Category Archives: Level Design

Pillars of Creation: My Level Design Process

Too "blue", throw it out, start again.

Too “blue”, throw it out, start again.

My level creation process is something that is constantly being adapted and tweaked. I wanted to jot down the process I tend to use when building a new level from scratch, and this process is usually the same if it’s in a professional or personal pursuit. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll be using an example of a single player environment in a story driven action game. A few things change between third and first person, but not so much as the below process needs to be completely reconsidered.

1. The Concept

Without some kind of boundaries and guidelines I’d probably spend forever rebuilding a space. Like a blank piece of paper ready to be drawn on, a new level has infinite possibilities to start with. We need to know a few things:

  • Location
    • Where is the level set?
      • E.g. A comms station in the Franklin Mountains, El Paso, Texas.
  • Premise/Theme
    • Otherwise known as the “razor”. What is this level all about?
      • E.g. “Broadcasting an SOS using an old comms tower.”
  • Major Goals
    • What are the players primary objectives and goals?
      • E.g. Reach the comms tower and start the signal.
  • Affects Gameplay
    • How does the theme affect the gameplay? Is it a chaotic level or quiet? What’s the expected tempo?
      • E.g. Urgent dash to the comms tower battling heavy resistance.
  • Mechanics Introduction [If required
    • What mechanics are introduced to the player in this level?
  • Exotic Gameplay [If required
    • What non-standard gameplay sections are included in this level?
      • E.g. Battling an enemy chopper at the top of the mountain.

We can do more with less sometimes, and we don’t want to be too prescribed early on but the above list is something that should take the smallest amount of time (usually most of it is already handed down by a senior team of directors, writers and designers).

Another caveat, hopefully you’re doing this with an already banked “vertical slice” or core experience ready. It can be incredibly difficult to develop a level while you’re also developing the mechanics of the game. Constant changes to your core flow will require retroactively adapting levels being built concurrently with a “vertical slice”.

With this knowledge in mind we can move to the next step.

2. The Mood Board

Not a huge amount of time spent here either but grabbing concepts and images of locations to help guide the tone/architecture of your level can help massively. If you’re building something in a real-world location (remember, you need permission to use some landmarks/buildings in a product!) then google images/maps is your best friend.

I like to base some parts of levels off of actual locations I have visited or artwork I have enjoyed. Get yourself to a gallery or go exploring with a camera sometimes instead of playing a game for inspiration, it will improve your work dramatically!

3. Blockout

You may have noticed I skipped 2D sketch. What I’ve found is that years of blocking out levels in 3D packages has made me much more proficient at quickly modelling a level than trying to draw it on paper. I don’t always skip 2D but I’d say for 90% of my levels I just jump straight into blockout phase.

With the portfolio of games I’ve worked on as well, verticality has been a large factor in the spaces I build. It’s just far more efficient to express these ideas in a 3D blockout than on paper. Also, the fact that you spend all your time for the rest of the project working in 3D, you might as well start getting good at blocking out a concept of acceptable quality, quickly.

Blockout

Built in Maya

In a professional environment, at all stages of the above steps, key stakeholders will be involved ranging from environment art and production to narrative and design. I like to pitch ideas to members of the team and begin collaborating as early as possible to find awesome ideas. The best ideas can come from anywhere in the team, so collaboration is an integral part to level creation in a studio.

After the blockout phase, at least on the last project I worked on, we pass blockouts to concept artists for any areas we feel will help assist the environment artists who ultimately model the level. It has also been common for environment artists to step in early, during blockout phases, so we can tweak areas early and get compositions, transitions and structures believable and correct.

The blockout phase is THE time to adjust the level. I have never shipped a level that looked exactly the same as the first blockout. During this phase I will be testing, tweaking and throwing out huge chunks of space. That’s why this phase exists!

The best bit of advice that was ever given to me regarding blockouts was “if you feel like you’ve done so much work that it would pain you to throw it all away, then you’ve gone too far“. Keep your blockouts light, a good lead or director will see past the untextured, rough shapes and see the ideas that need to be evaluated. (The space still needs to make sense however! Don’t take that as an excuse to become contrived).

4. Greybox

I’ve traditionally worked with two “blockout” phases. The first I’ve actually called “whitebox”, which is to evaluate the size and scale of volumes, objects and get some early composition, framing and high level beats. This is made out of mostly primitive shapes and can give a good indication of where the level is heading. After only a couple of iterations it can look close to the image above. As a level designer, I start to lock down areas I think work over the course of several weeks and iterate, iterate, iterate. Throwing away bad ideas, keeping new ones.

The next phase, known as greybox, is when we, the team, decide the level is sound from a design standpoint and can begin a more thorough art pass. My role here becomes more producer focused, while still building and testing gameplay. It’s important to ensure the key design ideas don’t get “lost in translation” as the level becomes more fully formed.

Greybox is harder to tweak and iterate, so we’d prefer to be in a place of confidence when this phase begins (but honestly it doesn’t always work that way). Changes can still be made in this stage, but they need to be meaningful and for the good of the game.

