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Where's the Design in Level Design? (Part One)
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Where's the Design in Level Design? (Part One)

July 16, 2001 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Windows and Openings

Another expressive form is the window. The window's location in the wall also affects the wall's expression of weight (see Figures 2a-2e). A horizontal window placed low in the wall increases the sinking effect, and a vertical window high up increases the rising effect, while a centralized window seems more ambiguous.

Examine the openings in Figures 2d and 2e. The impression that the motion is from the outside inwards can be heightened or lessened by the opening's profiles. A cut at right angles to the wall emphasizes motion from the outside. The strength of the wall is weakened and it offers no resistance. With a straight profile, it is as if the wall's own substance deflects the incision. The entire wall takes on a thin character, seeming to be a stiff plane with no strength.

On the other hand, a diagonally-cut opening will resist motion from outside. The narrowing of the hole itself shows that the wall is about to close. It is given added weight and substance, because the diagonal bevel conveys an impression of greater thickness than the wall actually has. In the diagonally-cut opening the hole itself appears to lie deeper in the wall than does the right-angle-cut opening. It is less accessible and is protected within the wall itself.

These are only a few simple examples of the many architectural forms that are at your disposal should you consider employing them in your own creations.

Figures 2A-2E. The window's location in the wall affects the wall's weight.

Achieving Realism

Realism in 3D games is often mistaken for having a photorealistic quality instead of good design. Good design principles will do more in achieving a believable environment that your players will relate to and feel comfortable in. Photorealism is a surface quality usually achieved by photographing images, objects, or natural surfaces and then cladding a 3D environment with a processed and optimized version of these images. Believable levels, on the other hand, call for the effective use of established design principles to address things such as proper lighting, transition between surfaces and textures, and how architectural elements and the surfaces and masses they are integrated with are handled. The proper placement of furniture and architectural detailing, as well as the transition between split levels should also be properly resolved. These are all common concerns in the design of interior and exterior spaces.

Do you need to achieve a photorealistic quality in your art? Before planning your road trip with your digital camera in hand, find out if the game or level design calls for this degree of realism. Is it appropriate for your genre? A photorealistic quality in a level is often well received by most audiences because of its sincere attempt to simulate the known environment around us in the real world. If done right, good photographic images that have correct lighting direction, appropriate scale, and proper surface treatment can enhance a level greatly. Skillfully crafted images can also depict construction methods used, establish a sense of good interior design, and help prolong suspension of disbelief for your players. If done wrong, the offending texture or detail stands out like a sore thumb to artist and non-artist alike.

Photorealistic images can be a double-edged sword -- they're easy to achieve with a little bit of effort, a decent camera, and a good paint program, and they require no traditional art skills. The problem is that the images will detract from the scene if not applied appropriately. If this degree of realism is only reserved for having decent physics or accurate targeting in your game, then narrow your focus to achieving good design. Even a cel-shaded game would benefit from having a well-designed and balanced environment.

Preplanning Before Building

Earlier I mentioned the cost of bad mistakes. Another money-burning mistake developers often make is not preplanning art asset requirements. In addition to having good visual interest, a good design approach and some initial preplanning will pay for itself in no time. Through a lack of knowledge or preparation, we often make our choices about how to design and outfit our environments with art assets we don't need, assets we don't want, or assets that just don't work for some reason. These misfit items then get tossed aside and replaced by others, costing us more time and money to produce. This trial-and-error approach is enough to make any project manager chew through his fingernails. For professional interior designers and architects, the most cost-effective approach to creating a custom structure or interior space is to prequalify all construction needs through careful planning and evaluation, long before raising a hammer. Production artists, modelers, and level designers should prequalify the creation of all 3D assets before clicking a mouse (see Figure 3). Level design needs should also be analyzed to determine the art assets required.

Designers can avoid costly mistakes by carefully planning all 3D assets on paper before model construction begins. Concept drawing by Richard Hescox.

If you want your levels to rise above the accepted game level look and feel, start really taking notice of the successful works of architecture and designed interior spaces around you. I challenge you to seek and borrow what you can that may address specific design problems you are encountering in your levels. Don't just reinvent blindly. Try to apply some of the approaches I've discussed here and enjoy the difference it will make as we continue to raise the bar together. Help define good design in level design. I look forward to your work.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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