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FEATURE • August 11, 2001

Where's the Design in Level Design?, Part One

by Tito Pagán

If you are a game level designer or artist who wants to create 3D interior levels that stand out and get your product noticed, creating a well-designed, believable environment is a sure way to do it. Play-balancing aside, real-time gaming "worlds" of the recent past, made up of planar-surface corridors wallpapered in repeating patterns that show off their pixel components, should be put away bearing a label that reads "For Nostalgic Purposes Only." As hardware capabilities evolve, character development and animation techniques mature, and content development software improves, the process of designing and creating richer levels for players and their 3D counterparts to play in must also evolve.

As a once-practicing interior designer now wearing one of many hats as a game artist, I have a few ideas and some architectural and interior design tips to share which I have learned throughout many years of applying environmental design. Moreover, I'll point out the possibilities which lie at the roots of architectural and interior design and which, in the hands of a creative level designer, can give the art of creating, texturing, and lighting a game level a more human countenance.

In my experience, game developers create games for other developers to appreciate just as a reputable architect would design a public building for other architects to admire and respect. Whether designing a futuristic environment or a children's virtual playroom, a poorly planned 3D environment sporting unskillfully crafted textures is not going to have the same broad audience appeal as one that is well designed and thought out. Consider a great public building that many people love to visit and always feel good in because its designer has taken into account all potential audiences who will visit and interact with it. The designer of this popular structure did not address only a particular or specialized group of people.

In creating levels with mass-market appeal, you should give thought to design that extends beyond the basics to which players of that genre are accustomed. Similarly, level designers need to reach beyond the principles and conventions established for those very specific game audiences. Like the seasoned architect or interior designer, the experienced level designer takes into account who the user or occupant of their new 3D world is, how they will use it, how they will interact with it, how they will move through it, and how they will approach and depart from it. This interaction, which takes place on a human scale, calls for an attention to detail down to the smallest level for most game environments. In many first-person games, that amount of design detail is not an option, given the close proximity of the game camera to surfaces in the environment. How your in-game textures are applied can be just as critical. Finally, using good design principles generally will also help you "sell" your game world more easily to your internal development team as well as your buyers.

The Price of Bad Design

When starting a new level design, a good understanding of basic design principles and guidelines can help any artist or level designer avoid making costly mistakes. This may be stating the obvious, but it does go on too often in our industry. In game development, mistakes are what we fear most when entering any new project. Good design principles, like a good game design document, can't be overlooked if you wish to avoid basic design mistakes that will cost you and your team lots of time later when you have to redo the level or its contents. The proper layout of a level adds complexity not often considered by the novice level designer who simply wants to jump in and bang out a cool-looking death match level.

A well-designed level takes into consideration a whole set of requirements, such as user interaction and navigation, which are inherent to the purpose they serve. How will the spaces control and direct the player throughout the explorative and interactive experience? What sort of directional and responsive feedback mechanisms will be provided to assist the process? How will all of the elements tie together to form a cohesive environment that is well understood without compromising aesthetic appeal? The level designer must also consider the impact of particulars such as sound, space, lighting, pace, and scale.

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(Originally published in Game Developer July 2001.)