Asides

Bouldering Made Me a Better Level Designer

Bouldering Made Me a Better Level Designer

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Premise

Six or seven years ago, I went climbing with my (at that time) girlfriend. I hated it so much, to the bottom of my soul. I was out of shape and I was just plain bad. I hate being bad at things.
Fast forward 5 years-ish, after a friend of mine bugged me for probably a whole year, I decided to try it again but do bouldering this time around.
No ropes or whatever.
Just you, some holds and a wall.

I fell in love with it, really. It hurts and it’s really hard but I think I fell in love with it because in a matter of minutes I saw that bouldering (and climbing in general) in a center is really close to Level Design.
The more I went, the more I analysed everything, the more I loved it because of that.

Gameplay Ingredients

You know, in game, game designer usually create gameplay ingredients that level designers will use. Gameplay ingredients is literally everything the player will interact with in a game.
Goombas, Brick Blocks, “?” blocks, pipe, whatever. Different kind of ingredients create different kind of challenges. Using ingredients in different setups creates different kind of challenges.
You can use the same ingredients in “endless possible ways” and create harder or easier challenges.

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In bouldering, you have the same things with holds and obviously, walls. Same thing here, depending on the holds, how they are placed also where they are in relation to each others create different kind of challenges. When you can hold one with your whole hand easily, it’s way easier compared to a really small hold that can be only hold by the tip of 2 fingers.
Depending where the wall is leaning, it also creates really different kind of challenges thanks to gravity.

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Teaching the Player

In climbing a challenge is called a problem. You have to first understand the problem then solve it by the knowledge you have. If you start with a really hard and you have no experience at all you will mostly fail because, first, you may not have the strength to do it but mostly because you have no technique at all.

The gradation of problems are really straight forward and easy to get where you’re at.

Same with games, you don’t (normally) drop the player with an end boss and let him figure out how to beat it. You teach him the basics first and then you keep on bringing harder challenge.
It’s the same thing with bouldering. The easy routes are there to teach you how to climb.

In games, the best level designs are the one where you are not told with arrows and blinking lights where to go. It’s the one that helps you, with subtle details, to understand everything. Nintendo are really good at that.
In bouldering, I would say it’s a mix of Mario Bros and Darksouls.

Some routes will make you move your body in some directions that you’ll have no real way of doing anything else that a specific move. With that, you’ll learn a new technique by yourself.
This is the Nintendo part.

Then, when you climb more, you’ll just face a problem and you’ll just have no freaking clue how to do it with the knowledge you have. So, you’ll just do it over and over. Then you’ll look at people doing it and learn things.
It’s probably like going on youtube and check a playthrough.
You’ll know how to beat that boss but it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it.
This is the Dark Souls part.

Problem Creations

In game, level designers take the gameplay ingredients and create challenge for the player to overcome.

Like written above, using the same ingredient in a different setup will give a totally different challenge. Take like Call of Duty and have the player face an Apache Helicopter by himself with a pistol. That’ll be one really hard challenge.
Now, take the same Apache and put it static in a warehouse and give the player a rocket launcher.
It’s not way easier.

In bouldering you have the same with holds. Take the most classic hold, the Jug.

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This is really easy to grab with the hand, you can hold that for a long time and requires a pretty low amount of strength. Let’s say, compared to like, a pinch one.

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But, even if the jugs are really easy to use it all depends on how it’s used in the creation of the problem.

Take the same jug but flip it 90 degree. Now you have to hold it from the side. Gravity will do what it does best and it’s a little bit harder to hold.
Now, flip it 180 degree. You have to hold it from bellow now.
Same ingredient, way harder.
Then, put it in a overhang wall.
The girl bellow is holding a jug but she’s totally horizontal.
Gravity’s a bitch I tell you!

Image result for bouldering holds overhang

Also, like in game, when you create a challenge for a player you normally want to give the player some objectives, at least, short/mid term.
Reach this door at the other side of the room or the big tower at the end of the battlefield. Just placing the player in an level without clear objectives would create some frustration.

