Tag: Level Design

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.


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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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Thoughts About My Carreer

– Journey Though the Past –

– Premise –

Hello there, a few people asked me to talk about my last job. Mostly what I was doing before Larian and how it was.

One thing that I want to be really clear with is that I haven’t left Ubisoft because it was bad or anything like this. I left Ubisoft because I was working there for 10 years (which is pretty huge in the video game industry) and I wanted to live and feel something new. The fact is, I was not even looking for any opening at that point. It’s just that Larian arrived at the right time I guess.

I will probably compare my job now and my last at some point but still, for me, Ubisoft is my roots and it’s still in my heart, a great company filled with many great people and talents. I know that we always hear the opposite but people outside have “no clue”, if I can say it like that.

I can get pretty mad when someone who never worked at Ubisoft say this and that about the company thinking that he knows about something you know!

Anyway, let’s get started.

– The Video Game Industry –

I can say that looking at the video game industry from the outside seems to be really bright and shiny.

In fact, it’s not.

In the last ten years, tons of articles went out on the internet to talk about what is the video game industry from the inside.

It’s really not that shinny. It’s now a known fact now.

“But you play games all day!”

Yeah, well, at least now, I think that anyone under the age of 40 know that it’s not true at all.

But on the other hand, this is far from only dark and grim days.

I don’t think I would have stayed in the industry for ten years if that was THAT horrible like medias like to say. It is also a lot of fun 95% of the time. It’s just that crunch time can be a little bit hard on one person health.

At least, I can be happy that it never affected me badly. I’m still pretty young!

– My First Steps –

You know, more than ten years ago, if you would have asked me if I would ever work in the video game industry, I think I would have laughed at changed subject. It was not even something I was thinking at all.

I was creating maps/levels when I was young. I was creating worlds for my D&D campaign and even creating board games. For me, that was just for fun though. I wanted to create stuff so my friend could play.

The first map I ever created was in Heroes of Might & Magic 2. That was a long time ago…

But some day, in 2005 my cousin told me that a big video game company was coming to Quebec City and they were looking for video game testers. That company was Ubisoft.

I had no clue at all what was Ubisoft.

I had no clue at all what was a video game tester.

Still, it sounded interesting! So I applied and got an interview. It went really well and I got hired. Not my cousin… sadly.

I was just barely twenty years old when I first stepped in the Ubisoft Quebec office on the 7th of November 2005. I will remember that day forever.

– The beginning –

As said above, I was a tester at first. It didn’t lasted long though. A big ten months. Still, it felt like years.

I know a lot of people who really like video game testing. I’ve worked with a bunch of super great and talented video game tester in the last 10 years but that was not for me. After 3 or 4 months I was bored to death. For me, cleaning dishes in a restaurant when I was 15 was more entertaining than testing video games.

People were always saying the classic: “But you play games all day! How can it be boring?”.

First, the last thing a tester does is playing the game. This is really far from playing.

Second, you work on unfinished, buggy and unstable games. This is NOT fun at all.

Still, ten years ago, starting as a tester was a good way to step in the video game industry and it is still a good way today. Harder, but still a good way.

– The Real Thing –

In October 2006, a nice guy and friend of mine at Ubisoft asked me if I would like to be a Level Designer.

I had no clue at all what was a Level Designer.

You can see that, often, I’ve no clue at all…

Anyway, I owe the job I have right now to this guy, Soni. My first Level Design lead. The guy who trusted me and brought me in his team as a Level Designer even though I had nothing to show to him except a few map I created on paper for my D&D campaign.

My first project has a Level Designer was the game of the animated movie Surf’s Up, for PSP/DS/GBA.

Yeah, I’ve worked on one of the last GBA game made by Ubisoft.

I remember my first design, it was so bad. Even ten years later, I remember that it was complete crap!

I’ve walked a long way since.

– Ubisoft –

So, I’ve worked at Ubisoft for about ten years.

One third of my life was at Ubisoft. I’ve worked as a video game tester, a level designer, a game designer and a lead level designer throughout these ten years.

Ubisoft is a BIG company.

It now has something like ~7000 employees all around the world I think; Maybe even 8000. I don’t remember.

When I started at Ubisoft Quebec, we were 101 employees. The studio hired a little bit more than 100 employees on the first year. I was the 99th.

