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Interview - A look at being a level designer

Posted by Welshy in General on May 26, 2015

Recently I got the chance to sit down with a real life level designer and take a look at what it takes to move from modding to actaul game development. In today's climate of game devs not supporting modding, I was excited to delive into what it takes.

Muhammad currently works at tryarch and is, along with the rest of the guys over there is pushing through to get the latest interation of Call of Duty.

Here's what went on;

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where you from, where do you work and how did you become a level designer?

Hi, my name is Muhammad Ali and I am from Pakistan and work as a level designer at Treyarch. Currently, I am working on Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and worked on Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 before that.

My journey started in 2006 when I used to own a LAN based gaming café. The café was started as an experimental project with a friend, which later grew into a business. Back then, the most popular game there was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, or MOHAA. The game was fun, but soon the stock maps were getting boring and people were asking for new content. I wasn’t even aware of the modding community back then and didn’t know there were hundreds of maps made by people for MOHAA. Some people showed up a few custom maps and they were an instant hit. That was the moment that sparked my interest in level design. I started the search online on how levels are made and how the tools work. I spent a year learning the tools and improving my work and making maps locally just for the café. It was a good place to get the feedback on the work I was doing.

Soon, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was released which took the market by storm. It raised the quality of design and gameplay to a whole new level. I was glad that both MOHAA and COD4 were using the same tools. I used to spend great amounts of time just studying the design of the maps and the level of the detail. At the same time, I got into contact with one of the level designers at Infinity Ward who helped and guided me a lot in improving my work. I made several levels but I wasn’t satisfied with any of them because something was always lacking. I of the advice that helped me get on the right path was to remake a level I like the most. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released and I found the multiplayer map Skidrow very interesting design and detail wise. I chose to remake that map for COD4 as close to the original map as possible. It took me about 6 months to finish it, but I learned a lot about how things are done professionally. Then I used all this experience to design a new multiplayer map for COD4 called Slums which won the Map of the Month award on codutility.com

How did you get your first job? Did you go from making maps to landing a job or were there other things in between?

I finished the multiplayer map Slums in 2012 right about the time I graduated from Full Sail. At that time, I felt that I have enough material to apply for a position and luckily a position of an associate level designer was open at Treyarch. I sent my portfolio to Paul Mason-Firth who had been working at Treyarch for over a year and was well known in the design community. At the same time, I contacted the recruiter on twitter and forwarded her my resume. Few days later, I got an email and a phone interview with the lead designers was setup. The interview went well and I was given a design test which I finished in the given time. Few weeks later, I got the invitation for an in studio interview. That was one of the best experiences of my life. I spent the whole day talking to different people and going through the studio. A week after the interview, I was sent the offer letter and I joined Treyarch soon afterwards.

Here I would like to mention that just having strong portfolio is not enough to land a job. Its good to network with people as early as possible and start building your online presence. Be well known in the design community. The studios receive hundreds of resumes for a job position and it helps to know someone who can vouch for your work personally.

What are your responsibilities and duties as a level designer?

As a level designer, you are responsible from designing the level to taking it all the way to final detail level, and everything in between. The roles and responsibilities of a level designer vary from one studio to another, but its always helpful to know as much about the entire process as possible.

Could you describe your current level design workflow? How do you begin designing a level, creating it and polishing to be released?

Personally, I have perfected a process that works best for me whenever I start working on a new level. The first step is the idea and inspiration. Here, you have to be careful about merging your idea with the game you are working with. For example, a medieval themed map wont work well with a game like Call of Duty.

The second step is designing the layout of the map. Start with a small map design and expand outward. Use standard measurements for things like height of the ceiling or width of a corridor. This will help later in the detail phase because 3D models like pipes and wires are always made of a standard length and width. Be very careful at this stage, because its not advisable to change the design in the later stages as it will cause a cascading effect of further changes on the map. Once you are comfortable with the layout, think what each section of the map would look like. Is a corridor just a corridor or is it an underground cellar? When you are done with the environment, it’s time to start gathering the reference images.

