Kickstart your creative writing — Use the proven structure of mainstream Hollywood screenwriters to outline your story

So, how do you go about writing a screenplay for a feature length movie? Or any longer story for that matter?

You do one thing: Outline. Outline. Outline…. and… outline.

I know that many big-time novelists and screenwriters don’t outline at all. The Coen brothers have said in numerous interviews that they never outline, but for the rest of us, I truly believe that outlining is the way to go.

The classic books on screenwriting by Syd FieldMichael Hauge, and Christopher Vogler all talk about the need for structure to your story. Here, I’ve tried to summarize their wisdom and mix it all together to come up with a fundamental structure for storytelling.

It has worked really well for me and has always kept my writing on track and moving forward.

Why is structure so important to a story?

Stories, like music, almost always follow some kind of rhythm or harmony. I’m no musician but I can clearly hear if a piece of music is out of tune.

Creativity — music, storytelling, paintings — need to follow some form of structure. There must be a plan to the madness. If there is no structure, everything is muddled together and becomes noise.

Stories that don’t follow a structure often feel rushed, or flat and boring or, as is most often the case, become hard to follow.

Read the entire article on Medium.

“Crash to black” — We need to talk about the ending of ‘The Mist’ from 2007

Frank Darabont changed the ending of Stephen King’s novella. King loved it. Then, why did it rub so many people the wrong way? It might even have killed Frank Darabont’s directing career.

It has been almost 10 years since the movie was released in cinemas, and the new TV series based on the same Stephen King novella is about to premiere, so it’s time to take a second look at the movie and try to make sense of it all.

The the movie can be summarized like this: After a violent storm hits a small town in Maine, the protagonist, David, his small son, Billy, and their neighbor drive into town to get supplies. While they are in town, a strange omnipresent mist descends on the small community supermarket, and everyone inside gets stranded. The movie then follows all the other townspeople caught in the supermarket and how everything starts to unravel as they lose the ability to get out or to communicate with the outside world.

Misleading marketing

When The Mist came out in 2007, it was tailgating the mainstream horror revival of the early to mid-00s. It looked on paper like a guaranteed hit. It was based on a novella by Stephen King and written for the screen and directed by Frank Darabont. Darabont had previously made movies of two other Stephen King stories, namely The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption (well, 3 movies if you include the short film The Woman in the Room). The Shawshank Redemption has since been hailed as the best movie ever made, according to the users of

Everything seemed to point to another success.

But the ending is so bleak it sparked a clear polarization of the audience; either you liked the ending, or you hated it, and the vast majority of the general audience seemed to hate it. So, what happened? Two things stand out, the marketing around the movie and the structure of the movie.


I’m no marketing expert, but the overemphasis on this movie being made by “the team who made the best movie of all time” seems foolhardy. This movie is different from The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, and therein lies one problem with the movie. The marketing created a clear expectation in the audience of a similar movie experience, maybe with a bit more horror elements thrown in for good measure.

Frank Darabont’s roots in the horror genre were entirely skipped in the marketing. The two other movies are not accurate pointers of his work, neither before nor after. They are the odd ones out. He was, and still is, a writer/director with long and storied roots in the horror genre.

It’s easy to understand why so many members of the audience left the theater confused and bewildered and angry about the ending. This was not what they were expecting going into the cinema.

Playing against audience’s expectancy

If The Mist should be viewed as a mainstream suspenseful movie about what happens when society as we know it breaks down, then the movie must follow a known and established structure or else it veers away from being mainstream. And this does not seem to be Frank Darabont’s intentions.

King’s short story had David and Amanda having sex in the supermarket office during their time trapped there, a plot development that Darabont did not bring over to his film. The writer/director felt that such an act between two characters — each married to someone else — would not be well-accepted by a movie-going audience and would lead to them hating both characters. ‘I’m so not getting away with that on screen,’ he joked. ‘Not even trying.’
– Source: Grant Watson’s “As a species we’re fundamentally insane.”

This is a very interesting statement by Darabont. He was aware of what the audience would accept in terms of character development but still decided on the bleak ending, even insisting on it, as the movie studio forced him to cut the movie’s budget in half if he didn’t change the ending. He opted to keep the ending and made the movie for half the original budget.


Mainstream stories must follow certain rules. Similar to music having rhythm. If not the listener — no matter if they are musically trained or tone-deaf — will call out the music as out of tune or playing in disharmony.

