How do you have the best level design and game environment art year?
I used to set vague goals, work on a couple of projects per year that I didn't finish; I didn't work on level design and game environment art consistently and deliberately enough to make a difference. I didn't set projects that supported my level design goals, I never created working lists, I worked on multiple projects at a time, I didn't plan out my work, I took too many days off and did not push myself.
Because of that I was stuck at the same skill level for a long time. Actually, I thought I was getting worse.
In this blog post I will share what has been working for me and what I would recommend you do to get better at level design and game environment art.
So lets start with what you can do to make this year into the best year for level design and game environment.
What Are Your Level Design Goals?
Goals are things you want to do, projects you want to accomplish, areas of level design and game environment art you want to get better at and maps or game environments you want to release.
Your goals can be related to anything that you want to accomplish in level design and game environment art. It can include getting better at texturing, modeling foliage, focus on level design flow, improving a process workflow or learning to use UDK, CryEngine 3 SDK or Hammer Source.
Whatever it maybe, write down what you want to do.
Ask yourself: What do I want to do, to accomplish, to release, to get better at or to learn?
Set Up Projects That Support Your Goals
In the past when I created goals I wanted to accomplish, they were rarely finished. It would frustrate me. I would follow the common steps of setting goals. I would do everything the books and websites on productivity suggested. But after months and years I would still not have many goals checked off. After stumbling in the dark I found a method that worked.
Each goal needs to have a project/s to support it.
Goals usually do not have automatic action steps built in. Projects do.
So if I want to get better at creating custom game environments using Maya and UDK then I need to set up a project to work on so it pushes me to use Maya and UDK to accomplish my goal. Goals tend to be vague while projects have specific built in steps to act upon.
So for each goal I would create a project to do. For example:
Goal: Get better at creating custom game environments using Maya and UDK
Project: Create a stand-alone game environment set in 1920's Chicago with custom textures, models and a fly-through at the end to be used in a portfolio.
The goal above is just an idea, a wish; but a project has built in action steps for me to take right away.
After you set up your goals; create one or two projects that support that goal.
What project would you want to do that supports and get you closer to you goal?
In my experience this has been the best way to complete goals. Create a game environment or level design project that support your goals.
Set a Timetable/Deadlines for Your Goals and Projects
Split up your goals/projects into 1-3-6 month segments. 1-3-6 month goals are more manageable and realistic. I believe that we over-estimate what is possible and we often set unreachable and unrealistic goals too far into the future. 12-month goals are too far away. When I set 12-month goals I rarely start on them, because I think I have plenty of time. So I don't even start on them.
Parkinson's Law is the idea behind this. Law describes that:
"Work expands to fill the time available for its completion."
Meaning that if you give yourself one month to complete a map that takes a week. You will fill that whole month with activities of creating a map that could actually take a lot less. Thus creating stress and complexity.
Opposite is true. Give yourself a half the time of what it actually takes to complete a map and you will focus on finishing it within that allotted time.
11-day mapping challenge as Parkinson's Law in effect.
When it comes to level design and game environment goals and projects keep it short to 1-3-6 months. Many projects can take even less to complete. Often you can get something done in few days or couple of weeks.
Outline of a 30-day time-table I did a while back:
Work on one project at a time
I have a large list of projects I want to work on. Many maps and game environments I want to do, tutorials I want to create, products I want to release. But your time is limited and so is your focus. The key is to work on one main project at a time and to finishing it before starting a new one.
I know this can be extremely difficult to work on one environment at a time. It is really hard for me not to work on at least 2 projects at the same time. But I know in the past that every time I tried to manage 2-3 projects I rarely finished them. I have dozens of work in progress environments that may never get completed for this reason.
When I focus on one game environment, one level design or one tutorial at a time I tend to finish. This is why I believe challenges that we have on WoLD forums are successful. It makes you focus on one project at a time, one environment until you are done. Parkinson's Law in effect.
Many who have tried working on a challenge and at the same time worked on another project, struggled to complete either project. Pick one project and focus on it. Try to avoid working on anything else until you are done.
Here are a couple of many unfinished projects. Reason: worked on multiple projects at the same time and did not plan ahead of time.
Unfinished Counter-Strike Source Map:
Unfinished Unreal Tournament 3 Map:
Start Doing Level Design/Game Environment Challenges
Level Design and Game Environment challenges are one of the best ways to improve and get something done. Challenges help to get out of the rut, work on improving a specific aspect of development and help you finish.
