Saturday, 22 December 2012

Level Design

The first time I heard of the job title ‘level  designer’ my first thought of their role was to make pretty levels pretty, and thought to myself ‘Hell yeah that seems easy! I wanna do that when im older’. But after progressing with this course and game art in general I can say I massively misunderstood their role. Their job is basically make the level playable, interesting, support gameplay elements AND make it all look pretty….seems like a challenging job, but interesting.

Level designers go through several stages to reach the final goal, just like any other artist. Reading through an interview with a level designer ( ive put together a short typical workflow:

-          Idea generation – From the brief of the mission/objective you generate ideas that the player can encounter (enemy engagements, puzzles, checkpoints, item placement etc.).

-          Get an idea of player progression throughout the level – piece all the above encounters  in a more fleshed out way. Get an idea of how, when and where the player will encounter these within the level.

-          Whiteboxing – create a very basic level mainly with 3d primitives to get an idea how the level works with the implemented gameplay elements.

-          Playtest – Get players feedback on what works and what doesn’t, make any amends.

-          Polish – After everything is set in stone it’s time to make things pretty. Turns those ugly whitebox models into fully fledge 3d porn.

A good level designer will design the level in such a way that the player always knows where he can and cannot go within the level, and to also make sure they watch important events unravel in game.

This can be produced in several different ways, some are cleverly done, others not so much. Say for example the player needs to go down a certain path to continue the mission, the level designer  could show trees falling over, blocking the other paths so the player only has one option, or something with a colour that stands out from the rest of the scene near the path that can provoke the player to take a gander. Even though these ideas are a tad unoriginal it is still better than a giant red arrow showing where the player has to go (which ive seen in way too many games) this way also breaks immersion for the player.

Nothing says realism like a giant red arrow

They can also use similar techniques to make sure the player sees important set pieces. Like in FEAR, the player has to go down a ladder to continue on, and while doing so the player gets a quick glimpse of Alma, the scary ghost girl which the player never expects. This was brilliantly done and scared the hell out of me when I first played it (and second, third and fourth time).

Birds are effectively used a lot in games to draw the players eye to a certain point within the environment.

Birds fly off to get the attention of the player to introduce a new enemy

Some of the most memorable games I’ve played always played on human emotions and fears (works especially well in horror games). For instants I’m not the greatest fan of tight spaces, but games like FEAR and Amnesia thrive on your fear of this and puts the player in dark narrow corridors making the player feel trapped and vulnerable, making those scary moment even more scarier. Good games.

No way out

Good level designers also have an attention to detail making their levels interesting to look at, as games are a visual medium, so its nice to have something nice and pretty to look at and appreciate while you complete your tasks. Even people with no art interest can still appreciate all the little details in the environment.  

Replay ability is important in levels and games in general too. Designing levels in a certain way where the player can tackle a problem in several methods will mean the player will go back to try something different on the second/third play through. All this makes the game seem a lot longer than it actually is. Although sometimes level designs get lazy : I remember back in the day when racing games use to make the player race round the track in the other direction, which ‘doubles’ the amount of tracks the game has. Then there’s procedural generated levels, don’t get me started on these…. ‘An infinite amount of levels’, yeah maybe so, but it’s an infinite amount of boring ass levels… 

Level design, Serious business.

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