One of the best known and, perhaps, most adopted ways of constructing stories in mainstream movies is The Hero’s Journey. Almost all (western) movies follow the three-act structure, with a clearly defined start, middle and end, wherein the middle (the second act) takes up about half the entire movie, and the first and third act bookending the middle takes up a fourth each.

The 12 steps of “The Hero’s Journey” (Source: “Memo from the Story Dept. — Secrets of Structure and Character” by Christopher Vogler & David McKenna — p. 35)


1)Things start out in the normal world (before the mist descends on the town), and something happens, prompting the protagonist to go on a quest in the special world.

2) Here, the hero will find friends and foes, meet tasks and challenges. The 2nd act, the middle part of the movie, takes place in the special world, where nothing is as it seems, and the protagonist is constantly tested to determine his or her perseverance. It’s only when the hero has proven his or her worth they are shown the path back to the normal world.

3) The hero returns as the savior bringing back the sword to slay the dragon or the magic drink to heal the dying king.

Three well-defined acts and some markers along the way provide direction for the audience. It’s been the staple of almost all mainstream stories for centuries.

“Crash to black”

And this is where The Mist deviates from The Hero’s Journey. The protagonist David fails the final challenge. He does return to his normal world — by getting out of the supermarket — but in the process, he loses everything, his wife, his son, and everyone he cared for. He left the special world with nothing, and he doesn’t change as a person. He hasn’t learned anything or gained knowledge he didn’t have before. That’s about as bleak as it can be.

Below is the last two pages of the screenplay. And whereas the novella by Stephen King ended with an ambivalent ending with the survivors sitting in the car contemplating their options, Frank Darabont continued the story for a few minutes.

The last two pages of the screenplay for ‘The Mist’ (2007) — Written by Frank Darabont

“CRASH TO BLACK” indeed.

By adding a few more minutes to the ending and making it as bleak as this, Frank Darabont punched the audience in the gut. Hard.

“In a story, what the reader feels is driven by what the protagonist feels. Story is visceral. We climb inside the protagonist’s skin and become sensate, feeling what he feels. Otherwise we have no port of entry, no point of view through which to see, evaluate, and experience the world the author has plunked us into.”
– Lisa Cron: Wired for Story

The protagonist is our entry into the universe of the movie. For good and bad, it’s how we view the world of the story. You have — as a storyteller — a great responsibility towards the audience.

Watch the entirety of the last 8 minutes of The Mist below.


Christopher Vogler writes in his seminal work on The Hero’s Journey and screenwriting “The Writer’s Journey”:

“The Hero’s Journey is a skeletal framework that should be fleshed out with the details and surprises of the individual story. The structure should not call attention to itself, nor should it be followed precisely. The order of the stages given here is one of many possible variations. The stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically shuffled without losing any of their power.” (Vogler, p. 19)

The problem — story structure wise — with The Mist is it calls attention to itself. If you, as a storyteller, rip out the audience’s hearts during the movie, you have to give it back to them at the end. If you don’t follow the structure, to some extent, you give the audience a bad taste in their mouth.

The movie could also have ended with the massive monster they meet on the highway simply crushing the car underfoot, killing everyone inside. SPLAT! End of story. And that would have left the audience just as bewildered because the story skips of elements of The Hero’s Journey.

When you, as a filmmaker play on the expectations of the audience, you have to deliver in a certain way. Failing to do so will leave the audience disliking the story. The audience feels tricked.

In The Mist, there is no resolution to the story. This is why, at the premiere, so many people reported watching the audience leave the theater in complete silence. They were in shock; they just watching a father shoot his own son only to be rescued minutes later. But they were also silent because they were trying to figure out why the movie felt so wrong. There was something missing from the story, or something felt off kilter.

I perfectly understand — and respect — why many liked the ending, precisely for its hard bleakness. It was very different. But, if you are trying to create a universally understandable narrative for the general audience, you have to play along with some expectations from the audience. Expectations which are rooted in a long storytelling tradition.

If not, you run the chance of undoing the entire narrative and making your story a one-trick pony. Once you’ve seen the movie, there is little point in seeing it again, because the trick it plays on the audience only works the first time around.

Thanks for reading!

