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.


Level design is letting someone else play with your virtual Lego

The most difficult part of level design is sitting silently while someone plays your level for the first time and starts doing exactly the opposite of what you want them to do.  It’s like watching someone play with your toys wrong, but you’re not allowed to say, “No, this is how Optimus transforms into a truck.”  Playtest sessions can be painful, but extremely informative.  You just need to ask yourself questions like “Why did he go the wrong way?  What can I change to make sure they go the right way?  And how do I do this while still providing (the illusion of) choice?”

How did he miss that? Clearly the sign says “left for death, right to live.”

You don’t need any scripting or art skills

You absolutely need these skills.  My biggest regret is not learning more programming in my time as a student at VFS.  The same can be said for my art skills, however since picking up a free 3D modelling software – named after a common kitchen appliance – I feel like those skills have improved.  Relying heavily on your programmer to do your level scripting will accomplish two things: your programmer will hate you, as he has bigger things to worry about, and nobody will take you seriously as a level designer.

It’s very much like the “teach a man to fish” proverb.  Asking your programmer to place explosions in your level for you is one thing, but a better idea would be to ask your programmer to provide you with scripting tools to create said explosions on your own.

Your art can be atrocious, though.  And honestly, that’s kind of the goal of a level designer’s art.  Make sure it’s good enough to get the point across, but bad enough to make the artist cringe and work hard to replace it with something pretty.

Being a Level Designer is fun

Don’t get me wrong, the specialization of being a level designer does have its hardships, but it also has its perks.  You get to talk to the writers a lot, and they’re a cool bunch, and you get to make design decisions based almost entirely on what’s awesome/rad/tubular.  And of course, when you do a good job, players actually take notice of amazing levels and sequences.  Even if the Water Temple in Zelda: Ocarina of Time is tedious and confusing, you remember it because you felt so good that one time you completed it without looking at guides on the internet.

What kind of wet Hell is this?


So what should you do to become a level designer?  Learn some scripting.  Make some (bad) art.  Start thinking in terms of how you can evoke specific feelings from players through gameplay and environment.  Most importantly, make sure every situation you put your player in is awesome in some way.

Jon Tittley is a Teaching Assistant for Level Design at VFS Game Design