The Science and Art of Level Design Jun 10, 2019 16:01:41 GMT
Post by a Chunk on Jun 10, 2019 16:01:41 GMT
Jim Rossignol examines the evolution and influence of Level Editors. In this 2010 article, he takes a look at the evolution of editors over time, and the opportunities and challenges that go hand in hand with that evolution - a subject that's just as relevant today as it was 9 years ago.
The Science and Art of Level Design
by Jim Rossignol
Read article at our new site: www.nextleveldesign.org/index.php?/featured-content/articles/the-science-and-art-of-level-design-r4/
INSIDE LEVEL DESIGN
Anyone who has been a gamer over the past decade or so will have noticed that many games shout about an additional creative feature: the level editor.
These allow us, the players, to produce maps for our favourite games, and to feel like we're giving something back to the gaming community when we share them online.
These tools are, of course, rooted in the actual tools that game development studios use to make the games in the first place, and it's the significance of that toolset, for both commercial and hobbyist purposes, that we'll be examining.
Way back at the time of Doom lots of us picked up the editor and began to work out how to turn these line-models into playable levels. It was fiddly stuff, and not exactly the most obvious process. Reading tutorials was a must.
Nowadays, however, things are a little shinier, and seemingly a little more straightforward. As the tech has developed, so the design process has moved onward, giving us new stuff to play with at home. Powerful editing suites for games such as Unreal Tournament 3 and Crysis give us far more instant gratification and flexibility than ever before, and yet the flipside of that is complexity.
Loading up one of these editors and playing with its toolset gives the impression that these game-authoring tools are more accessible and easier to use than previous generations, and yet commercial operations talk about games being harder to make than ever before. Mods for big games are taking longer, and maps are become a colossal undertaking.
So what's really going on with level design? Is it really becoming too complex for the hobbyist? That's been id's excuse for not supporting mods in Rage, for instance.
Have we already lost the art of the one-man level? We'll talk to some of the experts who use the current editors, see how the process has changed in the past decade, and examine some of the strange applications that people ending up finding for game level design. Could level design possibly be… art?
Level design is one of the fundamental processes of game development. Building the 3D environments we play our games in is a talent that underlies a huge number of gaming experiences, from Tomb Raider to Wipeout.
It's probably within the first-person shooter genre that this process is at its most visible, since the level-editing kit is regularly released to us, the gaming public. Many level designers start out using these tools and then find their way into the industry proper.
One such case in point is Neil Alphonso, a level designer currently employed at UK studio Splash Damage, where he's making the new shooter, Brink.
"I worked in special effects and editing for television and film after graduating," says Alphonso, "but after some introspection I thought I had the necessary skills to take a different career path, one in games. I took the time to learn an engine and started making maps, and in a total case of being at the right place at the right time, I landed a role on the first Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell game."
Alphonso's career path following this decision was pretty exciting, even by jet-setting games industry standards: "I then worked on a game called Shadow Ops: Red Mercury, and then spent some time on the infamous Duke Nukem Forever, before moving to Holland to work on Killzone 2."
Alphonso is now working on a multiplayer shooter, a genre that can be regarded as the heartland of level design, because it's where so many designers get started. This is evident in the kinds of maps that Alphonso mentions as classics, when we prod him for some suggestions:
"The first levels that always come into my mind are 'The Dark Zone' and 'The Bad Place' from the original Quake (DM4 and DM6, respectively), as they played a huge role in my decision to pursue a career in the games industry. A more recent single player focused example is the outstanding 'All Ghillied Up' for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a level in which you re-enact a past mission of your hard-nosed CO. All three of those levels would certainly qualify as classics among level designers, but by now that list has gotten pretty large!"
A Craft Refined
What we've seen in the past ten years is very much a refinement of the level designer's art. Great levels, in which everything is built to lead the experience, without ever betraying that to the player.
While a multiplayer deathmatch level might need to be essentially donut-shaped and circular (so that players can move through the level to pick up weapons and not become trapped by their opponents), other game designs demand other kinds of environments: open levels that close down into corridors so you can perform specific objectives, for example, or the non-linear levels that allow you to explore but create paths so that you don't get lost, such as in STALKER.
Ever notice how you get lost far less in modern games than in the games we saw a decade ago? Probably not, because it's such a subtle effect.
Level design in single-player games has become the art of sign-posting, which is about pointing people in the right directions with subtle visual aids: a light here, a blood trail there. As Alphonso mentions, this is all encoded within the architectures that designers create.
"Levels like the original Halo's 'Silent Cartographer' have formed a sort of language that we can use to convey form, pacing, direction, and the other various aspects of level design," says the Brink level lead.
Level design is essentially a new frontier – a place where designers are learning to create artificial environments with constantly refreshed technology. What you learned two years ago might not be relevant in a couple of years time. It's a huge challenge to stay on top.
However, what has driven the development of level-editing tools, says Alphonso, is less about this craft, and more about the commercial concerns of the people who make game engines.
THE BUSINESS OF LEVEL DESIGN
"The biggest evolution in level editing systems has been driven by a desire to commercialise the product, to make it a licensable application for the production of top-tier games, rather than simply an extension for hobbyists."
People working at home on levels they made for their friends will put up with a lot from a free level editor. But if it's a commercial company that's paying for this stuff, then there have to be big leaps forward.