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“Hell or High Water” — Pissed of and looking for someone to blame

Looking into the dualistic structure of the narrative

“Hell or High Water” (2016) is at face value a classical tale of cops and robbers, or perhaps even a modern western as it has been hailed by many. It’s a story about what is right and what is wrong. Lawmen and outlaws. You don’t have to watch the movie for long before you notice that everything in the movie is 2-sided. There is two of everything. There is a counterpart for everything. Two brothers- one the criminal, one the law-abiding citizen. Two Texas Rangers- one white and one Native American.

All the main elements are opposites and are pulling in different directions. By doing so, the scenes in the movie have an inbuilt dynamic that creates a very interesting and well-paced narrative.

Word of warning: the rest of this article pretty much spoils the entire movie — so if you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you stop reading right here and return when you have watched it.

Cross-posted from Medium:

“Carlito’s Way” — The One That Got Away

Looking into how one cleverly constructed long take perfectly illustrates Brian De Palma’s extraordinary craftsmanship and his mastery of the visual language.

Your body instinctually moves around when playing a video racing game. You can’t help it. You are leaning left and right, moving with the virtual car in the game.

And almost everyone has tried to lean forward in their cars to get a better look at a road sign, while speeding past on the highway. It makes little sense to the rational mind to lean forward a few inches to get a better glance at a sign, while moving forward a high speed. But we do it anyway.

Why? Because certain visual stimuli make us do it. It’s ingrained in us, as humans. The individual senses are tricked into overruling each other; even though we know we are sitting on our couch playing a racing game, the body leans, because our eyes tell us the car is moving. It’s pure muscle memory.

Director Brian De Palma is a masterful visual storyteller. He knows all the tricks in the book of visual medium, and his gangster opus “Carlito’s Way” from 1993 is a perfect example of this.

The Visual Language

One aspect where “Carlito’s Way” and Brian De Palma’s work excels is in the visual language. From fade in, he is telling us what kind of movie this will be.

He is inviting us into the realm of the story. The entire story you are about to watch is told directly by Carlito (brilliantly played by Al Pacino), laying on the stretcher being rushed to the hospital.

“[..] the first job of any good story is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality.”
— “Wired for Story” by Lisa Cron


Lost but not forgotten

“I can’t make a better picture than this”
— Brian De Palma (from the “De Palma” documentary)

Carlito’s Way works perfectly on so many levels. If you want to study the medium of film and see why it is so different from other mediums, this is a perfect example to do so. Every scene is crafted with such care and precision. Nothing is left to chance, and it all works in unison, the action and acting on the screen, the dialogue, the cinematography, the music, the sound, and the editing. When so much care is put into each element, they are all capable of standing on their own but combined, it creates an experience like no other medium can provide.

Brian De Palma is not credited enough for his skill as a filmmaker. No matter if you regard him as one of the most significant auteurs of the 1970s to 1990s or you see him as a master craftsman capable of surrounding himself with top talent, you have to respect the work that carries his name.

>>> Read the entire article on Medium

Playable Design – Presenting a method for Game Development

The computer game industry is currently facing problems on how to structure and manage a production due to the cause of ever-growing budgets and manpower required. Methods from other fields have been tried. However, these are not built with the purpose of developing games and do not facilitate the entire production or qualities of a game. We have during the course of the project addressed this matter by devising a method of our own which should enhance the process of creating games. A deeper analysis of current computer game developments identified the main problems to occur in the pre-production which suggests that this is where the point of insertion should happen. We have based our solution on theory from fields such as software engineering, innovation theory and game design theory and supplied these by observations made through experiments where we simulated parts of a game production. The result is the EVE method, which stands for Experimentation, Visualization and Evaluation and is based on principles of creative process control, flexible design in the form of prototypes and easily accessible feedback through early testing.

Download the entire report below and get a ready-to-use game development process with an heavy emphasis on prototyping as a design tool.


Playable Design – Master Thesis (PDF – 2.1 MB)

Me, myself and my avatar

Discussing participatory culture and player rights in virtual worlds
By Simon Larsen

Supervisor: T. L. Taylor
Course: Computer Games Culture – F2005

IT-University of Copenhagen

Me, myself and my avatar

The currently biggest virtual worlds 1 on the market boast millions of active players 2 and have indeed become as a second home for many. More and more of our leisure time are being spent in the world of Azeroth, Paragon City and Norrath 3. At the same time, more questions arise about player created content and the ownership of that. But what rights do players have in the games? To briefly sum it up; none. The majority of players have properly never even read the End User License Agreement or the Terms of Use for their game. But because games like these have become such a participatory media, or co-creative media to use the words of Sue Morris (2004) it is important to discuss ownership and control of these game media.

