Category: Level Design

You can’t teach Level Design

You can’t teach Level Design

Image by peetcooper

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

So?

– 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.

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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Inside vs Outside AAA

Inside vs Outside AAA

– Premise –

One of my ex-coworker, Maxime, wrote an article on his new-indie-company blog that got a lot more views that he was expecting. If you haven’t read it already (because it was on all the big sites), have a look right there : Why I quit my Dream Job at Ubisoft. It’s pretty good.

I wanted to write about this because of the “storm” that article created.

I must say that it really surprised me how much attention it got because for me this is “obvious” things. Day to day business and nothing more. Well, used to…

But then, I realized that these kind of things are not “going out” a lot. People, gamers, have no clue for the most part how it’s done in the inside. The typical stuff we hear from non gamer is, “You play games all day.” Then the stuff we hear from gamers is normally, “That company sucks hard, all their games are shit, etc, etc”.

So, let’s talk about this.

– The Outside –

From a developer with more than ten years on my belt, it’s hard now to put myself in the place of someone who has never worked in the industry. Like I said above, all the stuff that seems to be so “incredible” for people outside is just day to day business that I lived for the last ten years. Like many others.

There are so many people talking about so many different subjects on so many different website related to the gaming industry but a few of them dare to talk about “the real stuff”.

I can understand why, I mean, the industry is pretty small. Really small in fact. Everyone knows everyone to some extent. You don’t want to trash a company just for trashing it. You’ll be flagged for sure.

People knows about the basics, the stuff that gets out like crunches, unpaid overtime and so on but people don’t know how it is on a daily basis. Long crunches leads to burnouts. I’ve a few friends who had to leave for a long time because they were totally burned down.

Some people say that we play games all day. Other people say that “we’re just making games”. Well, a job is a job. Yes, creating games is awesome but that’s still a job. There are good stuff and bad stuff in every job. Video game development is no different.

I’m glad though that Maxime dared to talk about his past job at Ubisoft in a really professional way because all the points he said are valid and really true. Because of that, more people know about the inside. The part of the industry that is pretty well hidden. Some day it’s really bright, some day it’s not.

So, let’s talk about it.

– The Inside –

I won’t repeat what Max said in his article because I don’t have the same parkour nor the same background. On the other hand, we have worked on a lot of project “together” during our 10 years at Ubisoft.

He left a few weeks after me if I remember correctly.

All in all, I think we have left Ubisoft mostly for the same reason.

I also tasted “the forbidden fruit” of small team awesome development on Duel of Champions. Luckily for me though, the game I co-created (I was Game Designer on the project) got released compared to both his two small games Maxime worked on.

My dream was never to work on AAA games or anything like him though. I just wanted to make games. Games that I would be proud to say that I’ve worked on like Prince of Persia Forgotten Sand Wii, Duel of Champions and AC Syndicate.

Maxime wrote that he left because he had no motivation anymore because he didn’t had really any impact on the game as an architect on Syndicate. I’ve no idea about his job back then but I can understand why. It was really different as a Senior Level Designer and also Lead Level Designer though. I had a lot of impact on the game. I built the whole skeleton of London from scratch with the World Director. It was a really big challenge to fit London in a 2×6 km map without losing any key locations. London is what it is right now mostly because of what we’ve done back then at the start of the project. I’ve also worked on all the districts to some extent and was in charge of one. I also worked on a lot of milestone demo and other stuff.

All in all, my impact on the game was really big on my point of view.

But I still left Ubisoft and I’m also not interested in the job interview I get from big companies anymore.

Why did I left then?

Well, like Maxime wrote, in big teams people get super specialized in one way of working. I really realized that when I was doing the test for Larian before I got hired. Basically, I didn’t knew how to do “anything” anymore. I’ve worked on six Assassin’s Creed games. That was what I was doing since Brotherhood. AC, AC, AC and AC games… I had a small break with Duel of Champions and The Division. But they were small breaks. I really knew how to do AC games but that was it! When you are doing the same thing over and over for years. You forget everything else. There’s a joke we were saying back then about “a dude” who was in charge of placing bird shit on roofs. You know, it sounds funny but that was not far from the truth.

The first half of Syndicate I was a lead Level Designer. I was in charge of a small team of six Level Designers. That was my goal at Ubisoft for a long time. I wanted to be a mentor, someone in charge. I became Lead LD on The Division. I was also lead on Black Flag but both of these project were nothing compared to Syndicate. It was fun the first year, when the team was still relatively small. Under 100 persons or something like this. When production really started though, that’s when shit started to hit the fan. Being a lead was not exactly how I was seeing it anymore.

I’m a Level Designer, I need to work and create stuff in the editor. That’s my trick! But yeah, as a lead, I was doing task management, planning, bug assignments and other stuff like this. That was when I was not in meetings, because, on a project THAT big, you are always in meetings. If fact, I was doing overtime just to do some Level Design… One day, I decided to take a step back and asked to be a “normal” Level Designer again. It was the best move for me and the project (LD-wise).

Another thing that is “shocking” on big projects like Syndicate is the layer of managers. From a “floor employee” to the Creative Director you have layers and layers of management, leads, project managers, associate producer, producers, coordinators, production managers, etc. There were also managers to manage managers because they were so many. That was seriously crazy. We had people who were only tracking information between studios. That’s what they were doing eight hours a day. Forwarding info from a studio to another. Too many chiefs I must say…

Also, probably like any big companies, not only in the game industry, when you are that big, there are a lot of political games all around the place. It’s even “worst” when you are a manager. It’s incredible how you need to make sure what you say, write and do is politically correct every time. You can’t do any mistakes or you’ll get burn really hard. You need to be friend with the right people and walk straight. I got a lot of friends who got burned just because they said legit stuff to “harshly” or because they were “saying the truth”. In my mind, making games were all about fun no?

Over the years, all these “smalls” things became bigger and bigger and at some point I decided to leave. I wanted to know something else. To learn new things. To see how other people were doing games.

All in all, I’m really proud of what AC Syndicate became even if I was not there at the end. It’s a really great game. But like Maxime and all the other seniors who left, I guess that was just too much for us. I’m sure some people say that we are leavers or anything like this. That we could not handle that big machine. Maybe it’s true but I don’t take it that way.

 

– Ending notes –

Compared to Maxime, I didn’t went Indie. Well, in some kind of way yes maybe. I work for an  indie company now. It’s so different on many level. It’s cool to not feel like a number anymore. It’s also awesome to know that the CEO of the company knows you really well. Life at Larian is not perfect but it’s really great. For me, it’s better that way. Smaller, more human approach on projects. What Ubisoft Québec used to be back in the days in fact. A place where you knew everyone.

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EDIT (27/01/16): One important thing to note there though is, probably compared to Maxime, that I would have stayed at Ubi if it would not have been for Larian opening a studio in Quebec. I will also write another post to talk about my life at Ubi in detail because it was a great 10 years for sure. I just found out that AAA production is probably not for me so I left to work on “smaller” projects but more importantly, to see “something else”.