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Secrets of the Sages: Level Design
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Secrets of the Sages: Level Design

July 23, 1999 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 9 Next

Cliff Bleszinski, Epic MegaGames

At a mere 24 years old, Cliff has made quite a name for himself as a game designer and level creator on the award-winning PC titles Jazz Jackrabbit and Unreal. Although he agrees with John Romero that fear is an important element of level design, he believes that it's only a fraction of what makes a solid level. "Pacing is far more important. If the player is constantly in fear, then he'll become numb; if he's constantly surprised, then it will wear off and not be effective," explains Bleszinski. He continues:

The key to scaring the player in a level is knowing when, where, and how often to spring a surprise. If there are, say, five minutes of idle time exploring and chatting with peaceful aliens, then, when the door bursts in and a lava monster stomps in screaming bloody hell, you can bet the player will be shaking in his boots. This is why good horror movies don't spring surprise after surprise on the audience, because it loses its impact. Good pacing is a skill that applies to every element of level design. Pace your flow of monsters, and have areas where the player feels like he is being engulfed by less intelligent "cannon fodder" foes, as well as areas that have just a few devious baddies that are hard as nails to take out. Know how often to reward the player with goodies or health. Don't cover the level with items; rather, give him the prizes after monsters are killed, doors are opened, or a ledge is reached.

Being chased by a deadly Skaarj adds to the fun and excitement of the level, but Bleszinski warns that fear should be used sparingly to break up the pace of a level. (Used with permission by Epic MegaGames)

Bleszinski recognizes that there's a lot more to level design than the "fear factor" and "good pacing," so he also provides his very own five-step crash course in good level design. Pencils in hand? Here we go...

Geometry Building and World Texturing
Naturally, you need to construct your environment first. Ideally, the texture artists should have a head start on the level designers so that the level designers have content with which to texture their areas while building. Then the level designers can tell the artists, "I need a 32´128 girder with three bolts on it and no directional rust, and please put it into the FACTORY texture set!"

Pancho Eekels, one of the level designers Cliff Bleszinki works with, has managed to make this room well lit, yet moddy and colorful. This shot is from Unreal Tournament. (Used with permission by Cliff Bleszinski)

Lighting the Environment
The right kind of lighting can make or break a beautiful scene. Low lights tend to illuminate monsters more dramatically, while bright rooms reduce fumbling around in the dark. A level designer needs to be creative with his lighting; if the player is going deeper into a volcano, then the lighting should get "hotter" the further you go by getting brighter and more orange and red, or if you're sending him through a swampy area, use drab, depressing colors, such as green and gray.

Using the Unreal or Quake engine gives a level designer amazing control over realistic shadows. Building architecture that allows for shadows is essential; try putting support beams beneath a skylight to encourage sharp, moody shadows on the floor, or put a flame behind a polygonal grate to cast harsh shadows on the opposite wall.

Tricks, Traps, and Puzzles

Never force the player to learn by dying. Always give him a chance to figure out a puzzle without slapping his wrists. Remember, the person playing your game is playing it for fun, not for work. If you want to have slicing blades pop up from the floor of your Incan temple, make sure that you put some blood splotches and body parts around the exact spot that the blades spring forth, so that the attentive player will not be killed. Even if the player is killed, he will think "Oh, I should have seen those warnings, how stupid of me!" instead of "This game cheats! How was I supposed to know there was a trap there?"
If the primary objective of your game is to kill and kill fast, then don't slow the player down with boring, cumbersome puzzles. It's one thing to have three switches that need to be turned on in order to pass; it's another to have twelve switches that have a combination code three levels away that the player must physically write on a piece of paper to remember.

Monster, Ammo, and Health Placement ("Gameflow")

During the course of Unreal's development, I've been harassing the level designers to always make their monsters patrol a local area, or to have them spring out of the dark, or even crash through glass at the player. If the player walks into a room and the monsters are just standing there waiting for him, he's not going to feel that this is a very believable world. However, if he walks into a room and his foe is just walking past him to go work on a computer terminal, he'll appreciate the extra effort that has been taken to further the believability. Ammunition is always tricky to get right in a level. Too much ammo and the gamer breezes through the level without a sweat; not enough ammo and your gamer is running around the level hacking at your foes with his default weapon while pondering looking for cheats online. Right when the player is thinking, "Boy, I'm going to be needing some ammunition soon," there should be a box of bullets waiting for him. The same rules apply for health.


In Unreal, we're trying to create a sense of being in a hostile alien world. This believability is greatly helped by what I refer to as drama. Hearing a scene occur behind a locked door. Watching an evil alien punish a friendly alien who assists the player. Witnessing the murder of a comrade before your eyes. Real events that occur real time in the game, many of which the player can interfere with. Well-done drama will stick in the player's head for years to come.

So how important is level design, anyway? Why is this such an integral part of the game design? "Level design is where the rubber hits the road," are the first words Jay Wilbur, former "biz guy" and CEO of id Software, told Cliff Bleszinski, during their initial telephone conversation a couple of years ago. This has stuck with Cliff as an "absolute truth." He expands on the analogy:

Game development can be compared to building a car. You have all these different parts that are created by talented people--programming, modeling, sound, and artwork--and at some point, everyone's hard work on a car comes together, and the tires hit the road. With a game, everyone's work is held together by the levels that use all of that, and they'd better be exceptional or the game falters.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 9 Next

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