5. Final

This almost makes it sound too easy, but ideally after greybox we start to harden the level and bring it to final. Not all levels are brought to final at the same time, but at this stage it’s all about the polish. I’d love to say they’re all made this way, but the reality is with conventions, demos, publisher demos, reviews, tutorials and more it’s usually a bit more “seat of your pants” than effortless execution. The best games I’ve worked on were developed by passionate staff who did everything they could for the good of the game and that means juggling the sometimes hectic schedule of level creation.

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Hopefully in the end it’s worth it (it almost always is).

My Level Design Guidelines

I’ve been constantly updating and tweaking this “bible” for years. Some of it is informed from previous games I worked on, talks, articles but mostly just experience building levels. I’m constantly learning about the world of level design, and what is detailed below may one day be outdated, irrelevant or otherwise but, for now, consider this a small compendium of terminology we use day-to-day in level design and game development.

Themes

Themes help define a level and give it an identity within the context of the game. A level should be comprised of a dominant theme which drives its development but may contain several sub-themes within the environment to help define key locations or events.

Dominant Themes

The dominant theme is the key element driving the player’s emotional investment in the level. It helps inform all elements of a level from environment and atmosphere to game mechanics and audio.

A great theme can be described in a single sentence e.g. “Oh that level with the exploding planet!”, “The level with the Scorpion boss fight!” etc. In Uncharted 2, “Mission 16 – Where Am I?” is often referred to as “The village level”. In this case, the unique experience is that you spend a lot of time stuck in a Tibetan village, slowly walking around interacting with civilians. In an action game like Uncharted 2, this really stuck out and became a memorable experience.

Some examples of results derived from level themes might be:

  • I want the player to feel like a hero!
  • I want the player to feel anxious and tense.
  • I want the player to feel terrified!
  • I want the player to feel clever.

Sub-Themes

While dominant themes are used to define entire levels, sub-themes are used to define areas and events within the individual levels themselves.

In multiplayer levels, sub-themes are used to define key areas of the level and create spacial-awareness for players. E.g. “I’m in the refinery”, “The enemy is in the lightning nebula”. By defining each space uniquely, players can derive a better understanding of the level more quickly.

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While sub-themes can be reused across levels, a poor dominant theme is exemplified by levels that can share the same description e.g. “The space level”. In a space-sim like Star Citizen for example, this is not a good use of theming. It’s perfectly acceptable for ten levels to all be set in space, but they must each have another unique theme that separates them from one another.

Pacing

Narrative driven games all exhibit some sense of pacing. The goal for teams developing narrative games is to ensure that that pacing “graph” is understood and utilised to effectively hold the players attention, accentuate moods and deliver engaging experiences.

A basic example of pacing might be: an exciting, action packed sequence such as a vehicle chase being followed by some downtime, such as a puzzle or exploration sequence, before ramping up into a combat sequence. The two “high tempo” moments (chase and combat) are emphasised thanks to the “low tempo” break in between them.

In single player levels, themes are used to help craft the sense of pacing. If your chapter ends with a massive, exciting boss fight, you might want to start the chapter slowly. Tight, narrow corridors and claustrophobic environments would help deliver that slow experience, and would really contrast against the exciting battle at the end, emphasising the action.

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Signposting

Levels should be set up to allow the player to quickly orient themselves within the environment. This can be achieved through signposting, which involves setting up structures around the level that act as landmarks for the player.

In multiplayer levels signposting is crucial, as players will want to learn layouts as quickly as possible so they can focus fully on fighting other players without worrying about getting lost or confused. It also improves communication between players when they have points of reference to describe to one another.

In single player levels, the player’s next goal or destination should be signposted to help guide the player. It should be visible enough to reduce frustration but shouldn’t remove the sense of exploration and challenge. If the player is challenged with uncovering the route, then the steps to achieve this can be signposted through lighting, audio or clever game mechanics.

“Show Don’t Tell”: This concept should apply to any challenge placed before the player, including exploration. The player should always be aware of their current objective and have an understanding of what they need to achieve, but the steps involved in achieving it are theirs to discover. We help the player to solve these challenges through aids such as signposting.

By placing unique structures at key locations around a level we can introduce a basic concept of “signposting”.

“Weenies” are distant landmarks that indicate the direction and composition of a goal.

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The term was coined by engineers working on Walt Disney World, and was used to refer to buildings that stand above all the others and draw the eye of visitors, enticing them to new areas of the park.

“Denial spaces” are an architectural concept where the distant goal or “weenie” is lost to the player or obscured. These make reaching the goal more rewarding and the route there more interesting.

“Hero Props” are the key structures within a level and can often also be “Weenies”. These usually involve the most work to get right from both art and design. A “Hero Prop” is typically budgeted higher than other structures in a level.

Examples include the Mammoth vehicle in Halo 4’s “Reclaimer” mission or the dam generator in Crysis 3’s “Dam” level.

Other points of interest in a level can even be developed solely through unique use of lighting and audio. Use these to draw the player’s attention by combining them with scene composition to indicate waypoints and goals. Changing the lighting and atmosphere of a familiar area can also make it distinct and unique within a level, which helps asset reuse and budgets.

Level Boundaries

Level boundaries are split into two types: Hard Boundaries and Soft Boundaries.

