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Level Design in a Day: Your Questions, Answered

In the run-up to the popular GDC session -- which runs on Tuesday, March 26 -- Gamasutra collected questions from its community, which many of the participants answer here in roundtable format, including level designers from Epic, Bethesda, and Visceral Games.

For the past five years, the Level Design in a Day crew has gathered in the hallowed halls of the Game Developers Conference to discuss all things level design. This year, the fine folks at Gamasutra offered us an awesome opportunity to interface with a much broader audience than the few hundred folks that usually attend the session by doing a Q&A with the game development community at large.

To that end, we've brought together a panel of esteemed Level Design experts, hand-picked from the roster of this year's AAA Level Design in a Day Bootcamp -- which runs all day on Tuesday, March 26. They've agreed to answer the Gamasutra community's questions in the form of this roundtable feature.

  • Neil Alphonso: Lead Designer - Splash Damage
  • Jim Brown: Lead Level Designer - Epic Games
  • Joel Burgess: Senior Designer - Bethesda Game Studios
  • Steve Gaynor: Co-Founder - The Fullbright Company
  • Seth Marinello: Level Designer - EA / Visceral Games
  • (Editor) Coray Seifert: Vice President, Product Development - Slingo

While many of these questions are specifically focused on the craft of level design, there are a number of great quandaries that delve into broader production concerns, tools development, and engine limitations.

I always say that level design is applied game design. It is both a hyper-specialized craft and a broader study of the intersection of technology, mechanics and largely intangible fun. Thus, there are some great learnings in this feature -- and in our GDC tutorial offerings -- no matter what game development discipline you may come from.

Our first question comes from Bloomfield College Game Design student Roger Rosa:

1. What are common mistakes or key things level designers look for after the first pass of a level is finished? What are some common flaws in level design that tend to be overlooked?

Jim Brown - The two main things I tend to look out for are sloppiness and poor assumptions on the part of the LD. The vast majority of bugs in scripting, cover, collision, and general level design happen because someone gets complacent or rushes through the "boring" parts of design. If you have good attention to detail and treat every aspect of the level as important, then you'll be much better off (faster, cleaner, easier) in the long run.

Secondly, LDs sometimes build a level assuming that the player will proceed through it in the same manner that the LD who built it will get through it. Just because you've played it 500 times doesn't mean the end user has, and they will be facing backwards at the wrong moment, hit triggers out of order, go the wrong way, and break your level in every way imaginable. First pass maps tend to be very "golden path" and quickly fall apart when the systems are stressed. Aside from that, we sometimes just need to "get things working" so first pass maps do just that... and then need massive optimizations in performance, memory, pacing, and difficulty.

Steve Gaynor - For me, the first pass is layout and flow, the second pass is lighting and visibility. Knowing the shape, size, and connectivity of spaces is a good first step, but as soon after this as possible, you need to start playing through like a player would and think, "When I enter this space, how do I know where to go? How do I know where enemies might be coming from? How do I orient myself if I get turned around and lose my way?"

The two biggest aspects of these issues are sightlines and lighting. You have to determine what the player can see from each point in the level, and what is occluded. For instance, if you enter a space and you can see two doors on the far wall, is one more important than the other? Is the player supposed to enter one first? Maybe set up a sight blocker so they only see one door first, and can't see the second one until they've reached the first one, and so in all likelihood will go in there first instead of skipping it. Can I see entrances, egresses, and important objects?

If the lighting is too even, nothing is prioritized. Look at how you can throw spotlights and shadows around to highlight important things, so the player can get a lay of the land on first glance. Once you have the flow laid out, and a good idea of what the player's visual understanding of the major concepts in the spaces will be, you're in a good position to move on to smaller nuts-and-bolts aspects of placing incidentals in each room.

Seth Marinello - Once I have a white box layout of the level complete, one of the first things I will do is review the room sizes and sightlines in order to plan out our visibility strategy. Since the environments we create for Dead Space are so high-detail, it is very important we get a handle on how the space can be divided for performance at an early stage. One of the worst things that can happen is having to slice a room in half after months of trying force an over-complex space through the GPU.

As to overlooked problems, I find pacing can be hard to read early in development. Without dialog and scripted moments, a level can feel empty and the feedback tends to add more combat, resulting in pacing problems once the rest of the content comes online. It is important to be aware of this and schedule polish time to address these issues.

Our second question comes from Twitter user @Skizomeuh:

2. Why are there so few hub-oriented games (in terms of level design) nowadays? I'm thinking of games like Metroid Prime or Hexen.

