Designing Levels by Dario Casali

Designing Levels
by: Dario CasaliMACRO WORK:

  • figure out a consistent texture theme
  • lighting styles
  • item mix
  • then do the micro design work – as I go.
  • I also tend to make puzzles immediately obvious, holding the solution
  • back until the player already knows the puzzle exists.

3D Map design concept creation:

The way I see it, there are two design elements to a good map. I’m borrowing from classical Economic theory when I use their terms – Micro and Macro. The Macro elements to the map are: the overview of how it fits into the game; the main events the player must cause / encounter; the overall setting and atmosphere of the map; and what the main gameplay area is going to look and function like. These are always decided before I do anything with the computer. These elements are printed in my mind and never leave until the map is finished. That way it’s hard to deviate from your original goal, and your map achieves what it set out to.

Once those things have been worked out, the Micro elements of map design come into play. If you look at my maps, from my Final Doom maps to my current Half-Life maps, you will see one thing that is blatantly consistent. There is always a main area around which gameplay hinges. I like to give the player reassurance that he isn’t going to get lost in the map or baffled beyond sense by places or puzzle elements that are too hard to find. There are many one line-tips I’ll give in a moment. Once the Macro elments to the map have been laid out in my head, I’m free to start the actual building.

Placing world items and opponents:

I’m very careful to create and maintain a very particular atmosphere when building the map. If I’ve decided to create tension and unrest, I will place helpful items sparsely and opponents (monsters) plentifully. However, it’s not simply a matter of quantity. Monster placement is a very big issue for me as it can completely ruin a well constructed and thought out map. In Half-Life, we are committed to not placing monsters who are simply waiting for the player to stumble into them. I place monsters according to what they’d be doing had they really been there. For example, a huge beast is roaming some abandoned train tunnels, killing everything it sees. There are several sqauds of human soldiers occupying the area and they have established temporary communication centers and barricaded entrances with destroyable obstacles, so when the player ventures near the comm centers, he actually encouncters patrols, guard points and weak defence areas, giving the player a far more real sense of tension and atmosphere than had the soldiers been standing about in dark corners.

Placing helpful world items such as health, ammo and weapons is more of a playtesting-tweaking thing that can only be roughly worked out before you play the map through.

Playtesting the map:

When you know the behaviours of the opponents you placed and the functionality of the traps and puzzles you designed, you can pretty much tell what the gameplay is going to be like before you actually play the level. Playtesting most commonly reveals slips in texture placement, alignment, or little bugs like getting stuck somewhere. It’s amazingly educational to see someone who doesn’t play a lot of 3D games to walk through your map!

Tips on Artistic design:

  • At the risk of sounds pompous and arrogant, I believe there is a certain art to creating interesting, cohesive and believable 3D maps. Because even the smallest detail can ruin the immersiveness and reality of a map.
  • Attention to detail is paramount to the maintenance of atmosphere.
  • Texture colours must work together. Getting the correct mix of contrast and colour blending takes time.
  • Use light to your advantage. Darkness can conceal areas, darkness represents the unknown for all of us. Imagine a corridor that slowly bends downwards into darkness. It makes the player apprehensive when he can’t see what he’s about to enter.
  • Spend a lot of time on texture choice!! Why should the first one you choose necessarily be the most appropriate?

Tips on Creative design:

  • Never go with your prototype. There’s always room for improvement, there’s always something else you can add to a scene to improve it.
  • Try to imagine something you haven’t seen happen before. Remember the computer enables you to break all the laws of physics!
  • What would YOU like to see happen in the map? Chances are if you pull it off the way you see it, it’ll be cool.

Tips on Immersive design:

  • Using sounds can really add to immersion. Sounds which can’t be associated with anything visible cause the player to wonder what’s causing it. A monster whose bellow can be heard way before you actually encounter him builds atmosphere (take the cyberdemon in Doom for example)
  • Ambient sounds build realism. If you’ve got a chain swinging gently, add a sound to that effect.
  • Create believable encounters. Place monsters thoughtfully.

Tips on Gameplay design:

  • Never give the player a puzzle whose solution is presented before or at the same time that the problem is.
  • Make sure the player can never be frustrated by your layout design and puzzle. If he tries too many times to jump somewhere or find a hidden entrance, the player will cheat if he has the knowhow, and even worse may give up if he can’t cheat!
  • Try to introduce new gameplay twists into maps that give the player a refreshing change from the norm. Rarely will I see something done in a map and think “wow, I’ve got to do that!” because it’s already been done.

Where I get my ideas:

My brain??? Obviously I get draw inspiration from many different sources. Sometimes I’m trying to get to sleep and I’m bugged by things that won’t go away, so I write them down. Being out and amongst people fuels my creative fire, as does walking alone. I seriously doubt that anyone reading this wants to know those things though!

Dario Casali has designed many 3-D levels for many big games. His credits include The Final Doom for id software, and Half-Life for Valve.

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