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Lopez: Leave 'On-The-Fly' Level Design Behind With Correct Pacing

Lopez: Leave 'On-The-Fly' Level Design Behind With Correct Pacing

November 26, 2008 | By Staff

November 26, 2008 | By Staff
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More: Console/PC, Design

What are the top nine steps to building a great-paced video game? Former EA and THQ design director Mike Lopez details them and his game 'Intensity & Pacing Plan' for Gamasutra in this in-depth design feature.

Sticking with an on-the-fly method of level design might seem adequate at first, especially to stalwarts of the old-school approach.

But Lopez argues that the cost of continually reworking levels and missions to form a user-appealing structure is too prohibitive, and the end results will always be a rougher progression that doesn't match a planned experience.

Lack of planning for your project's pacing structure can also result in your team throwing away most of its missions, levels, or courses deep into production, forcing them to create material to replace that content with only a fraction of production time remaining.

In particular, Lopez suggests:

"Even world-class teams with vast resources like the BioShock team (2K Boston/Australia) suffered through the cost and pain of massive throwaway (in their case I believe all the missions were entirely redone in the final nine months, and I suspect much of the level layout and content was redone as well).

The cold, hard lesson we must all see is that teams that over-confidently think they can avoid those mistakes using old-school, on-the-fly level design methods are destined to repeat the same highly costly content throwaway mistakes that much of the industry has been making for at least the past 10 years.

For the top high profile titles of today, that throwaway easily translates into millions of development dollars wasted (enough to probably implement every design feature from your wish list) and often results in large delays and costly ship windows missed.

It is time we all stop repeating the same unstructured level process mistakes and learn to utilize pacing and intensity processes like the older, more experienced and more efficient entertainment industries (film and TV)."

Lopez's suggests a structured level plan for your project, with intensity magnitude and trend targets for the events in each level and over the entire campaign.

Following the first-step in the nine-step plan, Brainstorming, he suggests that you consult with team leads for task/time estimates for each location and event. In this Prioritization step, you should also optimize the schedule based on those estimates as much as possible. He adds:

"Evaluate your project schedule and resources with the team leads and estimate the number of levels and scripted action events (using brainstorm examples) that can be safely constructed. Take the number of levels possible and then cut both lists down by 10-20% to ensure you are conservative in your estimates and to reduce schedule risk.

Consider cutting these back even more when also building a new engine and new tools with your game. The conservative estimates also help emphasize a commitment to focusing on a smaller set of content that can be built to a higher degree of polish and quality.

Next, rank the level locations in terms of coolness and bang for the buck. A setting that is 10% cooler but takes five times as long to build is probably not a great trade-off, so this step ranks the relative value. Make sure the number of levels is narrowed down to a conservatively manageable set for the available resources and schedule, but keep the list of all locations intact for the moment.

The team leads need to make a mutual commitment that the order of priority may shift during production, but as the project progresses levels can and will be cut from the bottom of the prioritized list up as the project schedule and personnel needs determines. This risk is the reason why coming up with a high-confidence level number estimate makes sense."

You can read the full in-depth feature, which details all of the steps in Lopez's plan for making level production faster, cheaper and more predictable (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

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