Hard Boundaries

Hard Boundaries are physical walls or obstructions that prevent the player from leaving the level. They are easier to understand from a player’s perspective but they add to a levels sense of confinement and restrictiveness.

Soft Boundaries

Soft Boundaries are traditionally found in open levels such as in space-sims or multiplayer levels in games such “Battlefield”. When the player steps over an invisible boundary they are presented with a message informing them to return to the playable area.

Vistas

Vistas are observation points in a level that give the player a sprawling view of an interesting landscape.

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These landscapes can be inside or outside the playable area.

Inside Playable Area

A vista that looks out across a playable area may help the player see gameplay opportunities, story events or objectives. These are empowering moments for players and allow them the opportunity to obtain foresight of new encounters and develop tactical strategies ahead of time. They can also be considered “vantage” points.

Playable area vistas should also show the player multiple route options through a space while also hiding areas you want the player to uncover and explore.

Vistas within the gameplay space can also be used to compose moments of narrative storytelling for the player to observe without having to force the player camera out of the player’s control.

Outside Playable Area

Vistas that look out to non-playable space are usually intended to create a spectacular moment or “wow” moment within a level. These can be utilised to enhance moments of “downtime” within a level.

A vista that looks out to non-playable areas can also give levels a sense of scale and openness while keeping the actual playable area quite restricted.

Visual Language

We can enhance the players understanding of an environment by developing a clear visual language that is consistent across our levels. This will assist players in understanding such things as; what areas of a level they can access? What objects can they interact with? etc.

Readability

Readable environments are ideally devoid of clutter and have reduced visual noise. That is not to say they are not complex or interesting, but they should present gameplay opportunities and routes clearly without frustrating the player.

Consistency

Consistent environment rules such as attributing a specific light colour for “usable” equipment (blue LED’s or illuminated monitor screens) and colour coding environmental mechanics (red barrels = explosive barrels or yellow = climbable ledges in Uncharted) can give the player familiar elements to help them more quickly understand any new environments.

Telegraphing

Some environmental features will have components that may cover even larger areas of the level. These can be used to guide the player toward an object or event. Examples include wires leading to a generator, literal signs that warn of dangers such as mines or narrative elements that foreshadow a specific environment.

Games such as The Last of Us have good usage of foreshadowing in environments. Usually you are given a hint of what’s in store later in the level by finding survivor notes or environmental storytelling early on.

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Wow Moments/Set Pieces

Wow moments/set pieces are a kind of in game cinematic. They are any take-away moments of spectacle that happen in a level and should literally leave the player thinking (or shouting!) “wow!”.

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Some “wow moments” can be completely player generated (see Battlefield MP), however most often these will be scripted sequences developed for a particular level.

They are infrequent in order to preserve their impact as well as the fact that they are usually expensive to create.

Gates

Within the context of level design, gates are methods by which a designer controls the linear progression through what would seem to the player to be non-linear worlds.

Hard Gates

Hard Gates are used to halt the player from progressing any further until they complete an objective or similar criteria.

A classic example of a gate in a level is the “keycard” which is required to open a sealed door.

Soft Gates

Soft Gates are similar in principal to standard Gates, except they can be completed at any time and only serve to slow the player down.

A Soft Gate will slow the players progress down through a map, but the criteria to bypass it is not particularly challenging.

Examples of soft gating might be a corridor blocked by steam escaping from a pipe, with a valve nearby to turn it off. The gate has succeeded in preventing the player from charging ahead but the means by which they bypass the gate are simple, if not time consuming.

Objectives and Rewards

Objectives

Objectives should be immediately obvious to a player in terms of what they must accomplish.

Trial and error should be kept to a minimum. If a player has a solution that makes sense to them, the game should accommodate it.

How to accomplish an objective is for the player to discover, however hints and signposting of objectives will be crucial to resolve frustration.

Rewards

Players should be rewarded frequently with items, story snippets, currency or even a new vista to observe.

This is crucial feedback to keep the player feeling invested in a level.

Compulsion Loops

A compulsion loop is a process whereby the player is rewarded for completing a task and wishes to repeat the action for a similar reward.

Repeating the action several times accumulates several rewards, which can be used to accomplish an even tougher task.

Each “compulsion loop” can feed another in this way, generating minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour goals.

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E.g. I want to collect 10 relics in Far Cry 3 tonight (short task requiring exploration) OR I want to unlock 2 new signature weapons (longer task requiring 100 relics)

Players can set the scope of their goal for differing play sessions this way.

Levels should accommodate immediate goals for players as well as long term goals.

Level Design Practice

Arena

The term “arena” refers to a specific area within a level where the player will encounter some kind of challenge, event or obstacle.

Arenas are non-linear spaces, meaning they offer players multiple options in combat and opportunities to explore the environment. They can also include sandbox elements that allow players to formulate unique, tactical opportunities and multiple ways to complete objectives.

Arenas can be quite large but have well-defined perimeter borders. Players should always have a decent sense of the scope of the arena upon entering it, even if some parts are obscured from sight.

Arenas are generally pro-active gameplay spaces. The player will have an opportunity to choose when to enter combat and can dictate the pacing and flow more than a reactive space.