What problems lies in the fact that commercial companies effectively owns content created by players of virtual worlds?

Identity extension

The common statement you hear when discussing rights of players in virtual worlds is; “it’s just a game”. Yes and no, but there is much more to it. Scott McCloud writes in his book “Understanding Comics” (1993) about the interaction with inanimate objects;

When driving, for example, we experience much more than our five senses report. The whole car ” not just the parts we can see, feel and hear “is very much on your minds at all times. The vehicle becomes an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car.” (p. 38)
This notion of inanimate objects being an extension of our identity can be translate directly to virtual worlds. We and the avatar we control in the game are one and the same. That is why people spend so much time in the games and feels very much attached to their avatar and the actions done by and to them. The avatar is another version of them.

In online multiplayer games without persistence, the skill of my avatar and the skill of me, as a player, are directly linked together. If the game company Valve took the (however unlikely) decision to shut down all Counter-Strike servers worldwide, I could just take my FPS 4 skills and start playing Quake III or Unreal Tournament. With persistent game worlds that is much more difficult. The skills I have as a player only count for a part of the abilities of my avatar, the rest is gained from leveling in the game. If I was to change to another game, I had to start all over from scratch.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

The counter-argument to this statement is – again “it’s just a game”. No actions in the game have real-life consequences. Still people spend months, even years, in some of these games, building social networks and honing their reputations by their actions (Taylor, 2002).

Who Watches the Watchmen?

If we take a closer look at World of Warcraft, we clearly see that the balance of power and control is uneven to say the least. Blizzard Entertainment? who runs World of Warcraft? explicitly states in their Terms of Use that:

“All title, ownership rights and intellectual property rights in and to World of Warcraft (including but not limited to any user Accounts, titles, computer code, themes, objects, characters, character names, stories, dialogue, catch phrases, locations, concepts, [..], transcripts of the chat rooms, member profile information, [..]) are owned by Blizzard Entertainment or its licensors.” (Section §13. Ownership).

In short, everything related to the “universe” of Warcraft is owned by Blizzard. Any story that you as a player creates either in or outside of the game, through role-playing or otherwise is owned by Blizzard. It is, presumably, your labor of love, but you have to rights to it.

Furthermore, they state that: “You may not do anything that Blizzard Entertainment considers contrary to the ‘essence’ of World of Warcraft” (Section §3. World of Warcraft Code of Conduct, C.v). Even the quotation marks around “essence” are there, but the term is never defined clearer than that.

The power of many

But where is the fair use of the game? If I want to role-play a certain character in the game and create a back story around it that, goes against the ‘essence’ of World of Warcraft, what then? Will they ban my account from breaking the Terms of Use?

The value these players give to the overall game experience is higher than that of the game itself. Reed’s law 5 certainly applies to these games, where the number of participants in the network is directly connected with the value of the network. These games are nothing without the players 6.

Question left unanswered

“MUD players are people. They don’t stop being people when they log on. Therefore, they deserve to be treated like people. This means they have the rights of people.” (Koster, 2000)

Many questions still linger unanswered. This is a topic of continuously heated debate, and each side of the table has still to come up with the argument that would end the discussion.

If the balance of power over intellectual property and the player rights shifted more in the direction of the players (customers), would this unleash a barrage of legal issues that would eventually end the MMORPGs, as we know them today? Is it then best to leave the balance in its status quo?

Would this damage the game playing experience? Would it destroy the play, as in? I play a game to escape real life, why bring real life in here? Is this the Pandora’s Box of virtual Worlds?

Could the game companies gain more from loosening the grip on the rights, instead of controlling them rigorously? As Henry Jenkins writes (2002), some game companies already do and seem to be gaining from it.



All links checked as of April 2005. Not all are referenced directly in the text.


