Anyway the two overlap and interweave in a lot of ways, but while environment design’s primary goal is to inform the player of the story of the world and enrichen the game experience, level design is a careful, technical process where the goal is to pace and direct the player’s progress trough the level from a starting point to the goal. Even in open world- and open end-games like Skyrim, there are, to a varying degree of obvious-ness, paths leading to points of interest for the player. Open world games are different from regular games in that the player can simply choose to ignore these paths and still the game will progress, as opposed to games where the path must be followed to progress the story of the game.
I could follow that path there, or I could slide down the side of the mountain on my bum.
Level design is super complex and it’s something I’d be very interested to learn more about. What elements your level design needs might be altered by what genre it is you are producing, but no matter what you’re doing, a game level will have these two things: Static and non-static elements.
As you can imagine playing a game where you constantly bump into invisible boundaries and you don’t see which path to take would be absolutely no fun at all. Non-static meshes represent these visible boundaries, obstacles and pathways to the player. These elements can be hills, buildings, rooms, fences, holes in the ground, anything really.
Not being able to get past little fences always annoy me though because I always feel like I should be able to vault, or at least climb, over them. So if there is to be a boundary, then I feel like it should be a boundary that doesn’t make me think “could have gotten across that.” While a fence in the real world is a psycological boundary I wouldn't cross even if it was physically possible, a video game is not the real world and in a video game I really want to jump over fences.
Fuck you you can't come into this cornfield, it's protected by a knee high fence.
It’s not really fun to run around in an enviroment you can’t do anything with. If you can’t interact with the game then it’s more of a digital exhibition than a game really. A layer of interactivity is added with non-static elements like doors, buttons, things to pick up and use, non-playable characters to interact with, even being able to shoot a weapon and leaving a mark in the world. When I put my building-project into UDK I had way too much fun running around zapping the surfaces of my model and watching the gun leave black decals everwhere.
It used to be levels were paced with increasing difficulty to get trough a game, gameplay wise. Like in the original Rayman platformer game, where the initial levels were nice and simple and then by the end you’d be crying blood. It is not so much the case anymore in more recent games, maybe because it’s SUPER FRUSTRATING. Recent games often focus on guiding you trough a story or a puzzle rather than a set of difficult, frustrating navigational challenges. That's interesting.