Mateusz "Seir" Piaskiewicz is a professional level designer currently working at Techland. Techland is a game developer located in Poland. They are known for Call of Juarez series.
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where you from, where do you work and how did you become a level designer?
Hello, my name is Mateusz "seir" Piaskiewicz, I'm 23 and I'm from Zawiercie, Poland. I'm a Landscape Architect working for almost three years now at a development and publishing company Techland as a Level Designer.
My adventure with Level Design started when I was 15. I had too much spare time so I played Quake 3 Arena and Quake at Lan Parties on my old Pentium 133MHz with 32 MB RAM. I was bored of just playing, I wanted to created my own level but I didn't know how to do that. One day I noticed some Polish mappers like MisYu, QurneL or Necrosis so I decided to contact them and ask for help.
From that time I remember one of my maps called MATDM2 "Body Count" that was reviewed 9,5/10 on RetroQuake and it's still played on some servers. I had a little break from mapping to pass the exams at school. After moving to another city I started to experiment with 3D models and mapping for Half-Life 2 and old but great Quake III Arena. Then I got a job at Techland as a Level Designer and my life of a custom mapper was over.
What are your responsibilities and duties as a level designer?
I work directly with story writers, game designers, music composers and programmers so I really feel that I'm a part of the production and that I can influence how things look and work. Actually every smallest asset for the game lands on our desks and we have to know how to use it and it's our responsibility to do it as well as possible. Sometimes we have to design gameplay for an entire level from scratch, sometimes we only need to implement and script an existing level idea. It depends on the project.
Could you describe your current level design workflow? How do you begin designing a level, creating it and polishing to be released?
First of all you need fresh ideas.
Without them your level will be just like other typical adventures and it will quickly be forgotten. You need inspiration to get the ideas so it's good to check games from favorite genre, watch movies or browse reference photography of some atmospheric places that can be transplanted to your level. While doing this, remember that it is used solely as inspiration not to steal an existing concept.
"First of all you need fresh ideas."
After that you need to collect reference photos, draw some layout and location sketches. You don't have to be an artist to create a layout sketch. Just keep in mind that other people have to read and understand it properly. One sketch is worth a thousand words - it saves a lot of time.
Test your ideas on paper and answer questions like "Does it look and play nice?", "What players can do and how they can break my idea?" or "Is it possible to do that in the editor?". Don't waste time on ideas that won't work.
When your sketch is ready, consult with friends and after that start to create the level prototype. Show your work to other people to get quick reviews and solve minor issues.
When the prototype is ready and plays nicely it's time to send your level to testers. You can add some details but in most cases you'll need to send your level to Environment Artists anyway. They'll do it better and faster because you're most likely out of time and there are other levels waiting in the line. As you can see, a typical Level Designer loses all the fun of playing his own level. When the details are all added it's a good time to fix the bugs reported by testers.
"Test your ideas on paper and answer questions like "Does it look and play nice?", "What players can do and how they can break my idea?" or "Is it possible to do that in the editor?". Don't waste time on ideas that won't work."
Where do you find inspiration, ideas and motivation to keep on going during development?
I'm a photography and bicycle hobbyist so I take my camera, jump on a bike and go looking for inspiration in places where no one else would go. I love exploring ruins, abandoned factories, old mines and places like that. This is a way to get inspiration and it gives me a break from work.
It's fundamental while working on a big project when motivation is a priceless commodity. I also read a lot of publications, follow a lot of community portals and other designers' portfolios to see how other people deal with problems that are haunting my levels. You can't be lazy when you want to be creative. There's only one way for being lazy and getting inspiration at once - it's gaming. Quake, Call of Duty and Half-Life series are my all-time favorites.
Where do you see most level designers go wrong when they are creating a custom level and where can they improve?
A lot of people start from making few very detailed rooms without any sketch or idea what players are supposed to do there. It's pure luck when maps like these are playable. Without planning that's not very likely and you'll probably end up wasting time. It's cool if you have the time but it's better to learn from other people's mistakes. I see a tendency to draw or model scenes the way people remember them. That's bad because unless you are a master of your discipline and have infallible memory, you're going to overlook a lot of important details.
My advice: use as much reference material as possible.
"My advice: use as much reference material as possible."
What would your advice be to a beginner level designer?
Respect your time and don't get burned out. Don't waste time on details when you're not sure if the general idea will work. Test your ideas as much as possible, write down all issues on paper. Show your work to other people even if this is only a sketch. It's better to invest time at the beginning than to lose it fixing major issues later on.
What should a young designer focus on the most in the beginning of their level design career?
I know a lot of people who rush to be in the industry at all costs but they are not yet ready.
You need a portfolio, solid but not too big, preferably showing your unique style. Master your skills in main aspects like level design and implementation for a given game engine and also modeling in one 3D application. Don't waste your time on other aspects, aim to be better in the field you specialize in. Stay creative even if you're not happy with the results. To make your work look beautiful, you'll need to pump your skills up.
What skill set does today's level designer need to have in order to become the great next-generation level designer?
In the days of the old Commodore there was no such position like Level Designer. Levels, graphics and sound effects were made by one person in a garage. Actually, this wise guy is now called a Level Designer. It sounds really bad but in some ways it's still true. The more you know, the better you are. Sometimes you'll need to know basic scripting or programming to implement AI to your level. Sometimes you'll need to create a model prototype because all 3D artists are busy. Specialize in your work but broaden your horizons at every opportunity.
"Specialize in your work but broaden your horizons at every opportunity."
Would you share secret level design advice from the industry that can help a level designer create better work?
It's difficult to make the first step - get an idea for the level. My little secret is how to find correct way to the basic concept of the story, gameplay or environment. Think what you would like to do or where you'd like to be. Games gives us the ability to make unusual things in unusual places, to make dreams come true, to visit places that you never dreamed of.
Remember that you're making a part of the game's world: every object and move should have its story - a reasonable explanation for being there. Making realistic and believable worlds that will give spectators a lot of fun is the key to creating a memorable story. Creating an obviously artificial world without the right proportions will only confuse spectators.
"Remember that you're making a part of the game's world: every object and move should have its story - a reasonable explanation for being there."
What is next for you? What are you working on? Could you talk about the next project or a game you are working on?
I have some private projects and I want to finish them. It's hard to work as a Level Designer and then create something at home. I can't talk about my current projects at work. All I can say that we are rising the bar. Our goal is to maintain high quality while innovating and providing a lot of fun.
Thank you for your time Mateusz.
Thanks Alex! It was a pleasure talking with you.
Where could people find you? Website? Forums? LinkedIn?
My portfolio website is temporarily down but you can find me on LinkedIn. I'm also the editor of Level-Design.org - a database of useful publications for Level Designers, Environment Artists and people who are designing virtual scenery.
I spend a lot of time reading Game-Artist, Mapcore and World of Level Design Forums. My biggest time-eater is COJModding.com - a community site for one of our games - Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. You can get ChromED Level Editor and tutorials from there and start mapping!