  1. Here I am referring to Virtual Worlds, MMORPGs, MUDs, MOOs (The terms are here used interchangeably) and the like, as game spaces that encompasses some form of interaction with other players (people). It is intently used very broad, so here it includes, without excluding, games such as “World of Warcraft”, “City of Heroes”, “Second Life”, “Counter-Strike”, “Quake”, “EVE-Online”, “Anarchy Online”, and so on. Even respected scholars are finding it hard to determine what constitutes as a virtual world and what does not (
  2. According to
  3. “Azeroth” being the fictional world of “World of Warcraft”, “Paragon City” is from “City of Heroes” and “Norrath” is the world of “Everquest”
  4. FPS: First Person Shooters. An action-oriented genre of games, currently dominated by games such as Counter-Strike, Half-Life 2, DOOM III and Far Cry.
  5. Reed’s Law states that a value of a social network is directly connected with the number of participants. 2N − N − 1, where n is the number of participants in the network, e.g. a network of 5 participants would have the value of 26, while a network of 10 would have a value of 1013. The value of the network scale exponentially with more participants (Wikipedia).
  6. As of writing this players of World of Warcraft are leaving the game by the numbers and canceling their accounts because of their dislike of a new PvP system that has been implemented

Scaling geometry difficulty in Level Design

The last few days I’ve been playing a lot of God of War II and thoroughly enjoying every last moment of it. That is, up until now. I’ve just gotten to some of the last levels I presume as the story arc is nearing its end (the Phoenix Champers) and the difficulty have just risen so steeply in the last few levels that the game is becoming more frustrating than fun to play.

Let me explain. In the last few years I’ve steadily gone from being a hard-core gamer to a somewhat ex-core gamer due to high level of time consuming elements of my life (such as university studies, wife and son). And that has some clear effects on my timing and aiming skills. These skills only stay good if honed continuously, and I simply don’t have the time for that.

And in the case of God of War II many of the later sequences of the game requires just these skills. As I’ve become an ex-core gamer I tend to play on the easy setting just so that I have time to complete the game without using too much time on it and still see the parts of the game that everyone is talking about. The problem is just that the geometry in the level design don’t scale. The difficulty of making a jump in a 3D environment is just as hard on extreme difficulty as it is on easy.

And that’s no good.

When games moved into 3D, however, the jumping puzzle became a more difficult task. In addition to requiring the player to control their jumps in an extra dimension, the problem of viewpoint reared its ugly head. Games with fixed cameras sometimes made it quite difficult for the players to see where they were landing, while manual control added another control to juggle. #

I would really like to see that if I choose to play on easy setting that the jumping and timing puzzles gets scaled accordingly, else I’ll end up in the position I’m at with God of War II currently; I’ll just stop playing and all the hard work and godly greatness being purred into the levels to come will forever be lost on me.

Alfred Hitchcock and The Elements of Suspense

On Why Hitchcock Still Can Make You Sit on the Edge of Your Seat.
Written as part of my education in Medialogy in December 2003


From the introduction:

What is Suspense? 

Suspense is today such an incorporated element of movies that it for many seems second hand, but what elements are needed to create a good suspense scene? It is easy to spot a non-working suspense scene, but what are the key elements that make a good scene become a masterpiece?

It is impossible to talk about suspense without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). He was the master of the technique. Although Hitchcock was not the first to use suspense in movies he had in the “golden era” of his career (from the mid 50s to the late 60s) developed a template for implementing suspense that worked so well that it is still revered as the best examples of the use of suspense.

In Hitchcock’s own words:

“There is a clear difference between surprise and suspense […]. We are sitting here and having an innocent conversation. Let us assume that there is a bomb under this table between us. […] suddenly there is a loud boom and the bomb goes off. The audience is surprised, but before this surprise they have only seen a very ordinary scene without any significance. Let us instead look at suspense scene. The bomb is under the table and the audience is aware of this because they have seen the anarchist plant it there. They also know that the bomb will go off at one o’clock, and up on the wall is a clock showing that the time is now quarter to one […]. In the first scene we have given the audience 15 seconds of surprise […] but in the last scene we have given them fifteen minutes of suspense.”.

The whole scene rests on this difference in knowledge and the audience’s fear on behalf of the unknowing characters.

In short: Suspense is a dramaturgy technique that plays of the difference in knowledge between the audience and the characters on the screen. It often revolves around subjects like; will the hero reach the right place and save the heroine before it is too late? Will the bomb expert defuse the bomb before it goes of? Will the detective see the sinister figure waiting in the alley?


