The Dallas Morning News: Levelord Rules Over Game Design

Levelord rules over game design:

Mysterious ‘superhero’ known for Duke Nukem strives for originality


By Harley Jebens / The Dallas Morning News

Don’t bother asking him what his real name is.

“As with any superhero, I simply cannot reveal my true identity,” he says, adding, without a hint of modesty and with more than a touch of self-promotion, “Let’s just say that I design levels for first-person shooter games and that I am the lord!”

And thus, he goes by the handle “Levelord.”

But for hardcore fans of Quake and other computer games whose primary object is to blast enemy after enemy while completing a quest, that sobriquet is all that’s needed.

They know that Levelord got his start as an amateur designing virtual environments for the computer game Doom, the precursor to Quake. The levels he created caught the eye of Apogee/3D Realms in Dallas, which hired him to work on another shooter called Blood. But it was on Apogee/3D Realms’ game Duke Nukem that Levelord earned his reputation as a master level-designer.

Duke Nukem became the game of the moment in its genre and the mark by which other first-person shooter games were judged – at least until id Software, another Dallas company, developed Quake.

When a handful of artists and designers at Apogee/3D Realms decided to form their own company in 1996, Levelord joined them. That company, now known as Ritual Entertainment, cut its teeth on a software package of additional features for Quake called Scourge of Armagon.

And now Ritual is putting the finishing touches on SiN, a game it hopes will set new standards in the first-person shooter category by giving the player character a sidekick and by introducing what it calls “action-based outcomes”: What your character does on one level influences scenarios on subsequent levels. The company will release a demo version of SiN on Sunday at the Cyberathlete Professional League Event in Dallas.

In a response to written questions from The Dallas Morning News’ Harley Jebens, Levelord discussed first-person shooters, the art behind level design and the enduring attraction of Quake.

DMN: You’re known for your work in 3-D first-person shooter-type games a la Doom, Duke Nukem, and Quake, etc., etc. Can you describe what typifies this type of game?

Levelord: This game genre is best represented as a lot of childish humor, tons of vague and obscure references to movies and songs that cater to juvenile audiences and copious amounts of gore and bloody violence . . . very much like Bugs Bunny.

It is a PC computer-based game in which the player is immersed in a rendered 3-D world typically habituated by evil, wicked bad guys and monsters. The player is challenged to travel through the game, which is subdivided into levels for the sake of game play compartmentation as well as physical hardware limitations.

The player must solve simple puzzles, usually related to subduing foes and navigating dangerous environments, and is rewarded with increasingly powerful weapons and goodies. The objective, although sounding a bit simple as I state it here, is to merely survive until the end of the game. It is very cool and very addicting behavior!

DMN: What was the first game in the first-person shooter genre that you played? What was your reaction to playing a game like this?

Levelord: The first FPS I played was Castle Wolfenstein. I was instantly hooked. I can still hear my girlfriend at the time saying, “Why don’t we go out and do things in the real world anymore?” and “Haven’t you been in that room once already?” and “We don’t talk anymore!” and . . . I wonder where she is now. Anyhow . . . I have loved each and every FPS that has come out since Wolfenstein.

DMN: Was it the game play itself or the environments in which the game play occurred that attracted you to this type of game?

Levelord: Some had great environments, true, and others, not so great! Although the environment immensely helps in the immersion effect of a game – that is, making the player believe he/she is really in a “place” – it’s the action and game play that make for truly great FPS games. Similar to good ambience in a restaurant, it’s the food that brings in the diners.

DMN: When people are talking about a “level” in a game, what do they mean?

Levelord: FPS’s are typically subdivided into three or so episodes, and each episode is further split into a dozen or so levels. There are two reasons for this dividing. The first is to increment the story and the development of the game play similar to the flow of a written story with its chapters and such.

A great game will lead the player along a crescendo of increasing action and intrigue until there is a . . . peak, where he/she is then dropped off into a resolution and closure . . . again, very similar to a written story or movie.

The second reason FPS’s are separated into episodes and levels is because the limitations of current computer hardware. We simply cannot fit the entire game into the typical user’s memory and video card and such. So the game is split up and taken in manageable pieces.

DMN: What are the steps to creating a level for a game like Quake or SiN?

Levelord: Well, I have written more than a half-dozen articles explaining the process of level designing, and I’m still not done yet . . . so I’m afraid I can’t do much here. However, I can tell you that it isn’t much different than when I would play with my action figures as a child – setting up war scenes and running through the sequences of violent destruction and blood and death and . . . remember?

DMN: What makes your levels special? What distinguishes a Levelord level from everyone else’s?

Levelord: Frankly, I don’t know. I always enjoy my comrade’s levels much more than mine. Allan Blum’s levels on Duke Nukem were much better than mine, and the five hotshot SiN level designers we have here, especially Tom “Paradox” Mustaine, are incredibly better than mine.

I can say, however, with tongue in cheek, that I try to be original and do things that have never been done before. For instance, I like to think I was the first level designer to bring the player outside and into truly natural-looking environments such as mountainous regions and jungles and such . . . as opposed to the typically orthogonal, straight-edged interior levels of other level designers.

DMN: One thing that I think distinguishes Quake from a lot of the other computer games out there is the community that has developed around the game and the longevity of that community. Is that true, do you think? Why did a community develop around this particular game?

Levelord: It’s not Quake exactly; it’s more id. Anything they do is groundbreaking. They are like the Beatles of the industry . . . or even better, because of their followers . . . the Grateful Dead.

DMN: What do you think characterizes this community? How would you, for instance, describe your average Quake fan?

Levelord: Unfortunately, our fans are typically pre- and post-adolescent males with nothing better to do than play games. I want girls screaming and throwing panties and . . . well, you know.

I often wonder what a lot of these people do for a living. Many seem to be online either playing games or talking about playing games the entire day, each and every day.

DMN: Will there be a “Quake-killer”? What will it take to be so? Is SiN that game? Why or why not?

Levelord: Nothing will kill Quake. That’s like asking what will kill War of the Worlds orForbidden Planet. There will be new blood, akin to Aliens and Terminator, perhaps, but the classics are always classic.

What we need to do as developers is create new and different ways of using the FPS paradigms in games. The hardware will soon make for almost realistic re-creation of real worlds, and I don’t think passive movies are going to be the mainstay of entertainment for too much longer.

A more interactive, viewer-participant form of entertainment will soon take over passive television and movies like television and movies did to radio in the ’50s and ’60s. Radio didn’t vanish, but it sure wasn’t the same.

For instance, I dream of the day that I can make a Dirty Harry-esque movie in which I have accurately re-created New York City to the finest detail, perhaps from triangulated satellite imagery, and the player is challenged to navigate from one end to the other with all the realism of doing the same in the real Big Apple.

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