It’s the same with climbing. I say climbing here because, with rope climbing, the problems are way way longer. If you even go rock climbing you may not see the end of the problem apart from “get over that rock”. Still, you can plan your short/mid term objective then after that you’ll go back to a “planing” phase.
Normally in bouldering, you see the start, the way up and the end. Then you plan how to solve the problem to the best of your knowledge.

Planning is Half of the Fun

Let’s take this beautiful Uncharted grey boxes level. (Damn I love those)

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You can see where you need to go, the challenge on the way and the short term objective. There, the goal of the level is way more than going to the other side of this area but you have a short-mid term objective.
Short, kill the bad dudes on the way
Mid, get to that waterfall.

Now, take this blue problem. I see a mix of jug, pinch and slopers holds. It’s also using two walls and the one where the most of the holds are seems to lean forward at the end (or maybe it’s just the angle of the pic) so it may be easier that if it was just straight.

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You basically have the same thing. You have the start, your way to the end and where the end is at. Looking at it, you have to overcome the challenge.
The objective is clear but, what you plan to do may not works perfectly.
Maybe you were planing of using your right hand to get to a specific spot but then realize it’s not possible anymore because the holds are too far away.
Then you have two choice. Jump down or adapt.

Like in games, when the challenge doesn’t go as planned you don’t reset the game and restart (normally). You adapt to the best of your knowledge and try to overcome it. It’s the same here.
You may fail and then you’ll try again because you’ve learned something and you’ll know what’s coming.

Exotic Gameplay?

You know, another thing that is cool when you make games is to surprise the player with something that we call “exotic” something special that is pretty unique.

When I worked on AC Brotherhood, we had to make the Leonardo war machines. It was really cool to make. Just unique things to create a boost of new gameplay for a short amount of time.

Heh, why not doing that with bouldering too? Why not going nuts and having a problem where you have to be two person to climb?

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Conclusion

So yeah, the more I climbed the more I understood proper gameplay progression and challenge creation. It’s really good to see how these people, the one creating the problems are literally doing level design. Using the walls, the holds and especially the gravity to create them. Problems are like any video game challenges, they create them with a “golden path” in mind but people may overcome them with different techniques or even pure strength.

When we create levels in games, we have a basic idea of where the player will potentially go and do to overcome the challenge. This is the same in bouldering.

In the end, like I say to my newbies friends. Whatever works works!


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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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Jeff in Sweden – Part 3

Jeff in Sweden – Part 3

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So I’ve been in Sweden for six and a half weeks now and I wanted to share what it’s like to live here, for now! For example, I still haven’t went to the full loop of looking for an apartment by myself . Which I know, it’s one crazy thing that gives headache.

But anyway, he are some “bullet points” in random order.

It’s Expensive

So if Sweden would be a sword in Dungeon & Dragon it would probably be called something like Sword of Expensiveness and Stockholm would be Sword of Expensiveness +1. I know it’s not as expensive as L.A. or like Norway but for me, coming from small Quebec City, it’s worlds apart. Having a burger and fries for $31 and a beer for $13, for me, it’s crazy!

Lagom is Great

Lagom is a swedish word basically meaning “just the right amount”. It’s a way of living mentality. Living the lagom way. Obviously, like everything, it comes from the Vikings. How it translates in the day to day is that Swedes are a really helping community. It’s all about teamwork. For example, let’s say you have a cake and there are 10 people, the lagom way would be to cut the cake in 10. Same thing if there was 100 people. It’s all about team and equality. It’s really hard to describe but I felt the team and equality after like two days.

Fika is Also Great

Fika is probably the most sacred thing in Sweden. It’s basically a “mandatory” coffee break but since Swedes really REALLY like to drink coffee it has to be a thing. This is also interesting because, Swedes don’t like to small talk. Nobody talks to nobody for random reasons, it’s probably a reason why non-Swedes find them so “cold” but they are not really. Anyway, going back to Fika, it’s interesting because THIS is when the Swedes small talk. Fika is all about drinking coffee and talking about whatever. A proper Fika coffee is usually also accompanied with a Kanelbullar (a cinnamon bun).

Swedes Crazy Driving

This is something I saw on my first day here and I still see that a lot every time I go for a walk around town. It looks like, for me, that they usually drive pretty well all around except for one thing.
They U-turn literally everywhere and especially on intersection. I don’t know if it’s legal or not but it doesn’t matter they just go for it.

