Previously, the title ‘Level Designer’ brought to mind a single lucky fellow spinning out level ideas of which were instantly transformed into reality by a group of obedient artists and modellers. They continually work with visually compelling imagery and.. well ... I actually assumed it was a fairly easy job. How naive.
The amount of planning that goes into each of the designs is phenomenal. Building a successful map is an art form in itself. Working up to the final design requires a lot of trial and error before you get something challenging and entertaining for the player. Often they fail even after all of that effort… it’s not an easy job!
Before any artwork is involved the team meet and discuss ideas. Intense planning and research ensues resulting in sketches, mood boards and check lists. After approval simple geometry is blocked out in 3D and shoved in front of any play tester they can get their hands on. This constructive input is put into consideration and the level is tweaked until unrecognisable.
Only then is the level given to concept artists to paint-over who work on the overall look of the level. It is then passed off to environment artists who make further tweaks and changes, adding level after level of detail until happy with the finished art.
Half Life 2 has a particularly successful level design. The maps have clear direction without feeling too constraining and the environments feel familiar enough to be believable. All of the levels flow beautifully and you always have a clear sense of where you are heading. Each level climax has been unmistakably imprinted into my brain, and I remember them clearly and fondly!
To me a successful level keeps the player moving at a consistent pace. I instantly feel underwhelmed when I think I have found a secrete passage that leads to loot but instead discover a mindless barricade or dead end. I feel betrayed as a double back on myself with nothing shiny to distract me. I think all paths should lead to a destination, even if the loot at the end simply consists of a worthwhile view – a tactic beautifully executed by the Uncharted games…
I also appreciate feeling orientated. Massive, complicated levels make me feel lost and panicky before I even get the chance to defeat any foes. If I haven't got a map, I find being able to see my final destination reassuring. Distinctive markers and worn paths help me keep track of where I have been and simply catching a glimpse of the destination in the distance acts as a comforter. I don't appreciate being surrounded by enemies whilst feeling impossibly lost!