Level Design: Computer Game Development Analysis

Computer Game Development:
Level Design

INTRODUCTION


Level design of a computer game is a process that requires planning, creativity, patience and foresight. The importance of a well thought out level is not only crucial for the game but also the player. There are many elements to be considered when designing a level, such as “challenge, pacing, and ease of navigation” (Hullet, Whitehead, 2010, p. 01). This report examines key procedures in the level design process such as getting thoughts onto paper, different level layouts, what elements to include in a level to create emotion, the importance of navigation and testing the level in a 3D (three dimensional) level. There is also a segment at the end relating to the current games industry with details on how elements mentioned in this report are needed for positions available.

SKETCHING & SCRIPTING

The very beginning of the level design process is sketching out the ideas for the level. While it may seem like a basic step it is also important. The level designer can get an idea of all the events that will occur during that level; where the player starts and finishes the game; and also work out if there will be any issues with memory or other technicalities. (Barhcan, 2011)
Sketching then leads on to scripting. Everything that is to be placed in the level must be outlined and detailed. For example: When, where and how are the enemies going to spawn? Where is the player located? And how is this level going to differ from the next 8 levels? “The player will always find a way to break your game” (Rogers, 2010, p. 221), therefore it is important during the scripting stage to plan contingencies for players who may play the game differently than you may expect. If a player is faced with a car park of zombies, they may choose to flee than to take the stealth approach (as in The Last of Us). By scripting and planning for different approaches players may take, the designer can save themselves a headache down the pipeline.

ISLANDS

In the stages of sketching and scripting, a designer will decide which layout the level will have; either open or linear. Scott Rogers refers to the open layout in his book Level Up as “islands”. This layout can also be referred to as “sandbox”. An island layout gives the designer more opportunity to place hidden treasures or rewards.
An island level gives the player a feeling of an expansive environment, which encourages the player to explore. The freedom allows the player to experience the gameplay in their own way. The highest selling computer game for 2013 (according to The Fiscal Times) was Grand Theft Auto V and it was an open world layout. Island levels can be identified in multiplayer FPS (first person shooter) games, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Call_of_Duty:_Modern_Warfare_3). However, the campaign mode in C.o.D. would be described as an “alley” layout.

ALLEYS

Alley layouts refer to linear designed levels. This layout provides designers to better predict where a player will be. Cameras can be set at based on the player’s location and scripted gameplay events can be triggered based on the player’s progression. Alley layouts can also stop players from backtracking by bottlenecking the road or path they have just traveled. An example of an alley game is The Last of Us (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_of_Us).

CREATING EMOTION

It is a level designer’s responsibility to gather and place all materials relative the level and create not only the environment but also atmosphere and mood (Adams, 2010, p. 370). There are a few things level designers can incorporate to a level to enhance the players sensory experiences. It can be something as simple as the naming of the level. Scott Rogers (2010) identifies that there are four different ways to name a level.
1. Functional. This is a numbering system found in some retro games such as Super Mario Bros. e.g. World 4-2. This form of naming can give a player an idea of their progress, however, this convention lacks creativity and doesn’t connect with the player on an emotional level.
2. Location. Quite simply this is where the level is about to take place. Streets, Jungle, Abandoned Psychiatric Ward etc. This is ideal to give the player an immediate idea of the level, though their experiences may differ with what the designer has prepared.
3. Descriptive. A level name such as “What Lies Beneath?” can really set the tone for a level. It shouldn’t give away any surprises that may be found in the level, but it should be used as foreshadowing so that the player gets a sense of what’s to come.
4. Punny. The example Rogers (2010) gives is the game Crash Bandicoot. Levels found in the game are witty and fun. For example a couple of the snow levels are named “Snow Go” and “Snow Biz” (http://crashbandicoot.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Levels). This naming style would be suited to games that may contain humour.
There are several other elements that contribute to a level’s atmosphere and mood, as mentioned by Ernest Adams (2010):
1. Lighting. This can represent the time of day or general feeling of a scene, like in a dark attic room or the soft light of early morning.
2. Colour Palette. A green colour can represent nature and natural things whereas a dark green can be associated with military or money (http://www.digitalskratch.com/color-psychology.php). Reds and oranges are warm colours that could represent love, blood or warning.
3. Weather and Atmospheric Effects. A storm generating or clouds forming communicate that the player needs to take shelter; mystery can be achieved by incorporating fog; wind can “suggest instability and disturbances to come.” (Adams, 2010, p. 370)
4. Special Visual Effects. A player can be further immersed into a game by applying special effects such as blood splatters or sparks flying off a ricocheting bullet.
5. Music and other audio. The right music needs to be matched to the right scene. The music will most probably be organized by an audio director. Atmospheric sounds such as distant gunfire or explosions can give the player an idea that they are walking into battle.

