Part One: Level Design
The Game Within the Game is a series of articles offering advice on how to become part of the gaming industry. This month’s installment focuses on level design, offering insight into the world of game development through the words of some of the industry’s top level designers.
I would like to thank all of the level designers whose contributions made this article possible: from Ritual Entertainment, Richard “The Levelord” Gray; from Raven Software, Eric Biessman; from Epic MegaGames: Eric Reuter and T. Elliot Cannon (AKA Myscha the Sled Dog); and from ION Storm: Rich “Zdim” Carlson, David “Cleaner” Namaksy, Matt “DaBug” Hooper, Steve Rescoe, and John “Dr. Sleep” Anderson. Their time and effort are greatly appreciated.
Just what is a level designer?
The obvious answer, of course, is ‘one who designs levels.’ But what, then, is a level? And how does one go about designing it? In reading comments from various level designers, I noticed a common thread ran through most of them. Anachronox level designer David Namaksy (AKA Cleaner) defines a level as “a believable environment for the player to experience.” Epic MegaGames’ Eric Reuter views the level as “a convincing and exciting world that the gamer will experience.” Ritual’s Richard “Levelord” Gray describes levels as “environments that are believable as well as beautiful.”
The Willing Suspension of Disbelief
Words such as ‘believable’ and ‘convincing’ reveal the underlying issue of credibility. To put it simply, a level designer must first design a compelling, convincing level before gamers will willingly suspend their disbelief and allow themselves to become fully immersed in a new world.
But what creates believability in a level? For ION Storm’s John “Dr. Sleep” Anderson, the challenge is to create a “convincing alternate reality.” “The levels need to be designed and detailed to the degree that, once inside, the player is immersed in a world whose internal logic is continuous and consistent,” says Sleep. “Level designers are the authors of this logic and are responsible for maintaining what the late John Gardner called the continuous fictive dream. One misstep (a misaligned or misplaced texture, a set of puzzles that makes no sense), and the player is immediately snapped back to conventional reality — woken from the dream — and he realizes that he just playing a game.”
Cleaner has developed a 3-part criteria for believability:1) sense of place (“Do players feel as though they are actually in a warehouse, bar, space station, etc?”), 2) creation of emotion (“Does the player feel scared, uneasy, or whatever is the proper emotion for that part of the game?”), and 3) the ‘fun factor’ (“Do cool traps, creature placement, and unique deathmatch situations add to the overall immersive effect?)
Making levels believable, for Levelord, “involves more than a few rules and principles, such as details, lighting, even framerate, that must be followed like a science.”
These three unique perspectives on creating believability reflect the forethought and ingenuity necessary to create cyber-realities that gamers will temporarily abandon conventional reality to experience.
The Role of the Level Designer
Beyond the credibility issue lies a question of function. What part does the level designer play in the overall scheme of a 3D game? A level, according to Dr. Sleep, is “the 3D environment in which everything else (programming, AI, music, artwork) is displayed…It’s up to the level designers to make everyone else’s work look good.” The level designer, then, is a facilitator, implementing art, programming, and music into a solid foundation for gameplay. “This means being able to work with artists, modelers, programmers, musicians, and sound effects specialists during the creative process,” says Eric Reuter, “and then cohesively blend and use all these resources to design the world of gameplay.”
More and more, level designers must see the ‘Big Picture’ in order to insure that their levels fit into the overall context of the game. “The role of a level designer seems to have gone through rapid evolution in the past 12 months,” says ION Storm’s Matt “DaBug” Hooper, a level designer on John Romero’s Daikatana team. “In the past, level designers concentrated more on each level of a game as one that could stand alone. Level design is now moving more toward game design and direction.”
Knowledge is the Key
Obviously, anyone seriously considering a career in level design should know his or her way around a computer. Becoming technically proficient, however, is only one aspect of a level designer’s education. While no formal curriculum exists for level design, there are specific areas of learning that directly benefit the design process.
