A Picture is Worth 1024 Words

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This lecture was part of the "Level Design in a Day" workshop at GDC 2012. It lays out the premise that all game and level designers be comfortable doodling, sketching and drawing to facilitate better problem solving, communication and production skills through visual literacy and fluency. The slides are also completely drawn by me, to emphasis that point :).

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  • Hi Everyone – these are the speaking notes from my presentation at 2012's “Level Design in a Day” workshop.
  • This year my talk is entitled “A picture is worth 1024 words” which, aside from being an obvious trope, is a law I abide by.
  • So...I often get the question “What should I show in my portfolio?” from aspiring level designers and artists
  • My inevitable answer is “show me your drawings, I want to know how you think”
  • Because to me that IS the most important thing. If you show me an image or a video of a level you worked on, I have little idea of what your part in that work is... or how you managed to get to that finished level. When I see your sketches and notes I can tell a lot more about your skill and passion as a level designer .
  • But while working on this talk I started to ask myself why for the first time – why is it so important that level designers draw? I realised that maybe not everyone does draw, sketch or doodle. So I checked around...
  • ...and, well, yeah most level designers seem to break out the pen and paper before embarking on a new map. Out of over a hundred responses I got to this poll on LinkedIn's “Level Design” group, roughly zero said they never designed their levels on paper first. So obviously I might be preaching to the choir here.
  • So I went from writing this as a “Why Drawing is Good for Designers” talk... .
  • to a “ why good designers draw” talk... I wanted to acknowledge those designers who do and hopefully inspire those who don't or think they can't.
  • First off – why draw? I mean, we're a digital medium, we can go from nothing to complex geometry in zero seconds flat... we can build up and tear down cities in Sketchup or UnrealEd. So why do we do something as obsolete as scratch ink into dried vegetable pulp? Is this the stone age?
  • Well it turns out there are a lot of reasons... But fundamentally, like ALL designers we have a deep investment in the process of drawing.
  • We're not talking about drawing in terms of realistically rendering something or fine art painting here. Very few level designers would purport to be the next DaVinci.
  • Instead what we're talking about is creating simple pictures – be it doodling, sketching, cartooning or flowcharts The ability to abstract something visually.
  • The breaking down the extremely complicated nature of what we do as DESIGNERS into something as inherent in us as thinking. Something that predates speech or the written word. Something uniquely universal. We Visualise.
  • I mean, look at how a legendary architect like Frank Gehry gets started on a new building. Is that art? No, it's doodling – barely recognisable as anything other then a squiggle.
  • But it's doodling that sets something AMAZING in motion. To be able to go from that sketch to something as complex as the Experience Music Project demonstrates the power of using drawing as a creative accelerant.
  • So how does this tie into level design specifically? I consider the level designer's FUNCTION is to take the work of others and meld into an interactive experience – into actual gameplay. (this is a diagram originally from my book I use a lot to show the FUNCTION of level design as a role)
  • However, let's consider the raison d'etre of the level designer. What combination of skills makes you good at what you do, and not just straight programming, game design, environment modelling, system balancing or project management?
  • In pondering this, I concluded the core of level design as a process is three main pillars: Problem Solving
  • Communication
  • And Art.
  • What's interesting also reflect the stages through which I think good levels are made: Problem solving and idea formation in the beginning, communication with collaborators in the building of a functional level, and art as the final pass to make it visually exiting and polished.
  • But really what ties these three together is visual literacy. I'd like to explain how these three pillars all benefit from visual thinking and drawing, as well as give examples from my personal experience.
  • Universally, Level Designers are given a set of systems, mechanics – or as I call them, ingredients. Also they are provided with a set of cultural, environmental and narrative doctrines, the overarching elements of the game world. Then they are put in front of a blank screen to generate an experience from all of this. It's an immensely difficult task – not to mention daunting to be responsible for combining those things in a meaningful way. The way to start this process is to work from the abstract down to the fine detail.
  • Basically, you start to doodle. Doodling is possibly the most constructive thing a designer can do – seriously.
  • Sunni Brown, a noted proponent of visual literacy and the power of drawing, in her TED talk defines doodling as “To make spontaneous marks to help yourself think”, which is brilliant. At the opening stage of level design, that's exactly what we're trying to do.
