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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 7 of 9 Next

Marc Laidlaw, Valve Software

Valve's first release, Half-Life, was a major evolutionary step in the history of the first-person perspective action genre. The game excelled in all key areas: storyline, art, animation, sound, music, pacing, and level design; combined, it made players feel like they were part of a living, breathing, populated world. The level design was instrumental in pulling off this effect, and even during the last third of the game, while on another planet with alien architecture, maps maintained their focus with lush outdoor and indoor environments and challenging obstacles to overcome.

Marc Laidlaw, the level team coordinator at Valve, was responsible for overseeing the six level designers who worked day and night to create Half-Life. Did you know there were a whopping 96 BSPs in the game? Laidlaw takes some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his own personal approach to level design:

Note: BSP is an editing tool that converts map files into Quake-compatible level files. Half-Life is based on the Quake/Quake II engine, so they call the mini-levels in the game BSPs.

The Goal
The first on the list is the goal of the level. That is, the point of it all in the grand scheme of things. Says Laidlaw, "Everything in the level should somehow contribute to that goal--even detours, diversions, and distractions should figure into the overall scheme, thematically."

The Gameplay
Consideration of the gameplay is also important. What will players be doing as they go through the level? "Is this something that will engage, immerse, and interest them to the point that they absolutely cannot stop playing until they've accomplished their goal?" asks Laidlaw.

The Atmosphere
Laidlaw asks, "What kind of mood are you trying to create in the player? One of horror? One of pure action? Are you trying to create a mood that contrasts with preceding or subsequent levels?" The goal is to select and invent details that suit the mood you want to get across.

The following is a look at how Laidlaw's emphasis on the goal, gameplay, and atmosphere can be applied to some of the key levels in Half-Life.

"Office Complex"
The "Office Complex" level of Half-Life is a deliberately drab environment composed of offices, laboratories, corridors, and stairways. In other words, fairly mundane locales about as far removed as imaginable from the usual fantastic trappings of a science fiction action game. With that in mind, Laidlaw applies the level to each of his three approaches to map design:

Goal: The goals in "Office Complex" are fairly obvious ones, such as exit doors, in plain sight. The layout of the maps are simple and, in essence, linear. However, by imposing obstacles, we force the player to take a devious route to the destination. For instance, you can peer through a pane of glass in a fire door and see your exit at the far end of a corridor; but since the fire door is locked, you'll need to explore other avenues. Clever use of obstacles can turn a completely obvious route into a complex non-obvious route. This technique was used numerous times in Half-Life. What's important is to make the goal obvious from the first, in order to give players a start on solving the problem of how to get there. And if they forget their goal somewhere along the way, they will experience a jolt of recognition when they finally gain the far-off door.

Marc Laidlaw stresses you must understand the goal, relevance to gameplay, and atmosphere for each level when making maps in a 3D shooter. These two images are from the "Office Complex" and "Questionable Ethics" levels. (Used with permission from Sierra Studios)

Gameplay: "Office Complex" occurs fairly early in Half-Life, and therefore gameplay was slanted toward the player who is still mastering basic skills, while preparing him for more dangerous encounters ahead. We force the player to crawl, dodge, and fight in tight quarters against ambushing headcrabs. Slow monsters, such as mawmen, give a steady sense of horror and menace, and allow the player plenty of opportunities to learn to team up with allies. He can talk to non-player characters (NPCs) and solve various small-scale room-based puzzles (such as shutting off switches to deactivate deadly turrets and electrical threats). In addition, we knew that the subsequent level would drop him into combat with extremely tough human soldiers, and in order to give him some experience fighting against squads of creatures with long-range attacks, we set up encounters with squads of vortigaunts, which are fun to fight and fairly easy to kill, thus allowing the player to develop some of the skills he'll need to survive encounters with human soldiers.

Atmosphere: The banal office atmosphere provides a perfect background for scenes of carnage and horror--the contrast with gruesome images is all the more striking because of the familiar setting. Most of the details were selected to evoke feelings of dread in the player. Scientists are dragged to their doom in airshafts; mawmen feed on corpses in the cafeteria. The one crucial atmospheric element that can't be conveyed in screenshots is that of sound. The first time the player steps into the walk-in freezer, he triggers music that evokes cold, echoing emptiness. And the claustrophobic echoing sounds not only reinforce the realism of the environment, but add to the sense of menace: Echoes are creepy.

Laidlaw then used another level in the game for contrast. This section of Half-Life takes place in a research and development lab, where the player catches a glimpse of some of the experiments that were in progress when disaster struck the Black Mesa Research Facility.

