Level Up : You Are Only As Good As Your Reference!

Level Up with Victor Kam — Banner

Being at various studios over many years, I’ve worked on a wide range of games, each with it’s own specific level design. From creating racetracks to wacky baseball stadiums, to the streets of Hong Kong, building unique levels is no easy task. The title of this post — You are only as good as your reference! — is a phrase I learned while struggling through the design of wide variations of levels, bouncing from project to project. It has stuck with me ever since, and I’d have to thank fellow artist and co-worker Jeff Solway for ingraining this concept into my head.

I often get asked the question: How do I start planning my level layout for game X? This is where reference images come in to play.

Most people think of reference gathering as something only artists do, but it also plays an important role in level design, particularly in the beginning stages. Imagine opening up a blank file and you’re tasked with creating an entire city block, with alleyways built for chase sequences, interiors to use for intense gunfights and as the getaway chase that happens at the end of the level. All in all, it sounds intimidating at first, if you don’t have a good starting point to work from.

So, where do we start? You’ll most likely find yourself trying to sketch out some layouts — and more often than not, they will be symmetrical and, possibly, even confined in a square. In this case, your city block will probably be very grid like, and not have many interesting routes. This is because you’re creating a layout of the first thing that comes to your mind when it thinks of a city block. Unless you are an engineer or city planner, your first iteration will be more or a less a typical layout of what an ordinary person thinks when they hear “city block.”

As a level designer, it is not only your duty to create goals and objectives, but also to make interesting physical paths to and from them. So before we even start blocking out our level, we have to open up our mind, expand our idea of what a “city block” is, and infuse a level of creativity into the physical aspect of our level that keeps the player interested while adhering to gameplay requirements.

Remember that blank file we started out with? Let’s make our lives easier by having a starting point to work from. This is where reference comes into play. Before getting into any kind of development, studios spend weeks, if not months, just gathering references. If you’re lucky, a team will also be sent out to a remote location for a week to snap pictures for architectural ideas, texture references, and general inspiration.

If you don’t have the luxury of cameras and time away from the office, the next best tool is Google Earth. You can easily fetch layouts from anywhere in the world and begin constructing your level around these areas. Whether you are looking for a shipyard for that stealth mission or for that all-out combat sequence in the courtyard, use the world around you as a base and go from there. When you use real world references, you already have implied sightlines, elevation and interesting pathways. Not only that, but architecturally it’s grounded in reality, so whether you dress it up as sci-fi or medieval, you will always maintain that sense of believability, simply because it was brought in from an actual location.

So, the next time you are stuck blocking out your level, take a look around while you are cruising about the city. What are some areas that would be great for your racetrack single-player deathmatch level? Or get adventurous, and take a trip to a location you think would be great for that killer level. Who knows, maybe the library you just visited would make for an awesome layout for the intergalactic super space hub you’ve been imagining all this time! Remember: You are only as good as your reference!