notes: level design for games

from level design for games; creating compelling game experiences, by phil co, new riders publishing 2006

“world diagrams usually start out as a list of locations and objectives.  changes of scenery during a game add variety and a sense of progression for the player.  since these scenery changes will involve development down the line, the game designers start listing these potential locations very early on.  players also like to experience slight changes in gameplay as they advance forward in a game.  in game designer terms, these slight changes amount to a set of objectives for the player.  for example, the first level could require the player to rescue a hostage, and the next level could ask the player to escort that hostage to a safe location.  by determining which locations match certain objectives, the designers can seam the entire game together through a world diagram.

“for some projects, the levels in the world diagram need to act in parallel to the game’s story.  certain plot points are essential to the story’s development and may require levels to be constructed around them.  games based on movie licenses operate in this way.” p9-10

level designers use the design document as a guide to create a level diagram for each level in the game.  a level diagram is a drawing that shows the areas the player will progress through; it may also describe events that take place in each area.  depending on the project, level diagrams can be extremely detailed and thorough, or they can be vague and abstract.” p10

“the game’s engine grows as the project gets further into development.  design and graphical features are added as the overall design and vision for the game is more clearly designed.  for example, if the art teams wants to add fog to an area, the programming rteam will need to implement fog as a feature.

“the design document should outline a list of design and graphical features, and based on this list, the lead programmer will begin to assign various tasks to the programming team.” p15

“every game contains content or assets, which are general terms that describe art, animation, levels, and effects in a game.” p15

“production is the longest phase of the development process, but if the project has been planned out thoroughly during the previous phases, everything should fall into place fairly easily.  from the design document and level diagrams, t he design team will start building the levels.  the early versions of the levels will be created quickly so that the design elements can be evaluated.  most or all of the technical features will be in place to test the level accurately.  once approved, the levels will go through an art pass to integrate the visual styles defined by the art team.  other elements will be added to the levels to make them complete.” p17

“every game has its own unique gameplay, and most production phases start with a simplistic version of that gameplay to build upon.  this simplistic version is sometimes called the core gameplay.

“the first objective during production is to build one prototype level that shows examples of the core gameplay.  the team focuses on developing that one level to a near-complete state.  this level becomes a kind of prototype for the rest of the game and can be used to demonstrate the game’s technology, visual style, and innovative design.  the core gameplay tends to grow with the game, and the prototype level can even show a taste of how that will happen.

“level designers don’t always build levels in the order they are supposed to be played.  the first level of a game is often the most difficult to design because it needs to gradually introduce several elements of the game to players.” p17

“creating a prototype level usually involves the entire team.  the art team starts with the art pieces in the level, modeling, texturing, and animating them.  the programming team starts implementing the gameplay features necessary to play the level.  the design team begins building the level geometry.

“the level geometry is essentially the 3d model of the level.  it can be built in a 3d modeling package or with a level editor.  the level geometry defines the spaces in a level – where the character can walk, jump, fall, or climb.

“the level designer responsible for the prototype level uses the level diagram as a base to make a template, or ‘block mesh,’ of the level.  this is essentially a rough draft.  someone can play through the level from beginning to end to get a feel for what the level will be like.  the geometry is simple, with no extraneous details.

“at this point, the art can be placeholder, which means it will be replaced later down the line.  some functionality, like a puzzle, a special feature, or a scripted event, may be missing at this stage, but the level designer should make room for this functionality to be added layer.” p18

“as a level designer, you can enlist other members of the larger team to help you develop the prototype level.  scripters, which are a type of programmer, often help level designers and designers create scripted sequences, which are special events based on specific areas.” p19

“occasionally, level designers and designers must script their own events.  scripters can develop a scripting language that simplifies the process.  a scripting language typically creastes a user-friendly interface to edit programming commands.” p19

“once the prototype level is in a completed template form, it is ready for initial testing and feedback.  in most cases, the entire team will put together a build, a version of the most current game code and assets, for play testing.  initial play testing usually happens within the team or within the company, although it is fairly common to bring in external testers at this stage.  most of the time, the team will play the template version of the level and submit comments, usually into a database.  the level designer can choose to be a spectator and watch players go through the level in person, or wait to read the submitted comments without physically witnessing the play test session.

…”when the team is satisfied with the gameplay in the prototype level, they can turn their attention to making it look and feel more like a finished product.  the level can be passed on to the artists, who will give it final textures, models, and lighting.

“a game’s visual appeal is a huge selling point.  as any game developer will tell you, the ‘art style’ of a game is a hugely important decision, since art makes up most of the content in a game.  all game art – character art, background art, and user interface elements (such as the heads-up display, maps, loading screens and menus) – must be consistent with this overall art style.  usually, these different art assets are created by different people or teams, but on smaller teams, artists may be more cross-functional.  the overall art team creates character and background assets, animations, and effects that can enhance the prototype level to something the entire team is proud of.” p20

“once a character has been modeled and textured, it needs to be set up, or ‘rigged,’ for animation.  rigging a model is like forming a skeleton inside the character and assigning joints that an animator can work with.  most teams have a technical artist who can rig all the models….

