Category: Level Design

Radial Level Design

Radial Level Design

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– Premise –

I wanted to write something like for a long time now. Talking about some of the process I’ve used in my career. This time, I’ll write about Radial Level Design. Most specifically the process I used to create London on Assassins Creed: Syndicate at the start of the project when we were only me as Lead Level Design and the Level Design Director Jo.

“What’s Radial Level Design?”, you’ll say. Or even, “What is this weird term?”

Well, this is what I’ll explain in the lines bellow. The goal is to share what I’ve learned on creating a city that exist in real life with all it’s landmarks and personalities in a video game.

Disclaimer: I’m not working at Ubisoft anymore so no image whatsoever will be taken from the actual game and I’ll even take a completely different city for the purpose of this explanation.

– The Process –

The first thing you have to keep in mind while doing a real city in a video game is that obviously, you won’t (well, most of the time I guess) be able to recreate that city as is. The goal though, is still to give a really good feeling of “I know this part!” to the player if they have already visited that city and to respect the city itself.

AC Syndicate was set in the Victorian London era during the Industrial Revolution. One thing that was really interesting and useful for us is that it’s during that time that a lot of stuff that we are still doing today came to be. Like, photography. That was so good for references purpose, even though most of the pictures were pretty much take 20-30 years later than our period in the game, points of interest in a city barely ever change though the years.

So, since I’m from Quebec, I’ll take the beautiful Quebec City as an example throughout this blog post and refer to the process we were doing.

Here is a google satellite view of a part of Quebec.

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– Step 1: The Landmarks –

The first step is to take a map and identify the landmarks and/or all the points of interest.

Landmarks are the spots where every tourists go visit when they are travelling.
Points of interests (PoI) are less important part of a city that still attracts a lot of people.
One last thing that is also a point of interest in itself is a park. Nature/vegetation in a city is always something that creates a wow.

These areas are the pillars of the city. This is where the majority of the production time will be spent. These areas can’t really be bent or altered.
This is also the areas that the player will remember in a game and help him/her navigate in the city remembering where he/she is.

In the map bellow I marked the Landmaks with blue dots, the PoI in orange and parks in yellow.

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– Step 2: The Main Roads and Water –

The 2nd step is to identify the main roads of a city and where the important water flows. I’m not talking about a tiny river here, I’m talking about a nice river or a lake.

Identifying where the main roads are will help you structure the city. The landmarks are where the attention will be gathered but the roads are the back bones, the spine of the city.

The rivers, on the other hands are good mainly to create guidelines to the players. How many times in your life as a gamer have you followed a river? That’s super easy to follow right? Also, sometimes, they are really useful as path blockers or end of map. How many game world end into the ocean at some point?

Another thing that can give a nice guideline to the players are railroads.
We don’t have a lot of important railroads in Quebec so I’ll skip that in the example.
On a side note, in London, on AC, it was on the contrary, really important.

In the image bellow, in blue are the rivers (not a lot!), in red, the main road.
There is also something pretty interesting in Quebec, the city is made on plateaus. The upper city and lower city are separated by a pretty big cliff. There is also another (even bigger) cliff going down the St-Lawrence river.
So, in this specific example, it’s pretty important to take that in consideration.
I represented that with the yellow lines.

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– Step 3: The Districts/Neighborhoods –

Normally this part should be easy. You basically have to split the city into districts. If you are recreating a real city, this should be pretty straight forward.
The goal here is to create zones, not too much, not too little.

Note: This is related to the game you’re doing. Maybe you need 50 different zones, maybe you need 5. So either way, don’t hesitate to merge some or split some if needs be. Back on AC, splitting London into districts, we ended up with 11 at first. (I’ll talk about that later because you always end up with less.).

You can see in the image bellow that I ended up with 9 districts in white.

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First interesting obvious point, just following the river/roads creates districts by itself.
Second interesting point I found that the game would probably be big enough cutting it after that big road to the left. There was just a park after that anyway!

Note: Even in conception, it’s important to think about the production of the game. What is useless now, will also be useless later. So don’t hesitate to cut stuff already.

We had the same thing happening on AC. There was one super cool landmark that was so off of the city that even if that was a really good one, we decided to cut it already at that state of conception.

– Step 4: The Cropping –

Alright, this is the most important part of the process and the hardest. This is also where the whole purpose of this process takes place.

Designing in Radial around the landmark areas after the cropping.

Right now, we have all that we need to create the city but obviously, it’s way too big for a game. Well at least, London was way too big as is, for an AC game. We had to cramp 50 square kilometers into 2×3 kilometers. That was a constraint we had for a lot of different reasons that I won’t explain here.

Note: Again, think about production here but it’s ok to think bigger. You’ll end up, I can assure you, cutting more and more during the production of the game.

So, what you do here is that you take the software that you want and you draw the global layout of the city taking every single landmark/PoI you’ve tagged above related to your main roads, rivers and other important thing you pointed out.
It’s time to go a little bit more micro and it’s time to bend reality.

Note: It’s important to remember that this is conception and that this step is strongly going to change for different reason in production. But this is just an example.