  • So how then does doodling help us in our core pillars? This quote by Dan Roam (author of The Back of Napkin , a great book on visual literacy in the workplace) really sums it up .
  • I tend to follow five discreet phases of visual problem solving on paper.
  • Thought points are the first marks on paper I make. Generally this is just an unfiltered attempt to put my initial thoughts, whatever they may be, on paper. For instance Last year I was helping Uber Entertainment with a new kind of map for their game Monday Night Combat. Essentially as an “battle arena” style game, they wanted a map that was based on the classic DOTA map – two spawn bases and three discreet lanes connecting them for AI units and space in between for players. ..
  • The first task in problem solving is simply absorbing the problem. Then dividing the problem into bits, conquering them and assembling the solution. In this case DOTA wasn't a game I was super familiar with so I had to do some research and see what the relevant elements were to the map I wanted to make. The first thing I did write down some initial thoughts on what the basic gameplay elements are in a DOTA style map. What were the tactical, gameplay and geographical elements and what would they bring to Monday Night Combat, which is much more based on third-person combat and shooting than a top-down MOBA game? Writing down and quickly sketching ideas in a form that will allow me to understand what I'm thinking later is a crucial first step .
  • The next stage is getting to grips the the problems and ideas I've jotted down as a group of connected dependencies or areas, we call this a Bubble Diagram. This is an example from a single-player map I was building for a Harry Potter game. The severed eyeball isn't from Harry Potter, but it's indicative of a true doodle – something I draw to help “unstick my mind” when I get Designer's Block! Bubble sketches work for anything – single player, multiplayer, chracter dependencies, narrative flow, team organisation...
  • Then I'll often take a clean page and referring to the bubble diagram, take one or several cells and begin just free-form doodling. This is just for me, no-one else will see it and so it just needs to make sense to myself. If an idea looks good I'll often start over on a clean part of the page and iterate. These are thumbnail sketches . Thumbnails allow me to quickly evaluate the strength of my ideas. For example here are some of the thumbnail sketches that came out of the bubble diagram I just showed.
  • And here are some thumbnails of the Monday Night Combat map. As you can see, they're rough, they're pretty much just doodles to help me clarify my ideas . You can see the difference in the thumbnails for a single player game (on the left) that has a lot more interactions and puzzles, and those for a multiplayer map on the right, which is more about the architecture of space and the flow of players in that space.
  • With enough thumbnails – encounters, locations, visual highlights, events, moments, I can begin to do flow exploration, putting everything in context – both physically and in terms of gameplay. Now I'm able to start “playing through” and seeing from the eyes of a player, understanding critical elements like how big the level is, how complex, its pacing and rhythm. Flow is less about the ideas themselves (which you've already detailed out as thumbnails) and more about how those ideas are connected in relation to each other to determine the player's experience. It's equivalent to the first draught of a movie script .
  • Once the overall level 'clicks', and I have a good vision of the level and believe it's going to work well then I'll take another page and begin to detail out what I'm seeing. Callouts and notes to clarify or remember issues and ideas that come up - depth, height, width, notable details that will concern the player or other team members. This is the layout , the final paper element before I go to my computer and begin working digitally.
  • This is a single player level layout which, again, requires a little more complexity and detai l.
  • Here's an example from a level I did for Splinter Cell which is pretty dense with information...
  • The paper layout ended up being so desnse by the end I used Photoshop to create a cleaner version of the layout for the benefit of the artist who was helping make it. Which segues nicely into the second pillar of level design: communication
  • One of the inherent responsibilities in any design role, not least that of designing levels is communication – preparing your vision in a manner where others are capable of helping build it. Architects, car designers, fashion designers all trained to do this – but very often not level designers.
  • Visual communication, visual fluency is critical here. In a world where no-one reads your documentation your ability to communicate in pictures will determine your effectiveness.
  • . Another great Dan Roam quote. The key here is presenting ideas in a way in which other people get .
  • Great example: The RSA Animate series takes lectures on some lofty subjects ans uses real-time cartooning to help listeners not only understand but RETAIN the information presented. This falls into the Dual Coding Theory which (to generalise) indicates that humans have better absorption and recall of written or spoken information when there's a strong corresponding visual – simultanesouly engaging multiple parts of the brain.
  • As an example of how powerful a tool a drawing can be I can give you a recent example of how one 10-minute sketch of a level allowed an entire game to be born. When we were first talking about making our current game, Moon Breakers I sat down with a pen and paper to draw out the experience I wanted before writing any form of document or pitch .