“the background artists, like character artists, create background models in a 3d modeling program like maya, 3ds max or softimage xsi.  background artists can also paint textures for both the level geometry and the background models.” p21

“the producer will work with both the lead artist and the lead designer to come up with a list of animations for every character.  fro there, the animators will take one character and create a base set of animations for it.  for most action games, a base set of animations for an enemy include an idle (standing and waiting) animation, a walk/run animation, an attack animation, a ‘take damage’ (get hurt) animation, and a death animation.” p22

“due to time and hardware constraints, every level has a prset texture ‘budget,’ which is how much memory is allowed to be taken up by level textures.  as a result, the background artist needs to be very smart about how he balances this texture budget versus visual quality.

“in order to texture a level more efficiently, artists create tiled textures, like a brick wall or a city street, that repeat across many surfaces.  occasionally, a level designer will break up the repetition with a variation of the tiled textures.  for example, a tile of grass might have patches of dirt for variation.” p23

“the sound designer will often work with the artists and designers to develop sounds and music for the prototype level.  as the level nears completion, the level designers and game designers will compile the list of sounds that will be needed for the level.  special objects, like a clock tower, might require a unique sound while more common pieces, like doors, can share the same sound.  the sound designer might provide the design team with a batch of preliminary sounds to use until the level geometry has been finalized.  this early work helps to establish the audio standard for the rest of the game.” p23

“once the prototype level is complete, small groups of levels proceed through the same route until all of the levels meet this standard.  depending on the time remaining in the schedule, the team can go bak and look at content that needs improving.” p24

“once the game is in alpha, it’s ready to test.  the lead tester, who manages the qa team, establishes a test plan for the game.  this test plan breaks down the game levels into small, manageable areas for testers to play through and verify that they’re bug-free.  testers submit errors through a bug database, and the development team will fix the bugs that relate to their specific tasks.  once a critical mass of errors has been fixed, the programmers create another build of the game, and qa retests the latest build.” p25″as with most other types of software development, the beta stage is the ‘nearly done’ stage.  as mentioned earlier, the game assets (art, audio, and gameplay features) are locked down, and assets can only be replaced to fix a bug.  at this point, developers exist solely to fix bugs.  the game is essentially complete, but errors must be fixed before the game can be called final.” p27

“although the team has probably been working like crazy to get to this point, theres still one final push to get the game one:  the ‘final candidate.’  as mentioned earlier, once the team leads have signed off on the bug fixes, the team will submit a build for final approval (the final candidate).  if bugs are found during this phase, the fixes take place almost immediately so that a new version can be created and tested again.  each subsequent build requires a certain amount of bug-free testing hours before it can graduate from final candidate to ‘gold master.’  the gold master is the version of the game that will be shipped to stores – the end product, the finish line.” p28

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game genres, p35-52

the action genre.  a lot of confrontational elements pitting player against an enemy.  subgenres:

the shooter typically features player characters running around environments, shooting projectiles at several enemies and picking up items that they need, such as health, armor, weapons, ammunition, and keys

the brawler has the same level of intensity as the shooter, but it usually focuses on close combat or ‘melee’ weapons, such as swords, axes, staffs, and clubs.  the player character gets attacked from all sides in brawlers, and players need to press buttons or keys in combinations to make the player character perform certain fighting moves.

combat simulations put the player in realistic settings with realistic variations of gameplay.  often feature virtual replicas of true-to-life weapons, and characters get hurt in an accurate way.

survival horror has the primary goal of creating the most frightening experiences possible.  much slower-paced than shooters and brawlers, emphasizing combat with a small group of enemies.  atmosphere is paramount in survival horror games, so level designers focus on making areas dark, foggy, and claustrophobic.  in an attempt to keep players on their toes, designers insert special scripted sequences, such as monsters dropping from the ceiling or crashing through a window, throughout the game.

adventure genre:  tend to emphasize story or narrative through the game.  players use various tools like conversations with other characters, finding and combining items, and even combat, to progress through the game.  at many points in the game, the player loses interactivity in cut-scenes or cinematic sequences that reveal more of the story.  subgenres:

story adventure, where players control a character in a story and interact with other characters through dialogue and item-exchange.  players explore environments, poking around until some kind of puzzle or gameplay element blocks their progression.  the player must use found items, information that they hear, or systems that they learn to find a solution.

