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Educational Feature: A History and Analysis of Level Design in 3D Computer Games - Pt. 1
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Educational Feature: A History and Analysis of Level Design in 3D Computer Games - Pt. 1

April 25, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Designing game spaces is not a new phenomenon.  Children do it on a daily basis, constructing complicated games governed by rule sets that can change at the drop of a hat. The design of computer game spaces, on the other hand, has existed for only about 30 years and in that narrow timeframe has evolved dramatically.  The level design in most early titles was part and parcel of the game design itself; often the programmer was the person designing the gameplay, as was the case with many titles by Atari Corporation. One person could, much like an auteur, create an entire game alone, but as time went on and games grew more complex the division of labor required led to the creation of a new position; that of the “level designer.”

Defining Level Design & Level Designers

Level designers, or map designers, are the individuals responsible for constructing the game spaces in which the player competes. As such, the level designer is largely responsible for the implementation of the game play in a title.  The name “level designer” is something of a misnomer, at least for modern games. Originally, games were comprised of distinct levels of difficulty, beginning with Level One. Each level was more difficult than the last, providing steadily increasing level of difficulty, hence the term “level”. Modern titles follow this formula to a degree, but the levels are no longer as simple as they were in the mid 1970’s and early 1980’s. In most modern titles, the distinction between individual levels is subtle, with transitions happening relatively seamlessly. Alternately, individual levels can be extremely large and complex, with storyline tying the individual levels together. Indeed, the term “level” now refers less to the increasing difficulty of upcoming missions and more often to the next mission or gameplay area. The term “level designer,” then, is an inaccurate description of the job; a more accurate name for the position would be “game space designer.” In the computer game industry the term level designer has become both sufficiently entrenched and sufficiently broad in meaning that everyone understands what the job consists of.

In the context of this paper, “level design” refers to the creation of levels, missions, maps, game environments, stages and any other space wherein the player or their avatar interacts with the game world.  The primary focus of this paper will be on “first person shooter”, or FPS titles, though examination of non-FPS titles that made significant technical or gameplay advances is also possible. For those unfamiliar with the genre of FPS games, they can be most simply characterized as games wherein the view on the screen is designed to simulate the view of the player’s character or avatar inside the game world. Examples of traditional FPS’s would be games such as id Software’s Doom and Quake, Valve Software’s Half-Life and Bungie’s Halo. Additionally, other titles such as Lucasarts’ X-Wing and Tie Fighter, Parallax’s Descent and Origin’s Wing Commander could also be considered to be first person shooters, since they place the player in a first person perspective, albeit inside the cockpit of a vehicle.

It is important to note that level design is not unique to three dimensional games, but is an art that applies to all genres of computer games. The level design in a two-dimensional side scrolling strategy such as Psygnosis’ 1991 Lemmings requires a great deal of forethought and testing. The extra dimension present in a 3D title adds a significant amount of work to the level designer, who must now consider movement across all three axes of movement – x, y and z, instead of merely x and z.  Reaching the current state of the art in 3D was no easy task. Before there was Unreal Tournament, Doom 3, Half-Life 2, World of Warcraft, Serious Sam or F.E.A.R. there were countless small steps, casual games, labors of love and simple curiosity that laid the foundations for all the games to come.

The Beginning – 1974 to 1991


Battlezone’s untextured wireframe models were one of the
first steps into the realm of polygonal characters


When contemplating what game represents the original first-person perspective 3D game, the answer is not immediately apparent. Depending on the age of the person being asked, some might state, that Battlezone was the first 3D computer game, whereas others might name Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, or even Quake. While these titles may be some of the best known examples of the genre, the first documented 3D first person game appears to be Spasim, a program written by Jim Bowery for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s PLATO network (Bowery). Bowery describes Spasim as follows:

“Spasim was a 32-player 3D networked game involving 4 planetary systems with up to 8 players per planetary system, flying around a space in which the players appeared to each other as wire-frame space ships and updated their positions about every second. (Bowery)”

