Am I a level designer yet?

by kaminazo

When I started The Devine Enigma (神謎), I had an idea, but no real direction. Just a collection of random stuff and experiences set up in a timeline. Turns out there is a massive community devoted to helping people like me. Perhaps I’m even becoming part of it. I started the way most people do: Google it. Open up about 10 tabs, then read them all. Open up all the links on the ones you like and read them, repeat. I do this daily now. As I’m writing this I have 15 tabs open in Chrome. I honestly want to find out how close I am to becoming a level designer with my current experience, and what I need to do next to get closer to that goal. The question I constantly ask myself is “Am I a level designer yet?”

Maybe? In a literal sense I design levels for video games. But, from what I’ve read, becoming a level designer is a slow process. Two months ago I would have answered ‘no.’ But I’m not so sure anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a job at Valve. But I knew I was already close to having the qualifications. The whole purpose of this blog is to figure out how to do it. After a month or two of writing and researching the subject, getting these thoughts out of my head, and looking back on what I’ve done, I found out I’m closer to being one than I thought. People currently working in the industry have lists of requirements they give beginners who have no idea where to start. I have been reading them fervently and noticing where they overlap. I came up with this checklist and inserted my own ego. (I’ll list my sources at the end for those who want to follow that path.)

#1 is an art background. A level designer has to be able to sketch, draft, and understand the basics of design: lighting, color, shading, composition, proportion, perspective, architecture, art history, etc. Things like keeping a sketchbook, having interests outside of gaming like woodworking, photography, or writing, and travelling to unique places can give you ideas for new maps. Everything you do on the computer should be down on paper first, and have some sort of inspiration. If you’re interested, this is my old Deviantart gallery. I have 8 years of art school, 3 college degrees and 4 years of teaching art and language in America and Japan under my belt so far. I think I’ve got step 1 covered.

#2 is, obviously, research. If you don’t play games, you can’t design levels for them very well. A wide range is helpful: first-person shooters, tower defense, puzzle games, sports games, platform games, app games, MMO’s, etc. Multiple systems can also make you more desirable to a wide range of employers: Playstation, Xbox, Nintendo, Windows, Macintosh, Android, iOS, Flash/HTML, etc. And not just playing the games, but paying attention to their successes and failures. It helps to be the part of some sort of forum or gaming community, as well. Being up to date on new releases, awards, and conferences (E3) can help you keep track of game developers and their products. I play games, I read articles, I follow blogs, and now I write about it on this website. So maybe I’m on my way…

The big three: editors.

#3 is game engine editing skillz. Purchasing and playing games that come with built-in editors is most advantageous. Console games are a bit difficult in that respect, but they all still rely on computer programs. First-person PC games are the most common that let you edit their engines. Plenty of them are available: Epic’s Unreal (UDK), Valve’s Hammer, and Bethesda’s CreationKit to name a few. Read every tutorial you can find and work through them until you can at least master the basics. Browse through the official game files to study what they deem a finished product. Then download new user created content and mods to see what other people are doing. Once you’re seasoned enough, join a modding community and upload your work to see how the community reacts to it. A bit of OCD and perfectionism helps, as game design always strives to reach perfection. I have been using game editors for 15 years. More recently, UDK and the Creation Kit. I’ve done every tutorial that exists on the CreationKit wiki. I have levels and designs, and am a member of Skyrim Nexus and uploaded/downloaded content. I still have some backtracking to do, getting myself back up to speed with the newest Unreal, but I have a great foundation…

The big three: 3D modeling.

#4 is 3D modeling and CAD. Along similar lines to #3, but independent of a particular game franchise. All level designers rely on professional editing software. Most use the Autodesk products Maya, 3D Studio Max, and Softimage XSI or some combination of them. There are tons of others mentioned, but these are the three most common. They can be extremely difficult and costly, so the best option is to take a class at a community college and use their copy. When I was an industrial design student, I trained on Cobalt and 3DSM. I didn’t get very far, but I know some basics and plan on picking back up very soon…

#5 is teamwork. Be a valuable member of a team or community. Riffing and reviewing games is a good start, but will that make you valuable as a game developer? Have other creative outlets to fall back on besides arranging clutter in a digital room. The majority of game companies are fairly hieratic, so making yourself useful in other ways can make you a valuable asset. Don’t be a one-trick pony. The Renaissance designer is what employers want. Dabble in lighting, sound, animation, electronics, anatomy, robotics, industrial design, inventing, foreign languages, etc. Game companies are only looking to the future, and they want people who are doing the same. Bring those interests to the table and get other people excited about next-gen ideas.

#6 is a portfolio. Don’t throw anything away. Make backups. I seldom heard this on the sites I read, but I’m forcing it into the list because of my own experience. I regret so much that I can’t retrieve my old Doom, Warcraft 2, and Battlefield levels. Nor did I keep any of the map designs I did on graph paper. Now that I’m getting back into it, I’m going to save everything, upload it, write about it, etc. With that said, create! Make something every day. Give yourself goals. Challenge yourself with a deadline. Even if you can’t be on your computer, write your ideas down in a notebook, twitter them to yourself from your phone, or take a picture. Right now I’ve got my smartphone with twitter linked to my blog so I can send my random firings to the website and look them up later. When I have an idea for a blog post, I start the article and set a deadline even if I haven’t done enough research yet. I always carry a notebook with me to scrawl things down. Always carry a camera in case you stumble upon a cool place (luckily most cell phones have them now). It’s hard to fake inspiration, and if you don’t have lots of visual information to draw from it’s difficult to look at a blank grid and create. I’m not one of those people who can sit down and draw a completely original superhero while sitting in a blank cubicle. My blank sheet of paper is surrounded by 10-20 images with sticky notes and things circled, there’s most likely a movie on or music playing, and I’m sitting in a room full of visually pleasing objects. It also helps to go back and look at your previous projects, make improvements, show a progression, or make sequels. Don’t hide them once you’ve finished them. Play your levels with friends. Take screenshots. Print them out and plaster them above your desk or near your workspace. After looking at them long enough, you’ll find problems and want to fix them. Or you’ll start collecting a nice list of things that worked, which you can then combine into something new!

#7. It all sounds good in writing, but now you have to stick with it. For me, that means follow through and finish all the things I promised I’d do. Prove to myself and all my readers that I’m not full of hot air. The next step is clear now: practice what I preach. Then maybe I will be a level designer. Ideas are worthless if they never see the light of day, so now I will retreat for a week or so and finish a new level. It will not be without frustration, however. I’ll be building it in DCK, so I hope I can relearn it quickly.

Your sources for getting started (try clicking all the links within as well):

Also, these forums are amazing:

Update: During the process of writing this post, I received an email from the Art & Design department of my alma mater. Ten years ago when I enrolled at my University, I did so because degrees in video game design were not readily available in my area and experimental at best. I fell into Industrial Design because it was the next best thing, then moved to Fine Art once I got bored with re-redesigning the Salad Shooter. The email was to inform me that beginning Fall 2012, they would finally be offering the first class in video game design and industry. *Facepalm*

End [Am I…Yet?].