action adventure, with some of the pacing and combat elements from the action genre and using them as part of the learning process for the player.  it’s a lot different to solve a puzzle or problem when some enemy or monster is attacking your character..action adventures are the most popular form of adventure game mainly because many of them are based on some franchise or license.

role playing genre evolved from table-top games like dungeons and dragons, dominated by numbers and statistics.  player characters advance by finding or receiving items, learning skills, and gaining experience.  characters earn experience by killing enemies, completing missions or quests, and exploring new parts of the game’s world.  enemies are classified by difficulty level, and the combat revolves around the amount of health or life characters and enemies have and how much they lose.

action rpg combines the feeling of character growth and customization from role-playing games with faster-paced combat.  although the game still measures the levels between the player’s character and an enemy, the skill of the player can often make  up for the difference.  the player has more control in the action rpg.  you can control your character to dodge attacks, pick up items like health packs and potions, and circle around the enemy to attack from another direction.  even tho the systems for action rpgs use a lot of numbers, most of those numbers are hidden from the player so they don’t interrupt the flow of the game.  players can move their characters in and out of combat easily and can battle many more enemies at the same time.  there are pve –  player versus environment mode, and pvp – player versus player.

mmorpg creates an enormous world populated by player characters, nonplayer characters, and enemies.  players can form groups to complete missions or quests, meet other players to trade items, or even simply socialize by chatting.  hundreds of different player characters may occupy the same area in an mmorpg.  level designers construct incredibly vast landscapes that might contain dozens of quests or missions so that players will have hours and even days of content to complete before moving on.  unlike other rpgs the mmorpg must always keep its game world open  therefore, most of the world in mmorpgs is static, not random.

platformer genre, jumping and landing areas grown from two-dimensional side scrolling genre of early videogames.

strategy genre, let players control an army as if they are a general or military leader.  players can gather materials, manage resource, build facilities, and send troops to attack enemies.  players compete against an opposing army controlled by ai or by other players.  these games cover a large area to give each side room to grow without revealing plans to enemies.

racing genre allows player to drive some sort of vehicle around a track, usually in competition with other drivers.  add in a time and speed element, and the resulting gameplay is quite fast-paced and exciting.  racing levels are usually built on a much bigger scale than levels in other kinds of games because the character or vehicle is moving so fast that they must cover a greater distance.  that also means that the levels typically do not contain as much detail as levels in other games.  the faster the players progress, the lower the level of detail in environments.

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types of obstacles, p67-72

simple roadblocks do just enough to slow down the player character without completely stopping them.  they mostly require just one action from the player to continue.

enemies, the obstacles you shoot, are characters, vehicles, or creatures that cause harm to the player character.  enemies are not always vulnerable to the player character.  enemies can be groups according to a few categories:  size, movement, and attack style.  one special type of enemy is called a boss, a unique enemy a player has to defeat in order to process.  usually only appears once in a game, and has a unique model, unique method of movement, and unique attack style.  most bosses are located in a special level type – boss level.

traps, the obstacles you avoid.  part of the environment, unlike enemies.  players get frustrated when they can’t do anything to prevent their characters from being harmed or killed, so traps should have warnings.

puzzled, the obstacles you solve.  the base of most puzzles used in level design is the lock and key.  a variation of this uses multiple keys instead of just one.  by adding multiple keys, the player character is forced to explore the level more thoroughly.

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“fundamental skills are the foundation for player interaction.  the player can perform these skills at the beginning of the game, and the early levels usually teach the player how to use those skills.  the first level of the game contains the bulk of the instructions and is sometimes called the tutorial level.” P73

“some additional skills are as simple as obtaining a new weapon, item, or spell.  players may need to select the new weapons/item/spell from a menu, bu they use the same button or key as a fundamental skill to perform the new skill.  some skills are more complex, and they may require new buttons or keys to use.” p75

“a good way to guarantee that payers have a skill that they need is to block them with an obstacle that requires that skill.” p76

“instead of having just one start point and one exit point, hubs usually have multi0ple start and exits points so that the player can access several other levels.  many of the start and exit points may be blocked until the player completes a certain task or mission.  once the game is  nearly complete, hubs open up so that the player can access almost any level quickly.

