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Level Design: First Blocks

I hope everyone is doing well, enjoying playing or working on your games. In this post I am going to take us back to basics. My aim is to try help you better understand level design. If you are thinking about pursuing a career in Level Design or you have created a few levels already, yet still wondering how to improve them, then this post is for you.

In order to give you the best possible experience I decided to split this into a three part series:

Part 1: Level Designs role within the stages of game development

Part 2: Best practices to create great levels

Part 3: Personal skills which will help make you a great level designer.

The first step though is to give you all a little back story on me so you know who I am and the role level design has played in my life. My name is (Drum roll please) Max Pears. I am a professional level designer with over four years’ experience, I have worked on 10 released titles, ranging from mobile, augmented reality (indie) to triple A. I have worked at big companies such as Ubisoft and now currently CD Projekt Red. Hopefully that gives some insight to me so you can trust the words which follow.


Without a further ado let’s take this to the first section.

***This blog post will not be a tutorial for editors or which editors to use, but instead draw focus to the theory***

Level Design (Part 1) in the games development

(Please understand that the role of a LD is ever changing which means different roles and responsibilities on each project as well as within each company. Game development is constantly evolving, back in the 80s there was no such thing as a Level Designer, and now with procedural generating tech moving forward LDs responsibilities could be changing in the future.

All of this information comes from mine and my friend’s experiences, your experience may differ, if so please share it with us.)

In this section I’m going to be discussing the following topics:

Work flow within each stage of the project

Tips for each stage of the project

Understanding your employment

Routes to becoming a Level Designer

 

Pre-production

LDs will be involved in the pre-production stage of the game. Yet not many LDs will be involved in the early stages because the LDs involved in this process tend to be the leads and seniors, now this is not to say you won’t be involved in pre-production while being in the earlier stages of your career but these tasks require more experience. The reason being is because in this stage they are looking at the LD best practises, ranges of combat, metrics, the world map and more.

This takes times and TIP 1: experiment, you are in the very early stages, you are not expected to get anything right on your first try. You have the freedom to try as much as you can.

TIP 2: Embrace the change, a lot of work is going to be changed and sadly even thrown away, but at this stage it is okay and part of the process. Keep in mind these rules or best practises you set now, may be different during production because the mechanics may of changed or a change in the overall vision will impact your work.

Your main goal in this stage should be the feel of the mechanic/world/best practises. How much fun is it for example to jump? Does this alone excited you? That is what (in my opinion) you should be chasing in this early stage.

The length of pre-production is completely different on each project and at each company, but seriously take advantage of this period while you can, because sadly from my experience I have not seen enough companies spend enough time in pre-production. Really try to answer and raise as many questions as possible.   

Production

Most of your level design career (highlights) will be spent in production, which is the time when you are creating the game. The blueprint has been (roughly) set and you are now going to construct the area/mission for the game. You will be getting your hands dirty, actually making something come alive within your area.

However before you start letting your mind get ahead of you about this breathtaking, groundbreaking level you are going to create, you need to first understand a few things. You need to gather as much information as possible. TIP 3: Creating a level is going to involve more than just you (unless you are a 1 person team), it will involve programmers, narrative, artist, fx, sound, QA and production. One of the best things you can do is host a Kick off meeting, sit down with your team and discuss:

What is the theme for the game/area

Where in the game does your area takes place

Duration of the area

Story of the area

What mechanics/ingredients are available to you?

Once you have these answers, communicate the next steps with your teammates, make sure everyone is involved because if you make your team feel appreciated then they will give you 110%.   

You now know what the mission is about and who is your line of contact, which means it's time….. Too do your research ah you thought it was time to create didn’t you. TIP 4: Do as much research as possible for your area (if your game is based on real life locations) and its architecture. You want to gather as much research as possible, 100 images is just when you have just got started. Take your time with this, it can be a pain but in the long run your level will only benefit.  

What tends to happen after the research depends on the company's work flow, but you may be asked to present a 2d layout, flowchart, brief LD design doc or nothing. It completely depends on the company and their work flow. I personally do not see these as a bad thing, as it is scary looking at a blank screen and knowing you have to create something, so it can gives you a base to start from.

Now ...now and no joke, it would be time to create something awesome! (I won't give tips on what makes a good level YET because I will be discussing this in part 2)

Post-production

So this is an exciting time in a games development, you should have seen your game come together and seen something special. Now it is time take that special factor and push it even further. In this stage your goal is to

1) Make sure there is as little bugs as possible

2) Make sure your design intention/layout is clear to the players

3) Difficulty is correctly balanced

4) Optimize your area  

You will spend a good amount of time in this stage, you really need to make the most of your time! TIP 5: If you have no bugs then help out team mates who do. It is about polishing the game as much as possible.