Many have improved their level design work. Challenges offer a short time span of working on a project, forcing you to finish. Challenges are specific on criteria and participating as part of the community helps to keep the momentum going until you are done.
I highly recommend doing challenges that we run on the WoLD forums or set up your own challenges to complete.
Studies allow you to work on one or two specific areas of production. You can focus on creating something with BSP only, create textures or model props in Maya. Studies are focused on one single area that you want to improve on and ignore the large scale of the production process.
Studies should not be the entire production process but only one aspects of it (such as modeling, texturing, uving, lighting, scripting etc)
To do studies, pick a small project to work on and one or two aspect of production you want to focus on to learn as much as you can about it. Implement what you are learning in the study.
Plan Out Your Projects
One of the most important aspects of beginning any project is planning. Planning is crucial. I never start any project unless I go through preproduction and research.
Preproduction includes idea generation, creating visual concepts, top down layouts, setting up objectives, figuring out locations, environment settings, collecting reference and the list goes on.
If you want to know exactly what to do during planning stages of your game environment take a look at Preproduction Blueprint. It will be highly valuable in your work.
Work On Large-Scale/Long-Term Project
Throughout the year as you do studies, challenges and learn more about what it takes to create game environments, dedicate a few months to working on one large-scale/long-term game environment. It is where you put everything you know up until now into action.
Large-scale/long-term project will require some time and dedication. This can help to push your skill level, discipline and artistic boundaries into a new level. Such projects are tougher to do but the payoff will show. There aren't that many people who can spend time working on one project for a few months, but if you do you become someone to aspire to.
During large-scale/long-term project you shouldn't work on anything else other then this one project.
Build Momentum With Smaller Projects
Large-scale project require a lot of time and dedication. If you are just starting out you may not fully understand how the entire level design process works and what you need to do. It helps to begin with smaller scale projects. These small scale projects should include most of the production pipeline, but in smaller time chunks. Instead of working on an entire town modeled, textured and lit start with just a street corner or one single building or even just a room. Smaller scale projects can include challenges and studies.
These can help you to build up momentum and discipline in finishing your work and learning the process.
Checklists are very important in process development for any game environment or level design.
Checklists are simple lists of what you need to create, what you need to model, what you need to work on and what do you need to do to finish. I create lists in everything I do. I create preproduction checklist, modeling checklist, production process pipeline checklist, to do checklists.
I highly recommend you keep checklists for everything you do. From what you need to create, to what needs to be done and what bugs need to be fixed.
Update lists often and rework your lists to keep yourself on track and moving forward during production.
Take Everything One Small Step at a Time
Take everything you do, one step at a time. It is easy to set a large project to create 5-map campaign in L4D2, complete with custom animations, particles and cinematic intros. But to have a manageable project, it has to be broken down into smaller steps and checklists.
Creating a full environment can be overwhelming. So many things must be done from planning, blocking in, lighting, texturing to modeling and gameplay. You have to break it down into small steps that you can work on everyday in order to complete it. You take the mystique away. Project becomes a combination of small steps.
So when you work on the project focus on the small step you have to do today. Create that brick texture, that one material set up. Light the interior hallway inside that bunker. Script the AI sequence in the beginning of the map.
Any level design or game environment is composed of small steps you have to do along the way. Break everything down into small actionable steps.
Project purpose is why you are working on a project?
Is it to move you closer to complete your goal?
Is it to improve a certain aspect of your artistic production development?
Is it going to help you get a job? Add a piece to a portfolio? Learn better modeling workflow?
Why are you working on this project?
Inspiring ideas in the moment are fun to work on but when you hit your first roadblock and you encounter that first problem it can be difficult to continue because you had no purpose behind the project.
When you work on any project, decide on a purpose, a reason why you will be working on it. It will give you focus and direction. Know why you are spending time and working on the level design or game environment.
I love to draw because it helps me to figure out and work out problems on paper before I jump inside a level editor.
It took me few years. I've put hundreds of hours in figure drawing classes, basic drawing and still life classes. As well as constantly drawing from anatomy and architecture books.
But you don't have to put in the time like I have. The type of drawing that I suggest is focused on problem solving and better understanding of what you are creating.
