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I'm trying to figure out whether or not the worlds in which these games take place are levels or not, for the sake of level design. I consider the world to be one big level and all the missions and such being levels as well. While most levels in other games have specific goals, there are pretty much no objectives tied to the "mega-levels" of these games.

I just wanted to get some opinions.

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Considered by who? And does it matter in any practical sense whether or not they consider it that way? –  Trevor Powell Jan 30 '13 at 2:51
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closed as not constructive by Trevor Powell, ashes999, Nicol Bolas, Josh Petrie, Byte56 Feb 2 '13 at 15:20

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There are many terms for "level" nowadays, depending on the genre of the game and also the preference of its designer(s).

Level typically means a secluded, in itself complete portion of the game, mostly independent of the rest; when I hear level, I think of 2D platformers exclusively.

For the first or third person shooter genre, levels are more typically referred to as maps. Maps are still technically secluded from the rest of the game - maps typically have a clear objective and transition between them is not seamless and requires significant time to load the next map. This implies greater freedom of movement and ability to backtrack at will, which is often significantly greater than in side-scrolling games.

For the sandbox shooter sub-genre, there is only one map, so it is more accurately referred to as world, as you already wrote, which implies the greatest possible freedom of movement.

As always, there are games that mix up the designs - for example, Wolfenstein (2009) had secluded, stand-alone maps with defined objectives, but they were connected by a "hub" map.

That being said, you could name the designer level, map, and world designer, respectively, but there is no standard set in stone - if someone said "I am a level designer for GTA", it would be understood.

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+1 for an excellent description. I'd only add the the term "level", to me, is very much like the term "chapter" to an author (as Hackworth said "Level typically means a secluded, in itself complete portion of the game, mostly independent of the rest"). –  Jamie Taylor Jun 18 '12 at 16:24
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This type of thing has a few names but "Hub & Spoke" is generally used. The best example of Hub & Spoke design is Mario 64. The Castle acts as the Hub which is essentially an interactive menu which defines the world. Each sub-section is the spoke.

The best way to think about this type of approach is to consider that Hub is essentially a menu that lets you select levels / missions in non-linear design.

In games like Elite Plus, this is literally a menu with star systems and you interact with a cursor. Over the years these have become more and more complex. The Commander Keen games are a good example.

The other term which is used to describe this approach is "Sand Box". A Sand Box is literally an environment for the player to enact mechanics - i.e. "do stuff".

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I don't know, how it's in named games, but in Mafia 2:

Whole world is just a world. And missions are levels. Each mission can contain few "sublevels" (go from here to there and do some action) and special parts like buildings, items, characters, behavior, etc.

World is streamed as it is needed.

I think that level should represent one part of game (story), which can be "entered" (started) and completed.

And because you can travel freely around the game world, it's not a level, but environment. Level should be one mission.

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At the most basic level they use what is refereed to as a 'chunk' or 'world chunk'. Chunks can also be called 'levels', 'maps', 'stages', or 'areas' but the reverse is not always true.

In a game like GTA/Noire/Saints the entire city will be made up of several chunks that will load as you traverse the city (maybe there is a graph layout and you get a chunk per suburb, or maybe it's just some kind of grid layout). In that kind of game the term 'level' doesn't make any sense.

In AC you will get something similar, however it also has missions that are completely separate from the main game world (at least in AC3), those missions could be considered to be a level but I probably wouldn't refer to the whole of a city as being it's own level (unless it's self contained, the AC series changes from game to game quite a bit, the original might not have had the open game world that the later ones had in which case each city might be considered to be a level).

I would consider levels to be self contained discrete chunks and generally provide a one directional linear progression through the game world (although there are exceptions, for example hidden levels).

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