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By Michael Stuart Licht
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Gamasutra
June 3, 2003

Introduction

Spatial Studies

Third Study: Drawings

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Features

An Architect's Perspective On Level Design Pre-Production

Spatial Studies

There are varying levels of detail that a designer should consider when fleshing out a level. In this process, you take a basic concept and expand on this idea through gradual steps.

First Study: Post-Its.
Suggested time for this phase: 2-3 days per level (depending on the frequency of reviews.)
One design method I used early in architecture school was the use of cut-outs. In this process, the designer uses paper cutouts of rooms when designing a floor plan. These cut-outs represent a basic room size with the room names and other pertinent information written on each piece of paper. I would take these papers and re-arrange them until I found a layout that worked. This process lets you re-arrange the rooms quickly and easily, adding and removing rooms as you see fit. This helps to pre-visualize a layout and typically is quicker than drawing and erasing.

On Jedi Power Battles, I designed all my levels this way. I took a bunch of room ideas from my level document, wrote them down on some post-it pads, and started to arrange them as I saw fit. I also included the gameplay ideas for each room on the pads and arranged them on a board. When I first presented this board to the leads, I could tell that they appreciated the flexibility the system provided. Rob Blackadder, our co-lead and lead programmer, seemed to take exceptional joy in tearing off extremely risky technology challenges and tossing them in the trash. (I think it was therapeutic for him.) But this showed that even in that the early phase of my designs, the leads could understand what I was doing and contribute to the process, so no surprises would crop up later.

After a few meetings like this, the entire team could get into the process of re-arranging the post-it notes in different scenarios, which was fun and allowed all of us to contribute in the design process. After working with the post-it notes for a few days, everyone had a pretty good idea of how my level was going to be laid out and I was off to the next step, bubble diagrams.

Second Study: Bubble diagrams.
Suggested time for this phase: 3-4 days per level
After you have a basic layout from your cut-outs or post-its, get a sketch pad and see if you can draw a bubble diagram representing your study. A bubble diagram is a pure spatial example of your level, without concern for art or architecture. It allows you to bring together the list of spaces you specified in the level document with the general layout of your first spatial study in a more fluid format.

This diagram should be nothing more that a series of circles, lines and corresponding notes. The circles represent specific locations, and the lines represent transitions between locations. Transitions are more than just connection spaces; they can contain events as well. Constructing this diagram is an excellent way to study the flow of your level. If it's an FPS with little-to-no exploration, than the diagram might be very linear. If it's a MMORPG or adventure game, the diagram could go in all sorts of directions off of a central hub. If you're working on a real-time strategy game, bubble diagrams can be helpful in planning out battlefields.

Draw a few of these diagrams and see if you can start to see the general layout of your level. I find it imperative to scribble notes on the diagrams to describe the action in the corresponding area. Be sure to continually refer back to your level document and gameplay diagrams for reference. After you finish the first pass at your bubble diagram, get teammates to review it.


Figure 3. The author's first pass at a bubble diagram based directly on the "post-it" layout. Used for Star Wars: Bounty Hunter.

It's probably a good idea to draw a series of these diagrams (at least three separate diagrams) for each level. Each of these iterations should be a little more refined than the previous one, based on your design reviews and your own design decisions. For the second diagram, start adjusting the size of some circles, making them larger or smaller than the others, so you start getting a feel for the relative size of these spaces. Make sure you write down notes as you make these changes, too - it's important to keep track of ideas about appropriate art for these spaces, gameplay issues that spring to mind, and so on.


Figure 4. Third-revision (final revision) bubble diagram, with notes,
for Star Wars: Bounty Hunter.

When I'm working on my final diagram, it almost looks like a map. At this stage, your diagram should be filled with notes that describe the action in different place, as well as location hints. Anyone should be able to look at this diagram and see what you are trying to do with your level. Most importantly, so should you.

By now you should have a pretty good idea of the locations within your level, as well as the general layout and gameplay that will take place within your level. But you should only have a vague idea of the appearance of these spaces.

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Next Page: Third Study: Drawings


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