run, and jump. Soon after that, they find the first blocks and the first enemy. They can't attack, so their only option is to jump over it.

However, due to the placement of the blocks, they likely hit one by accident, stopping Mario's jump prematurely and making him land on the goomba, killing it. This teaches the player two lessons: enemies can be killed by jumping on them, and blocks can be broken or used by jumping below them.

No tutorials. No text. No obvious hints. Just a fantastic level design.

What Players Can See

While subtly guiding the player is common to 3D and 2D game level design, you might have realized that the camera is where they differ significantly.

In a 2D game, we can often precisely define what the player will see since they usually can't move the camera freely. On the other hand, things get more complicated in a 3D game. The player can observe the environment as they please — something we should remember while designing levels. As in the previous case of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, we should even consider in which position the camera starts and what it reveals during cinematics.

Let's see a hypothetical example to appreciate these differences.

2D vs 3D Platformer Level Design

Imagine we're designing a new level for the previous 2D level design example, Super Mario Bros. The objective is to move from point A to B, jumping at certain points and overcoming enemies. This isn't the first level and the player already knows the basic game mechanics.

At the start of the level, we could place easily reachable platforms to make the player feel confident at the beginning. Since we control what the player can see at all times, we can ensure they see the following platforms during the first easy jumps. Once they reach the last platform, they see a regular enemy. But behold! Only once they stomp this enemy can they see a new type of foe, one they hadn't seen until now because of the limited 2D camera — something we, as level designers, can confidently know will happen every time.

2D Platformer Level Design
2D Level Design

But what if this was a 3D game instead, like Super Mario Odyssey?

For better or worse, the player isn't tied to a limited camera and can look around. In the 3D equivalent of this level, the player can see all these challenges from the beginning. This way, they can observe and plan in advance.

3D platformer Level Design
3D Level Design

Given the additional dimensions, we can now use various methods to make the levels more engaging; we can't control what the player will see at all times, but we can play with perspective and overlapping elements from the player's point of view to hide secrets like items or power-ups.

However, this increase in possibilities makes it harder to finetune the experience we want to offer the player! This can lead to poor level design choices — let's see one of these.

The Complexity of 3D Level Design

There's a part in Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric in which the player reaches the abandoned city. To continue, they have to follow a path and enter a door. As the image shows, the way invites the player to walk up the wooden ramp, which even has a string of rings screaming "Over here!"... only to find that the path ends abruptly.

The left wall also has another inviting ramp… which also leads nowhere.

The answer is unintuitive: the correct path is on the right side, but below the wooden ramp, a design choice that could fit in a stealth game or a game focusing on finding secrets (which it isn't). Not a great 3D level design choice.

Sonic Boom - Where's the door?
Sonic Boom - Where's the door?

Now, here's an example of a good 3D level design from Portal. In the last test chamber, the player has to escape quickly before being thrown into an incinerator. But the game doesn't give obvious answers for what they must do — only visual hints.

To get to this point, the player has to shoot teleporting portals on white walls to avoid falling from a conveyor belt. But as the conveyor belt brings them closer to their demise, they can only see — from their limited point of view - that there are no more white walls. At this point, the player (likely panicking) can only see the incinerator in front of them… and no way out.

That is until the last moment before reaching it: only now, after getting so close, the camera reveals a few more white walls. A perceptive player recognizes these and uses them to teleport themselves to safety (despite GLaDOS' complaints). A wonderful use of visual hints, only possible in 3D level design.

Portal - Escape!
Portal - Escape!

3D level design is indeed more complex, with its risks and opportunities. In contrast, the simplicity of 2D game level design offers unique opportunities we can capitalize on.

The Clarity of 2D Level Design 

2D game level design works better with certain types of genres. Games that require the player to access a lot of information at a glance can benefit significantly from a 2D point of view. This clarity allows the player to make quick choices even when a lot of action is going on.

The Unliving by Rocket Brush Studio
The Unliving by Rocket Brush Studio

For this reason, strategy games tend to choose the 2D approach. That said, there are 3D games that use strategic combat, like Final Fantasy XII. Even though the environment is 3D, the gameplay could be that of a 2D game. If we took FFXIII and laid it out as a 2D game (like the series' first installments do), the game mechanics would still work. Games like these want you to know where enemies are, and they often let the player know their location or give them total freedom to control the camera (as in Baldur's Gate 3).

Final Fantasy XII - Combat
Final Fantasy XII - Combat
Baldur's Gate 3 - Combat
Baldur's Gate 3 - Combat

Two Sides of the Same Coin

We've seen that designing a 2D game level differs from creating a 3D level.

In the former, you can plan a "closed" environment in which you have a tight grip on what the player can and can't see, even in 2D open-world games.

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons - An example of a 2D open world
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons - An example of a 2D open world

In contrast, designing a 3D game level offers more possibilities. Still, it's often more complicated since you must create intuitive levels while paying attention to how the player could use the camera.

Each one has its peculiarities, each with its strengths and downsides. But at the end of the day, the objective in both cases is the same: to create a world that helps the player live a satisfying experience.

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