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This is what I came with.
I left the step 3 map under to show the difference in size.
Everything that was on step 3 is still in but is also way closer.
If you see, there’s now a green line (I forgot that on purpose for the sake of the example). Sometimes, you’ll find new interesting things to add as you discover the city more and more.
Around Old Quebec there’s a huge wall, remnant of the construction of the fort, around the city. It’s pretty important! This is the green line.
You can also see that I went from 9 districts to 7.
Cropping everything forced some districts to disappear since they were not needed anymore.
Another point here is that district 5 has no landmark or PoI at all. I like the shape of it since it completes the global layout of the map but if cuts are needed in production, I would kick that one out or bend it to merge with 4 and/or 6. Could also do the same thing with 7.

– Step 5: Radial and Micro –

Now, it’s time to go micro and crop again, on a micro scale, if possible.
For the sake of the example I’ll take the part of the map at the top-right with a bunch of blue points (landmarks).

At this step, the radial design finally comes to life.
There I take a closer look at the map, mark the exact landmark (blue in the image bellow) and make some kind of circular shapes around them.
I usually make a tiny shape around the landmark itself (orange) so the facade around the landmark looks exactly how it’s in real life. It’s important.
Then, I draw another shape around the last one, a bit bigger (yellow), this is the back of the facades and it should respect shapes, since it’s still pretty close to the landmarks.

Sometimes, really often in fact, landmarks are really close to each other so it’s pretty important to create shapes around them all in one. You can see that on the left of the image. There are 4 landmarks really close to each other.

After doing this for all the landmarks in an area, you can chop in the meat. Everything between landmarks are filler. Something that is not important to do as is. It’s shown in the second part of the image bellow.

asdasd.png

You can see here that, the right landmark is way closer. I chopped in the meat. Then, I draw the roads on a micro scale, leaving the mains roads that we had earlier in step 2 becasue they are still the back bones of the city and adding some more to make small areas, thinking about flow and other level design principles.

Then you rinse and repeat for all the landmarks, PoI and other marked areas of your city.

– Step 6: Finishing Up –

So at this stage, you’ll have a pretty detailed first draft of your city. For this step I won’t put an image because it’ll just look like a spider web with all the lines and circles but I’m sure you get the idea.

Now it’s time to put that in the game!

What I do normally is that I put the image I created in photoshop and export that so I can use it as a texture in a 3D software. I put that on a plane, scale it so it makes sense for the size of the main character and then I just create 3D shapes out of the image. Respecting everything that was made above.

Then you put that in the game editor, check the flow and the size, and tweak and check again and tweak again until it feels good enough.
At this point, it’s normal game development. Creating the vistas, the beauty shots, thinking about the flow again, going micro on the filler areas and so on. Then testing again and tweaking again.

– Ending notes –

So, like every single design process, this can be bent and changed, useful or useless. Everyone has his own way of designing things. I found that method was pretty good for planning ahead. It’s pretty straight forward and easy to do.

This is also a a method that can be used to create any kind of map in general. Obviously you will start from blank but building in radial around landmark is one pretty usual thing to do. With that, your layout, your world, will be structured.

Hope that gave you, readers, ideas for some future projects.

I would like to thank Jo Dumont, he’s the one that showed me this method back then.


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Speed “Level Design”

Speed “Level Design”

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Image from worldofleveldesign.com.

I discovered not so long ago, the existence of Speed “Level Design” on youtube.

It’s pretty much the same thing as speed drawing but it’s someone creating a scene in an editor.

It’s fun to watch and most of the time really relaxing thanks to their taste in music. Most of them ending up to be really good looking!

It’s like looking at someone doing a 3D painting.

Well, that’s my problem.

In my opinion, from the dozens of videos I’ve watched, this has almost nothing to do with level design. That’s why the title of this blog is quoted.

I could even dare to say that Speed Level Design is, yep, complete bullshit.

By definition, if we take the words Level and Design, I guess we could say that this trend is, yes, indeed, Level Design because there’s a level and there’s a design process behind it. More of an art/visual process though. That’s pretty much the only thing it has to do with Level Design.

All the videos are pretty much the same. They put a static camera in an angle and create a scene from that single point of view.
So how is it supposed to relate to any Level Design of a game? If someone, who has no clue about what Level Design is supposed to be, they will get a really wrong idea of what it’s indeed supposed to be.

Level Design is about gameplay, flow, difficulty curves, rhythm, emotions and yes composition. Calling something Level Design when the only process shown is composition is really more relevant to Level Art than anything else. Level Designers take the gameplay ingredients available to them and create fun out of it.
Creating a scene, yes beautiful, but filled with trees and rocks with a small pond and a boat has obviously nothing to do with what was written above.

Those video should be about taking an actual setup, a game, then creating a map for it. Creating paths, creating flows, then showing how do they approach their setup from different angle. Showing potential difficulty and especially explain why it’s supposed to be difficult and so on. Then in the end, making it beautiful.

But that defies the purpose of speed isn’t it? Obviously.

I know that watching a video about something that is not really good looking would be pretty pointless or really niche. People in general want to see beautiful things come to life. But yet, this is not the main goal of the Level Designer.

They should just call that Speed Scene Creation, Speed Environment Design maybe or even Speed 3D Art, something like this. At least it would not be giving a wrong idea of what Level Design is.


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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.

PS: Agree/disagree, questions? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment 🙂
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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”.