15 min read

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

This isn't a "how-to" tutorial on designing, modeling, or texturing a game level. Instead it is a collection of considerations to help you with a more efficient execution of good design for your level modeling and texture work. As promised last time, I will also walk you through the steps of prequalifying level assets so that you can avoid making costly mistakes, thus saving you time and money better spent elsewhere.

In the first part of this article, I shared some of the benefits of using proven design principles in level design, an array of which can be borrowed from real-world architecture and interior design. In this article, I will present even more and relate some of them to actual game levels and to the creation of custom-designed level textures. Just to be clear, this isn't a "how-to" tutorial on designing, modeling, or texturing a game level. Instead it is a collection of considerations to help you with a more efficient execution of good design for your level modeling and texture work. As promised last time, I will also walk you through the steps of prequalifying level assets so that you can avoid making costly mistakes, thus saving you time and money better spent elsewhere.

High Expectations

We have an interesting challenge in the game industry as computer hardware technology plows forward faster then ever. This increase in power has a direct correlation with the player's growing expectation for stunning visuals. As game artists and level designers, we should try not to get overwhelmed or intimidated by the rising technology bar. We have a role to play in perpetuating its progress and should therefore embrace it, at least to the point where it enhances our process of improving and implementing good design that produces believable and engaging levels. This in turn improves the product and the gaming experience. We are further challenged to meet these high expectations with equally sound design principles and concepts. Improved hardware will eventually make it possible to create game environments that are intricate, highly detailed, and free from technological limitations in performance. Where will you be and what will you be doing when this happens?

So What Is Good Design?

Everyone has his or her own idea about what good design is. One thing I think we can all agree on is that design is a perceivable and desirable quality that surrounds us in our everyday life, yet we often overlook its importance. It provides comfort, draws our attention, and gives us the visual cues we've learned to depend on for information such as directional and level changes, defining means of egress from within a building, and so on. In general terms, design is the skillful planning and fashioning of the form or structure of an object, a space, a work of art, a decorative scheme, and yes, a game level.

In creating a comfortable and logical game level, a job well done does not leave your player feeling uneasy about the personality, balance, proportions, lines, or character of the space or structure being portrayed. All environments possess these traits. Keep in mind that there are many different kinds of spatial designs that are well suited for a 3D world. Your level design should be one that addresses your individual game's requirements and applies basic design principles.

Some guidelines that govern good design used by other practicing design professionals include balance, scale, proportion, unity, emphasis, rhythm, and harmony. All designs consist of color, pattern, texture, and style, and if these guidelines are adhered to, the player will feel comfortable in an environment.

Balance is the feeling of equilibrium. How do you feel when your life is out of balance? That is also how a player will feel when a decorative wall, room, or outdoor space is out of balance. All balance is based on vertical and horizontal axes. Getting equal weight on each side of an axis makes a space in or out of balance. A good analogy would be riding a bicycle or standing on your head.

Scale is the size of an item in comparison to its surroundings. A piece of furniture or an accessory can be too big or too small for a room, a wall, or a setting. A carpet texture scaled too big creates a "dollhouse" effect in a game. The casual observer is uncomfortable when this occurs. It's just not pleasing to the eye when things are out of scale. A typical example of bad scale is the smaller-scaled furniture and accessories in a game level created with a level editor that uses constructive solid geometry (CSG) brushes bound to a grid (such as Worldcraft). A popular example is Valve's Half-Life levels. These were created using Worldcraft 2.0, which lacked fine control in the modeling process back then and probably forced the level artists to create and accept badly scaled and disproportional furniture and accessories. The game is still fun to play (one of my all-time favorites) but can be quite the eyesore in some areas. I discovered these limitations myself when I created levels for Sierra Studios' S.W.A.T. 3 using this editor (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Realistic proportions in S.W.A.T. 3 by Sierra Studios.

Proportion is the size of things compared to themselves. In furniture, legs can be too large or too small for cushions. Doors and windows can be too long or too big for the walls they are built into. Proportions that are pleasing to the eye will promote feelings of satisfaction. Items that are out of proportion actually create anxiety, and we usually don't want to look at them.