Stockholm is Beautiful

From Gamla Stan (Old City) to all the island archipelagos here. There is a crazy amount of stuff to see. With all the museums and the old buildings, the statues everywhere, all the parks, the new eco-friendly neighborhoods, the marinas, etc. Seriously, it may be expensive but that’s one hell of a beautiful city.

It’s Over 9000 Restaurants

Well, not 9000 and it’s probably a normal thing in big cities but where I’m from, around the office where I used to work for like 12 years, in a month you could probably get a taste of all restaurants. Here, I don’t think I’ll even be able to test them all. There are just way too many. Also, compared to Quebec, there are foods from everywhere here at walking distance. Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, French, name it!

It’s Public Transport Heaven

There are literally all kind of transportation here, trains, subways, buses, trams and even boats. You can travel a really big distance really quickly here and it’s pretty cheap. Also, the cool thing is that the SL card works will all of the above. No need to think about what to use where. They all work with the same card. The distance I had to cover in a bus that took me one and a half hour in Quebec is taking me 10 minutes here. Except if you want to go far from the city, you don’t need a car at all.

The Personnummer

In Canada we have the SIN (social insurance number). It’s useless. Seriously, it’s a 9 digit number that you pretty much never use and nobody except the government uses it. In Sweden they have the Personnummer, it’s the same thing, a X digit number on a card BUT it’s used everywhere. If you go get a cellphone contract for example, you don’t give your personal data or whatever, you give them your Personnummer. Your address and whatever is related to it. Same thing for your bank account and whatever else. The “downside” (for me it’s not, really) is that all your info are available. Where you live, your phone number, where you work, etc.

Phone Contracts & Internet

This is the things that are cheap here. I was paying $85 a month for a 2GB data in Canada. Here, you can have a 40GB data in ALL of Europe for $35. Same thing with Internet and it goes freaking fast. They had to have something cheaper right?

They Bike a LOT

It’s less apparent than when I was in Malmö but still, Swedes bike a lot. There are bike lanes on pretty much every single street so it’s really easy to bike around the city, sure, again, compared to Malmö there are slopes (Malmö is so flat you don’t even have to change gear) but it’s still really bike friendly.

They Don’t Use Money

Don’t ask a Swede if he can lend you money, it won’t happen. I just saw an article talking about it on the web. Sweden is the fastest country heading for a digital currency only. There are a lot of shops/restaurants/bar that don’t even accept cash anymore. Everything is paid with cards. It goes so much quicker. Even when I was in Quebec I was never carrying cash and I was sometimes missing on street stuff but here, you really don’t have too anyway. Even for street stuff because of:

Swish

Swish is a mobile payment service and it’s the greatest invention ever concerning money. You link your bank account with a app on your cellphone then you can transfer money to however with a simple digits code. No need to use a card reading machine if you have a food truck, simply ask people to Swish you the money.

 

So, I think that’s it for now! I probably forgot stuff but on the other hand I’ve been in Sweden for only a month. More to come for sure.


Leave a comment if you have any opinions on this or whatever!
Don’t hesitate to click on the little blue follow button on the top right of this page.
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Jeff in Sweden – Part 2

Jeff in Sweden – Part 2

Two Weeks at DICE

Even though I worked only 3 days because of the long DICE Easter holiday I’ve done 2 weeks at DICE already. Days are passing so fast it’s crazy.

I’ve heard a few times, before leaving to Sweden, that I was going to work for the worst video game company. Like everything in the industry, the outside is pretty much always different than the inside. For now, I’m really trying to keep my feet on the ground while having part of my head in the cloud.
It’s been only two weeks but the last time I had that much joy going to work in the morning was a long time ago.
I got more support in my first 3 days than what I had in probably the last 5 years.
I already got 2 evening parties and got wasted on the 2nd.
Free breakfast on Friday morning and smoothies for map reviews on the afternoon.
Employee threatment is seriously amazing. And it took me 1 day to get used to this labyrinthic office.

There was a team meeting on Wednesday last week and I felt like I was thrown back in 2006 at Ubisoft when we were all pretty young and motivated about our work. Something that was lost through the years sadly. The meeting lasted an hour I think? Something like that and I felt the passion through people around me. It felt great to see all these managers/producers talking about the game without being really serious and making a lot of jokes about their full-of-memes presentations.