NAVIGATION

Sid Meier (who created Civilization) contributed an important rule to the 400 Project (compiled by Hal Barwood & Noah Falstein – http://www.finitearts.com/Pages/400page.html): “Rule 19: Make the Game Fun for the Player, not the Designer or Computer.” A level designer must think about how the player will experience the level, not how the designer wants it played. That is why navigation of a player is highly important. If a player feels they are walking for too long, they will get bored (Rogers, 2010, p. 226). Other options to consider are flying, running, swimming etc. Or a combination of these.
Dan Taylor of Square Enix Montreal states that the path that the player follows must be made clear. This can achieved through clever lighting and geometry (Long, 2013). By making a pathway lighter in colour as opposed to the objects around it, the player will walk towards that. Player’s tend not to head towards darkened trails (Rogers, 2010, p. 226).
To attract the player towards a point of interest, the use of landmarks, or other elements can help draw them to that area. To create a free flowing level, placing these elements along an invisible path can help move the player along without the need for big signs saying “go this way”.

GRAY BOX TESTING

Once the ideas have been scripted and mapped out, the next stage is to set up a test level to scope out scale, size and tempo. Set up in a 3D environment by using software such as Autodesk Maya, this test level is referred to as a Gray Box level. Items that are placed into this environment usually have little or no colours or textures. Once the items have been placed into the Gray Box level, the designer can ‘pace-out’ to get an understanding of the length of the level. This is a walk through from start to finish with no stopping or interaction with any other elements such as enemies. Scott Rogers (2010) explains that if a level is supposed to last 30 minutes, the pace out will take 15 minutes. A Gray Box level is ideal to show team members your ideas as they may not understand your sketches or drawings.

GAMES INDUSTRY

There are a few level designer positions available worldwide at this present stage. Time Warner have a position advertised for a level designer to be based in San Francisco. Responsibilities include the processes mentioned above, such as: developing the level layout, creating prototype modeling (Gray Boxing), scripting, pacing, balance and more. (https://careers.timewarner.com/TGWebHost/jobdetails.aspx?partnerid=391&siteid=36&jobId=684142&Codes=NIND)
Another position is for the company Wargaming based in Chicago (however they have offices worldwide including Australia). Once again the requirements needed are those mentioned in this report: Being able to emphasize a ‘fun’ experience to the gamer, as well as create a look and feel as well as game flow and balance. (http://www.gamesindustry.biz/jobs/wargaming-chicago-baltimore/chicago/illinois/united-states/north-america/level-designer-id67695)
Other positions available
• Level Designer – Glacier Studios based in Chicago (https://www.smartrecruiters.com/glacierStudios/74992717-level-designer)
• Senior Level Designer – based in Finland (advertisement placed by Games Industry recruitment) (http://www.gamesindustry.biz/jobs/amiqus-games/finland/uk-and-europe/senior-level-designer-id67688)
• Lead Level Designer – Crytek based in Ukraine (http://www.gamesindustry.biz/jobs/crytek/ukraine/uk-and-europe/lead-level-designer-id65465)

CONCLUSION

As analyzed in this paper it is evident that there are a lot of points to take into consideration when designing a level for computer games. Before anything can be designed in a 3D environment the ideas for the level must be sketched out with details of enemy locations, the player location and other elements that need to be placed. The layout as well as navigation is important to get an understanding of how the player will navigate around the level. Navigation is important to get right as it is the player who will be experiencing the final product. Design elements can be incorporated to a level to create atmosphere, this can be achieved by the clever use of colour, lighting, weather effects, special and audio effects. To be successful in level design these procedures must be adopted and applied as it is needed by companies worldwide.

