Penultimate Level Design

{March 30, 2009}   GDC Envy: “Iterative Level Design Process of Bioware’s Mass Effect 2”

So, every year I wish I’d gone to GDC, and every year it turns out I’m not there for various reasons.  This year I’m particularly sad as it seems that level design is getting a bit more attention these days (and the indie stuff sounds wonderfully exciting).

Interestingly, Bioware decided to show off a little of their iterative level design system that they’re using for Mass Effect 2.  With their newfound focus on more-shooty-less-talky the level design for their game has become even more important.

Looking at the video above, you can see that there are 5 playable iteration stages that a level appears to go through:

  1. Narrative Playable – Looks like Unreal BSP, the old level designer standby – I’d know that texture anywhere.
  2. White Box – First pass imported geometry, I’d guess.  No textures, plain firstpass lighting, placeholder cover.
  3. Orange Box – Cover hints added to the geometry, some lighting, limited scripting.  Better idea of the combat.
  4. Hardening – Textures and scripting.  The AI is behaving far better.
  5. ?  – Not mentioned, but I’d assume this stage is ‘Polish and Ship It!’

Now, I’m of course working off 2nd or 3rd hand information here – only having seen the video that someone sneaked out, but I like the names they give these stages.  In other situations I’ve seen people going through these stages in various names and forms, but seldom are they defined so clearly.  (I’ve also heard people call White-Box, Vanilla, or Blue-Box.)

I have to say though – having used BSP in the past, it lends itself to a particular style of level design – axis orientated and flat floor’ed, and that brief, unfair video above doesn’t suggest that they’ve made a push to get away from those easy quirks.  If they’re focussing on the shooter side of their game, then I’m hoping they’re going to investigate ways to knowingly play with the geometry more, surprise the player and use some more quirky angles and vertical interest.


Martin says:

I was there, so if you need someone to fill in the blanks, let me know. I’ll blog about this some myself soon on

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