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GDC 2010 - Level Design in a Day Part 1. Preproduction: Ed Byrne, Creative Director, Zipper Interactive
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GDC 2010 - Level Design in a Day Part 1. Preproduction: Ed Byrne, Creative Director, Zipper Interactive

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Please note: There is a ton of good information in the notes sections of these presentations. Please download locally and view in PowerPoint to experience all the juicy details. …

Please note: There is a ton of good information in the notes sections of these presentations. Please download locally and view in PowerPoint to experience all the juicy details.

In this intense day-long tutorial, attendees will gain deep insights from some of the most experienced level designers in the industry into every aspect of the level design process, from basic navigation and object manipulation tips and tricks to best practices for encounter design and level flow. As the development discipline responsible for crafting the vastly important moment-to-moment player experience, a deep understanding of core level design principles becomes essential for level designers, game designers and design managers alike. Likewise, an intimate familiarity with the level creation process can be a massive advantage to producers, testers or artists in frequent collaboration with level designers. This year’s session will focus on the Unreal Engine, while subsequent years will focus on Source, Quake, and other popular engines.

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No notes for slide
  • Obligatory GDC slide!!!
  • Welcome, readers. Hopefully these slides make sense! Some have notes that I used while presenting, others have notes I added later to clarify some slides.
  • Notes! Woohoo!
  • So here’s the imaginary situation. Maybe you’re a level designer or a game designer, producer or director. You need to leverage a certain amount of time ascribed to pre-production as efficiently as possible, I’m going to show you how to do that. Mostly I’m using a generic AAA FPS as a framework here but most rules apply to all genres.
  • Hopefully this is self-explanatory 
  • The breakdown of the game design process looks like this, from 10,000 feet.
  • This is how film does it. When we don’t do level design pre-production (or any pre-production) its like we’re writing the script while we’re filming the movie. For games, the “Script” is the game design doc, wiki, prototype or vision of the creative leads.
  • Level design pre-production relies heavily on the predetermination of both narrative and gameplay elements. Without both, design can only move forward along one axis. During the game, more gameplay elements are exposed over time, controlled by the pacing and events of the narrative for the most part.
  • We hear a lot about this in post-mortems, for example “We should have spent more time in pre-production” but what does it mean? Pre-production is a common element in any design process. Before committing to a finished product the designer explores the form and function of his plans. Architects build whitebox models, Car designers build clay prototypes. In order to maximize time and minimize cost, pre-production allows safe exploration of creative space before committing full resources to building it. It also helps to ensure the design of the game itself is solid and satisfactory and allows for team buy-in before production starts.
  • So, by now you hopefully have some sort of story or narrative to determine “beats” or key events within the story that provide anchors for your levels. Some games have lots of story such as Fallout 3, requiring more specific attention to narrative structure and anchors. Other games like Shadow of the Colossus maybe have included levels designed more as lights of fancy within a largely abstract world defined largely by what the player can do – climb and stab things. With that narrative in place and armed with a list of what kind of systems your game has, you can start to play.
  • The first step in starting level design – like many creative processes – is brainstorming. Generating ideas in bulk, in the company of other people. A moderator is needed to “whip” the team and make sure the process doesn’t bog down over one particular idea or diverge into tangential discussion. The more detailed the notes, the better. Even ideas that seem crazy at this stage may end up as the wow moments later. Important! What needs to happen here is to be creative, don’t worry about HOW to pull off these ideas yet! Keep this phase mostly restricted to the level design team to avoid being pulled off into technical or art discussions.
  • This is one of our War Rooms at Zipper. Use black foamcore on the walls to make sure you can move all the material easily.
  • And here’s a “War Hallway” – if you don’t have a spare conference room a hallway makes a second option. It also means people who walk by get a chance to stop and look at what’s new.
  • So at this stage an abstract really is abstract. High level keeps the tram form getting too ingrained in detail. You’re just parceling up land at this stage, creating the basic containers for the more detailed events and gameplay to happen within, which is the next stage.
  • Notes: most of these are self-explanatory but by filling in these forms you instantly have the beginnings of what could be called a level… though maybe not necessarily a great one  Of course to be able to fill in the blanks we need to know what ingredients we have to work with. I like “ingredients” because it supports a cooking metaphor – it’s not the ingredients but their creative combination that makes a meal. Same for levels. Great levels are often a perfect balance of otherwise very simple ingredients.
  • Encounters are the highlights of the level. Where gameplay happens and the player is forced to interact. Encounters are the obstacles we talked about earlier – the challenges that lie between the player and his goal or exit. Encounters are usually spaced out with non-encounter space (empty rooms, downtime, etc.)
