Bethesda's Iterative Level Design Process for Skyrim and Fallout 3

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GDC 2014 Level Design Workshop Session - A breakdown of the multiple stages of level design iteration used at Bethesda Game Studios on Fallout 3 and Skyrim.

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Bethesda's Iterative Level Design Process for Skyrim and Fallout 3

  1. 1. The Iterative Level Design Process which helped us ship Fallout 3 & Skyrim (on time) Joel Burgess Senior Designer, Bethesda Game Studios
  2. 2. Iteration in Game Development ● Progressive Improvement ● Widely Embraced ● Proven Plan Create Test
  3. 3. Iterative UI Design Study ● J. Nielsen, ‘93
  4. 4. Iteration in Game Development ● Progressive Improvement ● Widely Embraced ● Proven ● Many Meanings
  5. 5. +30% Cloak on Kill -25 Max HP on user Stealthier Killing Cannot use Disguise Kit Hats. Everybody loves Hats
  6. 6. STRUCTURAL ITERATION Iteration in Level Design FinalBuildPlan
  7. 7. STRUCTURAL ITERATION Iteration in Level Design Final?BuildPlan
  8. 8. STRUCTURAL ITERATION Iteration in Level Design FinalPlaytestBuildPlan QUALITATIVE ITERATION
  9. 9. The Importance of Process ● Make the game you Want …the way you want to make it. ● Iteration is a Process Choice ● Process itself can be iterated upon
  10. 10. The Bethesda LD Process ● Begins w/Fallout 3 ● New LD Team ● Existing Tools/Workflow ● Iteration as Core Value
  11. 11. Parameters of our Situation: ● Massive amount of content (150+ Levels)
  12. 12. Parameters of our Situation: ● Massive amount of content (150+ Levels) ● Desire to Increase LD Quality ● Known Scheduling Dates
  13. 13. Parameters of our Situation: ● Massive amount of content (150+ Levels) ● Desire to Increase LD Quality ● Known Scheduling Dates ● Known Inter-Dependencies ● Little or no staff fluctuation ● Desire for Healthy Quality of Life
  14. 14. $$$ $$$ No Iteration – What if? MAKE LEVEL HAVE GREAT IDEA
  15. 15. $$$ $$$ Adding Iteration MAKE LEVEL HAVE GREAT IDEA
  16. 16. Version Four Version Three Breaking Workflow Down Version Two Level “A” Ver.1 Concept Ver.2 Layout Ver.3 Markup Ver.4 Polish
  17. 17. Version Four Version Three Continuous Iteration Version Two Version One Level “A” Level A Level B Level C
  18. 18. January February March SUN MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT SUN MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT SUN MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT 1 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 27 28 27 28 29 30 31 30 31 LEVEL A LEVEL B LEVEL C
  19. 19. Version Four Version Three Continuous vs Spaced Iteration Version Two Level “A” Ver.1 Concept Ver.2 Layout Ver.3 Markup Ver.4 Polish
  20. 20. V4 Lv.A Continuous vs Spaced Iteration   V3 all other levels V3 Lv.A V2 all other levels V2 Lv.A V1 all other levels V1 Lv.A 
  21. 21. January February March SUN MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT SUN MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT SUN MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT 1 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 27 28 27 28 29 30 31 30 31 n1st Pass n2nd Pass n3rd Pass n4th Pass
  22. 22. Benefits of Spaced Iteration ● Keep Fresh, Prevent Boredom ● Incrementally Work on Strong Foundation ● Time to Get, Assess, Incorporate Feedback ● Focused Efforts per Iteration ● Copes With Growth of the Project
  23. 23. Game Development is Chaos ● Many Moving Parts ● Interconnected Dependencies ● Timing & Context Matter
  24. 24. Inter-Dependency ● Great Code + Great Art = Great Levels ● Great Code & Great Art Take Time What can Level Designers do early on?
  25. 25. Early in the dev cycle ● Less to Work With ● Everything is Possible ● Focus can be Difficult ● Little Known or Proven Good Design is Difficult Late in the Dev Cycle ● Lots to Work With ● Possibilities Narrower ● High Focus Attainable ● Ideas have been Proven or Failed Best Stuff Happens Here
  26. 26. The Bethesda Level Designer ● Core Skillset ● Layout, Gameplay, Markup, Scripting, Performance
  27. 27. The Bethesda Level Designer ● Core Skillset ● Layout, Gameplay, Markup, Scripting, Performance ● Additional Responsibilities ● Writing, Systems, Prototyping, Tools, more... ● Split Focus Benefits: ● Personal Growth as a Developer ● Maximizes Productivity
  28. 28. Level Designer Role Split Building Levels Other Duties EARLY DEV Building Levels Other Duties LATE DEV
  29. 29. Level Design Opportunity Time ● Best Design Happens @ the End ● Identifying Opportunity ● Content Cram vs Opportunity Time How do we create opportunity time?
  30. 30. Iterative Passes = Laying Foundation
  31. 31. Bethesda LD Passes ● Structured, Iteration-Focused Passes ● Progressive Foundation ● Timing & Context
  32. 32. CONCEPT Pass Zero: Planning The Game is just out of pre-production; almost nothing exists yet. A master list of levels has been generated and assigned.
