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GDC 11 - Level Design in a Day: Best Practices from the Best in the Business

Today I attended Level Design in a Day which had a star cast including Neil Alphonso (Splash Damage), Matthias Worch (LucasArts), Coray Seifert Arkadium), Jim Brown (Epic Games), Joel Burgess (Bethesda Softworks), Forrest Dowling (Irrational Games) and Ed Byrne (Zipper Interactive). Each speaker had the floor for about 50 minutes a piece, with many of of the other speakers chiming in at various points.

Guest Blogger: Dan Ouellette
Today I attended Level Design in a Day which had a star cast including Neil Alphonso (Splash Damage), Matthias Worch (LucasArts), Coray Seifert (Arkadium), Jim Brown (Epic Games), Joel Burgess (Bethesda Softworks), Forrest Dowling (Irrational Games) and Ed Byrne (Zipper Interactive).  Each speaker had the floor for about 50 minutes apiece – with many of the other speakers chiming in at various points.

Ed Byrne worked on the hit game MAG for the PS3

Ed Byrne was up first, talking mostly about how Level Designers in general are frequently used as scapegoats when projects go wrong.  He broke down the problems that this creates throughout the entire team, and why even people that don't catch the blame still end up feeling the negative effects of this practice.  Byrne also stated that frequently the 'fun' factor of the game is deemed the sole responsibility of the level designers – partially due to other’s ignorance of what level designers actually do. 

Jim Browns most recent work.

Jim Brown coincidently talked about this in the last speech of the day, comparing the job requirements from several different companies.  It became apparent that the industry has no clear definition for the title and what it entails, as each job had a different set of criteria and responsibilities.  
After looking at my own set of responsibilities as a World Designer at Turbine – I have to say I whole-heartedly agree.  My role has changed somewhat drastically over the past 4 years from a more basic role, to something much more advanced and expanded.  I am starting to find it very hard to describe what I actually do now – it cannot be simply quantified by saying "Yes, I am a world designer, and I am trying to create Middle-Earth on the computer."  Byrne went further into his explanation, breaking Level Designers down into several categories based upon their skillset, strengths, and weaknesses.  For example, some designers are more art based, and some are more script based.  There are some that can do both and flip-flop, but even if they can, they are usually stronger in one discipline over the other.

Irrational's upcoming title - Bioshock Infinite

Forrest Dowling ended up speaking after Byrne, discussing the general breakdown for creating levels in a First person shooter.  Dowling broke this down in to the four basic stages of an encounter:
  • Player plans to overcome the goals and obstacles set before them

He used a few examples of this done well in games like Far Cry, and Half Life 2, in that the player is consistently put onto a high bluff or hill, where they can survey the battlefield and the challenges that lie ahead.


  • Combat begins
  • The player is given multiple tactical options

This is fairly obviously the stage at which the player attempts to execute his plan from the previous step.  Given the situation, the players will now close on their enemy and engage, firing the first shot in most cases.

  • Troop reinforcements
  • Ammo is needed to finish off the enemies
  • Movement is forced, or cover is broken

Typically this is where the developer throws a monkey wrench into the player’s plan.  Sometimes more troops will appear after defeating the first wave, usually with a different set of profiles and behaviors – or perhaps the player will run out of ammo and will need to gather more to finish dispatching enemies.  Forrest showed a video of Battlefield 2 Bad Company in which the player is fighting against several enemies from behind a wall, only to have a Jeep come bowling through his cover, forcing the player to move or die.  These sorts of techniques create duress, with increases adrenaline levels and creates a memorable experience.

  • Picking up ammo, reloading
  • Scavenging corpses and containers
This is the stage at which the player gets a break from the action.  They have vanquished all possible threats in sight, and are given a small break before the next encounter begins.  This is a very important step for pacing, as a player that is constantly put in a state of duress will eventually tire and begin to not enjoy the game. 
Forrest wrapped up discussing different types of enemy profiles in a FPS, such as snipers, melee characters, and RPG archetypes.  These different profiles present different threats to players, and enforce strategic decision making which in turn create a more interesting and enjoyable experience.  You want to try and craft an experience for the player that leaves them feeling accomplished thanks to good planning or battlefield decision making. 

Fallout 3 was Joel Burgess' last title.

Joel Burgess from Bethesda talked about open world level design, mostly related to his work on Fallout 3.  Burgess  described how Bethesda attempts to cater to "unpredictable gamers" of whom are usually the people that will try to climb over invisible walls, go left when the story tells them to go right, and will go under the bridges developers put in place instead of going over them.  

These players will play the game the way they want to play it and will set their own criteria and goals, disregard less of what the developer wants them to do.  He stated that as a designer, you want your players to feel like they are in control.
The designer needs to take a backstage role in directing the player, but he should not force the player to do what he desires.  When the player feels like they are directing the story, they are usually enjoying your game a whole lot more. 
Dan Ouellette lives in Boston, MA.  He has been working for 4 years as a World Designer for Turbine Inc.  Most of his work can be found in Lord of the Rings Online and it's expansion packs.