Before I go into detail about Level Design and its purpose, elements, and functionality, let me give a brief description of what I think this whole thing to be. From my understanding, level design appears as the foundation to any game. It is almost like the blueprint of every video game for every asset to sit on and every character to articulate around. It also seems to have a hand in defining genre, for example FPS games such as Call of Duty or Halo would consist of maps. Various sizes and proportions, but none the less, closed of maps where the player can only roam around a limited space. MMO’s or open world games such as World of Warcraft and RPG’s like Skyrim tend to have a much larger space for the player to explore, not limited as such by closed off areas. In such cases players are encouraged to use transport within the game to reach locations which could take several minutes on foot, mounts can also be incorporated for the players to get from one location to another whenever they see fit.
Whilst learning a little more about level design I came across a plan that takes you through the steps of the process. Initially you would go through its purpose before making any decisions at all. Why does it exist? What is it for? What audience is it aimed at? Bearing in mind that Level Design does not necessarily mean games such as Crysis or Uncharted: highly detailed and polished environments that should convey a great deal of credibility. Considering handhelds and mobile gaming, Level Design is a very open eneded building block to game development. The guide goes through the process, beginning with photo referencing and idea generating, to get a strong overview of what you initially want, photos and sketches help a great deal. Using mood boards to decide Location, interior/exterior, set design, lighting style and time period is also key. First hand photo referencing should be done very early on for textures and real life locations to assist the level.
An easy way to confront something as open ended as maps and the general layout, is to first break down the obstacles you will create for the player. What kind of objectives will the level consist of? What kind of elements will constrict or challenge the player and why? Another element to the design process is ‘focal points’. Visual landmarks are very important in any game because for one, it helps the player navigate, so they understand where they are in relationship to the focal point. Aesthetics are very important, a landmark should not be a general asset dotted multiple times around the map/world/level but a unique structure to its location. Drawing attention using landmarks can sell the level, not to say it should be a enormous, majestic architectural masterpiece; more so a distinctive addition. Although majestic architecture is always a bonus.
After figuring out what you want, and how you want it to look, a key building block in this pipeline is concept design. Developing strong artwork that depicts your level as accurate as possible can be a major help down the line when it comes to modelling everything in 3D. The more artwork that is produced, the greater idea the 3D artists will have when it comes to the final thing. This is also why there can be tons of concept art churned out by a team but only maybe 25% of it actually used. White boxing out levels is a great step in visualising concepts in 3D space. This typically will occur around the idea generation period where by using basic shapes in software such as 3DS Max you can get a very quick overview of scale and design. It is also helpful as drawings are 2D so the very angle illustrated is what the artists have to work with; in 3D space you can view your design from all angles and ofcourse do paintovers.
The visual side ofcourse is a very large step in this pipeline; in fact visual design and development is almost the entire pipeline. However, we must not forget narrative. Storytelling is something I think can be overlooked with all the next gen consoles delivering high end graphics and aesthetic appeal. Before the previous generation of gaming (around the early 2000’s) selling points like high end graphics and online game play were nonexistent. Developers had to involve players on COOL narratives and clever story telling just as much as gameplay, ofcourse. As an artist hoping to break through into the games industry in a few years, I think it is very important to learn these steps so there is no confusion as to why things happen a certain way.