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About Me

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  1. In this article, Mike Stout shares his learnings from experience designing levels for Ratchet & Clank, Skylanders, and Resistance: Fall of Man. What follows is only a portion of the full article, which offers a high level overview of Mike's process for designing levels. Follow the link at the end for the full article. Introduction I'll walk you through an example level I'm creating from scratch, so you can see typical results from each stage of the process. In Step 1: Understanding Constraints, I'll walk you through common limitations I always look out for while designing levels. In Step 2: Brainstorming and Structure, I'll show you how I decide what goes into a level. In Step 3: Bubble Diagrams, I'll introduce you to a visual method for outlining what goes into each area of your level. In Step 4: Rough Maps, I'll talk about how I flesh out each bubble from a Bubble Diagram to figure out what goes into each area. I could write an entire series of tutorials about how to do this, so we'll only go over the basic outline here. In Step 5: Finishing the Design, I'll talk about moving on from your basic design to create final spaces. This is also a huge topic that could be further explored in a series of tutorials, so for scope I'll keep this very basic. 1. Understanding Constraints At the beginning of a design, the hardest part is figuring out what is going to be in a level. As a designer, you get to decide a lot, but you don't always get to decide everything—especially if you're working in a large team. On a large team, most of your constraints are going to come from other people. There will be business constraints, franchise constraints, audience constraints, legal constraints, engine constraints, and so forth. Most of the time, these restrictions come from far away up the chain. Closer to you will be the constraints applied by the vision of the creative director, art director, and anyone else involved making decisions at that level. If you're working on your own as an indie, you're the one who will be making these decisions, so you still need to understand your constraints very well. General Constraints There are a few general constraints I try keep in mind whenever I design a level; I find that these apply to most games I've ever worked on. I've provided example answers to the questions about these constraints below to show you the level of detail you need to get started, and I'll use these example constraints to construct an example level design in this tutorial. How Long Should This Level Be? This is a short level, about 30 minutes long at most. Are We Trying to Show off Any New Tech, Art, Audio, or Similar? Our imaginary game engine has cool indoor lighting effects, so I want to have lots of cool indoor spaces. How Much Time Do I Have to Design It? This article was written over the course of several months, but the level design aspect itself took about two or three days to complete. *Note: I'd expect this process to take about 5 weeks for a full-sized level on a real game. If Someone is Paying For This Game, What Are Their Requirements? For a game not made as a tutorial example, these requirements usually come from the publisher, the investors, the marketing department, and so on. What Platform is It On? The platform you make the game for imposes constraints. A game for a phone can't use as much processing power as, say, a game for PS4 or PC. A virtual reality game imposes restraints on camera movement to avoid causing motion sickness. Mobile games have length restrictions because people play in short bursts. Know your limitations. For the sake of this example, let's say the game is targeted at last-gen consoles (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) and PC. Where Does This Level Fit Into the Level Progression? This is the third level of the game, and, as such, the challenges won't be too hard. Who is the Audience? This game is a sci-fi game, fairly violent. It will likely get an M (or 18+) rating. We're aiming this at hardcore gamers over the age of 18. The Most Critical Constraints If you find yourself in the fortunate situation that someone is paying you to design a level, remember that they want this level/game for a reason. If the stuff you make doesn't satisfy that reason, they will not (and should not) pay you, or the development studio you work for, for it. Satisfying clients is the best way to make sure they hire you or your studio again, so make sure to ask questions about what that reason is. Those critical questions vary from project to project, but regardless of whether I'm designing a level for myself or for others, I find that there are four questions that are almost always the most important to ask first: What is required by the level's story, theme, and plot? What are my set-pieces? What metrics am I constrained by? What does the game's "Macro design" require from this level? Let's look at each of these, in turn: What is Required by the Story, Theme, or Plot? The goal of the example level is to rescue a VIP who is trapped in a military facility, then leave the area in a helicopter. What Are My Set-Pieces? For the sake of this example: Dark hallways and stairwells show our lighting off to good effect. Employ surprise to prompt weapon firing, which will cast cool shadows. Fight a huge monster in a destroyed barracks near the middle. A Control Tower where the VIP is located. What Metrics Am I Bound By? Each area that you design needs to take into account things like the player's movement speed, the size of the player, the size of the monsters, jump heights, and so on. Each of these informs how large your corridors and spaces need to be, and what heights and lengths are available to be used as jumps. What Does the Game's Macro Design Require From This Level? Early in the development of a game, a short document is usually developed that decides what goes on in each level in very vague terms. (Watch this D.I.C.E. 2002 speech by Mark Cerny for more information on Macro designs.) A Macro document specifies which puzzles and enemies go in each level, how many usages of each are expected per-level, what rewards you get, and things of that nature. This puts further constraints on your design. For the sake of our example, here are our Macro constraints: First: this is a simple first-person combat game. No puzzles, and simple combat with four enemy types: Ranged: An enemy that stands still and shoots at the player. Melee: An enemy that runs up close and attacks the player with a weapon. Swarmer: A small, close-range enemy with a single hit point. Good in swarms. Heavy: A large enemy that stands still, takes lots of hits to kill, does lots of damage, and has both a ranged attack and a melee attack. Second: once the player has rescued the VIP, there needs to be a shortcut back to the start of the level, so the player doesn't have to re-traverse the whole thing. Third: the VIP is located in the final combat room. She is being held prisoner by elite soldiers. 