Unfocused Dude

Writing about things that i give a damn about

An older piece touching on level design

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I wrote this more than a year back but never had the chance to post it somewhere. Here it is in unedited form – i still stand by these lines…

So, the guys at programming offered you all the items you need to start creating your level(s), like the enemies, weapons, bosses, features, and most important at this stage, the editor. The artists provided you with tons of textures, character animations, doodads and cutscene-specific assets, etc. The Lead Level Designer (and/or the Lead Game Designer) gives you the green light and provides you with a rough draft on the general ideas you need to keep mind of so that your completed level fits into the story and the general difficulty curve of the game (included, but not limited to unlocks, story elements, dialogue, new enemies, npcs, weapons, new features, limitations etc.)

This is basically level design – you take a lot of separate elements from code, art, sound, design, and put them together in a level (hopefully) creating an unique playing experience and look.

That’s the technical part anyway, but how do you succeed at Level Design? How do you know what’s right and what’s wrong in doing it?

I’d like to make a reference to what Andrew Loomis calls “Intelligent perception”, a term I’ve first read about in one of his “drawing lessons” book. Intelligent perception tells us from the start if a drawing, or game for that matter, is good or bad, where does it lack, where could it be improved. The funny thing is that this perception thingie rarely helps you put into words what you “feel” about a drawing, game, movie, or book. You just know it. When a character has a foreshortened hand that you feel is wrong, it usually the case. If a 3d model has strange texture and makes the entire model look awkward, there’s a problem. If you’re looking at a game, you can tell either you like it or not, but you can’t really put your finger on the flaws or the good points except for the most obvious ones; you just know.

Due to the fact that there is no “unified game theory” to give us all the good and bad things about game and level design, we have nothing but some general basic rules which we can use to start building a level (we’re talking about single player levels, action/platformer/rpg games for the moment).

1. A level needs to be balanced – not too easy, not to hard, just about right. You can achieve that by testing and refining, then testing and refining some more (by you, but additional opinions are always welcome, because people tend to be subjective about their creation and not recognize even basic flaws in the level). And even when you’re sure, give it another test run and see if there’s anything standing out as bad and smooth it out.

2. A level needs a game play flow – a good rule of thumb is that you need to have the player relax between tense action moments and let him just browse around or explore. A level where there’s a continuous fight from start to finish with little or no chance to rest and do something else except fighting the enemies is very stressful for the player. Use a pattern like this: action/exploring/action/cutscenes/action/dialogue/action…. Etc. Keep different action moments separated by “other” things the player might do and has to do. Travel between fights, do a puzzle, see a cutscene, look for treasure, make his jaw drop when looking at the environment as he’s moving towards the next fight, etc. (it all depends to the features and mechanics of that particular game).

3. A game level is a living world – you need to make use of ALL your assets to make the game world believable. This ranges to making effective use of doodads (ex: put signs at crossroads, birds flying here and there, animals moving about, leaves rustling in the wind, floatsam on the water) to using NPC and/or enemies as part of the world, not just the ones that give you quests/try to kill you. For example: two NPCs are talking; an enemy that charges you but then a NPC helps you by toppling a boulder over him; coming from a corridor into a room where an enemy walks in your field of vision but not noticing you, etc. Having the feeling that this IS a believable world, where enemies/NPCs behave in various ways and react to you, and there are a lot of things happening like weather, environment animations and such, ultimately creates a better (immersive) experience for the player.

4. Give the player some time to integrate new features (controls, abilities, enemies) before introducing another new one – it’s rarely a good idea to unlock several abilities or new enemies in a short span of time. It’s much better to give the player the time to integrate this new ability or enemy into his “system” before adding a new one and confusing him further. Why is that? We (humans) need time to learn how to properly use a new ability and dealing with a new sort of challenge, and we can do that by having to deal with these new features a few times, thus making sure we know how to use them before tackling a new challenge.

