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GDC 2010 - Level Design in a Day Part 2. Level Designers, Core Space Creation and Level Flow: Matthias Worch, Senior Level Designer, Visceral Games
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GDC 2010 - Level Design in a Day Part 2. Level Designers, Core Space Creation and Level Flow: Matthias Worch, Senior Level Designer, Visceral Games


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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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  • Note to reader: These are slides from the GDC 2010 level design workshop. This was session 2 of 7 of the day – a basic introduction of level design. Comments are welcome:
  • Notes! Woohoo!
  • As Ed said at the end of his last session (Level Pre-production), “the next step is to make the level!” After all, this workshop is about level design, and we’re going to have to get our hands dirty. Welcome to the world of DDD: digital ditch digging – hands on level design.
  • Or… how you become one of the people with those awesome workspaces (working on Unreal 2 at Legend Entertainment, 2000 or 2001.)
  • My name is Matthias Worch. I’ve been a professional game and level designer for 12 years. Currently, I’m working on Dead Space 2 at Visceral Games.
  • Of the games I have shipped, I worked on three titles that used the Unreal engine: the official Unreal Mission Pack, Wheel of Time, and Unreal 2.
  • This talk is all centered around what it means to be a level designer, the working knowledge a level designer should have, and putting that knowledge to use. It’s divided into three sections. In section 1 we look at what a level designer does, what he creates, and how the LD creates fun (which is a slippery slope – let’s say “how the LD creates compelling gameplay” instead).
  • Section 2 looks at level structure, how goals arrive from that structure, and how we break down the level to take the next step from pre-production. Section 3 takes the next steps – doing the art pass for the level, and how those visuals affect player expectations and gameplay.
  • As level designers, we’re create game environments. So we should take look at what it is that we’re creating, and gain a common understanding of what a game environment represents. The easiest way to see all this is to use a real-world example, so let’s do that against the backdrop of Bioshock – which is an Unreal engine title. I'm sure a lot of you have played this game and remember the scene: a new year's eve party gone askew. Just to make sure we all remember this scene and have the same frame of reference, here’s a video of this area. <bioshock.mp4> That gives us a good idea. We’ll use this space as reference repeatedly. This is a finished level, created by a level designer in tandem with many other departments.
  • Looking at what a level designer does, there’s a lot of jobs. The first point is the most important to us right now: “ Creates gameplay through environment and systems. What that says is that designers (LDs included) create (game)play.
  • In fact, designers create meaningful play, which Rules of Play defines like this.
  • What this really means for us: No arbitrary play. Having well-connected game systems is a good first step. The LD connects elements so that the player is engaged and compelled to make decisions, which feel interesting to him. How Do We Create meaningful play in a level? By using the two elements from the LD definition: The environment and game systems.
  • Game systems are building blocks. Examples of game systems: guns, pickups, enemies, movement. Ed called these “Core ingredients” in his talk.
  • We could look at the definition of a system here, but really, this one is easier: “a collection of properties and behaviors”. In a gun, the properties are the look, feel and ammo capacity, while the behavior is the shooting. In enemy AI, the properties are the visual look, while the behavior is the AI behavior.
  • Game systems don’t work well in isolation: A rocket launcher shoots rockets, but it doesn’t serve much of a purpose on its own. Adding another game system - enemies - gives us a target. We create play. Well-connected game systems create “fun” (which is a slippery term, as I already mentioned). They have the potential of creating compelling gameplay The systems can’t do this in a void of nothingness, though!
  • In a void, none of the game systems would work. Mario in a void = not fun. He needs the level to put jumping, shooting etc. to use.
  • Even Geometry Wars needs a playing field to constrain the player into boundaries. When we connect game systems against the backdrop of a level , the level facilitate gameplay.
  • The game level is the *enabler*, so let’s describe a game level. Constrains and guides player movement through physical properties and ecology Uses player reference to communicate simulation boundaries and affordance Reinforces and shapes player identity Provides narrative context Right now we’re interested in the first two functions.