Unity is the element that carries the theme and scheme of the room. The point of unity within a room can be a painting, an area rug, a major piece of upholstery, or an architectural feature (see Figure 2). When a certain style and color scheme are contained in a single decorative element in a room it makes it easy for the player to understand what is going on.

Figure 2. A strong common element of structural support carries the theme in this room.

A point of emphasis or focal point is that item or place that catches your visual attention upon first glance. The focal point of the room is essential to anchor the composition of the room. Each time you enter a new space you have an opportunity to create a new focal point. In a composition, the player's eye travels from the focal point to the rest of the room and back to the focal point (see Figure 3). Without a focal point, the eye tends to wander aimlessly throughout the space, searching for something to focus on. This lack of grounding produces anxiety. If the focal point can also be the point of unity for the space, you have accomplished two things at the same time. You have secured the player's attention and unified the room.

Figure 3. The focal point of light ahead directs the player and gives reference.

A repetition of like items in a room or space that move the eye from one area to another, rhythm can be accomplished with color, pattern, texture, lighting, and style or character (see Figure 4). Think in terms of music. How important are the drums and the bass in a song? Once you have the rhythm of the beat, you are into the music. That consistent beat carries you throughout the music.

In a game level, a certain repetitive motif, pattern, or texture could help guide the player though the experience of movement. Moving or nudging the player through the exploration experience is one of the most basic yet important responsibilities that a level design has to satisfy. When a room or space has rhythm, people feel secure because of the comfort in the predictable nature of their surroundings.

Harmony is when a common element exists that binds all parts together. Like a common denominator, this element can be a color, pattern, texture, detail, or the character in a room. In a picture grouping, for example, it can be the frame, matte, accent color, or subject. When the principles of design are adhered to, the result is harmony. All of the parts relate to each other in a way that allows blending and bonding. Harmony is the difference between a great-looking and -feeling place and a room or space full of things.

Figure 4. Good repetition of likeness creates rhythm and movement.

Texture Design Also Matters

These same basic principles can be applied to the careful design of textures. How many times have you sat in on a design meeting where someone criticizing a level idea has made the following statement: "From the point of view of the player or rate of travel through a level, no one cares about that much attention to detail in the texture"? If you have invested time in the game industry, then you more than likely have heard this several times. Consequently, your environment's overall look and feel has probably taken a hit.

It is a misconception in our industry to think that as developers who play games we know instinctively how much detail is enough when creating a great-looking game that still runs well. People are diverse, they play games differently, and it is safe to say that perception of what makes a game great will vary from person to person. Giving attention to detail in all aspects of a game, including textures, should be considered crucial. Texture detail and design can't be an afterthought if you are trying to achieve a cohesive look in your levels. And when it comes to detail work, it's the little things we take for granted that count. The rivets, dents, rust, stains, and scratches all give life and personality to a surface (see Figure 5). If the level designer is not a skillful texture artist, then it makes perfect sense to hear him or her play down the importance of a well-crafted texture set.

Figure 5. Add life and personality to your objects with well-designed textures. This 3D object was created for WildTangent's Betty Bad.

An exceptional texture artist is worth his or her weight in gold. This is often expressed by the seasoned art director whose job it is to manage and direct creative resources. This art director also knows that the texture artist has the ability to promote the perception of quality in a product while addressing known issues and constraints one has to consider when creating a texture set for a level. The 2D artist needs to be fully aware of the latest effects supported by current and future graphics cards and help devise creative ways to exploit them, such as real-time reflection and bump maps. Besides helping to establish the final look and mood of a level, the textures also provide the player with important information such as direction, interactive clues, and orientation. If your development budget does not afford you a skillful and dedicated texture artist, then your level designer or modeler has some ramping up to do.

Make No Mistakes

To avoid making costly 3D art assets that aren't needed or that just don't work, level designers should analyze their needs to determine what is required before creating objects such as furniture and architectural details. Here is a basic guideline you can use to accomplish your goal of creating an attractive 3D interior space to play in and not make costly mistakes in the process. If you are going to borrow from real-world environments for inspiration and creation, you should consider using the design tools other professionals use to create the spaces we live in every day.