  • The highlights of the level. Where gameplay happens and the player is forced to interact. The sequence of your encounters drives the flow, rhythm and difficulty of your level Encounters are the obstacles we talked about earlier – the challenges that lie between the player and his goal or exit.
  • Invest in Post-Its. Seriously.
  • Even if encounters don’t make their intended level, keep ‘em for later. Nothing you create is wasted, and doing paper design in a journal and sketchpad means you have instant access to the entire backlog of your creative history.
  • Cell diagrams allow the team to quickly see the sequence – or network – of encounters and how that will play out. Early problems and potential cuts can be identified at this stage. For instance, the reliance on a particular mechanic or the inclusion of too many different elements. This is where the LEVEL DESIGN INSTINCTS come on line. If someone sees or feels a concern explore it now – don’t wait until yuo’ve sunk hundreds of hours into creating a complex paper map to find out that the level won’t work.
  • An example of a cell diagram on a napkin. Sanitary? No. Portable? Yes.
  • Watercooler moments are the experiences that players are likely to remember a year, five years after playing the game. They are also the most commonly “cool” encounters and thus discussed amongst fans around the watercooler – or at least in the forums. We also call these “WOW moments” or “hooks”.
  • Useful to compare to car design? (concept – clay – paper?)
  • Medium: LEGOs Table-top props Playdough
  • Medium Illustrator program Pen and paper Geographical maps
  • Medium Illustrator program Pen and paper Geographical maps
  • Photo collage Storyboard Video montage
  • Photo collage Storyboard Video montage
  • Walkthroughs are written documents that outline and narrate the level experienced as it would be from the player’s point of view.
  • Your paper design is the last stage of design before you're ready to go ahead and start building. In essence it is the blueprint of the space you are about to make. Obviously, many problems will only become apparent when you begin building your level – the paper design is a static, two-dimensional representation of your map, and as such will provide the starting point for the iterative process of creating a game environment. Still, paper designs allow you to present your whole level to the rest of the team, and allow people to make comments and criticism about the level before you begin construction so that you can revise your design immediately. As such it's important to go through this last process for the sake of others as well as your own.
  • The Producer and leads will want to know your estimates on how long you think it will take, the size and scope, the difficulty and general experience for the player. The programming team will want to know how much unique coding will be needed for the level, and how much existing work can be used. They will want to see the complexity of the map and hear how you will work to keep the framerate up and the calculations down. They will also want to hear about how it will be pathed, AI requirements, and anything else that affects their work. The art and audio team will want to know about unique models, items, characters, textures, animations, special effects, sounds, and music needed for the level. They will need to know the environmental setting, locational information, the look and feel of the map and the mood you intend to create for the player or players. The scripting and cinematic team will need to know how many cutscenes there are, how many encounters or special sequences will be required, how complex they are in terms of dialogue, special characters, linear progression and anything that may effect the way the story is told in both the level itself and the level's part of the overall game narrative.
  • I’ve seen many projects utterly confused and confabulated by the lack of a proper naming convention for art assets, levels, characters…
  • Stairs should be labeled and indicate whether they go up, down, or connect multiple floors Elevators should be labeled as to where their final destination is (Elevator to B2) and if they aren't active from the start of the level, how the player will trigger them. Corridors and passageways should roughly indicate length, or if there's no room, use dashed lines for the walls to indicate that the space is longer than it appears on the page. Doorways and openings should be marked in for relative size, and if the doors swing only one way, you can indicate that too by a small arc that describes the swing direction of each door in the frame.
  • Remember, level designers are the funnels through which ingredients enter, and gameplay comes out. Stand up for your creative rights and demand quality pre-production time!
  • Transcript

    • 1.  
    • 2. Level Design Pre-Production
    • 3. Please Note
      • There is a ton of useful information in the notes of these presentations.
      • Please download these presentations and enjoy them in MS PowerPoint locally.
      • Thanks!
    • 4. Who am I?
      • Ed Byrne
      • 12 Years as a game designer
      • Splinter Cell, Harry Potter, SOCOM and MAG
      • Wrote a book on level design
      • [email_address]
    • 5. This Morning’s Hypothesis
      • You have been assigned the task of driving a level design team through several months of pre-production
      • Triple AAA FPS as common ground
    • 6. Pre-production is…
      • The creative space between concept and manufacture
      • Goal : create instructions for production
    • 7. The Design Process Game Design Document Level Design Preproduction Design Production Ship it!
    • 8. The Design Process Game Design Document Level Design Preproduction Design Production Ship it! Often lumped Together! But Hard to do in Parallel!
