Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Art and Science of Level Design

From my research its fairly apparent that level design is as much as, if not more so a technical skill as well as an artistic skill. In fact, its most definitely a technical skill. Level design is a varied discipline which involves various methods such as concepts, sketches, 3D models and documentation to describe the interactive environment of a games universe.

In earlier 2D video games, such as Mario or Sonic, level design was somewhat more straightforward, it may of involved simple but major elements of the game, such as the placing of obstacles and enemies, power-ups. A designer would primarily focus on the consistency of the levels most of the time concentrating on making progressing levels in ascending order according to difficulty rather than a progressing story line.

Today's level design for next gen video games which include high detailed, 3D game environments, some of which are vast, is some what of a herculean task. It is an ongoing process throughout a games development from pre-production all the way through to completion. This means that level design is no longer the job of just one person or programmer. Typically studios use a team of level designers consisting of designers, programmers, artists and engineers who give input on every detail from the placement of a crate or plant, to rolling landscapes, aesthetic details such as texture budgets at certain locations, colour use, lighting and environmental conditions.

Because the design process is a large one, both in time and work, it will always be strategically and comprehensively planned to follow a methodical procedure. Studios will plan in various different ways but a typical design process will include first and foremost (as with any other design process) an idea. Gathering visual reference and the concepting, and most importantly setting a world scale for the whole process to follow. 3D blocking in, followed by texturing that will evolve in detail as the design process progresses along with the development of the game. Adding environmental and atmospheric conditions such as lighting, rain, mist/ fog etc and perhaps further detailing and texturing. The design will then move into final stages, any extra detailing will need to be completed ready for testing, tweaking and bug checks ready for the games release.

Level design has evolved massively over a a short period of time to now include realistic dynamic lighting effects as well as realist physics and now involves the design taking place in level editors or game engines. Pre-programmed software makes it easier for people with individual skill sets to actively input into the design process, work can be carried out much quicker and more efficiently, and there is much more scope and control given to the user. For a while now, level editors have even been included with games releases , a good example being the Unreal Editor included with various Unreal games such as Unreal Tournament allowing even the players, with no experience of video game design to involve themselves in using pre-made assets included in various editors to make there own levels. Another great example of a more recent game to include a user controlled level editor is Little Big Planet for the Playstation3. This game makes an exceptional approach of actively designing the game around the mindset of an inbuilt level creation tool for user created content and levels and not just as an extra feature included with, instead of just being an extra feature included with the game. It is now estimated that there are over 6 million user generated games and levels for little big planet which is just astonishing. For some games it has even gone as far as user generated content being sold, making just typical gamers, members of the general public, in some cases hundreds of thousand of pounds per year. This is becoming more of a big deal, so much so that certain individual game companies, such as Valve, are taking great notice in this shift in content generation by the gamers, which is starting to evolve the business plans of major corporations and developers to work alongside users making their own game content to share profits and much more complicated financial business properties that I have no idea about but I can assure you are readily being taken into account! User generated game content is no doubt playing a major role in the constantly evolving games industry, and some may go as far as to say that our roles as game artists may be under threat as good quality content only becomes easier to produce. On the other hand, there is a clear difference between good quality content and high quality and I'd like to think that there will most definitely be a demand for video game content to be produced at a professional capacity.

Level design revolves around certain important rules, or better still, goals which it strives to produce. The combined skills involved within a levels design of artists, programmers, script writers, graphic designers, 3D modellers, sound engineers ultimately has only a few main goals, whether the game is set in a sci-fi world or a medieval England. To provide the gamer with objectives and quality gameplay, and most importantly to create an immersive experience.  

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