Borderlands has been released! It was released on October 20th with a very well received release! I was able to make it out to a midnight release at a Gamestop in Oregon, and it was awesome to see how excited people were. Borderlands has continued to sell well a month later. Downloadable content will be released next week for the consoles.
I want to make a special call out to the level design department. We pulled through and made some amazing areas and amazing content. If I pulled anything away from my development time on Borderlands, it is how a strong motivated team can overcome any obstacle. We've made a tremendous game, something we can all be proud of. I look forward to working with those fine gentlemen on upcoming projects.
I'm now back working on Aliens: Colonial Marines! I've returned working as a level designer and also juggling other game design tasks. Things are in motion and it makes me very excited. Using the experience I've gained from Borderlands and Graeme Timmin's new leadership on the project I know we'll have a kick ass product for you in the future. Can't wait until I can speak more about it, but I know we wont let you down!
Now that times are a little less hectic I've got a library of games that I have to play. Almost all are for the Xbox 360, but I have a couple games for the PC I'm also looking forward to. During my 2 week vacation after the release of Borderlands I only got through 2 so this may take me a while, especially with the mass of great games coming out. My goal is to spend at least 2 hours a day catching up on gaming. Go ahead and make fun of me if I fail my goal. Here is the list of games I have!
- Condemned 1
- Condemned 2
- Gears of War 2
- Too Human
- Prince of Persia
- Chronicles of Riddick
- 50 Cent, blood on the sand
- Alone in the Dark
- Oblivion: Shivering Isles
- Chrome Hounds
- Armored Core 4
- Army of Two
- Dead Rising
- Xmen Origins: Wolverine
- Lego: Star Wars
- Medal of Honor: Airborne
- The Darkness
- Dead Space
- Call of Juarez
- Brothers in Arms: Hells Highway
- Farcry 2
- (PC) Dawn of War 2
- (PC) Left for Dead 2
That being said, I have a little pet project. In the time ahead, you'll see whats in the oven.
- Most recently inquiring about Garage Game's and their Torque engine. His interest in the industry goes a long way.
- His proud face as I got my Bachelors with honors in Interactive Design and Game Development.
- One Christmas vacation with the whole family we went bowling. On the way out he challenged me to take on Dance Dance Revolution. I failed horribly.
- Going to see Mission Impossible 2 on a random Friday for no real reason. Fatherhood isn't scheduled.
- Giving him Rainbow 6 for Christmas.
- He set up his spare computer in his office for me. As he worked on his physics, I played a Turn Based Strategy game.
This analogy may be exaggerated, but the moral is very much relevant. As games get more complicated, communication between design departments is at risk of being brushed aside for seemingly more important tasks. However with Level Design's responsibility ever growing, its important now more then ever that both Game Design and Level Design work directly with each other to explain their goals and direction.
Each of the design departments have a unique role. However, they are entirely dependent on each other for success.The Game Design department creates documents describing how different game systems will intertwine. Game Designers worry about the Core of the game. They decide on a feature that builds upon the Core. Features are constructed by many systems that Level Designers use in their environments. These systems make the level feel alive, interactive, and rewarding. Brenda Brathwaite has a nice blog post that goes deeper into that.
Level Design is where the tire hits the road. They take their own goals and create an environment that promotes Game Design's systems. They are also responsible for creating environments with the Art Department, promoting story elements, and other random scripting. With all their responsibilities, it is imperative that Level Designers always understand 100% of Game Design's decisions. The customer see only the environment in the video game. He does not read the game design documents that were also meticulously created. If Level Designers do not understand the goals of the systems, they can not create environments that emphasize those systems.
Gears of War offers a nice example. Their core is combating enemies. They use their “cover” feature to emphasize intelligent combat. To allow the player to use the cover, they created a system for Level Designers to place nodes in the environment. These nodes define how the player is able to act when he is on the node. The relationship between the Design departments must be symbiotic. If one department fails, the other will inevitably fail. Level Design must understand this system to use it effectively in their levels. How dense should the nodes be? How far apart should they be spaced? What is the goal of this feature?
I recently worked with a Game Designer closely on a system that would be used by the rest of the Level Design Department. Because of clear communication, we were able to quickly assemble a prototype level that proved the goal of the new system. Both Level Design and Game Design were able to communicate concerns and offer solutions. We ended up with a system that was understood by Level Design and enhanced the feature Game Design was concerned about. The game became more fun!
When questions arose or direction was questioned we quickly met face to face. If the issue involved more than one person, we gathered a quick meeting. Gearbox's communication process helps employees use their time to maximize productivity. Better communication between design departments results in more quality work and more time to iterate on ideas. Working together will make a stronger product, and stronger products make for happier customers!