Hopefully this process will go smoothly and you will be able to ship with a game that reaches your expectations as a developer.

Now you have a basic understanding of what happens in each stage of game development. Remember these few paragraphs do not represent how much time will actually be spent in each stage. Games take Years to make (some months depending on scope) so really try learn as much as you can at each stage because the best part of making games as well as being an LD is the fact that you get to learn each and every day.

Understanding Employment

Before I started to write this blog series I looked online for similar articles and there is quite a lot of beginner guides. Which is fantastic with some brilliant work out there as well. But none of them really explain the stages of development or what it is like to be hired, we all love making games yet we still need money to live. Which is why I decided to write the section above and now I am sharing this with you because there is a lot more things that come with being an LD than just making cool stuff. So I want you all to be prepared for it unlike I was.

Recently I have seen a trend with hiring LDs on temporary contracts. Some companies only hire us for the production and polish stage of a project. Now some of these contracts have lead to permanent contracts but others have sadly not. So when looking at these types of contracts, do ask what is the possibility of the contract getting extended or being made permanent. You can look at this as a good or bad thing, as it does allow you to move around which provides more variety of projects. Keep in mind though that from what I have seen more people seem to respect you more when you have seen a project through to the final stages. It what you as an individual make of it.

Other times you will get a permanent contract which for me personally is fantastic for my needs as it provides stability (plus moving all the time is such a stressful task). Again it is up to you what you want because a notice period on a permanent contract is often longer than that of a temporary one.

Each contract does come with a probation period, this is normal in All studios in which you have to prove your worth for the first 3-6 months. Just keep working hard and it will not be an issue.

Hope this helps, which makes you aware that there out temporary contracts out there, so please take the one which makes you happier.  

Routes to becoming a Level Designer

Now there are multiple routes to become a Level Designer, I do not know the all of them but I can tell you the ones which I am aware of.

Tester

In big studios there is normally a QA/Tester section in which lovely people test the LD work, helping to find issues with our levels (appreciate your Testers they are extremely helpful). People normally become a tester as a way into the game industry, then try move into a position like, animator, artist, and designer. This is one of the most common ways into the industry, you learn a lot about the process of making games which will help you when you test your own work and report bugs.

 

A con of this method is it takes time, it is highly unlikely that you will move to your desired position in a year or less. It seems to take between 2 – 4 years before people move, so please keep this in mind. If you do want to do this, then really make sure that you are networking with the devs as well as creating personal work in your spare time. If devs can see your work and not just hear your passion then it will increase your visibility.

Modding

I am unsure if this as common as it once was back in the early 2000s but I believe it is still a valid route. Some games (mainly pc versions) come with modding engines which allow players to experiment with the tool set for them to create something spectacular. One of the most recent games with this is Doom, they have a map builder, which allows players to create their own levels and post it online for others to play.

Using these tools allow you to build a strong folio, which looks professional because you already have the art assets. It is also a great way to get feedback and have your work tested because you release it to the internet. I know a few LDs who got their first job because of modding maps.

Uni

This is the route I went down. I have a degree in Game Design, I studied for three years. There are 1000s of universities around the world now offering degrees in game development, these can be extremely helpful in showing the right direction and offering you skills to gain a job in the game industry. However please do your research before picking a school because if you have to pay for a school then you need to make sure that you are getting your monies worth. Some schools suck and will be a waste of your time and money, so please look into your lecturers’ history, the affiliation of the school with studios and the employment rate of that University.

I cannot stress this enough! Just because you have a degree does not mean you are going to walk into a job after university. You must network, as well as do personal work to build up your folio. Most students have identical folios so you having personal work will only help you stand out.

I am sure others have come into this amazing industry through other methods but these are the main three which I have seen and I hope it points you in the direction you want to take to becoming a level designer.

Conclusion

This concludes part 1 of the series, I hope you have enjoyed this and has helped you to understand what you will be doing as an LD as well some of the paths available to you, to break into the industry. Please join us for part 2 in which I discuss 10 of the best practises for level design.

If you have enjoyed this article and are interested in seeing more of my work then please visit my author page so you do not miss out on any of my other articles. 

Author
MaxPears 22nd May 2017

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