Neil Alphonso - The short answer is that hub-based level design has essentially been eaten by open worlds. Advances in streaming technology and improved art creation pipelines have meant that many of the constraints that originally put the "level" in "level design" are dissolving away, allowing for more seamless experiences. A perfect example of this is the evolution from Rocksteady's Arkham Asylum, which is hub-based, to the streaming, open world model of Arkham City. Many of the principles of hub-based level design still apply, but ultimately not as much backtracking is required.

level_arkhamcity.jpg

Steve Gaynor - The answers to this come on all different axes -- it can be harder technically to allow for more open, free-flowing spaces (based on view distance, level streaming tech, and so forth). There are also many more variables from a design perspective, since you have to consider "What if the player comes into this space from the east instead of north? What happens if they backtrack after clearing the next area? How do I direct them to their next goal when the space is an open hub instead of a hallway?"

The benefits of hub-based level design are clear -- much more player-directed exploration, a more "real-feeling" world, and the advantages of content reuse since you can change the state of an area when the player revisits it, instead of having to build more square footage. But it takes a few specific kinds of investment to pull it off.

Joel Burgess - I think the main reason may just be that hubs are tough to pull off well. Revisiting a hub can get stale fast -- you may end up spending a great deal of time implementing state changes and otherwise having the hub evolve and react to player actions. That work can end up overwhelming any savings you may have gained by reusing the same layout. We ran into this with both the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary in Skyrim and Mothership Zeta in Fallout 3, for example.

For what it's worth, one current-gen, hub-based game that I think is unsung is Splinter Cell: Double Agent. This game also solves a sticky problem of crafting a hub which accommodates gameplay as well as being a convincing living space for NPCs.


Our next question is from @DCharlieJP in Tokyo, Japan:

3. How aware are level designers of the limitation of the game engine? How is this factored in and/or communicated in the design process?

Steve Gaynor - Oh, very aware. The technical constraints of the engine define everything you can do as a level designer.

How it's factored in depends a lot on what state the tech is in -- if you're working with a stable, established engine, your constraints can be much more clear and top-down from the beginning; if the tech is still being assembled while the game is being designed, the dialogue between programming and design is more fluid, but can also be more uncertain and frustrating, if you don't know exactly what your constraints are.

But on some level, part of your job as an LD in this case is to help push the limits of the tech, and discover what it's capable of as well as what you would LIKE it to be capable of, in order to help figure out what the constraints will end up being when the engine does stabilize.

Jim Brown - If LDs aren't fully aware of their engine's capabilities, the project is at an extreme disadvantage. The last bit of polish at the end of any project is usually the most difficult -- and that's always expected -- but a lack of understanding that leads to building something entirely out of scope (or otherwise causes major redesigns) is unacceptable and wasteful; it can kill budgets, schedules, and careers.

You have to build within the framework of what your team and engine are capable of producing, and you have to keep those goals in mind even when prototyping. And of course, you have to ensure that project goals are aligned across the entire team.

With Gears, for example, we were just starting in on UE3, so we knew up front that we wanted advanced shaders and high-poly characters. As a group we agreed on a third person camera and close "intimate" combat distances to highlight those engine features. That obviously influenced design across the board, and had to be kept in mind at all times as it affected the number of enemies on screen, scale of architecture, and encounter scripting in big ways.

Neil Alphonso - Level designers need to be as familiar with the inner workings of their game engine as they can be, but the pace of technological change can make this very difficult! In the end, this is a responsibility that needs to be shared throughout the team; the tech leads need to provide guidelines for level and asset creation, the level designers need to provide a layout that can marry this with the environmental visual fidelity targets for the game, and the artists need to push as much quality as they can within that and still hit framerate goals.

Tools have made this somewhat easier in modern development, as automated processes can flag any problematic areas before it gets too painful to change them. Anything mechanically risky really needs to be addressed in a prototype well before production, because unless it is or becomes something that is used game-wide, the chances of development resources being dedicated to it for such isolated use are significantly lessened.

The next question comes from games industry veteran and Kabam General Manager, Mike Sellers:

4. Tools and Metrics: How do you know how players like the level, aren't getting lost, frustrated, etc? There are some good solutions for this but they're also unknown for a lot of people (even pros).

Joel Burgess - As early and as often as possible, get people in front of the level and watch them play it. Don't wait for the level to be polished or for your publisher/producer/whomever to arrange a playtest session. Grab somebody and sit them down with as little setup or guidance as possible. Encourage them to vocalize as they play. Then: Shut up. Don't interrupt, don't help, don't correct. Ignore direct questions unless absolutely necessary.

The unfiltered feedback you get from players will always be the best guiding light, and will often help you win internal arguments you had already been having.

