Level Design: Tips, Tricks, and How To Get Into It

A Level Designer who worked on Cyberpunk and The Division Max Pears talked about what it means to be a Level Designer, how to become a perfect Level Designer, and discussed the books on LD he wrote.

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My name is Max Pears, I am a Senior Level Designer, I have been working in the industry for over 7 years now. I have worked on a range of different titles, from Mobile to Indie and now currently AAA. I studied at Teesside University in which I received a First in my degree in Game Design. After graduating I have worked on a range of projects, from that of mobile in which a few of my games (Truck License 2 & Colin Cooper Racing) reached the top 50 & 100 in the app charts. I later switched from mobile to AAA, where I have worked at incredible studios such as Ubisoft and CD PROJEKT RED, on titles as The Division, Division Underground, and most recently Cyberpunk 2077. 

Getting Into Level Design

At the time I was growing up and learning how I could become a designer, I did not understand the differences between the game and level designer. It was not until I was in my second year of university when we had a guest lecture from a game designer from a studio called Eutechnyx games who explained how the Game Designer designs that more of mechanics and the economy of the world, more spreadsheet-based vs that of level designers who would craft in the editor the world in which players would explore and roam in.

After gaining this knowledge, I knew that Level Design was going to be my path in the industry. I knew it was right for me because so many of these moments which inspired me within games happened with the spaces that were crafted by LDs blew my mind, the fact that we as level designers can communicate on a subconscious level with the players is awe-inspiring to me. How space which you and I might normally inhabit can be turned upside down, used in such an imaginative way that challenges us as players. 

The first level I worked on professionally was on mobile devices, for a game called Colin Cooper's Racing but I do not want to focus so much on this example due to the fact that it was on the Division where I felt all of my level design skills were being monitored and pushed compared to that of the previous time when I was working on mobile games. I worked on that of an open world encounter in a small garden area, in which players had to interact with a supply crate and defend it from multiple waves of enemies. I will never forget that when it went to the first round of feedback from my lead who said 'well it is a level alright' I just remember feeling like I still had so much to learn, which should be expected from anyone who is a Junior or Intern.

I tell that story just to remind all those aspiring artists that you will not get it right the first time, that there are so many incredible aspects to making a fantastic level in which we do not always get enough time to focus on, but because of the iterative nature of our work, your level will always improve, so make sure you are constantly getting feedback. 

Main Tasks of a Level Designer

Consider us the architects of the virtual world, we plan out and create the spaces that players will live in and explore. It is on Level Designers to create and work on the missions, planning out the pacing of the mission, then creating an engaging space that allows players to use all of the great mechanics at their disposal. We as Level Designers need to think about building a logical space that also facilitates all the gameplay but also a way that can tie into the overall narrative and theme of the level. 

Interactions With Other Departments

It takes many incredible people to make a game, with many people working in different disciplines. As LDs, we work closely with our Environment Artists, Narrative Designers, and Gameplay Designers (depending on the studio you may have other team members such as Quest and Combat designers as well). It is important for all of us to be on the same page, so we will usually gather those of us who are working on a mission together and have a meeting, to share our ideas, references, understand what are the important parts of the mission and how can we best highlight them.    

Challenging Levels

I think all levels provide different challenges, which is why we do not have universal hard rules. The one for me was on that of Division Underground. As these were procedurally generated, learning how you can only design a section in a mission and that the player can arrive in the location from one of possible 8 entry points was a tough one. As you had to make sure the objective was clear from all viewpoints and the player could safely enter the space, that there was a true challenge! The team had to learn to let go of control and balance the act of making your levels memorable but too distinct or players would see how repetitive these spaces could be. 

While working on Cyberpunk, the most freeing and toughest part was the amount of choice we gave to the player. Trying to add so many routes depending on your character's playstyle. You wanted to make each path memorable or varied from the other routes. 

Max's Favorite Levels

There are so many great levels I have experienced, so I will easily name a few. Unfortunately, I don't know the names of the artists who made them.

God of War 2018 – There is no particular level, just because the standard of the game of level design was so high. Showing routes for players to explore and be rewarded, or teasing the player with areas they will discover when they unlock new abilities. Honestly, to me, that game is an LD masterpiece. 

The Last of Us: Left Behind – There is a section in the DLC where Ellie is in a parking lot and the water becomes electrified. What I love about this space is that you have to reuse it 3 times and players move around it each time in a new way, honestly, it blew me away that such a small space could have that much variation. 

The Division 2's Open World – I did not work on this so it is not based on vanity. I think in the sequel they figured out and expanded on the core principles of the first and make an open world with such great encounters all around that perfectly fit the core of that game it is honestly so impressive. 

There are many more, I could go on and on about in great detail but we have more questions to answer, but it is great just to see the work of my brothers and sisters in the industry, just makes me want to improve. 

Writing Books on Level Design

When I think about it, it's such a strange occurrence. For a long time back when I was at Uni, there were not many resources about level design out there. Which was always a shame. I would go to conferences and most of the guests were artists or animators, which is cool but didn't help me on my path. 

So, as I was going through my career at Ubisoft, I started to write a blog to help those who may want to come into the LD career path. After that, I started tweeting out LD tips, as well as working on my Podcast "Level Design Lobby".

After gaining a small following, students would message me saying that I needed to write a book, which at first I was very flattered by, but I just didn't think I could write a book or one that would be helpful. Then I wrote a small series of articles called Encounter Design for Level Design which went down so well that I thought, heck, I'm going to give this a try

Now I have friends who have wrote books and others who had been planning too for a while and what I wanted to do with mine was have it be easily digestible and one that you can carry with you or keep at your desk in case you need a quick spark of inspiration. That is why I decided to split the books up into sections of level design, Combat, Exploration. I also know for me personally that I wanted something more visually engaging, as a lot of game Dev books tend to be black and white with poor quality screenshots on some of their pages, so I wanted to give the reader such strong imagery that the points would be easily remembered. 

I am planning a third but as for the topic I'm unsure yet. Due to the fact I released two books within the span of a year, I'm going to take a break before I work on the third installment, but as soon as I do, I am sure we will be announcing it on 80 Level yet again. 

Learning Level Design as a Beginner

Firstly, whatever games you are playing, start taking notes, deconstruct the levels you are enjoying. Why do you turn left? How are you guided through the level? What makes the combat so engaging? 

Make sure to install an editor on your PC, Unity, UE4, and others, these are all free. If you would prefer to MOD that is fine as well. Play around with these tools, learn how they operate. There are some great plugins for both editors in terms of LD Kit Pieces:

I also offer a mentorship program as well for those who want more of a one-on-one program.

It has been an absolute pleasure to talk with you and thank you for taking the time to talk about level design. Hope everyone has enjoyed what they have read and it has helped in some small way. 

Max Pears, Level Designer

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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