When you draw focus on top down views, drawing shapes and form of buildings and objects.
Drawing helps me to understand how objects are shaped, their form and function. Nobody will see these drawings I do expect for me. Occasionally I scan them to show you but it is always for the benefit of the project and to understand what I want to create.
I recommend you get a sketch pad, a pen or pencil and just start figuring out problems on paper. Draw top down views, mind maps, redraw architecture designs, building shapes and form. These will help you to understand the environment you will create a lot better.
Start Taking Process Screenshots Throughout Your Project
When I began deliberately figuring out how to improve my work I started to keep work in progress screenshots from start to end of the environments I was working on.
Sometimes it was just a few screenshots to see the difference in lighting. Other times I took screenshots of the entire progress workflow. I could then quickly flip through all the images and see what I have done, how I did it and what I could have done better.
It allowed me to begin sharing my process workflow and helped me to look at my work and process more objectively.
As you work on a project start taking a few screenshots along the way. Any time you change lighting or tweak lighting, or when you rework your textures. Take before and after images. It will help you judge your work more objectively and choose what looks better and why.
Take Notes and Keep Tutorial Notebooks
My desk is full of notebooks. They range from UDK, Hammer, CryEngine, ChromEd, Level Design, Maya etc. Each notebook is dedicated to a specific game engine. All are full of notes and tutorials and all are hand written.
Not to mension countless binders with printed documentation and tutorials.
I write everything that I learn into these notebooks. Things I figured out as I work. I reference these notes very often. Keeping notes has helped me to learn faster and understand the process better.
By writing down what I do, tutorials I have learned all these processes become more ingrained in my mind.
Start keeping notes of what you do and what you are learning and how to do something in a particular editor. It will save you a lot of time trying to look up, remember or re-learn what you did in your past projects.
Uninterrupted Highly Focused Hour
One of the things I've written before and I can't recommend enough, is to work in uninterrupted, highly focused hourly chunks.
I find myself getting a lot of work done when I can work in 60-90 minute chunks of highly focused and engaged work.
Absolutely no multi-tasking, no distractions, no emails, no facebook, no twitter. Completely focused on the project. I set a timer for 60 or 90 minutes. Completely focused and engaged in level design or game environment. When I feel my attention and focus drifting away, when I begin to feel restless, I stop. I take a 15-30 minute break, then start again.
You want to begin working on your projects in 60-90 minute chunks of highly focused and engaged work without any distraction. Anything that includes any level design or game environment work. Preproduction, drawing, painting, texturing, modeling, scripting etc.
60-90 minute phases are natural biological rhythm that your body goes through. These are called Circadian and Ultradian Rhythm and there has been a great book written about it called Power of Full Engagement. I highly recommend it if you are interested in learning more about being highly productive.
Since I've started to work this way I learn more, create better environments and I am highly focused then I was before.
Begin working in 60-90 minute chunks. If you have a problem staying engaged for full 60 minutes, start with 30 minutes first and then increase.
Embrace the Hard and Deliberate Work
I wish I could say that creating game environments and level designs is easy and effortless work but it is not. At first when you begin, it will be very frustrating. It can be difficult to problem solve when you don't know why something isn't working. You can't even search for something, because you don't know what to search for. But if you begin to put in the time, the hours of work and practice that requires to create game environments, over time it will become easier. You will begin to get better and happier with what you create. At some point, you will begin to merge what you had in your mind and what you see on screen. To get to this point you must put in hundreds of hours and consistently working an practicing your craft. It cannot be done otherwise.
So if you are at a point where you are not happy with what you create and you just can't seem to catch a break, remember, just keep cranking at it every day. Keep working. Keep creating. Take small steps. One project at a time.
I will leave you with a quote from one of my drawing instructors. He told us that "you have hundreds and hundreds of bad drawings in you, what are you waiting for, start drawing."
That means that you have many “bad” level designs and game environments in you, start creating them and get them out of your system. Only then can you get to the good stuff that you aspire to create.
Keep putting out projects and completed work. It is about the numbers. Keep putting in the hours required to be great.
Begin using some of these principles I've listed above and I hope they help you to have this year and every year after the best damn level design and game environment art year.
Good luck and let me know how it goes. I'd love to hear how you are traveling along your journey as a level designer and game environment artist and which ideas you will begin to impelement.