How to Plan Level Designs and Game Environments
December 01, 2011
How to plan your game environments and level designs?
In the last article we talked about why I failed for years in level design and game environments. I focused on one part of the process. The planning stage.
In this tutorial we will cover planning workflow. Where do you start? What do you do?
The way I used to plan for game environments or level designs in the past were:
Sometimes I would:
I missed a lot of key steps in the process. Steps that would have helped me tremendously in the production stages.
After few years of figuring and developing a system for planning, I came up with 11 core steps that I go through every time I plan a project. The planning process can be for a stand-alone game environment or a full playable level.
I am going to cover what I do to plan out my level designs and game environments.
Everything starts with an idea. I often get ideas at random times through out the day. I may be watching TV or working out and all of a sudden I get an idea that I think would be interesting as a game environment.
Other times it is more deliberate such as based on a game design document. I go and hunt for ideas from books, architecture, photography etc.
Any time I get ideas, I always make sure I write it down. I've lost many good ideas in the past thinking I would remember them. Since I make sure that I write down ideas, I have more ideas that I would ever have time to implement them.
The way I pick an idea that I want to work on is:
How excited am I about the environment I want to create?
Am I inspired to create this idea and see it as a game environment?
Enthusiasm and inspiration are very hard to beat. That flow of creativity that comes with excitement allows you get a momentum going for the project. In my experience it allowed me to keep working on the environment to the end simply because I was excited about the initial idea I had. Even when during production I would encounter many technical frustrations and roadblocks.
Often someone else already defines the idea. For example if you are working in a game studio, a mod team or you are creating a map for a contest. It may be difficult to find something within that idea you can be excited about. If you are not inspired by the idea then it will show in your final map. You will take many shortcuts during production that you may not have otherwise. What has worked for me is to find something about the idea I find exciting and enthusiastic about. This could be a certain landmark or a gameplay mechanic that I've been wanting to try or it could be that you want to make sure that everything you create that has your name on it, is a great product.
Purpose is a very important internal decision I make of why I will pursue a specific project. Since I am going to dedicate a set amount of time to something, I want to know what am I going to get out of it. What is my purpose? Why do I want to pursue this idea to its completion?
The question is why.
Your purpose can be a variety of things. For example:
Whatever it may be, purpose is a very strong drive to get the project to the finish line. Know why you want to create this game environment and see it come to life.
I also set a number of level design/game environment features. Features are elements in the environment that will make my project stand out, make it unique and different from anything else out there.
At this point we need to define a location of the environment. Where does it take place? Urban or Rural? Interior or Exterior? What about time period? Is it in the past, future or present time?
You want to be very specific here. You want to know what specific city you want to set your map in. What specific area within the city. What time period? You want to get it down to a specific year.
For example for Hotel Swiss map, location was set at a mid-range 3 story hotel on top of the mountain in Switzerland at dawn during summer.
Being specific allows your mind to begin filling in the gaps for your environment. It will help you to craft a better story, know what type of reference to collect, what models you will need, and what you want the player to experience.
After you've set the location and environment setting, looking for photo reference will be a lot easier. You will know exactly what you need to look for.
I focus on the following reference:
There are two types of stories within the environment.
Write history about your environment. How did it come to be? And what is the player doing within that environment. Why are they there?
This will help to create a sense of place and purpose for the environment to exist. Placing props, texturing and detailing will be a lot easier. The environment will have its own background story that makes future decisions easier to make.
Objectives and obstacles are goals for the player to complete.
Objectives: what does the player need to do within the environment in order to progress?
Obstacles: opposition that player has to overcome. This can be in a form of a puzzle, exploration, item collection, AI battles etc.
Not all environments you create will need objectives and obstacles.
For level design, where it is playable game space, you will need to spend some time on designing both objectives and obstacles.
I often create obstacle mind map decision tree. This helps me to explore options how I would want the player to approach a given objective and overcome obstacles. If-else-then decision scenarios. If the player does “this” then certain thing happens, or else “this” happens. This is extremely helpful during single player maps.
What are objects for the player to complete, if any? And what obstacles will be in player's way?
