Valeria Petruzzelli took CGMA course Level Design for Games led Emilia Schatz and talked about Level Design art: its rules, main aspects and things to learn.
Hello, my name is Valeria Petruzzelli. There is no much to say about myself. I am a very simple person but I can honestly say I am very driven by my passions. I was born in a small town in the south of Italy, in a large family. Since the young age, I have been very close to my family, especially my cousins that I consider as brothers. I have to thank them for my decision to undertake a career as a game designer. Every Christmas or afternoon we spent together we used to play video games and I started growing the desire to develop games to make other kids happy. Ever since I worked on several projects, many of them personal, to challenge myself and to try to turn my ideas into something concrete.
Studying Level Design
Some people think that level design is just making a playable map. This is partially true but there is a difference between a well thought out level and a map.
I studied design in Italy, at the Polytechnic of Bari and here I’ve learned problem-solving and what to consider when designing a successful product. I attended an MSc in video games production and enterprise at Birmingham City University and have learned the pipelines and the teamwork as well as what is really important to consider when designing a game.
But where I really learned how to fully design a level is with CGMA and, to be precise, with one of the people I consider talented the most within the game industry: Emilia Schatz, a level designer at Naughty Dog. She taught me that every detail makes a difference and that everything in a level has to be placed in the game world with a purpose to help the player enjoying the experience as best as he can. This goal can’t be achieved just studying other games levels: there are rules to follow, invisible lines to guide the players to never make them feel lost.
I personally look at other games’ levels that in my opinion are perfect and I try to analyze them for the purpose of designing a level almost as perfect as the references I am using. If I have to name some examples, I can honestly say that Anor Londo is definitely a well-made level in my opinion. The way in which the beauty of the environment meets a well-thought level design make this level one of my favorite of all time. Another good example is the city of Columbia in Bioshock Infinite and, to be precise, the part where Elizabeth open portals with the past to allow Booker DeWitt to use platforms and hooks.
From my experience, linear levels are even more complex to design than highly structured level. There are many aspects to consider when creating levels for games, I base my ideas on what I want the player to feel when passing by these areas and how I achieve that feeling. If the player is about to face a challenge or a battle, I want the player to feel prepared or to expect a rapid change of events.
The environment is the strongest tool to talk to the player: a dangerous surrounding partially destroyed can lead the player to the idea that something unfriendly is nearby. Sharp shapes trigger the idea of danger, fear, and death in the human mind. If the environment is dark, inhospitable or seems dangerous it has been designed this way for the purpose of communicating a precise sensation and this indirectly pushes the player to be careful in moving forward. In this way, even a linear corridor can bring to the player feelings, allows them to spend more time in exploring the area, maybe looking for something that can be hidden somewhere and that can help them in surviving the next challenge in the game.
A level, albeit simple, which is able to give rise to emotions cannot in any way be considered a failure.
Level Design Process
Explaining the process of developing a level design in few lines it’s not an easy task, but I can definitely summarize it in the 7 gold rules that I follow when designing a map:
1) Define the game type:
Depending on the game typology, the process of the game developments changes based on the timing and the aspects to consider when implementing a level design.
2) Analyzing the character potential:
Every character is different and has abilities that define the gameplay mechanics. Analyzing the character and his behavior is a key passage and has to be a constant reference when designing the surroundings. The character has to belong to the environment. He has to move within the space feeling like the environment is there to support him during the adventure, making the experience sometimes harder, sometimes easier but always without putting him in front of insuperable obstacles.
The Witcher 3(PS4) – CD Projekt Red:
3) Analyzing the course of events:
A story is made of acts, a succession of actions that influences the events and involves choices and consequences. The environment can influence these choices. It can direct the player in the directions desired by the designer in order to progress in the story and not distract him from the final objective. Designers use weak points to stop the players from going out of the path and give them the chance to use the abilities to pass by an obstacle and progress in the game in the way they want it to be progressed.
4) The subdivision and the identity of space:
In some games, the UI tells you where to go using maps or showing the name of the is for fast travel. In other games, the player needs to remember every area without the use of UI. If that’s the case, the environment has to provide landmarks or recognizable details to distinguish an area. To do this, it’s important to characterize each area with different colors, different architectures, different climes, and enemies, in order to help the player understand that he is entering a new district and is therefore progressing.
