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GDC 2002: Realistic Level Design in Max Payne

Starting something new is mostly about decisions: what to leave out and what to include, what to make something look, feel, sound or even taste like and, perhaps most importantly, how to restrict things -- what is to be the physical size, the file size, the time "size" you have available and what is realistic. Aki Määttä explores the ways in which the Max Payne team sought to put realism into level design.

May 8, 2002

19 Min Read

Author: by Aki Määttä

Where to start?

What a common statement. Even after three decades of game development we still seem to have the same problem -- how to begin or end something, how to come up with a believable start and a waterproof finish.

For some reason, level designers all struggle with that same problem. We'd like it to be easy and trouble-free, we'd like to be able to make miracles and not really show the amount of work required to get there. Fortunately, not everything is bad at it first seems - there are several shortcuts, if you will, to make the level design track not only swifter, but also more efficient and more consistent. With so many different visions, opinions, approaches and work-methods, consistency is beginning to play the most important role in modern level design.

The Need
Not only are you normally not the one who gets to decide what the level is all about, but also not the one who gets to change the stuff that comes to the level; script writers, game designers, project leads -- the whole bunch who say what to put where and when and sometimes even, regrettably, why.

So what to do when you are given a bunch of paper that is the design layout for your next challenge (some might say your work for the following 10-odd weeks), furthermore how to make sure the errand you're about to put yourself in doesn't, in the end, differ too much from your previous work, or the work of others?



A dank storage room where Mona was kept only moment before. A dead mobster is hanging from chains in the roof, he has a note pinned on his chest.
NOTE: A threat to Punchinello.


General, cluttered storage rooms. Nothing Valkyr, or Cold Iron related though. Just furniture, etc.

Boiler Room

Wine Cellar
(a part from a design document of Max Payne)


As we all know, starting something new is mostly about decisions: what to leave out and what to include, what to make something look/feel/sound (even taste) like and perhaps most importantly, how to restrict things -- what is to be the physical size, the file size, the time 'size' you have available and what is realistic.

With Max Payne we set up certain basic rules: minimum room heights, door sizes, minimum room sizes (e.g. corridor width), minimum spaces between pieces of furniture and other objects etc. These things were decided on, not to make the job harder, but to have consistency in scale and, in the end, make the job easier!

So how does this all work in practice? Let's take a look at the design document above and how I started working from there.

Gentlemen, start your engines!
Just wait a minute. I don't think you need to get the engine running to get an idea on what a level could look like; the shortest approach is to take a pen and a piece of paper, draw out a rough sketch of general shapes and scale: in this case the grid lines are present to give a sense of size and to help out to divide the space evenly.

Once you have a drawing, it's easier to figure out where to startwith the geometry.

As you can see, the difference between the sketch and the 3D model is clear. Also worth mentioning is the fact it took about ten minutes to draw the sketch, but several hours to model the geometry in in the 3D model. But as this is just to show the basic idea behind the process and not the whole thing in detail, I'll leave everything complex out for now -- that's where I'll be heading to later on.

For those enthusiastic, I have a picture of the final version of the level and a screenshot of the same cellar from Max Payne.

Go With the Flow

The flow goes like this: from a design document to a rough drawing to rough geometry to more detailed geometry. But what to take from where -- which part should be left to your imagination and which part taken from real life. A good rule of thumb I follow is to try to not to reinvent the wheel. By this I mean it's much better to take certain amount of detail directly from real environments and not to try use your imagination to invent it (somebody has already designed certain machinery for certain purposes, so why not use that information?) -- some may see it as a personal challenge to figure out everything by themselves, but to me it's a challenge not to. Not only does real world equipment/machinery/pieces of furniture/geometry help make the environment more real, but also the end result more consistent -- just remember to make everything to the scale (but not necessarily make the furniture to the same scale as the room geometry; basically whatever looks good is good, unless the space becomes too small, making the game unplayable). This same rule applies to the textures as well. Doesn't sound simple? Maybe so, but it really is!

In More Detail
Now that the idea behind the workflow is (hopefully) clear, let's go through another example in much greater detail. In this case I needed to make the lobby (and connecting areas) to a sleek apartment building (one with a portiere and such).