2. Brainstorming and Structure - Follow the link at the end to read this section 3. Bubble Diagrams - Follow the link at the end to read this section 4. Rough Maps Flesh out Each Bubble Once I've got the Bubble Diagram finished, we know what's going into this level, and we know how each area is connected each other area. The next step is to run down the list and create a rough design for each bubble. I almost always do this on paper or in Illustrator, because that's how I learned, but I know a number of great designers who do this kind of thing in-engine to get a better sense of the space. Whatever makes you work fastest is best here. Below, see an example of what one of the bubbles (specifically Bubble 3: Tight Corridors) looks like after I've designed it out on paper (top-down): The player starts at the top of this area and proceeds to the bottom. This area makes use of right angles to introduce enemies as a surprise to the player I'll break this down: Player comes south and fights 3 Swarmers. After player rounds the corner, four more Swarmers run out from an alcove. After rounding the second corner, the player is face-to-face with a Melee enemy. This enemy will need to close distance before attacking, so having it around the corner isn't cheap. Rounding the third corner, the player fights a horde of Swarmers, along with a single Melee enemy that runs from behind cover to attack. The Swarmers come from inside the alcove close to the player, and from around the next corner. The player passes the fourth corner and turns the fifth corner to be confronted by three Ranged enemies, each using the wall as cover, while five Swarmers run at the player. Rounding the last corner, the player proceeds to the area in Bubble 4. Note how this area is designed in isolation from the others, and scale is considered, but not called out. Note how the distances and heights are still not well defined. In this rough stage, it's really helpful to be able to change things quickly, so I don't finalize those details until I'm ready to finish the design. I do try to keep the scale relatively consistent between all the areas, though, as this will make my job easier in the next step when we connect the areas together. Don't get too hung up on accuracy or small details. Things about this design will change constantly from now until the game ships (even after we "finalize" the design). Nothing is being set in stone Connect the Areas Together After taking each bubble and designing them in rough, on paper, I link them together (roughly). For readability, I've done it here in Adobe Illustrator, but this can be done on paper as well. Note how the areas are all laid out end to end, so I know how they'll connect, but I haven't finalized anything yet. Try to ramp the intensity up, area by area. Make sure you're combining your enemy types well, and that in general the difficulty, complexity, and intensity of your enemy encounters or puzzles increases over the course of the level. Make sure to add plenty of rest spots between combats or challenges to lower intensity from time to time. If you keep the intensity at 10 all the time, 10 will become the new 5. The end product (as appears in the image above) is what I call a rough map. 5. Finishing the Design - Follow the link at the end to read this section Review I begin the process by understanding all the constraints and restrictions that surround the level. Having a solid handle on my requirements prevents the need for re-work to fix the lack later. Next, I brainstorm ideas and get together a rough structure for what the level will be like: how many areas I'll need, and what will basically be in them. This usually ends up being a simple numbered list, especially for linear levels like the one we've been working on in this article. Then, I create a Bubble Diagram so that I can understand how all my areas fit together. It gives me a foundation for understanding the basic flow of my new level at a glance. After that, I create a rough map. I usually design each area separately, on paper, and then later figure out how to string them together. Once I've got them where I want them, I can see if any changes need to be made to anything I've designed to accommodate the areas fitting together. Once I've got a rough map, I either start working in-engine or finish the map. When I'm working on my own projects, I go in-engine. When I'm working for others, I usually make a map. A map is a very effective communication tool, and if you keep it relatively up to date it can be useful for people to look at during meetings. We hope you've learned something from this. To read the remaining portions of this article, follow this link: Follow Mike Website: Website: Twitter: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord: .galleria, .galleria-container { height:480px !important }