Jim Brown - The simplest answer is to watch and pay attention. And while that sounds obvious, it's probably the most overlooked. It's not uncommon for designers to get too attached to their work. If you're too involved or too invested, you tend to lose sight of the bigger picture. A few years ago in my LDIAD talk I mentioned that the designer's job is to "be an advocate for the player" -- you can't just build things that you like, or lose sight of what the player's role is in experiencing your game. You're building for them, not yourself!

That said, usability testing, focus groups, heat maps, stat tracking, and any other number of analytical tools are incredibly useful and should be employed whenever possible. It's also well worth the time to read up on some basic psychology. The human brain is a crazy thing, and doesn't always work the way you would assume. Watch as other people play through your work, and keep an open mind. Getting into the head of the average gamer will make you a better designer.

Neil Alphonso - The lowest-cost method is simply watching somebody play, and diligently taking notes! Many studios even now use biometric data to help mine more useful information out of these sorts of tests. Tools for tracking metrics on a large scale have improved significantly over the years however, and can provide much more clinical information when a big enough audience sample size is provided. Valve's changes to Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 that have been based on Steam metrics have shown that with enough actionable information, frustration points (or "shelf moments") can be lessened significantly.


For our next question, @Jeremy_LaMont asks:

5. How do you change your approach when you want a player to PAY ATTENTION or GO HERE DIRECTLY versus "It's okay to wander around"?

Steve Gaynor - I definitely tend toward allowing as much "it's okay to wander around" time as possible. But if you really, truly need to direct the player to one specific point (for tutorialization or whatever) it's all about generating focus.

This is what a lot of my talk on "Narrative Techniques for Storytelling in Level Design" is going to be about at the LDIAD tutorial at GDC this year. There are a number of best practices: Use spotlighting and silhouetting to highlight important objects, remove any extraneous interactive objects from the surrounding area, arrange the player's path so they walk head-on into the important part of the scene, and many others.

You basically want the important stuff front-and-center and clearly visible, so the player will be aware of it and engage with it willingly, instead of being "forced" to do so by the designer.

Joel Burgess - There are many ways you can communicate urgency cues subtly, like choosing appropriate music, incorporating funneling elements into your layout or minimizing elements that may distract the player. Sometimes it's not enough.

Level designers everywhere understand the discomfort of watching players examine a light fixture while a lovingly scripted scene plays out a few feet off-screen.

The first thing to do in these situations is to determine whether you should actually do anything at all. Timers, UI prompts, cutscenes and other devices can help direct attention, but know the difference between a player that needs guidance and one that simply cares more about that cool light fixture. Being lost and confused as a player can be frustrating, but heavy-handed level design is always frustrating.

Neil Alphonso - My main tool for this is density, which can take many forms: it can be density of objects, density of movement, or density of interactivity, and that's just to name a few! I find it a good way to subtly tell a player that they're in an "important" place. But this method is used to maintain a decidedly indirect method of directing a player; how heavy-handed you can be with directing the player is more down to the game or creative direction of the entire game, rather than how it is handled in a given level. It's why essential events are often conveyed during cinematics or with UI.

If you give the player the chance to miss what you deem as critical information, chances are that many of them will indeed miss it! This isn't because players are unobservant, but more because you never know what distractions a given player might have when they're playing the game.

Our next question is from Full Sail graduate @MrDonaldYoung:

6. How often should you create situations for the player to go off the golden path, and is it worth the extra resources to do so?

Steve Gaynor - It's absolutely worth it. The soul of games is interactivity, and interactivity means that no two players are going to have precisely the same play experience. The more variance you can add between two players' experience of your game, the more of a personal connection they'll feel -- "I decided to go here, I decided to explore this extra space, I found something that other people didn't."

Having as minor a crit path as possible, and as much optional space as possible, gives the player much more to dig into and think about and own for themselves. If you think of the production cost of non-crit path space in terms of "look how much content we're building that the player might never see!" you can easily talk yourself into making everything mandatory, every player's experience the same, so no one "misses" anything. But if you think of the inherent, intangible value of the feelings of self-direction, investment, exploration and discovery that optional spaces provide the player, the overall experience is improved much more than you can easily quantify on a spreadsheet.

Joel Burgess - My personal preference is to include non-essential content whenever possible. This rewards players who explore, but it also helps make the world feel less artificially focused on the player and her story. Luckily for me, about 90 percent of any Bethesda game is off the golden path, so we're used to spending resources on non-essential content. That's part of the feel of our games, though; your situation may vary.

level_deadspace.jpg

Seth Marinello - The basic answer is as often as possible. The more opportunities for players to have a unique experience, to feel like they found something special, the more important the game will be to them.

