Tag: Video games

A Normal Day as a Level Designer

A Normal Day as a Level Designer

Related image

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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Passion, that state of mind

Passion, that state of mind

– Passion –

It has been a long time since my last blog post. I must say that I didn’t had anything interesting enough to write about. For this one post, I’ll change the format I usually do with the premise and all and I’ll just write stuff. It may be a bit chaotic.

My friend Robin was telling me that he got hooked by my blog and started his own. I must say that it’s pretty nice and I’m glad someone started to write about stuff “because of me”. He also told me that he was waiting for my next post! But still, I had nothing worth a text. Then we talked a bit about random stuff and one thing came out of this, we were talking about the great time we had when we worked on Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands and how passionate we were.

So why not writing about this?

Passion.

But, Passion, related to, obviously, video games. Even more, related to working in the industry.

During the last ten years, I worked on a lot of different projects. I also worked on personal projects “on the side” (they never saw the light of days though). Some of them were awesome and some of them were boring as shit.

One thing that was obvious on all the projects I worked on was, when I was passionate about them, I was working 200%. On the opposite, when I was not, my work was not that good. I’m this kind of person. When I’m passionate about something I’ll work/spend time so much and so hard without even thinking about it. Sadly, when I’m not, I’ll need to kick myself just to do the bare minimum. That sucks, seriously. I know people who can motivate themselves even when they hate what they are doing. Sadly, I just can’t.

I remember back on PoP. Some of my colleagues and myself spent a lot of time, overtime in fact, working on bonus maps. Stuff that was not planed in the game. Maps that were not even part of the story. We were doing that because we were passionate so much about the game and we wanted that game to be the best PoP ever. I even worked, at some point, 14 days straights on that project and I was not forced too. I just wanted to do it. Just for the sake of doing bonus stuff. This is what passion can do to someone. Maybe it’s because I was younger. Who knows?

Obviously, companies, in my honest opinion, should try to focus on stuff related to what drive their employees. Is it easy to do? Hell no. I know it. Especially when you work on a AAA studio. Projects come from head management and you work on that. It’s also pretty rare that you can choose to work on something. More than often managers put you on a project and that’s it.

I had the chance to choose in the past and I must say that I had the opportunity to work on projects that were awesome. Like Might & Magic : Duel of Champions. Another project where we were able to see what a passionate team can do. The whole team was playing the game every day, people were tweaking their decks and all. Everyone on that project was playing every time. That was really awesome to see and the energy people had on the project was contagious.

Sadly, I worked on less projects I was passionate about than the opposite. As a gamer, it helps when you work on projects that you would play. For me, that was not really the case at Ubisoft. I’m proud of every single project I worked on but as a gamer, Ubisoft games are not the kind of games that I like.

So coming back on the point I was talking about earlier, it would be more of a dream to “ask” companies to create games related to the likings of their employees. I guess a few can do it, like Valve for example. I’ve heard that people work on what they like and want. But well, that’s probably why they release one game every 1000 years. But that’s another story.

So I guess the “solution” for me was to find the companies who make the games I liked and work for them. I’m now at Larian. They make RPGs. That’s a style of game that I like a lot. It’s not my perfect type of game as a gamer, I’m an RTS guy. But still, as a gamer, I play RPGs, so that’s pretty awesome!

Maybe the most obvious but also hardest solution for someone who seek passion work would be to start his own company. That’s a bold move though and also pretty risky.

On the other hand, even when you work in the “perfect” environment, sometimes, you have your days/weeks of “meh”. This damn thing when you need to kick yourself to go to work even if everything is awesome. I have this kind of “problem” every few months and I must say that it’s pretty hard for me to get back on track. I don’t know why because, this mood arrives and leaves as fast. One day it’s going “meh” and then the other day it’s going well.

Being passionate about your work is a weird state of mind isn’t it? But one thing for sure is, when you’re “in the flow”. Get the shit done!

Entry “Cost” of the Video Game Industry

– My tips to Video Game Industry –

– Premise –

The video game industry is one of the most lucrative industry in the world (55.05 Billions US dollars in 2015). It’s no wonder why people want to join this new industry. It seems there is a lot of money to make. Well, it’s partially true but still. The fact is, compared to ten or even fifteen years ago, there are so many more people who want to enter and there are a few places available.

You have two options. Either you apply to a job at any company in the world or you start your own. Here, I will cover the first option.

My goal here is to give my five personal tips to people who wants to join the industry so you can be a little bit more prepared. Some of them will probably sound obvious and/or stupid but what I’m writing here is still what I think will give you a better chance to step inside. I can assure you that I’ve done a lot of interviews with people applying to a job in my career and saw even more port-folios. It was not always great.

