Massive Multiplayer Map Design and the Level Designers Ever Changing Role

Level Up

Recently, several co-workers and I have been working on a pet project tentatively entitled Boot Camp.  Mechanically, it is a tactical team based military shooter which can handle up to 120 concurrent users per match.  With that amount of people running around shooting each other, how do we ensure that it doesn’t start to feel overcrowded?  Well, by building a 4 km2 map.  As the level designer on this project, this is a somewhat colossal task.  The map is currently a work in progress, but the following is how I got to where I am, and what my next planned steps are.

Height Maps – the broad strokes

What is a height map?  Well, when you look at a map on a piece of paper, elevation is communicated with lines at certain height intervals.  The closer together the lines are, the steeper the incline.  A height map is similar to this, but uses values of grey instead.

You start with a blank canvas, and simply paint where you want elevation to be.  It works in greyscale; white is low, black is high.  Using these, along with shades of grey, a broad stroke overview can be created.

An example of a rough height map

After the height map is created, it can be imported into the game engine of choice (in our case, Unity) where it is then converted into a terrain asset.  In the engine, the maximum height value (black) can be modified and tweaked.  Once that’s done, we get into touching up the terrain and smoothing out the odd pixels so the terrain looks natural and flowing.

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The Truths and Myths of Being a Level Designer

Calling yourself a level designer is tough.  It’s a soft skill that you can’t prove easily like art or programming.  It’s far more psychological and subjective than that.  That is to say, an artist creates visuals and a programmer creates gameplay.  If the game looks good and plays well, these two departments have done their job.  But what about level designers?  Sure, you can judge based on the difficulty of the level or the ability to complete it (hopefully without the use of cheats), but the goal in level design is to evoke various emotions from the player at specific times in the game – usually to line up with story elements – while using the game’s mechanics to their fullest potential.

Level design is playing with virtual Lego

Think of the Lego creations you made as a kid – the ones where you used your imagination to create something (i.e., not from an instruction book).  How many of those would you call portfolio worthy?  Probably not a whole lot of them.  Either because you were 7 years old and had a much better imagination back then, or because you were 7 years old and you had no idea what level design was.

This should go without saying, but creativity and imagination are valuable resources in the video game industry.  But they must be accompanied by humility and the ability to accept criticism.  “This is my creation, and it’s perfect!” will not help you find or keep a job.  Iteration is a constant in game design, and very much level design as well.  I’ve created levels that have gone through dozens of iterations, and still feel like they need improvement.

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