Download the PDF here (2,5 MB): Elements of suspense

Den korteste vej til algoritmner og spil


Written as part of my master thesis in Information Science together with Jens Frederiksen in December 2004 at the IT-University of Copenhagen.



Denne rapport og den dertilhørende Java kildekode, er kulminationen på vores 16 uger programmeringsprojekt på IT – Universitetet i efteråret 2004.

Vi har undersøgt hvilke algoritmer og datastrukturer der skal anvendes for at lave en repræsentation af Hex spillet som Piet Hein og John Nash opfandt uafhængigt af hinanden for snart 50 år siden.

Vi har kigget på to forskellige korteste vej algoritmer; brede-først-søgning og Dijktras algoritme. For at finde den korteste vej er graf strukturen et naturligt valg, til at undersøge problematikken. Der er benyttet disjunkte mængder datastrukturen for at nemt at kunne undersøge om en spiller har skabt en forbindelse med spillerens to sider.

Hex spillet er blevet brugt som case for at udforske de algoritmer og datastrukturer, for at få spillet til at fungere. Vi har implementeret to versionen af spillet i Java, hvor den ene version er den som Hein og Nash opfandt og den anden er en version hvor alle felterne på spillebrættet har en vægt som har betydning for den korteste vej i fra den vindende spillerens to sider.



Vores mål med projektet var at kigge nærmere på spillet Hex / Polygon Game som et klassisk graf problem inden for algoritmer og datastrukturer. Vi præsenterer vores implementering af disse ved hjælp af et simpelt userinterface udarbejdet i Java, hvor de underlæggende algoritmer og datastrukturer liggende bagved også programmet i Java.

Vi valgte programmeringssproget Java, da vi tidligere har erfaringer med dette og da et af projektets formål var at udforske objektorienteret programmering virkede dette som et oplagt valg.

Det overordnende mål i vores projekt er at opnå en grundlæggende forståelse af grafer, træer og datastrukturer, samt hvordan de benyttes og udarbejdes på en hensigtsmæssig måde i forbindelse med konstruktion af spil. Implementeringen af disse i Java er sekundært, og udarbejdelsen af et userinterfase tertiært.

Projektet er derfor todelt, i henholdsvis en teoretisk og en praktisk del. Den teoretiske del skal give os en indsigt i algoritmernes og datastrukturers overordnede opbygning. Den praktiske del vil bestå i en implementering af de teoretiske elementer i Java.

For både at få den teoretiske indlæring om datastrukturer og algoritmer og for at sikre en mere praktisk tilgang til emnet har vi anvendt spillet Hex som en case. Derigennem har vi direkte kunne afprøve og af- eller bekræfte noget af den læste teori.


Hvordan sikre man at spillet Hex altid har styr på om der er en vinder og dernæst for at finde den korteste vej fra den vindende spillers to sider?


Hex spillet udspringer af matematikkens verden, vi vil dog ikke dække det matematiske aspekt i spillets udformning eller forskellige strategier. Vi bruger blot Hex spillet til at udforske datastrukturer og algoritmer.

Vi beskriver ikke alle benyttede datastrukturer i detaljer, f.eks. prioritetskøer. Ligeledes har vi ikke brugt de matematiske analysemodeller for datastrukturer og algoritmer, som f.eks. Stor O notation.


Det er vores mål at give en beskrivelse af de teorier og emner, som vi gennemgår i rapporten på et abstraktionsniveau, hvor essensen er bibeholdt, men hvor de matematiske beviser for de forskellige begreber træder i baggrunden. Det er for at holde fast i vores mål om at skrive denne rapporten til vores valgte målgruppe; studerende som os, som ikke har haft undervisning i algoritmer eller datastrukturer og derfor ikke kan forventes at have nogen forkundskaber eller viden omkring emnet.


Download hele rapporten her i PDF (7,7 MB): Den korteste vej til algoritmer og spil

Level design patterns

Looking for the Principles of Unified Level Design

Written as part of my master thesis in Information Science in April 2006 at the IT-University of Copenhagen.


