Tips & Tricks: Pre-Production

Pre-Production is possibly one of the most overlooked or misunderstood aspects of game and level design, and yet one of the most helpful. It is the brainstorming step of level design, in which you evaluate the level’s intended goals, rewards, progression, and more, all before even opening up the editor. My level design professor mentioned to our class the other day that one of the biggest complaints regarding level designers fresh out of college is that they don’t do their pre-production, something my fellow classmates and I can definitely relate to. It seems like such a waste of time, and if you’re really excited about making a level, you want to jump head first into the editor and start building. I’ve done this many times, always skimping on my pre-production, but from here on out, I say no more! I’ve come to realize how significant pre-production truly is, and it is most certainly a step you don’t want to skip.

Keep reading to learn more about the importance of pre-production, as well as tips and tricks on getting it done, and done right!

Why Is It Important?

Now you may be wondering, why do I need to do pre-production when everything’s right here in my head? First off, this step is extremely important when working with a team. In the industry, you most likely will be working with a group of level designers, and if it’s your job to write up the pre-production, you want to be able to communicate the ideas and goals of the level clearly so that everyone understands. Pre-Production is an important tool for expressing your vision of the level using words, graphs, charts, and pictures, but without opening up the editor and throwing at a prototype. Secondly, it is a great way to bring ideas to life and experiment with different ideas without wasting time and resources implementing them and deciding not to use them. You can write all the ideas that you may want to put in the level in the pre-production and see what works and what doesn’t. Third, it’s an excellent organizational device, and since it should contain all relevant information about the level, it’s also a great reference that you should look at often. Good documentation of pre-production should include lists of everything in the level, as well as everything that can occur. It’s also especially helpful when integrating story progression in the level. And lastly, it makes things easier for you. You may think that pre-production is a lot of work and a waste of time, but if you have a document that defines everything your level can and will be, then you don’t have to sit there and think about paths while building the level; you’ll already have a map defining all the possible paths, so you can just focus on building, scripting, and polishing.

How To Start

Start simple. That’s all there is to it. Think about what you want to make and just write it down, regardless of whether you can actually build it or not. Define the environment, goals, rewards, and anything else you can think of off the top of your head. Keep it simple to begin with, and remember you can always change what you wrote or add more details as you come up with them. In the beginning, you want someone to be able to read it and know what the level will probably look like, what they are supposed to do in the level, and what they will get for doing what they are supposed to.

What To Include

Below is a quick list of some of the most important things to include in pre-production, in no particular order, although these are certainly not the only things you can or even should include. As long as it’s relevant to the design of the level, go ahead and add it in!

-Concept of the level
-Game type and genre(s)
-Description of the environment
-Story and story progression (if any)
-Sketches of the level
-Description of paths
-Description of all goals, objectives, missions, etc.
-List of rewards and which goals they are attained from completing
-Any encounter locations, including enemies, traps, puzzles, etc.
-Differences in difficulty (if any)
-References and inspiration, such as photos
-List of all weapons and items in the level
-Interactive locations and their descriptions
-A complete walkthrough of the level
-Any secrets or hidden paths, items, weapons, etc.
-An opening and ending to the level
-Top-down map of the level, usually on graph paper

Helpful References

The following web site has a downloadable powerpoint on Level Design Pre-Production by Ed Byrne for GDC2010. It has sixty slides with a lot of helpful information on pre-production.

This web site has a lot of useful stuff on level design in general, but the following articles are more focused on pre-production.
“Map Creation Guidelines”
“How To Plan Your Next Map”
“100 Level Design Ideas and Locations”

I hope that this article has made you think twice about not doing that pre-production, since it is something that is required in the industry and heck, it even makes your life easier in the long run. I know that I’ll be trying to complete pre-production for all of my levels from here on out, and as always, if you have any comments, questions, or criticisms, feel free to leave a comment!

    • Tyler Coleman
    • July 31st, 2010

    The two most overlooked tools in game design- pencil and paper.

    • This is very true! I’ve got a notebook and a pen with me at all time for random ideas for games and mechanics. I still do all my pre-production on paper and then transfer it online later.

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