REFERENCES

Adams, E. (2010). Fundamentals of game design New Riders.
Barchan, S. (2011). Life of a level designer part 1. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.peoplecanfly.com/blog/2011/03/life-of-a-level-designer-pt-1/
Different levels in crash bandicoot. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://crashbandicoot.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Levels
Glacier studios: Level designer. (2014). Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from https://www.smartrecruiters.com/glacierStudios/74992717-level-designer
Hullett, K., & Whitehead, J. (2010). Design patterns in FPS levels. 1.
Lead level designer. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.gamesindustry.biz/jobs/crytek/ukraine/uk-and-europe/lead-level-designer-id65465
Long, N. (2013). 10 principles for good level design. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.edge-online.com/news/gdc-2013-10-principles-for-good-level-design/
Rogers, S. (2010). Level up!: The guide to great video game design Wiley.
Senior level designer. (2014). Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.gamesindustry.biz/jobs/amiqus-games/finland/uk-and-europe/senior-level-designer-id67688
The 10 bestselling video games of 2013. (2013). Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Media/Slideshow/2013/12/13/10-Bestselling-Video-Games-2013
Time Warner. (2014). Level designer. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from https://careers.timewarner.com/TGWebHost/jobdetails.aspx?partnerid=391&siteid=36&jobId=684142&Codes=NIND
Wikipedia. (2013). Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Call_of_Duty:_Modern_Warfare_3
Wikipedia. (2013). the last of us. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_of_Us

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Adams, E. (2010). Fundamentals of game design New Riders.
Barchan, S. (2011). Life of a level designer part 1. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.peoplecanfly.com/blog/2011/03/life-of-a-level-designer-pt-1/
Barwood, H., & Falstein, N. (2013). The 400 project. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.finitearts.com/Pages/400page.html
Behind The Scenes [image]. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.peoplecanfly.com/blog/files/2011/03/lifeofanld02-565×321.jpg
Color psychology. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.digitalskratch.com/color-psychology.php
Different levels in crash bandicoot. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://crashbandicoot.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Levels
Falstein, N. Game design details. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.theinspiracy.com/game-design-details.html
Glacier studios: Level designer. (2014). Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from https://www.smartrecruiters.com/glacierStudios/74992717-level-designer
Grey Box Level [image]. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.peoplecanfly.com/blog/files/2011/03/lifeofanld04-565×322.jpg
GTA V [image]. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.oxmonline.com/files/imagecache/futureus_imagegallery_fullsize/gallery/world_0.jpg
Hullett, K., & Whitehead, J. (2010). Design patterns in FPS levels.
Khan, M., & Kahn, F. (2012). A comparative study of white box, black box and grey box testing techniques.3 (6), 12.
Last of us [image]. (2013). Retrieved from http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7077/7339375138_2c75f38c35_o.png
Lead level designer. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.gamesindustry.biz/jobs/crytek/ukraine/uk-and-europe/lead-level-designer-id65465
Level design. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.gamesindustry.biz/jobs/wargaming-chicago-baltimore/chicago/illinois/united-states/north-america/level-designer-id67695
Licht, M. (2003). An architect’s perspective on level design pre-production. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/131257/an_architects_perspective_on_.php?page=2
Long, N. (2013). 10 principles for good level design. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.edge-online.com/news/gdc-2013-10-principles-for-good-level-design/
Parish, J. (2012). Learning level design through Mario. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.1up.com/features/learning-level-design-mario
Rogers, S. (2010). Level Up: The guide to great video game design Wiley.
Senior level designer. (2014). Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.gamesindustry.biz/jobs/amiqus-games/finland/uk-and-europe/senior-level-designer-id67688
Skinner, J. (2005). The layperson’s guide to creating a computer game.85 (2), 11.
The 10 bestselling video games of 2013. (2013). Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Media/Slideshow/2013/12/13/10-Bestselling-Video-Games-2013
Time Warner. (2014). Level designer. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from https://careers.timewarner.com/TGWebHost/jobdetails.aspx?partnerid=391&siteid=36&jobId=684142&Codes=NIND
Todd, H. (2013). The art of level design analysis. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://www.critical-distance.com/2013/10/02/the-art-of-level-design-analysis/
Wikipedia. (2013). Grand theft auto 5. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gta_v
Wikipedia. (2013). Sid Meier. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sid_meier
Wikipedia. (2013). the last of us. Retrieved 02/20, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_of_Us

LUDOGRAPHY

Infinity Ward (2013). Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 [Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC]. Infinity Ward. Los Angeles, U.S.A.
MicroProse (1991). Civilization. [PC, Super Nintendo]. MicroProse. Maryland, U.S.A.
Naughty Dog (1996-1999). Crash Bandicoot [Playstation]. Naughty Dog. Santa Monica, California, U.S.A.
Naughty Dog (2013). The Last of Us [Playstation 3]. Naughty Dog. Santa Monica, California, U.S.A.
Nintendo (1985). Super Mario Bros. [Nintendo Entertainment System]. Nintendo EAD. Tokyo, Japan.
Rockstar North (2013). Grand Theft Auto V [Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC]. Rockstar North. Edinburgh, Scotland.

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