Open World EUX level design: a systematic approach to making scope-sized emotional roam routes

As an entertainment product, games are one of many media forms that rely on providing users an ‘emotional ride’. In other words: to evoke designed emotion, is to create a meaningful experience.

With open world games, this includes the ability to roam a large open map, full of exciting discoveries.

As the genre continues to grow, we see more variety and complexity in not only the landscape itself, but also the way they are navigated (travel mechanics, replayability etc.). And so the production scope grows, as does the possibility of cluttered or meaningless space.

To maintain a holistic and meaningful experience whilst not creating excessive content, I have theorised a workflow, demanding close arrangement between user journey mapping, level design, and gameplay design.


Two cores

No matter where you start designing your game from, you need to know the game core, the main experience of your game. Next, we determine the emotional core consisting of emotions and feelings. 


Inspect your game core, and ask you and your team:

  • What emotions support the game core?

  • What feelings would strengthen the game core?


In case you start off with a feeling, you must at least understand which emotions support that feeling. This will come in handy when checking/brainstorming features and game loops in the future.


Both cores are determined at the very start of your project. However, if you have already established content, you can choose to extract the emotional core from what you already have, or kill some darlings.


Context, narrative and scenarios

Emotional experiences rarely appear without context. But even when they don’t, I often feel they are less impactful nor enduring than the ones given more weight with context.

Feeling: jealousy > of what? > jealousy of your former self

Emotion: sadness > for what? > sadness for another’s pain

Context implies what the emotion or feeling is felt for, but does not pertain to a specific setting or theme for the game—yet. Something that does, however, would be a narrative.


A narrative often presents more specificity to the context:

  • Why and what causes the emotional context;

  • who it might pertain (protagonists, antagonists and other characters);

  • and the where; as in what kind of world setting it takes place in that supports all of the variables.


“Living the cowboy life in the lethal wild west, trying to prove your innocence while most are out to get you.”

When done right, one might change the narrative as much as they want, but the context will always be the same.


Next, take possible scenarios that could take place in the chosen narrative framework. This includes story-beats, it’s emotional build-up, and lastly interactions befitting of the character’s role. Make sure to keep in mind what emotional value these scenarios have in service of the narrative.

The moment of the crime, the cowboy being falsely accused, running from the law, a risky attempt at proving innocence, etc.

Bounty hunting, taming horses, horse care, countering ambushes, town shoot-outs, navigating rough terrain on horseback, gun management, hunting, camping, etc..

Once you and your team have decided on the context, narrative and several scenarios, all production teams have a starting point to brainstorm content from. 

Gameplay design

Gameplay and level design must be designed side-by-side, for level design’s core purpose is to support that gameplay and emotional impact, and be tested repeatedly.


Examine the scenarios you and your team have thought of, and see if you can spot a game-loop in it. Then, determine what features would be necessary to make it happen. They don’t always have to be gameplay oriented however, and could also pertain to other user-product interactions of the whole game experience.


A scenario might contain more than one game-loop. Mind that a mechanic can be considered a feature, but a feature isn't always a mechanic.

Now that you have an idea of possible game-loops, I recommend you decide/eliminate options based on effectiveness, and scope. Test them as early, realistically, and as much as you can; use (paper-)prototypes for gameplay, sketches or concept art for art, role-play characters for writing, or even use the mind’s eye for just about anything.

Level design should focus on designing (ideally playable) layouts that support scenarios when relevant, as much as possible. Do not worry about the relative locations of things in the world, rather figure out what ‘formula’ you need to make the game space effective. Remember when we say ‘effectiveness’, we also mean its ability to evoke our targeted emotions. Most importantly, always always always stick to your cores.


Overlapping scenarios and scenario segments

At this stage, the whole team should know what the core gameplay loops, scenarios and features are. Now we must design spaces that facilitate the scenarios and the game-loops within them.


Overlapping spaces

Some segments in a game-loop need a dedicated game-space, and while you might have tested and designed the game-loops separately, the game-space for its individual segments can often be combined or overlapped with another loop. Some even have several ‘touch points’.


Say for instance in our wild-west example, the animal hunting game-loop requires you to sell your loot at a butcher. For the bounty hunting game-loop, you must take the request from the bounty board. It makes sense for both the butcher and the bounty board to be in a bustling town, so you facilitate both segments by placing them there.

However, while game-spaces can serve different game-loop segments in a utility sense, it is often overlooked how they might affect the emotional experience of that segment. Imagine the game-loops to be separate little storylines, with each their own acts, build-ups and climaxes. The impact may be significantly decreased, neutralized, or even amplified depending on how you combine them.

When the emotional impact of one segment clashes too much with another, you have to choose which one is to be prioritized over another, or consider placing them in different spaces.

[example decreased emotional impact]
[example amplified emotional impact]
Laying the level lines

By now, you and your team might have a collection of scenarios with overlapping game spaces. This is a great point for level designers to continue working from, as we will now focus on the world lay-out.


Play and experiment with the combinations you have; overlap the loops, play with different touch points, emotional combinations, scale it up and down. Which layout seems fun to you? Which ones feel like they make sense to the storyline? How about you go at random?


Go with the design workflow that feels right for you, but keep in mind the size of each space and combination it requires—ideally in measurable units—to help determine your workload. Also keep in mind that not everything needs to overlap!

Main routes, sub routes and emergent routes

Once you have a set layout for the most important spaces of your game, you might have noticed the ‘highways’ of your map; the road that connects the most important spaces. This can be linear, circular, branching, or sometimes even interrupted. The next step is looking beyond it, and thinking about what player experience you want.


Remember at the start of this article, many design decisions were based on the emotional context?—This is where you start planning that emotional ride. At what part of that ride do we need emotion A? Which scenario and its supporting space would compliment this well? You want to plan the player route in such a way they not only touch all of these bases, but experience a proper emotional build-up to it as well.


This is a real balancing act, for emotion is not the only player journey being planned at this stage:

  • Game designers look at teaching the game to the player, relating to the introduction of new mechanics, pacing of challenges etc..

  • Narrative designers might want to introduce characters, lore and other story variables in the players’ memory.

  • Even level designers might want to teach players what visual language the game has pertaining to navigation of the world.

[insert illustrated lay out of the overlapping and seperate lines, each with their own touchpoints]

These plans result in a certain order in which you want your players to explore. Some become obsolete after the first time (like tutorials), other experiences ought to be effective repeatedly (emotional association with a location). The result of this is what I call  ‘main routes’.


However, considering we are designing open worlds, you provide not only one, but several ways to play the experience. Some main routes can branch off, or have an alternate version that is less straightforward. They can also lead to spaces more specialised for a certain loop, without being obviously connected to the main road. These I call the ‘sub routes’.


Now that you have an idea of your main and sub routes, you must playtest them for their effectiveness in the aforementioned player journeys. Polish or remove elements to iterate on your designs. And last but not least, seek out emergent routes.

Emergent routes are ones many players explore naturally, without it being intended as one. I find these the most interesting and useful to us level designers, as they show us where our exploration-type players are naturally drawn to. Therefore, I encourage you to consider combining or re-shaping previous routes. This way, we can keep that element of natural exploration, and the satisfaction of having found it.


The "Hero's Path" is a feature that shows where the player has traversed in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Tools as these would be ideal in revealing player's emergent routes.

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