“Few things are harder to put up with than a good example” – Mark Twain


My aim with this paper is to take the idea of formal design tools and show how to apply them to the process of creating levels for multiplayer first-person shooters (FPS). The focus of this paper to be on the architectural properties of the levels and not the storyline or other added elements that differ from game to game. Single player games are often very linearly structured because they need to convey a tightly knitted storyline to the player. The levels themselves are constructed in such a way that they emphasize the storyline and underline the mood and setting that the story is conveying. Multiplayer games must to a much higher degree leave the playing field open, so to speak. To use the words of one of the leading forces behind Epic Games’ Unreal Tournament series, Cliff Bleszinski:

“A Level Designer who is building for a Multiplayer oriented title is much like a playground architect” (2000a).

The storyteller is no longer present to the same extent as in a single player game. Multiplayer games are often fast-paced and center on reaching specific predetermined team-based objectives. So when looking for examples that underline the design patterns presented herein the following games are the only ones taken into consideration:

  1. Unreal Tournament 2004 (by Epic Games, 2004)
  2. Day of Defeat: Source (by Valve, 2005)
  3. Battlefield 1942 (by DICE, 2002)

To use a famous quote from pioneering game developer Sid Meier; the aim is to look for “interesting choices” in level design. I wanted to draw the attention towards design patterns for multiplayer level design, since most of the literature available on multiplayer levels design seems to focus solely on collision points (Bleszinski 2000a) (Saltzman, 2000) (Güttler & Johansson, 2005) and I strongly believe that this is just a (small) part of a very larger picture of designing multiplayer levels. Secondly, of all the other works on design patterns for game design (see section 2.3.1 on page 7) none is focused on level design.

Problem statement

Level design is essentially is a craft and therefore you need proven formal tools. By using design patterns as a design tool when creating levels multiplayer games you ensure that the players can seamlessly navigate through your game world. At the same time, it will greatly reduce the scope of the design process as you apply tried and tested solutions to your current problem domain.

There is no need for reinventing the wheel every time you plan and design a new level. The question that I will try to answer in this paper is; how can formalized design patterns be used for creating interesting choices in level design?

What are design patterns?

Design patterns are formal tools used for solving known problems. Said in another way; it is a design toolbox. In many fields, ranging from architecture, over software development to creative fields such as literature and movies, people are using some form of formal design tools to help create their work. Some call them design patterns others call them “tools-of-the-trade”, but they are essentially the same; formal tools that describe problems (or problematic areas) and proven ways to solve them. If we take movies as example, try to count how many movies you have seen lately that followed a storyline similar to this one: the main character of the story sets out on a quest to undo the wrongdoings that have fallen upon him/her. During this quest, the main character faces many perils and is close to giving up near the ending, but somehow he/she prevails in the end. I would dare say that the large majority of the movies present on’s Top 250 list of the greatest movies ever made follow a storyline very similar to the above. Looking at how movies like Indiana Jones, the Star Wars movies, and The Matrix trilogy is using the Hero’s Journey way of storytelling and then comparing it to the way David Lynch told the story of Lost Highway it is easy to spot the difference. Filmmakers such David Lynch, who is truly artists in their field, makes movies that are not easily understandable. Ask anyone who has seen Lost Highway (1997) or Mulholland Drive (2001) of what the movie is about and you will properly end up with as many answers as people you ask. The popular movies all revolve around the same story outline. They do it because it works. It is easy to understand for the viewers, because of the familiarity of the storyline. You can argue that this type of storyline is a design pattern. Are they works of art? No, by no means! But they are all using a collection of very effective tools for creating entertainment that is easily recognizable for everyone.

The question then is; do these tools hinder the creative workflow and merely created assembly line produced entertainment that all look the same? When doing level design for multiplayer FPS, the aim is not that the player must play against the environment and solve its architectural puzzles embedded within. They must be able to instantly recognize the navigational patterns and move fluidly through the level. The architecture must be created in such a way that the players are working with the environment and it is not becoming an obstacle that the player also has to overcome. More Indiana Jones and less David Lynch, so to speak.

Prior work

The idea of using formal design tools as an approach to solving issues in different fields is not new, not even in the domain of computer game design. Christopher Alexander et al. described design patterns as a formal design tool for use in the field of architecture in the book A Pattern Language (1977). In it Alexander writes the sentence that should prove to be the foundation for the entire use of design patterns in software development in the decades to come:

Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice. (Alexander, 1977, p. x)

Software developers Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson and John Vlissides based their neo-classical book on software development Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software (1995) on Alexander’s description of a design pattern. They took the notion of having abstract patterns describing solutions that could be used to solve some very concrete problems in software development. It is properly within traditional software development that you can find the biggest influence of design patterns.