  • This is the map from our Bioshock example. T he physical properties are represented by the walls, staircase etc, while the ecology is made up of enemy and item placement, which guides our way through the space. We can also see that a game environment, through its physical properties, represents access (otherwise, it would be a void!), and that these restrictions on access create decisions and meaningful play. Compare that to games in general, which are inherently inefficient: Want to put a little white ball in a tin cup on the middle of a field? The fastest way is to pick it up, drive over, and drop it in the cup. But that doesn’t describe the game of Golf! Restrictions in the form of rules create meaningful play. In an environment, the physical properties do likewise. The item distribution (the “ecology”) term, leads to exploration – otherwise we would simply have entered at red arrow #1 and left at arrow #2. That’s the magic of good level design – compelling the player to do things he wants to do, but isn’t forced to do. --- This is a very low-level look at the environment, and this kind of analysis leaves out a lot of detail that give Bioshock its identity.   And that's because we fail to take into account how the visuals affect our play.  ---
  • We can say that “Item placement (the ecology) + well-connected game systems (in this case represented by the pickups) + level layout (the properties) = gameplay”.
  • Here’s a summary. Of course we don’t say “physical properties” all the time. Usually we just say “walls”, “stairs” etc. I use the term “ecology” frequently, though. Before we move on, we should also look at how the visuals of the level connect to what we’ve talked about.
  • Affordance is a game design term for visual reference. Here, the cash register implies money, the bar and booze signs imply alcohol… so the player understands the purpose of this place and has an idea of what resources might be found here. Through the familiar visual reference -- or “affordance” -- the area and the items (which make up the ecology) communicate with the player.
  • When it comes to simulation boundaries, Bioshock does a good job in this area. The entire game is indoors, which communicates the playable area well. The walls are glass, with the sea beyond, which brilliantly shows the boundary of the play area and explains implicitly why the player cannot go beyond it. That’s where physical properties communicate simulation boundaries. In terms of interaction, most items can be interacted with, as well, and this is made obvious through UI effects.   On a higher level, the question of simulation boundaries becomes more philosophical. The level’s visual look sets up expectations about the function of the place. There’s a dance floor here, which communicates an expectation - but cutting a rug us outside the focus of the game’s core mechanics. We accept that to be a simulation boundary in Bioshock – and generally don’t miss it, because dancing is clearly outside the title’s gameplay domain.
  • Here’s the summary of the two concepts. Circling back to our items and physical properties: walls can represent simulation boundaries. Items communicate their affordance through their look.
  • In review, you should have a good idea of the following (see slide). That was a lot of theory. Let’s get practical!
  • Let’s put some concepts into action! The easiest way to do this might be to actually create a level. We’ll start with is a multiplayer level, because this is something we can make meaningful in a short period of time and expand on later for single-player. It’s going to be 1-on-1, and we’ll put some heavy design restrictions on this level: less than 10 brushes, only two weapons, one powerup.
  • When the level is done, we end up with a very simple, but surprisingly fun layout. We've created meaningful play through walls and item placement. The environment represents choice. Red arrows show choke points. The green area is more desirable than other parts of the level. The blue circles are two differently weighed weapons and a powerup. The purple triangle shows how these items form a level ecology.
  • The environment is fun because of the following: (see slide). Let’s expand on this in the next section, and look at structure and goals.
  • You should know the following: (see slide) You should also have an idea of how to apply the concepts to SP levels. The same rules apply, but a SP space is less circular in nature. Some tips to guide player flow and draw him towards spaces in SP levels: Make enemies opportunities, not obstacles – examples: Doom, Dead Space Turrets might be used a deterrent, a way around it might open itself to the savvy explorer. When finding pickups, reward choice, reward patience - power nodes in Dead Space are an example. In section 2 we’re going to expand what we’ve learned to create the full level from the design doc.
  • How do we create a level from the design doc? The design doc might be daunting – so we split the level into manageable pieces. To do that, we need to understand the larger structure it rests on. As a side effect, we also look at motivation and goals.
  • Going back to our level designer job description.
  • The level designer creates structure, which creates goals, which lead to motivation. We need to understand structure before we can bring our level from the design doc to the engine.
  • Structure creates the foundation of a game. Between each structural point lies an experience. Structure is fractal. That is to say, we can apply it to the game at the highest or lowest level. Looking at the game as a whole, start and end are the structural points, At these points, all players are on the same page – or at least the number of permutations is manageable (Dragon Age, for example.)
