Getting Into Level Design | vector poem

A co-worker recently sent along an email from a friend asking an age old question, “How do I get a job doing level design?” I’ve been picking away at a response to this for a few weeks now, and weirdly enough Steve just put up a similar post addressing the same question on his blog. His has more specific “get your first industry job” advice, mine is maybe more “how to learn to think like a designer”… for whatever that’s worth. Here’s what I wrote.

Hi there. I’m sorry it took this long to construct an answer to your question and I hope you find this useful. It’s been interesting to write this – I find myself digging deep and thinking about what I would have told myself 10-15 years ago.

I think most of it comes down to these three things:

Know what you love

This sounds simple, but making something you actually want to play makes it much easier to get over the hump of getting started. Figure out what kind of games you’re most interested in and make something for that style of game. A few examples of games with publicly released editing tools – I’ll gladly name more if this doesn’t cover it for you:

Single player FPS – Make a Half-Life 2 or Doom 3 map that uses architecture, AIs and scripted sequences in interesting ways.

Multiplayer FPS – Make a map for Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead or Unreal Tournament 2004. Playtest it online with people and refine until it’s fun.

RPG – Make a quest or dungeon for Fallout 3 or Oblivion.

Understand the medium

Learn to deconstruct games. Think about game mechanics as separate from their presentation – eg “movement, shooting and resource management” versus “you are a space marine” – but also understand that the latter influences the former and that ultimately they are inextricable. Think about how the designers might have gone about developing those “core rules” and how the presentation shapes them.

Think about core rules as separate from level design – eg Halo’s weapons, monsters and shield recharge system, versus its levels which combine those in the right proportions to create interesting experiences – but again, understand how they’re woven together into a whole.

Understand how game mechanics and narrative can both complement and conflict with one another, and think about how to embrace that. Pro game designers are still very much struggling with this today.

Get technical. Game programming isn’t the same thing as game design, but all game systems ultimately break down into some kind of logic and math, and it helps immeasurably to know about those underpinnings.

Make something

This is the most important thing, far more so than the previous two. The only way to get skill in the first place is to start doing it, and the only way to hone that skill is to use it. Make a lot of levels and eventually you’ll surprise yourself.

Most editors have a simple “test level” exercise that will get you up and running with a basic series of rooms. Once you’ve got that down, think of something relatively small and doable, and try to make it. Scale down as needed – almost everyone picks an overambitious concept at the outset.

Don’t get too hung up on documentation. It’s good to have a plan up front, but most of the real problem-solving comes through iterating – playing your own stuff, making changes based on what you’re unhappy with, rinse lather repeat. Even better, get other people to play your stuff, and take careful notes – you’ll be amazed at what you were assuming was self-evident, too easy or unbreakable.

Work at it. It’s like learning to play an instrument; be prepared to claw your way up a steep cliff of failure before you get anything you’re remotely proud of. Don’t be afraid to throw away failed experiments. You never stop learning if you’re doing it right.

Other stuff

Cast a broad cultural net. Read a range of books, watch obscure films, expose yourself to weird art. Do everything you can to grow out of that game developer rut where the same three or four movies (Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, etc) are all you ever draw inspiration from.

The other part of “knowing what you love” is being genuinely critical of games. Know what you don’t like as well and be able to articulate why. Develop a taste that’s unique compared to other gamers.

There’s no substitute for learning via making things, but some theory helps too for balance – there are only a few things written on game design that I would consider useful to someone just starting out. One of them is the “Mechanics / Dynamics / Aesthetics” framework, which you can read about on Marc LeBlanc’s site. Some of what I’ve been saying here, about how all parts of a game’s design are connected, goes back to that.

As far as formal education goes I’m from the era when there were no, or very few, schools teaching game or level design specifically, so I can’t comment directly on which schools if any are decent. I went to an art school, learned a lot of valuable things that were completely unrelated to game design, started making levels in my spare time and eventually got my first industry job right at the end of my senior year.

Other people start off in computer science, learn to program well and come into design that way. Still others come up from QA (Quality Assurance) testing, and succeed via their hands-on experience with what makes games compelling.

Lastly, I’ve touched mainly on level design here. If you’re more interested in general game design – the “core rules” kind of thing I mentioned – I might recommend a different path to building your skills. I’d be happy to go into that side of things if you’d like.

I hope that all this will prove useful to you. Best of luck!

This entry was posted on Monday, January 19th, 2009 at 11:40 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

5 Responses to “Getting Into Level Design”

  1. Nick Says:

    Although this post and response was not originally created for me, and though my stumbling upon this article was more a matter of chance, I am glad that I have read it. What you have said here has helped to relieve me of a lot of the thoughts that have been floating around in my head for awhile. If you don’t mind, maybe I can send you an email or two with questions as well?

  2. Brandon Says:

    so are you the guy working on bioshock 2?

  3. Leo Gura Says:

    Good post. I’m adding the following line to my ‘best quotes of all time’ repository:

    “Be prepared to claw your way up a steep cliff of failure.”

  4. Dan Says:

    Hey, I have a question I would like you to answer very similar to this but this question didn’t really answer. How do you get into level design professionally?

    Im already passed the section this question addresses and I really want to get a job as a level designer at a real studio. There are level editors that come with games but what tools do the professionals use? What should I learn for this job? So far my only answer is 3DS Max which is a fine program but it has some oddities on my computer not allowing me to use it as effectively. Is it really my only option?

  5. JP Says:

    Usually, if a PC game’s developer has released an editor, it’s more or less the same editor they used to make the game. Valve’s Hammer editor and Epic’s UnrealEd are examples.

    If you want to learn the Unreal Engine and/or get a job at a studio that’s using it, the best way to do that is probably the Unreal Development Kit.