Penultimate Level Design

Potentially, Conker Mill - Environment Profile Fodder

Potentially, Conker Mill - Environment Profile Fodder

When you’re designing a level, unless you’re part of a one man or woman team, it’s certain that someone else is going to have some input into how your level is eventually shown to the player. There’s a whole chain, in fact, from initial concept to rough layouts (and vanilla geometry) to artistic concept art and tone-setting artwork, to final graphics creation, object creation, lighting and effects passes.

Making sure that the final level presented to the player is a unified whole is frequently left in the hands of the concept artists and art director – and perhaps that’s not where all the blame/responsibility should lay.

In fact, in the past I (as level designer for a particular environment) have taken it upon myself to create an Environment Profile – a short document documenting the intrinsic nature of the place. This will, if written well, help out the concept artists to get the feel for the place, help the level dressers make the place feel lived in (if it’s supposed to be) and even help the character artists come up with how the people there will look/act.

How To Write An Environment Profile

  1. Keep it short – Anything over 2 pages of well spaced A4 (Letter-sized or so) won’t get read by the frequently word-averse art types. Break it up into smaller segments if you have to (give different areas different documents) but a short novel of the history of the place won’t get read.
  2. Who built it? – The initial reason for the space to be created. Was it a home? An office? A factory? Who was going to live/work there? Why was it built the way it was?
  3. When did they build it? – If they built it in the 1890’s, it’ll have a different feel and age to somewhere built in the 1970’s. Things age, break, get improved upon, get expanded on.
  4. What is it used for now? – Is it abandoned and frequented by gangs of kids? Is it refurbished and used as trendy offices? The people there – what do they use it for?
  5. Who are these people? – The people who have used it – builders, owners, users, workers, homeowners – these people need a brief description to give a stamp of their presence on the world. Did the kids growing up there shoot arrows into the loft? Were the workers in the factory superstisious about the mooses head in the staff room? Did the people who built it use cheap materials because of the Great Depression?

So, short version: Who built it and when? Who uses it now and why?

Here’s an example one, for something fairly mundane: Conker Mill (Studios)
History – Built in the late 1700’s, Conker Mill was built and run by Mr and Mrs Miller to grind grain for the nearby ‘big house’. Using the most modern equipment available at the time, and of sturdy stone construction, it survived 3 of the Miller’s children growing up in it (2 childrens bedrooms, one for their daughter and the other for their two sons) and passed to the eldest son.
It was abandoned during WWII with no-one to care for it, and lay empty and rotting until the 1980’s when it was bought up and converted into a set of art studio units, Conker Mill Studios. It now houses up to four artists, their workshops and gallary spaces. One is an artisnal blacksmith, one does ‘edgy’ taxidermy, one creates musical instruments from found objects and the other paints rocks.

Nothing too cutting edge there, but much better than a brief of “Its a set of offices.” It’s something for a level designer to get their teeth into – something for concept artists to latch on to and something for level dressers to have a bit of fun with! That should result in a level that feels like a lived in place, not a random collection of corridors and rooms.


et cetera