When laying out a level for Dead Space I try to include two kinds of optional content -- "treasure pockets" and "beta rooms." The first is simply a reward for exploring; if I have a long hallway, for example, and the alpha flow only takes the player halfway down it, there should be something interesting at the far end, even if it is a pickup. By rewarding pushing the boundaries of the space, you can turn a dead end into a discovery.

Beta rooms are exactly what they sound like, a space that is both unique and separate from the alpha path of the level. I try to make these rooms build out the world more, make it feel inhabited -- this is why I tend to build in human spaces like quarters, bathrooms, and laundry facilities to our sci-fi levels.

Our next question comes from video games journalist and translator @andymonza:

7. Replay value vs. cinematic sequences (usually from heavy scripting). Is it truly possible to make the two coexist in the same experience?

Jim Brown - Absolutely -- but it means that the designers have to give up on a bit of their control (which is not necessarily a bad thing!) and you have to have reliable systems (flexible scripting, strong AI, smart world building, etc.) in place to keep the experience fresh. Gears of War: Judgment uses S3 (Smart Spawn System) to randomize enemies and change spawn locations in every encounter, Left4Dead uses the Director to control pacing, Skyrim has a matrix of possibilities that avoids repetition in world encounters -- and these are just a few examples. Each of those titles still makes use of cinematics and scripted sequences, albeit less frequently than other titles.

In my personal opinion, this is an incredibly great thing as it puts the control back in the hands of the player, and allows them to make the game story more uniquely their own. Even The Walking Dead has a heavy use of cinematics paired with high replay value because they don't tie their players down to one single path that must be adhered to.

Neil Alphonso - If the cinematics are skippable, then yes!

The key issue is that cinematic content isn't flexible, because it borrows so heavily from what is a passive form of media. The mechanics of what makes film work and what makes games work are fundamentally different, and trying to marry them at a base level often ends in tears. As replay value most often comes from mechanical depth and variety, this can truly be an odd coupling!

So is it possible? Yes, but in a traditional triple-A sense this is a hard battle to justify fighting. But sometimes, traditions are made to be broken!

Seth Marinello - Cinematics are an important part of most narrative-driven games still, but they are inherently counter to the idea of flexible gameplay solutions. Some studios have invested in creating branching cinematic moments to try and maintain a sense of agency but this tends to be expensive and not always successful. As designers and storytellers I think this energy is better focused on finding ways to convey the same information in a more player-driven manner, and when that is impossible to use cinematics as a bridge between gameplay moments. Whenever we can, we try to make scripted moments be in response to some event outside of the protagonist's control. That way we don't have the character making decisions without the player's input.


Kyttaro Games' @gnomeslair asks:

8. How do you reuse similar elements for vastly different gameplay results?

Joel Burgess - With games as big as Skyrim and Fallout 3, it's very important that we're able to make effective use (and re-use) of every element at our disposal. This is a big part of the topic I'll be covering during our LDiaD session at GDC, in fact.

One good thing to do is to try and erase any preconceived notions of how elements should be used. Resist the temptation to strongly associate a specific setting type with a specific encounter or gameplay type. The more that you enable yourself to mix and match these elements, the more potential variety exists for you to discover.

By setting this expectation internally, you also encourage yourself and the team to think in more open terms about how you'll implement various mechanics, art assets, and the like. This means your feature set will (hopefully) be more robust and bug-proof overall.

Seth Marinello - From a gameplay standpoint, creating patterns that the player will understand and then dressing those in different guises is key to delivering a fun experience. You need to create tasks which the player can master, and then ramp them to provide further challenge -- Portal is a textbook example of this kind of design. As others have mentioned, this is a topic that we will cover in more depth at this year's LDiaD session.

Jim Brown - This has definitely gotten easier as technology has improved. Higher resolution textures and better materials mean we can scale, rotate, and reuse models in different ways without them looking too similar. Higher poly models and improved rendering means we can add more detail to different areas of the models, and then light them differently to vary how they appear.

Ultimately, however, I think the best way to get good results here is to have an understanding of real world architecture and psychology -- if something looks "real" or appears "normal" people will subconsciously accept much more than you'd think. There's a certain amount (and style) of repetition that happens in nature, and a general look to shapes and structures that the brain will accept without too much filtering. For the LD, putting together a level with limited resources becomes a fun puzzle, or game of its own.