5. Play a lot of games and try to analyse their levels from a technical point of view, by asking yourself questions like: “why was that level/campaign so successful?”, “was it really necessary to use those annoying “push button” puzzles between fights?”, “how did they manage to create intense and involving encounters?”, “were the mini-boss and boss enemies correctly placed along the campaign/story?”, “were those optional quests any good in terms of value or time?” and things like that. Try to realize what worked and how did they manage. A good experience would be for example to take a Campaign from Warcraft 3 or Starcraft and play it from start to finish, keeping notes about it. The questions I gave you are a good starting point, but there are much more questions you need to answer to, and those are different for each designer.

6. Level design – the more you do it, the better you get at it. It really helps playing around with the editor and doing whatever crosses your mind. Start small, do a simple level to test the editor – make a single player mission where you need to defeat several enemies or destroy an enemy building or some such. Next, give your side the possibility to build structures and take the game to a new objective, like destroy the enemy base, or defend your own base from multiple avenues of attack. Each level you do will teach you something, both technical (editor related) and design-wise. Later, time attacks, special objectives, side quests, there are plenty of options down the road.

7. Read any article or book on general game design and level design. There are always useful tips in each and every article about design. But, try to integrate what you learn in your levels, and see how those advices and tips work for you and your game/level.

That sums it up for now. Even if it touches on general Game Design, and not all advice are related to RTS maps Level Design, I hope these things can help anyone trying his/her hand at Level Design. I don’t really like how the entire post came out in terms of words, sentences, general structure but perhaps later I’ll review and rewrite some of the parts I don’t like that much.


Written by unfocuseddude

25/04/2011 at 9:24 PM

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I’m back!

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Whoa, 8 months after the last post – i apologise to all my three readers out there 😉

A short recap on what I’ve been doing and my opinion on some subjects debated here:

Boardgames: I still love them, but there’s a lull at the moment in our lunch breaks, when we usually played at least one game of one of the following: Ticket to Ride, Who Would Win?, 7 Wonders (awesome game!), and some more. Things will pick up, i’m sure, with new games and newfound boredom.

– Lua: even more awesome than I thought at first, just looking over it and reading the game list it’s been used on. I feel working with Lua really makes an inprovement on you as a designer, especially when working with programmers. I used it on my last project and made things much easier than before.

– Bobby Kotick : Hey dawg, I heard you had a big lawsuit and don’t(!) try to deflect by countersuing – in the industry, we know them corporate bigshots that sell their souls for profits. Just keep in mind that if West and Zampella get co-ownership of the Call of Duty franchise, your single big paycheck will be Blizzard. It maybe enough, but I have the feeling it’s not 😉

Design: still learning, still trying to be better at it. The journey has been fantastic so far and I look forward for some more! The last project i’ve worked on is one of the best games of my career (in case you were wondering, the picture on top of this article is a little hint ;). My next post will be about level design, so stay tuned.

See you after the break!



Written by unfocuseddude

08/04/2011 at 2:46 PM

I have a new addiction – boardgames!

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I recently played Munchkin, Cutthroat Caverns, Lifeboat and I enjoyed it very much. (Do card games like Munchkin count as board games?)

My favorite so far is Munchkin.

I love the flavour of the game, making fun of more “serious” games like D&D or Diablo-like games. Nothing beats “helping” out a friend with a Wandering Monster that will kill him and prevent him looting or winning the game, or using an Freezing Exploding potion to turn the fight in your favor, or using a Doppelganger to practically double yourself and defeat that difficult monster.

However, i’m more of a miniature games player; I’ve tried mostly Warhammer (both fantasy and 40k) and liked them both, also Mordheim and Tannhauser(which i think is a really a great game with excellent illustrations and minis), to name a few.

I’m recently hyped about Dust Tactics by Fantasy Flight Games – awesome artworks and design by artist Paolo Parente (he also did some Wizards of the Coast illustrations and comics and created the DUST world). Check out the trailer below:

Written by unfocuseddude

03/08/2010 at 8:29 AM

Just another reason to live in the sixties – GOOD MUSIC!

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Is it ok if i play this sizzlin’ tune on repeat? Thank you!

