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You can’t teach Level Design
– Premise –
I wanted to write something about this after an interesting talk I had with Larian CEO, Swen, last week. We were talking about the value of a Level Design course in school and we figured out it was almost none. As a lot of you probably know, this is the job I’m doing for the last 10 years. I’ve learned a lot of things during that time and I systematically refused all requests asking me to teach level design in school here in Québec.
The twist though is that I’m working hard to build something so I’ll be able to do a level design seminar in a near future.
Isn’t it contradictory? Yes, it is!
The difference here is that I want to teach the basic. The obvious stuff that some people told me during my career and/or the stuff I found by myself that is perfectly related to level design. The stuff that would have helped me moving forward faster.
Still, you can teach people how to use editors or how to script. You can teach them how to create rational level design documents, how to communicate between department in a video game company or how to do mission/quest documentation. The thing, for me, is that it’s not level design.
Level design is creating FUN, creating challenging situation or creating beautiful moments that people will talk years after they’ve played your level. But fun is something that is hardly measurable and that is also really different for everyone on this planet
– Teaching Editor A or B –
The obvious thing that you learn, as I figured out, in school when you do level design is how to use an editor. The most common right now is Unity. This is probably the most used editor around the world in indie/small companies. You can do a lot of stuff with this, like, everything in fact. The other one is probably Unreal. There are still a lot of companies using this editor I think.
They are both really simple to use so that’s great I guess.
The problem for me is that except if you are lucky to work for a company using Unreal or you go Indie and use Unity, this will be pretty much useless. Except for basic stuff like moving with a 3D view?
On all the project I’ve worked in my career I always used in house editors.
At Ubisoft I’ve worked on Jade, Blacksmith, Snowdrop, Anvil, Mosaic, Onyx, call them. These are all different editors that people won’t be able to learn ever outside. Now at Larian, this is the same thing, Divinity Editor is an in house one. At least this editor is up for people on Steam. Still, this is not the kind of editor you’ll learn at school. It’s too specific. As specific as any Ubisoft editors in fact.
– Level Design Port-Folio –
Every video game schools (I think) have a course to teach people how to create a port-folio. This is useful, seriously. You want to show the right thing to the right people in a good way. People pass something like 2 minutes looking at a port-folio. Better have the right stuff there.
It’s good for artists.
I’ve seen a lot of level design port-folio in my life, especially when I was hiring people to work on AC Syndicate and seriously, judging level design, especially if it’s static (like, not a video) is really hard.
Judging art is easy. It’s easy to see if something is good/beautiful/well made or not.
How am I supposed to see if what the person has done is good level design wise?
Is it fun? How can I see if it’s fun in the context of a game? Is that map too hard? Was it to easy? Is it a tutorial map? An end-game challenge? Is the flow good from where the player is in the game? Whatever… This all need context. You almost never get context on a port-folio.
Don’t ask why companies hire, normally, only level designer with experience. You can show stuff you’ve made in a production context. You can compare maps/level/missions in that game. You can see if that was well balanced and so on. Without this, it’s really hard to judge.
The only moment I was impressed when I was looking at port-folio was when people were showing me unusual stuff like a Starcraft 2 multiplayer map for example. But that was not impressing me for the right reason.
You always see the same things ! I’ve talked about it in my tips to enter post. This is also linked to the “Editor” part above. People learn to use Unreal, so they do shooter maps! This is what they learn. I can’t blame them…
– Trial and Error –
THIS is level design.
Yep… This is how we ALL have learned. Ask any veteran level designer out there how they have learn to create fun, gameplay, challenge, etc. I bet they will all answer that they have tried.
They also have failed.
Way more often than they have succeed I’m sure about it. There’s a saying about learning more when you fail. Well, this is true for sure.
You can’t teach people how to try stuff. You just do it.
You create something depending on all the hundreds of constrains you have and after that you ask people to play it. Then you delete 95% of your jobs related to their feedback and you start over. You ask them to play again and again. You tweak your stuff again and again. Keeping the good, deleting/changing the bad until you see that people are enjoying what you’ve created. Then you move to another challenge/map/whatever and you rinse and repeat the step above.
Yes there are ways to teach the basics of flow, difficulty curve, composition, guiding by lights and other basic level design tools. It’s still something that you’ll need to try by yourself in order to really understand what it means.
– Ending Notes –
So, aspiring level designer, how are you suppose to get a job? This is probably a question you are asking.
There’s no easy way.
Well, you need to ship something somewhere somehow. Do a mod with a few friends. Do a multiplayer map that people will be able to play on any games workshop on Steam. I guess that would be a good thing to do.
I’m still building that level design seminar where I’ll talk about the basic points I wrote above. Still, the goal of that seminar will be to make people understand that you become a level designer by trying stuff and failing.
I want to do a seminar because that’ll be short. I don’t see how people can sit in a classroom learning level design for weeks. It takes a few hours to teach the basics. After that, go try stuff by yourself, this is the only way that you’ll be able to really learn.
Level design is ALL about trial and error.
EDIT: (02/03/2016) After a few discussions I decided to add something. My posts are normally straight to the point. This one is not different than the others. I know that a lot of people will probably disagree with me and that’s cool! There are a lot of level design teachers out there who would probably strongly disagree with me. Still, I think that their jobs are not really justified concerning pure level design. Anyway…
One thing that I forgot to write is if level design is different than any other art form/job? Maybe yes but probably no. Any kind of art will take years to master there’s no doubt with that and will also be achieved by a lot of trial and errors. I think, like beautiful stuff, it’s all relative to the person looking at it. I find things beautiful and some people obviously find the same things ugly.
Where I draw the line is strictly between jobs inside the industry. If someone ask a modeler to create a wooden door for, example, a “next-gen” realistic console title. You know how a door should be. Yes they can be whatever color you want but everybody know how a door is in the real world. Same thing for, I don’t know, a police officer. You ask a character artist to do a police officer. You know how a police officer should look like. You know how much detail you have to put on his mesh to feel realistic enough for that “next-gen” realistic console game you are doing. You know how much you can push that mesh to fit for the console. Yes, if you ask 10 top notch character artists to do a police officer, they will all look different. But still, they will look exactly how they should with the artistic direction you got. I’m not saying that it’s easy to be a modeler or a character artists, FAR from that. I’m just saying that it’s easier from an art point of view to know if it’s beautiful enough or not. Technology is moving forward and people know how to use tech to it’s maximum to create the most beautiful things art-wise. How you create a door won’t change if your target audience is 7 years old girls or fully grown men.
I wouldn’t say the same for gameplay and especially fun. Whatever the game you are doing, whatever the tech you are using, how you attack fun/challenge/gameplay will always be different; especially depending on the target audience. That’s why I say that teaching all of this is not like anything else, again, in video games.
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