Course overview Course overview
Design a game level to immerse your audience in
In this course you will learn to approach 3D game level environments from a design perspective. The lectures will explore theory of games, shape composition, architecture, and player psychology. You will design and iterate on level setups from the initial planning phases to playable prototypes in Unity. The course will focus on crafting immersion and modeling shapes that intrigue, surprise, and inspire players. We'll explore how to design for game mechanics and narrative, creating level progressions that support character development and player experience.
Environment design WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
The more you know, the better.
Real heroes don't wear capes, they teach
Lectures by Emilia Schatz
Patrick is an Advanced Level Designer at WB Games, and has worked on many games like For Honor, Bioshock Infinite, Homefront, and Wolfenstein. He is typically involved in creating initial game concepts, building level layouts, scripting combat encounters and gameplay events, and playing the game to death until it is just right. He relies on a wealth of experience to generate intuitive design solutions that compliment a project's thematic and conceptual design.
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Nov 5, 2019 - Feb 1, 2019
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Introduction to Level Design for Games
Interview with Jon Hickenbottom
Jon Hickenbottom shared his experience of studying CGMA course Level Design for Games led by Emilia Schatz and the best level design lessons he’s learned.
Hello, my name is Jon Michael Hickenbottom. I grew up in Ventura County, California where I currently reside. I am a Level Designer at New World Interactive and have helped to design levels for Insurgency, Day of Infamy, and the upcoming Insurgency: Sandstorm. With a desire to continually grow and sharpen my skill set, this past year I’ve sought out courses at CG Master Academy: modeling with Andres Rodriguez(Naughty Dog), foliage with Jeremy Huxley (Naughty Dog), and most recently, I completed the ten-week Level Design for Games course with Emilia Schatz (Lead Game Designer at Naughty Dog). Level Design for Games’ curriculum supplied me with a heightened awareness, necessary terminology, an even more nuanced attention to detail, and greater confidence in my ability as a designer. The following is a breakdown of the workflow I followed, challenges encountered, and new understandings I hope to apply in all my future work.
Off the bat, this was my first time using both Unity and Maya to block out levels. Challenge accepted! Coming from a background of Source Engine and Unreal Editor, I had never used a modeling package to create layouts in this fashion. While nervous on how I’d adapt, I quickly discovered the speedy back and forth between Maya and Unity to be very helpful with making iteration and refinement of shapes in the scene painless. Furthermore, Unity was quickly generating collision automatically to help me get from blockout to playtesting within seconds. With Unity and Maya synced up, I was ready to get started!
An important first step for me is to find reference and inspiration. Google Images, Flickr, and Pinterest are always solid sources for image inspiration and direction. I enjoy discovering supplemental inspiration from art history books, cinematography and “art of” books from various games. Assembling images into a mood board for assignments in either Pinterest or Photoshop kept me focused, and became a catalyst for creativity when encountering mental blocks along the way. The found images began to spark new ideas that may not have otherwise been considered.
For a section of the course, the theme was centered around the Wild West. I wanted to create a sense of scale, beauty, and risk within each of my levels. I tried to focus my reference search on shapes and spaces that could communicate this to the player. Inspiration was found in the remarkable art by William Henry Holmes, the thoughtful cinematography of Roger Deakins, the detailed environments in the Desperados series, the splendor of Westworld, and childhood memories of Back to the Future 3. One exciting discovery was remembering the photos I had taken on a summer trip to Zion National Park. These became great references for the shapes and aesthetic of the blockouts. Carrying around a camera or camera phone is a perfect way to easily build a personal reference library that you never know when will come in handy. It also serves in sharpening one’s eye for composition and framing!
For me, the scale is an important foundational pillar when starting any project or design. I’ve personally found becoming viscerally familiar with a project’s scale to be very important before moving too far into the process. As Jesse Schell says in The Art of Game Design, it is not important that 3D spaces have realistic 2D blueprints. All that matters is how space feels when the player is in it. With this course, being my first exploration into a third-person level design, I found myself constantly asking Emilia questions about proportions and scale.
