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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 Previous Page 3 of 3

Make No Mistakes

To avoid making costly 3D art assets that aren't needed or that just don't work, level designers should analyze their needs to determine what is required before creating objects such as furniture and architectural details. Here is a basic guideline you can use to accomplish your goal of creating an attractive 3D interior space to play in and not make costly mistakes in the process. If you are going to borrow from real-world environments for inspiration and creation, you should consider using the design tools other professionals use to create the spaces we live in every day.

If you know what you need, what you want, and you understand basic design, then your chances of making a mistake are almost entirely eliminated. You can start to build with confidence and clear direction. That is, of course, until the game designer changes the general purpose or focus of the game level or space — at which time you simply smile and reapply these basic steps.

Avoiding a Fall

Take yourself step-by-step through the simplified design process I'm about to describe. When you're done you should be able to define your list of art assets for your 3D interiors. You'll also begin creating the objects you need to make an efficient and well-planned game level or walkthrough environment without stress or fear. If done right, this prequalification for art requirements should afford most developers more time at the end of the project to add the finishing polish. This polish is often forgotten or omitted in most final 3D environments because of mismanaged production schedules and loss of time.

As level designers, every level we design and create requires us to determine where we are now, where we are going to end up, and what we will need in the process of getting there. To map this properly requires organization and planning. For S.W.A.T. 3 we managed to achieve a photorealistic look because of much preplanning. We modeled, textured, and designed our lighting schemes using Worldcraft and then loaded information into a proprietary engine. A small team of artists took direction and design recommendations from scaled floor plans which I helped create and then followed certain established modeling and lighting techniques. These dimensional floor plans and architectural drawings were based on the game designer's design document, which sometimes referenced existing real-world buildings and environments.

Whether you are outfitting a room, a laboratory, or the inside of a space station, the process for determining your needs is the same. Preplan the spaces visually in order to understand the architectural features. These features include windows, doors, fireplaces, stairs, columns, an air lock, or a landing platform. These might dictate what kind of furniture will actually fit before you create the pieces. Also keep in mind that furniture is designed to fit people's lifestyles. Each furniture piece is designed to support a particular activity. To visually preplan, I recommend creating a rough layout or floor plan on grid paper and then recording each room using one square for each foot measured. You must establish a working scale for the in-game world and use this when creating and arranging the content for each room. You must also know the measurements of all the major pieces before creating them and at the same time be ergonomically sensitive, especially in first-person game levels where the characters interact with their environment at close camera view.

The first thing that must be done for each room is to determine the limitations of the space. If there is no physical size limitation, then set one. You can always increase the size later if necessary. Setting self-imposed limitations is still better than not having any at all. Before we can place furniture and other 3D items in a room or level we must understand any technical constraints, including camera limitations, pathfinding capabilities, how many polygons or objects can be displayed in a given area, and the minimum frame rate we need to sustain while traversing that area in the level. Every asset we place in the level directly impacts performance during run time. This kind of information is often difficult to get, because the programmers on the project may not have established these parameters early on in the development cycle, often leading to changes in the level later on. Be persistent in getting the most accurate information as soon as possible. Doing so will prove to be very beneficial in the months that follow.

Next we have to define the purpose of the space and who occupies it. We must then determine the lifestyle and activities of the occupants. Based on these room activities, we can now identify the furniture assets needed to fit the space and support those activities. If they do not already exist, then a list must be made of new art assets that require design and modeling time. We now have the task of placing the chosen items into the room represented on paper. This allows us to continue to flesh out our design without eating up the artist's valuable time creating models that represent pieces to which we haven't fully committed. They should all be at the same scale as our drawing so that if they fit in the plan, they will fit in our room. Finally, we determine all interaction the occupants will have with the space or its furnishings before creating the models.

Now that we know what we need, let's take a look at what we want. A game designer's or a level designer's wants and desires are an expression of who they are and what their product is to become. There is no right or wrong in this; everything desired here is totally legitimate. However, there are situations where what we want, we don't need, and what we need, we don't want. The important thing to determine is what assets are desired and hip, yet still solve our in-game problems. Since we've prequalified all the pieces of content in the steps above, the decision-making process now becomes much less painful and costly.

Grow with the Times

It's a tremendous challenge for me to create 3D environments for a game level. To be able to continue to do so, however, experience tells me that I must continue to evolve my process for creating and designing the spaces for such worlds. Ever-improving technology, gameplay demands, player expectations, and shorter development cycles all guarantee that level designers and 3D artists will need to mature their processes for creating attractive virtual destinations to play in. You should need no more motivation than improving yourself as a game artist and what you have to contribute to your team. For me, the alternative is unthinkable.


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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