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Michael Barclay did a very interesting talk about the way he approaches the creation of levels for games.
Hey, my names Michael Barclay and I’m a Game Designer from Dundee, Scotland. I started my career at Free Radical Design, who are famous for TimeSplitters, moved on to a small indie company called Cohort Games, then to Crytek and after a stint at Cloud Imperium Games. I am now working for Naughty Dog. So I’ve been around a bit, but I feel like my best work is still ahead of me.
Before all that I was modding Unreal Tournament and Warcraft 3. I got into a computer science course at University (Abertay in Dundee) because I knew I wanted to do something in games but it took me about 5 years after I graduated to settle into level design. Before that, I was a programmer and scripter.
From the very start I am working in 3D (today it’s Maya, previously it was CryEngine’s solid tool or Sketchup). I used to produce these mammoth documents and level pitches but, honestly, no one has time to go through every powerpoint presentation and I didn’t find them useful at all. Paper design goes out of date around 5 minutes into actual development. At Naughty Dog I still follow the outline presented by the narrative team and directors, but I get to prototype and build spaces that connect and develop our important story beats.
The fact that so much of my work has included very vertical spaces in the last 10 years also means working in 3D is just so much easier to express ideas. Once I got proficient at building in 3D it just became the best way to begin. 2D sketching on a post-it or something might be good occasionally for a very quick brainstorm but otherwise it’s all 3D work.
When I was working on a new IP at a very small company, it was impossible to just build spaces around nothing. When you have no vertical slice or core gameplay at the very start of a project, you might want to build spaces and gameplay in an existing engine to explore ideas, but with the understanding it’ll all probably get thrown away once the fundamentals are worked out in the core game design.
How does level design work with gameplay
So there’s a saying that the hardest level in any game to make is the first level. It contains so much implicit (and often explicit) tutorialising and teaching. The reason it’s so difficult is often because you might be 60% of the way through development and suddenly there’s a great new mechanic (or something got cut) that has retroactive effects for the rest of the game. The first level is always changing and morphing for these reasons.
When it comes to general level design, as I mentioned before, not having some kind of vertical slice can make development very difficult. You need a basic understanding of mechanics to build around and explore. I think we do a good job at Naughty Dog figuring those out early and then exploring and subverting our mechanics through the course of the game.
That said, one of my favorite design principles is this idea of disposable mechanics. Titanfall 2 is one of my recent favorite games to showcase this mentality, where a cool mechanic might only be used in a single level. This level “gimmick” can be a lot of fun to design and build around, and lets designers showcase a lot of creativity. It requires a strong understanding of your games core design and lets you also build uniquely on top of that.
In contemporary settings I like to build environments as they would naturally appear and then work from there. I feel like we can rely a lot more on player’s intrinsic knowledge of the world than we might be comfortable with sometimes. When it comes to leading players, it’s remarkable how easy it is during development to lose a levels sense of purpose or goals. If your player ever catches themselves asking “what am I doing here again?” it can often be attributed to bad level design. A lot of level design out there will go to extreme lengths to keep the player on track, like huge lights and objective markers and arrows, but I think if we can find a way to frame the goal, keep the goal relevant and build spaces that make sense and flow without all those bells and whistles, it can be a lot more effective.
I think a bunch of designers use techniques from the world of interior design and architecture without knowing specifically where the concepts originate. I remember going to a seminar on architecture and design in 2011 where a lot of what the speakers were explaining concepts we knew as other names in level design and a lot of it just clicked. I genuinely believe shows like Grand Designs (UK, Channel 4) have a lot to do with my passion for designing spaces.
Since I decided to specialize in level design I have been studying architecture and design in many facets.
I don’t think there is a golden rule here, I just have my own preferences when it comes to sandbox design. I was obsessed with Crysis when it came out and loved planning and executing strategies. The aspects that really make Crysis tick are the affordances of the world and the very systemic way combat evolves. Once you get an understanding of the rules of the world, it’s a real joy to begin seeing how game mechanics crash into each another.
Combat is one of the most popular ways games allow players to express any kind of agency today. Great encounters can be found on both sides of the spectrum (linear vs open), but what I love about sandbox design is the players ability to tell a story within a story. Using Far Cry 3 as the continued example, while the overarching plot was debated plenty, it was the second to second experiences in the outposts that I walked away from with great stories, because there’s a sense of authorship there. Sandbox encounters lend far more tools to the player to author stories, and those are the events that I find I really engage with. When I built sandbox encounters I often compared it to building multiplayer levels. We always ensured there were opportunities for ranges of play styles, ways to assess threats, crossfire opportunities, refuge spaces to retreat to and reassess, recovery spots and ways to drop in and out of stealth. We also used techniques like “bait” to encourage certain kinds of play, for example, red barrels that are stacked next to a vehicle patrol route can be seen from the level entry vantage point. Along with all that you have to have a well defined goal and robust enough mechanics to let the player surprise even the developers.
Metal Gear has a plethora of tools and mechanics for players to really customize how they want to play, as well as a holistically in tune meta-game that promotes replay. Far Cry 3 eventually added a way to reset outposts but Metal Gear 5 was built from the ground up to promote this player ownership and authorship of each mission. I don’t know if this is the answer as to why you prefer one over the other though as I loved both games.
Today, with modern technology, procedurals, World Machine and god knows what, do you think level design is still this mysterious magical craft?
Thankfully, for my job security, while procedural tech is astoundingly advanced now, we still require a human touch to get the kinds of specific emotional responses we strive for (at least at Naughty Dog). I’ll never be the one to try and define what games are or should be, and I’m certain there are games out there that will benefit immensely from procedural tech, but as long as we’re using games to tell stories we will always need level designers. I’ll always be happy to see tools that make my job easier though!
There are few examples in games, like ICO, or Shadow of the Colossus, or Dark Souls, that have this incredible interconnectivity of very complex areas and it’s a joy to go through these games. How do they achieve it?
I’m certain it’s because FromSoftware and Team Ico/SIE Japan Studio are actual magicians. To be honest you just mentioned some of my favorite games of all time and I’d probably say something absolutely false trying to guess how they pulled off that magic. Every team has different strategies when it comes to design. Personally I’d probably do a very broad pass on the key compositions of each element (Souls games have this magical ability to frame everything important in the world at just the right moment) and then dig in and detail around each hero piece.
I’ll just say that any kind of level design on that scale is very hard and they probably iterated a whole bunch until it clicked. My own experiences building enormous interconnected spaces are that it takes time, expertise and a lot of thrown away work. As well as very patient artists.