Fronts

A “front” is generally a location in a level where an individual or group of faction members establish a foothold. Usually this is in direct defense of the players primary goal, but it is advisable to change up the fronts of battle (or battlefronts!) during a combat sequence to keep the encounter fresh and keep the player moving.

Directed Sequence

A “Directed Sequence” is a linear space that usually includes a moment of scripted gameplay that the player must engage in. These can include set pieces, forced combat encounters, cinematics or on-rails sections.

Directed Sequences are reactive and can be used to control the pacing and flow of key moments in the campaign more tightly than arenas.

Exotic Gameplay

Exotic Gameplay describes any sequence of gameplay that is not part of the core mechanics set. These might be sections developed exclusively for a single level or section of a level. Exotic Gameplay can provide an immersive, cinematic setpiece to the player within a controlled environment that does not hamper or imbalance existing core gameplay mechanics.

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Non-Linear Design

Illusion of Non-Linearity

Sometimes even splitting a single corridor in two can give a space the illusion of non-linearity. Simple decisions such as this keep the player engaged with the level and exploring new options.

Verticality

Arenas are not restricted to a single plane and vertical routes can be used to gain strategic advantages in combat.

These routes are empowering and keep the play space interesting and dynamic, but can also introduce imbalance to an encounter quickly.

If a level features a vertical route, AI should be able to reach any area the player can reach.

Even slight variations in terrain height can keep a level interesting. Any pathways leading to higher sections must be readable however, as multi-tier levels can quickly become noisy.

Vantage Points

Vantage Points are elevated locations in an arena that give players key, tactical advantages by providing an overview of the area.

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Example of vantage point in Far Cry 3

  • Overview – The player can get a good initial idea of the arena, its scope and its contents.
  • Observe – The player can see any AI in the scene doing something. (Patrolling, talking, working). They can also see their objective. (The next doorway, the switch, the kill target, the kill targets room etc). Also observable are sandbox elements the player can harness within the arena.
  • Plan – The player can formulate a plan of action based on the intel they gathered from a vantage point.
  • Execute – The player leaves the vantage point to execute their plan. Execution does not always go according to plan, however, and so the arena is designed for dynamic play styles instead of a strict execution method.
  • Reward – The player is rewarded. Rewards can take the form of equipment and currency OR story information, a cool cutscene or wow moment!

Linear Design

When is it ok to be linear?

There are occasions where linear design is preferred for gameplay, pacing or technical reasons.

  • Directed Sequences
    • See above.
  • Exotic Gameplay
    • See above.
  • Valves
    • Valves are corridors that connect two areas of a level. They can be used to stream one area out and the next one in.
  • Backgating
    • Backgating is the process of disallowing a player to return to the area they just left.
    • g. forcing the player to fall down a steep drop. Closing and locking a door behind them etc.
  • Exposition
    • A linear section of a level is useful for delivering key story information that is pertinent to the player.
  • Composition
    • Linear sections can ensure the player is facing a certain direction if the designer wants to frame an event or vista for the player to observe.
  • Experiential
    • When it enriches the gameplay experience designers may want to include a linear path through an area.
    • g. shimmying across a ledge, walking through a crowd, crawling through a tunnel.

Cover

Cover for FPS battles is generally split into two categories: Hard Cover and Soft Cover.

Hard Cover

Hard Cover is any solid object in the gameplay area that the player can use to block incoming fire and break line of sight. It offers complete protection from projectiles.

Examples include concrete barriers, walls and pillars.

Soft Cover

Soft Cover is any object that obscures the player’s profile and can be used to hide from enemies or distort their perception of the player. This cover does not protect the player from projectiles however. Examples include cloth, vegetation, wood and glass.

When a player enters a combat scenario they must be able to immediately identify the cover available to them in the area. Consistency in cover through metrics will play a huge role in being able to identify what will protect the player and what won’t.

Cover should ideally sit around half-height or full-height. Players become frustrated when attempting to take cover behind an object that still leaves part of their profile exposed to incoming fire, especially if it results in death! If something looks like it should offer cover, then it should be the correct height.

Spaces should have interesting cover layouts that include a mix of this full and half-height cover. Cover should be used to block long lines of sight in a level and promote “flow”.

Soft cover can also be used to this effect, but players will sometimes expect to move through soft cover (if it’s tall grass, a bush or a breakable wooden crate) instead of around it. This can open up more risky/stealthy routes for players to utilise.

Cover should never be scattered around a level at repetitious, consistent intervals. Not only does this create too much visual noise and chaos, it also hinders pathfinding for AI and causes a lot of snagging for players, restricting flow. Cover should instead be “clustered” into interesting groups and placed strategically.

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The space between cover is as important as the cover itself. Players should be forced to make risk/reward decisions about moving between cover locations. A dash between two cover objects can be an exciting choice as opposed to a monotonous chore.  The cover should promote tactical, risk/reward movements across the battlefield and should not just be laid out in a column down the level. The term “rope swinging” is sometimes used to describe how the player moves between cover.

Cover layouts should introduce opportunities for flanking tactics. No single cover object should be so overpowered that all attackers must attack it from the same direction. Players should require battlefield awareness to stay alive, as AI should be able to flank cover from multiple directions.

