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How to Start Your Own Level Design or Game Environment Challenge (8 Ways)

Category: Level Design, Game Environment Design, Productivity/Time Management
January 01, 2013

Level Design and Game Environment challenges are one of the best and fastest ways to improve your own work. When I started my own self-imposed challenges back in 2008 it proved to be the key element that helped me become better in a very short amount of time.

In 2009 we started group challenges on World of Level Design forums. I quickly began to see how under specific guidelines, constraints and defined focus, others began to excel. During these challenges I began to see how fast designers evolved their own work and became better.

During every challenge there are many who miss the opportunity to join and many who want to have another challenge right after to keep the momentum going. That momentum is important. But if you can't wait for another challenge to start, you can create one to follow on your own. In the following tutorial I will outline few key elements to help you in creating and starting your own self-imposed challenge.

So, how do you create your own self-imposed challenge? Here are 8 ways to do so.

1. Choose Game Engine/Level Editor/Software

First choose the game engine, the level editor and/or the software you want to use.

  • What game do you want to create a challenge for?
  • What game engine do you want to use?
  • What level editor?
  • Is it for Source Engine and L4D 1/2 or Counter-Strike Source or TF2?
  • Is it for Unreal Engine and Unreal Tournament 3? Or UDK? CryEngine? Unity? etc
  • Modeling in Maya or 3dsMax?
  • Maybe Mudbox or Zbrush?
  • Photoshop or Gimp?

Whatever it may be, decide on the level editor, game engine, 2d texture software and/or 3D Modeling: Maya package. It could be a combination of a level editor and modeling package or you may focus on one single level editor or 3d software.

2. Define Challenge Focus

Focus is important in anything you do. Especially when attempting a self-imposed challenge. Part of any successful challenge is deadline, which we will cover in a bit. Focus makes it possible for the challenge to be finished. You can't do everything in a single challenge. That is not what the challenges are about. You have to decide on few key elements during the production you want to focus on.

Challenge focus is:

  • What do you want to learn?
  • What do you want to get better at? Or improve upon?
  • What do you want to create more of?
  • What weakness do you want to fix?
  • What strengths do you want to improve on?

When choosing focus, be specific. Don't say that you want to get better at texturing or modeling. That is very general and too vague. Being specific means defining what type of environment you will work on, what type of models you want to create, what theme, and what specific idea. This could be to get better at texturing abandoned urban environments, modeling organic objects such as trees, plants, creating a pirate theme game environment, improving jungle themed terrain in UDK or learning asymmetrical gameplay flow layout with capture the flag in Team Fortress 2.

If you don't set focus and be specific, you can be wasting time detailing or texturing your environment, when you should be focusing on gameplay.

Being specific will give you the focus and purpose you need to successfully know what should be done, and where you need to spend time on.

Example of snow texture studies in L4D2:

3. Choose a Stand-Alone Game Environment, Level Design or Specific Production Phase

Do you want to create a full playable level? Or do you want to create a stand-alone game environment?

Playable level requires a different focus then stand alone game environment.

Full playable level will include gameplay mechanics, scripting and objectives for the player to complete. This may be a single-player campaign or a multiplayer map.

Stand-alone game environment may not include any playable mechanics and may not require player participation. Stand-alone game environments may be created for a portfolio piece, a beauty scene or simply and environment to explore and showcase.

Specific Part of Production. Do you want to focus on creating an entire playable level, a stand alone game environment or just a certain part of the process in production such as texturing, modeling, uving, lighting etc.

Entire level or full stand-alone game environment will require a longer time frame for full completion of the challenge. There will be a lot of work to do. This could include modeling, texturing, lighting etc.

If you choose to do one part of the production such as lighting, you can spend shorter time and intense focus on one aspect. Going out and learning what needs to be done and where you need to do to get better.

You don't always have to create a full playable levels or scenes; focus can be on one corner of the environment where you texture, model or light a scene.

Here is an example of modeling studies, comparison from Maya to UDK. Specific production phase:

4. Set a Deadline

When will you finish? Create a deadline.

Deadlines force you to work. If you do not define a deadline, many projects and challenges tend to take too long to finish and you spend unnecessary time on what is unimportant in the scene.

Key to level design and game environment challenges are short deadlines. 1, 2, 3, 4 weeks, or my personal favorite 11 days, 22 days, 33 days.

Don't make challenges longer then 4 weeks. Keep them short.

If you have never started a challenge yourself, I would suggest keeping it very short. 1 week or 11 days. In my experience this format tends to be the most successful. Once you have a few challenges under your belt, make it longer. But keep it under 1 month. When the challenge is longer then a month, then it isn't much of a challenge anymore, but becomes a full project.

5. Make it Public

Make a work in progress thread on the forums. Let WoLD community know what you are up to, so we can help.

Let everyone know the following:

  • What you are planning to do? What is your idea?
  • How will you tackle the challenge? What will you need to do in order to successfully finish?
  • Define a deadline.
  • What software, game engine or level editor will you use?
  • What part of the process you want to focus on? Will it will it be a short playable level, stand-alone game environment or a part of the production process (texturing, modeling, uving, lighting, scripting etc)?

You can use your blog or website to make it public. But the advantage to a forum is you get immediate responses and eyes on your work. As opposed to a website where you have to drive traffic and eyes to see the work.

6. Show Progress

Keep the progress of what you are doing on consistent basis. Let us know how far you are coming along. Post work in progress so others can see it, give you feedback and to encourage you. This could also inspire others to join in on a challenge of their own.

7. Finish

Do you hardest to finish. The key thing about challenges is to keep them short. This is not where you create a beautiful large expansive stand-alone game or multiplayer campaign. Challenges have a specific purpose, to get better and to improve upon a certain part of the process. Thus finishing challenges is very important.

Challenges are a learning process. Finishing challenges can get you a full learning lesson. If you don't finish, then it is like walking out on a movie when there is only 30 minutes to go. You don't know how it ended, and you wasted 1 hour watching it. You can't talk about the movie or review it, because you didn't finish it.

Challenges are made to sprint, not to marathon.

8. Post Mortem

Provide a post-mortem. What did you learn, what can you do better and what are some insight would you want to share with others so they don't have to make the same mistakes. Sitting down and writing what you learned is often overlooked. But in my experience it has been crucial to improving my work and learning the lessons.

Post mortems provides a way to analyze what you did, what you learned and what you could do better.

Another important part is to give back to a community. That is one of the primary reasons of why I do this, to give back and help other designers.

Share what you have learned.

Challenges are an important part in become better level designer and game environment artist. I love challenges and I will continue to do them. It is where I can deliberately force myself to evolve and become better. I encourage you to do the same.

Start your own challenge today on the WoLD forums and let us know. Good luck.

Updated & Revised - Preproduction Blueprint: How to Plan Your Game Environments and Level Designs

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