Level Design Qualifications

Seeing as how I only have a year left before I graduate, I decided to take a look at where I stand in terms of level design qualifications. The responsibilities and skills of a level designer vary depending on the company, so it can be hard to gauge if you have all the necessary skills to get the job. I browsed the internet for job openings for entry-level level design positions, and decided to share my findings, as well as how you can use job postings to become better at what you do. While this post will focus on level designers in particular, this can apply for any career in game development. I recommend taking a look early on, i.e. before you graduate, so that you can discover which skills you need to work on to help you land the job.


The Lowdown

Job postings are wonderful tools to help you better your craft, but they are often not thought of until you’re about to graduate. My advice is to check them out early on in your college career, as they can help hone your skills. The simple fact of the matter is, level designers do a lot of work, and not all of it is necessarily related to level design. By looking at job postings, you can get a better idea of what studios look for in a level designer, and if you don’t already have those skills, you can learn them, which is why I recommend looking at them early. Because the role of a level designer is so varied, every studio has different requirements and qualifications, making job hunting that much harder when the time comes. Yes, I may still have an entire year left before I graduate, but by knowing what studios look for now, I am that much more prepared and have more time to polish my skills and possibly learn new ones. The remainder of this post will draw from a lot of different job postings I’ve found for an entry-level level design position, and describe the common factors between them.


Responsibilities

As I stated before, the roles and responsibilities of a level designer are varied, especially between studios. However, there are quite a few which I found to be common among the majority of postings. The following list was taken from a number of different postings under the “Responsibilities” section, and should be carefully considered when thinking about your own role as a level designer. Will you be able to perform all of the following tasks in a timely and professional manner? If not, think of ways to get better at those particular skills. Can you accept all of the responsibilities the studio lists? If you don’t think you will be able to, you may want to reconsider careers, since level designers are responsible for a lot and often wear many “hats,” if you will. Otherwise, you need to think of what would prevent you from accepting those responsibilities and find a means to counter that. The following list is by no means a definitive one, but rather, a compilation of similar responsibilities across a collection of job postings.

  • Develop levels based on existing game design documents
  • Design, build, script, and tune 3D levels
  • Implement and script combat, cinematics, and lighting
  • Understand how their level(s) fit in the overall game experience and story
  • Communicate with other team members to design levels, and to explain how the level functions
  • Collaborate with artists and programmers to ensure smooth and feasible design
  • Bring levels from their initial pen-and-paper designs to fully polished and playable products
  • Clearly and intelligently communicate your design intent to everyone on the team
  • Work closely with designers to create and refine gameplay experience
  • Work in the studio’s specific toolset
  • Combine the team’s assets to create levels that are compelling and fun
  • Must be capable of analyzing and critiquing game designs and levels
  • Be familiar with the studio’s products
  • Document the level’s creation process from start to finish
  • Be able to respond correctly to feedback
  • Correct bugs discovered by testers
  • Prioritize tasks and meet deadlines on time
  • Have a desire to be a part of the team
  • Carry out any additional tasks the studio may require
  • Demonstrate a passion to create levels

 

Qualifications/Requirements

The lists for responsibilities and qualifications (or requirements, depending on the studio) are largely the same, although the qualifications are to see if you have experience doing these things, and thus can perform the responsibilities asked if you get the job. Once again, the list varies from studio to studio, although I found that effective communication skills and knowledge of a level editor toolset are the most prevalent. Experience in the industry and/or shipped titles are listed here because they are required for some, but not all, studios, so it’s important to make sure that you have that experience if the studio you’re applying to requires it. Some studios also require a college degree, or at least a high school diploma, while others list this under the “Desired Skills” section. What the specific qualifications are really depends on the studio, as some may require that you have knowledge of 3D modeling programs such as Maya or Max, or even programming skills like C++. Check into any studios you plan on applying to and learn those skills if you want to get the job. Take a look at the following list, as well as specific qualifications for different studios, and think about if you meet all of them or not. If you don’t take some time to learn some new skills, and if you already do meet them all, continue to hone your skills to get better and better. Playable samples, screenshots, and videos are almost always required in order to even apply to the job, so be sure to have a portfolio and demo reel ready to show off what you can do.