Cover layouts should give players a chance to fall back or retreat when overextended. Players are still susceptible to death if they make poor choices, but a little leeway in the form of retreat routes helps keep the pace and flow of combat fluid. This also adds to the sandbox feeling of an arena, as challenges change over time and are never static.

In an arena, cover layouts should promote non-linearity within a confined space. If the player only has a limited amount of cover to use, the space will feel very restrictive regardless of how large the environment might be. By planning multiple routes and vantage points through a space, these areas feel less linear and much more open. Cover should be used to guide players around the level, much like a multiplayer level, and promote traversal and exploration. However, in this way cover layouts can also be used to create a specific narrative experience, so knowing how to utilise the mechanics of your game to create these moments is important.

Sandbox Gameplay

Player Agency

In level design, a sandbox space is one which provides players with a greater extent of player agency. The player should have many tools available to them to make meaningful choices with regards to combat and objectives. There should rarely be one, singlular, scripted method to completing an objective and instead the player should utilise emergent game rules to accomplish objectives however they want.

Delivering this level of player agency requires a holistic design where game mechanics never have a singular bespoke purpose, and instead can be used in as many ways as the player can imagine. The properties of a mechanic should be modelled to interact with as many other mechanics as the player expects.

E.g. A blow torch can be contextually restricted to only open sealed doors OR it can be used to open any sealed doors AND burn paper AND burn wood AND damage enemies etc

Readable, Consistent Mechanics

By creating consistent rules within levels, players will learn the language of the game through repeated interactions with each mechanic.

By modelling realistic properties within each asset/mechanic, players can utilise them however they want and expect each asset/mechanic to react accordingly (affordance).

Players entering a new space will recognize familiar mechanics, allowing them to make more informed tactical decisions and formulate unique strategies.

Players will be able to personalize their play styles, which is why it is crucial to develop features that work within a holistic environment. Any elements in a play space that are too bespoke will deny players the ability to personalize their experience.

Levels should try to accommodate a high first-try success rate for player actions. This doesn’t mean the game should be easy! The challenge for players is formulating a tactic or solution, but executing the tactic once they’ve figured it out should not be frustrating. For example, if the player needs to drag a crate from one end of a level to another, the crate should fit down the corridor without having to snag over objects or frustratingly snag on walls. This could lead the player to believe the solution they thought they had figured out isn’t actually the correct one.

Interior Spaces

Flanking

Any combat spaces should enable the player AND AI to flank one another. Interiors are a great way to accomplish this. Interiors should ideally have more than two entry points to keep players on their toes and watching their corners.

Crossfire

Crossfire keeps action interesting. Plan for areas where players and AI can establish “fronts” or bunkers. Height variation and verticality can be used to keep these spaces diverse.

Cover

Interiors are one of the most obvious areas of cover for players. Take advantage of this by rewarding players for exploring interiors with ammo or new routes inside. AI should always be able to flank, ambush or flush a player out of an interior. This will keep the action flowing around the level and keep combat feeling diverse as well as emergent.

Exploration

Interiors can hold rewards inside them that benefit players who explore each environment. New sandbox toys could be hidden inside or telegraphed with exterior geometry, enticing players to venture in.

Break Up Linear Spaces

Interiors are a great way to break up an environment. Ensure players who enter an interior space have two or more ways to exit it.

Bloodborne to Run

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I picked up Bloodborne on PS4 last year and was blown away by the games level design. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, games with “hub” style levels are a particular favourite of mine to play and dissect.

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In Bloodborne, the levels serve as much more than a simple backdrop to the action. Each level is a system in itself, almost perfectly in tune with the progression systems at the core of the game. As the player progresses forwards into unknown territory, each new encounter is a huge risk. One misstep and you die (you will die), potentially losing all the souls you’ve collected. The levels are built in such a way as to entice you to eek that little bit further forward. If you reach a lantern, you can teleport back to your hub and spend your souls on upgrades to prepare for the NEXT level.

Yharnam map courtesy of Hypnotyks on Reddit.

Yharnam map courtesy of “u/Hypnotyks” on Reddit.

The levels are also designed to include multiple routes through, and there are no markers or escorting NPCs to lead the way. All player leading is done through the environment, the player is at the mercy of their own intuition and intrigue, which is shaped by the environment. Distant cathedrals can be spotted across vast vistas, drawing the player in their direction. Alleyways and tight corridors slow players down as there could be any manner of enemy around the next corner (there will be). Walkways that cross over previously explored areas remind you of how far you’ve come and convince you the next lantern is just around the next corner!

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At first, levels feel like a maze. However, the nature of Bloodborne (and the “Souls” series in general) is to teach through re-play rather than explicit direction. As players progress -> die -> repeat over and over, the level layouts become less daunting. Remembering where to go and what to expect becomes second nature. Finally reaching a lantern and gaining that foothold further into enemy territory is the ultimate reward for perseverance.

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Like all the souls games, Bloodborne is full of ambiguity. However, while the story of Bloodborne is somewhat up for interpretation, its level design is a near perfect system, holistically entwined with the very core principals that make these games great.

