Tips and tricks on level design from Michael Barclay.
An experienced developer Michael Barclay, who is now working on Uncharted The Lost Legacy and The Last of Us Part II, has talked about the main pillars of modern game design.
My name is Michael Barclay and I’m from Dundee, Scotland. Dundee has a pretty rich history of game development being the original home of GTA, Lemmings, Crackdown and now is a very active development hub for everything from indie to casual to mobile to AAA. It’s also where I went to University, graduating from Abertay in 2007 with a degree in Computer Games Technology.
My first professional job was as a technical designer at Free Radical (creators of Timesplitters) in 2007 and since then I’ve worked at Cohort Games, Crytek, Cloud Imperium and now I’m at Naughty Dog working on Uncharted The Lost Legacy and The Last of Us Part II as a game designer.
How do you make level and gameplay work together?
I honestly wish I could say “here’s how it’s done” but the truth is every company I’ve worked for has had a different strategy. Some companies place a different focus on different elements in pre production and development. Personally, I prefer designing to fit a goal within the context of a narrative or pacing structure. That will help me define a space and work toward eliciting a specific emotion from a player. It all depends on the goal of your game. When I was a multiplayer level designer on Crysis 2 the goal was to just create a fun balanced space which was informed by the abilities of the nanosuit for example.
I feel like environmental storytelling has become more prolific in modern games which is fantastic but I think it’s still not well defined. My own definition of environmental storytelling is when the player can infer a historical event or sequence of events implicitly from observing the particulars of a scene. Explicit storytelling like audio logs or “warnings scrawled in blood” are not truly environmental storytelling in my opinion.
It’s often important that environments have a sense of history and context, especially when you consider that our role as level designers is often to generate an emotional response from players. I think it’s important that level designers also look beyond geometry and learn about color theory, lighting, audio, psychology and traditional storytelling techniques to create engaging spaces.
Creating Understandable Levels
So straight off I’ll recommend a book that has probably been recommended by a hundred designers: The Design of Everyday Objects. Learning about the principles of accordance and understanding the basics of design will help you become a better designer and help you present solutions to players more easily. I don’t like explicitly showing players how to navigate or play, I’d rather present a set of understandable rules and let players discover for themselves the limitations and extents of what’s possible. For example, in a sandbox environment, it’s my job to make sure the rules we set out in the game are never undermined and the players expectations are always met. Once the contract of expectation is laid out between player and designer it’s just a matter of nudging them along where appropriate and making sure everything works as expected.
Traditional architecture plays a part when we look at level design specifically. There are thousands of methods of promoting flow, navigation and interaction. Knowing what to apply and where is a result of equal parts experience and iteration as we develop.
Controlling Game’s Difficulty with the Help of Levels
I really enjoy levels with variable difficulty. I’m not sure if you’ve played Goldeneye but the challenges in that game really let players set their own difficulty in a way. It’s also apparent in World of Warcraft where players can try and min-max their level completion strategy for better rewards. As far as environment design goes, I think we as level designers have a responsibility to make accessible levels that also present opportunity for expert strategy and depth. For example Wolfenstein The New Order will often present options for stealth and action players, with variable difficulty throughout. It’s up to players to decide how quiet or loud they want to be.
I’ll talk about practicing level building later and how I use other games to do so but I always try and advocate finding inspiration away from other games. So I travel, walk, photograph and observe as much as I can. I feel like I can’t ever switch off my brain from interpreting everything as a game environment. Secondly I visit a lot of galleries, read a lot of books, listen to different kinds of music, go to plays and try and experience things outside my comfort zone as much as possible. There obviously isn’t a secret magic, just keep working until one day you’re suddenly realize you’re a pretty decent level designer. Hard work is the magic.
The Greatest Problems of the Modern Level Design
I’m not sure if most levels DO look dull. I can always find something impressive in a game I like. The biggest problems right now are probably in contemporary games that forgo true understanding of architecture and design. With higher fidelity graphics and animations, a building that has a misaligned foundation because the designer really wanted a door where one should not be will feel really out of place and negatively impact the immersion and suspension of disbelief. We have to pick up our game and keep up with the other disciplines.
Excellent Level Design
DISHONORED. DISHONORED. DISHONORED. Sorry for gushing but anyone interested in level design should be studying those games intensely. Such a magnificent achievement of design, true affordance, sandbox, agency and storytelling. Dunwall feels like a real city with a rich history and hundreds of play possibilities.
Keep your eyes open and your phone camera ready to snap any environment you think is interesting. Rebuild levels you like to play in maya or unreal or whatever. Literally, build them out and look at them and think about why they are the way they are. Pick any 3D software and just start building. Build your house. Build a Counterstrike level. Build a Half Life level. I think Minecraft is going to generate thousands of budding new level designers in the future, the way UnrealEd and the Warcraft III editor did for me. Also feel free to DM me @MotleyGrue or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and just ask, I’m always willing to help where I can.