I can’t think of another piece of music with just bass, drums and voice to create such intensity…

Written by unfocuseddude

20/07/2010 at 9:02 PM

Posted in Music

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A few questions for Bobby Kotick

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– i know Valve usually has high prices for the games they distribute through their platform (Steam)

– the basic economic law of supply and demand unfortunately works most of the time.


1. Why did Call of Duty 4 have a price of 49.99 Euros until recently, almost three years after release? It’s 24.99 now… after three years!!

2. Why does Call of Duty 6 (Modern Warfare 2) STILL have a price of 59.99 Euros looking at almost an year after release?

3. Do you really expect that your Resurgence and Stimulus package of several maps a few of them being remade from CoD4) will keep your profits high since you managed to scare away and fire some people that made the franchise great? (Jason West and Vince Zampella, but also Lead animator Mark Grisby FTW!),  lead environmental artist Chris Cherubin, lead animator John Paul Messerly, software engineer Rayme Vinson, programmer Jon Shiring and lead designer Mackey McCandlish).

I just can’t wait to see how Respawn Entertainment will rip you a new one!

4. You also do realise that Guitar Hero spinoffs and music games in general are not selling so hot as a few years back? You made a big mistake Bobby-boy, sacking those talented people that made the biggest selling game ever. You just killed the goose that lays the golden eggs 🙂

As a bonus, here is Sergeant Griggs’s rap, while you realise that Respawn Entertainment will be published by Electronic Arts 🙂 You really rolled snake-eye on this Intelligence check!

Oh, and good luck with two separate lawsuits from 30+ people , cometh 2011 😉

Written by unfocuseddude

19/07/2010 at 6:47 AM

Posted in General

How GearScore and achievements almost killed WoW (for me)

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Long time no post, been busy with various real life projects and getting a bit up to date with modern games (finished Batman: Arkham Asylum, playing Mass Effect, Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl and Bioshock on and off).

And yes, I’ve played a bit of WoW.

I almost quit it for good, almost switched for Age of Conan until Star Wars: The Old Republic comes out hopefully next spring, mostly because of the mindless grind of HCs and having no chance in getting in a 10-player raid because of requests like:

“ICC 10 normal, GS 5400, link achiev4/10, bring a brain, imba players needed,”etc and so on.

I’m not even talking about the “imba” and “bring a brain” standard fart talk that people usually use on the trade(!?) channel in the game capitals,  but the absurd (sometimes) GearScore requests that some pleople have. I remember one guy advertising he wanted a boost in Scarlet Monastery, but you needed at least GearScore 5000+ for the 10 gold he offered.


Scarlet Monastery is a 33-40 level instance and ANY level 80 character, with blue/green items can do that instance on his own, provided of course he doesn’t aggro the entire instance in a single go.

Yeah so having done no raid in my casual WoW gaming for several months, i decided to quit when a buddy said, come, join this guild, they’re raiding, they’re cool, friendly, etc.

So I joined, and the next day we make a 4900-5100 gearscore group for ICC 10 (with two people having 5600 and 5800 respectively) and we get the first four bosses in the first try, with a nice achievement at Saurfang to boot! We then wiped at Rotface and the other putrid-giant-thingie but mostly because the majority of players in the raid didn’t know anything about ICC except the Raid Leader’s tactics explained to us before each encounter.

There’s another thing the guild did for me – they didn’t get upset or leave when I tried to tank Pit Of Saron heroic in low-level epics and little experience in (paladin) tanking, but actually got through 4 wipes in the tunnels before i called it quits.

Yeah, if your WoW life sucks, maybe you should join or switch guilds – it worked( for me).

p.s. only 5 more days until i get CRUSADER, yeah baby!!

Written by unfocuseddude

01/07/2010 at 11:54 AM

Posted in General, MMO, WoW

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I still love Led Zeppelin

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…because sometimes it’s just the blues 🙂

I can give many examples, yet this is one of my favorites:

Wiki says it’s blues-rock, but whatever 🙂

Written by unfocuseddude

19/05/2010 at 3:00 PM

Posted in General, Music

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