  • Working our way down, we can break that game into missions. Each mission also brings players on the same page.
  • Each mission can be structured, as well. Missions have beginnings and ends – and structural choke points in between. As level designers we’re mostly concerned with the structure inside a level. Doors create physical connections (and every player has to pass through them) On higher level, we author level structure: find three keys to proceed through a door, for example. Structure is a nice concept, but somewhat obvious. What’s more important is what lives between that structure.
  • That’s “experiences”. Movies are made up of scene. Games are made of experiences. We could draw a charts for a movie, which would only a single line between two structural (choke) points. Movies are linear. Final Fantasy would be a couple of lines between each structural choke point. FF is very linear, and all players play the games roughly the same. Far Cry 2, which is shown here, would be a very wide fan. The wider the fan, the more emergent the game has the potential of being. We could also color-code this possibility fan, showing the possible number of permutations for *environment* and for *gameplay*. Some games, like Dead Space, are wide on the gameplay fan, but small on the environment fan. That shows us that the enemy gameplay in Dead Space is very different for different players (complementary enemy types and mechanics like stasis open up a world of possibilities). But all players use the environment roughly the same way. Important: not all of these paths between the structural points are weighed the same! Some paths are more optimal than others. That dives into intentionality, and is outside the scope of this session. But we can say that structure creates a *rhythm* for the level. It creates breadcrumbs, allows the player to track his progress, and keep track of his wants and needs. Roughly expressed, that means motivation.
  • The Motivation Flow of a game
  • (This slide was omitted during the workshop.) Goals can be categorized as moment-to-moment gameplay and long-term gameplay . In moment-to-moment gameplay, I want to kill the enemy at hand. Why? Because if I don't, he'll kill me. That's a pretty powerful motivator! So that's my immediate micro goal. I want to leave this room Why? Because it gets me closer to the end of the level.
  • (This slide was omitted during the workshop.) Multiple micro goals combine to a macro goal, which combine into larger and larger goals. Through this structure, the player is aware of how far along he is
  • (This slide was omitted during the workshop.)
  • (This slide was omitted during the workshop.)
  • Back to the design document, and how we turn the design into an actual level. Where you start will differ from project to project. Some projects only provide a high-level, written doc. Other games provide a detailed map. The map is a visual representation of the level structure. If one doesn’t exist, we have to create it from the high-level concept, creating structure for ourselves. Maps: never go further than boxes and event callouts. Next we turn the map into the first iteration of a level.
  • In whiteboxing, we turn the map into a simple collection of spaces (similar to the DM map we built earlier).
  • We don’t want to build detailed spaces, but we want the room sizes etc. to be correct. Once that is done for the entire level, we add ecology (items and monsters). Then we test! And test. And test. We want to stay high-level as long as possible.
  • The first pass of the whiteboxing process should be indicative of fun. There’s still a lot of make-belief going on, though – we just want to get a good feeling about the space working in the end.
  • Eventually, we arrive at something like this (this Half-Life 2 example is actually more detailed than what I might create initially). Once we know with relative certainty this space will work, we add an art pass. We’ll talk about that in section 3. But before we get to this, I should point out one more thing.
  • Going back to our level designer job description: The LD also handles the technical implementation of a space.
  • Structure helps with this, breaking up the level into manageable chunks.
  • How things are streamed specifically will differ from engine to engine and world to world. Some engines are almost 100% procedural about it, other engines require the LD to do a lot of the work himself. This is the technical part of level design. We’ll leave it at this for this talk.
  • At the end of section 2, you should have an idea of these topics: How a level is structured That a game consists of experiences The origin of micro/macro goals and motivation How to break down a level How to whitebox the level
  • At the end of the whitebox process, we’ve arrived at something that needs to receive the visual treatment. In this section we’re going to look at the next steps of the level’s journey.
  • Our last LD job description says that the LD integrates inter-disciplinary elements. That’s just my fancy way of saying that the LD collaborates with a lot of different disciplines to assemble the final level.
