Tips & Tricks: Finding Inspiration for Levels

I just got my first electronic level assignment for this semester, and I’m pretty excited. I’m using UDK and have about a week to complete the assignment. It’s a fairly simple level without many requirements, and the main goal is to practice designing a level with a critical path. So for this particular level, I will be going through the steps in which I design and build the level. This post is focused primarily on finding inspiration to design a level. Check back for more posts on the next steps during the rest of the week!

Design can be a tricky process; after all, we are only human and are not constantly flowing with great ideas. Sometimes, in fact, most of the time, we need a little help from the outside world. Inspiration can come from anywhere, so don’t be afraid to get out there and find it. Or if you don’t feel like hitting the streets, stay inside and grab a laptop. The internet is full of inspiration, and there are even web sites devoted to help you find it. Now I am personally on a sort of creative block at the moment, so inspiration is definitely something I am looking for, especially since designing a level is different than other forms of art or entertainment and thus requires a bit more work to capture that elusive muse.


Your Brain
The first place I start is in my head. Of course, if you’re on a creative block like myself, then this isn’t getting you anywhere. I still like to give it a try regardless, since you never want to underestimate the power of one’s own brain. Depending on the flexibility of the level you are designing, try to incorporate something personal, something you like, and start with that. For example, I adore anything nautical, so I used this passion to design a level that took place aboard a warship out at sea. As long as it’s appropriate for what you may be working on, try to go along with it or at least use it as a start.

Your Tool Set
No matter what tool set you are working with, it’s a good idea to look there for inspiration. If you’re working with a development team, check out the previous levels, if any, and be sure to talk to the art team to figure out some sort of artistic style that should be prevalent in your level. There will most likely be constraints on what you can and cannot do with the level, so be sure to find out what those are before designing something.  However, if you’re like me and merely doing freelance work, then you have a lot of flexibility to create whatever you like, but at the same time,  are vastly limited by the resources provided. Since I’m not part of a development team and am currently working alone, I am restricted by what is provided in the tool set I’m using, i.e. textures, models, animations, meshes, etc. I use UDK, so I just open the editor up and check out everything in the content browser. Sometimes, just looking at what you have to use will give you an idea. For example, the last level I did, Ryagnoir Temple (which will be posted soon), was completely inspired by looking at the S_NEC static mesh set that comes preloaded with UDK.

Your Surroundings
One of the simplest ways to find inspiration is to look around you. If you are building an indoor level, take a look inside some of your favorite buildings or somewhere relevant to the level you’re building if you have a basis or guidelines. If it’s an outdoor level, take a field trip around the city. You never know what interesting places you can find by just walking around; take in the architecture, the greenery, the textures, the colors, the lighting, even the people. Be sure to go during different times of the day, too, and I recommend to bring a camera or sketchpad.

The Internet
The largest resource available at will is right at your fingertips, so why not use it? There are literally billions of web sites out there, and even ones specifically for designers looking for inspiration. Search engines will be your best friend (if they aren’t already), and don’t be afraid to do both web- and image-based searches. Not sure what you’re looking for? Type in a famous getaway or something familiar, or try keywords to find inspiration in places you might not expect. If you know you want to make a sci-fi level, start by typing “sci-fi” into your favorite search engine and just see what you come up with. Looking at other people’s works can be a great help, as long as you do not steal anyone’s work.

Other Media
Music, movies, television, books: all of these other forms of media can lead to motivation. Media tends to work in a loop when it comes to inspiration, one thing often leads to another and then another and so on, and they are all generally popular and well-known, so it’s important to note these things when drawing inspiration from them. If you’re creating a game or level based off of another form of media, be sure to do your research to get it right.

Other Games and Levels
There is absolutely no shame in playing other people’s games, and in fact, you can learn a lot from it. Try to stick with games that are in the same genre as the one you’re building a level for to gain a better understanding of what styles of levels are common for games in that genre. Playing other genres can help, as well, since they can bring in fresh ideas to a genre that seems to be copy-and-paste these days. If you are working with a particular engine, check out some of the forums for it and play around with other people’s levels. For example, the opening scene and first level in the UDK demo “The Ball” gave me a sudden inspiration to make a horror game, but my idea is in no way similar to that level. Once again, it is imperative that you pay attention to copyright and patent laws; do not ever steal the work of others.

Sometimes the biggest problem when trying to design something is that we have too many distractions! If you find yourself being distracted while working, try using that distraction to your advantage and incorporate it into your work somehow. For example, I’ve been having some trouble coming up with an idea for my project because I keep looking at nautical fashion, so why not try to incorporate that into my game somehow, not necessarily by putting the actual fashion items in the game, but drawing from those items, i.e. the style seen throughout. Now, I’m a girl, so that works for me, but I doubt most of you reading this are, so for you, just think of that as an idea. Maybe you’re wishing you could play that new game with all the blood and gore and explosions? Well, try to draw off of that distraction, get an idea of the style of that game and use something similar in your own level. If you can turn those nasty distractions into your benefactors, then you’ve got skills.

Probably the best source for inspiration out there is to simply talk to people. It doesn’t even have to be about your level or even games at all; socializing can get those “brain juices” flowing again and revive that deadened sense of creativity you may have been having. Sometimes, you may hear one word or story that will spawn an entire galaxy in your mind, so take the time to relax and go hang out with some close friends, and who knows, maybe they’ll even have an idea for you.

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