What I Learned at GDC: The Role of a Level Designer
On the Monday of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, there was an excellent session called “Level Design in a Day,” which I was lucky enough to attend all of. The session lasted from 10am to 6pm, and featured individual talks by Ed Byrne of Uber Entertainment, Forrest Dowling of Irrational Games, Joel Burgess of Bethesda, Neil Alphonso of Splash Damage, Jim Brown of Epic Games, and Coray Seifert of Arkadium. While each talk focused on a particular aspect of level design, the majority of them took the time to define what exactly the role of a level designer is. For this post, I’d like to focus on what that role is, as described by the aforementioned individuals.
Everyone has their own interpretation of what a level designer is and what they do.
– Jim Brown
The above quote holds true, considering level design as a specific field is something relatively new: it once fell into the hands of the designer, programmer, or even artist, along with their other delegated tasks. Today, it is a very important field of study, even though the definition and role of a level designer is often vague or unclear. In order to define the role of a level designer, we must first clarify what level design entails. Simply put:
Level design is a manifestation of the design rules in a gameplay space.
– Neil Alphonso
This simply means that a space is created in which gameplay occurs and is promoted, and the rules by which the player must adhere to are implemented. This is a fairly simple definition, but one which I feel is quite accurate, as it states what level design is at its very core. Of course, there are a lot of different elements to level design, as well, but what those elements are is determined by the specific job requirements at a given studio.
The Player and You
Continuing off Neil’s definition of level design, the role of a level designer, boiled down to its essence, is to design and create levels which facilitate gameplay in a space guided by specific rules. There are plenty of other tasks level designers undertake, however, including, but certainly not limited to: focusing on systems, blocking out the level, building the actual level, focusing on architecture and landscaping, setting the mood, creating art assets, fixing bugs, working with lighting, polishing, creating enemy encounters, maintaining a critical path, iterating and editing, and much more. As you can see, there is a lot of work that level designers may or may not be doing, but by far, the most crucial is to always put the player first.
The first job of a level designer is to entertain the player, and set-up for fun.
– Joel Burgess
You may think of the player as your enemy, but don’t! Players aren’t there to ruin your day; they want your games. You are creating these levels for a game, and that game is being created for the players. Without players, there is no game, and no game means no levels for you to build. Remember who your audience is, and that they are in control, so make sure that you take the time to craft a level that is both fun and entertaining for the players.
The following is a list of skills imperative to level designers, as discussed during various points in the session:
- Good communication: most important
- Problem-solving skills
- Honest scheduling
- Realistic scoping
- Ability to iterate
- Ability to complete a project
- Works well in teams/groups
- Ability to document well
- Ability to transform a concept into a playable version
Tools of the Trade
Every level designer has their own tools, both 2D and 3D, which, according to Ed Byrne, will facilitate successful iteration and are flexible. There are a wide variety of tools to arm oneself with these days, especially with more 3D programs becoming accessible to just about anyone. With all these tools at your disposal, it can often be difficult to weed out the good from the bad ones. Ed says that a great tool “allows for great iteration” even during change or when something is compromised, while difficult tools bog the level design and the game down, require a lot of time and effort to implement any changes, and often crash. To better illustrate this point, Ed compares the Unreal Engine (good level design tool) to Wordpad (not so good level design tool). While knowledge of how to use a 3D engine is preferred, especially since they are more readily available these days, it is not required. I had the opportunity to speak to Forrest Dowling, who told me that if you show potential and have a good design core, the studio can easily train you to learn a 3D engine. There’s also nothing wrong with good old pen-and-paper design, and this can easily translate into a good level design tool. Don’t worry so much about which engine to start practicing with, but rather, which tools are appropriate to show experience and potential.
Masters of Iteration
A good level designer needs to be a master of iteration. In other words, they need to be able to take a level they’ve created, playtest it, and revise and improve it as many times as needed. Playtesting your levels is an absolute necessity, since you’ll never know if everything looks and works the way you intended if you don’t play through it. You should also have others playtest your levels, but more importantly, you need to be able to identify problems, current or potential, and revise and improve on them. If you think your level is going to be perfect on the first build, you are dead wrong. Just like how the process of writing undergoes many revisions, so too does the process of creating a level. Ed Byrne described the process of iteration in this simple cycle:
About halfway through the session, Coray Seifert headed a Q&A session, which mostly comprised of portfolio advice for aspiring level designers. As always, the “show don’t tell” idea is extremely important, but that certainly doesn’t mean to not say anything about your levels. You do want to show screenshots and videos, both in-game, which show how the gameplay unfolds, and “beauty shots,” which give a purely visual representation of the level. It isn’t always about visually stunning levels; a level that doesn’t look the greatest but shows innovative or fun gameplay is also good, if not better. You also want to show level documentation and pre-production, as well as any maps you’ve created. Pre-production is a significant aspect of level design, and showing that you are capable of doing this makes you look better than someone who just throws together levels haphazardly. Here’s where the “tell” part comes into play: you do want to list key points about the level, such as what editor (and version) was used, how many hours were put into it, and a short description of the overall theme and gameplay for the level. It was also recommended that you show and/or explain the process used to design and build the level, especially the thought process used to come up with the idea of the level and how it will play out. I believe that blogs are a great tool to do this, as it doesn’t clutter your portfolio site and can simply be linked to.
Here are a few more tips for level design portfolios:
- Show that you are capable of finishing something. Show fully polished and playable levels, not just designs that you never got around to completing.
- Try to find new, creative ways of using old assets. If you are using assets that come packaged with an editor, try to use those assets in creative ways, since the developers have already seen it used the way it was intended numerous times.
- Don’t make people download a bunch of software. If you have a downloadable version of your level available, make sure that people don’t need to download additional software just to play it. If you do need a specific program installed to play it, be sure to state that on your site.
- Be a Jack-of-all-Trades. Show prospective employers that you can do a lot of different things, and, more importantly, do them well. Level design encompasses a lot more than just drawing maps or placing models.
- Research the job requirements. Each studio has different job requirements for level designers, so research what exactly each company is looking for before applying. Tailor your demo reel to show that you have all those skills.
- Videos with call-outs. If you have a video of a level, especially one you worked on as a group, include call-outs to explain what exactly you did.
- Don’t limit yourself to one genre. When showing off your levels, there’s no need to limit yourself to one specific genre of games. Show that you are capable of creating levels for many types of games.
- Let gameplay shine through. Levels facilitate gameplay, so try to show off any unique or fun gameplay mechanics you’ve implemented rather than trying to make everything simply look gorgeous. People like to play games, not just look at them.
- Make the player feel smart; you don’t need to constantly challenge them. Level design (or game design, for that matter) isn’t about trying to out-do the player, so don’t frustrate them with a slew of difficult challenges, one after the other. Take the time to make players feel smart for overcoming obstacles in your level. After all, you want people to keep playing your levels!
I hope this helped out a few aspiring level designers who didn’t get the chance to go to GDC or this session! As always, if you have any comments, questions, or critiques, feel free!