Kyttaro Games' @gnomeslair asks:
8. How do you reuse similar elements for vastly different gameplay results?
Joel Burgess - With games as big as Skyrim and Fallout 3, it's very important that we're able to make effective use (and re-use) of every element at our disposal. This is a big part of the topic I'll be covering during our LDiaD session at GDC, in fact.
One good thing to do is to try and erase any preconceived notions of how elements should be used. Resist the temptation to strongly associate a specific setting type with a specific encounter or gameplay type. The more that you enable yourself to mix and match these elements, the more potential variety exists for you to discover.
By setting this expectation internally, you also encourage yourself and the team to think in more open terms about how you'll implement various mechanics, art assets, and the like. This means your feature set will (hopefully) be more robust and bug-proof overall.
Seth Marinello - From a gameplay standpoint, creating patterns that the player will understand and then dressing those in different guises is key to delivering a fun experience. You need to create tasks which the player can master, and then ramp them to provide further challenge -- Portal is a textbook example of this kind of design. As others have mentioned, this is a topic that we will cover in more depth at this year's LDiaD session.
Jim Brown - This has definitely gotten easier as technology has improved. Higher resolution textures and better materials mean we can scale, rotate, and reuse models in different ways without them looking too similar. Higher poly models and improved rendering means we can add more detail to different areas of the models, and then light them differently to vary how they appear.
Ultimately, however, I think the best way to get good results here is to have an understanding of real world architecture and psychology -- if something looks "real" or appears "normal" people will subconsciously accept much more than you'd think. There's a certain amount (and style) of repetition that happens in nature, and a general look to shapes and structures that the brain will accept without too much filtering. For the LD, putting together a level with limited resources becomes a fun puzzle, or game of its own.
Our penultimate question comes from pro gamer and game producer Kal Shah:
9. What things can a producer do to make the job of a level designer easier and improve the process as a whole?
Steve Gaynor - The biggest benefit of production is making sure that no one is blocked from doing the most valuable work they could be doing right now. The kinds of things that block designers are: Not having a space built that they need to put gameplay into; not having art assets that their level will be based around; not having mechanics in place that are required to make their level playable. So having open communication between design, production, and the other departments to be able to say, "I need to be implementing the first pass of the shotgun fight, but the shotgun enemies aren't functional yet," or, "I need to build gameplay around the crashed helicopter, but I don't know what its dimensions are" will help other departments prioritize their work.
But aside from just giving other people work, it can be even more useful for production to facilitate ways for level designers to unblock themselves -- for instance, providing a Maya license and a brief tutorial with an environment artist, so that an LD can model a temp mesh while they wait for the real one; or working with programming to get script actions so that the LD can prototype new functionality through scripting instead of waiting for completed code. Helping designers communicate better with other departments, but also be more self-sufficient, will improve productivity and reduce blockers.
Seth Marinello - There are two major ways a producer can aid the level design process. The first is as an interface between groups - as a level goes from white box to final, lots of content needs to be integrated and tracking the progress of each component can take a lot of time. If there is a producer there than can do that legwork and ensure progress is getting made on the key assets the designer is free to iterate on gameplay and performance scripting. The second is as an external sounding board for design. It is easy to get too close to a design and lose sight of what the experience will be like for an end-user, a producer can help catch issues BEFORE your work goes through the focus test wringer.
Neil Alphonso -- Levels are the final destination for a lot of development work; an often-used phrase is that levels are "where the rubber hits the road." Because of this, the most critical thing a producer can do to help the level design process is to ensure timely delivery of the components that make up the level designer's work. It's also important to provide interim deliverables whenever possible, as this helps the level designer to more quickly adapt the level to the evolving content. This can be particularly tricky with art assets, as artists can be notorious for not submitting something that is "unfinished." Ensuring that the pipeline includes many phases of integration as art content is being made ends up being hugely effective risk mitigation for unforeseen complications hampering a well-playing level.
Our final question comes from Ubisoft level designer Myles Kerwin, via the Level Design in a Day Facebook Group.
10. I'd like to hear about how Level Design has evolved over the past decade, and how you think it will change in the years to come.
Jim Brown - I think that level design -- in the classic sense -- is an endangered craft. The concept of level design first came into being with the advent of online gaming. People could make self-contained levels that they worked on from beginning to end. We made our own textures, did our own programming, scripting, design, lighting, pathing... everything! More recently, companies have separated that work out among many specific talents: lighting specialists, tech artists, scripters, gameplay designers, usability experts, and everything in between.
As such, LDs became micro-specialists who were very good at one piece of the puzzle. Moving forward, it will be harder and harder to identify what a "level" is as the lines get blurred. There are so many systems involved now that you have to understand how they all work together. I bet we'll not only go back to being generalists, but actually expand our skill sets into general game design - levels, creatures, weapons, combat, visuals, scripting, performance, usability and anything involved in crafting an "experience" rather than just a "level."
Seth Marinello - In the last decade the biggest fundamental change in the level design workflow has been moving away from brushes to static meshes. From Quake 1 all the way through the early Source games the level designer was also the environment artist. Since then we have moved a lot of the work out of our editors and into 3D modeling programs like Maya. This has vastly improved the visual quality of the games we can make, but at the same time drastically changed the role of a level designer in the process. Now, we are not just creators but also integrators and collaborations with whole teams supporting the vision of a level. In the last few years I have seen a lot of games succeed with more open environments; I hope over the coming years we see level design focus on enabling experimentation over following a script.
Joel Burgess - When I first got interested in level design, it was very much a one-man operation. Early mappers would create every aspect of their levels, from layout to lighting to scripting. Just a few years later, as I got into the industry, that was already changing. New-at-that-time consoles like the PS2 and Xbox demanded higher visual fidelity, and dev tools were more robust and complex to use than before. Level design became a more distributed process, often involving 2 or 3 people in more specialized roles.
This may seem like a bleak prospect for those who are uninterested in heavy specialization. While I have known designers who prefer to focus on scripting or layout exclusively, I personally enjoy dabbling in all aspects of game dev, and have historically found that well-rounded LDs thrive at bringing together disparate elements as great gameplay. Specializing runs somewhat counter to cultivating this kind of LD.
I think we're at an exciting cusp for games and level design right now, though. While the upper end of fidelity continues to rise, there's more room than ever for games of all types and scale. This is great news for level designers, because no matter what unique combination of skills and interests you may have, there's a game out there for which you're the perfect LD.