Here we go.

(Now with a TL;DR at the end!)

– TIP 1 – Be the Best –

Yeah, I start with that. Why the f**k you may ask? Well…

There are thousands of people, in all of the video game job departments, who come from school and want a job. There are not thousands of job opening. Simple formula, demand versus offer. There are some jobs that are probably easier to get into. Let’s say programmer. Not that it’s easy to be a programmer, far from that. It’s more that we need tons of them. It’s still goes back to that first point, there are a big amount of programmers every years who come from school too because people know that we need a lot of them.

So, you need to be the best or, close to it.

I’m not saying that you need to be the best in the world but, from all the people out there you need to make an impression for sure. Aim high, you’ll get great results.

Here in Quebec, you can get a diploma in Game Design. There are around 100 people every year who come from that particular discipline in Quebec City. How many inexperienced Game Designer do you think the companies here hire? My guess is probably one or two. Most probably one in fact.

You need to be the best.

– TIP 2 – Work your a** off –

When you are done from school you normally have a port-folio. Especially if you are an artist of any sort. Programming port-folio is a different story I guess so is game design.

Most of the time, what you have done is school is the bare minimum of what you want to show to anyone in the industry to try to get a job. Sometimes it’s even bellow that.

There are a few people who can get a job straight after the school with only what they have done there. What they show really need to kick a** though.

You need to keep working on your stuff when you are done with school. It’s so important to be able to show something else because like I’ve said with TIP 1, there are thousands of people who come out from school at the same time and probably a few hundred in the city that you live. This means that the people who were in the same class as you will show exactly the same thing as you and vice versa. The same gun, the same low poly character and the same scene with some lighting.

You really need to have more than that to show.

Also, most of the time now, the first job you will probably get will be a contract of a couple of months. There is, sadly, a big chance that the employee will lay you off after. A lot of companies hire people for the incoming crunch and then they lay them off after because they don’t have any job for them when the project is done. I know a lot of people who has experience that.

You need to keep your port-folio up to date at all time because of this.

At least, if that happens, you’ll probably have something to show from the game you worked on.

So, never stop working on your stuff.

– TIP 3 – Create Stuff that Matters –

This is really simple but it seems that it’s not always that obvious. If you want to work for a company you need to show stuff that matters to them.

If your dream job is to work on a 3rd person shooter for company X, create stuff that will be related to a 3rd person shooter that company X has done or is doing. Same thing if you want to work on that RTS franchise of company Y. Create RTS stuff!

It’s that simple. You need to change what you are doing in order to have more chances to step into company X or Y door.

I’ve seen a lot of port-folio with totally unrelated stuff that we were doing at the company I was working for.

Also, create and show stuff that is related to the job position that you dream of.

If you apply to be a Level Artist. Show scenes that you have done. If you want to be a modeler, show assets that you have created.

The person who will watch your port-folio has a small chance to be interested with stuff that is not related to what he/she is looking for.

That gun belongs to the modeler.

– TIP 4 – Be ready to move –

The cool thing is that there are a ton of game companies in the world.

The sad thing is that they seems to be all located in the same spots.

Obviously, where there is already a pool of people, companies what to go there to exploit that pool of talent. Sometimes, companies will also open a studio in a country where the cost of workers is pretty cheap but I’ve no idea if you want to work there. Maybe? Anyway.

Still, if you want to have better chances to get into the industry, be prepare to move. There is probably a small chance that the city you live in, if it’s not a pole like Los Angeles or Montréal, will have tons of video game companies.

If you are inexperience there is small chances that you will be brought by a company on the other side of the world. It can happen though! But it’s pretty rare. At least, you can probably move in the country that you live in. I’m pretty sure all the developed country in the world have a few video game companies.

Don’t be afraid to leave the cozy city you always lived.

Keep the faith and apply everywhere.

– TIP 5 – Be a Professional –

Even if in fact, you are not one still, you need to behave like one.

A professional will show polished stuff. He will show an awesome looking port-folio. He won’t do any mistakes when he write stuff. (I’m pretty sure there are some mistakes here, haha, anyway.) And so on…

If you send a motivation letter to a recruiter with mistakes for example, you’re done.

It’s over.

They haven’t even saw your port-folio! Maybe that was the best one but they will never know. They receive hundred of resume every day, they don’t have time to waste.

We see a lot of crazy stuff you know. At least you are sending an email, it’s not like you would spilled coffee on your motivation letter.

Even if all the point here are 100% important, I could concede that having an awesome port-folio is more important than this. But still, remember that if you show errors, mistakes, unfinished work, buggy levels, you’re done.

Everyone makes errors, yes but…

…A job application needs to be perfect.