With the mechanics of our third-person project template clearly defined, it was important to make sure the metrics were always consistent. In order to do this, I created a small collection of walls, doors, windows, cover, and objects that felt right in the game world and rounded their measurements to the nearest 1/4 meter. With these metrics established, I could snap to or duplicate the pieces as I blocked out my layouts.
Painting with Shapes
Emilia Schatz redefined my understanding of how to paint with shapes. I started a rough idea of my layout on graph paper, but I quickly jumped into Maya to get started.
Throughout the course, I challenged myself in these projects to be more comfortable off the grid and break from symmetry. With a background of level editors that encouraged the use of the grid for either organization or optimization, it was a refreshing endeavor to live comfortably off the grid, while still maintaining the use of metrics and proper scale. Living off the grid allowed me to thoughtfully paint shapes without restriction and limitation, thus focusing more on the artistic aspects of level design. This focus was freeing, and I could foresee the creative synergy that would occur between designers and artists as we move to understand thedisciplines of one another. Within the past few years, I’ve sought to become a better artist in my pursuit to become a better designer. This course strengthened that pursuit. Through Emilia’s lessons, I began to appreciate the thoughtfulness required of each shape I created and each object I placed; not just from a level designer’s perspective but in how my choices could, in turn, affect a fellow collaborative artist’s workflow.
One wonderfully valuable tip was the power of the cube. I had always struggled to understand how complicated terrain and landscapes were created in games like Uncharted. Emilia introduced us to her use of the almighty cube. By squashing, stretching, and slicing a cube, the forms of various terrain elements begin to take shape. In moving these manipulated cubes within one another, it became clearer as to how to craft natural, seismic formations. The idea at this stage was not to worry about optimizing and welding vertices; it was more important to paint shapes, compose compositions, and create interesting spaces.
In week four, we began to explore composition from a single point of view. As referenced earlier, the practice of photography is an advantageous way not only to build reference but to continually focus design on composition, framing, and guiding the viewer/user. I’ve found it most valuable to spend ample time refining each composition. In the image above, I used the lines of my shapes to creating guiding lines that lead the viewer toward the structures near the middle. Using the angular lines of the rocks served as a helpful tool to guide the viewer.
Also, I worked to create some organization to the scene by removing any excessive noise within such a dense environment. For example, man-made structures on the right are balanced with the layered rocks on the left, and groups of colors separate rocks, foliage, water, structures, and sky. Finally, keeping in mind the rule of thirds and Rudolf Arnheim’s idea of “structural skeletons”, I worked diligently to be thoughtful with every shape I placed. Being attentive to these ideas of psychology helped me create magnetic-like areas of pull and attraction to guide the viewer’s field of vision and movement. Through Emilia’s teachings and dissection into the psychology of a composition, I feel I gained a renewed appreciation for its nuanced power in design, and consider it a key tool in a designer’s toolset.
Landmarks & Internal Compass
While much has been told about Naughty Dog’s impeccable use of Disney’s “weenies” in the context of games, Emilia reminded us to not limit our thinking of these focal elements as only distant structures and shapes. These landmarks can also be local features to help strengthen the user’s mental map of your spaces and spatial compositions. It was such a great reminder to understand that landmarks can be both local and distant to help the player traverse your spaces subconsciously. As I began to block out the levels within the course, I found ways to employ landmarks—both local and distant—to better serve the player’s internal compass. For example, a large tower looms in the distance enticing players to continue exploring, while a water fountain in front of you reminds you of what part of the small market you are currently inhabiting.
Crafting Districts & Nodes
As we moved from singular areas to large spaces, Emilia introduced us to the idea of nodes, edges, and districts. As I began to map out my level, I began to discover the points of intersection— these are considered nodes. Nodes can be described as intersections and decision points within your paths. They also become great positions to form your compositions around. We can be certain the player will circulate through these points, and therefore be perfect for framing your compositions. Emilia encouraged us to set up various cameras to keep our focus on shaping and refining strong compositions at these points.