Our penultimate question comes from pro gamer and game producer Kal Shah:

9. What things can a producer do to make the job of a level designer easier and improve the process as a whole?

Steve Gaynor - The biggest benefit of production is making sure that no one is blocked from doing the most valuable work they could be doing right now. The kinds of things that block designers are: Not having a space built that they need to put gameplay into; not having art assets that their level will be based around; not having mechanics in place that are required to make their level playable. So having open communication between design, production, and the other departments to be able to say, "I need to be implementing the first pass of the shotgun fight, but the shotgun enemies aren't functional yet," or, "I need to build gameplay around the crashed helicopter, but I don't know what its dimensions are" will help other departments prioritize their work.

But aside from just giving other people work, it can be even more useful for production to facilitate ways for level designers to unblock themselves -- for instance, providing a Maya license and a brief tutorial with an environment artist, so that an LD can model a temp mesh while they wait for the real one; or working with programming to get script actions so that the LD can prototype new functionality through scripting instead of waiting for completed code. Helping designers communicate better with other departments, but also be more self-sufficient, will improve productivity and reduce blockers.

Seth Marinello - There are two major ways a producer can aid the level design process. The first is as an interface between groups - as a level goes from white box to final, lots of content needs to be integrated and tracking the progress of each component can take a lot of time. If there is a producer there than can do that legwork and ensure progress is getting made on the key assets the designer is free to iterate on gameplay and performance scripting. The second is as an external sounding board for design. It is easy to get too close to a design and lose sight of what the experience will be like for an end-user, a producer can help catch issues BEFORE your work goes through the focus test wringer.

Neil Alphonso -- Levels are the final destination for a lot of development work; an often-used phrase is that levels are "where the rubber hits the road." Because of this, the most critical thing a producer can do to help the level design process is to ensure timely delivery of the components that make up the level designer's work. It's also important to provide interim deliverables whenever possible, as this helps the level designer to more quickly adapt the level to the evolving content. This can be particularly tricky with art assets, as artists can be notorious for not submitting something that is "unfinished." Ensuring that the pipeline includes many phases of integration as art content is being made ends up being hugely effective risk mitigation for unforeseen complications hampering a well-playing level.

Our final question comes from Ubisoft level designer Myles Kerwin, via the LevelDesign in a Day Facebook Group.

10. I'd like to hear about how Level Design has evolved over the past decade, and how you think it will change in the years to come.

Jim Brown - I think that level design -- in the classic sense -- is an endangered craft. The concept of level design first came into being with the advent of online gaming. People could make self-contained levels that they worked on from beginning to end. We made our own textures, did our own programming, scripting, design, lighting, pathing... everything! More recently, companies have separated that work out among many specific talents: lighting specialists, tech artists, scripters, gameplay designers, usability experts, and everything in between.

As such, LDs became micro-specialists who were very good at one piece of the puzzle. Moving forward, it will be harder and harder to identify what a "level" is as the lines get blurred. There are so many systems involved now that you have to understand how they all work together. I bet we'll not only go back to being generalists, but actually expand our skill sets into general game design - levels, creatures, weapons, combat, visuals, scripting, performance, usability and anything involved in crafting an "experience" rather than just a "level."

Seth Marinello - In the last decade the biggest fundamental change in the level design workflow has been moving away from brushes to static meshes. From Quake 1 all the way through the early Source games the level designer was also the environment artist. Since then we have moved a lot of the work out of our editors and into 3D modeling programs like Maya. This has vastly improved the visual quality of the games we can make, but at the same time drastically changed the role of a level designer in the process. Now, we are not just creators but also integrators and collaborations with whole teams supporting the vision of a level. In the last few years I have seen a lot of games succeed with more open environments; I hope over the coming years we see level design focus on enabling experimentation over following a script.

Joel Burgess - When I first got interested in level design, it was very much a one-man operation. Early mappers would create every aspect of their levels, from layout to lighting to scripting. Just a few years later, as I got into the industry, that was already changing. New-at-that-time consoles like the PS2 and Xbox demanded higher visual fidelity, and dev tools were more robust and complex to use than before. Level design became a more distributed process, often involving 2 or 3 people in more specialized roles.

This may seem like a bleak prospect for those who are uninterested in heavy specialization. While I have known designers who prefer to focus on scripting or layout exclusively, I personally enjoy dabbling in all aspects of game dev, and have historically found that well-rounded LDs thrive at bringing together disparate elements as great gameplay. Specializing runs somewhat counter to cultivating this kind of LD.

I think we're at an exciting cusp for games and level design right now, though. While the upper end of fidelity continues to rise, there's more room than ever for games of all types and scale. This is great news for level designers, because no matter what unique combination of skills and interests you may have, there's a game out there for which you're the perfect LD.

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