Top down layouts are top down drawing maps of how the environment will look. It contains buildings, landscape areas, map's boundaries, player paths, alternate routes, space relationships, flow, pacing, important locations, and focal points.
I often create top down layouts using pen and paper. Then after a few iterations I scan it into Photoshop and refine the layout and clean everything up.
I create multiple versions of the top down focusing on the layout, then focusing on player paths that I want them to take, alternate routes, objective and obstacles within the environment, spawn points and story plot elements, weapon placements etc.
You can use various other ways of generating top down views. You can use Google maps, Illustrator, Photoshop, Google SketchUp or all of the above.
Focal points are important visual landmark locations. There are several reasons for focal point/s.
Screenshot from Skyrim. ©Bethesda Softworks
One is a functional purpose. It helps the player to orient themselves in the environment. Player will always know where they are in relationship to the focal point.
Two is a visual aesthetic function. Making the environment have visual appeal.
Three, it often draws attention and the player to that location. It becomes a point of interest to explore. In single player maps you may define multiple focal points using architectural structures, landscape elements that help the player to travel from one focal point to another.
In multiplayer maps, you can have one or two focal points. These help to orient the player in the environment as they spawn. Player will always know where they are in the environment no matter what happens so they are not disoriented. As well as visual purpose to making your map stand out. Giving the player a way to remember your environment by.
So depending on the type of environment. I create one or two focal points. These do not have to be grand structures that stand out in the environment. They can be very small elements that draw player's attention to the area. By making it different in contrast within that location of the map.
Screenshot from Alan Wake. ©Remedy Entertainment
Visual development is the artistic style, the looks you choose to create within your environment. Artistic direction is often done through concept art by concept artists.
Concept Art from Team Fortress 2. ©Valve Software
If you are creating a map or a game environment by yourself, then you have to define your own style, your own artistic vision for your project. You may not be a concept artist, so creating your own digital painting probably isn't an option. Although it is ideal to create your own visual style through concept art, it is not a big deal. You can use already created concept art to help you define a look and artistic quality. You can use traditional paintings or you can use movies or games to help you decide on a visual direction.
Primary elements during visual development you want to pay attention to are color palette, time of day, feeling and emotional impact, modeling quality and texturing quality.
There are many various styles you can choose. Such as realistic, hyper-realism, cartoonish, hand-painted, exaggerated, stylized etc. There are many ways you can define the way your environment will look.
So you can either create your own visual style through concept art, or simply collect concept art, traditional paintings or look at other games and movies to get ideas of a style that you want to go after within your own environment.
The final step I go through is creating lists. Lists help me to get an overview of what I would need to do, model, collect, create in order for the environment to take shape. I begin to look over all the steps we just went through and begin making lists.
I create a master list of everything I need to create, do and have in order for this environment to be completed. I write everything on paper that I can think of.
Once I think I got everything, I go through the master list and begin to organize it into models, textures, production to do and audio.
Last part is the combination of all the steps above. I collect all the information listed previously and create a game environment/level design blueprint. It becomes the Preproduction Blueprint for the environment.
Preproduction Blueprint becomes a working level design/game environment document. If I need to pass this blueprint onto someone else who will take the environment and continue from there; they will know what I was trying to achieve. This becomes extremely important in a studio setting, level design teams or mod teams where you pass your map on to someone else, or if a member has left and someone else needs to take over.
The blueprint is also very valuable when you stopped working on your project and some time has passed. When you come back, you will have the blueprint to remind you of the game environment you wanted to create.
Most important, Preproduction Blueprint keeps you on track to a core vision of your environment.
Decisions become a lot easier to make. You know your environment inside out.
After the planning process and before production, I can visualize the environment in my mind exactly how I want it to look. I can close my eyes, visualize it and walk through it before I open up the editor.
Production becomes the execution of my vision.
Execution of the plan.
© 2008-2013. All articles on World of Level Design™ are copyrighted.
Preproduction Blueprint - How to Plan Your Game Environments and Level Designs
How to Plan Your Game Environments and Level Designs
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