Risk and Reward is a meaningful choice to better the player's advantage upon successful completion of a challenge. A task that requires the player to continue by overcoming a challenge is not Risk and Reward, though it is often good level design. Risk and Reward is not necessarily allowing the player alternate path within the environment, however giving the player choices in his environment is always good level design.
There is a difference between choice and risk / reward. Normally choice within the environment can be presenting the player with a decision with more than one equal outcome. For instance in Bioshock, some environments allowed the player to go in many directions, however all the paths led to the same ending. Risk and Reward is a more meaningful choice, this choice however leaves the player stronger than before he was presented the decision. If the designer removed the risk, the path to the reward would be the obvious outcome every time with the players.
To have a successful Risk and Reward, some steps ought to be followed to make it more meaningful. Present the choice to the player clearly. Visual noise can often clutter the intended message to the player. Extra props and shadows can hide the Risk and Reward. If the player does not clearly see the possibility and reward, the meaningful choice is not there. Balance the risk. If the challenge is too hard, the player will likely ignore the reward. Or worse, if the player is constantly failing he will be breaking his immersion through frustration over the game. Players need to have a fair chance to succeed. Give a competitive reward, matching the state and challenges of the game. If you are giving a close quarter weapon upgrade when he is defeating enemies from a long distance, you are inappropriately rewarding him. Likewise, giving health packs to the player when he is in the middle of solving environmental puzzles, does not efficiently reward him.
Looking around at my game library, I can identify successful examples designers have used to create Risk and Reward. Some generic ideas are chasms. Threatening the player with falling to his death if he does not succeed is often a solid choice. The designer does not need to cheat the player with random events causing the player to fall. In Halflife 2, the player was presented with crawling under a bridge. After getting final art integrated with the level, they found that play testers had a sense of vertigo making them take their time to overcome the challenge. When the player falls to their death on their own, they do not get angry with the developer. Instead, they challenge themselves to do better next time.
Other than chasms and deep falls, designers can set up areas where the player has to expose themselves to enemies to gain the reward. Some adventure games use the elements, such as fire, to create timing puzzles the player must get through to recieve the reward. There are many creative ways to introduce challenges for the player. As long as the reward and risk are clearly communicated to the player, you will have a meaningful choice for the player.
This particular multiplayer map is a great example of Risk and Reward. This game type does not allow the player to respawn if he dies. Players must rely on Medics from the team to keep players healed. In the event that the team is not sporting any medics or all they are all dead, the players still have the opportunity to grab a 'health pack'. The player is required to balance on a log over a chasm to get the 'health kit'. If they fall, they fall to their death. Quickly players leaned of emergent strategies. Pyros can light opponents on fire and encourage them to risk their lives to trying to heal themselves.
In Farcry's singleplayer, enemy AI will investigate break out fires. While this is a good advantage for the player, fire spreads in the environment and is influenced by random winds. The fire is also able to light the critical path on fire. Fire easily destroys vehicles the player may need later to quickly travel. While there is a distinct advantage, the player has to weigh his options and choose what is best for him.
Requiring the player to move through tight areas without knowledge of his surroundings often lead to puzzled and frustrated players. When requiring players to travel confusing distances, allowing him a chance to observe his route prior to beginning, can avoid potential frustrations. If the player is required to move through a 'hedge maze' to progress through a level, a high advantage point overlooking the potential path can avoid guess and check game play as well as making him feel smarter for planning his progression. Requiring the player to fail menial tasks and learn from his mistakes does not empower him, it frustrates him.
In the early levels of Mirror's Edge, the rooftops the player started on often overlooked adjacent rooftops and potential paths. This gave me the opportunity to plan my next move before it was required I make it. Designers also threw in a hand full of rope slides. Since the player was moving downward on the rope slide to the next roof top, I had a good 5 seconds to look at my next rooftop for the fastest route possible. These were used sparingly enough not to be over used. They offered a nice exciting break that still served the purpose of allowing a preview of the player's next environment.
The game offered many chase sequences. Enemies would be introduced behind doors being beat down, as you run frantically by. Helicopters would chase you around roof top buildings keeping the intensity up. Probably the most powerful chase sequence would be the enemies that were able to move as fast and agile as you, requiring you to out think them. These chase sequences did not always have the proper set up allowing you to see your objective and know your intended path. Instead, during the successful implementations of these chase sequences, the player was guided extra carefully. The designers spent extra care using geometry, standard jumps, and lighting to guide me through the chase sequences. Due to this extra designer diligence, I successfully escaped the environment without knowing I was being guided by the creators of the game.
