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In gaming terms, level can refer to one of two different gameplay concepts, both of which are designed to indicate a player's progress through the game.
The term "level" is derived from early role-playing games, where it referred to level of a dungeon—the setting most such games were played in. Players would begin at the bottom (level 1), and proceed through increasingly numbered levels (of increasing difficulty) until they reached their freedom at the top, or they would start at the top (which would also be level 1), and proceed through increasingly numbered (and difficult) levels until they reached the treasure at the bottom.
The term "level" can also refer to difficulty level, as in a degree of difficulty. Many types of game, but most commonly role-playing games, wargames and tactics-based games, use the term "level" to refer to the perceived skill of the player, in order to indicate the character's (fictional) growth in skill over time. Often this is combined with "Experience" to create a statistical view of the player's growth in question. It is possible for games to combine both concepts together; in which case, a different term may be used to distinguish the two concepts.
Levels in video gaming
In video gaming terms, a level (also referred to as a map, area, stage, or world) is the total space available to the player during the course of completing a discrete objective. The term level as used during the arcade video game era represented a difficulty phase or defined section of a given game - this meaning is still used in some modern Arcade games, as well as in the platformer genre. In games with linear progression, levels are areas of a larger world. Games may also feature interconnected levels, representing locations.
In the early ages of video game development, programming constraints, such as a limit on memory with which to store graphics and sound, necessitated that games be split into levels if they were to offer a great deal of variety in the game. Variety in a game's environment could not have been achieved at the time without a level system, since the hardware could not hold multiple sets of game data at the same time. The level system was therefore designed to allow for larger games to be created by storing the data required for later game content, but not bringing it into use until the relevant part that needed it was reached, saving hardware resources that could then be used for other game content such as the aforementioned graphics and sound.
Some modern games have attempted to gain the benefits of a level system while giving the impression that the games are continuous—i.e., one long game rather than levels. In these games, data required for an upcoming level is loaded into memory in the background as the player approaches it, a process known as prefetching.
A practical advantage is that levels divide the game into manageable sections, giving players a chance to rest at periodic intervals. Games can be automatically saved at these points and the gaps can help build suspense.
Levels are usually laid out as a continuous 2D or 3D space, but in games such as Super Mario, the spaces may be separate, with some form of teleportation in between. The space may have varying elevation and physical obstacles. The level will usually feature entities (usually characters) that commence some sort of procedure after being triggered by the player standing in a particular area or perhaps interacting with an object in the level.
Each level usually has an associated objective, which may be as simple as walking from point A to point B. When the objective is completed, the player usually moves on to the next level. If the player fails, they must usually try the same level again or perhaps return to the very start of the game. In games with multiple human players, the level may simply end once a limit in points or time has been reached. Not all games order the levels in a linear sequence; some games allow the player to revisit levels or complete them in any order, sometimes with an overworld in which the player can transition from one level to another. One of the earliest examples of this is The Legend of Zelda.
Although the challenge in a game is often to defeat some sort of character, levels are sometimes designed with a movement challenge, such as a jumping puzzle, a form of obstacle course. Players must judge the distance between platforms or ledges and safely jump between them to reach the next area. These puzzles can slow the momentum down for players of fast action games; the first Half-Life's penultimate chapter, "Interloper", featured multiple moving platforms high in the air with enemies firing at the player from all sides.
|Act/chapter||Levels that, along with most of the rest of the game design, are built and designed to specifically accommodate and sync with an existing story or narrative provided by a writer (as opposed to constructing a level for more traditional means such as for setting or gameplay).|
|Area||An area is used to define a level that, literally, physically coexists amongst multiple levels, in that the player can progress from one "level" to the other simply by using the game's physics. Despite coexisting spatially, each area presents its own themes, rewards and challenges. Access to areas is often designed to require learning and progression gained from other areas. An area that serves as the only direct access to all other areas is known as a "hub".|
|Board||An archaic term used in first and second generation games to represent any type of changing stage that cannot be classified as a wave or round. Used in modern times to represent levels in Board game-structured games or puzzle games where all levels share a common basic geometry, such as The Adventures of Lolo or Umihara Kawase.|
|Dungeon/Overworld||A subset of "area/map" terminology which is commonly used to describe stock "hub-to-areas" level design; in this case the "overworld" functioning as a hub to the "dungeons". The overworld is often designed to resemble a true landscape, replete with civilization, economy, and expansive terrain design. The player can access dungeons from the overworld, which are areas that more directly challenge the player's abilities, usually using enemies, exploration, and puzzles. This design format is commonly seen in RPGs and action/adventure games, where they originated; they have become so prevalent a concept that the terms are used even when a medieval fantasy element is not present. The overworld is also known as a "world map".|
|Episode||Used in game publishing to describe a series of levels that are sold as an extra add-on to a game already established in the marketplace. Also commonly referred to as a "mission pack".|
|Map||Used to describe arenas in competitive multiplayer games in which the gameplay is heavily dependent on terrain design (such as Real-time strategy games and multiplayer First-person shooters). This term is also often carried over into single-player games, also to describe levels with a high degree or scope in terrain design, or simply as the sum of all the game's areas.|
|Mission||Often used to describe a "level" in objective-based gameplay, in where the majority of the action takes place all within one area or scenario, and the player's ultimate goal is to simply complete all the objectives central to core progression. This term is sometimes supplanted simply with the term "objective". Occasionally, a synonym for quest, in modern-day or futuristic MMOs.|
|Round||Usually refers to a particular game design in where the overall challenge must be overcome across more than one (up to infinity) identical or near-identical attempts. The core challenge and rules remain the same, and changes to gameplay across rounds is limited to an increase in stakes and/or to difficulty. Typically seen in Fighting games (i.e "rounds" during a martial arts match), this concept is also often seen in puzzle games, party games, and titles that are driven by Mini-games. They can also be localized into specific gameplay such as a boss encounter that is broken into rounds.|
|Stage||Similar to wave and round, a designation for sequential levels: first stage, second stage, etc.|
|Track||The environment that a race occurs on.|
|Wave||A level purely defined by overcoming a number of enemies. The core gameplay is simply defeating or surviving the foes present, with little-to-no gameplay elements that would otherwise diminish it (such as exploration).|
|World||A series of levels all revolving or subsisting on the same theme, elements or concepts. Worlds allow a designer to propagate specific gameplay themes across several levels without having to create a level that is too large and unwieldy. For example, several levels containing lava and flame hazards that are all part of a "fire world".|
|Zone||Especially in MMOs, an area, map, or dungeon, the verb 'zoning' is used to describe the passage from one zone to another.|
Game designers often use other terms to suit the game's theme, such as "book", "camp", "floor", "land", "phase", "room", etc. Designers may also avoid actually using level terminology at all, instead referring to each level only by its title or location (town, city, country, etc), usually to maintain a sense of immersion.
Choke point is a small area that controls transition between levels.
Focus node is a location of a shared resource, increasing player interaction.