Penultimate Level Design

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.


So, I’m in the industry – have been for just over seven years now(!) – and I keep learning new things every day. It’s not enough! I want to improve at what I do, and while there’s definitely something to be said by learning by doing, and I do learn by making more levels, I think that there’s more I can be doing:

Current learning avenues:

  • Life Drawing – Always good to get a bit better at drawing, what with images being worth a thousand words and all. A simple sketch of a bit of level layout, or a stick figure in a storyboard, can save a hell of a lot of explaining and misunderstanding. I’ve not done much drawing since school (A ‘B’ grade in my Scottish Higher) so this is flexing long rusty muscles!
  • C# – Knowing a coding language helps a hell of a lot, despite the old adage “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and C# is the cool kid on the block. I’m a bit of a whiz with DarkBasic, but there are some things it just doesn’t like doing. Also, C# opens the doors for XNA fun too (and has Wiimote libraries).
  • Board Games – Playing a lot more of these now, and learning a lot of the different kinds of play mechanics you can have. What makes a non-computerised game slow or interesting, and it’s pretty amazing (really) that with some card, dice and some pencils, you can make a multiplayer game! Yeah, not quite the same, I realise, but paper prototyping has its place, I’m sure.

So, I’m not sure what else to do – I admit that my C# knowledge could do with a lot more work, and well, making levels for other genres is something on my list (to keep my skills flexible), but what else would be useful?

Some random ideas: make my own boardgames, write a comic, learn Flash, make an XNA game, write more (short fiction), run some RPGs, paper prototype some game ideas… What others?

et cetera