Best Of GDC – Level Design


The third part in this series on the best GDC talks is all about the art and science of level design. Originally I’d intended these talks to be included in the previous entry on game design, but as I was putting that list together I realised over half of talks I’d chosen were actually about level design, so the subject really deserved it’s own post.

Level design and game design are very much two sides of the same coin, with levels a way of creating meaningful structures from the rules and systems defined by the design. While it’s certainly possible for games to exist without distinct levels (say Chess or Football), most modern digital games are clearly designed to be explored through a range of designer-made scenarios, whether it’s the complex arangement of ledges, hazards and pickups in a platformer, the sweeping corners of an arcade racer, or the subtle environmental puzzles of a stealth adventure, levels provide a way for players to explore a game’s design.

Ten Principles for Good Level Design

By Dan Taylor from Square Enix Montreal – GDC 2013
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

In this interesting and thoughtful talk, level designer Dan Taylor outlines the key ingredients every designer can use to improve the quality of their work. Taylor’s ten principles cover a wide range of areas, from architectural readability, to player psychology and communication through environmental storytelling.

As Taylor talks us through each of his ten principles, he uses many well known games to illustrate his points. Starting by discussing how the clear and readable city of Mirrors Edge contrasts with the messy complexity of Call Of Duty’s favela level, he explains how each environment has been constructed to produce very different player experiences. Further examples include a look at how Bioshock embeds it’s story into the details of it’s environment and how Halo makes the most of it’s best locations through the use of bi-directional mission structures. Above all, Taylor argues that great level design is the art of creating spaces that really showcase a game’s mechanics, exploring their boundaries through interesting and creative gameplay that keeps the player engaged and surprised without needing to overcomplicate the underlying elements of a game’s design.

A great follow up to Taylor’s talk is this overview of Mario 3D World’s level design from Game Maker’s Toolkit. This short video explains how that game’s levels were built around a four part structure, which enabled Nintendo’s designers to quickly introduce new concepts to the player, before challenging them with more dangerous and complex scenarios. I think this four part structure also provides an excellent foundation for exploring many of the principles set out in Taylor’s presentation.

The Importance of Nothing: Using Negative Space in Level Design

By Jim Brown from Epic Games – GDC 2014
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

Jim Brown’s excellent discussion of negative space in level design looks at the topic through the lens of a single map from the Unreal Tournament series. Regularly named as one of the best multiplayer FPS maps ever designed, Facing Worlds (UT Facing), provides the perfect platform for Brown’s discussion of the do’s and don’ts of great multiplayer level design. By comparing and contrasting each subsequent iteration of UT Facing, Brown helps us understand what made the original map so popular and how to leverage those qualities in our own levels.

Using examples from each revision of the map, Brown explains how readability and navigability of a virtual space is based on the subtle interactions of it’s component parts, from a level’s colour palette, lighting and contrast levels, to it’s architectural detail and player-relative scale. Using this framework, Brown explores what each version of the map does well, while also highlighting their flaws and showing how they were addressed in later revisions. Along the way he also references the evolution of a similarly troubled multiplayer map from the Gears of War series, to further illustrate the issues that can occur when game design goals are overshadowed by the race to cram ever more detail into virtual environments.

Overall, this talk excels as a detailed case study, where observations and analysis are backed up with user metrics, giving practical advice that will help improve your own approach to level design. As a follow up, I’d recommend a couple of great articles that address some other aspects of FPS map design. These are Mike Stout’s series on the elements of good multiplayer map design and Chris Carney’s crash course in map design, where the Bungie designer shares his paper based approach to map making.

Empowering the Player: Level Design in N++

By Mare Sheppard from Metanet Software – GDC 2016
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

This talk by Mare Sheppard has to be one of the best discussions on platform game level design available online. Over the past decade, Metanet’s Sheppard and Burns have created over 10,000 levels for the N series, and their detailed understanding of the subject is clear to see in this talk.

Sheppard starts by outlining the unique core mechanics of N++, and explains how these characteristics deeply influence the game’s levels. She states that a level designer’s job is to explore the possibility space that’s been created by a game’s rules, systems and mechanics. Put simply, a game’s levels must explore everything made possible by it’s design, they must be a showcase for every aspect of that design.