  33. 33. Pass Zero: Planning ● One-Sheet Wiki Pitch ● Keep It Short ● Focus on One Unique Thing ● Story: Purpose, History, Current Event ● Generate Asset Request List
  34. 34. What NOT to do on a pass ● Importance of Restraint ● Avoid Needless Work ● What’s Efficient NOW?
  35. 35. What not to do @ Pass Zero ● No Editor Layouts ● No Detailed Paper Maps
  36. 36. What not to do @ Pass Zero ● No Editor Layouts ● No Detailed Paper Maps ● No Fluff Documentation
  37. 37. Time Passes…
  38. 38. CONCEPT LAYOUT Pass One: Layout Full production is ramping up, but core mechanics are still missing. Level Design and Art have worked together to make Level “kits” available.
  39. 39. Pass One: Layout ● Build up a Complete Layout ● Basic Rhythm and Flow ● Learning & Stress Testing the Kits ● Incidental Writing ● Connectivity & World Data
  40. 40. What not to do @ Pass One ● No Optimization ● No Navmesh or Encounters ● No Lighting or Cluttering ● No Kitbashing & Arthacks
  41. 41. Kitbashing & Arthacks ● Don’t Do This On Early Passes ● Expose Problems – Don’t Cover Up ● “Putting Lipstick on the Pig” ● Last Resort? Different Story.
  42. 42. CONCEPT LAYOUT GAMEPLAY Pass Two: Gameplay Core Mechanics are taking shape, and the game is playable - even fun, under the correct circumstances. Primary enemy types and weapons are available, although unpolished.
  43. 43. Pass Two: Gameplay ● Enemies, Patrols, Loot, Scenes ● Navmesh: AI Pathing Support ● First Pass Revisions (if Applicable) ● Non-Combat Beats (Placeholder Okay) ● Early Optimization Bounds
  44. 44. Why Optimize Now?
  45. 45. What not to do @ Pass Two
  46. 46. What not to do @ Pass Two ● Don’t Blow it all up and start over ● Tempting! New art, new ideas, sick of it, etc ● “Different, Not Better.” ● No In-depth scripting or handling ● Proof-of-Concept functionality ● Minimize pain of later changes
  47. 47. Gathering Feedback ● Anecdotal feedback ● Group Critiques, Peer Review ● Artist & Lead Notes ● Compile, Collate, Look for Trends ● Reserve Reactions for Later
  48. 48. CONCEPT LAYOUT GAMEPLAY COMPLETE Pass Three: Content Complete Almost all gameplay systems are functional. The majority of non- unique art is complete. The Home Stretch is just within sight.
  49. 49. Pass Three: Content Complete ● Nothing Temp, Missing or Unaccounted For ● Detail & Refine Gameplay ● Reconcile w/Systems Design Goals ● Work in Feedback Pairs
  50. 50. Every Third Pass is Different . . . .
  51. 51. What not to do @ Pass Three ● No Detailed optimization ● Wait for final lighting/clutter ● Don’t Neglect Non-Golden Path
  52. 52. Okay, so a minor confession… We don’t really call it that.
  53. 53. The “Ship With Shame” Pass ● Complete doesn’t mean Quality ● Cementing Confidence in the Level ● Confidence it will get done ● Confidence it will be good ● Onward To Opportunity Time
  54. 54. When It Just Isn’t Working ● Re-Design Not Taken Lightly ● Repurposing, Down-Scoping ● Mulligan Pass ● Cuts ● Strike Teams
  55. 55. Short Push vs Death March ● Short, Self-Assigned Crunch
  56. 56. When It Just Isn’t Working ● Re-Design Not Taken Lightly ● Repurposing, Down-Scoping ● Mulligan Pass ● Cuts ● Strike Teams ● Crunch
  57. 57. CONCEPT LAYOUT GAMEPLAY COMPLETE Bonus Pass: Lighting, FX, Clutter The project focus is shifting to polish and optimization, and artists now have bandwidth to pitch in to help visually polish the levels we’ve created.
  58. 58. Beauty Passes ● Lighting, Clutter, Effects, Sound ● Artists Do this Better & Faster ● Level Designer is Mostly Hands-Off ● Communicate Needs and Intent
  59. 59. What not to do @ Beauty Passes ● Don’t Disengage
  60. 60. CONCEPT LAYOUT GAMEPLAY COMPLETE POLISH Final Pass: Polish, Polish, Polish The Game is feature- complete and nearly done. Things will be finalized soon, and this is the time we have to polish and make sure everything is top quality by ship.
  61. 61. Final Pass: Polish ● Identify Opportunities and Improve ● Respond to Accumulated Feedback ● React to Late-Dev Realizations ● Low-Hanging Fruit ● Incorporate Final Assets ● Test on Target Platforms ● Final Navmesh & Optimization
  62. 62. Another Confession – Fourth Pass is Not Always Final Pass
  63. 63. COMPLETE POLISH POLISH Qualitative Iteration as Polish PLAYTEST REFINE
  64. 64. Structural Iteration Qualitative Iteration CONCEPT LAYOUT GAMEPLAY COMPLETE POLISH POLISH POLISH POLISH POLISH
  65. 65. Structural Iteration OPPORTUNITY TIME CONCEPT LAYOUT GAMEPLAY COMPLETE POLISH POLISH POLISH POLISH POLISH
  66. 66. Keep the Big Picture In Sight ● Polish Parity ● No Game Gets Finished ● Do the Best You Can While You Can ● Work Healthy, Be Healthy ● Make Great Things - For A Long Time
  67. 67. joel@joelburgess.com @JoelBurgess Nielsen Group Iterative Design Study: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/iterative-design/ Gunpoint Development Blog & Overview http://www.pentadact.com/2013-10-15-gunpoint-development-breakdown/ This Slide Deck will be made available online http://blog.joelburgess.com/p/design-talks.html

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