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Detailed Look on Great Level Design

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel level designer Dean Walshe talked about the peculiarities of creating environments and learning new middleware.

Dean Walshe has a vast experience in level design and architectural modeling. He has worked on a number of big games including Teen High Zombie Squad, Star Wars The Force Unleashed and most recently Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. In this post he discussed the peculiarities of level design in games, the most useful tools for newbies and talked about the modern pricing of middleware tools.

About Dean Walshe

I was very lucky to have a supportive family that always encouraged me in more creative fields, as a result I had a lot of opportunities to try out different artistic disciplines.

My grandfather was an architect though and I had the great benefit of growing up surrounded by everything that entailed and seeing how art could fit into a more structured commercial context, he often discouraged me from architecture though since he saw it as a hard industry to have creative freedom in compared to when he started and found opportunities.

My older brother had studied graphic design and as a result when I was in high school I ended up learning Photoshop and also spending a lot of time with some of the old 3d programs they used like Infini-D.

I ended up focusing on fine art spending a couple of years at art school life drawing, oil painting and studying photography all with the intention of then studying 3d for game development since I saw that as an emerging field that could offer me the creative opportunities I was after.

Funnily enough after all of that I ended up working in architectural visualisation where I worked on some real time renderings of different city infrastructure projects one of which required me to model one of my grandfather’s old buildings.

My real passion was for game development though and I had the opportunity to work as an environment artist on some licensed Star Wars projects along with a number of cancelled projects.

I had a break from development when a number of studios in Australia closed and took the opportunity to teach 3D art and research the type of things you never get time to mid project and then had the fantastic opportunity to work with the talented team at 2K Australia where I worked on Borderlands The Pre-Sequel.

The Pillars of a High Quality Environment

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Composition, lighting and color are always going to be the deal breakers, you can make mediocre assets into something special depending on those aspects and for games those elements can have the biggest impact on gameplay.

Ideally everything matches the standards we all set for our own work but if time or other factors have to impact on a project sometimes you have to refocus effort where it will have the most benefit.

What really makes my jaw drop is when everything comes together and nothing betrays the scene both artistically and on a technical level so that you get high fidelity timeless art that can support the game it is a part of or stand on its own as personal work.

I have to say I am a sucker for small details that show the care and consideration someone may have put into a scene’s research and design, that sort of stuff certainly makes me remember it.

Building Environments for Games

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Gameplay is always king so layout, props and effects that are key to gameplay set the foundations for the art. From there it is a matter of making everything come together. Optimization is always in the back of your mind because you want to make the most of you budgets and no one wants to see all the art get stripped out of a level so that it can run on a target platform.

I think testing maps and listening to user feedback can help a lot, often when starting out a level you can get stuck on the finer details and it is great to step back and just watch someone from another department explore what you have, it often helps me solve things that I otherwise might miss.

Lighting is such a huge thing it is always nice to have someone dedicated to it in a gaming company.

It is great to see the lighting for a scene evolve along with all other aspects. I like to consider what the lighting direction could be for a space from the very beginning since it can create some great opportunities for the rest of the art as it evolves. Trying to rush the lighting as a final step is always going to be a huge mistake.

Ideally if you have a dedicated lighting artist and environment artist working together just like pairing a level artist with a designer it allows for a creative back and forth where each expert can contribute to the scene, challenge each other and create something special from their individual skills and perspectives.

Details in Game Level Design

Dean Walshe, 2K Australia, Borderlands: Pre-Sequel!, Level Design, gamedev, indiedev, environment design, art, 3d art, Unreal Engine 4, Unity, MODO, 3dS Max, Autodesk,

Details aren’t a necessity and it always comes down to the project how much fidelity or design is needed for the assets.

There is some amazing minimalist work being done in games as well as highly detailed work, style and variety of art is just getting better and I think when you look at a game like Monument Valley you can see something that works perfectly for the type of game it is. At the same time the high detailed immersive visuals in say Uncharted 4 are perfect for what it is.

