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QuakeCon: The Aesthetics Of Level Design

At QuakeCon, a panel of experts from id Software, Splash Damage, Bethesda and Respawn Entertainment discussed the ways they've personally seen level design evolving over the years -- calling it "the biggest change" in the last decade.
Level design has evolved quite a bit over the years. At QuakeCon in Dallas this week, a Gamasutra-attended panel of expert designers discussed a decade of changes in development and design, from a mostly first-person perspective. "How it's changed over the last 10 years? I can tell you how it's changed over the last week," began Matt Hooper, design director at id Software. Things move really quickly, he said. "We started with this passion mentality, a hobby, the garage band: they love it, and that feeds to the next thing." In the old days, recalls id's Hooper, a level designer handled everything from music to aesthetics to gameplay. "You had so much creative control. Now, it's so specialized -- I think that's the biggest difference. I think that's the biggest change in the last ten years." "I think the game industry is like the movie business," says Todd Alderman, from the newly-formed studio Respawn Entertainment. In the early days of the industry, says Alderman, you could do everything in a leve by yourself -- but now making games requires those who can concentrate on just one aspect. "You're going to need more people to specialize in these areas." And you'll need those specialists in every area of level design, he says. "Now the challenge is making something that's cohesive and cool." "It's not necessary to build from the ground up," says Bethesda's Joel Burgess. "For us, it's more about choosing the risks that we want to tackle." Middleware and tools help mitigate those risks, he adds. Splash Damage's Neil Alphonso agrees, saying their tools programmer takes good care of them, and that the studio has a "top-down approach to tools." "We're pretty new... but generally, starting over from scratch is the last thing you want to do," says Respawn's Alderman. "You want to keep building and keep building on the things you do." Great tools are a great asset; "it's all about everyone being involved, and having the same goal." Building A Better Designer id's Hooper says conferences and continuing education are useful to the working game-maker. "As a designer, whatever your profession is, you always want to get better." He finds listening to others always gives good ideas. Even if the information doesn't tackle a specific problem, such as implementing Scrum, there are always nuggets of insight, he says -- "I love hearing all of the top designers." When asked about what led them into design positions, Splash Damage's Alphonso said, "I was at the University of Texas, studying computer science, and I realized I didn't like programming, and I liked playing Quake." He admits to almost flunking out of college, but says he learned a lot from Quake: "I loved how they tied the designer to the map. You could tell there was a sense of ownership." "I'm hearing a common thing here," said id's Hooper. "I hear it with designers all the time. At the end of the day, its all about that passion. You're building worlds, and you want people to experience those worlds." He talks about being an engineering major, and building worlds with a text editor, and the remarkable feeling of direct feedback and control of the space. Speaking of that personal touch, Respawn's Alderman says, "It's sort of a lost art, to a degree, and I think it's starting to come back." The challenge is to make everything cohesive: "everything you see, everything you hear, the way you move." Hiring for Design When asked about what design directors look for when hiring designers, id's Hooper says: "You would think I'd have an answer I could give you guys. But it's more about -- and this seems cliche -- being a hard worker. You have to want to do it." He continues by discussing college programs. "Going through some of the programs like SMU... they do a good job. You come out knowing what to do, but still need the other side, the passion. Bethesda's Burgess discusses the benefits of having a toolkit that potential hires can use to craft samples of work. "It's a huge asset having a toolset out there. It lets us see -- it's an immediately relatable way to see what they've done, because that's what I use every day." Respawn's Alderman comments that the sample-work that really stands out is something that's cohesive and new. And when Splash Damage's Alphonso is looking to hire, he says he looks for mod experience, because the company "was a mod team that went pro... so we know those people will fit into our culture." Design At Its Best Part of what makes great design can't be defined, says the panel. "Such a big part is intuition; you have such a gut feeling," says Bethesda's Burgess of good level-makers. When people try to make metrics, and turn it into a formula, he warns, the level "seems to lose its soul." "Maybe it's that last ten percent of what makes a level good is something [intangible]," continues Bethesda's Burgess, adding it's something "none of us have solved. It's so subjective. So we throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks." "I often feel that the best level design is invisible," says Splash Damage's Alphonso. You want players to lose themselves in the experience, he says, and unless something bad happens to break that immersion, they'll stay in the world. "When you move into professional development, you still want to put your stamp on something," says Bethesda's Burgess. But if something stands out in the game, that's no good. The job of leads, he says, is to make it all work. "You need to get team buy-in, so people will try out ideas." "That's the magic," says Respawn's Alderman. "Making it all work. It's communication, and it's probably the part that's trickiest." "But it's okay for it to be hard. There's a healthy level of friction," concludes id's Hooper.

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