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Opinion: Classic Problems With Level Design

In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Sanzaru Games' Jason Weesner outlines the classic problems that level designers face, like planning stages before important features are in place, block mesh issues,
[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Sanzaru Games' Jason Weesner outlines the classic problems that level designers face, like planning stages before important features are in place, block mesh issues, and more.] As glamorous and fun as it can often be, level design is perhaps the most difficult design job in the video game industry. Despite the collective experience of any level team, the industry is still dealing with some pretty typical production problems: Time Is A Constant Enemy Level design is incredibly time consuming. It’s one of the few aspects of design that spans the entire development process from early prototyping to closing out final bugs! Time is an enemy to both design and art. Design is under pressure to rapidly create playable block mesh that can be handed off to art as soon as possible. However, depending on the maturity of the technology, a lot of early block mesh / prototype time may be spent actually getting the tools to work rather than producing production-ready work. The timeliness of handing off block mesh is all dependent on the level of visual fidelity the game is aiming for. Art has a limited amount of time to reach that target and needs the level design to be final since changes become more expensive the further along the environment art gets. The Game Is Missing Important Gameplay Features  Most level designs start well before gameplay mechanics are available to populate them. This leads to rework (a very painful process once level art has already begun) or mechanics being shoehorned into areas where they don’t work very well. In most cases, gameplay mechanics work best in a block mesh environment. If a mechanic is added, removed, or modified, it directly impacts art due to the fact that the environment artist may already be working on an area that’s still going through design iterations in relation to a given mechanic or feature. Block Mesh Can Be Vague And Too Rigid Well thought out level themes and stacks of concept art can’t always clarify the unruly, abstract appearance of block mesh. Artists have to take this tangle of collision primitives, proxies, and trigger volumes and make something beautiful and cohesive out of them! Artists will generally want the freedom to push and pull these spaces. However, a good block mesh is really the best representation of the collision that works for the gameplay, so many of these spaces can’t be changed too radically. This is further compounded by distances necessary for gameplay pacing as well as allowances for the movement of the game camera. The camera I’m currently dealing with requires a 5 meter distance away from the wall to allow for the gimbal to freely move around the character. This directly affects the scale of any area the player can get into: rooms, hallways, platforms, pits, elevators, etc. Block Mesh Can Be Hard To Ground Early platformers like Mario and Sonic had floating platforms (both static and moving) all over the place. The level designers on these games weren’t insane, they were staying true to the established conventions of the genre while dealing with the restrictions of the hardware: screen resolution, memory, level size, etc. Video games have come a long way since those days in relation to graphics, sound, and control, but designers and artists butt heads over traditional gameplay elements that are still fun, but difficult for the artist to ground. Floating platforms need to be attached to something. Moving platforms need to fit into a mechanism that defines their movement. All of these grounding elements require polygons, textures, and real estate, so there is seldom a case where a designer can just throw something in a level to improve the gameplay and not impact the artist. Be Prepared To Throw Away A Lot Of Work Most level designs go through at least two major revisions (or more) before a final layout is agreed upon. In the process of reaching agreement, some or all of a layout may be completely reworked to adjust to changing requirements based on gameplay or production considerations. Unfortunately for art, they may have to spend a considerable amount of time creating assets for the “bad” layout and then have to scrap week’s worth of work to make adjustments for the “good” layout! There's Just Too Much To Do Compared to other aspects of design, level design goes through the most varied forms of iteration: block mesh, player-metrics, gameplay mechanics, player path, item population, enemy population, combat design, gameplay progression, tutorial placement, alternate paths, event planning, collision refinement, art refinement, and quality assurance testing just to name a few. Some of these iteration passes happen exclusively while others have to happen at the same time. Good level design is a mix of architectural successes / failures based on imagination, a ton of iterations, and access to the right tools and features at an early stage. Level designers needs to be cognizant of the fact that level artists want to make the game look beautiful while maintaining all this wonderful gameplay. Level artists need to be given the time to embrace compromise without falling into the trap of being over-scheduled. So, what can be done about any of this? At the risk of sounding like a know-it-all, I have a few thoughts… Project managers need to look at level design as a process that occurs over the lifetime of a project and not just a few weeks at the start of a level kickoff. The rush to get block mesh into art should be tempered by the availability of the gameplay mechanics necessary to populate it. If the level is not playable in something close to an alpha form, don’t hand the entire thing off to environment artists! Level design is not an all or nothing situation; hand off the parts that are playable. The workflow between level designers and environmental artists needs to run more in parallel. While designers are working on block mesh, artists should be working on conceptual forms of the environment in order to test out composition and scale. Perhaps some companies already do this, but the majority still seem to fall back on the traditional model of creating concept art, waiting for block mesh hand off, and then straining the process by trying to mold the block mesh into the concept art. Having all three of these processes run in parallel seems like a far more sane solution with collaboration between departments happening at a much earlier stage! [This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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