Design patterns in games

Design patterns in games have been a topic of discussion for some time now. Doug Church proposed what he saw a way of overcoming some of the very general problems involved with the process of game development and game design in his article: “Formal Abstract Design Tools” (1999). Harvey Smith has also proposed some formal design tools. During two separate presentations at the Game Developers Conference he outlined the thoughts behind his “Systemic Level design” (2002) and “Orthogonal Unit Differentiation (O.U.D.)” (2003). Common for these two presentations is that he is talking about design patterns, but he never get around to actually calling them that.

Someone who did indeed call the formal design tools for design patterns were Staffan Björk and Jussi Holopainen. They presented in their book Patterns in Game Design from 2004 a way of using patterns in the process of designing games. Their book took the call from Bernd Kreimeier’s article “The Case for Game Design Patterns” (2002). Björk and Holopainen have with their book made the definitive documentation of how and when to apply design patterns to the process of game design. Björk and Holopainen have continued to work with the aim of making design patterns for games an intricate part of the game design process. Both with “The Game Design Patterns Project” website4 and with their newer article “Design Patterns and Games” (2006). Noah Falstein and Bob Bates revived their “The 400 Project” project during the Game Developers Conference in March 2006. Their project is a very ambitious take on rules that makes a good game. The project was originally started by Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein in 2001, and even though they rigidly state on the project website No, although there are similarities. Alexander’s work grew out of architecture, and is, in Hal’s words “A welcomed allied analysis”. But it lacks the imperative – the 400 rules are stated in terms of instructions to follow, rather than observations of existing patterns. It also lacks the trumping information that is important to understanding how these rules interact. The similarities between their project and game design patterns cannot be overlooked. As of writing this they have listed 112 rules of the 400 intended.

A very brief history of multiplayer first-person-shooters

In 1992 id Software released Wolfenstein 3D and effectively changed action games forever. The game measured a whopping 700 Kb, a huge amount at the time, but was nonetheless downloaded a quarter million times (Saltzman, 2000, p. 111) in the year it was released6. Since then firstperson-shooters (FPS), as the genre became known as, have become one of the most popular genres.

Wolfenstein 3D was technically not the first action game with a first-person perspective7, but it was without doubt the game that launched the genre. The second generation FPSs were building  upon the foundations id Software made with their first games Wolfenstien 3D (1992) and especially the two DOOM games (1993 & 1994).

Quake (1996) and Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995) showed signs of more advance gameplay, but it was not until GoldenEye 007 (1997) and Half-Life (1998) that the genre really showed its full potential. The FPSs was clearly maturing as a genre and the desire to innovate the gameplay elements, spawned memorable games such as Medal of Honor (1999) and Halo (2001). This was also the period when the genre finally moved online with various offerings for multiplayer play with Quake 3 (1999) and Unreal Tournament (1999) leading the masses.

One game really opened the eyes for the potential of multiplayer FPS was Counter-Strike. It did not start out as a stand-alone game, but as a mod for Half-Life. But the influence this mod had (and still very much have) on multiplayer FPSs is not to be overlooked. When it was first released in June 1999, it quickly became the most popular game to play over the internet. You can in fact talk about the eras before and after Counter-Strike. It is still to this day the undisputed king of online FPSs. According to Counter-Strike accounted for 70 percent of entire the online FPS audience in 2004. Valve, the developer of Half-Life, also saw the commercial potential of Counter-Strike and bought the rights for the mod and later turned the once free mod in to a commercial product in November 2000. Valve released a much anticipated updated version of the game called Counter-Strike: Source in 2004. This version utilizes the much more powerful game engine Source that also powers Valve’s other products such as Half-Life 2 (2004) and Day of Defeat: Source (2005).

Other multiplayer FPSs worth mentioning are the Tribes series (covering three games from 1998 to 2004), Battlefield series (covering three games 2002 to 2005 and numerous expansion of each game), and lastly the free Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (2003) is worth mentioning for it’s addition of experience points to the class system.

The sole reason that Counter-Strike is not included as an example is this paper is the mere fact that it is the most analyzed FPS game around. Adding one more analysis to the pile would not accompany much. Instead I have opted to look at the before mentioned games.


Level design patterns (PDF – 2,1 MB)