GDC 2011: Day 1 Level Design in a Day

On Day 1 of GDC2011, I attended “Level Design in a Day”, in which a panel of professional Level Designers from studios like Bethesda Softworks, Epic Games, Irrational Games, and LucasArts spent all day giving tutorials on Level Design.

The first LD in a Day session was all about how to avoid becoming a scapegoat. Level Design is a poorly understood job, which apparently makes it easy for anything that goes wrong to be blamed on Level Design. The speaker explained avoiding Scapegoating with his Four T’s: Tools, Time, Talent, and Trust.

  • Tools would be things like the editor. If you have good tools that allow the level designer to work visually and quickly test changes, you’ll get more iteration and better opportunities for something awesome to arise.
  • Time is all about making honest estimates and keeping scope realistic so that the Level Designer has time to experiment, and, presumably, everyone else has time to polish the product.
  • Talent is about the people. A successful Level Designer (and I suppose, anyone else successful in the industry) needs to be great at communication and problem-solving, as well as improvisation and flexibility. The Level Designer needs to be able to work with the tools he’s got, so he needs to be “MacGuyver, not Bond”
  • Trust is how the team works together. A team that’s constantly communicating, constantly providing feedback, and making sure everyone knows everyone else’s challenges and responsibilities will not give in to applying blame where it’s not actually due.

The next LD in a Day session was about Encounter Building, hosted by the Principal Level Designer at Irrational Games. He broke the planning of an encounter down into three separate lenses to look at it through, each of which were broken down into their own component chunks. Most of his experience was with First-Person Shooters, so all the lessons are framed in a FPS-mindset, requiring a little creative reinterpretation if you were to try and apply them to a vastly different genre of game.

The first lens was the Stages of the Encounter. Each encounter is made up of four basic parts. Sometimes these stages repeat multiple times in an encounter. Sometimes certain stages are given more time or weight than other stages, but they’re good ways to look at how a player will approach an encounter.

  • Plan: The player gets the lay of the land, sees where the enemies are, what their obstacles are, where their goal is, and what they can take advantage of. In this stage, the player uses this information to formulate a plan of attack to see how they’re going to go about winning the encounter.
  • Execute: The Player puts the plan into action. Starts the moment the first shot is fired. Here is where it came up that it’s good to give the player multiple options about how to start the fight. Also, a reminder that if the player isn’t the one to fire the first shot, it can cut into their planning time, which can be frustrating for the player.
  • Improvisation: The moment the encounter deviates from the plan. This can happen when a grenade flushes the player out of cover or the enemies bring in reinforcements. The idea is that something changes the player’s relationship with the space they’re in. Something forces them to move rather than camping in the same cover until all the bad guys are dead. Be careful with how you do this, especially with regards to player assumptions like “The space I’ve cleared already is safe,” or else it can feel unfair to the player. This is also the stage where it was pointed out that Usability-Testing was very important because designers tend to make encounters too hard due to their perfect knowledge of the space they’ve created.
  • Regroup: The final stage, in which you take care of everything post-combat, like reloading all your guns and looting corpses. It’s important to let the player relax and come down from the High of Combat.

The next lens is the narrative of the encounter. Every encounter should have its own little mini-narrative to give it context. When setting up an encounter, you should answer questions like “Why are the character fighting?” “What does the player want?” and “Why are the enemies there?” Enemies standing around just to fight the player is rather uninteresting.

The final lens is Decision Layers, which covers the wide range of decisions the player can make, from strategic decisions throughout the whole game to moment-to-moment decisions like whether to shoot or duck.

  • On the strategic level, you have to consider things like the player’s style of play and planning capabilities. Do your encounters support every available style of play? Are there ways for the player to win whether they picked up the Sniper Rifle or the Shotgun? If they’re completely screwed in a given situation, is it because they made an informed decision to bring a less optimal loadout into the encounter, or was it the designer’s mistake that left them unprepared for the type of encounter they’re heading into.
  • The tactical level covers planning on an encounter-by-encounter basis, similar to what was discussed under the Stages of an encounter. How flexible is the encounter? How well does it foster improvisation? Does it enable the player and the AI to switch up their tactics mid-encounter? Is it one, big, up-front choice at the start of the encounter, or are there lots of smaller decisions available throughout the encounter?
  • The most intimate decision layer is the twitch layer. This covers moment-to-moment decisions. At any given instant, does the player shoot, reload, move, duck etc.? What are the options to allow the player to survive? How can the bad guys survive? How can cover be negated or how can people be forced out of cover?