If you know what you need, what you want, and you understand basic design, then your chances of making a mistake are almost entirely eliminated. You can start to build with confidence and clear direction. That is, of course, until the game designer changes the general purpose or focus of the game level or space — at which time you simply smile and reapply these basic steps.

Avoiding a Fall

Take yourself step-by-step through the simplified design process I'm about to describe. When you're done you should be able to define your list of art assets for your 3D interiors. You'll also begin creating the objects you need to make an efficient and well-planned game level or walkthrough environment without stress or fear. If done right, this prequalification for art requirements should afford most developers more time at the end of the project to add the finishing polish. This polish is often forgotten or omitted in most final 3D environments because of mismanaged production schedules and loss of time.

As level designers, every level we design and create requires us to determine where we are now, where we are going to end up, and what we will need in the process of getting there. To map this properly requires organization and planning. For S.W.A.T. 3 we managed to achieve a photorealistic look because of much preplanning. We modeled, textured, and designed our lighting schemes using Worldcraft and then loaded information into a proprietary engine. A small team of artists took direction and design recommendations from scaled floor plans which I helped create and then followed certain established modeling and lighting techniques. These dimensional floor plans and architectural drawings were based on the game designer's design document, which sometimes referenced existing real-world buildings and environments.

Whether you are outfitting a room, a laboratory, or the inside of a space station, the process for determining your needs is the same. Preplan the spaces visually in order to understand the architectural features. These features include windows, doors, fireplaces, stairs, columns, an air lock, or a landing platform. These might dictate what kind of furniture will actually fit before you create the pieces. Also keep in mind that furniture is designed to fit people's lifestyles. Each furniture piece is designed to support a particular activity. To visually preplan, I recommend creating a rough layout or floor plan on grid paper and then recording each room using one square for each foot measured. You must establish a working scale for the in-game world and use this when creating and arranging the content for each room. You must also know the measurements of all the major pieces before creating them and at the same time be ergonomically sensitive, especially in first-person game levels where the characters interact with their environment at close camera view.

The first thing that must be done for each room is to determine the limitations of the space. If there is no physical size limitation, then set one. You can always increase the size later if necessary. Setting self-imposed limitations is still better than not having any at all. Before we can place furniture and other 3D items in a room or level we must understand any technical constraints, including camera limitations, pathfinding capabilities, how many polygons or objects can be displayed in a given area, and the minimum frame rate we need to sustain while traversing that area in the level. Every asset we place in the level directly impacts performance during run time. This kind of information is often difficult to get, because the programmers on the project may not have established these parameters early on in the development cycle, often leading to changes in the level later on. Be persistent in getting the most accurate information as soon as possible. Doing so will prove to be very beneficial in the months that follow.

Next we have to define the purpose of the space and who occupies it. We must then determine the lifestyle and activities of the occupants. Based on these room activities, we can now identify the furniture assets needed to fit the space and support those activities. If they do not already exist, then a list must be made of new art assets that require design and modeling time. We now have the task of placing the chosen items into the room represented on paper. This allows us to continue to flesh out our design without eating up the artist's valuable time creating models that represent pieces to which we haven't fully committed. They should all be at the same scale as our drawing so that if they fit in the plan, they will fit in our room. Finally, we determine all interaction the occupants will have with the space or its furnishings before creating the models.

Now that we know what we need, let's take a look at what we want. A game designer's or a level designer's wants and desires are an expression of who they are and what their product is to become. There is no right or wrong in this; everything desired here is totally legitimate. However, there are situations where what we want, we don't need, and what we need, we don't want. The important thing to determine is what assets are desired and hip, yet still solve our in-game problems. Since we've prequalified all the pieces of content in the steps above, the decision-making process now becomes much less painful and costly.

Grow with the Times

It's a tremendous challenge for me to create 3D environments for a game level. To be able to continue to do so, however, experience tells me that I must continue to evolve my process for creating and designing the spaces for such worlds. Ever-improving technology, gameplay demands, player expectations, and shorter development cycles all guarantee that level designers and 3D artists will need to mature their processes for creating attractive virtual destinations to play in. You should need no more motivation than improving yourself as a game artist and what you have to contribute to your team. For me, the alternative is unthinkable.


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