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Making Difficult Level Design Decisions

Category: Productivity/Time Management
April 19, 2009

Throughout your journey as a level designer and a 3d environment artist you will come to face many difficult artistic and technical decisions. Those decisions will shape your level design and will have to be made as soon as possible so you don't loose an overall sight of what you are trying to accomplish. If you get too bogged down, they you won't be able to see the big picture and in the end, you will get overwhelmed and even perhaps abandoned your map.

Making Difficult Level Design Decisions

As your skill increases through out your time of working on one single map, you will end up wanting to add more to your map, expend it. Maybe now you know more about a certain skill and you want to go back and refine the terrain or gameplay elements.

But you know that if you decide to do that it will set you back on time. So instead of moving forward, you are putting out old fires. The thing is, you are not moving forward.

There are 2 ways of dealing with difficult mapping decisions.

As I am working on a new Unreal map I came to a few forks in the road. Few decisions, which actually were more, like moments of indecisions. My particular indecisions came in the planning stages before I opened up the editor. For you it could be in the planning stages or it could be deep in production.

The latter one is more crucial to overcome. If you have to make a decision about the artistic style, gameplay style in the middle of production, that will most likely set you back in deadline release by few days to few weeks.

There is nothing wrong with being ambitious and you have to be flexible. But if you begin to change your original vision, and original inspiration in the middle of production, you are setting yourself up for a lot of work and frustration.

Making Difficult Level Design Decisions

The more I switched themes in my map in the planning stages, the less I was inspired and more I was losing track of my original inspiration.

Also the pressure to produce was creating stress. You can't think creatively when you are stressed.

So I stepped back and had to re-evaluate what I was originally going for.

So if you have come to a point where you don't know which direction to take your map, or you want to switch directions and the art style here are quick guidelines.

There are two stages to this but the question you ask are very similar.

Pre-Production and Production stage.

Also, if you are on a team or a studio you will have an art director, design document and a vision already in place for the world you are creating. You can still ask these questions but also pay attention to the design document and your art director for the feedback.

PRE-PRODUCTION:

During pre-production you are planning your map on paper, collecting reference and drawing sketches of top down view for gameplay. At this point if you change something, it is much easier to change and make adjustments.

Once you have an idea and you are pretty sure you want to pursue to create. Before you open level editor or begin to collect reference or setting gameplay in stone. Ask yourself these two fundamental questions.

These two questions will be your guidelines throughout your production process. Anytime you are losing your original vision you will be able to comeback to what you wrote and set yourself back on track. It is almost like creating a concept statement for your level design.

Here they are:

First question deals with you and second question deals with the map itself.

One: What do you want to accomplish with your map? Be extremely specific of what you want.

And

Two: know what desired outcome you want from this project.

1. What do you want to accomplish with your level design? Be very specific.

This question is more specific to yourself then your map. It is about the skill you want to show, skill you want to learn, and level you want to produce. The answers you give will affect the second question.

Is it to learn a particular skill in the editor? What do you want to learn? Is it to create a portfolio map? Is it to create a Warfare map? DM map? CTF map? DE or CT map etc? Is it to excel at lighting? Is it to learn Maya and importing/exporting? Create 100% custom map? Is it to fulfill minimum requirements? Is it to create a map in the fastest time possible? Etc.

1. What do you want to accomplish with your level design? Be very specific.

During my process I answered the question:

I want to create a map that is not set in overcast, rainy, grey environment as I have been creating in the past. I want to explore different lighting and create more of a serene environment. I want to learn Maya to Mudbox workflow. Thus creating models in Maya and detailing them in Mudbox to produce normal maps. I want to create a map that I will be happy to submit to Make Something Unreal Contest. Custom static meshes, detailed environment and a portfolio map.

2. What is the desired outcome I want from my new map?

Level Design Creation Guidelines [LDCG] are really helpful to get your vision on track.

What is the desired outcome I want to produce after I complete this map?

My answer was: My desired outcome is to create a visually pleasing and atmosphere heavy map by using as much of Maya custom modeling static meshes.

In the beginning of my planning process I thought of creating a warfare or CTF map. As I began switching and creating gameplay flow I began to change my inspiration and original vision of the map, the original idea.

Mudbox Interface

After I answered these two questions it was clear to me what I needed to do. I did not want to focus on creating gameplay CTF map or large outdoor Warfare map. Both which would require a lot of time that I did not have. It would also take me away from modeling in Maya and mudbox which were the skills I wanted to learn or improve upon.

Small DM map is enough to accomplish my desired outcome. So focusing more of my time in Maya and learning interface of Mudbox while spending my time detailing static meshes is where I want to spend the most of my time for this map.

The rest of my planning process went a lot smoother, because I knew what I wanted and where I was going. I had decided on my desired outcome.

PRODUCTION:

During a production is a bit more difficult to just change your artistic vision. You must stay with what you already have unless you are willing to strip down and scale back. All will depend on a given situation.

If you have not done the pre-production questions and don't have a guideline to follow; and you are having difficulty moving forward with your map and you keep adding new elements, gameplay and building more static meshes.

Ask yourself the same questions.

What do you want to accomplish with your level design? Be very specific.

And, what is my desired outcome for this map?

1. What do you want to accomplish with your level design? Be very specific.

From the answer you receive may set you back a few days, it may require for you to redesign few elements and change your map. But at least you will know where you are going.

It is a lot easier to change things in the beginning then it is during the production. One way to avoid this is to plan ahead of time.

Do not loose track of what you want to get out of the current project. Refer back to what you wrote for these two questions. I also stress a lot of planning ahead of time, but make sure that after you plan what you need to plan you are able to let it go and trust the process. Going with the flow of the project.

Be flexible in the production process and trust the planning stage to take care of the designing. Don't be afraid to change and adjust to the required new insight that will come your way during the production.

Remember:

One: What do you want to accomplish with your map? Be extremely specific of what you want.

And

Two: know what desired outcome you want from this project.

Preproduction Blueprint - How to Plan Your Game Environments and Level Designs

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