An interesting thing I’ve learn that day was something called Focus Mode. It’s some sort of crunch time without really crunching.
Obviously crunching is a big thing in the industry, sadly, we all know that. But, with some sort of studies and numbers, they discovered that working 2-3 intense weeks instead of crunching for 80 hours a week during 4 months, it was better for everyone.
It’s a pretty simple formula of, everyone start and end their day at the same time without overtime, there’s no meeting at all during those weeks except for playtests and breakfast and lunch are paid.
This sounds pretty great if you ask me.

Gamla Stan

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Gamla Stan is the Old Stockholm. Where it all started. It’s a tiny island in the middle of all this awesome archipelago. Building there are freaking old. This is also where the Royal Palace is located. I went there after my onsite interview in January with my friend Julien (Battlefield Brand Director) but it was during evening, which was pretty dark. So I decided to get back to it at sunlight during my first weekend.

Took a walk around the neighborhood and took a lot of pictures. There, I discovered a thing. On the same street at like, 100m apart from each other, there is Aifur, the awesome Viking restaurant where everything is historical, there is Handfaste, the Viking shop selling all these crazy awesome viking stuff from hunting knives to runic stones and then there’s the SF Bookstore with is a really big geek shop filled with books and boardgames and such.
I guess I’ll spend a lot of time on this specific street in the next few months.

I was seriously fun to walk around the old part of this old city. The narrow streets and the architecture makes it really special for the Quebecer in me. I felt like home in Le Petit Champlain in old Quebec.

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And I Walked More

Yeah, today I went to see the Vesamuseet, where they kept this old 1628 ship in prestine condition. It’s really one of a kind. The museum is at like 1 hour walk from my place so back & forth and the time spent in the museum was pretty much 3 hours of standing and walking. My left foot hurts a bit, sadly but it was worth it.

I really love the European plaza and especially the Swedish parks everywhere. There is so much green around it I can’t wait for the summer. It’ll be breath taking I’m sure about it.

I finished the day going to the cinema. It was pretty interesting to see that they don’t spend time translating movies. They just add subtitles. Which is pretty neat. I don’t have to search for english movies (which is sadly a challenge in Quebec City).

Good times so far!

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Leave a comment if you have any opinions on this or whatever!
Don’t hesitate to click on the little blue follow button on the top right of this page.
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Jeff in Sweden – Part 1

Jeff in Sweden – Part 1
BingoLotto, Drinking Soup, First Day at DICE, Jetlag, etc

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Since they lost my suitcase (again), I went for a little walk including shopping to buy clothes on Sunday. Didn’t wanted to go to my first day of work with dirty clothes y’know.

I walked around Södermalm, the neighborhood I’m currently living in. Pretty sweet place I must say.

Residential roads are super duper quiet, I love that.
There are awesome looking restaurant all around the place. It’ll probably take me a year to go check all of them.
Also pretty interesting for me, compared to when I was living in Malmö, when I was working on The Division, there are way more slopes in Stockholm. This adds a lot of awesome view points around its countless islands.

When I came back from the sunny walk I decided to open the TV. Things I’ve probably done 5 times in my adult life.
I never watch TV.

First thing I see is a show called BingoLotto.

YO, Swedes are not messing around with Bingo! WOW.

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Super well dressed people.
A crowd in the back to see the show,
Lots of prizes (it made me think of The Price is Right),
Guest stars,
A band playing songs and ambient music for all the people there when they mark their Bingo sheets as the numbers flow using Swedes names. Bertil, Ivar, Niklas, Gustav, Olaf.

Amazing. Really. It was so relaxing I checked the whole freaking show without any shame!

Then I went to bed early.

Woke up at 230am again. Great.
Took me 4 hours to sleep again then, quickly my alarm rang. It was time for my first day at DICE.

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Morning routine then a sweet 8 minutes walks to the office under a cold sunny/windy day. Thanks to the Nordic Relocation Group, my appartment is super close to work.

Got a tour of the office from my line manager (the office is a real labyrinth), got the access keycard and got information about this awesome next Battlefield game.