Collect as much reference material as possible. Images, concept art, sketches, video clips, anything you can find. If you like a reference material, understand what is grabbing your interest. Is it an interesting piece of architecture? Is it the way the textures have been used? Or is the lighting that’s setting the mood? Dissecting an image this way will help you transfer the level of detail to your own work.

Now the detailing of the level starts. Every game engine has its limitations so its wise to be aware of the amount of detail you can put into the level without landing into the land of engine errors. Be as close to the reference material as possible when detailing and be very careful with the scale of the objects. Compile and run your level as frequently as possible so you can catch a problem early.

Where do you find inspiration, ideas and motivation to keep on going during development?

Inspiration is all around you. Movies, TV or just the environment around you can give you an idea about a map. If you travel a lot, keep a camera handy to take pictures of anything you find interesting. Once you have an idea, dig deeper by collecting reference material online. Don’t limit yourself to just one kind of environment. If you see something interesting that doesn’t match the environment of your current level, save it for later. The same goes when youre looking for design inspiration. If you see a layout of things that you feel will make an interesting path in your level, take a picture and breakdown the layout so that you can understand why the path feels like it has a good design.

Where do you see most level designers go wrong when they are creating a custom level and where can they improve?

Most level designers who are beginners instantly jump to the level designing software whenever they get an idea or an inspiration. The first thing wrong with this approach is that there is no concept about the scale of the map. If the map is huge, there is a good chance that there will be ‘rot spots’ in the map, meaning that some sections of the map are so off the main gameplay space that the players never go there, and it’s a waste of space and resources.

Secondly, there was no initial blockout of the level so there is no design as well. This means paths are being added randomly which will severely affect the gameplay. Be very careful when adding new paths as it can upset the balance of the map. This is the main reason why designers start a new map and later lose interest and abandon the map.

Next would be detail. A well designed level also needs a proper level of detail so that appropriate emotion and feel of the level is conveyed to the players. Don’t have areas in the map where level of detail is inconsistent with the rest of the map. If you feel youre having trouble detailing something or if you have lost interest, take some time off the map and come back to it later with better ideas. Don’t do the work for the sake of finishing it.

What would your advice be to a beginner level designer?

The best advice for the beginners is to keep trying and never give up. Your work will improve gradually so don’t stop designing and building a map. Study the design of your favorite levels and breakdown the map to understand the flow of the movement and how primary and secondary paths are set. Remake your favorite map as close to the original as possible in a game of your own choice. This is the best exercise to learn how things are done professionally.

Finish the map you start and have people play it for feedback. Be open to criticism, and sift through constructive and useless comments. It will help you understand why something failed and why its better to do something a certain way.

What should a young designer focus on the most in the beginning of their level design career?

Do a lot of study and research before starting a project. It could be gathering reference materials or working on the design and schedule. Have a plan in place and follow proper procedures when you finally start building the map. Don’t go around doing things randomly because that will ruin your design and you will lose interest in the map later in the detail phase. If you have a good starting plan, everything will fall into place like clockwork at later stages.

What skill set does today's level designer need to have in order to become the great next-generation level designer?

For start, motivation and commitment. If youre motivated, you can do anything and commitment will get you through difficult times. Learn how things are done professionally by dissecting the works of your favorite designer or game. Learn from both good and bad maps that you have made and don’t make the same mistakes again in your next project. Don’t be afraid of trying new methods or techniques during your learning process. Be patient and don’t rush; a single well designed and well detailed map will always be better than ten mediocrely done maps. And always remember that there is no finish line when youre learning about level design, so be open to criticism always.

Would you share secret level design advice from the industry that can help a level designer create better work?

One of the greatest things that I have learnt during my professional career as a level designer is the structure behind the process of level designing. There is no randomness; every stage fits perfectly with the next. Start with the paper design, make a blockout in the level editing software and perfect the gameplay, detail and then optimize. I have never gone wrong with this process.

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