“by definition, hubs are complex.  as a level designer, you’ll need to create a hub that is functionally efficient enough to allow players to use the hubs for what they need.  at the same time, you’ll need to create a hub that players won’t get bored with.  this can be accomplished by making spatially limited hubs that are packed with the elements that players need and with bonus elements that they don’t necessarily need.” p83

“a game can have multiple bosses and the last boss is called the ‘final boss.’  this is usually the climax of the game.  players should never feel let down at the end of the game, so the final boss level should be something quite special.” p83

“developers often hide content in games called ‘easter eggs.’  a bonus level may be an elaborate easter egg.  easter eggs provide yet another reward for players if they play the game in an unusual way.  in requiem: avenging angel, one of our designers built a series of hallways that spelled out the word ‘freak’ on the map.  the layer had to fire a grenade and jump at the same time to blast the player character into this secret area.  developers can also require certain codes or button combinations at different locations to gain access to easter eggs.” p85

“levels are constructed using these elements of obstacles and skills as if they were tools or building blocks.  the progression of the obstacles and skills forms an outline for the game.  you can use this outline to determine what tools will be available to the player in each level of the game.” p85

“once you have the setting of the level, you should develop the events that need to take place in the level based on the overall game story and the design tools defined in chapter 3.  events can include meeting npcs, finding items, gaining new skills, and transitioning from one area to another.  the mission flow diagram should outline some of these events as well as the progression of the player character through the game.

“another type of event is a scripted sequence, which is triggered based on the player character’s location in a level.  some scripted sequences exist to alter the gameplay…other scripted sequences serve to create atmosphere…

“you will also likely need to work out the specifics of the level puzzles and how the puzzles work with the setting before integrating the obstacles and skills. p89

“how do you start fitting all of these elements into your level?  the level narrative may be the glue that connects everything together.  the level narrative is the story within the level, as opposed to the story within the game.  level narratives can stretch across several  levels, or they can only be related to one.” p89

“landmarks, sometimes called ‘set pieces,’ are unique areas or features that players can use to keep from getting lost or going in circles.  landmarks can be anything in a level, as long as it’s unique.  usually, landmarks are memorable either by size or by appearance…landmarks are usually the focal points of the level.  they can contain a puzzle that the player needs to solve to progress, or they can simply be a special object such as a statue or a fountain…before designing a level, you should know or determine the landmarks for the level.  levels often contain several landmarks for the player to progress from one to another.” p101

“‘choke point, which is an area all players must pass through in order to progress through t he game.  by making your choke point a landmark tile, you ensure that all players will see your unique area.  this breaks up the repetition of the level, and gives the player a sense of progression.” p101

“scenes usually require some specific art and a lot of ai and scripting efforts.  scenes such as a conversation between two characters may require modeling, texturing, and animation for those models as well as the dialogue and voice acting.  an ai programmer or a scripter may need to write a script for that specific scene, and you may need to design a specific space or geometry to contain it.  it takes time to create the scenes, so you should write descriptions to help everyone understand what takes place in each scene.  submit your descriptions to the ai programmers, scripters, and animators for preparation and approval ; you can also add them to the design document.” p111

“what do you need for your level diagram?  the first thing to start with is the level context.  in order to create your level diagram, you need to know where players are coming from, and where they are going, what skills and obstacles they faced in previous levels, and what knowledge they have acquired.  the level context sets up each level with this information.  level scope, or how much of the game your level covers, is also an important part of the level context.  you wouldn’t want to complete your set of levels for the game only to find out from the lead designer that the game’s content has been drastically reduced.

“in this chapter, we’ll also talk about level progression, or its sequence of experiences.  for every level, there is a starting point and an ending point for the player character.  linear progressions lead the player character through a level from point to point without any real choices, while nonlinear progressions provide choices for the player to make along the way.  deciding on a progression is the first step to laying out the spaces or areas in your level diagram.

“creating your level diagram gives you a huge head start in designing your level.  the order and arrangement of the spaces, the connections between those spaces, and the placement of obstacles and skills all come together in the level diagram.  once your diagram is complete, you can start creating your level with a plan.” p116

“since most players like to experience some kind of change in the game every 15 minutes or so, level designers usually strive to limit the level gameplay to 30 minutes or less.  the change can be a simple one, such as a different enemy to fight or a new weapon to use.  or it could be more dramatic…both of these changes would require a different look to the level.

“some games contain levels that can be revisited during the game for various reasons.  for example, if item collection is a major part of the game, a hub used for trading or finding secrets might involve a lot of content.  these levels may not have a time stamp on them, but they may have other methods for measuring size…these hubs aren’t measured in size or time but in the frequency the player character interacts with their functions.” p118

“some levels, like the ‘challenge level’ shown in figures 5.1a and 5.1b, on the next page, have the sole purpose of introducing a new skill that the player character can use.  each space in the level becomes an example of how the new skill overcomes a different obstacle.

“levels, and the challenges contained in those levels, tend to grow as players progress through a game.  a level that appears later in the game could be substantially bigger than a level that appears at the beginning because the player character has a wider range of skills to use and a wider range of obstacles to face….