When for lunch with my leads.
As an entré I got a soup with no spoon. Then, seeing the guys with me I remembered that Swedes drink their soup. I forgot about that. It’s a small detail yes, but hey, it’s unusual for me ok!

Read a lot of documentation about Level Design philosophie at DICE, and even touched Frostbite a bite before leaving because I would have fell asleep on my desk, thanks to my awesome jetlag.
From now on, I’ll never be able to work without 3 screens. Dawn you DICE and your awesome desks. Standup desks by the way.

On, and they have a few trophies at the reception. Not bad at all.

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I’m still not getting over the fact that I’m living in Sweden.

First day DONE.
GG


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Jeff in Sweden – Part 0

Jeff in Sweden – Part 0

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So I moved to Sweden.

Pretty crazy isn’t it?

Spent 32 years of my like living in cold Quebec then I decided to move to cold Sweden. Even though it’s not really cold here. At least not in Stockholm.

I worked at Massive, in Malmö 5 years ago and since I came back, there’s a part of me that always wanted to go back to Sweden. I fell in love with the country. I didn’t knew when or how I would be back but I knew I would, at some point, go back.

I was not really thinking about working there though. But here I am. Moved to Sweden and starting to work for EA DICE tomorrow.

But this is PART 0 of I don’t know many parts. I’ll write about this crazy adventure as I see fit.
Before moving, I had to say farewell to a lot of people and good bye to close ones.

So I threw a party. One hell of an evening at my favorite medieval restaurant in Quebec, La Chope Gobeline. Lots of people came. People always told me that others like me. But you never know. I threw a party without really knowing who would come. I even invited some people I haven’t seen for years.
The vast majority of them came.

People I love.

Here you can see a part of the people who came.
Long time friends, coworker and ex-coworker from the video game industry.

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It was really awesome to be surrounded by so many people I care about and care about me.

Lots of emotion, amplified by booze, was in the air. Saying farewell to so many people was not easy.

Then, a few days later I got my visa so everything was set.

I was in this process since October.
Phone interviews.
On site interviews.
Dozens and dozens of emails.

It took five months of intense stress for me to get here in Sweden but thanks to EA DICE. Many people helped me.
When you think about it, it costs thousands and thousands of dollars for a company to bring someone over.

They paid for my visa.
They paid for my on site interview.
They paid for my move.
They are paying for my 2 months temporary gorgeous appartment.
They are paying people to help me with every details.

Adding to that is the crazy good conditions DICE is giving me as an employee too!

So here I am, in the beautiful capital of Sweden surrounded by this old and new Swedish architecture and dozens of islands covered in a bit of snow as I write this.

What’s next?
My first day at DICE.
I’m looking forward to this.

After that, we’ll see!


Leave a comment if you have any opinions on this or whatever!
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Flow

Flow

waterflow

– Premise –

Once again, every time I write a new blog it feels like there’s 3 life time that has past since the last one. I guess that you have to be in the mood to do that.

Anyway,

Look at the image above. Isn’t it great? Perfectly looping gif of a river flowing. Would be even better with sound. Right? So relaxing.

For some times now I wanted to write about something that is really important to me, probably the 2nd most important thing when I design stuff. The first one being consistency in video games. I’ll probably write about it at some point. Maybe.

You probably have guessed it with the title, I wanted to write about Flow.

Flow is SO important in video games and in life in general. We all have our moments when we are in the flow. You know, when time flies so fast because you’re having fun or when a day at work feels like it lasted 30 minutes. We all know what it is and damn it’s great.

It’s the same thing in video games.

So, let’s talk about it.

– Flow in Games-

– Guitar Hero –

guitarflow

I will assume that, we ALL have played guitar hero when it was like THE thing to do in every party. I wanted to kick that blog with this game because being in the flow in that game was so good and rewarding. When you were doing that expert white notes solo during Freebird looking at the notes combo going up, tilting that guitar to activate the star power and still going up and up.

You were in the flow.

Games can be created in order to help keeping the flow, and even more, rewarding players when they keep it. That’s how pretty much everything was designed in Guitar Hero.