Throughout the talk, Sheppard uses video examples of levels from N++ to illustrate her points. We learn how the different elements of a game’s design can influence the way players interact with it’s levels. Traversal patterns emerge indirectly from the combination of environmental tiles, character abilities and physical constants. Enemies modify these pathways by placing direct pressure on the player, while collectables influence a player’s navigation choices in more subtle ways. The way a designer combines these elements to explore every angle of a platform game’s possibility space is the art of level design.

Echoing Chris McEntee’s thoughts from his discussion of the UbiArt framework, Sheppard notes that great design comes as much from experience as it does from your process. Having tools which allow you to quickly try out ideas and experiments means you can fail fast and fail often, which is vital in the pursuit of those moments of inspiration that will truly bring your game to life. To illustrate how the studio works within these short cycles of experimentation and refinement, she shares time-lapse video of levels being created, showing just how many revisions are produced during the design of a single level.

For me, the key takeaway from this presentation is Sheppard’s description of level design as a conversation between designer and player. Levels need to be challenging, yet fair, they must cover a range of intensity, from calm to extreme, and they should gradually introduce new ideas to players, while continually testing their knowledge of everything they have previously learned. But most importantly, designers must engage the player in a dialog, providing them with the freedom to tackle levels in their own way, allowing them to express themselves through the very same systems and mechanics that are used to challenge them.

The Worlds of Sunset Overdrive

By Liz England from Insomniac Games – GDC 2015
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

Sunset Overdrive was an interesting game for a lot of reasons, the bright vibrant art style, the punk rock attitude, the multi-layered environments, and the fact it was the first open world game from a studio best known for linear shooters. In this talk, Liz England, game designer at Insomniac, guides us through the studio’s three major attempts at building the open world city featured in the final game.

We learn how the first version of the city was built around a completely different type of game, a slower and more deliberate survival adventure, with an emphasis on scavenging and crafting, but none of the complex traversal systems found in the final product. This city was replaced by a second attempt, after the introduction of new mechanics like wall-running and rail-grinding made the environment incompatible with the characters that now inhabited it. But while the second city was built around the new traversal system, the studio creating it was still inexperienced with open world gameplay and the freedom of choice that players expect from the genre. This in turn led to a third version of the city that played to the strengths of the new traversal system, while also providing a truly open environment that was layered with alternative routes for players to explore.

If you liked this talk, be sure to check out Liz England’s blog, especially her excellent series of video game book reviews, which covers books on every aspect of video games, from design textbooks to critical theory and cultural studies.

The Level Design of Gone Home

By Kate Craig & Steve Gaynor from Fullbright – GDC 2015
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

Upon release, Gone Home won awards and critical acclaim for the way it tells a personal story through the open-ended exploration of an authentic mid-90’s family home. Yet, despite appearances, the manor house featured in the game had just as much in common with traditional video game environments as it did with genuine late 19th century architecture.

Presented by artist Kate Craig and designer Steve Gaynor, this talk covers many important aspects of the team’s approach to level design, and how their methods were tailored specifically to the demands of Gone Home. Gaynor states that while each individual room does feel authentic, the overall layout of the house is not based in reality, and is even physically impossible in parts. He explains how the house actually follows many traditional video game conventions, it has a hub-and-spoke layout to give players the sense of a non-linear space, while also using gated entry to specific areas, to ensure that events unfold in the order the designer intended.

Far from realistic, the Greenbriar’s home nonetheless feels authentic, thanks to a very carefully constructed illusion. Layout, content and structure were the product of painstaking research and experimentation, part of a process that aimed to mesh the real and the virtual in service of a rich and engrossing story. Kate Craig highlights the extents that the team went to in this respect, sharing many of the research sources she used to fill out the grey box environments with believably accurate period details to evoke the sense of an authentic mid-90’s home. She also explains why the team reduced the size of the game’s rooms over the course of development, choosing to focus on fewer more meaningful details, rather than fill each area with lots of visual noise. The pair note with interest, that many players have praised the realism of the game’s environments, but explain how the density of detail in real life is far beyond what you would ever want in a game, because it would be too much for players to process. Gaynor also explains how this tendency towards iconic representation and amplification through simplification was directly influenced by Scott Cloud’s classic book on visual language, Understanding Comics.

Overall, Gaynor and Craig do an excellent job of explaining the various design principles and visual theory that guided the development of Gone Home. They also highlight the considerable effort required to make the house feel believable and the work that went into populating it with layers of meaning that help to enrich the story being told.