“as levels grow larger, they also become increasingly challenging to complete.  the order of the level sets up a foundation for the initial difficulty of the entire game.  the first level should be the easiest to complete, and the last level should be the most difficult.” p119

“some levels in games contain quite unique elements of gameplay.  for examplle, player characters that usually travel by foot might pilot a vehicle, or perhaps enter an environment, like an anti-gravity chamber, that changes their movement altogether.  these levels, called special-case levels, might simply provide more variety to the overall game, or they may be an inherent quality of the game itself.” p122

“it is often a good decision to make early levels in a game linear.  players sometimes need to be shown where they are supposed to go, especially early on.  at the beginning of the game, linear levels can drive players deep into theh gameplay experience quickly.” p125

“now that the level is starting to take shape, it’s time to place the skills, obstacles, and scripted sequences you’ve outlined from chapters 3 and 4 into the level diagram.  the skills and obstacles in particular can serve as anchors for you to start.

“i usually begin by establishing symbols for the skills that the player character will use, for each of the obstacles, and for items the player needs.  symbols should be grouped according to their category: skill or obstacle.  all of the skills should have a similar look, as should all of the obstacles.  although symbols are grouped in this way, they should still appear distinct from each other.” p135

“to prepare a presentation, assemble your resource charts, level diagram, level description, and reference materials in a way that is simple and clear.  you may need to break up your level diagram into pieces or show one diagram of the whole level and other diagrams of areas that are expanded.  levels that are already divided by floors or stories may be presented in the same fashion.” p146

“psychonauts is a game that blend the adventure genre with the platformer genre.  the player controls raz (short for rasputin), a psychic kid who can jump into other characters’ minds.  raz progresses through the game by conversing with other characters and finding items, which is characteristic of an adventure game, and by a combination of physical and psychic maneuvers that emulate a lot of platformers.  it is a fairly complicated game, and its eccentric design was groundbreaking in many respects.  although a lot of the game mechanics stayed consistent from level to level, many levels added new twists to keep the experiences fresh and unique.” p147

“to explain how each level connected to the rest of the game, the designers at double fine created a goal outline.  the goal outline determines the goals for the player throughout the game:…

b. free lunghfish: free lungfish from influences of kochamara

1. destroy tower. get to kochamara tower and destroy it.

a. learn psi-shiled: smash jail and free dissidents

b. giant cannon: rendezvous with dissidents at dam

c. blimp pilot: free blimp pilot from his prison

i. tunnel: find way to get through laser-sield tunnel to prison

ii. smash prison; destroy the prison to free pilot

d. dam: use blimp to get over dam

e. skyscraper island: reach skyscraper island

f. destroy planes: destroy all planes so freighters can dock

g. tower island: proceed to tower island to sdestroy radio tower

i. defeat kochamara: battle kochamara

ii. climb tower: climb tower and destroy antenna” p149

“most companies hold play-test sessions with an exterior collection of individuals called a focus group to gather information and feedback about hegame and specific levels.  typically, a member of the team watches a focus group tester play through a few levels and takes notes about the experience.  the tester can also fill out a questionnaire for additional comments.” p220

“once the template is completed, team members are usually the first play-testers.  the template is not going to resemble the final level in an artistic sense, and it may be difficult for players outside of development not to focus on the visuals.” p222

“play-testers may have complained about a lack of direction, repetitiveness within the level, or impassable obstacles that were frustrating to them.  you should expect to spend a reasonable amount of time and effort fixing these problems and improving the level.” p227

“a d-bug is a comment or suggestion made by a tester.  all documented bugs, including d-bugs, are contained in the bug database.  the producer usually works with the lead tester to set up the bug database with capabilities to input feedback.  it’s a good idea to start the bug database at the beginning of the production process to track feedback for all aspects or the game.  the leads can meet with the producer and go over each of the comments or suggestions in list form and assign a priority to each.  as the level designer, you can access the same database and see the list of tasks you should address in a specific order.  this gives you clear direction as to what you should do next to improve the level.” p228

“the spaces contained in the level itself should also vary.  going through spaces that are the same size and shape can get confusing and the gameplay associated with those spaces becomes repetitious….

“this brings us to our next common problem: lack of direction.  level designers can provide direction within levels in very simple ways, but sometimes, the level might require an entirely different arrangement of its spaces to help the player along.” p229

“levels sometimes contain obstacles that the player character is not supposed to pass.  some of these impassable obstacles are meant to push or steer the player in another direction…

“other impassable obstacles help to set up a special scene that the developers want players to experience.  a see-through fence may allow a view of an objective, such as the level exit or a necessary item that the player needs to find later.  or, the developers may decide to place a scripted sequence behind the fence that the player can’t interfere with.” p229-30

“the player character should never have to get hurt or die to find out that an obstacle is dangerous.” p230

“varying the sizes and shapes of the level spaces is another tool for keeping your players engaged.  long, narrow hallways offer the player no choices and no variation of space.  even rooms that are connected by doorways and are all approximately the same size and shape can become boring and confusing….

