Level Design

13Feb09

A week ago I was offered the chance to change into the department of level design. My work experience covers game design but not level design, so when the offer came I made sure to clear this up. Nonetheless, the offer was made and gladly accepted. How was my first week?

Exhausting. The offer was made because another designing hand was needed. My work hours are long and I hardly find the time to do fulfill my basic human needs. Nonetheless, I manage to get a lot of things done, which, in turn, offers me more opportunities to learn the craft as quickly as possible.

Confused. I have never worked with a level editor before and my start into handling the necessary tools was swift and overwhelming. Myriads of essential information were showered over my head. I do think that I managed to memorize about 70%. The rest will come in time.

Overly excited. Not only do I have the opportunity to learn something new, something that has always interested me in a way, I also have the opportunity to create something, be creative, let my imagination run wild and simultaneously create content for a game. I was also able to give feedback on existing content as well as add game design ideas of my own that went into the game. Being creative now has a result, a visible and playable result, of which I an be proud.

What is most fun is how my work reminds me of those endless hours of creating buildings, apartments, vehicles, etc. with Lego© and its sister-brand Fabuland©. If I wanted something a certain way I would re- and de-assemble my creations for hours until the result was more than satisfying. Granted, back then I did not have to meet any deadlines and my creativity was not crammed into a tight schedule.

What I especially enjoy about this new opportunity is the challenge. Fit these design-points into the level design, meet the following tasks, add that many NPCs, create a level around the story and the best part – I have to think of a way to break into a building/house/apartment/shops, come up with an evil scheme and then build the whole level around it. I enjoy watching heist-movies – now I can plot heists myself.

One thing I find immensely interesting is how the layout and design may or may not lead the player in a certain direction. Making levels too linear feels like taking the player by the hand, which is fine and necessary in the very first levels but later in the game the player might feel patronized by the lack of confidence the designers put in the players ability to find their way around.

And even though the levels become more complicated, less linear and, in general, bigger the player is still taken by the hand – not as obvious as in the beginning but there is a guiding hand. How doors and walls are arranged and set, in which order and where – the player may think he is choosing a door or path at free will but the designer hopefully gave him some sort of clue as to where to go. Lighting is also a nice way of focusing the player’s attention to a certain area or item in the game. Arranging furniture does not only depend on aesthetic guidelines but also where the player should focus their attention on. Even MMOs that give the player the freedom to roam and go wherever they want to take their players by the hand and guide them, lead them where they should be so that they will not get lost in all the different opportunities and stop playing because finding the way/quest/target is only so much fun – and getting lost even less.

Good design is hard to spot, bad design jumps you in the face. I have learnt that this is true for layout (print and online) as well as for level design. This is only the beginning and I am looking forward to more work experience and epiphanies as I go.

What I would like to know from fellow leveldesigners – how do you approach your job? What is the most fun? What is the least fun? How do you design levels? What do you focus on?

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