Proactive vs Reactive Combat

Working on the Crysis series, I grew a deep appreciation for games that allowed me to approach combat encounters at my own pace. While I’ve always enjoyed games like Thief and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., actually developing games like Crysis opened my eyes to the details laid down by designers to help players dictate their own strategies and tactics.

One way to describe Crysis is that it’s a “pro-active” game. Players can scout the battlefield before alerting any AI, spot opportunities such as vents, explosives, ammo, mounted guns and then execute a strategy, hopefully successfully!

When designing a space for pro-active combat, we can look to include ingredients to promote tactical planning and encourage strategic play, for example:

A vantage point or “recon” point where the player can perch and scout from.744456-far-cry-4-windows-screenshot-using-the-camera-to-tag-enemies

Sandbox opportunities that can be spotted from afar to flavour the encounter and present different gameplay options (vehicles, turrets, explosive barrels).

crysis-recovery-27Varied approach vectors. Having a single viable route into the encounter space would homogenize tactics, so often these spaces resemble multiplayer maps more than shooting galleries.

mlgnyudnqvatwgwe75oyCrossfire opportunities and multiple fronts. Building multiple fronts of defense into the space allows AI to react to the player in an intelligent way and make combat fun from multiple directions.

docks-start-1Refuge spots and interior cover. Allowing the player to catch their breath or get some cover in a pro-active sandbox space is crucial as things don’t always go as planned.

Metal-Gear-Solid-V-Ground-Zeroes-Review-PC-467806-19Usually we associate pro-active encounters with stealth, but pro-active gameplay doesn’t have to be the core experience of the overall title. The Last of Us, for example, has many varied encounter spaces, both pro-active and reactive. Knowing what kind of encounter to build relies heavily on the title you are developing as well as the pacing and emotional intent of the encounter. Pro-active spaces can promote empowerment as well as help increase a sense of tension.

Pittsburgh book store, example of pro-active combat.

Hanging out in Bill’s Town, example of reactive combat.

The final ingredient I want to mention when developing a pro-active encounter is also the most important one: the enemies. The ability to track not just an enemies movement and location but their intent can assist greatly in developing an exciting pro-active space. Seeing enemies do something contextual, behaving as though they are aware of the space they inhabit can help push decisions and tactics in specific directions and helps engage players massively.

The Arkham series of Batman games uses the idea of Batman as a “predator” in its core gameplay formula. Mixed with enemy AI that reacts to the player hunting them, it produces a very satisfying “pro-active” gameplay loop. Many of the mechanics in the Arkham games support the premise that Batman is a tactician and surgically dismantles his opponents by executing well planned tactics.

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Hitman has also done this very successfully and it does a wonderful job of telegraphing enemy intent. Often enemies will call out movements and reference objects in the environment to create a real sense of place, as well as helping the player decide upon a strategy.

Hitman-Absolution3-642x500Using these techniques, level designers can create encounters that put players into the driving seat and find approaches that suit their own personal play styles.

 

J.A.G. or “Just add gameplay!”

As level designers, the locations and environments we develop can be influenced by a number of factors.  When choosing a location to develop (something I will go into more detail on in a future post) level designers have to balance a variety of factors, such as story, budget, scope and schedule, and make a decision that will be best for gameplay and, ultimately, best for the game.

Sometimes, however, we don’t get the luxury of choosing our locations or to develop a location from scratch. While most level designers (well, most I know) dream of developing the ultimate, balanced space that makes core mechanics shine like diamonds, sometimes it’s just not possible…or even desired!

Great show though...

Not this J.A.G.

“J.A.G.” was, initially, a mostly derogatory term my team and I coined while working on previous projects. It stood for “Just Add Gameplay”, and it was our way of describing a space that, for one reason or another, had slipped through the cracks of traditional level pipelines and showed up on our doorstep, usually with the instruction that we were to “just add gameplay to this space” i.e. don’t change this space just make it work!

As I mentioned, this is something we initially reacted to with steep opposition. How could we, the infallible level design team, not prepare each and every space with meticulous metrics and flow? How could we deem a space worthy that had not been processed and prepped?

It took me longer than I’d like to admit that the answer could be simple: context.

To give a space context in this regard is to give it a setting, or a theme, such as a space station or a hydroelectric dam. The context of a space is one of its defining attributes, particularly in story driven games. It gives meaning to the space and helps shape gameplay in equal measure with more mechanically focused construction methods. A level designer could build the most perfectly balanced environment for something like a combat encounter, and still feel that missing hook that only comes with context. Once that environment becomes a palace or a prison or a jungle, it gains a variety of attributes that are impossible to include in a simple “blockout”. These attributes can craft emotion and help create a connection between the player and the place they inhabit.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception™

Some examples of spaces in my favorite games that make great use of their context: the desert in Uncharted 3 when Drake is searching for water is used to craft the feelings of fatigue, disorientation and hopelessness. Joels house at the start of The Last Of Us creates a sense of familiarity, nostalgia and comfort before everything falls apart, enhancing the drama of the outbreak. The context drives these spaces and experiences, enhancing the emotion at each point.

