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Illustrator-to-Maya: How to Design and Build the Perfect Level
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Illustrator-to-Maya: How to Design and Build the Perfect Level

June 7, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next


One of the biggest production issues today for a Game Designer/Level Designer is translating that great concept from your mind into a playable 3D world fast and effectively. I've seen some designers draw out their level with a pencil onto paper, sketch ideas in Photoshop, use simple pictographs in various 2D packages, or bypassing that altogether by building in 3D from nothing at all. All these methods are perfectly acceptable of course, but this doesn't solve our problem of moving from a 2D idea quickly into a 3D world with known gameplay limitations and parameters already included. Using the above techniques described will not give us perfect scale, exact mission time, or fluid game pacing all before reaching the 3D world. There is a system to accomplish this while directly translating to Maya, to know the final results of your level in 2D and it starts with Adobe Illustrator.

This demonstration assumes you know how to use the basics of Adobe Illustrator (if not, reading through Adobe's help files will be enough). Let's begin and setup Illustrator correctly (using Illustrator CS):

  1. In your Preferences, set Units to Centimeters.
  2. Set Grid to "Gridline every .1 cm" and "Subdivisions 10" (you now have a square per centimeter which will translate into one square meter in Maya).
  3. With a new document created, under the View menu, set "Artboard" to visible (this shows you that 0,0,0 in Maya is located at the lower left hand corner).
  4. Under View, set "Grid" to visible (you can zoom all the way to 2400% in order to see your exact centimeter squares).
  5. Under View, use "Snap To Grid" (optional, if you want precision).

Production and Game Engine Limits in Illustrator

Obviously, every game has its own unique limitations with production and the engine being used, so this demonstration will be set with arbitrary standards. This demonstration will also feature two levels, an "On-Foot First Person Shooter" and a "Racing Track" for vehicles only. Given the types of levels we want to create we must know our boundaries up front to create our levels, while they can be any size we want, we will set a 500 meter draw distance restriction with a 10 kilometer total track limit for vehicles and a 2 kilometer total distance limit for our on-foot level. I have chosen 2km for an on-foot FPS level and 10 km for a vehicle racing level because I know both will be equal to a month of production. Due to budgets and scheduling; art, sound and design are limited to only one month for each level which gives us our first big restriction, the actual size of both levels.

Build Proxy Objects

With Illustrator setup properly, let's get our feet wet and just build some simple proxy objects that we can use to tile throughout a level. Remember, we're building to scale so keep this in mind as we build these objects (each of those squares is a meter in Maya). Begin by building a few sections of simple roadway and later we will build a varied selection of items.

10, 20 and 30 meter by 40 meter road sections.

Knowing that we have a 500 meter visible draw distance we know for sure that a straight stretch of roadway should not exceed 12.5 of these 40 meter long pieces (assuming that we won't clip the distance with fog). Right now you can use these basic road pieces to construct the pathway of an entire level and you will know precisely the type of scale your level will be.

Using your proxy pieces, you know your limits.


Let's back up a bit before we start building a level and think about our level as an entire gameplay experience. The Timeline is a good place to start when you have your first idea for a level. With our on-foot level we want a solid 15 minute FPS experience, so we'll establish our player top speed to be 400 meters per minute, which gives us this easy equation:

Player Speed = 400 meters per 1 minute
2 km Level Distance = 6 minutes for the player to transverse
Gameplay Interference needed = at least 9 minutes
Minimum Gameplay Time for our level = 15 minutes

From here we can create our visual timeline that will be mirrored into the level layout. Just by looking at the Timeline you can get a mental image of what the level might look like before we start on our design. I've broken up my level into only two distinct styles, Rooftops and Back Alleys; because these are the restrictions I've been given by my artist that will be working on the level. Also, I am limited to 25 unique scripted events where I place them as "Pacing Bars" which gives me a sense of the gameplay and exactly where along my level they will occur. Those Pacing Bars are going to create at least nine minutes of gameplay as described in the above equation (note: the Timeline has no need for scale, this is primarily a visual reference).

Describing the environment and Pacing with a Timeline.

Looking to our vehicle racing level, I again know that I can only have two distinct types of visual areas of art (Streets, Backstreet Alleys) and 25 scripted events. Repeating the same steps with a 15 minute goal, we'll establish that the speed of our vehicle is 1 km per minute, giving us that same basic equation followed by the visual timeline:

Vehicle Speed = 1 km per minute
10 km of Track = 10 minutes to transverse
Gameplay Interference needed = 5 minutes
Minimum Gameplay Time for our level = 15 minutes

Using the same Timeline with a different length of track.

Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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