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Deliberate Practice for Level Designers and Game Environment Artist

Category: Level Design, Game Environment Design
December 03, 2013

The following post/tutorial has been sitting in my queue for about a year. It is something I've wanted to finish and share with you for a while, but other tutorials would get in the way. Until I took last few months off from posting and focused on practicing and improving my skillset. I realized how important what I am about to share with you is. So now I am back and completely refocused on WoLD. To get things moving again, the topic of today's blog post is practice.

Deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice isn't daily work. It isn't what most call, practice. It is a specific kind of practice with its own steps, actions and principles to follow.

What I used to consider "practice" is merely working on a map or a game environment.

The process went something like this. There were things I did not know how to do and things that I knew how to do. Every time I worked on a project I was juggling between these two states. As I worked on the map or environment art piece, I would come up against something I didn't know how to do. This could be baking a normal map from high poly model or lightmapping a prop in UDK. So I would stop what I was doing and go on the web to look for tutorials. Once I found a tutorial I would go through it, produce something mediocre, use it in my project and move onto the next step. When I would come up against another problem, I would just repeat the above steps. Web, search tutorial, follow tutorial, produce a half-ass result, use it in my project and move on.

Here is such mediocre result from the process; custom Unreal Tournament 2K4 map I worked on and never released:

I never stopped to consider that maybe what I was doing wasn't making me a better level designer and environment artist. That maybe I should spend time and really practice the skills of what I didn't know.

Then few years ago I read a book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Calvin. It was a study of what it takes to become the best in a given field. Book focused on what athletes, artists, and musicians did to become world class. One thing was for sure, it wasn't because of an inborn talent or a specific gene. It was because of practice; a specific kind of practice that created and developed its own talents.

After I read the book I realized that just opening up the editor and working on a map or a game environment is not going to make me better and improve my skill. Tiger Woods doesn't go out to a golf course to hit balls for 2 hours and calls it practice. Each time he practices he works on specific aspects of his golf swing, making tiny adjustments, setting self-imposed limitations to make his practice harder and more challenging. He deliberately works on things he needs to improve on and spends his time fine-tuning every step of the process.

I realized that I needed to take the same approach and incorporate deliberate practice. I needed to treat my daily work as top athletes, artists and musicians did in the book.

DM-Lighthouse came out from the experimentation of deliberate practice:

There are six key principles of deliberate practice. I consider these so important that I have printed them up and hung them on my wall.

Let's start with 6 principles, and then I will share ideas of how you can implement them into your own daily work.

One thing I want to emphasize is that deliberate practice is different from just working. This practice is extra work and should be done in addition to your daily, regular tasks.

1. IT IS DESIGNED TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE

"The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his/her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don't do it in the activities we think of as practice."

You must practice with purpose to improve performance. Each time you set out to practice, it should be to improve your process and to achieve a better result. Just a small step towards improvement. The key is to stretch just outside what you currently know how to do. You should not be comfortable, nor should you be frustrated and out of your element.

You are reaching beyond your current ability, just outside of your comfort zone.

Focus on a specific phases of level design or environment art production pipeline. Gameplay, scripting, texturing, blocking in, material creation, normal map baking, sculpting, lighting etc. Break each phase into separate steps that you can practice and improve upon.

For example break texturing down to diffuse, normal or specular creation; break modeling down to blocking in, detailing, baking, optimization or sculpting. Then focus on practicing that one single aspect to improve it.

Every time you practice, go just beyond your reach of what you know how to do. Push yourself just outside your current level of ability.

2. IT IS REPEATED A LOT

"High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts."

If you have worked on a map or a game environment then you have spent time repeating the same steps over and over again. Blocking in, modeling, exporting/importing, applying materials, creating textures, alignment, testing, baking, re-baking etc. The list goes on.

Like a boxer who throws the same 1-2 combination (jab-cross), thousands of times. High repletion makes the difference in learning a new skill and being able to perform it when it counts.

In Brazil, beginner soccer players need to acquire a lot of repetition for handling, passing and kicking the ball. Playing on a real soccer field isn't the answer; instead the players are subjected to play in a small confined space with wall boundaries so the ball won't go out of play. The amount of touches each player receives per game goes up. This deliberate practice in soccer is called Futsal. It helps to increase intensity and repetition during practice.

You must do the same in level design and game environment art. Instead of creating a large map that will take you few months to complete, practice on a small part of the environment that can be done within few hours or days. Compressing the entire pipeline into a shorter time frame, you'll are able to focus on repetition.

Another way to practice repetitions is to do a very small phase of the pipeline process, then when you are done, delete your work and start over. Performing the steps again, focusing on improving each time you do it.

Remember, it should not be about the number count. Quality and intensity of repeated steps matter.

3. FEEDBACK ON RESULTS ARE CONTINUOUSLY AVAILABLE

Immediate feedback on what you are doing improves your practice. If you have to wait to see results after you've done something, it will not help you to improve performance. You need to see right away, if what you are doing is producing what you want or if it is creating mistakes and errors.

In level design and environment art this is a part of everyday work. Most of the process steps we do, we can see the results immediately. Especially if you break the production pipeline to smaller practice sessions.

If you set up a light and change color or light intensity in UDK, you will get feedback on what it looks like in viewport preview.

If you are baking a normal map in Maya or 3DSMax, you will see if there are any artifacts in the bake; this immediate feedback allows you to fix the problem right away.

Immediate results and feedback on your work should always be available to review and improve upon as you practice your skill.

Another way get feedback on results is to post your work on forums or ask someone on your team to look at it. They can point out something you may have missed and how you can make it better.

4. IT IS HIGHLY DEMANDING MENTALLY

"Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it 'deliberate' as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in."