What to Study
Nearly all of the level designers interviewed for this article named the study of architecture as an important part of their craft. Not surprising, since most levels exist within architectural structures.
David “Cleaner” Namaksy, who spent six years in architectural school followed by eight years as a professional architect, found that his studies and experience helped him build a natural bridge to the world of level design. “As part of being an architect,” he says, “I spent a lot of time working with 3D visualization tools (3D Studio, AutoCad, Photoshop, etc.) attempting to recreate the experiences a person would have from the real building in a virtual world.”
A background in art is also essential. “Someone who studies art,” says Eric Reuter, “will have greater insight into lighting, use of color, and contrast that will come in handy for a level designer.”
So how, then, does one go about building the necessary pool of knowledge required to be a successful level designer?
Although no formal education is required, college courses can provide a thorough background in subjects useful in designing levels. “I firmly believe that the more grounded your knowledge in the liberal arts (literature, art, history), the better equipped you’ll be to design convincing 3D worlds,” says Dr. Sleep, whose Daikatana levels depend on his in-depth knowledge of mythology, history, art, and architectural design.
Another benefit of formal education is access to equipment. “School is hot,” says Epic MegaGames’ T. Elliot Cannon (AKA Myscha the Sled Dog), “because you have access to equipment (ie: computers) that you might not be able to personally afford.”
Self-education is often more useful than formal study because it allows students to tailor learning to fit their individual goals. For an aspiring level designer, self-teaching should consist not only of reading and surfing the Internet, but careful observation and imitation as well.
Books are essential tools for level designers. “I highly recommend going to your local café and bookstore, ordering a cup o’ java, and perusing the picture books related to the theme of your level,” says Levelord. “Architecture books are profoundly inspiring if your level is from the past.”
Myscha also recognizes the immense value of reading in educating oneself. “If I wanted to learn as much as possible about design without having to get a master’s degree somewhere,” he says, “I would always read anything and everything I could get my hands on about architecture and design.”
From screenshots and playable demos to downloadable software and industry .plan files, the Internet is a wellspring of information for level designers.
ION Storm’s Rich “Zdim” Carlson, an avid net surfer, is a firm believer in the educational potential of the Internet. “You can educate yourself,” he says. “But, first and foremost, you need a beefy computer and access to the Internet to do this.”
Levelord agrees: “I know that having studied a bit of computer vision has helped me greatly (optical illusions and the processes that the visual cortex uses to convert the 2D retinal image into the internal 3D scene), and studying art and how to portray art have also helped me. All of these topics can be found on the Internet…”
The Power of Observation
Like all artists, level designers must have a keen eye. Eric Reuter’s advice to aspiring designers: “Take in all that you see. Interesting buildings, incredible and beautiful landscapes. The nature of the world around you. You need to draw inspiration from these things, and take note of what you see…Just take a look around your home sometimes, and take a close look at the light sources and complex shadows that form (I’ve done this a lot). You’ll learn something you can apply to level design just by doing that.”
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
In an industry where it pays to have a singular style, one may think of imitation as a waste of time, at best. Not so, according to Dr. Sleep: “As far as self-teaching, your best bet is to examine as closely as possible levels by other people whose work you admire. Learn through imitation. If you’re any good, you’ll develop your own style through the absorption of others’.”
Tools of the Trade
“Probably the most singly important aspect of your system is the memory,” says Levelord, whose sentiments echo most of those expressed by level designers interviewed for this article. “So if you’re serious, get some RAM! My system at home, which I’d classify as ‘adequate’, is a P233 with 128 meg o’ RAM. Of course, if you can limit your levels to smaller 2-player deathmatch size, any good Pentium should do.”
“Use the fastest computer you can afford,” adds Eric Reuter. ” Lots of memory, and a fast 2D video card, as well as a good 3D card. Level design is infinitely more productive the less time you spend constructing, moving, modifying and rebuilding / vis’ing.”
