Stage 2

by kaminazo

When I first travelled abroad to Japan, and every subsequent time thereafter, people warned that I would go through the stages of culture shock. Stage 1 is amazement and wonder. “Ooh look at how foreign this rock looks! Wow, what is that person saying? Incredible, they have birds here, too!”

But, after a while of everything being perfect and interesting and exciting, you realize how different and wrong everything feels. “I miss the way the rocks would sit back home. Why doesn’t anyone speak English? I just want a pizza without mayonnaise or ketchup!” Welcome to stage 2.

Luckily, I have made it through most of the stages of culture shock here in Japan. But, I have been drawing parallels between living in a foreign country and re-immersing myself in the subculture of level design. You could say I’m going through the stages of subculture shock. Technology has been evolving faster than culture all my life, and it is a struggle to keep up with if you miss a few months. After a 7-year hiatus from level design, I am deeply overcome by stage 2. 7 years in computer time works like dog years. Suddenly, I’m an old man thrown back into a future world, longing for the golden years. (Not quite that dramatic, but you get the point.)

Not to say I haven’t been playing games. But there’s a large gap between playing a game and knowing it inside and out, structurally; Not to mention learning the new editing programs as each one rises and falls. Those fond memories I have of level designing in DCK, UnrealEd, and War2Ed are gone as they become swallowed up in the landslide of obsolete tech. But, I tried to revisit them anyway.

Last we left off, I had resolved to design, draft, build, play test, and publish a reboot of my old DCK favorite: Facility. I delved into the first two steps, hashing out a gorgeous blueprint in a day or two. I built half the level in about 2 hours in DCK, the memories of how to join sectors and assign their attributes flooding back. I was excited and driven, everything was perfect until I tried to playtest it. I was completely blinded by stage 1.

PlayerinSpecialSector: unknown special 1499. What? Why? Panic. Google.

I spent longer trying to resolve this error than I did in the entire design stage of the level. Finally giving up, I flushed DOSBox, DCK, all utterances of Doom, and countless hours down the drain. The programs are so old that our modern systems have to contort themselves into funny positions to run them, and even then they’re still prone to tons of errors. Then I realized, what the hell was I doing? A level designer, no matter how much they owe games from ’93 like Doom, has no business using them in 2012. That’s what level designers do as a hobby now. Struggling to get DOS to run a new Doom2 WAD on my MacBook Pro was a waste of time.

I’m still proud of my level, and the drawing will come in handy for the next step/portfolio stuff. But, now it’s time to move on. I want to stop fiddling around with the past and get to the good stuff. So now where do I go? Well, I’ve got some Unreal levels. Let’s see what Epic is up to these days.

Turns out I’m at an interesting crossroads, along with the gaming industry. There has been a small lag in recent years. No real new hardware has changed the game yet. We are going on 5-7 years with most game engines and console platforms. Overall we are in a state of lull until the next next-gen systems and engines are released. So right now, there a few tracks a prospective level designer can go down when looking toward the future. One would be PC games. PC games are mostly driven now by online communities. MMO’s like WoW are hot, as are heavily detailed resource-hogs which require a big video card in an even bigger tower. They’re even crossing over now into web-based games and client servers like Steam to escape production overhead costs and make content available instantly.

Two is console games. Great…but I can’t design levels for those unless I am licensed by the respective company to use their software, characters, and game objects…which still requires a computer. I’d need to get hired by Nintendo [Wii], Sony [PS3], or Microsoft [Xbox 360] to make that happen. Or do a lot of illegal stuff like jail-breaking, chipset modding, etc. that I’m not willing to do [even though it sounds fun]. Although, now there are some options for portable systems like PS Vita for porting UDK designs. But this is more for game design as a whole, and not specifically level design.

Three would be app games. Android and iOS are massive game cranking machines. Intimidating to say the least. It would require a lot of sacrifice to delve into that field, as it is highly demanding and full of deadlines. Games like Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies are the lucky ones that come out ahead in a vast ocean of single-serving gamelets. These require mostly computer programming [coding and scripting in a set language] and production design [storyboards, artists, and think tanks] and very little use of streamlined visual CAD-like editors. I’ve seen some of this available through UDK, but it would be starting from scratch before finally getting to design a level.

Four would be innovation/new technology. This is a difficult field to describe. So far, I have seen three pieces of media that really struck me as being in on this new track. I’m still not sure where the level designer would fit into this process, but I’m already intrigued. The first was a video post of Google’s new augmented reality glasses [Project Glass]. Someone had mashed it up with a little CG for a peek at what the glasses could do for next-gen gaming: Battlefield 5.

The second was an article I saw on Interlopers.net. Here is a link to the original article on Michael Abrash’s site Rambling in Valve Time. Scroll down to the article entitled Valve: How I Got Here, What It’s Like, and What I’m Doing. It’s starts out like me, nostalgic for the good ‘ol days of Doom and Quake. But towards the end he starts talking about Valve having no hierarchical bureaucracy [an amazing feat]. Then starts talking about his pet project “wearable computing” and “terminator vision”…sound familiar? This is from the mouth of an industry professional, this is where games are headed.

The third was an article I saw on epicgames.com. Unreal Engine has partnered with Adobe Flash to make real-time 3D gaming possible on a web browser. This opens up all kinds of opportunities. Could you imagine the kind of game-based websites a person could create using UDK and Flash now? You could have a an entire website devoted to playing in a deathmatch, or vise versa, have your personal website or blog be a video game. You can now not only visit a website, you can live in it. You could walk around in a virtual world of my blog posts and “link” (teleport) to other webworlds as your player character avatar. Google could be an enormous megalopolis you travel around inside with flying cars.

Now combine that with augmented reality glasses: the results could be astounding. So why am I laboring over a stupid Doom WAD in DOS? What’s the point when all this innovation is happening in the world outside? Now I’m a bit stuck. My roadblock is deciding whether to go back to a five-year-old game [Unreal Tournament 3] and start designing levels for it to get my chops up on UnrealEd and segway into UDK, or to explore something new like creating a playable Flash webworld in UDK. Either way, my efforts can’t be very next-gen until I practice something. My worry is that designing levels for such an old game will be wasted when the new one is released [no tentative dates on that yet]. So I’m feeling a bit “stage 2” right now. Hopefully after Golden Week, I will have my head screwed back on straight. I need to purchase UT3 and start using the editor. Who knows, maybe it will open my old levels. Then I’ll take the map I labored over in DCK and revamp it for Unreal.

[End Stage 2]

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