    • 9. In Film…
      • “During pre-production, the  script  is broken down into individual scenes and all the locations, props, cast members, costumes, special effects and visual effects are identified”
      • -- Wikipedia
    • 10. A Game Level is…
      • A container for gameplay
      • An rollercoaster
    • 11. Story Progression Level Design Happens Here! Gameplay Ingredients
    • 12. Benefits
      • Explore ideas without restraint brainstorming and prototyping
      • Solidify intent
      • refining the macro-scale design
      • Emulsification of design
      • mixing the ingredients before baking
      • Harmonisation
      • getting the whole team on the same page
    • 13. Unfortunately…
      • Often overlooked as unnecessary waste of resources and time.
      • Often not used well
      • Unfocused
      • Focused on non-essentials
      • Goes too deep too quickly
      • Spawn prototypes/use up departmental resources without solid theory
    • 14. For Best Results…
      • 3-6 months
      • Dedicated space
      • Cross-discipline representation
      • At the very least, a writer!
      • Defined output expectations
      • Frequent reviews
      • But no milestones!
    • 15. Diff’rent Strokes
      • Your studio, project, team is unique.
      • Nothing here is standard and you’ll
      • need to find out what works for your
      • specific needs.
    • 16. Tip: Universal Clarity
      • Make sure all level designers understand the design, concept and requirements of the game
      • People participate less when they feel uninformed or out of the loop
    • 17. Your Raw Material
      • Narrative
      • Player metrics
      • Core ingredients
      • Concept art
      • Flow Model
      *significantly easier for a sequel, BTW! Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 18. Step 1: Initial Brainstorming
      • Groups of 4-10
      • Moderator
      • Internet-enabled computer and projector
      • Whiteboard or Giant Post-Its
      • Note taker
      • Sessions of no more than two hours
      • Goal: Create abstracts!
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 19. Tip: War Rooms
      • War rooms are dedicated spaces for brainstorming and pre-production
      • Take over a dedicated space like a conference room or large office
      • Keep it as a living record of progress
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 20. Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 21. Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 22. Step 2: Abstracts
      • Concept
      • Position in Narrative
      • Environment to exist in
      • Beginning
      • Ending
      • Goal(s)
      • Challenge(s) to overcome between the player and the goal
      • Reward
      • A way of handling Failure
      • Goal : enough detail to convey the fundamental intentions of the level
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 23. This is the Easy Part…
      • Conference of the Living Dead, Level 1
      • Concept : Extract with Coray Seifert
      • Environment : Moscone centre
      • Beginning : Barricaded bathrooms
      • Ending : Climactic rooftop escape via jetpack
      • Goal : Get Coray to the roof uninfected
      • Challenge : Zombified conference associates
      • Reward : Coray is now an available member of your zombie survival team
      • Failure : Coray is zombified and must be cured!
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 24. Step 3: Encounters
      • Abstracts are recipes for fun
      • Encounters are created by combining game ingredients – like a delicious cake !
      • Encounter examples:
      • Puzzles
      • Battles
      • Bosses
      • Traps
      • Races
      • Gates
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 25. Mapping the Graph
      • Peaks on the graph
      • Encounters are usually spaced out with non-encounter space (empty rooms, downtime, etc.) the low points on the graph
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 26. Brainstorming Encounters
      • Still valid as a group
      • Strike teams or individually, per “type”
      • Critique for possible cuts and out-of-scope ideas
      • Goal : Create as many fun encounters as you can.
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 27. Tip: Maintain Portability
      • Keep encounter ideas portable so they can be transported and arranged easily
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 28. Tip: Leave No Idea Behind
      • Sketchbooks and journals
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 29. Step 4: Cell Diagrams
      • Encounter sequence or network
      • Rough draft of player progression and flow
      • Highlights major beats in gameplay and story
      • Exposes initial concerns
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 30. Napkins are Your Friend Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 31. Putting It to the Wall
      • Review cells diagrams side by side:
      • Ensure consistency of experience
      • Ensure certain levels aren’t overloaded or underloaded *
      • Evaluate scope
      *Yeah, I just made that word up. Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 32. Watercooler Moments
      • Unique or powerful encounters
      • Identify and foster these encounters now
      • Ensure sparing use and equal distribution based on narrative and game’s overall rhythm
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 33. Start Acquiring Visuals
      • Scour Google for reference images:
        • Landmarks
        • Characters
        • Situations
        • Environments
      • One image per encounter
      • Helps to visualise and identify the encounters at this stage
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 34. Step 5: Pitch & Collect Criticism
      • Pitch meetings:
      • Cross disciplinary, key ‘players’
      • Have visuals but walk through verbally
      • Don’t brainstorm , but record all feedback
      • Go back to the drawing board if necessary -- cuts made now are easy
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 35. Rework IS Inevitable
      • Level designers need to understand and absorb criticism
      • By definition design is iterative
      • Need external critique to ensure you aren’t too close to the product to see problems
      • Consider art classes, reviews, critique training for junior level designers.
