Penultimate Level Design

Slide from Scott Roger's talk on Level Design and Disneyland

Slide from Scott Roger's talk on Level Design and Disneyland

As I mentioned in my other GDC envy post, there’s been a bit more about Level Design this year – at least it seems that way.  Another of the exceptionally popular talks was by Mr (Boss’) Scott Rogers and how he learned a great deal from the tactics that Walt Disney and his Imagineers used in creating Disneyland.

You can find the complete slides on his blog here (and they’re a good read – curse my non-GDC’ness!), but what I find interesting is that this is not the first time that I’ve read of people taking level design inspiration from Disneyland.  A few years ago, a Mr Don Carson did a 2 (and eventually 3) part Gamasutra feature on level design and environmental storytelling (subjects very close to my heart).  You can find parts 12 and 3 linked.

Both of these people looked to Disneyland to teach them about using environment to draw the eye, tempt the senses, tell stories and reward the curious – for all that’s not so peachy about the Disney monster, these are lessons that many level designers either still haven’t learned, or know only on a vague instinctive level.  So many of us still see a corridor as a corridor instead of an opportunity to guide the players eye, tease them with anticipation, delight them with newly discovered secrets or even to give them a breather between visually intense nodes.

These are old lessons, taught by a man long dead who grasped these long before others even realised what he was doing – we should have these things down to a fine art by this time!


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.

et cetera