“although designing levels shouldn’t really have rules or limitations, the ’10-second rule’ is a good one to know.  if a player character travels through a level, and they experience over 10 seconds of just running, something is missing.  either the area needs to be more compressed so that the player can experience some change withi 10 seconds or the level designer needs to add an event to the area.  this event can be something very simple such as an item to pick up or a ledge to jump up to.” p231

“why would you cut content out of a level?  well, if the content is too similar to other parts of the level, you can remove it to vary the gameplay experiences for the player.  we’ve already discussed the common problem of repetition.  even if the level requires a variety of actions from the player, those actions might be too similar to another set of actions in another part of the level or in another part of the game.  if players encounter a situation they are already too familiar with, it becomes predictable and tedious.  in addition, if the content distracts players too much from the main focus of the level, you can remove it.” p239

“blizzard entertainment’s world of warcraft, for example, needs to transition between dense forests, rocky mountain passes, grassy plains, and even swamps.  there are sections between these distinct areas that are devoted to smooth transitions.” p240

“another way to start balancing your level is by changing gameplay elements.  gameplay elements can involve the obstacles contained in the level, such as enemy soldiers or the speed of moving platforms.  you can remove enemies to make an area easier or add them to make an area more difficult.  you can work with programmers to edit the properties of enemies to give them more or less life.  some enemies can use different weapons against the player character.  you can change the groupings of these enemies, or even the paths that the enemies patrol, to give the player an advantage or a disadvantage.  these changes usually don’t require the level to change in significant ways, so they can be continually revised and weaked as the level progresses through tis completion stages.” p241

“due to limited resources and time, game developers often must use the ‘quality curve,’ which basically dictates that the beginning and ending of a game should have the highest priority (figure 8.1).  the beginning section of the game must pull players in and get them hooked on the gameplay, the visuals, and the story.  the ending section of the game is like the big finale, and should leave players with the best memories of the game.  generally, players will forgive the team a few flaws if they’re contained in the middle of the game especially if their initial and final experiences in the game are outstanding.

“the same curve holds true for a level.  the beginning and ending sections in a level should have more details, more unique models and textures, more complex geometry, and more visual and audio effects.” p244

“your level probably doesn’t look like a level you’d see in a completed game.  it might have placeholder textures that need to be replaced.  it might not have any details or props such as furniture or decorative pieces like statues.  the level might still feel ‘boxy,’ which means that it uses all right angles.  you might have simply copied and pasted the same light over and over and now the level looks a bit flat.  all of these issues can be solved with an art pass.” p244

“art passes can involve a number of team members.  at this stage, you can hand over your level to a background artist.  other times, you work with a background artist who can provide art assets, such as textures and models, for the leel.  in rare instances, you will have to create these assets yourself.

“second, your level still needs a functional layer that incorporates all the elements necessary for the level to be called complete.  among these elements is the audio piece of the equation.  your level will need sound effects added to its moving parts, including doors, elevators, and buttons.  you should also place ambient sounds like wind and machinery to provide atmosphere to your level.  in addition, you can place triggers so that music begins playing during certain sections of a level.  music can be used to get the player5s’ adrenaline pumping – or to calm them down.

“an effects pass will add additional functionality.  effects are the visual components in a level that make it more realistic.  particle effects, such as steam coming from a vent or sparks coming from a broken circuit, make a level seem all the more real.  and other effects, such as fog or a blinking light, might even change the gameplay slightly.

“by adding layers to your level, you can bring the level to a shippable state and still continue to enhance the quality of the level without jeopardizing the overall experience.” p245

“during an art pass, come, if not most, of the geometry for the level will need to be changed or replaced.  this includes adding detailed geometry such as trim for walls and floors and frames for windows and doors.  as you might guess, this takes a lot of time and effort.  however, the geometry changes you make during an art pass will be well appreciated by both players of the game, and by people looking at screenshots of your level.  some of the geometry can be created as smaller pieces that you can duplicate throughout the level for efficiency as well as consistency.

“once the geometry of an area is set, you can start to apply the proper textures.  textures, when used properly, can really make a level look complete.   special or unique textures can also make an area stand out to the player.

