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Level Designer Chris Kay Interview

Category: Level Design
April 27, 2009

Chris Kay is a professional level designer who comes from a strong background in multiplayer first person shooters.

Chris started his level design journey with Unreal on his dad's PC, but the core of his experience came from Counter-Strike. After getting completely addicted to the game Chris started his first level using Worldcraft.

Following the success few years later Half-life 2 was released and Chris joined modification teams, Insurgency.

Insurgency is a modern infantry combat game set around the period of the Iraqi Liberation appealed to him and after 3 years of development it released a public beta which remains one of the top modifications for Half-Life 2, it won Modification of the year award over at the popular web site Moddb and has had extensive media coverage. Magazines, television shows, radio interviews and features at IGN, Gamespot and AMD Game. Insurgency continues to expand with patches and updates planned well into the future.

Chris Kay is currently employed by Crytek as a level designer.

I had a chance to ask Chris a few questions.

Work by Chris Kay

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself Chris and how you became a level designer?

It all started back with Unreal and Starcraft for me, my best friend at school showed me how to make custom levels and gradually it became a serious hobby of mine. It really took off when I fell in love with Counter-Strike and realized there was a massive demand for custom levels. Knowing that other people will enjoy your work is very important for me, and therefore drives my commitment on a project.

Where do you find your inspirations and ideas?

It really depends on the game you're making, but usually it's a combination of other games, movies and television. Ideas grow into reality after time and iterations so it's often important to keep an open mind; that crazy first idea might turn out to be one of the best in the game!

What would be couple of things that you recommend for a beginner level designer to focus his/her efforts on?

From my experience the best way to get into level design is to simply make custom levels for a game you really enjoy. Make lots of levels and try to finish them. It's very easy to move on when you lose inspiration and it can happen allot. Eventually you will find a level that you are happy with and are willing to spend allot of time on.

Work by Chris Kay

Could you talk a bit about your current level design method workflow? How do you begin designing a level, creating it and polishing to be released?

The workflow you follow is often defined by the project you are working on, however there is a generally good practice to follow no matter what the level is for.

1. Start with a plan either in your head or on paper and make sure that your level has a theme. Can you describe it to somebody ... quickly?

2. Prototype, pre-vis, white box or what ever you call it! Don't add details here but try to get the geometry in scale and implement any game play that you can. This is the best time to make big changes to improve the layout, pacing, scale and performance.

3. Do the art pass, keep and eye on performance and do the lighting.

4. Test, test and test again an till you (and others!) are happy.

Work by Chris Kay

What are your criteria for deciding whether a level is designed well?

I often judge a level a long time after playing it. For me a level that can be remembered long after playing it must be good (unless it was painfully frustrating!!) This might be a little vague but it's the bottom line. I then ask myself what makes them so memorable? The answers are usually "this level is designed well" It could be a clever twist in the story, fun combat situations; perfect pacing … the list is endless.

With your extensive level design experience over the years from original Unreal to Insurgency mod to now working at Crytek. What skill does today's level designer need in order to succeed and become the next-generation level designer?

The progression towards being a professional level designer can take a long time. It's important to understand the difference between somebody who makes a level for a released game, and that of a developer designing a level when all you have is an empty shell.

Creating a good custom level for a retail game is a great start and gives you a solid understanding of game mechanics, 3d space, art, lighting and performance. However, to be considered a level designer you must have the ability to think ahead, work with other people who might have a different picture of the final game.

A level designer is considered the complete package, which can take the rough theme of a game from a document and turn it into an exciting game experience.

Express your views of how to make the game better, but be careful not to tread on the toes of your fellow colleagues.

Could you give me three pieces of advice to an aspiring Level Designer?

1) Be confident & keep an open mind

2) Inspire others with your designs

3) The simplest solution is usually the best solution

Work by Chris Kay

What is your regular day at Crytek like?

A regular day at Crytek (if there is such a thing!) starts with me catching up on emails and looking at my task schedule. We then meet up and talk about what we did the previous day and what we're going to do next. The majority of my time is spent working with the Sandbox editor, my trusty notepad for drawing sketches and a collection of useful applications for reference material and inspiration.

What is next for you Chris? What do you see yourself working on and where do you want to be in 5 years?

In the future I'd like to see myself working on a wider selection of games rather than first person shooters. We’ll have to see though :)

I want to thank Chris for the interview and make sure you head to 2D-Chris and check out some of his work.


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My name is AlexG. I am self-taught level designer, game environment artist and the creator of World of Level Design.com. I've learned everything I know from personal experimentation and decades of being around various online communities of fellow environment artist and level designers. On World of Level Design you will find tutorials to make you become the best level designer and game environment artist.

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