In hindsight, the player's intended path was easier during chase sequences. I was able to quickly discern the way to go while under pressure by recognizing standardized objects. I did not require extra time to observe my objective since my only goal was to find any way out possible. After completing sequences I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment because I was able to perform successfully under constant pressure.
However with the successes of the chase sequences and the rooftop races, the last half of the game frustrated me as a player and as a designer. Their inconsistent Level Design and changing the perceived game rules halfway through the game weighed a great game down.
The Level Design later in the game struggled with sustaining successful player momentum within an interior setting. The designers used a constant amount of sharp turns that ended up disorienting the player. Often I had to stop and look around for objects I recognized so I could find a probable path. Other times I attempted moving in directions blindly ending in failure. These designer decisions resulted in guess and check game play. The previous chapters were successful because the paths I took always led to success. Paths in the interior locations often led to failure, be it me falling off tight spots or meeting a dead end. I did not feel the subtle guidance I felt in the early exterior missions. As a result of standing around looking for my next path I felt frustrated for the game not adhering to its core goal, momentum and speed.
The other jarring negative I found in the game was the combat scenario's. Early on I decided I'd try to play through the game with as little enemy encounters as possible. I'd rather avoid them then fighting them. However they set up situations that the player has no choice but to spend agonizing time splitting the enemies up and disarming them one by one. In a couple of situations the designers would place an enemy equipped with a machine gun outside of a door. Unlike doors that you could previously run through and maintain your momentum, these doors required the player to stop and use the door. By the time you have the door open the enemy would've shot you enough to incapacitate you. This changed the way I had originally perceived the game. No longer was maintaining momentum my primary focus, and no longer could I avoid confronting enemies.
Other combat scenarios took the player and surrounded him immediately with half a dozen enemies that grouped together. While you could attempt to avoid contact with these enemies, their initial gun fire would often cripple you forcing the game to reload the checkpoint. The game paced combat early on by introducing one or two enemies to encourage the player to move away from them. If the player stuck around too long or lost his momentum he was rightfully punished by the game introducing more enemies. This felt good because if I chose to ignore the idea of speed and momentum, I had to deal with the consequences. However somewhere the designers ignored this technique opting to frustrate the player with tightly packed enemies.
The Take Away:
- In potentially confusing locations, allow the player chances to observe potential paths
- When unable to allow a preview of paths, make special use of geometry, lighting and other effects to draw the player
- Changing how the player interacts with the AI midway through the game can cause confusion and frustration
Fast forward to middle school, I had recently purchased the complete set of Unreal including their modding tools. This adventure lasted 2 hours as I got frustrated with the tool set. Ironically 10 years later I'm back using Unreal. Looking online I found that Halflife had also released their tools. Toying around, I created a number of failed attempts at levels for Counter Strike, Halflife DM, Team Fortress: Classic, and many other failed mods. I found myself interested in online communities of like minded individuals, helping found a highly successful Halflife based community Mapcore.com. I created contacts during these years that would defy time and end up being my future co-workers.
During High school I had created a number of successful amateur maps. One level was even included as an official map for the Firearms mod for Halflife. I was then 'hired' onto a amateur Single Player mod creating levels for Andrew Weldon. This mod was sadly doomed to fail, as all of the talented individuals were being hired up by professional game studios. Through this experience I learned valuable lessons about how to create single player experiences, technical know how, and how to work successfully on a team. While the mod was never released to the public, the work earned me a scholarship at Savannah College of Art and Design.
During college I worked hard to widen my skill base. I kept up on my knowledge of level design, while also learning how to create 3d models and textures. It became clear that to set myself apart from all my class mates, I had to go above and beyond in my school work and maintain personal design projects. I graduated college with Suma Cum Lade and my major's Outstanding Academic Achievement award. I kept up with my contacts in the industry, as well as making some new ones.
Prior to graduating I interviewed and was hired by Raven Software in Madison, Wisconsin. I was hired on as a level designer working with a small team developing a new IP with the Unreal 3 engine. I worked developing test maps that proved everything from combat, puzzles, to gameplay features. During its development I was promoted to Assistant Design Lead responsible for my current level design duties, as well as ensuring builds were built for milestones and helping oversee the level designers on the project. Regrettably as time went by at Raven, I found myself interested in more design-centric studios. I interviewed with Gearbox and instantly fell in love with their studio and employees.
In the future I look forward to participating in game design conferences, growing my skill set. Until then, this blog will help document my growth personally as a designer. I'll post about everything from what I learn as an employee, observations from games I play, and discoveries I find in my free time. I hope you enjoy the journey.