“you should complete the geometry for an area before texturing it because the changes you make in the geometry will affect the textures applied to it…

“the art pass for a level includes lighting.  lighting is an art form all by itself.  lighting can make the difference between a flat, plain level and a completely immersive experience…

“the final element for an art pass is placing the props.  props are models, usually created by artists, that add complex details to a level.  props can be interactive or noninteractive.  interactive props are the models that affect gameplay….interactive props can even affect gameplay by blocking projectiles.  so, a sign on a post can be considered an interactive prop.  noninteractive props are the decorative elements that are added mainly for visual purposes.  level designers place noninteractive props in a level to make it look and feel more realistic.” p246-7

“primitives can encompass much more than just one piece of geometry.  a primitive intended to create a chunk of hallway could consist of the floor, the walls, the columns, the lights, and the ceiling.  this chunk can be constructed so that it cannect any two rooms or combined with another chunk to make a longer hallway.” p247

“a decal is a texture that has transparent portions that allow another texture to be seen behind it.  using decals, you don’t have to break u your level geometry to allow for completely new textures.  you can simply apply a decal on top of a wall to break up the repetition.  common decals include dirt and grime stains, floor detail such as drains and grates, and wall details such as signs and graffiti.” p253

“lighting is often an aspect of level design that is saved until the very end.  unfortunately, this can result in a level being poorly lit, because lighting is complex and involves many different factors.  for example, an area can have one or a dozen lights that all affect a single surface.  there are also different kinds of lights that you can use:  point lights, which affect the area all around then; spotlights that have a direction; and even a sunlight that works like a real sun…

“some games today, such as blizzard entertainment’s world of warcraft, have day/night cycles that simulate how the light changes from day to night and back again.  in this case, you might not have a lot of control over the way the lighting works within the level because all outdoor levels would use the same lighting.” p254

“props don’t add any more cuts to the geometry, bu they do affect the perfoance of the level.  props are fairly complex.  they have a lot of polygons, and they might require a detailed texture.  the more props you place in the player’s view, the slower the performance of the level.  props are also lit in a different way than the geometry you create in the editor.  you’ll need to adjust your lighting to make the props blend into the environment smoothly.” p257

“when adding visual layers to a level, adding certain imperfections can actually greatly enhance the appeal of an area.” p257

“in addition to the visual layers, you can add functional layers to make your level feel more complete.  this layer consists of audio effects such as sound and music, special effects such as particles and ambient animated objects, and scripted sequences…

“the last functional layer is adding the scripted sequences for actors.  in the template stage, you may have placed enemies that stayed in one place until the player character arrived.  their ai kicked in at that point, causing them to realize the character’s presence and attack accordingly.  until this point, these characters may not have acted realistically, which can detract from the overall experience of playing through the level.  in chapter 4, you brainstormed a list of scripted sequences that you wanted to see in your level.  now is the time to start working with a programmer or scripter to get those scripted sequences in place.” p289

“nearly every moving object in your level should have a sound effect associated with it.  in real life, you may not think about the sound of a leaf blowing through the air, or the sound of a river as it runs gently downstream.  but if no sound effects are attached to these same movements in your game, the lack of sound will be very noticeable.” p290

“ambient sounds don’t have to be associated with a moving or animated object.  they might be more related to the setting of the level…

“ambient sounds can also be related to props…these sounds should be placed spatially at the point where the props are located so that the player can walk around the prop and have the sound emanate appropriately.

“there are two types of ambient sounds:  loops and stingers.  ambient loops can be repeated continuously to sound like a really long sound effect.  ambient loops can be played beginning when the level starts and they can end when the player leaves the level…ambient stinger are played just once at key moments based on the actions of the player character.” p291

“for most projects, the level designer plays a minimal role in choosing the music for a level.  that decision is usually left up to the team lead, the producer, and the sound department.  what you can participate in, however, is how the music is triggered, or started.  you can trigger a music track based on the player character’s location or you can trigger a music track based on the player character’s actions.  a character can simply cross a threshold of some kind, such as a doorway to a room or a hallway, to start a music track.  the threshold can also be the very start of the lever so that the music can start right away.  alternatively, the character can perform an action, such as pulling a lever or picking up an item, to start a music track.” p293

“special effects are usually not just visual; they have both visual and audio parts to them that make up the overall effect.  for example. steam coming out of a vent has both the graphical representation of the steam coming out and and ambient sound that loops.

“a lot of game engines use particle systems to create special effects.  a particle system is like a generator.  it churns out little images, known as particles, in different ways.  the particles can be tiny specks that have a color assigned to them and that color can even change over the course of time.  a smoke particle system generates tiny black particles that change gradually to white and then fade away.  other particles can actually be an image created by an artist for the desired effect.

“leaves that fall from a tree can be a particle system that uses the image of a leaf instead of the solid color particles used to make smoke.