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 36. Step 6: Encounter Models
      • Iterating your encounters
      • Manipulative
      • Technical
      • Illustrative
      • Interactive
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 37. Manipulative Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
      • LEGO
      • Table-top props
      • Playdough
    • 38. Manipulative
      • Benefits:
      • Tactile
      • Encourages play
      • Dynamic for co-operative design
      • Quickly rearranged
      • Can potentially see vertical scale and proportions better
      • Cons:
      • Not very portable or easily reproducible
      • Forces visualization to be simplified
      • Not archival
      • Not as easy to read/interpret for others on the team
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru Keyword: Spatial
    • 39. Technical Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
      • Pen and paper
      • Illustrator program
      • Geographic maps
    • 40. Technical
      • Benefits:
      • Scalable
      • High level of detail
      • Archival and reproducible
      • Easier to read/interpret for others on the team
      • Cons:
      • Not tactile or co-operative
      • Not as good for showing vertical scale
      • Easy to over complicate
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru Keyword: Detail
    • 41. Illustrative Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
      • Photo collage
      • Storyboard
      • Video montage
      • Pre-vis video
    • 42. Illustrative
      • Benefits:
      • Better sense of the visual/immersive target
      • Better to show final “look and feel”
      • Promotes excitement and acceptance
      • Cons:
      • Not abstract – hard to hand off to Art
      • Some experiences may be taken too literally
      • Subject to quality of acquired footage
      • Can’t show exact gameplay
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru Keyword: Feel
    • 43. Interactive Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
      • Game editors
      • Game creators applications
    • 44. Interactive
      • Benefits:
      • Cuts to the gameplay
      • Shows exact intentions and results
      • Possible to use as a platform for final development
      • Modular – break down and reuse
      • Cons:
      • Not abstract – danger of “target fixation”
      • Subject to technical skill, existing tech
      • Not easily transportable
      • Visuals may be considered off-putting
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru Keyword: Play
    • 45. Step 7: Walkthroughs
      • Written narrative of player’s experience
      • Encompasses most (maybe not all – GTA) level elements in fine detail
      • Quickly solidifies intent and scope
      • Starts to fill in empty spaces
      • Cheap to make!
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 46. Step 8: Costing and Buyoff
      • Last chance to bring up risk factors
      • Clarity of presentation is key
      • Gather constructive feedback
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 47. Key Deliverables
      • Paper Design : for the people who will be working in the level
      • Asset lists : for those indirectly supporting the level
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 48. Step 10: Paper Design
      • This is the most important product of your process – the instructions for manufacture!
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 49. “ Paper” Design
      • Doesn’t need to be the same technique for every level designer:
      • Pen and paper*
      • Visio
      • Illustrator
      • Don’t do it in 3D now – this is ‘whiteboxing’ and comes later.
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru * Paper always saves!
    • 50. Something for Everyone
      • The Producer and Leads
      • The Programming team
      • The Art and Audio teams
      • The Cinematic team
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 51. Global Standards
      • Use a master key (iconography)
      • Use a standard scale
      • Define special requirements
      • Naming convention!
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 52. High-to-Low
      • Multiple passes for safety
      • Work from the encounters first then fill in the spaces
      • Don’t be afraid to iterate – this is the place!
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 53. Hazards and Items
      • Player Items
      • Hazards
      • Cover and Interactive Props
      • Checkpoints
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 54. AI Considerations
      • Start Points
      • Movement and stimuli
      • Detection Range
      • Initial behavior
      • Special properties
      • Trigger conditions
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 55. Triggers and Events
      • Highlight trigger areas and consequences of entering them
      • Give people a feel for the level, types of interactivity
      • Cinematics and scripted sequences.
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 56. Interior Details
      • Static and dynamic obstacles
      • Stairs
      • Elevators
      • Corridors and passageways
      • Doorways and openings
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 57. Game Specifics
      • Racing : Banks and racing lines
      • Stealth : Shadow and sanctuary
      • FPS : Power-ups and Ammo
      • Tactical Shooter : Cover and high ground
      • RTS : Buildable ground, resources
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 58. Callouts and Sub-maps
      • Keep the paper map uncluttered
      • Use callouts to “zoom in” to smaller areas and expand them
      • Use sub-maps or divide into multiples maps logically (floors on a building, etc.)
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 59. Bonus: Asset Manifests
      • Feed your support teams:
      • Objects and characters
      • VO
      • Music and ambient audio
      • SFX and environmental needs
      • Special interactions
      Concept Initial Brainstorm Abstracts Encounters Cell Diagrams Buyoff Paper Design Pitching Encounter Iteration Walkthru
    • 60. That’s Preproduction Folks!
      • You’ve won! Now onto the next level 