Bioshock Infinite (PS4), K2:
5) The environment language:
The surrounding always talks to the player. Even if we don’t pay attention, our mind attributes to the environment a specific meaning and memorizes what is dangerous and what is not. To guide the players there are shapes that help them in familiarizing with the environment. Round shapes are usually used for peaceful and natural environment and bring to the player the feeling of peace and safety. Squared shapes are attributed to human sites or buildings and, especially in open worlds games, are the clear sign of a place to find supplies. Sharp shapes are a clear message of danger and have to be avoided.
The Witcher 3(PS4) – CD Projekt Red:
Some games also introduced messages as part of the environment. A good example can be Good of War 4 that uses ancient signs to mark the platforms that can be climbed or the objects that can be used to progress.
6) The psychological influence of a level:
As said before, when I design a level I base my project on the feelings that I want the player to feel while passing by an area. Tension, peace, danger, fear, joy are all implemented in the level with shapes and colors to make the player feel safe or not welcomed.
Personal projects images:
All the elements in a scene are placed with the purpose of guiding the player eye to the objective. The composition has a crucial role and even if the player doesn’t directly see it, the eyes are guided through invisible lines within the environment objects to help in finding the way out.
Guiding the Players
As I stated above, the composition is a very strong tool to guide the player across the level. It helps not just finding the right path but also leads them wherever the designers want them to go to find supplies and items. Knowing the language of the environment helps them navigate within the area and it teaches them what the places that can be explored are using the abilities they have. The game needs to have a progression and it’s important for the player to feel that progression. While they player advances, the areas get more detailed, the rewards higher in value and in risks. All these small details make the player feel like all the effort is bringing rewards and that they are growing in power and experience to be ready for the final challenge.
Connecting Different Areas
I usually consider the level design as theatrical representation. The plot is divided into acts and every act is divided into scenes. There are general lines that are a constant in the story but the locations change and so do the environments.
When designing a level, usually there are aspects of the environment that are always present and that the player considers constant. This does not preclude the fact that each district is different from the previous one, and has characteristics that make it unique and easily remembered by the player. The transition from one area to the next must be gradual: there must be references to the previous area but at the same time, there must be the introduction of new aspects, such as new shops or new enemies that inevitably distinguish a new chapter albeit partially linked to the previous one.
Another important aspect is to place landmarks in each area. It can be a tall building, a statue, or a big tree that can be seen from the distance with the purpose of helping the player in orientation within the environment. An area always needs to be connected to the previous one or the player will feel lost and won’t be able to feel the progression in the game.
Personal projects images:
Level Design Mistakes
I think the biggest mistake is to think that a level is just a bunch of platforms placed in the space without any logic. Behind a level design, there is a deep understanding of the player mind, a meticulous planning of the events and an accurate analysis of the game mechanics. If these three elements don’t work together the result is a boring map that will lead the player to the idea that there is no reason to play the game if there is nothing that involves him emotionally.
The best thing to do is analyze games that made the history of level design and start wondering why they have been made like this and not in another way. Ask yourself if you think that something might have been done differently and if yes, why. When designing a room, place the items with a purpose, not just to fill an empty space and most importantly, ask feedback from someone who doesn’t know about your ideas: if they easily find the way out, it means that the environment is leading the player in the right direction.
Advice for Learners
There are only a few recommendations that in my opinion can make the difference if you are a level designer or planning to be one.
- Teamwork: learn, even if partially, the art and code pipelines. This is really important if you want your level to work in the way you want. Working as a team is essential to achieve a good result and this is not possible if you can’t understand how the rest of the team works.
- Ask feedback: Don’t be precious of your ideas and always ask for feedback. This sometimes can be hard but the more feedback you ask the closer you are to a perfect result. There will always be someone that won’t like your work but it’s always good to see things from a different perspective.
- Learn as much as you can: CGMA is an affordable and easy-to-use platform to get closer to the game industry. All the lecturer are great exponents of the game industry and can only help in getting your skills better.
- Keep up with the times: Game development is always changing and updating. It doesn’t really matter what you watch, read or play as long as it helps you improve your knowledge and understanding of how level design works. I personally read a lot on 80 level, Gamasutra as well as watch a lot of Playstation access, Extra Credits videos which help me in understanding what an expert player is seeking in a game. They usually analyze the games not only in the gameplay but also in the stories, the maps, the art, the process of development and highlight aspects that can be improved.
- Love your job: Confucius said, choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life. Put as much passion as you can in all your projects and never get tired of doing it.
Valeria Petruzzelli, Game Designer
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev