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By Michael Stuart Licht
[Author's Bio]

Gamasutra
June 3, 2003

Introduction

Spatial Studies

Third Study: Drawings

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Features

An Architect's Perspective On Level Design Pre-Production

Third Study: Drawings
Suggested time for this phase: 1 week per level.
Once the bubble diagrams have been completed, I start thinking about the visual specifics of locations within the level. If you have a concept artist or a lead artist on this project, this is the time to get them involved. If it's a project based on a license, research as much information as you can about the locations in which it takes place, and collect graphics from the license holder. Then, based on your initial spatial studies and the level document, start to draw over your bubble diagram. Add detail to your circles so that they begin to take the final shape of the rooms or locations. Be sure to document your initial ideas about enemy placement, puzzle layout, power up placement, and anything else you want to insert into the level. I don't limit myself when working on level drawings - I add anything that comes to mind. Things can always be trimmed back later.


Figure 5. Third drawing. This was a third-revision map based on earlier bubble diagrams.

Colored pencils come in handy at this stage. I use them to color-code items and to help readability. You also might want to use grid paper to get an idea of scale and possible modularity. In the map shown in figure 5, the level was a forest layout so I had a little more freedom from orthogonal form.

This final drawing should be a comprehensive layout of all the spaces in the level, drawn to relative scale, and it should include basic "contextual hints". Contextual hints are simple drawings that give the artists on your team a basic understanding of the space. For example, in the level drawing shown in figure 5, I drew some green trees and rock formations so the artist would understand where forests and cliffs were. (They are not to be taken as literal art direction - just clues to help the artists understand the spaces.) Make sure you do a few versions of this map with design reviews in between. Each version should be a little more detailed than the previous one and should incorporate feedback from the reviews.

Fourth Study: Enlarge and Detail
Suggested time for this phase: 3-4 days per level.
After the first few passes at an overall map, it's time to blow up special areas within your level and add more detail to them. Start by picking a few special locations and, in a larger scale (blow them up 50%), re-draw them with more notes and gameplay information. Do yourself a favor and don't try to draw these areas in a 3D perspective. Use simple plans (top down) and elevations (side view), and just draw enough detail to give the general layout and gameplay in the space.


Figure 6. Examples of section/elevation blow-ups from Star Wars: Bounty Hunter

Try to place yourself in the game. Ask yourself questions like, "If the player goes to this place, what will they encounter?" Then make changes to the level accordingly. Add any graphics you think will help get the ideas across to artists and feel free to explore. As usual, be sure to refer back to your level document and gameplay diagrams for specifics on these locations.

Like the other phases, there should be a few revisions of these drawing based on design reviews. This might seem difficult at first but you will be surprised just how much design work you can do on paper long before you ever start up a 3D modeling tool.

Once all of my drawings and documents have been approved for the next phase, I plaster my workspace with them. I find that pinning up these drawings, as well as concept art and photo references, helps remind me about my core level ideas and keeps me focused on the heart of my design. This also keeps me from searching for drawings during crucial moments during design development and it allows me to easily discuss design ideas with co-workers.

Final Preliminary phase: Massing Models
Suggested time for first-pass massing model: 1 week per level
At this point in the process, it's time to work in 3D and mass out your map. Don't spend any time constructing details at this point - leave that for later. The goal of massing the models is to simply get the general spaces laid out for your first run-through. Build each space quickly, and then move on to the next.

Once you finish your first-pass massing study, run around your level in the game engine (assuming the engine is far enough along to permit this). By exploring the level in the game engine at this stage, you will probably get a new perspective on your level: perhaps you didn't realize that a certain space was going to be so small, you might get ideas for more three dimensional action in a particular area that was hard to show on paper, and so on.


Figure 7. Massing the model. This particular massing model was built directly over a scan of the map. This is not necessary for all massing models, but it works well with a terrain map.

The Foundation Is Finished - It's Time To Start Building

At this point, you've finished all of the preliminary level design documents, and early layouts, so you should have a pretty good idea about what to do next. Now it's just a matter of following through. Start constructing your levels, using your documents and drawings as a referral.

Keep in mind that just because you did all this work ahead of time, it doesn't mean your design is locked down. Just remember that much of your preliminary work was already approved and the rest of your team has given you some "buy in" as well, so don't run wild. Have faith in the decisions you made in the pre-production process and follow through with them. When you do, you'll find that your workflow will be more efficient, project planning will be easier, and most importantly, your levels will be so much more successful. Good luck!


Star Wars: Bounty Hunter Game Environment

 


Star Wars: Bounty Hunter Game Environment

 


Star Wars: Bounty Hunter Game Environment

 

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