Edges help communicate that you are entering into a new space. These can be thought of as linear elements that help divide one area from another. I tried to place these around various districts within the level. For example, a grand wall and gate at the entrance help communicate the borders of the town, a small fence shows where a graveyard starts, and a large archway was placed to divide the market area from a military camp.
Finally, building your spaces to include identifiable districts helps promote identity and contrast within your levels. It also allows for interesting points of connection between spaces.
Bringing all the elements together, the following image shows some of the various district identities I tried to communicate: a marketplace, jagged graveyard, elevated upper class, separated lower class, and the nature surrounding all of these. By employing compositions at these nodes, structuring identifiable edges, and creating distinct districts, I hoped to implement a spatial composition the player found interesting to explore, discover, and inhabit.
Bringing It All Together
In the latter weeks of the course, our assignments began to marry past lessons together and we were introduced to third-person combat as shown above. Through a familiar process of making decisions, crafting blockouts, testing and iterating, it became exciting to see our small scenes grow into full-fledged spaces, filled with distinctive districts, environmental storytelling, engaging combat, and an established narrative to bring it all together.
This course provided me with a masterclass of knowledge that I’ve only scratched the surface on here. I’ve found a renewed outlook on crafting levels with intentional shapes and heightened shape language. It continually stretched and challenged me as a designer, and helped me build a sturdy confidence in tools, perspectives, and genres I had never explored before. I learned how to trust myself more, and free myself to create designs that expressed what was true to my heart.
I count myself fortunate to have learned from Emilia Schatz. Her constructive feedback never wavered, and what she shared was always what I and the class needed to hear most. I encourage anyone—at any experience level—to take this course. It has fundamentally changed how I will approach level design.
I highly recommend CG Master Academy and especially Level Design for Games with Emilia Schatz.
Thank you for reading. I hope what I have to share helps you!
Jon Michael Hickenbottom, Level Designer at New World Interactive
The Art of Level Design: Do's and Don'ts
Interview with Valeria Petruzzelli
Valeria Petruzzelli took CGMA course Level Design for Games led Emilia Schatz and talked about Level Design art: its rules, main aspects and things to learn.
Hello, my name is Valeria Petruzzelli. There is no much to say about myself. I am a very simple person but I can honestly say I am very driven by my passions. I was born in a small town in the south of Italy, in a large family. Since the young age, I have been very close to my family, especially my cousins that I consider as brothers. I have to thank them for my decision to undertake a career as a game designer. Every Christmas or afternoon we spent together we used to play video games and I started growing the desire to develop games to make other kids happy. Ever since I worked on several projects, many of them personal, to challenge myself and to try to turn my ideas into something concrete.
Studying Level Design
Some people think that level design is just making a playable map. This is partially true but there is a difference between a well thought out level and a map.
I studied design in Italy, at the Polytechnic of Bari and here I’ve learned problem-solving and what to consider when designing a successful product. I attended an MSc in video games production and enterprise at Birmingham City University and have learned the pipelines and the teamwork as well as what is really important to consider when designing a game.
But where I really learned how to fully design a level is with CGMA and, to be precise, with one of the people I consider talented the most within the game industry: Emilia Schatz, a level designer at Naughty Dog. She taught me that every detail makes a difference and that everything in a level has to be placed in the game world with a purpose to help the player enjoying the experience as best as he can. This goal can’t be achieved just studying other games levels: there are rules to follow, invisible lines to guide the players to never make them feel lost.
Anor Londo, Dark souls remastered (PS4), From Software
I personally look at other games’ levels that in my opinion are perfect and I try to analyze them for the purpose of designing a level almost as perfect as the references I am using. If I have to name some examples, I can honestly say that Anor Londo is definitely a well-made level in my opinion. The way in which the beauty of the environment meets a well-thought level design make this level one of my favorite of all time. Another good example is the city of Columbia in Bioshock Infinite and, to be precise, the part where Elizabeth open portals with the past to allow Booker DeWitt to use platforms and hooks.
