Level design incorporates a wide variety of elements into a final, working product. It is definitely not limited to the appearance of the map, such as from the textures alone, but also involves the underlying architecture that keeps all of those shiny texture maps together. The way that the level is designed visually is important in itself, but the core of the design is the playability and depth.
In modern day games, you can’t just make a nice looking level with great textures, but nothing more; there has to be functionality behind it. It’s like a beautiful girl but without the ability to talk or move; in the end, it’s just a model. A level should have some sort of interaction to it, and there are various ways to do this, no matter how big or small they may seem. Even from the beginning of 3d games there is some level of interaction with the environment. Let’s take DOOM for an example. Its one of the oldest 3d games, yet still the levels have interactible objects like elevators, trap doors, portals and other secrets. There are games like Call of Duty in which level design is all about strategically placed items on the map, so it’s not only a huge sandbox where everybody can spot you and shoot you down. There is minimal interaction with the level in this case.
However, there are games like Portal, where the level itself is the game. Everything is placed effectively, and made to look good without sacrificing functionality. It also managed to use fewer polys, and maintain the texture budget. In the game you have to basically travel through the level with the portals so you can achieve your goal. It’s more based on the love of the characters and the fan-base then on actual interesting gameplay. I’m not saying it’s not fun, but it’s more like an interesting comic for me than a game. In others, like the Half-Life franchise, there are a lot of tasks you must complete to continue your epic journey, like open a secret door or move an object so you can carry on. In others like the Assassins Creed franchise, the level is one of the most interactible imaginable. You can climb, jump on, and hide in almost any building you see. I’m still amazed at the brilliant work they did on how he moves around the level so fluently.
Looking at first person shooter the level is made to be playable in a way that you can, or cannot get a good shot at someone. To me, it’s really not that difficult to do, as all that is done is placing obstacles around the map. However, games such as the Battlefield franchise make the level dynamic, by allowing everything to be destroyed, thus altering gameplay on the fly.
When I think about it we give much love to the levels in games without knowing it. For instance, we love some levels in specific games, and just hate others. Like in Half Life 2, when you are in Ravenholm, I hated it because it scared the crap out of me and I always had no ammo then.
Overall level design is a huge part of the game experience. A game isn’t a game when it consists only of one straight corridor. The textures may be nice, and the character design may be pulled off flawlessly, but simply having enemies pop out at you with no depth to the game is extremely boring. You must immerse the player into a world that will look good and have something interactive and interesting about it.