I think sometimes people can look at a highly crafted art style that may be very clean or simple and dismiss it as easy or quick and while the asset pipeline may be quicker establishing that direction can be a monumental task.

Destructible Environments in Games

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I think environmental destruction can be very tricky and presents many design considerations similar to other dynamic elements of gameplay.

It is always scary when some of the control artists have is taken away and given to the end user, the same applies to pre rendered versus real time when the player is able to choose their own camera angle when you think about it.

We have evolved our own techniques to handle interactive environments by designing spaces that have multiple vantage points that still conform to traditional composition.

We have learnt a lot from architecture, sculpture and things like urban planning and I think more dynamic variations to environments be it destruction or even procedurally generated spaces will have solutions in how we still manage to direct the art.

It can certainly bring something new to the game experience so as artists we will have to find ways to deal with it.

Great Tools Make Great Scenes

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I have used a variety of engines over the years from in house technologies to some of the more popular engines now with Unity and Unreal.

I am a firm believer that the right tools are the ones that let you get the job done, those will often change over time or be very dependent on the type of project you are on.

I am focusing on Unreal 4 currently for my personal projects but will no doubt have to dive into others as required.

It is becoming far easier for artists to swap and change as required though, we are getting far more standards across engines which is great, things like PBR and even having more engines and content creation tools adopt stuff like Morten S. Mikelsen’s Tangent Space are a huge step forward to helping artists and developers in general have greater choice and flexibility in creating high quality art.

In terms of content creation I am always excited by new software but also the last thing I want to do is spend a few weeks on something that may not add to my work, whether that be because it may soon be obsolete or simply not up to the task.

I am in the middle of learning the Substance Suite which I am loving from a workflow standpoint, other than that I spend most of my time in 3DS Max or Maya depending on the studio and then Photoshop and Zbrush, excited to spend more time with Modo though.

Tools For the Beginners

Dean Walshe, 2K Australia, Borderlands: Pre-Sequel!, Level Design, gamedev, indiedev, environment design, art, 3d art, Unreal Engine 4, Unity, MODO, 3dS Max, Autodesk,

The range of software that beginners have access to is certainly one of the biggest shifts since I started. Industry standard software is very accessible now and the Internet is filled with information about even the most obscure pieces of software.

It can be daunting all that information. While teaching one issue I encountered was that students who learned something from an old tutorial had very little chance to do everything right in the newer versions of the engine. It is always good to be mindful of this and to keep learning, training and seeking out best practices for your work.

Dean Walshe, 2K Australia, Borderlands: Pre-Sequel!, Level Design, gamedev, indiedev, environment design, art, 3d art, Unreal Engine 4, Unity, MODO, 3dS Max, Autodesk,

Cost is a big issue for those starting out so the surge of more affordable options are great for people to at least try. Autodesk offers free 3 year student licenses which is great for beginners but they still have a huge cost if they wish to take their work commercial, particularly in Australia where often we have to pay hundreds of dollars more for software.

Cheaper alternatives are certainly worth considering for anyone looking to privately work as a contractor or on a small indie team where they need to be responsible for their own licenses.

One of my favourite new purchase models has been Substance products lineup where people can pay month to month. That’s really handy.

I would love to see more and more software either lower their prices or introduce easier solutions to allow access for free or at a reduced price that then kicked in payment options when you are using it for profit. Most game engines have done this now and it makes it far easier to recommend them to anyone and to try them out over extended periods.

I am rather software agnostic though and tend to believe in terms of core 3D software that with 4 weeks of intensive work you can learn a new package to a production standard if you already have a strong grasp of another 3d package.

One thing beginners may overlook is the benefit a strong community can have in relation to things like scripts and added functions that software with a smaller user base may lack.

It can be very easy to see fantastic work created with something and jump on that software thinking they can create that if only they used that software. It’s hard guys. Each piece of software takes time and practice to master. There is no secret tool. People starting out tend to think it is the software that is holding them back. That’s not true. Your skills – that’s what matters.


Dean Walshe, Level Designer

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