  • This was the result of about 20 minutes of straight doodling But as new people came on the team I ended up showing them this rather than the longer designe document I'd draughted for potential investors. They were clearly able to see what the vision was in seconds , and understand what was fun about the game immediately. Whereas if they'd read my document they might have come away with a different idea of what I wanted to do .
  • This might not work for every game but taking a bite-sized piece of gameplay and presenting it visually can be just as effective. An example here is highlighting the level progression visually, with frames. This is called a storyboard, and used in film and animation to communicate the script in a visual manner, a highly effective tool.
  • As a level designer your role as a communicator is essential to getting things made – not only do you you need to pitch your ideas, you need to translate your level's essential needs, potential problems and ultimately get everyone BEHIND YOUR VISION – vision being the operative word. When you visually demonstrate your level the whole room can analyse your plans based on their own concerns: Programmers can evaluate new systems, Artists scale and complexity, Producers how ambitious it is.
  • One of the most effective ways you can do this is drawing as you talk, as you think. In a meeting room your best friend is the whiteboard. Quite often you can “unstick” a meeting that's been bogged down by applying visual literacy to the issue at hand, or real-time problem solving on the whiteboard. For new designers – being able to get up and communicate visually is HUGE advantage in interviews. I'm always impressed when in an interview a candidate draws out his our her thoughts clearly.
  • When there's no whiteboard I bring my own: giant post-it notes should be an essential tool for any level-designer-on the go. You can get these at most office supply stores – I recommend the lined ones. Best of all you can GIVE THESE to people after the meeting so they can refer to your drawing later.
  • So the debate on Games as Art is still raging and largely irrelevant. Really, you – as a Level Designer – are an artist because of the skills you use everyday.
  • The is a school of art that produced some of the finest, most impressive paintings known as the Old Masters. There are many variations of the Old Masters technique but in essence there were three main phases: 1) The “Inventing” or Drawing was done on paper to create the structure of the piece as well as to anchor the vision of what the final painting would be. 2) The Drawing was applied to wood or canvas and then a painting layer called the Underpainting was applied. This was to create forms, light and shadow, depth and dimension. 3) The final phase, the Overpainting is where the final paints were applied that are VISIBLE to the viewer. This is where the painting comes to life, with detail, depth and colour. Now... seeing an Old Master in a gallery you won't see the underpainting and drawing, but you are looking at them in the finished work. This is why – to me – Level Design requires that same discipline.
  • To use an example from my own work (and a warning against making too many tactical shooters in your career) I'll use a charcoal sketch before I commit to a painting. Even when you're not painting directly on top of the drawing, a drawing phase allows you to see the finished form and structure and project that on the canvas as you work in paints BUILDING A GOOD FOUNDATION IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS
  • Level design can – and does – benefit from a similarly layered, carefully applied attention to the process. Drawing = Paper Layout Underpainting = Whitebox, Functioning Level Overpainting = Final Level Polish Remember: Even if what you make isn't considered Art, doesn't mean you shouldn't approach it in the way artists approach their craft.
  • Finally some practical advice... Drawing and sketching is so much easier when you find “your pen”. Everyone has a pen out there for them – like wands in Harry Potter All have pros and cons; Bic pens: good for shading but blobby Roller balls: nice opacity and consistent line weight but pricier Technical pens: variable line weight but fragile Markers: chunky and bolf but can bleed out and through paper Pencils: erasable, smudgy – noncomittal!
  • I use a Uniball Vision – these are seriously the best pen in the universe. I also carry a stainless steel Sharpie (stronger cap, indestructible, stylish and feels betetr to draw with) and a ring-bound sketchpad. Experiment with every pen, and when you find yours buy a case and always carry one with you .
  • Drawing makes you a better designer, because of what you are: A problem solver A communicator An artist Ultimately it will make you a better visionary Always BE DRAWING. Draw when you think, draw when you talk, draw when you listen As a lead, encourage your designers to do this - Give them the time and space - If you have designers who don't feel they CAN do this, training is cheap and easy - Have doodling sessions at lunch or during meetings, make it part of your process - If you need suggestions, let me know :).
  • Thanks for reading! If you want to get in contact here's my email or you can reach me at @Reverend_Ed on Twitter.
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