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

July 16, 2001 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

In the first part of this article, I shared some of the benefits of using proven design principles in level design, an array of which can be borrowed from real-world architecture and interior design. In this article, I will present even more and relate some of them to actual game levels and to the creation of custom-designed level textures. Just to be clear, this isn't a "how-to" tutorial on designing, modeling, or texturing a game level. Instead it is a collection of considerations to help you with a more efficient execution of good design for your level modeling and texture work. As promised last time, I will also walk you through the steps of prequalifying level assets so that you can avoid making costly mistakes, thus saving you time and money better spent elsewhere.

High Expectations

We have an interesting challenge in the game industry as computer hardware technology plows forward faster then ever. This increase in power has a direct correlation with the player's growing expectation for stunning visuals. As game artists and level designers, we should try not to get overwhelmed or intimidated by the rising technology bar. We have a role to play in perpetuating its progress and should therefore embrace it, at least to the point where it enhances our process of improving and implementing good design that produces believable and engaging levels. This in turn improves the product and the gaming experience. We are further challenged to meet these high expectations with equally sound design principles and concepts. Improved hardware will eventually make it possible to create game environments that are intricate, highly detailed, and free from technological limitations in performance. Where will you be and what will you be doing when this happens?

So What Is Good Design?

Everyone has his or her own idea about what good design is. One thing I think we can all agree on is that design is a perceivable and desirable quality that surrounds us in our everyday life, yet we often overlook its importance. It provides comfort, draws our attention, and gives us the visual cues we've learned to depend on for information such as directional and level changes, defining means of egress from within a building, and so on. In general terms, design is the skillful planning and fashioning of the form or structure of an object, a space, a work of art, a decorative scheme, and yes, a game level.

In creating a comfortable and logical game level, a job well done does not leave your player feeling uneasy about the personality, balance, proportions, lines, or character of the space or structure being portrayed. All environments possess these traits. Keep in mind that there are many different kinds of spatial designs that are well suited for a 3D world. Your level design should be one that addresses your individual game's requirements and applies basic design principles.

Some guidelines that govern good design used by other practicing design professionals include balance, scale, proportion, unity, emphasis, rhythm, and harmony. All designs consist of color, pattern, texture, and style, and if these guidelines are adhered to, the player will feel comfortable in an environment.

Balance is the feeling of equilibrium. How do you feel when your life is out of balance? That is also how a player will feel when a decorative wall, room, or outdoor space is out of balance. All balance is based on vertical and horizontal axes. Getting equal weight on each side of an axis makes a space in or out of balance. A good analogy would be riding a bicycle or standing on your head.

Scale is the size of an item in comparison to its surroundings. A piece of furniture or an accessory can be too big or too small for a room, a wall, or a setting. A carpet texture scaled too big creates a "dollhouse" effect in a game. The casual observer is uncomfortable when this occurs. It's just not pleasing to the eye when things are out of scale. A typical example of bad scale is the smaller-scaled furniture and accessories in a game level created with a level editor that uses constructive solid geometry (CSG) brushes bound to a grid (such as Worldcraft). A popular example is Valve's Half-Life levels. These were created using Worldcraft 2.0, which lacked fine control in the modeling process back then and probably forced the level artists to create and accept badly scaled and disproportional furniture and accessories. The game is still fun to play (one of my all-time favorites) but can be quite the eyesore in some areas. I discovered these limitations myself when I created levels for Sierra Studios' S.W.A.T. 3 using this editor (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Realistic proportions in S.W.A.T. 3 by Sierra Studios.

Proportion is the size of things compared to themselves. In furniture, legs can be too large or too small for cushions. Doors and windows can be too long or too big for the walls they are built into. Proportions that are pleasing to the eye will promote feelings of satisfaction. Items that are out of proportion actually create anxiety, and we usually don't want to look at them.

Unity is the element that carries the theme and scheme of the room. The point of unity within a room can be a painting, an area rug, a major piece of upholstery, or an architectural feature (see Figure 2). When a certain style and color scheme are contained in a single decorative element in a room it makes it easy for the player to understand what is going on.

Figure 2. A strong common element of structural support carries the theme in this room.

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