13 min read

Where's the Design in Level Design? (Part One)

If you are a game level designer or artist who wants to create 3D interior levels that stand out and get your product noticed, creating a well-designed, believable environment is a sure way to do it. Play-balancing aside, real-time gaming "worlds" of the recent past, made up of planar-surface corridors wallpapered in repeating patterns that show off their pixel components, should be put away bearing a label that reads "For Nostalgic Purposes Only."

If you are a game level designer or artist who wants to create 3D interior levels that stand out and get your product noticed, creating a well-designed, believable environment is a sure way to do it. Play-balancing aside, real-time gaming "worlds" of the recent past, made up of planar-surface corridors wallpapered in repeating patterns that show off their pixel components, should be put away bearing a label that reads "For Nostalgic Purposes Only." As hardware capabilities evolve, character development and animation techniques mature, and content development software improves, the process of designing and creating richer levels for players and their 3D counterparts to play in must also evolve.

As a once-practicing interior designer now wearing one of many hats as a game artist, I have a few ideas and some architectural and interior design tips to share which I have learned throughout many years of applying environmental design. Moreover, I'll point out the possibilities which lie at the roots of architectural and interior design and which, in the hands of a creative level designer, can give the art of creating, texturing, and lighting a game level a more human countenance.

In my experience, game developers create games for other developers to appreciate just as a reputable architect would design a public building for other architects to admire and respect. Whether designing a futuristic environment or a children's virtual playroom, a poorly planned 3D environment sporting unskillfully crafted textures is not going to have the same broad audience appeal as one that is well designed and thought out. Consider a great public building that many people love to visit and always feel good in because its designer has taken into account all potential audiences who will visit and interact with it. The designer of this popular structure did not address only a particular or specialized group of people.

In creating levels with mass-market appeal, you should give thought to design that extends beyond the basics to which players of that genre are accustomed. Similarly, level designers need to reach beyond the principles and conventions established for those very specific game audiences. Like the seasoned architect or interior designer, the experienced level designer takes into account who the user or occupant of their new 3D world is, how they will use it, how they will interact with it, how they will move through it, and how they will approach and depart from it. This interaction, which takes place on a human scale, calls for an attention to detail down to the smallest level for most game environments. In many first-person games, that amount of design detail is not an option, given the close proximity of the game camera to surfaces in the environment. How your in-game textures are applied can be just as critical. Finally, using good design principles generally will also help you "sell" your game world more easily to your internal development team as well as your buyers.

The Price of Bad Design

When starting a new level design, a good understanding of basic design principles and guidelines can help any artist or level designer avoid making costly mistakes. This may be stating the obvious, but it does go on too often in our industry. In game development, mistakes are what we fear most when entering any new project. Good design principles, like a good game design document, can't be overlooked if you wish to avoid basic design mistakes that will cost you and your team lots of time later when you have to redo the level or its contents. The proper layout of a level adds complexity not often considered by the novice level designer who simply wants to jump in and bang out a cool-looking death match level.

A well-designed level takes into consideration a whole set of requirements, such as user interaction and navigation, which are inherent to the purpose they serve. How will the spaces control and direct the player throughout the explorative and interactive experience? What sort of directional and responsive feedback mechanisms will be provided to assist the process? How will all of the elements tie together to form a cohesive environment that is well understood without compromising aesthetic appeal? The level designer must also consider the impact of particulars such as sound, space, lighting, pace, and scale.

Learning from Others

Our friends in architecture have been addressing these same design-related questions for generations. They have many of the answers to our common problems if we would only take the time to explore their proven methods of design. You can find applied methods in much of the architecture around us today if you know what to look for. These are design-oriented tools and principles that can assist us in our process as level creators.

