Level design : Cover systems

Author // DEDENYS Caplice Siobhan
Posted in // game development

Is this cover organic or architectural? Am I exposed from the left flank? Can I cross the courtyard without losing half my life? Is the destructible cover piece going to last through the rest of the fight?

Cover combat establishes a language between a designer and a player. Do it right and players feel rewarded by making smooth transitions between crumbled columns and overturned tables. Fail, and watch controllers bounce off plasma TV screens as spittle flies out of angry mouths, gamers loudly cursing your name in a friends living room or a parents basement. Every now and then the process is intuitive and almost effortless, with the space directing the designer’s hand. Other times, we are locked in mortal combat with an environment that refuses to bend to our wills. It is those times that are going to test our design chops, where the weakest of the herd are going to succumb to something that is often referred to as “cover vomit”.


Cover vomit is exactly what it sounds like; Designers barfing out cover in every direction in a hap hazard attempt to ensure a line of defense from both the player’s and enemy’s perspective. Cover vomit usually breaks the pacing of an area, unnecessarily blocking valuable real estate and adds more work for the artist(s) responsible for translating cover proxy to final assets.

Similar to the thought process that goes into laying out a level, it is imperative to think of the overall experience. What kind of combat is this area going to contain? Are players fighting melee or ranged enemies? How much verticality is going to be in each section? How do players manage transition from cover to cover? How many flanking routes are present in each section of a level?

Cover placement is primarily driven by the environment. Environments are driven by core gameplay systems that dictate both player and AI behaviors. Systems depend on a strong engineering foundation and so on…

While it is hard to isolate one facet of level design, there is a combination of primary elements that form a strong cover layout.

  • Both players and AI need easily accessible cover
  • Cover variety offers tactical choices
  • Well placed destructible cover creates an intuitive guide though a combat space
  • When in doubt, cover should favor the player
  • Lateral movement allows for interesting cover transitions
  • Verticality changes the pacing of a fight and exposes additional cover opportunities
  • Create “dead zones” that ask players to make tactical decisions when traversing a combat play-space
  • Offer strategic cover choices and reward players for taking risks
  • Create flanking opportunities
  • Create cover layouts that build a forward momentum
  • Avoid repetitive cover layouts
  • Architectural and organic cover translation

Cover choice, variety and verticality

Provide players and AI with easily accessible cover. Both sides need cover to create a tactical combat experience. Add cover variety to further emphasize these choices and change the pacing of a fight. Full-height cover offers a more defensible position, partially breaking visibility based on the player’s position while crouching cover provides clear lines of site at the expense of revealing additional player mass to danger. Mixing both types of cover creates dynamic transitions, rewarding the player by providing tactical cover choices.


Verticality adds another layer of gameplay, drastically changing the playing field. Players experience a sense of vulnerability fighting towards an elevated position. Capturing a section of high ground rewards players with a superior vantage point creating a push-pull mechanic and changing the pacing of a combat sequence.

Destructible cover, dead zones, pacing and forward momentum

Destructible cover plays a key role in combat pacing, demanding a level of commitment during forward progression. When used correctly designers can guide players through an environment offering additional strategic choices. Cover combat is about advancing battle lines and creating forward momentum.

Aggressive players move forward when cover is destroyed; Cautious players retreat to a more defensible/solid position. Most importantly, destructible cover creates tension, changing the beats of a combat encounter.

Combined with dead zones, destructible cover creates beacons of safety that draws the players’ attention while dynamically changing the battle field. Dead zones on their own merit, create an additional rollercoaster effect that designers strive to achieve during level layout. In conjunction with well designed combat spaces, dead zones build on the architectural foundation of a level, acting as high tension combat areas.

Whether using destructible or solid cover, it is crucial to avoid layouts that encourage players to pick off enemies from a safe distance. Placing cover away from doorframes or chokepoints asks players to advance into a given playspace.

A large portion of player forward momentum directly relates to encounter placement and enemy reinforcements.

It is entirely acceptable to allow players to walk into a combat space, assess the layout and the potential dangers and let them have the first move. Reinforcements are easy to come by and ultimately this is a small price to pay for players committing to a given cover layout. Another popular solution is to allow players to enter the room, tripping an encounter in an area that provides multiple cover opportunities while playing up to the strengths of a given cover layout.

Lateral movement and flanking

Lateral movement is synonymous with flanking, rewarding players for making smart choices and creating gameplay variety. Lateral movement allows players to change their strategy during a fight and turn a losing battle into a tactical victory. Similar to level layout, cover creates flanking opportunities, offering non linear transitions through a combat space.


Flanking is an excellent tool to empower players and provide gameplay rewards for taking risks (A slow moving character has difficulty turning in sync with player movement, exposing an armor weakness on the back of the character model).


Ultimately, all of the proxy cover is going to be transformed into final art assets. While gameplay remains king, it is important to think of how our cover layouts translate into a final product. I like to think of cover as architectural (i.e. pillars, walls, facades, etc.) and organic (broken pillars, rubble, cars, etc.) Using this approach helps me come up with new cover layouts, creating distinct gameplay spaces. Most importantly, organic cover breaks repetition that is easy to fall into when building linear combat spaces.

The above mentioned principles should serve as a foundation for building successful cover layouts. These cover layouts should be further refined by complimenting enemy types, smart encounter placement, strategic enemy entry points, line of site adjustments and lighting readability. Hope you enjoyed the tips.


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DEDENYS Caplice Siobhan

English Teacher in Rubika. Started the blog with students hope they keep it alive !

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