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StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

This post is part of a series called StarCraft II Level Design.
StarCraft II Level Design: Introduction and Melee Maps

Designing a level for StarCraft II is easy once you understand the tools, but getting to look nice and creating a professional looking level is another thing entirely. In this article I'll discuss the things you can do to make your level look more interesting and feel like a real environment.

Before We Begin

This article is a continuation of my previous StarCraft II level design article which dealt with laying out and balancing your level.

This time, I will talk about taking a level for which you have completed the gameplay design and making it look good. I will be discussing the importance of having a theme, the ways you can use textures to enhance the overall look of your level, how props and doodads can be used to add to your level, and the various tools the editor supplies you with to make your level look more unique overall.

Defining Your Theme

The StarCraft universe is a vast one with different planets and locales that lend themselves to various themes and settings. From the desolate volcanic wastelands of Char, to the lush forests of Aiur, the locations available for you to choose from are numerous. It is important to determine your theme early because all of your aesthetic choices will be driven by it.

Unless you nail these details down early it may just turn out as a confusing mess of unrelated ideas.

Your theme will act as a guide during development and will be a reference point when making visual decisions about your level. If you choose to set your level on the planet Char it will require a different look then a level on Aiur since they have completely different plant life and histories associated with them.

You should also remember that your theme is more than just a setting and can also include a story or reason for the players to be there. When deciding on your theme, consider everything you have already settled on and what ideas you want to convey. No matter what you want your map to represent you can make it work, but unless you nail these details down early it may just turn out as a confusing mess of unrelated ideas.

As you continue through this article and begin applying the techniques I show you, always consider your theme and do your best to make sure that all of your ideas flow from it naturally. The doodads with destroyed ships and wrecked vehicles may look awesome, but if your level is supposed to be a newly settled world with only a few people on it they may not make sense with the rest of your level's components.

Making Terrain With Heights

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

Making nice rolling hills or deep caverns with the Height tool is pretty simple and once you understand how each tool works there isn't much more you need to know. If this interests you, spend some time looking at tutorials and playing around and in no time your level should look great.

Despite its simplicity, there is one major thing you must consider when using the height tool: it will have no impact on gameplay and, more specifically, it will not affect the speed of your units. No matter how steep a hill you make, your units will always pass over a given distance of land in the same amount of time and the system will actually adjust a unit's speed dynamically to make sure this is the case. The reason for this boils down to balance and that slight modifications to terrain could have huge negative effects on gameplay if this were not the case. Technically you could attempt to fix this "issue" with triggers which modify unit speed and doodads which make terrain impassable, but doing this is often more trouble than it is worth and will not really help your level in the end.

With this in mind you should only use terrain to make minor changes to the way the ground looks and not for major effects like mountainous hills or giant caverns as it won't work. Also, don't use terrain on an area where a cliff ends; as you can see, it is not a pretty sight:

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

Using Textures

The best way to make your level look interesting is through the use of textures. Textures can be used in a variety of ways to convey unique messages, but getting this to work is often much more challenging than it seems. First time level editors often make the mistake of not using textures together to convey meaning and instead use textures together randomly, or don't use them together at all.

When I say "using textures together" I'm referring to blending textures and overlaying them to create a stronger effect or to convey an idea about the environment. To show you what I mean by blending textures I have made a short guide which shows how I took a basic structure I made with cliffs and made it look more interesting through the use of textures.

Before we get started I thought I should make a note about the editor. When editing textures I like to use a brush with a Slow or Medium speed and an Increment of less than 100. I also like to use a method I call "dabbing" where you use a number of small movements with fast subsequent mouse clicks rather than just dragging the cursor around while holding the mouse button down. This creates a more random feeling and allows you to get greater texture variation overall. Try playing around with the brush settings and seeing what you can do and then continue on through the rest of the article.
StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

This is the base I am starting with.

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

The first thing I did was remove the solid line between the sand and the paneled floor. This gave the effect of sand being swept around and building towards the bottom of the ramp. You'll also notice the end of the sand is not a strictly even line. I did this to make it look more natural and achieved it by adjusting the falloff of my brush.