  • Serious passion for games and level design
  • Experience designing, building, and populating levels
  • A strong knowledge of and experience with level editors
  • Experience building 3D environments
  • Shipped game titles, or 1-3 years industry experience
  • Experience with creating or working on a mod
  • High degree of creativity
  • Good understanding of design principles and construction techniques
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Positive, enthusiastic, and professional attitude
  • Strong decision-making and organizational skills
  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills
  • Ability to relocate to studio’s location, if not already living nearby
  • Excellent documentation skills
  • Ability to collaborate with other team members
  • Provide screenshots, videos, or playable samples of levels you’ve created

 

Desired Skills

Desired skills are the ones that are likely going to land you the job, since they’re preferred but not required and can help you stand out amongst all the other applicants. The following list is not exclusive to any specific company, so check with that studio to see what will give you the edge. Typically, RPG-makers would like to hire someone who also has strong quest design and creative writing skills, while FPS-makers would rather get someone with mod experience. If applying to a studio that makes a particular genre of games, be sure to demonstrate that you are familiar with that genre and that you are capable of both analyzing, and creating levels for, it. If the studio uses a toolset that is publicly available, you need to download the editor, if you haven’t already, and show them that you have a working knowledge of it. Look at the studios you’d like to work for and evaluate if you have any of their desired skills or not. If you do, keep up the good work, and remember to make sure they can tell you have those skills when you actually apply. If you don’t, start with some of the easier skills you see and work your way up from there. If you know a studio would really prefer that you had programming or art skills and you really want to work there, start learning those skills early, as they will take time to learn and even understand. Whatever you do, don’t lie and claim to have skills you don’t in an effort to get the job.

  • 1-3+ years of professional game industry experience
  • Published game titles or mod work
  • College degree, preferably in video game design or production
  • Familiarity and experience with specific toolset
  • Complex scripting and/or programming skills
  • Creative writing skills
  • Experience with the specific genre the studio focuses on
  • Quest and mission design
  • Familiarity with 2D art tools, such as Photoshop
  • Familiarity with 3D art tools, such as Max, Maya, ZBrush
  • Understanding of game design concepts, such as game flow and 3D space
  • Love of pen-and-paper games and/or board games
  • Plays the studio’s games and other games in the genre

 

Final Thoughts

If you truly want to land the job of a level designer, you need to work hard to hone your skills early on. By evaluating where you stand in terms of qualifications for the job, you can get a sense of what you need to work on or even learn long before applying for the job. It makes no sense to wait to look at job postings until you’re about to graduate, so it’s time to get the ball rolling! When the time to actually apply for jobs comes, you will be happy you did! And if you already meet all the qualifications, learn some new skills to make yourself a more appealing candidate, and don’t forget to keep practicing the skills you already have. Remember that there is a difference between being proficient at something and just being familiar with it, and proficiency is going to make you look a thousand times better than mere familiarity. The tricky part to all of this is to demonstrate that you have all these skills in both your resume and demo reel/portfolio. If you can do that successfully, you’re much more likely to get an interview where you can reinforce those skills, as well as show your passion, discuss your experiences, and explain other skills you have, such as communication and organization. But before you can do any of that, or even think of getting the job, or applying for that matter, you need to sit down and evaluate the current state of your skills and where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Once you determine those, you can then work towards becoming the best possible candidate you can be.


If you have anything you’d like to add, or any comments, questions, or critiques, feel free to let me know! After all, I’m just a student myself! As for me, this is the same process I used to analyze what skills I need to learn before graduating, and I honestly feel much more prepared than I did previously. I hope it has the same effect for anyone reading!

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  1. For what its worth, the qualifications at studios in foreign countries are much lower. Places such as 2K Marin, Avalanche, and others do not require the shipped titles or previous years of experience. Due to the lower threshold, it makes for a better opportunity for junior developers. It is also a great chance to experience a culture outside of your own!

    Check out some the European studios here – http://gamedevmap.com/

    • matthew sweet
    • March 24th, 2012

    I was wondering if you need any artist skills? i can imagine a brilliant idea and plan it out but im not so good at drawing 😦 will this effect me at all?

    • Hi Matthew. Drawing is important to level design, since you need to be able to communicate what you want to create, and the best way to do that is visually. But that doesn’t mean you have to be an amazing artist! Your drawings should be able to communicate what you want it to, but it doesn’t have to look pretty; so long as other people can look at it and understand what you’re going for, that’s all you need. Check out these slides on the very subject from Ed Byrne’s Level Design in a Day talk at GDC:
      http://www.slideshare.net/Reverend_Ed/a-picture-is-worth-1024-words-12088557

  2. Hi, my name is John and i am inspiring to work on the video game industry, however i am still trying to teach myself important thing such as working with the 3D, as i already have experience with 2D tools, but my concern is that i am not a good drawer and i am still trying to get into some of the programming languages, is there any advice i can get please, i honestly don’t want to give up on this career is something i really like, but not able to draw worries me and struggling with programming sometimes is something i am trying to overcome, however i am able to understand 2D and 3D, i would like to know any advices please

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