DIGITAL DITCH DIGGING: CORE SPACE CREATION OF A LEVEL AND FLOW
The following is a talk from Matthias Worch, a Senior Level Designer at Viceral Games and has worked Dead Space 2. Matthias's lecture is about Digital Ditch Digging, the core space creation of a level and its flow. Matthias has been in the industry for 12 years.
Matthias speech is broken down into 3 sections:
1. What a LD does, and how he finds the "fun"
2. How to structure a level and give it goals
3. How to art up the level with visuals.
Matthias starts the presentation by showing a gameplay footage from Bioshock. It takes place during the first level of the game, when the player is first confronted with the Rapture submarine city while walking through the new-year's-eve-party-gone-bad. Lots of attention to detail, a typical case study for environment narrative, gameplay elements introduction and combination. But before going deep into this, Matthias starts with the role of the level designer.
The role of a level designer is to create gameplay through environments and systems. But the task is quite demanding since the gameplay implemented must be meaningful. If it's not, the game is boring. The play must not feel arbitrary! Try to get all of the game systems connected together: the player can influence more than one of them with a single ability (e.g. the water in Bioshock which can be electrified with the corresponding plasmid).
"The role of a level designer is to create gameplay through environments and systems."
A game system is a collection of properties and behaviors, like a gun, an enemy, a special item (a shield). The goal is to combine game systems. Matthias takes the example of a single rocket launcher without targets to fire at...kind of useless. When systems are well connected, meaningful play (fun) is created. But the most important might be the definition of the boundaries of the space where the play is located.
The environment constrains the player within its topology and ecology. It is built around player metrics (jump height, ...) to define which areas are affordable by the player and which are not. Looking back at the Bioshock example, the topology is the physical enclosure (walls, stairs, ...) It acts as a guide for the player. Shows where to go and what is interesting around here.
Ecology is item placement (health, powerups, weapon pickups, other collectibles...). Item placement must have a meaning (narrative justification for example) and reward player behaviour (exploration). A player should not be forced to grab all those pickups. Instead, he will generate himself the need for those items...this is where a level design is great.
In a nutshell: Item placement + connected game systems + level layout = gameplay. Through the visual is communicated the affordance. Taking examples from Bioshock we saw earlier, he points lots of visual cues or signs to help the player identify where are hidden the goods. For instance, some tickets lying on the floor is leading to a cash register containing money or an alcohol sign above a bar where drinkable items are located. Also, player must be kept inside the simulation boundaries.
Bioshock again, where the space is enclosed underwater is a good example. Matthias will now put those concepts into action by showcasing a quick duel level using 10 brushes he made using Unreal Tournament 3. A couple pickups, an armor, that's all. But even with some very strong constraints, he managed to make the level fun by balancing the space with the item placement. Weak areas see weapon pickups added, so the map encourages moving from space to space by grabbing cool items (what the player needs) and spending some time on a vantage point (what the player wants).
"Ecology is item placement. Item placement must have a meaning (narrative justification for example) and reward player behaviour (exploration). A player should not be forced to grab all those pickups. Instead, he will generate himself the need for those items...this is where a level design is great."
Now we got this, Matthias elaborates on further concepts like level structure and goals, as well as how to convert the level design document to an actual map.
The level structure is the break down process of the entire level into chokepoints (where we find encounters). This generates the goals of the level (kill an enemy to get out of the room to finish the mission and end the map and so on...).
From there we can start whiteboxing the map, where we rough in the topology of the map. The ecology is then added and tested against fun. You must stay as long as possible in the whiteboxing stage because paper LD cannot really demonstrate the fun. Also use some make beliefs to imagine what will the level look like in the end.
Then, it's time for the technical implementation of the level (streaming and various rough optimizations).
"You must stay as long as possible in the whiteboxing stage because paper LD cannot really demonstrate the fun."
Last but not least, Arting up the level. It's clearly time to add visuals. As Matthias puts it, the level designer must collaborate with all the art departments to put his level to eleven. Visuals are key because they do contribute to gameplay: it reinforces player identity and gives some narrative input. He took the example of a famous violin artist who played anonymously in the corridors of the Washington D.C. metro and almost nobody paid attention. When this guy does a concert, tickets are worth a hundred dollars! So definitely, the environment shapes the experience. Also, narrative context is a very powerful tool to give hints to the player about what happened in the level (Bioshock is always a great example with its posters, decals, clutter on tables, ...).
Matthias finished the lecture with a word on paintovers (over whiteboxed levels) leading to full art pass using modular geometry. Art and Level Design are two different jobs though. The LD cannot do both. But he can still works closely with the level artist (and it's recommended!).
Matthias' powerpoint is available on his personal website, as well as the slides from the talk he did the day after with Harvey Smith on environmental narrative. A very insightful lecture I recommend you to read!
Extra: Level Design Presentation Slides