"This has driven huge improvements in the usability and versatility of the systems," says Alphonso, "which directly reflects the growth and profitability of the industry as a whole. Similar advances have been made in the display and management of the increasingly numerous and complex varieties of assets needed for games, along with advances in scripting the logic that lets the environment function as a game space."
The Road is Long
Videogames are, of course, inextricably linked with both business and technology. The continuous upward curve of development in tech is something that has driven games forward over time, making them bigger and better, and more complex, at least at a visual level. Compare the first Quake to the most recent shots of Rage, and you'll see what we mean.
Games are a medium in which progress, new stuff, is seen as integral to the experience. This rapid evolution is something that has changed how we create environments for games, even if the experience of playing the games (running about and shooting) and the reality of building the levels (piecing together shapes and making sure they have the appropriate textures on them) have basically continued along in the same direction.
"It's not really changed in ten years," says Rob Hale, a level designer at UK studio Ninja Theory. "However, it's harder to make something now than it was ten years ago." The tools might be shinier, and the product of labour might be more impressive, but the journey is much longer.
It's a point on which Alphonso concurs: "The biggest change in the level design process has come from the changes to the sheer scale of game development teams. Improvements in tools have made things a bit faster and easier to pick up initially, but the bar constantly being raised in terms of quality has meant that the workload hasn't gotten any smaller. Level designers are always the last to assemble the various pieces of content that the rest of the team produces, so with team sizes sometimes now up in the hundreds, improvements have definitely been necessary!"
Problems of Scale
Hale goes on to explain to us why the symbiotic nature of business and tech has sometimes been bad for the designer's game craft:
"I've been using Unreal since 2001 and while it's been made easier to import art and put it in levels it's only gotten harder to actually realise a level as a level designer. It involves far more people, far more mark-up and the turn around time is much longer. In fact a lot of the skills that level designers possessed ten years ago are now being lost because of the increased number of people required to deliver on the perceived 'required' quality of a level. Level designers no longer take an interest in the overall look of a level as this is an artists job, while I argue that you cannot separate how a level looks from how it plays. The two are uniquely linked."
Hale has witnessed first-hand the nature of a changing industry. What would have been made by a single guy with a vision ten years ago is now generally built by a team who must agree and work together on the direction of a level. This could potentially lead to a regression in the actual play subtleties of levels.
"Take Unreal Tournament 3 for example," says Hale. "The levels look very lovely but they tend to play really badly. In comparison to the original Unreal Tournament, where each level was generally crafted by a single designer they are much less enjoyable to play often because of the increased detail that has been made possible by modern design tools."
Hale argues that the forward progress of visuals has hampered understanding of what makes a level great, not least because companies are making the same old levels over and over again.
"Level design relies upon the tools your game provides. If your game design doesn't provide your level designers with interesting tools in the games mechanics there isn't much they can do. Mirror's Edge demanded interesting level design because of the games design, as did Portal. If you're going to rehash mechanics that are ten years old you're going to get rehashed levels. There are clearly a few outliers and oddly enough they all do very well at market. Bioshock, Portal, Mirrors Edge all had good level design, but that's three games out of lots and lots."
There are plenty of people making stuff who have very different ideas about what level editors are for. Artists like Tom "Nullpointer" Betts, for example, see these as just another tool in an artistic repertoire: "Level editing software allows artists the ability to leverage the power of commercial game engines to realise their own ideas," says Betts.
"For the price of a game you can essentially buy your way into a part of the development chain. Of course, there are limitations to the control you can exert over the overall game mechanics and behaviour, but the trade-off is access to tools and tech that would otherwise take months to build up."
Betts has used modding in gallery art on several occasions: "After working with the source code of Quake I realised that level editing was a much easier way to modify the games I was interested in. QQQ was an art installation based on Quake3 Arena where real time death-matches were re-presented in a hacked version of the client where modified levels and graphics led to a psychedelic flow of glitched imagery. I also used a modified Counter-Strike level in another installation where all the surfaces of the level were texture mapped in real time from CCTV cameras in the gallery, leading to a kaleidoscope of fragmented video."
Another level-editing artist is Alison Mealey, whose UnrealArt project led to some inspired pieces of game-generated art. "The UnrealArt levels ended up as massive empty landscapes. The bots would play, Godlike, a Deathmatch map of my creation. These levels had a complex web of bot paths; the paths when viewed from a distance revealed a line drawing of a face. The idea was that the bots would go about their business killing each other, all the while their movements were being tracked and they were slowly revealing a beautiful, serene, traditional portrait."
Alison set up the level so that bots would produce the data she needed to create beautifully impressionist portraits: "Essentially the final UnrealArt portraits can be seen as a visualisation of the level and the gameplay generated from that level from a top down perspective. It's a little more than that though (or at least I like to think it is), while I was the one who laid down the paths for the bots to walk along, it was them, their situations, their decisions and their movements that actually created the portraits."
But what of the increased complexity of these tools? Doesn't that just make the artist's job harder? "I don't think so," says Mealey. "New technologies aren't scary, intimidating things for artists, you just need to look at it from the perspective of what does this new tool do, and is it something I can use to make my own lovely things."
The lesson perhaps, is that creativity will always find a way, as long as we can provide the tools. The past ten years has seen the game industry create a toolkit that was unimaginable twenty years ago. What we do with it in the coming decade will be up to us.