Making the World of Firewatch

By Jane Ng from Campo Santo – GDC 2016
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

In this excellent multi-disciplinary talk, Campo Santo’s Jane Ng discusses the design, art, technology and production workflows that the studio used to create the expansive and beautiful world seen in Firewatch. As the sole 3D artist in a small team, Ng explains how the studio managed to create such a convincingly vast environment with such limited resources.

The talk begins by looking at how the team worked around Unity’s scene limitations by breaking the game’s open world into smaller parts that could be worked on independently and stitched back together at runtime. As Ng demos this streaming tech, we learn that the outdoor environment caused many level design headaches because uninterrupted sight lines meant players would often see parts of the map disappear around them. To fix this, many tricks were used at key points in the terrain to hide the streaming process behind environmental features such as dips and corridor-like rock formations.

Later in the talk, we learn much about the team’s approach to world design. Ng states that the studio had to focus on quality over quantity, explaining how she created just 23 trees for the game, hand-placing them at about 4600 locations, to ensure she made the most of the limited resources she had. We also learn that the team struggled to prototype the world in a way that could effectively communicate the feelings they were hoping to evoke in the final product. Grey boxing just didn’t enable them to understand whether the environment was going to be interesting and beautiful enough to support a game based almost entirely around walking and talking. As a result, they had to build a high quality vertical slice of the game’s starting area, which required all of the game’s systems to be working, taking about 15 months to complete. Once proven, the team used this process to build out the remainder of the game’s world, before doing a number of quality passes to finalise the look of the entire landscape. Ng illustrates this process with comparison images that show how close the first pass actually looked to the final game, demonstrating how much more effective this approach was than a traditional grey boxed environment.

For even more insight into the making of Firewatch, be sure to watch Jake Rodkin’s talk, which goes into more detail about the challenges the team faced while trying to grey box the outdoor environments.

For a different perspective on level building, it’s also worth watching this presentation on the level design process of Star Wars Battlefront. It’s interesting to note the many parallels between that blockbuster project and Firewatch’s indie approach, as both games used a small number of high quality assets to create believable outdoor environments without the need for a traditional grey box approach.

Fallout 4’s Modular Level Design

By Joel Burgess & Nathan Purkeypile from Bethesda – GDC 2016
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

The worlds Bethesda make are consistently epic in scale and rich with detail, but the studio’s team is relatively small by the standards of modern big budget game development. This talk by level designer Joel Burgess and artist Nathan Purkeypile, is the latest in a line of excellent presentations by the company about the processes it uses to ship such ambitious games.

In this presentation the duo explain how Bethesda’s level building workflow and toolset have evolved since the release of Skyrim, to become more granular and flexible, allowing for environments made of smaller building blocks that are no longer restricted to a pre-defined grid. They show how this change has required them to adopt new development practices to ensure the team can get the most out of the extra granularity without being overwhelmed by the complexity of building vast environments from such small parts.

The talk goes on to describe how the team have had to optimise their level design process to avoid being overwhelmed. We see how priority was given to creating a vast number of texture variations for the most basic building blocks in the game, rather than focussing on the creation of many special one-off hero pieces. This allowed designers the flexibility to create unique looking environments by mixing many different texture packs together, or to quickly reuse rooms in different locations, by simply changing which texture pack the room used.

Another highlight of the talk is a look at how Boston was recreated for the game. Burgess explains how the team worked hard to balance visual accuracy with the need to create an environment that is fun and rewarding to explore. It would be interesting to compare Bethesda’s approach here, with those used in the creation of the recent Assassins Creed games set in Paris and London, which also utilise a similar condensed and simplified representation of a real world city.

As Burgess mentions, this talk is a follow up to an earlier presentation about the making of Skyrim from 2013. While some of the details of that presentation have been superseded by their new workflow, it is still worth reading the transcript on Joel’s blog, as it covers many other level design practices used at Bethesda, such as kit bashing, the team’s creative re-use of art assets.

Another important element of Bethesda’s design and development process is a highly structured, phased approach to level design. In his 2014 presentation, Joel Burgess outlines each step in that process, from initial layouts to final polish. You can watch it on the GDC Vault, or read the transcript on Joel’s blog, either way, it is highly recommended, as it provides further detail on the processes that enable Bethesda to make games on such an epic scale.


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