As before, I made a rough sketch of the place (4x4x8m module) and worked from there; sometimes it may be hard to see what the place looks like flat, so making a quick render of it with temporary lights helps (figure 1). When adding detail on top of the basic geometry it's usually best make certain prefabs of pillars, columns, pieces of furniture etc. This is just to make future updating as well as object 'recycling' easier (figure 2). As I mentioned earlier, it's good to use a certain module (or modules) on which to base all the geometry in the level. In figure 2, the pillars on the back wall are all copies of the same prefab object and are spaced out evenly 4 or 8 meters from each other. Each pillar is 6 meters high and 1 meter wide at the base (those with keen eyes might notice the pillars don't reach the highest part of the ceiling, which in fact is 7 meters high -- the reason is to give one meter space between the ceiling of this floor and the floor of the next one. Most people will notice several different ceiling heights within the space; this is not to break the modular thinking but rather to work with it: if you're aware of the sizes of your space, it's easy and even recommended to use halves, quarters or other divisions of those sizes.

Prefabs are not only handy when it comes to room elements, but even more so when making pieces of furniture, interactive objects (a door would be one of the simplest cases), machines, vehicles, plants, or whatever else you need; instead of having to make several chairs, couches or so, one has only to make one and just change the textures to get a different piece. Naturally this doesn't solve the problem of different shape pieces of furniture, but does help out.

Even when I talk about modularity and its importance, it's good to remember modules are not the only thing that's there. Modularity brings in consistency for the grand outlines, but its the smaller objects bring in the necessary discontinuity to the whole. Environments would become disturbingly repetitive if it wasn't for the 'little' elements there to break it all up, just like how things are in real life.

Getting Smaller
Even as it may feel strange sometimes, level designing usually works in cycles. It's a bit like carving stone, first you make the general shapes and every pass bring in more detail until you're satisfied with the result (basically this can be done indefinitely, thus it's good to draw a line somewhere: three passes seems to do the trick for me).

Each of these cycles are divided into parts: the obvious first part is to make out the geometry and the second part is to make the textures for the geometry and texture it and the possible third part could be lighting. With basic shapes you only need basic lighting, with more elaborate shapes you need more defined lights. Each step add to the refinement of the space, adding and adjusting details to create the desired effect. The images below show the earlier figure in varying stages on the road to completion.

And as mentioned previously, I didn't make up the small stuff. For example the screen, keyboard, lamps, chairs and pillars are based on real life objects (as are their textures).

Not Only 3D

Even though modern level design (at least when it comes to shooters) is all about 3D, it's important to remember that 3D space would be next to useless if it wasn't for certain 2D elements put into the 3D space: textures. Plainly put, textures are the thing that either make or break a level. Also, with clever usage of textures it's possible to hide or fix mistakes in the geometry, add a good sense of scale and most of all define the level of realism that the space has; having the textures in the same scale fortifies the consistency achieved with the modular approach to the geometry. The worst mistake you can make is use clearly different resolution textures next to each other -- not only will that break believability but also looks plain ugly.

Basically it's best to try texturing the level once you have the basic modeling done. At this stage it's still relatively easy to change or fix things within the space without much extra trouble.
But textures are not just about scale or detail, the important fact often overlooked by artists is harmony; you frequently find 3D environments that have solid geometry and lighting but the textures just don't seem to fit. I'm not talking about single textures or single features in those textures, but the textures that are just too different from each other either due to poor use of color and color combinations or simply because of too much saturation in them. If you strive for realism, once again, take a look at your surroundings -- if you haven't hired a bad interior decorator, what you see should have certain harmony of color and texture, a certain balance. This is largely due to light reflecting from surfaces and taking with the color-value of the surface: different color objects 'color' each other because of the reflected light.

Compare the images below: in the first one the surfaces don't reflect their color in the second one they do. See the difference and the added harmony?


Need is the usual factor that determines size and scale -- if you're working on futuristic alien locations, it's of less importance to have the structures in scale with each other or in any sensible scale in general (making the ceiling 100 meters high can work as well as making it 5 meters high -- who is to say what an alien location looks like?). Since I am working on realistic environments, the sizes of things and consistency of scale is very much important; people seldom think about the fact that making levels for a first person shooter needs different scale than making levels for a third person shooter - in a TPS the player and the camera need more space than in an FPS, thus bigger extensions and bigger spaces (Compare: Figure 3 has real life scale while figure 4 is what we used in Max).