“not only do particles provide visual movement in a level, but they also make the game world more believable.  particles in a particle system can be affected by other systems in the world.  for example, steam coming out of a vent can be affected by wind so that the steam particles can blow in different directions or dissolve with more variation.  other world systems that affect particles include gravity, temperature, and forces, such as explosions.” p293-4

“to make an area come alive.  you can add area effects.  weather effects, which serve to make outdoor areas more realistic, fit in this category.  if a player character walked from the inside of a building to an outdoor courtyard and the outdoor area was wet and rainy, the difference between the indoor and outdoor areas would be more dramatic.” p294

“fog can serve two purposes in games.  it can hide things from the player and it can add atmosphere.  you can add fog to a large open space so that the player can never see what’s beyond a certain distance.  the level geometry gradually fades out into the fog.  this is sometimes used as a performance enhancement.  some engines use what is called as a ‘clipping plane,’ which is the farthest distance the player can see.  the game engine does not need to display anything beyond the clipping plane.  fog as an atmospheric effect can also hide things like enemies lurking around.” p294

“the alpha stage is the beginning of the end.  the good news is that most of the creative process is over at this point, so you won’t need  to think too hard about design decisions and revisions…

“at about this time, the rest of the team will realize that the game is going to be seen by thousands and thousands of players.  the programming team will want you to change your level to make the game perform better.  this will require you to make optimizations to your level, such as cutting down polygons in scenes or reducing texture sizes or uses.  you might even need to remove some props or even some enemies to improve performance.

“…alpha is the art team’s last chance to get those final pieces of art into the level.’

“…you might need to change the amount of damage certain player weapons do to the enemies in the level or the amount of damage certain traps or enemy weapons do to the player character.  you can even change the amount of health enemies have, and the amount of helpful items, such as med kits and armor, that you place in your level.” p299

“alpha is the last chance to replace this content before a ‘content freeze.’  during a content freeze, no one can change any of the content contained in the game except to fix a bug.  at the end of the alpha stage, the development tea will set a date for a content freeze so that they can kick off the beta stage.  beta stage is when things go into hyper-drive.

“level designers place textures and props to fill out their levels during production.  the artists may have provided these textures and props with specific areas in mind only to find that the level designers have used them throughout a level.” p300

“most game engines don’t display everything contained in a leel all the time.  the game’s perfoemance would suffer.  instead, game engines use different methods to choose what to display and when to display it.  of course, the engine doesn’t always have the best judgment of how to display sections of levels because every level is unique.  here’s where you come in.  as the level designer, you can help the game engine by dividing the level into smaller portions called zones.  the game engine connects all the zones together to form the entire level and also determines wht nees to be displayed based on the player character’s location.  zones are connected together to form the entire level.  the doorways or openings where zones meet are called portals.  using zones and portals gives you greater control over how a level performs.

“so, how do zones work?  basically, the engine doesn’t care about the contents contained in a zone that the player can’t see.  that means the engine doesn’t display any geometry, textures, lighting information, objects, props, or actors in that zone.  when the engine displays less, it performs better.” p302

“almost every game has conditions that the level designer or game designer can tweak to change the difficulty of levels and areas within levels.  unfortunately, there isn’t some magic equation you can use to come up with all the numbers you need to balance a game.  like optimizations, this procedure takes a lot of trial and error.  the trial part can’t even be done by you, the level designer, in most cases…you’ll need to continue the play-testing system with fresh play-=testers in order to put your balancing solutions to the real test.” p316

“[beta] the bug list has shrunk considerably since alpha, so during beta the development team is able to fix bugs as they’re found.  a testing team is now dedicated to the project and is testing the game nonstop…

“the qa department and the producer assign bugs to the appropriate team member.  every day, the producer, the team lead, and the lead tester start meeting to prioritize bugs…

“at the end of beta, the team doesn’t care about any bug that’s not a ‘showstopper’ or an ‘a bug’.  the entire development team converts to testing, and they work with the qa department to put enough testing hours on every portion of the game.  when enough hours are played thruout the game without any showstoppers, the game can be moved into the final candidate stage.

“during the final candidate stage, new builds of the game are created at a rapid pace.  each build must go thru a number of bug-free hours to be considered god master, the version that is copied and distributed to the  public.” p316

“in this end phase, the development team puts together a version of the game, called a build, at an increasingly rapid pace.  at the beginning of beta, a new build might be created every few days.  at the end of beta, a new build can replace the old one in a couple of hours.  a new build is created to fix bugs found in the last build.  for a beta build to move on to final candidate and then to gold master, it needs to have a certain amount of bug-free hours played.  any major, or showstopper, bug found will cause a new build to be created to fix the bug.  this new build will need to start the cycle over. so, for example, if there was a major bug in a level that caused the player character to become stuck, that level would need to be fixed and submitted with a new build of the game.  the new build starts the process over again, and the team jumps on it and reports any defects to the bug database.

“as we discussed in chapter 1, the bug database becomes the task list for developers throughout the latter part of production (from the alpha phase on).” p317

“all games have cheat codes that allow players various advantages while playing the game.  the main reason that cheat codes exist is so that developers can test the game more easily.  there are cheat codes that don’t let your character die, don’t let enemies attack your character, and even teleport your character to different areas in the level.” p318

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About jeanne

artist, grandma, alien

Posted on January 3, 2012, in game, research. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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