Bowery recalls that Spasim, short for Space Simulation, was originally released in March of 1974, but locating documentation of the exact dates for the release of many PLATO games is very difficult since little conclusive documentation exists. The reason for this is probably because these games were not seen as terribly serious endeavors, so little effort was made to record their creation and evolution. Users of the PLATO network likely had little idea that these titles would prove to be the genesis of entire genres of games. Bowery claims that Spasim is, at the very least, the “intellectual genesis” for a number of other 3D computer games, such as Silas Warner’s PLATO game Airace.  Airace later evolved into another PLATO game, Airfight, the creator of which is either Kevin Gorey or Brad Fortner. Bowery further asserts that Airfight eventually led to the development of a tank simulator for the US army. This tank simulator, Panzer (or Panzer PLATO), appeared on the PLATO network in 1977, and was apparently a highly detailed simulation for the time (Dunnigan, Ch. 6 paragraphs 7-8). Panzer was an evolution of an earlier PLATO game called Panther, programmed by John Edo Haefeli, which was also a tank simulator. Panther and Panzer would prove to be the inspiration for a game that would mark the appearance of polygon-based 3D graphics in both the arcade and the home: Atari’s Battlezone.

While Bowery claims to have the first documented 3D first person game, this claim does not go entirely unchallenged. Maze War, also known as The Maze Game, Maze and Maze Wars, was a program developed at the NASA/Ames research center in the summer of 1973 that could also be a contender for the title of  the first 3D first-person game. Maze War was aptly named, consisting of a maze constructed of polygon walls at 90 degree angles, through which a player could navigate and then shoot at other players (Thompson, slides 10-13). Maze Wars included technical innovations that were not present in many of the early PLATO titles. While the ships in Spasim were wire frame polygons that one could see through, the walls of the labyrinth in Maze War used a set of algorithms to eliminate any polygons that would not be visible to the player, lending an impression that the walls were solid (Thompson, slide 10). This is a technique that would not be seen again for some time, particularly not in the home computer market.

It is important to realize that as impressive as the technical achievements made in both PLATO games were, as well as in games developed on other networks, these systems were certainly not widely available to the public. In many cases, these computer systems were among the most powerful systems in the world at the time, and prohibitively expensive for all but institutional use. True mass-market innovation, and the creation of a more mainstream game industry, would have to wait for the emergence of a broader market in personal computers.

For personal computers, the history of level design for 3D computer games begins with the 1983 release of Battlezone for the Apple II and PC.  A “port”, or translation, of the 1980 coin-operated arcade game of the same name, Battlezone allowed players to take control of a tank tasked with destroying enemy tanks and avoiding missiles. Battlezone is significant because it represents the first use of polygonal environments and opponents combined on home computers, along with the ability to move through the gameplay space, at least on the X and Y axes of movement. The move into polygonal environments was the beginning of the transition from the two-dimensional sprite-based environments and into the world of full 3D. Battlezone represented the most basic of polygon environments, with all sides of a polygonal object being visible at all times. This served to enhance the futuristic setting of the title, but also meant that everything in the game appeared to be made of glass, since players could see through the wire frame models. Battlezone also continued the proud tradition of computer games using storyline to hide engine technical limitations; battles were fought “in a large valley completely surrounded by mountains and volcanoes” (Battlezone Operations Manual, p. 17), thus explaining why you couldn’t move beyond the area you began in. Regardless of these limitations, Battlezone was the first truly successful mass-market game played from a first person perspective.

The level design for Battlezone was relatively straightforward, in as much as it consisted of creating a game space (the “large valley surrounded by mountains”) in which the player could drive around and destroy targets for points. Essentially, the level design was that of a digital Roman arena, wherein the player could do battle, and it was a design that worked well for the limitations of the graphics engine, and provided enjoyable and novel gameplay for the arcade and home computer markets. Still, the gameplay was little removed from that of Battlezone’s PLATO forbears.

Not all attempts at 3D games involved the use of polygon-based 3D environments like those used in Battlezone; several games attempted to leverage other technology to provide an impression of a three-dimensional world. Notable efforts include Lucasfilm Games, now LucasArts, 1986 title Rescue on Fractalus!, a first-person title that used fractal generation technology to render the game world. The title is notable both for the use of a simulated 3D world, as well as for the first-person perspective. The player took the role of a pilot looking out from a cockpit, tasked with rescuing other pilots stranded on the surface of the planet Fractalus (Langston). The concept of a spacecraft based FPS would later return in LucasArts’ 1993 title X-Wing and 1994’s Tie Fighter space combat simulators, as well as Origin’s 1990 release of Wing Commander.  Rescue on Fractalus! was completed in May of 1984, but due to a number of exclusivity decisions the title did not become legitimately available for home computer systems until 1986 (Langston). According to Langston, however, an incomplete version of the game for home computers was widely pirated.

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