I'm not suggesting that you take the same step-by-step approach utilized in designing real-world structures, which are bounded by gravity, physics, construction methods, and materials that are subjected to natural weather conditions. A virtual existence within a computer game is only limited by imagination and, of course, the CPU, GPU, the capabilities of the level-editing tools, the game engine, and the production budget. Nor am I suggesting that one necessarily fall back on and copy motifs directly from the past. I am advocating, however, that we learn from proven methods on how to control the masses and evoke emotion with solid design principles.

Forms That Express and Serve

There are many similar architectural structures in existence today that are patterned or modeled from the same original idea or form. Architects do this deliberately for practical reasons when constructing or designing such structures. They do it because they understand that specific forms can establish certain moods.

These basic forms are like the grammar of architecture and have been used from antiquity up to the present day as a means of addressing important goals in architectural design. Level designers can borrow much from the expressive potential of form in the theory of architecture. When designing levels, they can use this as a way to establish a common language of form, which audiences can immediately understand regardless of the individual or their culture. These are well-established principles that have immediate application in the design of our virtual worlds. They are not recipes for right and wrong; however, they do have a design-oriented goal. I will present a few of them and explain their purpose in hopes that they provoke your interest.


Figures 1A-1H. Eight different wall forms that can express weight and direction in a game level.

When laying out a level, the first inclination a level designer tends to have is to go in and plop down a bunch of walls in an attempt to define and separate spaces before ever laying out a floor plan or a concept drawing on paper. This is often done in a 3D program using primitive shapes resembling slabs of generic walls and floors. The resulting interior spaces and exterior spaces created by close placement of separate buildings are then commonly arranged based on functionality, importance, line-of-sight, and progression through the game. At this point, it would be a good time to go back and revisit the walls themselves. In game levels such as first-person 3D shooters, little thought is often given to the importance of the wall's form, scale, and angle. The wall motif is an expressive form.

A wall area, in principle, may be formed within eight different motifs (see Figures 1a-1h). The first two (1a and 1b) are concerned with the relationship between width and height, in that the wall's main form is either horizontal or vertical. The next three motifs (1c, 1d, and 1e) deal with the relation to depth, which are the flat, the convex, and the concave main forms. The final three motifs (1f, 1g, and 1h) deal with the slant of the wall. The wall may be upright, leaning toward us, or leaning away from us.

All eight motifs are actual representations of fundamental motion situations, which we may characterize by using words specifying directions. Figures 1a and 1b describe a "follow along" and "upward" motion, respectively. Figures 1c, 1d, and 1e convey a "halting," "advancing," and "retreating" motion. Figures 1f, 1g, and 1h depict a "neutral" motion, a "leaning towards" and "downward" motion, and a "tilting away" and "over" motion. Assuming one stands in approximately the same relative position in front of each wall, that wall will arouse certain motion impulses that create different impressions of the inside-outside relation in depth for that wall.

Comparing Figure 1a and 1b further, we find that the horizontal wall expresses a weight against the ground. Its horizontal nature gives a compressed and compact first impression. It stirs a force that starts the body into motion to follow along beside it in either direction to either side or end, as if seeking an entrance "around the corner" where something interesting or dangerous awaits the player. The vertical wall, on the other hand, is communicative for several reasons. One reason is that the weight expression of the vertical wall will always seem lighter because it is rising toward the sky. Think of churches and their columns and crosses, and look again at the image of the interior of the Japanese Azuchi Castle at the beginning of the article. Another reason is the motion expressed. Whereas the horizontal wall spreads movements, the vertical rising wall collects them. The final reason for this wall's communicative content is that, like a tower or obelisk, such a wall is the image of the erect standing figure that naturally attracts our attention. Throughout architectural history we find many examples of the characteristic differences in vertically and horizontally oriented walls.

Windows and Openings

Another expressive form is the window. The window's location in the wall also affects the wall's expression of weight (see Figures 2a-2e). A horizontal window placed low in the wall increases the sinking effect, and a vertical window high up increases the rising effect, while a centralized window seems more ambiguous.

