General Thoughts on Level Design
by: Jipe [firstname.lastname@example.org]
By now you've probably opened up this article for one of several reasons: you're interested to hear what I have to say on this issue, or you want an excuse to flame me for my idiocy, or you're bored and were clicking random links. Chances are 99% of you are going to be in the third group, but for the other 1%, the rest of the article will feature on several main points: level design, particularly in Jedi Knight, basic and advanced editing tips, what *not* to do in your levels, and how to tweak your level to perfection.
First off, pick the game that you want to edit - it doesn't necessarily need to be the latest and greatest game out there, like Quake III or Unreal Tournament. Games like Jedi Knight and several-year old 3d shooters still provide a lot of fun, and in some cases, a better community. If you don't already have the game but are looking into it, see if you can find a demo, and try it out. If you don't like the game, why bother editing it? Editing, first and foremost, is meant to be fun - unless you're in the computer game industry, or are hoping to make it in, chances are editing will be a hobby for you. Next, check out the community - is there an active base of members who are willing to help you out and respond to your creations, or is it a bunch of 90-year old grandmas who sit around knitting? Are there countless websites that have tutorials and files to get you started, that are updated regularly? Is there an editor available with the game, or will you have to download it separately, or will you have to pay for it? If all answers point towards "Go For It!", then you've probably found your game. If not, look around a bit more.
Alright. You've got Game XXX, and the Game XXX Editor - time to open that sucker up and start editing, right? Wrong. It is important for level designers to understand the engine they're working with - how rooms are built, textures are applied, lighting functions, etc. Chances are, if you open up the editor before you've learned anything about it, you'll look at it and go "What the hell?" Look around for tutorials that explain the basic inner workings of the game engine you're going to be working with. Then come back to the editor and fool around - figure out how to connect rooms to each other, add objects, maybe a scripted event (like a door), and test it out. Congratulations, you've made your first level - you're well on your way to fame, beautiful ladies, and millions of dollars (I'm only exaggerating a little :) ).
So you've mastered the basics, and are ready to make a real level now - decide whether you are going to make a single-player or multiplayer level. If you've decided on creating the ultimate SP adventure, keep reading. If you are intent on making that kick-ass deathmatch map you've always wanted to play in, keep reading anyways. There are basic "standards" in the world of gaming, and we'll be taking a look at them in-depth:
- 99% of the time you will want to plan out your level entirely before you even *begin* to create your level. Draw the whole thing out on paper, adding in details and basic enemy/item placement. Then begin forming the rooms, bit by bit. This is especially important because most of the time unplanned levels give the player a ragged, unfinished feeling with poor flow (in MP levels) and/or bad connectivity (in SP).
- Remember, many levels go through several stages of development before the editor is even opened. Take in references from everywhere - play as many games/levels as you can find, but don't rule out other sources. Television, game consoles, magazines, books, and even newspapers can supply you with good ideas - don't forget experiences in real life, too! If you see something cool, grab some paper and draw it right then (sure, you'll get some strange looks, but what do other people know anyways? :) ).
- First and foremost, you're making a game. Remember who you're making it for - the average gamer. Concentrate on good gameplay first, and add in all the minute details (super-cool architecture and perfect lighting) at the end. This is a *very* common problem - more inexperienced designers will attempt to make a very kick-ass looking level, but it will run smooth only on high-end machines and gameplay is sub-par. Also, keep in mind the variety of machines out there, ranging from P200s to P1000+, each with different video cards and memory. It is also good to keep details out until the final build, for some newer engines can take up to several days to compile (depending on level size, detail, and system specs) the level, and you won't want to sit around twiddling your thumbs - concentrate on gameplay.
- On the same topic, find good beta testers and use them constantly. Take their advice seriously, especially if they are experienced gamers. As a level designer, you need to realize that sometimes it is important to 'take the axe' to certain portions of your level. Even if you think that 'this section is the best thing since the wheel!', the other people to play it probably won't. It's unusually hard to tell if something works out or not - sure, you can get past these guys, but you know every nook and cranny. Beta testers are your most valuable resource - use them wisely.
- The difference between a good level and a bad level can be night and day - literally. Proper lighting adds realism, atmosphere, and a general "This level rocks" attitude. Some game engines make lighting a pain in the ass (ie: Jedi Knight) but others are remarkably intuitive - regardless, good lighting is essential to the success of your level. Think about what you're trying to do - dark lighting doesn't match bright, clean texturing and a 'shiny' atmosphere. Also, if you're designing this for a team-based mod or the like, lack of light makes it hard for Joe McAverage Gamer to differentiate between teams.
- Texturing! If you are a level designer who can make your own textures, you're *very* lucky. Most Joe McAverage Editorers out there have limited ability in the texture design field, and run into this common problem - often times the default textures that ship with game don't fit into your design theme. Turn to free texture sites (there's a lot out there, if you look) and try to "enlist" a good artist you know.. tie them down and force them to churn out custom textures for you until they die of starvation. Or, you could ask them nicely. Remember to keep texturing consistent, and use the right ones for the right location. You don't want a brick wall on one side of the room, wood on another, wallpaper on another, and stone on the 4th, with a carpet floor and a spiky ceiling. Spend the time it takes to align *all* your textures, as the gamer's experience is detracted when he/she spots them.
- Item placement: again, some of these are basic, but sometimes people need reminders! In single-player, you want to challenge the player, so that he/she is constantly wishing they had more health/ammo, and right when they desperately need some, it appears. Same with enemies - make them appear as if they have a point, like guarding a security door or on their way to fix something, instead of standing in the middle of a hallway doing nothing. It is generally not good to mass enemies in single rooms, and if you do put in traps (which you will), add some environmental hints. Don't just have a portion of a walkway that collapses without warning, and the player dies - add creaky sounds, maybe a scene where the player sees part of it break off, etc. The same with puzzles - give a clue or two so that the player will think "Wow, I solved that puzzle - I'm smart!" instead of becoming frustrated at their inability to move on, and quitting. In multiplayer, don't overload your level with plenty of super-weapons and powerups. Try to semi-hide them, so that the player will be rewarded if he finds them - make the best things harder to get to, instead of laying out in the open.
- Keep in mind framerate issues. This was mentioned a little above, but not too detailed. Framerate can ruin your level - it doesn't matter if it's an accurate rendition of the Cathedral of Monte-Rah-Tah down to every swirl on the engravings, perfectly to scale. Unless you're running a super computer, framerate is going to drop drastically. Try to find ways around these issues: for example, if you're making a chain-link, is it really necessary to carve out each individual link? Wouldn't it be better to find a texture and paste it on a rectangle - sure, it may not be 100% authentic, but it gives the same effect, and a hell of a lot better framerate, too. Consider the engine you're working with - if it doesn't *do* large-scale outdoor terrains, don't try it. There's probably a reason why nothing like it has ever been released for that particular game - because it's simply a slideshow. Play to the strengths of the game you're working on, but don't be afraid to try new ideas. No one can tell you what to do.
To wrap things up, put everything in perspective: editing can be very fulfilling, frustrating, and exciting all at the same time. No one ever said it was going to be easy, but the results are well worth it. Work on something new and interesting, and who knows - maybe you'll catch the eye of someone important, and your hobby could very well be your dream job! Remember, your editing talent will grow over time - no one is a super-star designer right off the bat. It takes a good deal of experience to recognize what is good, what is bad, and to put everything together into very fun gameplay.
Questions? Comments? Flames? (Group #2, This is for you) Email me - I look forward to seeing your levels.