– Mario Bros –

marioflow

Mario games in general are pretty good for this. I will boldly say that ­~99% of the time you can start a level running and if your timing in good enough you’ll be able to get to the end without stopping even once. The exception being auto-scrolling levels and such.

Sometimes (often) even, they place goombas, koopas and other enemies in such a way that you can jump on all of them in consequences to gain a 1up.

Rewarding the player when they are in the flow.

– Rayman Legends –

rayman

The new Rayman games are pretty good for that. The way they place the enemies and the collectibles. It’s a really well done Level Design job for that. I’ll write about Level Design and flow in a few minutes. Platformers in general are really good for flow.

They also even make the music flow to your play. Which is also a nice reward for players.

– Flow (the game) –

Flow_logo

Last example is Flow. I had to write about the game with the same name right? I could have also wrote about Flowers and other great “experiences” games like that but that’s not the goal of this blog post. I want to get to Level Design at some point.

In flow, you started as a small entity, eating smaller entities to get bigger to eat bigger entities and so on. It was the perfect example of flow because you had your reward straight in your face, getting bigger and bigger.

So I guess you get the point now. I’ll write about a few of my own experience with Flow in Level Design and how I was (we were) handling it.

– Flow in Level Design –

– Assassin’s Creed Navigation –

I’ll start with that, since, well, I worked on 6 or 7 of them, I don’t remember. Navigation in Assassin’s Creed is all about flow.

That’s a 1 button press game. Navigation in AC is not about challenging the player, it’s about letting the player go for A to B easily and to let him be in short burst of flow during that. Enjoying the smoothness of it.

There are a ton (and when I say a ton it’s a ton) of different metrics in AC games. Obviously, when you press the right trigger to run and the character starts running and jumping on pole and flags by itself, yes, the animations and all is handled by the engine, but each ingredients had to be placed by hand by a Level Designer (almost) to ensure a smooth navigation from A to B.

At least, for navigation, metrics and rules were pretty straight forward.
Every navigation sequences in AC begin with, what we called, a starter. Then after that, if we wanted to keep the flow it was a simple set of metrics.
To keep the character on his feet and running we could either put the next ingredient 5 meters ahead at the same height (5-0), 4 meters ahead and 1 meter higher (4-1) or 3 meters ahead and 2 meters higher (3-2). Nothing less, nothing more.
Like this:

ACnav.png

Ingredients could be whatever from a pole, to a tree branch to an awning and such. The only important thing was to place ingredients at the write spot.
We could also had an ingredient at (if I recall correctly) 4 meters higher and 3-4 meters farther to make the character grab the ingredient and keep going. It was good to change the pace. Instead of having a jump, jump, jump, jump sequence we could had jump, grad, jump grab, and so on.
Nobody likes seeing the same thing over and over.

The important thing was (and I talked about it at the beginning) to be consistent. It helps keep the flow on something like navigation in AC. Always respect your metrics.

– Divinity: Original Sin –

Divinity: Original Sin (or DoS), in a top down isometric CRPG.
It’s really slow paced.
There was still a strong importance of Flow in Level Design even in that game and what I’m about to write can be applied to every single Level Design.

Rule #1: We hate dead ends*.
Rule #2: We hate corridors.

Yeah, that’s it.
Seriously.

In DoS, you walk a lot, you can fast travel from location to location but most of the time you walk/run. How annoying is it in a game when you get at the end of a freaking long dead end and the only thing you can do is walk back?
That’s annoying, damn that’s annoying.

*(Small dead ends leading to collectibles/reward/secret is strongly suggested though)

DoS navigation was all about loops.
Bellow is the map of the first act (may contain spoilers and whatnot). You can easily see the loops there.

(There are few dead ends, long ones, I know. I hate them, you can’t oversee everything. At least they lead to combat zones and big rewards. You have to ship a game at some point right?)

FortJoyMap

Having loops helped for two things:
The flow,
The sense of open exploration.

Obviously, in a open map like this, you’ll have to get back at some point but with loops, it happened a lot that people where going one way and coming back by another so even though they were backtracking, they were still, in their mind, moving forward because it was still unexplored area.
Then, when the loops lead to some sort of dead ends, well, that’s where you put a fast travel ingredient/location to go back quickly. MAGIC!