Examine the openings in Figures 2d and 2e. The impression that the motion is from the outside inwards can be heightened or lessened by the opening's profiles. A cut at right angles to the wall emphasizes motion from the outside. The strength of the wall is weakened and it offers no resistance. With a straight profile, it is as if the wall's own substance deflects the incision. The entire wall takes on a thin character, seeming to be a stiff plane with no strength.

On the other hand, a diagonally-cut opening will resist motion from outside. The narrowing of the hole itself shows that the wall is about to close. It is given added weight and substance, because the diagonal bevel conveys an impression of greater thickness than the wall actually has. In the diagonally-cut opening the hole itself appears to lie deeper in the wall than does the right-angle-cut opening. It is less accessible and is protected within the wall itself.

These are only a few simple examples of the many architectural forms that are at your disposal should you consider employing them in your own creations.

Figures 2A-2E. The window's location in the wall affects the wall's weight.

Achieving Realism

Realism in 3D games is often mistaken for having a photorealistic quality instead of good design. Good design principles will do more in achieving a believable environment that your players will relate to and feel comfortable in. Photorealism is a surface quality usually achieved by photographing images, objects, or natural surfaces and then cladding a 3D environment with a processed and optimized version of these images. Believable levels, on the other hand, call for the effective use of established design principles to address things such as proper lighting, transition between surfaces and textures, and how architectural elements and the surfaces and masses they are integrated with are handled. The proper placement of furniture and architectural detailing, as well as the transition between split levels should also be properly resolved. These are all common concerns in the design of interior and exterior spaces.

Do you need to achieve a photorealistic quality in your art? Before planning your road trip with your digital camera in hand, find out if the game or level design calls for this degree of realism. Is it appropriate for your genre? A photorealistic quality in a level is often well received by most audiences because of its sincere attempt to simulate the known environment around us in the real world. If done right, good photographic images that have correct lighting direction, appropriate scale, and proper surface treatment can enhance a level greatly. Skillfully crafted images can also depict construction methods used, establish a sense of good interior design, and help prolong suspension of disbelief for your players. If done wrong, the offending texture or detail stands out like a sore thumb to artist and non-artist alike.

Photorealistic images can be a double-edged sword -- they're easy to achieve with a little bit of effort, a decent camera, and a good paint program, and they require no traditional art skills. The problem is that the images will detract from the scene if not applied appropriately. If this degree of realism is only reserved for having decent physics or accurate targeting in your game, then narrow your focus to achieving good design. Even a cel-shaded game would benefit from having a well-designed and balanced environment.

Preplanning Before Building

Earlier I mentioned the cost of bad mistakes. Another money-burning mistake developers often make is not preplanning art asset requirements. In addition to having good visual interest, a good design approach and some initial preplanning will pay for itself in no time. Through a lack of knowledge or preparation, we often make our choices about how to design and outfit our environments with art assets we don't need, assets we don't want, or assets that just don't work for some reason. These misfit items then get tossed aside and replaced by others, costing us more time and money to produce. This trial-and-error approach is enough to make any project manager chew through his fingernails. For professional interior designers and architects, the most cost-effective approach to creating a custom structure or interior space is to prequalify all construction needs through careful planning and evaluation, long before raising a hammer. Production artists, modelers, and level designers should prequalify the creation of all 3D assets before clicking a mouse (see Figure 3). Level design needs should also be analyzed to determine the art assets required.

Designers can avoid costly mistakes by carefully planning all 3D assets on paper before model construction begins. Concept drawing by Richard Hescox.

If you want your levels to rise above the accepted game level look and feel, start really taking notice of the successful works of architecture and designed interior spaces around you. I challenge you to seek and borrow what you can that may address specific design problems you are encountering in your levels. Don't just reinvent blindly. Try to apply some of the approaches I've discussed here and enjoy the difference it will make as we continue to raise the bar together. Help define good design in level design. I look forward to your work.

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