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

Since sand is being blown around a lot on this planet and since I know dust and sand collect in corners and on edges I decided to add some around all the edges of the platform.

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

Next I used a low increment brush with the texture of the panels to start removing and lightening the sand to make it more natural.

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

Then I removed large chunks of the edge sand and put more in at corners and turns where it would collect more easily to make it less uniform throughout.

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

Finally I used a large brush with a very low increment and slowly built up sand randomly in spots throughout the middle of the structure. This adds to the idea of sand blowing everywhere and makes it look less clean, which is often an easy way to make something look more interesting.

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

I then added color variation by using another color of sand texture and applying that very carefully using the same techniques I've already outlined.

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

I then wanted to expand outward to the area just outside the base so I introduced the new sand color there as well.

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

Next I introduced some of the rock textures and then blended sand lightly on top of them. I chose to use the rock primarily around the base to give the feeling the base was built on solid ground.

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips

Finally I added a bit of paneling at the bottom of the ramp to add the effect that people were walking around and shifting the sand directly in front of the base.

As you can see using textures together creates a much stronger effect than forcing them to stand on their own. The important thing to learn is that I took my theme and I continually considered it while developing the look of this structure. Every change I made was influenced by my theme or things I understand about how the world works. All of my actions had a motivation and none were truly random. It will take time to become good with these but the final results are often worth it.


Once you set the stage with textures it is time to really start bringing out your vision with doodads. Doodads are what you use in SC2 for props and have a host of different uses. I highly recommend you take some time to look through all the doodads, but Im briefly going to touch on what types you'll find:

Props and Structures

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips
  • These are all of the random objects that you can place around your level; from dead animals, to broken down vehicles, to huge buildings, and even some vegetation, there are hundreds of these available.
  • Some of these objects will have an impact on pathing and movement so be careful when using these to prevent causing problems for your players or unbalancing the level.
  • These Doodads can be very useful in making your level feel like a real environment as you can use them to add trees, insert structures that add to the story or background of your level, or even just make the general area more interesting.

Particle and Environment Effects

StarCraft II Level Design: Aesthetic Design and Editor Tips
    • These are items that give off particle effects or add to the atmosphere of the level and include things like fires, flocks of birds, clouds, rain, and even actual lights you can place around your level.
    • These doodads are used best as a way to develop the story and environment of the level. If I wanted I could add a dust storm effect to the level I was working on earlier, or if I made a forest level I could add flocks of birds flying around, or I could just use them to place lights in dark areas to modify the lighting in that area only.

Lighting Effects

The final major thing you can work on with your level is creating unique lighting effects. Lighting is very important and while a lot of levels primarily use the standard lighting techniques, there is more you can do. For example, you can change the overall coloring of the lights to make things "hotter" in a desert environment, or "cooler" in an icy or plant-filled environment.

Generally people don't make major changes to the lighting simply because it has the ability cause major drawbacks. While little changes are no big deal it is easy to go overboard and make it harder for the player to discern between their units or tell what team a given unit is on. This is not to say that you can't use lighting changes effectively, but be careful when doing so to prevent it from having a negative impact on the experience your players have.

Finishing Your Level

At this point I have introduced you to all the major tools in SC2 - the rest is simply up to you as a designer. Just like building your level itself, getting it to look good and making it feel natural will take time; it is not something you should expect to sit down and do in an hour. Despite that it is definitely worth it.

A level can be incredibly fun, but without any visual appeal it will turn off a lot of players. In some cases the visual appeal can come from the simplicity, but you still need to put in time to get things just right. Like everything else in life, becoming good at this stuff is really about practice, so more than anything else, just doing it is important.

Anyway, I hope this article and the previous one have been helpful, I tried to cover a lot of topics and I'd like to believe I gave at least a good starting point for all of them. If there is anything you feel I missed or anything you believe should be elaborated on, or even just tips you have for fellow readers, let me know in the comments.

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