In the first few years I knew everyone at Ubisoft Quebec. Every single person. If felt like a big family.

We were also all pretty young. The age average was around 26 years old. We had happy hours every 2 or 3 weeks. We were working on small projects that lasted a couple of months. We were hanging out a lot too. We were partying and drinking beer all the time… When you rethink about it. How the hell were we able to ship games?

Really, great times.

It started to become bigger when we started working on Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands. It was my first big project. It was also the case for a lot of people in the studio. At that time, the term senior almost inexistent in the studio. We were all pretty much juniors except from a few people who came from Ubisoft Montreal.

Forgotten Sands ended out to be an awesome success for us at Ubisoft Quebec and latter, because of that, we had the opportunity to work on the Assassin’s Creed brand.

I’ve worked on almost every AC games since Brotherhood. I’ve also worked on Revelation, AC3, AC3: Tyranny of King Washington, AC4 and AC Syndicate.

I’ll talk a little bit about AC Syndicate.

This was, the first giga-mega AAA title of Ubisoft Quebec. We were the lead studio for that project and it was a really big challenge for us.

We hired a lot of people. Seniors of 15+ years of experiences and other big names.

I’m really proud of all the things we’ve made on AC Syndicate. This is seriously a ton of brick like we like to say around here.

But, like some other people before me, this was too much. Creating a colossal game like this is not a small task and it’s also not for everyone. Creating an AC game takes 800+ people on 7-9 studios. It didn’t felt like a family anymore for me.

When I left Ubisoft, we were around 375 employees scattered on 6 floors. I had a lot of colleagues that I was not seeing any more at all because if you don’t need to go on the floor that they are, you will never see them.

I think I left because of that. I was missing this family environment that I had at the beginning of my career. Also, working on the same brand over and over was not helping I guess.

I had some breaks though! I created with one other guy, Guillaume, the online collecting card game Might & Magic: Duel of Champions. This is still today the project I had the most fun doing. We were around 30 people on that project when I left it to go on AC3. I seriously had a blast.

I also had a break when I worked on The Division for almost 2 years.

Speaking of The Division, I had the chance to travel a lot thanks to Ubisoft. I went to Paris during 2 weeks and went 3 time to Sweden. One time was during more than 3 months! I’ve made a lot of friends all around the world because of that. Without Ubisoft I would never had the chance to do so. Some of my personal friends from Ubisoft also traveled ten times more than me!

Like I said at the beginning, Ubisoft is filled with veterans and talented people. No matter what people are saying, because this is what you read 99.9% of the time on the internet, Ubisoft releases good games and every single employees who work on games want to do the greatest game ever created.

I had a great time at Ubisoft. Ten years of joy, happiness, rage, sadness and all. Like every other job I guess. Nothing is perfect. I needed to live something else. I would have stayed there in fact. But then came Larian Studios out of the blue.

– Larian –

I had no clue at all what was Larian Studios. You see a pattern right?

I didn’t knew exactly in what I put myself in when I signed my contract at Larian. It all went so fast in fact. I made a test, passed an interview and signed the contract. All that in something like 2 weeks.

Something inside though, was telling me that it would be a great adventure, for the good, and the bad.

The studio director, Edgard, was not there when I came to the interview but luckily for me, Swen was in Quebec that week.

I had an interview with the CEO of the company. I was like, seriously?

I saw really fast how great of a person Swen is. That was also the weirdest and funniest interview I had in my life.

50 minutes.

5 minutes of talking about myself.

10 minutes of talking about Drizzt, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance.

35 minutes of talking about Dungeons & Dragons.

That’s it! Then he asked me when I was able to start. Isn’t it awesomesauce?

I left a company of around ~7000 people and a studio of 375 employees for a company of ~90 people and a studio of 13 people. I was looking for a family place. I found the best one around I would say.

This is so great to be able to talk to the CEO of the company every day.

This is also so great to go around the internet and see that 99% of the time people are saying great and constructive things about the company you work for.

This is SO different.

Nothing is perfect but it’s a lot of fresh air for me.

– End notes –

Not so long ago, I was asking myself, have I made the right choice? You’re never 100% sure when you change job. I was an old one at Ubisoft. Now I’m a n00b.

All in all, I’m pretty sure I’ve made the right choice.

If it’s like Ubisoft, I guess I’ll by at Larian for 10 years right?