A Normal Day as a Level Designer

A Normal Day as a Level Designer

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Premise

So, for whatever reason (working at DICE obviously) my twitter account got a lot of followers in the last month. With that, came a lot of awesome questions (most of them I could not answered sadly) and it also came to my attention that people really think that everybody working in the video game industry are owner of every single thing that exist in a game. I may write something about that later. I don’t know. A lot of people also asked me, “What are you doing exactly at work?” or “What does a Level Designer (LD) do?” or “What is a typical day of work for you?”.
The last question was pretty interesting for me so I told myself, “Hey, why not writing something about it?”

I’ll divide that into some sections because depending on first, the company, then the project you work on, the state/phase of the project you work on and so on, a typical day can be pretty different. There are way more stages than that but I’ll divide my blog with Conception/Pre-Production, Production and Debug.

Also, the example I’ll give bellow is not related to DICE specifically. I’ve been doing that for 13 years now and it’s just how I would represent my work with the experience I have. Like I said above, there are a lot of variables that can change the job I have to do during a day but, here it goes anyway.

Conception/Pre-Prod Day as a LD

Conception

During Conception, normally, teams are pretty small. Depending on the size of the project it can be 3 people or 40. This is usually when you have the core-team talking about what the game could be, the mechanics and stuff. You also usually have a lot of technical people who can prototype all kind of cool things.

Being a Level Designer during that period is pretty hectic. Everyday, you prototype something and you mostly throw 99% of what you do away. Everything that you do during this stage of production is thrown away in the end, nothing done here will see the light of day when you ship the game. This is prototyping after all. You’re not building the game you’re just trying stuff and see what feels right.

During that stage it’s important to note that obviously, everything look like shit and you can even just work with boxes as character.

So in conception, when a LD comes in the morning, after reading potential emails and whatever like this, then the goal is to prototype whatever the Game Director (or whoever else) want to see then, throw it away somewhere and work on a new prototype.

Pre-Production

During Pre-Prod, job is a bit different. You may start building part of the world or you may even plan the whole game in a big document like what will go where, what will be the challenges and the gameplay mechanics introduced in which part of the game.

The team will grow a lot more and people will start working on specific areas. It’s normally when Level Designers got assigned a piece of the game to work for the next year (or more). Depending on the company working process you will probably work closely with your assigned Level Artist to make the best level possible.

Once again everything will change, 99% of the stuff will go to the trash, you will then take the 1% and work from it and the game will probably move forward. Some days you trash 100% of what you’ve done. Some days you just have the blank page problem and nothing comes out. Brains can’t just work perfectly all the time.

Everyday you’ll change pretty much everything and it’s also because designing something is never, ever, ever good from the start. Never.

So, you’ll throw stuff away, you’ll take the best and you’ll work from it. Then you’ll throw another chunk away and you’ll work from it. Rinse and repeat until one of your idea will get approved by the directors and you’ll move forward into Production with it.

Production

This is my favorite part of making a game. I’m a production guy and this is where I’m really good. I’m not that much of a Conception/Pre-Prod guy because it’s all so blurry and chaotic.
Anyway

Production is the meat of the project. This is when the team is fully staffed and everything happen. A couple hundreds people on a AAA game normally. It can even go close to a thousand depending on the game.

During that part you move forward with what you’ve done during Pre-Prod and you push it until it’s perfect (no design is ever perfect but, yeah).
During that stage you go from making big chunk of maps and levels to moving a spawner 1m to the left because it feels better.
You can literally spend a whole day of work just working on the same small gameplay section of 5 enemies patrolling to make it just perfect.

At this stage you will probably stop throwing 99% of your job away but you will still redo the majority of your work during half (or more) of the Production phase. Like I love to say, the Level Designer job is to thrown away 95% of his job and make it better.
The artists will also start working with you in the editor. Making stuff beautiful. In a magic world they would make stuff beautiful when everything is set in stone on LD part but it’s never really like that since it’s pretty rare that something is set in stone more than 6 months before the game is shipped (and I’m generous).

In production, when I arrive in the morning I usually get all the latest data (it can take some times so I read my emails during that) and then I play my stuff. Every. Single. Day. This is the best way to see if something is broken because you’re not the only one working on the level now.