The Last of Us™ Remastered

The Last of Us™ Remastered

This does come with one caveat however; the gameplay you “jag” into this space must assist that context. You’ll rarely get your best combat encounter or puzzle from an area you inherit this way. Instead, we need to make efforts to use these spaces to create experiences that utilize the location fully.

Now, it’s common that level designers begin by knowing the context of their environments already, whether original or real-world locations, as creating a blueprint for development is a key part of any level development process. You can’t build space stations on mars in your grounded post apocalyptic survival game. However, sometimes all you have is context. For example, in Crysis 2 we had several levels set in and around famous New York landmarks. One environment that we knew would be in the game was Grand Central Station.

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It’s iconic and it helps foster that connection to New York that even people who don’t live there understand. It’s important. While the interior was changed slightly, it could not go beyond being recognized as Grand Central Station. The context of the space was the primary focus here, not creating an arguably perfect layout. Essentially, the gameplay chosen for this environment fit the context, not vice versa.

Grand Central Station taken by yours truly on a trip to NYC!

Grand Central Station taken by yours truly on a trip to NYC!

At one point or another, we will be asked to take reference from a location or a concept that should remain untouched. Instead of resisting, we should look for what the context of the space can do to enhance the experience. Is the location nostalgic? Is it exotic? Is it recognizable? Does it create a sense of familiarity and connection? Ideally these locations are inserted into your game at key points, to get the maximum benefit from their inclusion. Often, these elements can produce experiences of equal value to those created solely by the rules and metrics of the game you are developing.

I love New York

The Prospect of Space

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One day, Simba, you will reset all the outposts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Open Range

The current generation of gaming has seen a prolific increase in open world and sandbox experiences. I list open world and sandbox separately as a game can host a linear narrative and level structure while still retaining large sandbox levels, such as Bioshock, Dishonored, Halo or even the more recent Tomb Raider games. Within each new title that explores the realms of open design, we can observe familiar techniques and traits that each developer is drawing upon to refine each experience. While level designers have more real estate to play with, these techniques are no less refined or considered than those of their more confined counterparts.

Safe as Houses

The language of the landscape is often the most consistent element across many of these games, particularly because most open world and sandbox titles favor natural or rural landscapes. Just Cause, Far Cry, Shadows of Mordor and Metal Gear Solid: V, to name but a few, all feature similar principles of level design. For example, within each title, players can find pockets of what’s known as “refuge space”, a term coined by British geographer Jay Appleton, where they can lie low, take shelter or defend themselves from predators (particularly predators with long range weapons!). Refuge space is incredibly important, particularly in stealth games where the player character is a lot less durable and relies on the clear positioning of such spaces in order to progress across the open. Refuge space has also adopted a particular expectation within the context of gaming as a location where pickups and useful items may be found. It helps focus players on a goal, gives them a location to explore as well as often rewarding them for exploring.

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The building in the distance stands out as a clear point of refuge.

Prospectin’ on the Frontier

In The Experience of Landscape, Appleton refers to open space as “prospect space”. It’s easy to understand why it is labelled so, especially as an avid game player, when you consider that such space is characterized by its offering for opportunity. I believe this is why most E3 presentations for open world games use the classic “see that mountain, you can go there!” selling point.

Mr Appleton’s theory was that humans would crave refuge space when faced with prospect space, as opportunity is also partnered with danger. You risk being spotted by hunters, you risk the elements and you require something around which to orient yourself or risk getting lost. All these themes are prevalent throughout open world titles, and in particular Metal Gear Solid V makes excellent use of all three, with snipers, sandstorms and open plains to explore.

I also have to make mention of one of my favourite open world games of all time, Red Dead Redemption, and how Rockstar utilize the draw of opportunity throughout the landscape design. Having rocks and undulating terrain not only helps technical performance by reducing draw calls, it also creates a sense of exploration and pulls the player to distant locations. “What’s around the next corner” type curiosity is a very powerful emotion in open world games.

What's around the next corner? Maybe a broken down cart...

What’s around the next corner? Maybe a broken down cart…

I believe it is the draw of the unknown and the true nature of prospect space apparent in Red Dead Redemption that distinguishes it against, for example, titles such as Assassin’s Creed. Assassins Creed can sometimes forgo the draw of the unknown to present a map full to the brim of icons and events, leaving little to the imagination in favor of presenting a world full of activities. The world map in Red Dead can often be ambiguous, with nothing but a question mark to send you galloping across potentially dangerous open ground.

The prospect of death by cougar.

The prospect of death by cougar.

What to take away?

While open world games continue to get larger and longer, tried and true techniques and principles can help create the foundation of a game that speaks not just to gamers, but to the nature of human aesthetics. At least, that is, according to Jay Appleton. However I feel there is sufficient evidence within games such as Assassins Creed, Red Dead Redemption and even Batman: Arkham Knight, which subverts the typical “cave like” refuge space to extend to perches and high places, to suggest that these theories have merit.

Mass Effect

A long Easter weekend gave me some time to reflect on one of my favourite games from last gen, Mass Effect. Not only is this one of my favourite RPGs of all time, it’s also one of the most satisfying third person shooters I’ve ever played.

