I sometimes meet designers who want to be better at their jobs, but don’t appear to be improving, or feel like they’re stuck at the skill level they have now. Constant iteration makes better designers, but not everybody really gets value from everything they do. Here are four habits you can give yourself that can make any level designer improve.
Use Every Last Bit of Creative Liberty You’re Given
In AAA games we are almost never given full liberty to make what we want, and sometimes the space within which you can create freely is very small. That said: you will get better if you act confidently within the space you’re given.
Early in the production process you can typically try a lot of different ideas, so make sure you do. Sync with the artists that you work with, stay involved in the creative process, and push for something amazing.
Sometimes your assigned task isn’t thrilling, but you should try to rock it regardless. If one room in one map has to be filled with barrels and crates, that may not be exciting… but try a few variations, take the task and make it your own, and try to create something you can be proud of.
Never Try Only One Idea
Your first idea may be the one you like the most, but you won’t know until you try several. Working on a map layout? Don’t build key areas only once… Build three variations, so you can confidently choose the one that works best. (Yes, my approach means throwing away several layouts, but if you’re not comfortable pressing the delete button, you‘re not going to give yourself the freedom you need to become great at this.)
Remember, nobody forces you to submit each idea into the nightly build, but if you haven’t tried several different variations locally, you’re going to be stuck with your first idea, or worse: you will only iterate when somebody like me says “this part isn’t very good, show me something else.”
If you’ve tried four different ideas on your PC, you’re likely to feel confident that you submitted the best choice before you went home that night, and if nothing else: you’re practicing, learning, and improving.
Listen to Feedback From Everybody
Yes, even that one guy on your team who can barely express himself and seems to suck at video games. A variety of player perspectives on your design is pure fuel to make your content better.
Some people are terrible at giving feedback, and some devs give feedback purely as a way of seeming clever in meetings, and you should still listen to everyone. In development, your first audience is the people you work with. Take all the feedback you can get, listen politely, and then decide for yourself what that feedback means.
Let’s say somebody says “I turned left here, and it was a dead end, and I was depressed, like why is this doorway even here.” This feedback may be very negative, but it does tell you that this player was expecting to be able to move through that path. It could be a layout problem, it could be a lighting problem, or you could have just found a place for a collectible item. Use the feedback to make better experiences.
Work “Clean” All The Time — Fix Everything
I can’t overstate the importance of clean data. If you work “filthy” (unused entities hanging around, shoddy collision meshes, badly arranged layers, etc) you are slowing your iteration time down drastically, and making little bug factories all over your level.
If you find a problem in your level, check to see where else in your data the same problem exists. I’ve seen a level designer fix a ‘invalid height for player drop’ problem in one spot in the map and go on to ignore the other sixteen places in his map where the same problem exists — don’t be that guy.
Level designers work with a lot of data; keeping it well organized is a big job and if you do it badly, you’ll be afraid to make changes. You should always know what’s under the hood, and you should always feel like you can be proud of it. If you know your data is well-organized, iteration can be painless.