So, in Production you always go more and more micro in your day to day job. When you start, you spend your day moving mountains and cities around (some figure of thoughts) and in the end you spend your day moving spawners a bit to the left or a bit to the right. You delete one, you add one. You change the enemy type. You break something, you fix it. You mess around with your script. You break it. You refine your script. You make sure the game plays well. You add a new explosion there. You remove a tree there because it’s in the way. You add a secret path there because why not! You add move collectibles and rewards. You check if it’s ok. You decide to change a small section because it’s not really what you think was good enough. You then make compromise with your artist because he/she has some needs too. Then the cinematic comes by, you may have to integrate something new that may change your gameplay areas. You tweak everything related to the new constraints. A director may come by and ask you to change something. The story may change and then you have to change a whole section. Maybe a feature or an ingredient you were using will get cut because of time or budget so you won’t be able to use it anymore. You tweak your stuff again. You test, test, test, test, test, and re-test your level over and over. You do that until it’s perfect (it’s not, but you have to ship the game at some point).
You never thought about all those little things you added, removed and re-added when you planned your stuff during Pre-Prod. It’s how it is. Your design, when you start, is shit.

Always shit.

Debug

Debug is at the end of the project. It may last 2 months or six. It may even last one. During that time, the team will already be back to a way smaller pool of people. Lots of people were already sent to a new project during the last part of Production.

This stage of production is black or white. You love it or you hate it.
It’s cool, because the game is done and you just make it better by fixing the majority of the issues.
On the other side it’s bad because that’s what you do all day. You just fix stuff. You’re usually not creating anything anymore. You’re not supposed to. The game is “done”. You just have to make sure it’s not a bug fest.

So a typical day is pretty simple. You get in the morning, you check your bug database personal stack and you fix the most bugs you can. Some day you may fix 20 of them and some day you may barely fix one. Then you get some more. You fix more and get more but just a bit less than the day before, maybe. Then at some point there are just a few tidbits of small unimportant bugs. You fix as much as you can and you may even spend the whole day without getting anything new. So you check your fellow LDs bug stacks and check if you can help them.

Then, it’s over.

You realize you spent 2-4 years of your life making that game. You take some vacations, there’s a big party, you get shitface and you drink your life away and try to forget all the bad shit that happen during the project and just remember the cool stuff.

Then, you start this process all over again.

Conclusion

So, this sums-up my day to day job.

Sort of.

Nothing is ever the same and that’s probably why it’s cool. Some days are complete crap because you just feel you’ve done nothing. Some days are amazing because it looks like you had one crazy awesome idea and your level is 10000% time better.

In the end it’s a job. You make a small part of a big thing and you just hope that the part you made will be loved and that the spawner you moved back then really made a difference.


Leave a comment if you have any opinions on this or whatever!
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6 thoughts on “A Normal Day as a Level Designer

  1. Thanks for the write-up Jeff.

    Don’t get me wrong but you painted a strangely grim picture of your day-to-day job looks like. Surely there’s more to it right? More to just throwing stuff away, more to just fixing bugs or getting wasted at the wrap-up party don’t you think?

    What about the continuous bursts of creativity during pre-pro? The energizing inspiration of getting reference material? The 3d layout coming to life right before your eyes? The warm feeling of being a pillar to the design of the game, the close bond you slowly build up with your amazingly talented environment artist? The delight observing playtesters getting your subtle hints and finding that secret area you fought your director so hard for? Those heated design discussions with your fellow LDs about *why* that particular enemy should be facing *this* direction? The authoring tool you spent so much time designing with the tech team getting finally released on the production floor? The utter satisfaction polishing the hell out of the game while only a few days remain before content lock, the pride of fixing that nasty low priority bug against all authority just because it matters?

    Yes Level Design is about throwing stuff away and restarting, sometimes from scratch, far too often. It’s about checking inane e-mails, watching helplessly your brilliant content being cut, fixing shit somebody else is responsible for (too bad that piece of crap left the company for a stellar AAA studio!), accepting silly design decisions made from above, compromising because the tech is not ready, attending boring meetings… But in the end there is an unapologetic bliss of seeing players delighted by what you contributed to make. And this my friend, is why I wake up every morning.

    What about you? 🙂

    Like

    1. Ha, that was cool to read.
      I write my blog like I would talk to a person. And that’s funny, because all the things you said is so right.
      Maybe I’ll do a part 2 related to the stuff you said, haha. Because you’re so damn right!
      It’s interesting, I didn’t wanted to sound like a freaking messed up LD, maybe I have! ^_^

      Like

  2. Good read it must also be tough working on a game for 2-4 years and going to game conventions and not talking about what your working on while people are playing the current game.

    Like

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