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Level Design Iteration. Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Peer Review

Drinkbox Studios' Jason Canam tells a tale of the perils of letting your ego get overly wrapped up in your level designs, and to become comfortable with criticisms and feedback.

As is true with most aspects of game development, level design requires a team effort. You can't expect to simply create, integrate and walk away (you're not getting off that easy!). You may be the "Level Designer", but you're not in this alone (as much as you may like/hope to be). First, you'll create your masterpiece... But what then?

Prepare yourself for an existential journey through which you will emerge a much more enlightened designer. Dark times lie ahead, but we'll make it through this together, and we'll be all the better for it.

Let's travel into the near future. You've conceived a brilliant idea for a level. You've properly leveraged the game's mechanics to create new and clever challenges for the player to experience and overcome. You've built a fine level. About now, if you're anything like me, you'll be thinking to myself: "Wow, I've sure done it this time! This might be the greatest level anyone has ever created!".

Which, of course, means that from this particular high-point, the only way to go... is down.

Strap yourself in! It's time to show off. It's time to rub it in. It's time for...

The Peer Review

Ahhhh, the peer review. All the tension of presenting a creative piece of work combined with the joy of being openly criticized! Truly an amazing thing!

But you're not worried, you're not worried at all. You're about to show them the greatest level ever conceived. The only worry in your mind is that you'll make your peers feel insignificant by comparison. Since you're not a bad person, this will weigh heavily on you. You'll cheerfully invite your co-workers to come take a look. You've been waiting for this moment all day. You're even pre-blushing. You're picturing the ticker tape parade in your mind. Nothing could go wrong...

Things will go wrong. Things will go very wrong, very quickly.

And things won't stop here. This won't stop after one review. No... You've now entered the Peer Review Cycle. Welcome to flavor country.

The three R's: Review, Resent, Rebuild

While caught up in the peer review cycle, the first thing you'll notice is that it is seemingly never-ending. It is truly a torturous downward spiral. Everything you make will continue to be scrutinized, ridiculed and torn apart before your very eyes. Revision after revision, you'll feel the despair of never quite accomplishing what you set out to create. All of your clever tricks, versatile rooms and brilliant set-ups will fall apart. Everything you'd thought you'd done right will be on display as the hackneyed mess that it really is.

Your immediate reaction will be one of resentment. You'll instantly begin to wonder "how are they not getting this?", "Why are they playing it wrong?!". But you'll quickly catch yourself, because you know, deep down, that you don't actually think that. You know better... You know that you've done wrong. The idea of someone "playing the game wrong" doesn't exist in your mind!

So, what are you going to do about it? Well, you move on and do the only thing you can do. You will rebuild it. Better than before. You know deep down that this level is nothing more than a mighty Phoenix, and it will rise from the ashes! Hopefully you've taken notes and have taken the time to understand the how's and the why's that failed in your level. If not, then you need to swallow your pride and go ask again for that valuable, essential, important, painful and embarrassing feedback. You're going to need it.

So, now you know what went wrong, right? Good. Now to fix it. I mean, you created something so awesome before... How hard can it be to do it again? What's that... you already used your best ideas last time? Come off it! They haven't seen anything yet! Sure, you'll be stumped for a while. You may even begin to have panic attacks. Surely, the best levels of your life can't be behind you... Can they?

But you'll be in luck, because inspiration will strike. And it will strike hard. Suddenly, you're on top of the world again. You'll look back at your former self and think: "What an amateur!". You'll create and you'll build. And before you will be the true greatest level anyone has ever created. You'll head back into peer review ready to show them what's what!

Peer Review: Round 2

...And they'll hate it. You'll once again be completely unprepared for the backlash, even though it isn't quite as harsh as last time. It will rock you like a Scorpions song (I don't remember which one, Big City Nights maybe?). At this point, you'll quickly find yourself back at resentment (it is a cycle, after all). This early into the process (what are we on, cycle 2? Not even close to being done, yet), you'll probably fail to realize that the feedback wasn't as bad and that overall, things are improving. By now, you're likely drinking yourself stupid and are losing parts of your short-term memory.

You'll take this newly obtained feedback and you'll rebuild. Did you remember to take notes this time? Really? Get back there and ask for a list of everything they hated about YOU (because by now you know, without a doubt, that things are personal). Now take that list of personal attacks and create something truly great! Just don't let them see you cry. It'll be tough, but just concentrate on getting back to your desk and work through those tears.

After 4 or 5 more cycles, you'll emerge a better person. The emotional journey you've been on has been nothing short of transcendent. You have almost evolved into a greater life form. Oh, and you'll have finished creating a pretty cool level, too.

Now that you can look back on this experience and laugh (or cry), you'll finally come to understand that after all the turmoil and all the pain, that the level was getting noticeably better with each iteration. The system works! Your peers' comments, critiques and suggestions (read: personal attacks) were not only important, they were instrumental in the creation of the level. You'll realize that you couldn't have done it without them. This realization will actually hit you hardest. You'll now know that there is no escaping the dreaded peer review. The next level you create, and the one after that, and the next... They will ALL be subjected to "the review".

Scary isn't it? It's not so bad. You've learned a lot. You've come so far. You've grown.

Hopefully, you'll keep all of this in mind during your next peer review.

I sure don't.

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