Deliberate practice needs to demand your concentration and focus. Don't multi-task, don't listen to music and avoid distractions. Completely focus on improving your performance. Your practice must be mentally demanding and because of that, it is energy draining. You won't be able to sustain this level of concentration and focus for more than 4 hours a day and more than 30-90 minutes at a time.

Here is what Geoff Calvin about practice time:

"The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes."

If you feel that during practice you are enjoying yourself, performing at your peak and you are not exerting any effort, then you are not reaching far enough outside your current ability.

I understand that putting in 4 hours of practice daily in addition to your regular work might be too much, especially if you have school or a job. You can tweak this to fit your schedule. I personally focus on achieving a minimum of 30-60 minutes per day, 5-6x per week, in addition to my regular workload. I also try to inject deliberate practice principles into my regular work throughout the day.

5. IT IS HARD

"Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. It isn't much fun.....Deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable."

If it were easy and fun to do, everyone would do it and there would be no entry barrier to becoming one of the best.

Deliberate practice is hard and it is often not enjoyable. Doing things because they are fun doesn't require a lot of effort. That doesn't mean that all of your work should be hard to do; of course not but if it is fun and effortless then it is not part of deliberate practice.

Piano player practice by focusing on a specific section of a performance and they practice it over and over again (repetition), trying to hit the right notes. It is difficult and often not enjoyable or fun. Tiger Woods practices his golf swing with self-imposed restrictions, deliberately making it harder to hit the ball (such as stepping on the ball so it becomes buried in the sand).

If you are learning a new technique or new way of doing something, it will be hard to begin with because you've never done it before. You will be reaching outside your comfort zone and it will require extra effort.

If you are more advanced and have been doing this for a long time you will need to put additional, self-imposed limitations into your practice. Just as Tiger Woods would deliberately step on the ball or a fighter switching his stance from orthodox to southpaw. You have to deliberately make your practice harder than it is so you can practice the skill under additional pressure and difficulty.

At the end of the post I share some of the self-imposed limitations you can use to make your practice more difficult.

Deliberate practice is extra work and it is hard work. It is not fun, but it also shouldn't be miserable. If you are miserable during practice and don't know what to do that means you are too far outside your current level of ability.

6. IT REQUIRES GOOD GOALS

"The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome."

Tiger Woods won the Masters four times, but he still hired a coach, Hank Haney to improve his golf swing.  Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world, yet he was unhappy with his golf swing. He continued to push himself, improving his process and not focusing on the outcome of winning another trophy to add to his collection.

Set goals that you want to achieve. That could be finishing your map, your environment, your game or get a job at the game studio you've always wanted. But, you must focus on the process of reaching that goal, not on the outcome itself. This is being process oriented. Focus on the process of mastering your craft.

Keep the goal right in front of you, know what you want to achieve but focus on the process that will get you there. Just like Tiger Woods focuses on his golf swing and not another tournament trophy.

If you focus on the process you will never grow stale, get bored or uninterested in your work. You will continue to push yourself, improving and learning. Once you get the job you want, once you release your map or your game, you won't stop. You will continue onto the next thing focusing on the process of becoming a better artist.

HOW TO IMPLEMENT DELIBERATE PRACTICE INTO DAILY WORK:

Now let me share how you can apply deliberate practice principles into your own work. Many of these I use myself on daily basis.

  • Dedicate a specific amount of time, minimum of 30-60 minutes every day, more if you can and 5-6 days per week to practice something that you are not good at, something you want to get better at or something you are really good at but want to take it to the next level. This should be in addition to your regular work that you do.
  • Try to inject elements of deliberate practice into your regular daily work. If you don't have a strict deadline to follow and you have a bit of freedom with time, purposely make sure that whatever you are working on can be made into deliberate practice.
  • Put constraints on yourself. One of these constraints is time. Give yourself just a few minutes, few hours or few days to complete something.
  • Don't use any add-ons, plugins or external software that speed up or does the work for you. For example, practice manually unwrapping a model, using default tools and do not use any plug-ins that helps you to unwrap the model faster.
  • Repeat certain step of the process over and over again, trying to get faster and more precise every time. For example when I was learning Landscape Tools in UDK, I gave myself 10 minutes to sculpt the terrain shape to match reference. Once the time was up I would delete the entire landscape and start over, repeating the steps until I was able to sculpt a basic shape in less than 10 minutes and without looking at tutorials.

  • Do the work really slow. Methodically and deliberately perform each step of the process slow. This is really good for when you are learning a new technique or a new skill.
  • Do the work as fast as possible. Timing yourself and performing each step as fast as you can without errors.
  • Go out in public or while others are watching you work. Added pressure can help you to work on performance (not choking) rather than procrastinating or avoiding what you need to do.
  • Learning and using different software that you are not used to.
  • Go back to the fundamentals aspects of level design and game environment art. We often get too focused on the bells and whistles of the latest additions to the game engine and latest techniques. But you must go back and practice the fundamental principles. Such as creating the environment using BSP, focusing on gameplay only, lighting, texturing or color theory. Maybe even picking up an older game engine such as Goldsource (original Half Life engine) and work with limitations of creating your environment.
  • Use limited number of textures, materials or models in your map.
  • Focus on one specific phase of the environment art or level design process. Such as lighting, landscape or texturing only.
  • Constantly deepen your knowledge of the industry by seeing what others are doing; what techniques they are using and see how you can pick up a faster or better way of doing something. Replacing outdated and old ways of working.

Pick up a copy of "Talent is Overrated", here from Amazon.com

Read Next: 11 Things I Learned From Dream Worlds

Updated & Revised - Preproduction Blueprint: How to Plan Your Game Environments and Level Designs

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