"Questionable Ethics"
The labs served numerous purposes in the game: To deepen the sense of conspiracy and cause the player to question what was actually going on at Black Mesa; to give the player access to a high-powered weapon that's crucial for battling powerful enemies in subsequent levels; and to force a style of puzzle-solving focused on protecting and working with human characters (scientists) rather than simply throwing switches.

Goal: This section of the labs is quite non-linear in layout, although judicious use of locked doors again gives it a linear flow the first time through. Non-linear areas tend to work against the usual dramatic virtues of pacing and rhythm and timing, and give rise to plentiful opportunities for boredom and confusion. They also make it easy for the player to miss or forget his goal. When designing the labs on paper, we decided that the player should see his goal (the exit) immediately upon entering the lobby. There's a scanner next to the locked exit, and by this time the player has been taught that only scientists or other NPCs can operate a scanner. Presumably the player will carry this knowledge with him as he moves away from the exit and fights his way through the other areas of the map, and by the time he encounters a group of hiding scientists, he'll understand that he's supposed to escort one of them through the labyrinthine labs back to the scanner. (To further aid the player in understanding the goal, we added a security guard to give a short briefing on the way into the area.)

Gameplay: Puzzles were built around a variety of enemy encounters, traps, and scientific devices, and assembled from elements that have some logical place in the environment: sterilizers, laser equipment, caged monsters. Getting certain weapons is tricky in that it requires exposing oneself to monsters, and then quickly working with the environment to neutralize the threat. The player must open a cage full of sharks, then retreat into a sterilizer control room in order to vaporize them before he is overwhelmed. In addition, the presence of enemy soldiers adds a constant threat and gives contrast to the alien menace. In some circumstances, the canny player may choose to wait out battles between aliens and other humans, and then deal with the weakened victor of those battles. In such cases, the player's best strategy is patience. This puts a twist on the usual action game tactic, where players usually can expect to solve all problems by direct, aggressive attacks.

Atmosphere: We selected details that seemed appropriate to the research environment, and that added to the underlying story. Certain areas were tailored specifically for the study of alien creatures, which tends to raise questions about how long the researchers at Black Mesa have known about the aliens, and what exactly they were doing with them. As much as possible, the details also provided opportunities for gameplay; for instance, sterilizers that were used by researchers to cleanse rooms of biohazards turn out to be just as effective at vaporizing pursuing soldiers. Since we wanted a mood of high-tech horror to pervade Half-Life, we avoided a lot of opportunities for wacky comedy, and instead tried to set up situations for suitably dark and ironic humor. The "Tau Cannon," for instance, is given to the player at the end of a macabre sequence. And as a bonus, in addition to the weapon itself, the player is "rewarded" with a unique piece of music that punctuates the action and puts a weird spin on the otherwise relentless mood of horror.

On Limitations of Tools
All of these aforementioned objectives must be accomplished with the tools at your disposal, and within the limits of your game engine. Laidlaw explains:

Working within your limitations can seem restricting at first, but it also allows you to plan in advance and really get creative. It would seem as if having a team of programmers available to constantly implement new features would be utterly liberating, but sometimes this makes it hard to just get down to work and use what you have. It's very hard to anticipate what you might have one day. Level designers who have built a lot of Quake maps are used to working with known quantities; they know the limits of the Quake engine, they know the entities they have to work with, they know how to create spectacular effects that take both these factors into consideration. When the rules suddenly change, and a lot of new entities and features are in the works, and the engine itself is altered, a kind of paralysis can creep in. This is a predictable stumbling block for people who are moving from mapping as a hobby to level design as a profession; but being aware of it in advance, you should try to stay aware of your strengths and the known quantities, and master the new quantities a bit at a time.

Have a Plan
Laidlaw says if you can keep it all in your head, fine. But putting your ideas on paper is good.

Sketches are helpful. You can evaluate your overall scheme more easily when it's clearly stated. If you can't sum it up in a few words, or sketch it out so that someone else will understand it, you might be painting yourself into a corner when you've put a lot of work into actual level construction.

Don't Work in a Vacuum
Laidlaw urges budding level designers to bounce ideas off a few like-minded people:

A few brains working on the same problem will often come up with more interesting and varied ideas for gameplay than one person working alone. Each person tends to favor a particular style of gameplay, a particular design approach; in the course of a long game, you'll want to represent a variety of styles, to keep things fresh.

Get Creative
Finally, Laidlaw recognizes that it's important to study and learn from your favorites, but says to use them only as a springboard to invent something new.

Everyone starts out trying to re-create the great game experiences they loved, and this is a good way to learn the basics. But you won't get anywhere rehashing old ideas. Try to think in terms of the game you would love to play, if only someone out there would finally make it. Then make it yourself.

Article Start Previous Page 7 of 9 Next

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