While most level designers agree that the biggest hardware consideration is memory, they differ on the issue of level designing software. ION Storm’s Steve Rescoe started out with Quest and still uses it sometimes. For beginners, he says, “BSP or WORLDCRAFT seem to be good editors to start out with.” Zdim also endorses WORLDCRAFT, calling it “great for beginners and advanced users alike.” Myscha, on the other hand, “strongly suggests” that beginners learn 3D Studio or Lightwave.
“Ultimately,” says Cleaner, “software choice is largely a matter of personal preference. Find an editor that feels comfortable to you and begin building maps. After you become familiar with one, explore the subtle differences between editors and, in time, you will find the one that best corresponds to your approach.”
Cleaner uses BSP as his main building tool. “But,” he says, “I also use quake ed, WORLDCRAFT, Quool, 3D Studio, Notepad, and, from time to time, just about any other tool that has been made for editing QUAKE maps. The more tools you can use, the freer you will be to create the environments you see in your head.”
Influences and Inspiration
Beyond the educational value of books lies their ability to inspire. “My inspiration pool, ” say Dr. Sleep, “is fed through a lot of reading, and then sitting around and thinking about what I’ve read.”
Matt Hooper views literature as the seeds of inspiration that grow within his own imagination: “I get a lot of ideas from books and movies, and those ideas evolve into something very different then the original concept.”
Watching The Pros
As in any art form, beginners often draw inspiration from those who have established themselves at the top of their fields. Both Cleaner and Dr. Sleep list American McGee as early influences. Dr. Sleep was also influenced by the work of John Romero, the designer for whom he now works.
The lesson here is simple. By studying the work of the ‘Big Names,’ beginning level designers can expand their creative powers by analyzing the elements of works that they respect.
Childhood memories and the ability to see the world through the eyes of a child also provide inspiration. “I’d have to say that memories of my childhood have been most inspiring to me overall,” says Levelord. “The foundation of my own underlying inspiration is self-reflective. I am usually, if not always actually, in the very same frame of mind that I was between the ages of 5 and 13. I feel exactly as I did while playing with G.I. Joes and Major Matt Masons and those little green army dudes. I go into a semi-trance, I think, in which I really am submerged in the level and the intended fight scenes and great battles and victories and the conquests and pillaging and raping…Seriously, I think I’m most inspired vision-wise by my own childhood and the level sort of flows from there.”
Zdim also finds inspiration in his childhood memories: “I still think that playing with Legos and erector sets, as well as building models, when I was a kid, has given me a lot to go on.”
What You Know and Who You Know: Breaking Into the Industry
Since the primary purpose of this article is to instruct aspiring level designers on how to break into the gaming industry, the following comments appear, unedited and in their entirety, so that all of the level designers interviewed can make their points fully.
David “Cleaner” Namaksy (ION Storm, Anachronox): “Do lots of levels. Look at other people’s levels, find ones that you like and try to recreate them your self. Try to get your level to have the same feel as the levels that you like. Try to understand why you like certain spaces – is it the size, the proportions, the lighting, the textures. Once you understand what makes the cool spaces apply those ideas to your levels. Spend lots of time doing the lighting, this I believe is the single most important thing in quake levels. Many great levels have very simple layouts but very cool lighting effects. By the same token I have seen levels that had really wonderful architecture and layouts but the lighting just is not there.”
Eric Reuter (Epic MegaGames, Unreal): “Prospective level designers need to follow a few basic steps to make themselves get noticed. First, set out to create some completely awesome levels. (Yeah, simple, right?). Using whatever tools are at your disposal (today its a Quake or Quake II editor, tomorrow, UnrealEd for example), and set out to accomplish the following:
1) First, take a good look at the best levels ever created. My personal favorites are DOOM 1 Shareware, Quake Episode 1,Scourge of Armagon, and Dr. Sleep’s Dante’s Gate for DOOM 1/2. From my first look at Quake2, the levels are absolutely stunning. Duke Nukem 3D also featured some of the most realistic, interactive levels ever created. All of these share a few fundamental things that made them great. Unique Architecture. Terrific lighting. Inspired special effects and level design tricks. Above all, great balance, and supreme gameplay. Quake’s E1M2 comes to mind as a particularly good example. A simple trick, at the end of the map, this early in the game was absolutely great. The levitating cubes that rise from the floor, then open the door, with the fiend pouncing out, caused more than a few people to jump from their chairs, or need a new pair of shorts. That was simple, but terrific.