  • Level Design is never done in isolation. Eventually, the work from all other disciplines will flow into it. We've established the gameplay in our whiteboxing pass. We’re super happy with it, but the buck doesn't stop there. Why do we care about visuals, rather than just leaving the job to the art department? Because the visual look fundamentally impacts gameplay. We’d love to think that abstract game systems are all we need, but that’s not true.
  • This is bringing us full circle, because we can finish our environmental definition here. The game environment: Reinforces and shapes player identity Provides narrative context
  • If you remember, we’d arrived at the topic of how the environments visual look communicates expectations (the dance floor). Let's look at how it affects our actions. Harvey Smith did a GDC talk called "The Imago Effect“, which covers the subject of how identity is in part performative and part shaped by context. In short, games ask the player to assume an identity and contextualize this identity within a game environment which often implies or encourages social norms and behaviors.    Again, our Bioshock case study from earlier works well here because it's all about social experiments related to greed and morality, with an emphasis on societal recklessness, collapse and decay.
  • By contrast, how does the environment in Portal shape the player’s identity? In which of these two environments would you feel more at ease bashing and looting? Which environment makes you feel like a lab rat, defying an analytical master, and lends itself better to a puzzle game? And here’s a real-world example of this function: in 2007: The Washington Post conducted an experiment in which they placed world-class Joshua Bell in a Metro station, playing for several hours.  Now this is guy that people play a 1000 dollars to see in concert. But in a Metro station - playing at his best, using his Stradivari - people ignored him and his music during several hours of play. And as a result, Bell starting playing with less confidence.   So you can see how the environment shapes our perception and actions. The same is true for the player.
  • Here’s the summary slide for those concepts. Finally, we’ll look at the most important reason why we create a visual look for the level…
  • The environment provides narrative context. It flows from the game premise and feeds back into. We're saying that the game environment, which has been derived from a fictional premise, can communicate  the history of what has happened in a place who inhabits it their living conditions what might happen next the functional purpose of the place and the mood.   When environmental elements are used cohesively, no one has to say anything...the world speaks for itself as the player moves through it.  
  • (Summary slide)
  •   That's why this Bioshock example is so great:   The trappings of a decadent party imply volumes about the state of Rapture just before its societal collapse.    This is also supported with recorded speech/dialogue, but much of the fiction and the associated mood are conveyed through props and textures alone.   
  • That tells us why level visuals are important, and how they affect the player. To wrap up this session, let’s look at how we would go about arriving at a fully “arted up” level. We want to go from from "L-shaped hallway" to "L-shaped hallway serving these functions based on the premise and context of the game“. I need to stress how different this process is from company to company. This is just one possible workflow. First, we we might do a "3D concept art pass“. This shapes out the level, and establishes proportions of a functional space. We might have inspirational artwork for the environment at this point, but not much else. Now we can do a paintover – a 2D concept painting based on screenshots of the level.
  • This is an example of a paintover from Unreal 2. (Unfortunately, I don’t have shots of the underlying whitebox anymore.)
  • Based on the paintover, which can be art-directed much faster than 3D work, we start the full art pass. Environment artists might replace the entire whitebox level with a new, fully fleshed-out level. Or they might create modular building blocks, that are assembled into the final space in the editor (static meshes in UnrealEd).
  • Art and level design are two jobs – the LD can’t possibly do both. But there will be a lot of interaction between the LD and the artist! (Many companies pair a level design and a few 3D artists.) Through the process, the LD will help technically: with culling, keeping a check on the framerate, etc. Of course the LD also keeps refining the scripting and gameplay of the level. The art pass might break gameplay intent. Innocent-looking changes on the art pass that make the space look better might lead to gameplay that doesn’t work as well as it was supposed to. So the level designer needs to stay involved.
  • Looking at this Gears of War level, you can see the underlying whitebox.
  • And the result of the art pass.
  • At the end of section three, you should have a idea of these concepts.
  • And at the end of this talk, you should have a better idea of what a level designer does, and how he does it. A lot of this material was presented on a necessarily high level (this was just one 45 minute session to introduce a complex job), but you have a lifetime of free UDK access and lots of resources to help you get more familiar with the discipline. The idea of “learning by doing” is certainly true for a field as complex as level design. Hopefully the lessons learned here can be applied on your journey.
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