  2. The Nature of Order in Game Narrative by Jesse Schell This 2018 GDC talk from Jesse Schell is inspired by the work of Christopher Alexander. He suggests that the wisest way to look at space is with our hearts. Follow Jesse Twitter: Youtube: Website: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  3. Next Level Design has been given permission from the author to host this entire book in PDF format. Download the attached PDF at the bottom of this article for the entire book, or view it here: not sure? Read through this section on lighting that was recently posted on Next Level Design: In addition, we've included another small section of the book right here: pg. 25 INTRODUCTION Due to games’ ever-increasing complexity and the expanding nature of levels in general, it can certainly be said that levels are not easy to design. Levels, as said before, are combinations of dozens of different aspects, the conglomeration of which render them complex by nature. This combination of complex systems itself requires good design from the start in order to avoid an inconsistent and downright messy result. Because the different aspects are so interdependent, it’s very important not to lose sight of a level’s ‘big picture’. This chapter highlights some of the issues that can pop up when designing a level, as well as some more minor aspects to keep in mind. The overall design is the foundation for a level. Without a clear, strong design, there is no solid base on which to build the level. THE CREATION OF A NEW WORLDThe most important part of a successful level is its beginning. The way a level starts will determine a great deal about how the rest of the level will evolve and how quickly. In these days of growing complexity, efficiency and speed are valued highly. Getting off to a bad start or using bad work methods can cost time which is usually at a premium to begin with. Part of starting a good design is foreseeing potential problems before anything is created. By doing this early in the process, a good level designer can quickly and easily modify the design to better fit the available time, workload, difficulty, technical limits, or all of the above.How one begins a new level is different for every person. One designer may write everything down in a design document while another, like me, just plans it out in their head. The method used also depends upon if one is working in a team environment. Working with a team means that the level’s design must be communicated throughout the team which usually means some sort of written, drawn, or quickly modeled design that can be passed around and/or presented. How it’s done isn’t important as long as several key aspects are kept in mind and the end product is of a sufficient quality. If the technology used cannot create lush jungles, for example, then this must be recognized before starting.A design should progress only when exactly what is wanted and how to accomplish it is known. Exact information is the key to this. Again using the jungle example, one must know what the jungle will look like, the colors it uses, the overall style, how the player will move through it, if the engine can render thick vegetation, what kind of physics will be involved, and too many more to list here.To assist in this task, I have developed a type of checklist that is at the base of everything I design. The list compares several key values against each other to see if they are possible and if they should be modified. It also helps define the values better. The list checks to see if the rules of, for example, lighting and composition are contrary to each other and if the goal is possible and what direction to take. This extensive chapter will mostly be about the latter.A level is complex and it takes increasingly more time and effort to successfully complete one; thus failure is not an option. All the areas that could potentially cause a problem should be identified before starting any work. Once the design process starts it should go smoothly; design dilemmas should not occur or, if they do, should be easily overcome with few modifications to the overall plan. Getting stuck can be very demoralizing and time consuming. pg. 26THE CHECKLISTA level always begins with a goal, a theme, or both. The goal may be that the game requires a medieval castle, or that it’s missing an ominous environment, or that the level is to be the central hub of the game.After identifying the basic idea, certain key information needs to be pinned down before starting the level. This ‘key information’ will be referred to as ‘the keys’. The keys communicate important properties about the level. They are the key words the level is built around and provide more information on the level’s requirements.The following are questions to determine the key information for the level-to-be: • (1-Time) How much time is there available? Is there a deadline? • (2-Tech) What tools and game engine will be used? • (3-Limitations) What limitations are there? Is there a shortage of art assets or staff/personal skill limit? Can anything be made or are some aspects beyond the scope of the project because of their complexity? • (4-Requirements) What kind of requirements are there? Are there any specific elements, for example, special buildings or areas that have to be in the level? When compared to the rest of the game what visual style or theme must the level adhere to? • (5-Purpose) What is the overall purpose? For example, is it a multiplayer practice level or a singleplayer boss arena? • (6-Gameplay) What should the gameplay be like? How should it be played? Should there be enough room for a large boss encounter? Or does it need to be large enough to contain a large number of enemies attacking the player? Perhaps it’s a vehicle level? Or it is a stealth level? And so on. • (7-Theme) What theme and/or style will the level have? Will it be a castle or a jungle? Will the style be cartoonish or realistic?This is all essential information for a level. The order of the list is not as important as the answers. Once the essential elements of the level have been identified it can be run through a checklist to see if it holds up. Will it work? Look right? Play right?The keys provide the information while the checklist determines if it is possible or not. The checklist combines two or more keys in order to determine if they fit together or not. If the desired theme is a jungle, but the engine can’t handle rendering dense vegetation, then these are two keys that do not fit together and the design will need to be adjusted accordingly. This is the type of information the keys provide: essential information that design decisions can be based on before actually starting work on a level. Thinking ahead is the key to success.The checklist itself is a system for asking questions and making comparisons. The questions are different each time, but the comparisons remain the same. Verify that the individual elements compliment each other.Here's the entire Table of Contents: Download the attached PDF below, or view it here: *The Hows and Whys of Level Design is hosted on Next Level Design with permission from the authorFollow Sjoerd De JongWebsite: The Hows and Whys of Level Design.pdf