2) Create a few exceptional levels, not a bunch of “good” ones. 2 or 3 excellent maps are better than 20 decent ones. Try to incorporate something unique, use your creativity, try something you haven’t seen in a level anywhere before. Use convincing and exciting architecture, paying attention to details like texture alignment, and make the lighting perfect. This takes days, not hours.
3) Test and refine your levels. Play them in single player. Have your friends play them and give you feedback. Play them in multiplayer, to death. Make the gameplay balance perfect, set appropriate difficulty levels for weapons, ammo and monsters. Show them to your Mom and Dad, and promise them that this is just a phase you’ll likely soon outgrow :-). Seriously, playtest the levels you make till you hate to look at them anymore.
4) When you think you’ve got some great stuff, show it off!. Upload the levels everyplace you can think, (usenet, AOL, CompuServe, ftp sites), including a text file with details about your level, and yourself, including e-mail address and copyright info. (a good idea). Keep constant vigil at various game companies’ websites, on the lookout for level designer positions. Many companies today are soliciting levels from would-be designers. Contact companies directly and offer to show your work. Don’t underestimate your work, or sell yourself short. Be pushy. Tell them you’re great, and then back it up with those kick-ass maps you made!
Learn as much about how game engines work at the same time you learn about creating levels and using editors and 3rd party brush tools. Make as many well crafted maps as possible. Learn to see every last inch of detail in your head before you make it and go back and look at it again in the game and make it even better. Try to imagine yourself as the level designer in charge of your own company and that you are going to make a ground breaking level from a gameplay and design standpoint-Then do it.”
Steve Rescoe (ION Storm, Daikatana): “Make the best levels you can, maybe they’ll get noticed.”
Matt “DaBug” Hooper (ION Storm, Daikatana): “I don’t really think there is any step by step instructions on how to break into the industry. Unfortunately being in the right place at the right time holds true for lots of jobs including level designing. But standing out never hurts :). And loving what you do also helps.”
T. Elliot Cannon, AKA Myscha the Sled Dog (Epic MegaGames, Unreal): If your style you develop over time and your passion is self evident submit your work to those who seem to share your ideas about gaming.”
Rich “Zdim” Carlson (ION Storm, Anachronox): “Build. Build. Build. Practice makes perfect. Don’t dwell on one map forever; build as many maps as you can, with a different idea/theme for each map. Try out EVERYTHING! Look at other user levels to see what other people are doing. Share your levels on the Internet and get involved in a feedback process. Sooner or later, if you’re knowledgeable enough and creative enough, you’ll land a job. (Don’t submit your levels to game companies until you’ve built and tested a ton of maps.)”
Richard “Levelord” Gray (Ritual Entertainment, SiN): “Don’t talk about wanting, listen to Nike! All of the people already in the industry were well known before they became paid pros. Here’s a good story for you… Our latest level hire is a demi-god name Charlie Wiederhold. I actually met Charlie a year and a half ago at a local Duke Nukem tourney in Fort Worth. He had done the deathmatch level and definitely made sure I knew who he was before I left the place… He wasn’t obnoxious or overbearing, he just made sure he got his level into the match and made sure ‘someone’ saw it. I could also see the Locomotive Breath in his eyes. Well, a year and a half went by, I had loooong forgotten his name, and found myself looking at some very promising levels submitted to us. They were good levels, they were plenty levels, and they were finished levels. He came in for an interview and, well, here he is… …getting paid to do levels…