As I'm not only into realistic geometry, but also into third person POV, the needs may be a bit different than what people are used to.

In an FPS realistic room sizes would be pretty much what they are in real life, in a TPS they're closer to double that of real life. If your average bedroom is 4x5 meters and 2.5 meters high, in a TPS the size would be 8x10 meters and the height 4 meters; the great thing about larger sizes is that the characters are easier to control and the spaces don't even feel too big!

But what about furniture? If the room is 150-200 percent of realistic size, surely the pieces of furniture need to be large as well? Not exactly. The best approach really is to make the furniture close to real life scale as the characters in the game are as well of real size -- making the furniture larger would result in the characters looking like children and that's definitely something you should avoid. Please note I'm not saying you shouldn't scale the furniture, but rather than the effect should be kept to a bare minimum; making the pieces 10-20 percent larger than what's realistic still results in close enough real size tables, chairs, couches etc., but it also ensures the rooms don't look overly large. Its also important to remember the spacing between the pieces -- even if they are about real life size, the space between doesn't need to be, go with whatever still looks good and makes the movement of the characters easier.

A good rule of thumb for all this is to make things the player gets near closer to the their real life size. Objects further away can be too large, as it often makes the space look of more realistically sized. Another pointer to keep in mind is a thing they teach people studying architecture: one centimeter on the floor is ten on the wall is a meter in the ceiling - as your gaze is usually downward, you tend notice small things on the ground more easily than larger ones in the ceiling.

Lights, Action!

I don't need to emphasize the importance of lighting in the level. If you have none the environments are either pitch black or full bright, either way the end result isn't very pretty. At the first glance lights in an environment can seem to be put in quite arbitrarily. On closer examination this however isn't the case. The best way to put lights into a realistic environment is to put them as they are in real life -- paying attention to your surroundings and how they're lit provide a good start to lighting a level.

Getting the basics done is very easy, however getting into details isn't. This may be a reason why several people make a living out of putting lights about other people's apartments. A good approach here is to imitate real life and to do the lights in cycles with all the rest of the stuff, refining and tweaking positions and values each pass, adding detail.

Looking at early images of the lobby, you can clearly see both the first two passes had basically only temporary light (sans the table light) while in the second to last version I have added the small-wall mounted lamps as well as slight bluish light coming from the window. In final version I have further added a large ceiling lamp, as well as the reddish exit-sign, the three round lights on top of the drawers and the bluish light coming from the computer screen. Even more lights could be added but I feel any more would make the environment look too chaotic as well as harder to control. Usually it's good to stick to one larger light source in a room and bring out the detail with smaller, slightly colored lights.

Final Round

Now you should have the geometry, textures and lights in place - do you still need more? Short answer: no, long answer: yes. We need more. We need to get the rest of the levels to the same point and only then deliver the final blow (or blows) to them. This is quite important because you need to see how levels compare to each other. Several people may have been involved in making the levels and thus, even with similar working methods, they're bound to look somewhat different from each other; all the planning and concept art doesn't seem to ease this problem, so you still need to tweak things.

With Max Payne we did it so that one person was appointed the task to check all the levels through and write down which areas need work --more detail (room geometry, objects, textures or interactivity), better textures or improved lighting. Even though this may sound like a lot of work, it's far less than the hassle you'd get trying to leave the task to all the different level designers. Going through 20-odd levels actually doesn't take much more than one normal work day, making the tweaks and changes does, however, take several weeks, if not months; time spent here will truly pay off.


You may still have a hard time starting and finishing a level. What I would recommend is to gather around enough reference material for your project, be it photos, drawings, written descriptions, movies or TV-series, one thing is sure, you can never have too much of it. Good source for such material is obviously nowadays the internet -- of more traditional media I would recommend magazines and books about interior decoration, antiques, furniture and architecture. Being creative is important.


How was it you should go about? Good planning (written, drawn), modularity, scale (objects and textures), real life reference (geometry, objects, textures, lighting) and the final touch of making everything look like part of the same world. The process takes time, but with the methods talked about above, the task should be much easier than before.

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