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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Environmental Art: Concept to Execution Part 3

We previously ended off our scene by refining our blockout with custom meshes, and did a quick pass on integrating medium details into the level.  At this point the overall layout should be set and now it’s time for the nitty gritty.  I only get to doing finer details once all gameplay spaces and layouts are finished, that we can keep our focus on the task at hand.

After having played The Last of Us I was inspired to have an overgrowth through the level.  After all, this level takes place in the mountain tops and having some vegetation would give the sense that the area has been around for quite some time, nature slowly re-claiming its place.  Not only that, I had to find a way to break up the ground surface, since this is the player’s immediate view I did want to invest time into making it interesting.

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Environmental Art: Concept to Execution Part 1

The whole idea about creating a level from scratch, is to always gather reference, design on paper and begin white boxing.  So let’s say you are a level designer that wants their vision fully fleshed out once it gets passed onto the world art team.  It’s really up to you to lead them to ensure that all the ideas you had from the beginning come across in the game.

What I’m going to show you is my progression in creating a scene in UDK (the image above).  Before set dressing an entire world, it’s wise to create a “visual target.”  In this case I will be using a small section of what would be part of a larger world and fully build it from the ground up with custom models, textures, lighting and finishing things off with a touch of post-fx and screen overlays, to get the unique look I am going for.

I had this idea that I wanted the player to traverse through a roman castle hidden up in the mountain tops.  I am a big fan of Cecil Kim and his work on the God of War series, and I really wanted to capture the feeling of being in an epic environment, after all, level designers want players to feel immersed as if they are part of a living world that extends the gameplay space.  Other than that I did not really have any solid ideas for the level, so it was really up to me to experiment and try different things with size, scale and lighting to convey what I wanted the player to feel.

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Level Design, Game Programming, or Game Art?

It’s about time to choose streams now.

The time flies so fast. 4 months passed, since I have studied here.
Term 2 is going end. Term 3 with more specialized courses is coming.
To become more specialized in each game development’s field, VFS let us choose 2 major streams in term 3.
We still have other Game Design courses, but these ones allow us to go deeper in areas we are interested in.

We have to choose 2 from the following available 3 streams

1. Level Design: More level design on UDK and also game environment design in Unity. We are going to get our hands on these tools and level design tips!


 2. Game Programming: Advance programming in c# with more complex topics such as AI, network, etc. And a course for HTML5.


3. Game Art: More on 3D modelling and lighting techniques. The most artistic courses!


In Team management class, teacher Rick Davidson (GD02) reminded everyone about “specializing”. This course really clicks everyone’s passion and also motivates us.

He told us to think about and write down what we really want to do, and what we want to be, and MAKE THIS STICK! DO IT! GO FOR IT!

For me, I choose level design and Game Art, because they are the top two things I love to do. I have found out that I enjoy doing the assignments of both Level Design and Game Art courses.

In conclusion,

“Choose what you are passionate about”

You have to work hard on the assignments in your chosen stream. You are going to make your portfolio and go to work in these fields.

May the passion be with you! :D

Nicha Jaijadesuk is Game Design student at VFS, and a winner of the Women in Games Scholarship

Level Up: I Got My Job, Now What?

Level Up with Victor Kam — Banner

So you’ve just graduated VFS and landed your first job in the industry.  All those late nights and hard work has finally paid off and you’re set to enjoy your first pay check doing the job you love.  Time to cruise along and work 9-5 right?

The answer to this is yes and no.  Yes, because you’ve earned it and deserve a bit of a break after an intense year of school.  But after you have settled in your job, I would say no to cruise control.  Just because you’ve finished school and earning a paycheck now, your education should not stop there.

The games industry is a very creative field and we as designers are creative.  We have to keep creating to keep our minds at ease; to have that outlet after work hours.  Not to mention the fact that technology keeps changing constantly.  New tools and techniques are continuously being developed to enable us to build our imaginary worlds quicker and more efficiently.

Unfortunately when you are in the midst of crunch in a studio environment, there may be long periods of time where you are stuck using the same tools over and over, only to find at the end of the project a whole suite of new dev tools have come out which you’ve never heard of.  You could dismiss them and keep with your old ways, or you can spend some time after work hours to do research and potentially learn the new software.

Sure this takes time and effort after work hours, but we work in an industry where studios are hiring people with skills in cutting edge technology.  This will keep you competitive in the job market when the time comes to renew that contract.

I always recommend graduates keep working on levels at home even after they have gotten their jobs.  This is a great way to keep your portfolio updated, as well as giving yourself a way to be creative building something that is personal to you.  We’ve all been there, after a day of work the last thing you want to do is sit back on the computer.  The process will take much longer when you are working full-time, but bit by bit, even an hour or two a week over the course of several months will yield something that is portfolio worthy.  Hopefully during this time you can learn some new tech along the way to help you build with the most current tools and workflows.

So don’t know how to use Zbrush? Never heard of nDo2 or dDo?  Have you used xNormal?  When was the last time you touched that level editor?  It might be time to get out of the comfort zone of 9-5 and be proactive, pick up some new skills and create your next masterpiece!

Victor Kam is a Level Design Instructor at VFS Game Design

The Game Design Summer Intensive Experience 2013

During the week of July 8 to 12, 2013, the Game Design program at Vancouver Film School, located in Vancouver’s Chinatown district, welcomed 15 brave explorers to its Game Design Summer Intensive experience. These explorers may have come from different lands and backgrounds, but they had one thing in common – a passion for creating video games. It is thanks to this passion that they found themselves enrolled in a week-long intensive experience of All Things Video Game Design.


The students’ initiation began with a welcome from the Head of the Game Design program Dave Warfield, after which they were off to their first class of Game Theory taught by Instructor Chris Mitchell and Senior Instructor Andrew Laing. During the course of the day students became immersed in the roles of the game designer and analyzed the basic rules and mechanics of gaming.

One of the hardest things to do is to come up with an idea… and by idea, I mean a ‘good’ idea.  There is a fine art to making a game challenging yet entertaining – the motto: if a segment of the game or level is not fun to play, then it needs to be cut, no matter how much you love it. Chris and Andrew shared useful advice, suggestions, techniques and approaches on how to keep the creative process fresh and flourishing, as well where to find inspiration.

Right off the bat, students were divided into teams and asked to brainstorm unique game ideas, keeping in mind 5 essential questions:
1. What is the game?
2. What is the core mechanic?
3. What is the core challenge?
4. Why make the game?
5. Why would you enjoy making the game?

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Game Design Summer Intensives

All this week it’s the Summer Intensive sessions here at Game Design, a chance for aspiring Game Designers to get a sneak peek at the types of things we do here at the Game Design campus. Starting with some Game Theory, and wrapping up with creating games in Flash, our 1 week students have been very busy. Yesterday they spent the day understanding Level Design, and using the same tools that Level Designers in the games industry use. More details on the Summer Intensives next week.

Level Design instructor Calder Archinuk tries to figure out how to help one student,
while another student has just blown her mind with her creation in UDK (Unreal Development Kit)