Some final notes on the Encounter-Building Session:

  • Remember the limitations of a player’s inputs, e.g. the Quick-180 button a lot of console FPS games include to make up for the slow turning on an Analog Stick
  • Also, keep in mind what players on small, crappy screens can see. Hunting for single-pixel snipers is no fun.
  • Be difficult without being frustrating (afterwards, I went and fought Moldorm in a Link to the Past. I wish the level designer on that game had gotten this note…)
  • Level Design != a Contest between the Designer and the Player. If you go in with the mindset that it is a contest, you will win every time, and everyone will hate your designs.
  • Variety: Once the player understands what each type of enemy does, it’s important to then include multiple enemy types in each encounter.
  • Rules are meant to be broken, but be sure you have a very good reason when you deviate.
  • On LD Portfolios: How would you recontextualize the game’s existing assets in new ways? How would you approach making DLC for the game? That’s basically what the designers have to think, so showing you can think that way is a good start towards working there.

In the next session, Joel Burgess, Senior Designer at Bethesda games talked about the challenges of designing for the type of players attracted to Open World games. These types of players like to defy direction and get into places they’re not supposed to. They like to be in control, but, as Joel had to keep reminding us, they aren’t actually jerks, even if they act like it on occasion. To that end, he explained Bethesda’s Player-Designer Contract:

  • The Player is in Control
  • The Designer stays backstage
  • The Designer fulfills the Player’s expectations
  • The Player’s Story is always more important than the Designer’s Story.

With these in mind, it’s important to nudge the player. You want to draw his attention to Points of Interest (hereafter abbreviated as “POI’s” because they come up a lot in this session).  There are a number of tricks to drawing the player’s attention:

  • Distant Landmarks: For example, Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland is always visible, and it draws you into the hub, from which your attention is drawn to…
  • Nearby Landmarks: smaller landmarks that you may have missed if you hadn’t been paying attention to the main landmarks.
  • Movement: When confronted with a lot of static imagery, we will be immediately drawn to anything that moves.
  • Prior Knowledge: Often, the player will go into an environment with some idea of what they want to do. Perhaps a townsperson told them about a haunted house, or their friend told them that when they buy the game, they totally have to check out this cool thing as soon as they can.
  • Audio: Bethesda actually sort of discovered this one by accident. Occasionally, randomly spawning AI characters in Fallout 3 would end up fighting each other. The sound of their gunshots was a major draw to playtesters to check out what was going on.

The next guideline that Joel covered is goals and Player Motivation. Their aim is for the player to always have a goal, whether it be an explicit quest, or a POI the player really wants to check out, or something out-of-game, like an Achievement, or simply a minor detour that they saw in their peripheral vision. The player will juggle their goals and prioritize them based on their perceived risk and reward from achieving the goal, as will as the time commitment it takes to achieve that goal versus how much time they’re willing to put into a session of the game, or even just how much it interests them.

At this point, it’s starting to feel like the Designer is pretty much at the mercy of the player, which may be an accurate way to look at it, but it sounds much less negative if you just shuffle around the designer’s goal. Under this model, a designer’s real job is: Provide interesting opportunities for the widest possible variety of interests.

There’s a number of ways they handle this task. First of all, there’s the philosophy of Deliberate Distraction. Under this model, if the player is at Point A, and intends to get to Point B, then either looking at their map or simply across the world, there had better be Points X, Y, and Z as distractions for them. Maybe they’ll still run straight to Point B, but maybe they’ll check out any possible combination Points X, Y, and Z, and either way, they’ll find something cool.

Secondly, every area should have some gameplay interest. Leaving things “just for looks” will get boring. Thirdly, there’s the idea of consolation loot. As we established earlier, the player in an Open-World game will often try, and succeed, in circumventing the designer’s intentions. A lot of times, they’ll go through a lot of trouble for this. If the player is working real hard to circumvent your barriers, they should get some reward to show that you knew they would figure it out. Maybe it’s a little treasure, maybe an Easter Egg. Be creative.

The final note in the Bethesda talks was that in an Open World Game, the World itself is the Main Character. Think like that, and you’ll generate a sweet open world.

The fourth talk was by the Lead Designer at Splash Damage studios. He was mostly talking about the challenges they underwent with their upcoming new title, and pretty much everything he said was very specific to their new title. I didn’t get very much out of it because of that specificity. However, what I did get is actually interested in Brink. It’s some sort of terrifying monstrous hybrid of Quake 3 and TF2 with a whole lot of Mirror’s Edge parkour elements. The gameplay videos excited me something fierce, so I’m now keeping an eye on it, which is more than I could’ve said before LDinaDay.

The final session was about what it means to be a Level Designer. The fact is, like so much else in the industry, there’s not an agreed-upon definition. It changes from studio to studio. There’s a wide variety of approaches to and focuses of Level Design, from a more Systems Design approach, to a more architectural and flow-based approach.

What is agreed upon by all these big-name level designers is that, moreso than anyone else at the studio, the Level Designer forms a special relationship with the player. They combine everyone else’s component parts, the programming, the art assets etc. into a special experience for the player. Good LD makes the player forget who they are and what they’re doing.  If they fail, it should be their decision, not the designer’s mistake that makes them fail. The LD needs to put the player first and never forget who they’re making the game for because they are the advocate for the player.

And that was Level Design in a Day 2011.

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