– End notes –

I know, it all looks pretty dark right? It’s not that it’s all dark though. The important thing to remember is that there are so many people applying for jobs in the industry that you really need to make an impression.

If you have the will power and the talent, I’m sure that you can get a job somewhere!

TL;DR. There are thousands of people applying for jobs every years so you really need to be in the top to be able to get one. If the stuff that you show is just “meh” you won’t get a job 99.9% of the time. Work hard play hard. Be a professional and show awesome stuff. Everything will go well.

My All Time Favorite

Chrono Trigger 20th anniversary

– Premise –

As my 1st blog post and since I will be mostly writing about gaming here, I will take a few time and put words about my personal greatest game of all time: Chrono Trigger. The game that changed me, as a gamer, forever.

Why? Because thy year, 2015 was, like the title says, the 20th anniversary of this masterpiece.

I remember back in the days, I was going, every Friday at a video game rental store to rent one game for the weekend. Some day, I stumble across this awesome box:

I was like, wow, this is seriously bad ass. I need to play this game.
So I rented that game and went home.
I was probably 10 or 11 at that time. My native tongue is French and English was pretty much nothing except Yes and No at that time.
Imagine playing a RPG without being able to read English.
I DIDN’T CARED, that game was so beautiful and fun.

I was renting this game every weekend and I was always stuck at the same place, every time, every week end.
This mother fucker.

I was way too n00b to understand that I had to kill the Bits before attacking the eye in the middle.

Anyway.

WARNING : SPOILER AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED THIS MASTER PIECE OF A GAME.

– Gameplay –

There were a lot of “breakthrough” mechanics in this game at that time. Chrono Trigger brought really new things to the genre that were really awesome.

– Combat –

The combat mechanic was probably the easiest to see at first.
It was still turn by turn like any JRPG, but monsters were moving so you could time some “Tech” to hit more than one enemy. You were not able to move your characters but waiting for enemies to be at specific spot was pretty nice and new.
They also included dual and triple tech. You could choose to do super duper awesomely looking magical attacks with 2 or even 3 characters in your party.

– Time Travel –

In some JRPG, you had a huge part of the game on a world then something was happening and then the world was changing and you were playing on another world, like FF6.
But in Chrono Trigger you were time travelling in different eras. You had 7 time periods to visit (1 was much only the ending boss).
But the most awesome thing was that some actions you were doing in the past were affecting the future. Like opening a chest in the past would put that chest open in the future.

– New Game+ –

THIS, was new. That was the first time people saw that feature.
You just fought your way against this awesome game and then you discovered, after the credits, that you could restart the whole game with the character you had. How about some awesome speed running! This was opening a whole new level of awesomeness related to the endings of the game that I’ll talk later. Also being able to almost one shot bosses at the beginning.

– Characters –

Another thing that was really nice with this game was the Characters. All party member were awesome by themselves and had a really huge back story. Except probably Crono. He didn’t really have any back story…

You had a sword master frog, a completely bad ass prehistoric women, a cute inventor, a big ass robot and so on.

– Story –

The story was so great too. I liked it a lot more that any other game because it was related, at some point, as humankind history. That huge meteor falling from the sky killing all the dinosaurs and then creating a long ice age and a pretty dark future where humans where fighting just to stay alive against robots.
(Ok, we’re not fighting against robot for now.)

It started as a super peaceful game, you played a random guy going to a festival near your home and encountered a cute girl named Marle (Nadia!). Then you went to see your old friend Lucca and her new invention and BOOM, the tone is set. Marle is teleported somewhere. You went after her and you discovered that you were 400 years in the past.
I won’t resume all the story here, I’m pretty sure if you are reading this, it’s because you have played the game.
But yeah, the story was so great and involving.

– Endings –

There were 12 endings in Chrono Trigger. (They even added more in the PS1 and DS versions). With new game+ you were able to go fight the ending boss at different point in the game. (You encounter him quite a lot in fact). Depending on the point in the game you could had a different ending.
There was even one that you killed him before the ice age so all humans where reptile instead! That was a funny one.

– And so on –

You know, I could write during hours about this game. I still beat this game every few months. I’ve done so every years since 1995 I think. I can’t get enough even if I know this game by heart, even if I went through it countless times.

That’s why I wanted to write about this master piece to celebrate it’s 20th anniversary.

For the love of all video game history, if you haven’t played this game, you should. I really encourage you to do so. If you have played this game in the past, you should replay it and see, why, even today, it’s still considered one of the greatest video game of all time.

On an ending note, I’ll say that, again, I REALLY like this game.

My Chrono Trigger stuffs
My Chrono Trigger stuffs