So the important thing here is to always keep the player engaged. When there is always something new, it keeps him in the flow of exploration. They are both (flow/exploration) linked with each other.

– Ending Notes –

Flow is a really important thing, as said above. We all love that.

Can we keep the player in the flow 100% of the time? No.
They will either get stuck in a challenge, die, or anything like that.

Everything is good with moderation.

Remember that Prince of Persia made in 2008? The cell shading one? You were not able to die in this game. Elika (I think that was her name) was always getting you out of trouble. You know, it was really good for the flow. You were always engaged. It was also super exhausting and even boring to some extend.

BUT,

Players should never get stuck exploring/navigating. If a player is stuck, it’s out fault, seriously. And if they get stuck, it breaks the flow hard but not for the good reason.

Keep your players engaged during exploration in your levels.
Create as few dead ends as possible and if you do, make them small and put rewards. It’ll keep the player engaged during exploration (see above, heh).
If you have metrics for your game, respect them, always. Creating false calls for your players will create frustration and break the flow.

Alright, that’s enough text. I think I’ll talk about Shapes next.
EDIT: I could have wrote a whole book about this. Live everything in fact but the goal was to how a thing or two about Flow. Not to write a thesis or anything.


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Radial Level Design

Radial Level Design

1

– 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.

Untitled

– 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.

Untitled

– 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.

Untitled2.png

– 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.

Untitled3

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.

Untitlasded-1

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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PAX SOUTH

paxsouth

PAX SOUTH

– Premise –

Last year I went to PAX East. It was one hell of an experience and this time I was also able to go to PAX South in San Antonio.

It was probably as exhausting than last time but in some way, smoother. PAX South is pretty new so it’s really smaller than East and Prime/West.

Let’s write about this.

– Same but not the same –

I thought I would live the same thing again when I accepted to go to PAX South but luckily enough for me, it was pretty different.

Yes, the booth was the same but a bit better.

The computers were a hassle to plug and making sure everything was working was also pretty annoying every morning because, thanks to computer science, there’s always something that breaks. One day it was an HDMI cable, the other was a USB port, the other day the Ethernet, etc…

This time, since Early Access of the game came out in September, we were showing the campaign instead of the arena mode. I went really smoothly. People were enjoying the character creation and then the main campaign. They had 20 minutes and I’m pretty sure that the appreciation was like 99.9% positive.

Obviously, if you wait one hour to play a game, you’re there because you want to play that game.

I was still pretty surprised by the amount of player who never played the game nor the first one.

Anyway, everybody had a blast.

me
(Mathiew and me with my poker face)

– Shout out to the volunteers –

This time, there was no Lady Killer (even if Sarah and Kelsey were there <3). Instead, we had five volunteers with us.

Needless to say, they were all amazingly good.

James, Lori, Kyle, Mathew and Shawn. Five people from Texas. Five complete fan of the game. I think if I add all the time they played just the early access I probably bust 600 hours easily.

It was awesome to work with them. They helped us A LOT.

– I played the Switch –

YES.

Yes, I’ve played the Switch. When I saw that Nintendo was two booths away from our I was really excited. The first day, Thomas (the video guy) and me waited for 45 minutes before the convention started and we barely made it to play 10-15 minutes of Breath of the Wild.

It felt really good.

The controller, the graphics, the switch itself.

Yeah, day one buy for me!

– Still no time for anything –

Yeah, like last time, everybody start to work at the same time and end at the same time. So I didn’t had the chance to try anything except the Switch because they were open earlier for the press.

There was still a huge part dedicated to board games and table top games which I totally missed. I saw a lot of really interesting games and all but, obviously, had no time to play.

This is seriously some kind of torture. All the great stuff but you can just look when you take a 10 minutes break to walk around.

– Ending notes –

Like last time, it was an exhaustingly amazing experience. I wanted to go to another convention last time and I still want to go to another. Next one is PAX East in one month in Boston. Crossing my fingers so I can go there.

I also really want to go to PAX Prime/West.

There is still a lot of work to do with the game but we’re getting there.

us
Our amazing team: Kyle, Lori, James, Mathiew, Shawn, Sarah, me, Swen, Thomas, Michael, Kieron, Kiril