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GDC 2002: Realistic Level Design in Max Payne
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GDC 2002: Realistic Level Design in Max Payne

May 8, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Where to start?

What a common statement. Even after three decades of game development we still seem to have the same problem -- how to begin or end something, how to come up with a believable start and a waterproof finish.

For some reason, level designers all struggle with that same problem. We'd like it to be easy and trouble-free, we'd like to be able to make miracles and not really show the amount of work required to get there. Fortunately, not everything is bad at it first seems - there are several shortcuts, if you will, to make the level design track not only swifter, but also more efficient and more consistent. With so many different visions, opinions, approaches and work-methods, consistency is beginning to play the most important role in modern level design.

The Need
Not only are you normally not the one who gets to decide what the level is all about, but also not the one who gets to change the stuff that comes to the level; script writers, game designers, project leads -- the whole bunch who say what to put where and when and sometimes even, regrettably, why.

So what to do when you are given a bunch of paper that is the design layout for your next challenge (some might say your work for the following 10-odd weeks), furthermore how to make sure the errand you're about to put yourself in doesn't, in the end, differ too much from your previous work, or the work of others?



A dank storage room where Mona was kept only moment before. A dead mobster is hanging from chains in the roof, he has a note pinned on his chest.
NOTE: A threat to Punchinello.


General, cluttered storage rooms. Nothing Valkyr, or Cold Iron related though. Just furniture, etc.

Boiler Room

Wine Cellar
(a part from a design document of Max Payne)


As we all know, starting something new is mostly about decisions: what to leave out and what to include, what to make something look/feel/sound (even taste) like and perhaps most importantly, how to restrict things -- what is to be the physical size, the file size, the time 'size' you have available and what is realistic.

With Max Payne we set up certain basic rules: minimum room heights, door sizes, minimum room sizes (e.g. corridor width), minimum spaces between pieces of furniture and other objects etc. These things were decided on, not to make the job harder, but to have consistency in scale and, in the end, make the job easier!

So how does this all work in practice? Let's take a look at the design document above and how I started working from there.

Gentlemen, start your engines!
Just wait a minute. I don't think you need to get the engine running to get an idea on what a level could look like; the shortest approach is to take a pen and a piece of paper, draw out a rough sketch of general shapes and scale: in this case the grid lines are present to give a sense of size and to help out to divide the space evenly.

Once you have a drawing, it's easier to figure out where to startwith the geometry.

Prototype level as a sketch and as a 3D model.

As you can see, the difference between the sketch and the 3D model is clear. Also worth mentioning is the fact it took about ten minutes to draw the sketch, but several hours to model the geometry in in the 3D model. But as this is just to show the basic idea behind the process and not the whole thing in detail, I'll leave everything complex out for now -- that's where I'll be heading to later on.

For those enthusiastic, I have a picture of the final version of the level and a screenshot of the same cellar from Max Payne.

Final version of the level and a screenshot of the same cellar from Max Payne.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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