I suspect much of my enjoyment from the shooter aspect of Mass Effect (at least from #2 onwards) comes from the class I chose to play: Vanguard. The mix of control biotics such as throw and lift combined with the specialized shotgun talents made them a real joy to play. For anyone unfamiliar with Mass Effect, these abilities would basically trap enemies in a stasis field, usually making them float through the air. “Throw” in particular is basically a sort of energy ball you hurl at enemies like a homing grenade. When it hits an enemy, they are trapped in a bubble for a short duration.

I remember discovering the ability to arc a “throw” around cover really opened the game up for me. As a cover based shooter, this ability made me feel clever and allowed me time to gap-close for a CQC knock out. It was a great way that Mass Effect set up rules of play then gave players abilities to subvert those rules. Being able to knock enemies out of cover and trap them in stasis while I run (or warp!) up to them for a shotgun kill felt incredibly rewarding. The class as a whole feels like one of the most fully realized and well developed classes in the game. Being able to pair up with an Infiltrator and a Sentinel makes for the ultimate in team synergy.

It’s a testament to the team at Bioware that the various combat arenas throughout the game can support so many styles of play. By establishing a strong foundation (elements of Gears of War are very apparent, especially from ME2 onward) players can focus on abilities that open up arenas into little sandbox challenges. While the environments are not exactly dynamic (beyond the odd exploding barrel), I appreciated that the level design tends to be straightforward and not convoluted. It would be easy to let the sci-fi setting generate a bunch of contrived spaces (and indeed one of the most frustrating combat environments in the series is one of the more fantastical: the exterior of the Shadow Broker’s ship in “Lair of the Shadow Broker” DLC for Mass Effect 2) but on the whole levels take a back seat to the spectacle of player abilities. In this way, player’s don’t need to wrestle with learning complex environment layouts and can focus fully on playing their class.

Battling on the exterior of the Shadow Broker's ship can be somewhat confusing.

Battling on the exterior of the Shadow Broker’s ship can be somewhat confusing.

Another area where Mass Effect succeeds greatly is in tutorialising its combat. Mass Effect 3 in particular has a great intro that melds cinematic spectacle with intuitive mechanics introduction.

The initial combat encounters are very straightforward, all enemy approach vectors (the direction the enemy travels toward the player) are kept to a minimum (all enemies are on a single plane in front of the player) to ease players in to combat. In fact, the first wave of enemies are “husks” that are mindlessly trying to break in to a building, ignoring the player. This allows the player to get to grips with the shooting mechanics in a controlled, almost stress free environment. (The tempo is kept high with the background destruction vignettes while the tension of the encounter is low enough to allow the player to concentrate).

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Another benefit of this encounter is that the player is forced to use their gun, as most biotic powers are out of range for these enemies. After dispatching a few husks, the player gets to try out their biotic powers/melee abilities furthering their tutorial for combat. The game achieves this by “hacking” the weapon ammo to run out just as you open fire on the enemies at the next encounter. A simple trick used to great effect (as a side note, check out all the games that hack ammo in some way right at the start of the game!).

Capture2The final encounter in this sequence finally introduces a real threat to the player, allowing them to use what they have learned to overcome a small challenge. This cements their learning process and helps keep the tempo and tension of the narrative flow high. The approach vector of this enemy is still kept simple to keep the challenge at an appropriate level for this stage in the game. The enemy is also given plenty of foreshadowing through its reveal, by climbing up onto a ledge right in front of the player. Had the enemy leaped in from above or had another spectacular reveal, this may have startled the player or distracted them from the task of remembering how to dispatch the enemy.

Capture3After dispatching this enemy, the player gets rewarded with an exhilarating cutscene of a reaper wrecking Shephards day by destroying earth.

Great pacing and overall a fantastically crafted third person shooter!

 

Rise of the Planet of the Tomb Raider

I picked up Tomb Raider this week after finding some time outside of work to play it. I loved the rebooted Tomb Raider and found it had lots to offer in the way of interesting level design.

I was immediately aware of just how much Crystal Dynamics love “the gap”, or rather the bait and switch platforming which seems to have been made famous particularly by Nathan Drake across the Uncharted series. I was only about 2 minutes in before the mountain I was traversing started to explode around me, sending me scrambling for a foothold only for it to collapse away yet again.

It’s put to good use here, kicking off the game with some nice high-tempo rock climbing sets the pace well for what I hope will be another gritty, hub-filled action platformer. The previous game in the series was a great way to spend a weekend; solid and polished.

My favourite aspect of this rebooted Tomb Raider series are the well crafted “level hubs” that pad out the campaign. They have a very satisfying loop to them, with some great challenges, verticality and almost Zelda-esque unlock path that broadens out as you acquire new gadgets and abilities. The first of which I encountered in “Rise of…” has a satisfying ramp up speed giving me a relaxed pace at first, allowing me to hunt and get those first few upgrades, then introducing enemies just as I’ve made note of all the great little perches and flanking spots.

The game is also making the most of its smooth controls (at least, on PC) and enhanced vertical mobility via the climbing picks, rope slides and well positioned mantle points. I’m excited to see if these feature more in combat bubbles moving forward.

A great introduction to the game so far, looking forward to the rest!