So I haven’t posted in a while – my sincerest apologies. With GDC, schoolwork, moving, work, and my own projects, I’ve been a bit swamped for time. But here I am, fresh and ready to talk about level design.

Now, I’m not sure whom I’m directing this to. It may be for a more entry-level perspective, but maybe I will be throwing some new concepts out there for everyone to benefit from. If anything hopefully I am tossing some old thoughts around in a fresh way.

They tell me that Level Design is an entry point into the industry for fresh-faced designers. I wouldn’t know much about that, as my first (and current) job has been centered on a more rounded design platform, as opposed to one specific discipline. I suppose if I had to hammer down what I focus on most, it’s probably a combination between usability and fun – then again, shouldn’t that be every designer’s main pursuit? Shouldn’t those two things be infused in everything we do? I should probably move on, before I get too philosophical.

Anyways, let’s gain some relevance in regards to the title of this post. Last week, I had the benefit of spending a lot of one-on-one time with quite a few of my teachers at GDC – none more than my current teacher, Tom Long. Chilling at Golden Gate Park, we were chatting about the “Why” of what we do in a level. In comparison to “How” and “What”,  “Why” seems like quite the sticky wicket. Why should the player follow a certain path? Why are the weather conditions the way they are? It may all seem like aesthetics, but it’s a carefully calculated choice. But it’s also aesthetics. I hope that isn’t confusing. Aesthetics have the ability to put the player into a specific mood, which will alter their playstyle or emotional state in the level. This in turn alters the mechanics of the actual level. We mustn’t forget that we can’t just put things in a level because they look cool or seem clever – this is where our restraint needs to come into play. An exercise I have been taught, and frequently practice, is create a pen and paper level, then “zoom in” to the nuts and bolts of it – the actual playable space. If it doesn’t benefit the level in some way, shape, or form, then it doesn’t need to be there.

I think a great example of a level designed with constraint, yet with a seemingly large scope, are the “All Ghillied Up” and “One Shot, One Kill” levels from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The actual landscape that the player traverses is vast and imposing, yet play happens on a very small scale. Even the frantic chase scene at the end through an entire city seems large, yet encounters are set in very specific pockets, giving the player a feeling of chaos when in fact the pacing is very controlled and deliberate. No space is wasted in that level, and what we are left with is an example of Level Design that is still referenced glowingly today.

Finding the “Why” and answering it may be a bit difficult at first – hell, I’m still wrangling with it myself, but through practice, study, and constraint, we can tackle that question head on.

So let’s go back to the park, where we were discussing the “Why” of Level Design. Once that bit of conversation was over with, we started discussing “Swipes”, or “Swipe Files”. If you aren’t aware of this yet, then you’re really going to love it. A swipe is a collection of items meant to enhance our designer’s toolkit – mostly it’s in the form of pictures, but it can also be samplings of schematics, sketches, audio files, scents, and actual materials like rocks, fabrics, soils, etc. You can use your swipe to be a better designer.

When we think of a level, we paint it with broad strokes. Like we’re going over something with a paint roller. The gist of the concept is there, but it’s missing all the details and trim work that make a level real. Players aren’t stupid – even if they don’t know anything about anything, they will know if something isn’t right with their virtual world, because it’s based off a reality they live in. This is even true with levels outside our known reality, because everything is based off of our own implicit human knowledge.

Once you have painted the broad strokes of your level, you can use your swipe to get down to the details. For instance, I was working on a pillar last night and thought it felt a little lackluster. Looking through my swipe, I found a cathedral that used three pillars together to form one giant über-pillar. It looked awesome, so now that’s in the level. Since I started my swipe, I’ve felt much more inspired than I have in months. As soon as I learned about it I started a San Francisco Swipe – literally the moment I heard I pulled out my phone and started to work – and it has benefited me greatly. I have set pieces that are as huge as an entire city overlook, shots as intimate as a bistro in Little Italy, and details as minute as the grain and pattern of a concrete slab to use as a material in the editors I work in.

Going through my things, I also put together swipes from places I’ve been before – a Lisbon Swipe, a Northern Ohio Swipe, a Central U.S. Nature Swipe, and more. I think these things are great, because instead of looking at pictures online and formulating my work from those, messing with my swipes brings me to the moment in time when I took them, and I suddenly remember the smell in the air, the direction of the wind, the sounds of the area – all of it. It’s more real because I’ve been there, and I took the picture. All it does is help me fill in some blanks – plus it makes every trip I take into a business expense!

Looks like I’ve diverged from the initial point of this post, but I think everything I’ve said is relevant in a way. Looking through my SF Swipe, I was kind of thunderstruck by how Level Designers really aren’t Level Designers, or Builders, or whatever industry term one wants to use. Level Designers are Architects! I never really knew what a flying buttress was before I started Level Design, but I sure do now – granted what I thought they were beforehand was far funnier and immature, but that’s beside the point. I didn’t know what cresting or an oriel was, but now I do – and if you don’t, you really should look it up.

The more of an architect a Level Designer is, the more realistic the level will be. More realism equals more ambiance, more immersion, and more credibility. Don’t forget that when I say “realistic”, I don’t mean that every game needs to be realistic in that Battlefield 3 kind of way, but realistic in “there is an internal logic to the workings of this world that is congruent with our opinions and knowledge of how things work”. I hope I’m clear on that; kind of a “learn the rules to break them” sort of thing.

So I’ve decided, when I wear my Level Design hat, to call myself an Architect. In fact, I told that to an old lady at the bus the other day. She asked what I did in games, and I said that I do this and that, but lately I’ve been focusing on Level Design. I puffed my chest up a bit, and then said “Actually, I prefer to think of myself as more of an Architect”. Unfortunately I busted out laughing through the word architect, because let’s face it – it’s kind of pretentious and douchie, but that’s ok. Maybe we need a bit of pretention to make us feel good.