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Designing the Layout of a Seaside Level

Thea Mundy talked about the production of the Seaside level: layout, composition, set-dressing, lighting, and more.


Hello! I’m Thea Mundy and I am a Level Artist, working at Gearbox Software in Texas! I am originally from Virginia, but I went to Florida to study the Game Art and Design major at Ringling College of Art and Design. Once I graduated in 2017, I moved to Dallas and have been here ever since. I studied as an Environment Artist at Ringling, and at the time was leaning towards Modeling and Texturing. But over the past year, I have found a lot of joy and success working on Level Art/Layout and Lighting, and I look forward to pursuing it further!

Modular Seaside Town

I initially decided to work using Modular Seaside Town asset pack after I saw it and was super inspired - it’s very well done and has a great theme. I also wanted to do something new to me, so I chose to make the level much more vertical than my recent two projects. I went through a couple of different ideas: a half-submerged town, then one built in a grotto, and finally landed on a city built over a deep canyon. Once I had a general layout idea I was happy with, the only thing to do was to start blocking the layout!


As far as the layout goes, I first went in and made two generic building prefabs of the modkit and went about laying out those prefabs and BSP. I used this method because it’s very easy for me to work and be highly flexible, and staying flexible is something that I really value in such projects. BSP, in particular, is great because, since I’m not worried about the performance early on I can layer on addition and subtraction volumes to get my ideas out without having to go back and re-do things. The building pieces in the modkit lend themselves well as tall buildings, but I had to take some time in the initial blocking to fill out the surrounding walkways in a way that fit the steep incline but was still aesthetically pleasing and believable. This phase is all about being loose and open because having a good base is critical for making a good end product!


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Once I had a general layout I was happy with, I started looking for camera positions that I liked. Some of these would change over time, and others would be removed or added, but having set viewing positions helps direct my work. With that in place, it was time to set out of the pavement, sidewalks, and stairways. With set camera locations, it was very helpful to layout paths according to those, so that they were aesthetically pleasing and guided the eye through the level. I particularly like how in this shot, you can follow multiple pathways that lead all around the image.

I think focusing on the 2D composition of elements in your cameras make for really great screenshots and levels in general. The idea is to lead the player/viewer, and the way you arrange your shape language has a lot to do with that! Pipes, pathways, wires, and other linear elements are a straightforward way to guide the eye, but you can also use focal points of high contrast to attract the viewer to different parts of your image. You can use your lighting to highlight and create these areas of high contrast, or have a section of your image in shadow or flatly lit so as to not distract. There are many levels of 2D and 3D composition that really elevate your product, so I recommend that basically everyone working in artistic fields, including Level Artists, take some time to learn more about those principles! I still have more to learn, but what I have learned is already immensely helpful.


From all of the reference I had, one of my favorite things to see was how people made these little tight alleyways feel so comfortable, and so much like home, by using bright colored walls and tons of plants. It’s a great detail that gives the environment a personality and a story in a pleasant, happy way. I had lots of fun decorating the different areas of the map with them!

With set-dressing in general, I always really enjoy thinking about sections of the level in these small layers. For example, who put these plants here? Maybe they own a shop on the corner and wanted to make the surroundings more inviting? Understanding why you place pieces of set-dressing helps make things feel more cohesive and believable. These kinds of questions can be asked about all set-dressing - is it a personal detail or something for business or infrastructure? Were they added after the original construction or no - if they were, maybe these additions awkwardly jut up against each other? For example, in my level, I considered all of the elements of electricity and wiring to be infrastructure elements added later, so wires would be hanging in awkward places, and the structures supporting them were bolted onto these otherwise rustic and comfortable homes. These kinds of details are really fun to think about, and really improve my set-dressing.


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The lighting actors in the final product are actually pretty simple - just a directional light and a skylight. However, I spent a lot of time tweaking the specific values of the lights in tandem with post-process exposure so it came to just the right balance. In particular, I spent a lot of time trying to balance the skylight brightness and the light source indirect intensity to give the shadows enough illumination to be seen, but not so much that they were washed out and flat. Additionally, I added some translucent planes in the sky to cast cloud shadows on certain parts of the scene to add some interest and break up the lighting for certain shots.

As you can see, the lighting went through a lot of changes! Initially, I put in something that I thought fell over the level well, which over time became night-time to emphasize the electricity and cables running through the town. Eventually, though, I found that night-time lighting wasn’t doing what I wanted, and I was getting stuck trying to work with it. When I start to get stuck like that, especially with lighting, I tend to save a duplicate of my scene and quickly try vastly different options with no concern about hurting the work I've done so far. Especially with a strong directional light, your levels can take a SERIOUS turn for the better just by rotating your light source a completely different way!


Like I said before, being flexible is super valuable. When I have been stuck, once I stopped being so tied to what I had done and made big changes, it led to big improvements. Additionally, I would say it helps to work from Big to Small, both conceptually and visually! To help guide the viewer’s eyes, each visual layer of big shapes down to small shapes needs to be composed well. So, in the case of this project, it starts with general clumps of buildings and pathways, then the specific layout of the buildings and sidewalks, and from there to smaller things like the wooden elements, pipes, and large ivy, all the way down to small pieces like the little potted plants (and remember, lighting can have a big influence on how the shapes of your level are perceived! )

If I focused on something small before the layout worked well, that effort could be wasted when the layout changed. Overall, I don’t move on to the next layer until I am satisfied with the larger layer. In short, if you’re not feeling happy with your project, don’t be afraid to (SAVE A DUPLICATE and) go back and play with some of the larger pieces of your level! You might be happily surprised with the results!

Thea Mundy, Level Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 1

  • David W. Kimber

    While I'm sure you'll hear all the superlatives about how beautiful the level is, what I'm most drawn by is the storytelling component inherent in the visuals. Any really good level design talks without saying anything and this is a killer example of doing that. And to each viewer the story can be different while allowing them to relate to it.

    For me, I'm getting impressions of being a kid and looking for a lost kitty, while getting lost myself by being lured ever deeper into the interior worlds as I keep seeing flashes of the kitty (disappearing into a grate that I lift up and descend into, being picked up by a stranger and tossed into a moving truck that I have to follow, getting really high up into a bell tower that gives me a view of the entire town and seaside, etc.).
    For me, I'm getting impressions of being a kid and looking for a lost kitty, while getting lost myself by being lured ever deeper into the interior worlds as I keep seeing flashes of the kitty (disappearing into a grate that I lift up and descend into, being picked up by a stranger and tossed into a moving truck that I have to follow, getting really high up into a bell tower that gives me a view of the entire town and seaside, etc.).


    David W. Kimber

    ·4 years ago·

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