Bioshock Infinite (PS4), K2
From my experience, linear levels are even more complex to design than highly structured level. There are many aspects to consider when creating levels for games, I base my ideas on what I want the player to feel when passing by these areas and how I achieve that feeling. If the player is about to face a challenge or a battle, I want the player to feel prepared or to expect a rapid change of events.
The environment is the strongest tool to talk to the player: a dangerous surrounding partially destroyed can lead the player to the idea that something unfriendly is nearby. Sharp shapes trigger the idea of danger, fear, and death in the human mind. If the environment is dark, inhospitable or seems dangerous it has been designed this way for the purpose of communicating a precise sensation and this indirectly pushes the player to be careful in moving forward. In this way, even a linear corridor can bring to the player feelings, allows them to spend more time in exploring the area, maybe looking for something that can be hidden somewhere and that can help them in surviving the next challenge in the game.
A level, albeit simple, which is able to give rise to emotions cannot in any way be considered a failure.
Personal projects images
Level Design Process
Explaining the process of developing a level design in few lines it’s not an easy task, but I can definitely summarize it in the 7 gold rules that I follow when designing a map:
1) Define the game type:
Depending on the game typology, the process of the game developments changes based on the timing and the aspects to consider when implementing a level design.
2) Analyzing the character potential:
Every character is different and has abilities that define the gameplay mechanics. Analyzing the character and his behavior is a key passage and has to be a constant reference when designing the surroundings. The character has to belong to the environment. He has to move within the space feeling like the environment is there to support him during the adventure, making the experience sometimes harder, sometimes easier but always without putting him in front of insuperable obstacles.
The Witcher 3(PS4) – CD Projekt Red:
3) Analyzing the course of events:
A story is made of acts, a succession of actions that influences the events and involves choices and consequences. The environment can influence these choices. It can direct the player in the directions desired by the designer in order to progress in the story and not distract him from the final objective. Designers use weak points to stop the players from going out of the path and give them the chance to use the abilities to pass by an obstacle and progress in the game in the way they want it to be progressed.
4) The subdivision and the identity of space:
In some games, the UI tells you where to go using maps or showing the name of the is for fast travel. In other games, the player needs to remember every area without the use of UI. If that’s the case, the environment has to provide landmarks or recognizable details to distinguish an area. To do this, it’s important to characterize each area with different colors, different architectures, different climes, and enemies, in order to help the player understand that he is entering a new district and is therefore progressing.
Bioshock Infinite (PS4), K2:
5) The environment language:
The surrounding always talks to the player. Even if we don’t pay attention, our mind attributes to the environment a specific meaning and memorizes what is dangerous and what is not. To guide the players there are shapes that help them in familiarizing with the environment. Round shapes are usually used for peaceful and natural environment and bring to the player the feeling of peace and safety. Squared shapes are attributed to human sites or buildings and, especially in open worlds games, are the clear sign of a place to find supplies. Sharp shapes are a clear message of danger and have to be avoided.
The Witcher 3(PS4) – CD Projekt Red:
Some games also introduced messages as part of the environment. A good example can be Good of War 4 that uses ancient signs to mark the platforms that can be climbed or the objects that can be used to progress.
God of War 4 (PS4) – SIE Santa Monica Studio
6) The psychological influence of a level:
As said before, when I design a level I base my project on the feelings that I want the player to feel while passing by an area. Tension, peace, danger, fear, joy are all implemented in the level with shapes and colors to make the player feel safe or not welcomed.
Personal projects images:
All the elements in a scene are placed with the purpose of guiding the player eye to the objective. The composition has a crucial role and even if the player doesn’t directly see it, the eyes are guided through invisible lines within the environment objects to help in finding the way out.
Personal projects image
Guiding the Players
As I stated above, the composition is a very strong tool to guide the player across the level. It helps not just finding the right path but also leads them wherever the designers want them to go to find supplies and items. Knowing the language of the environment helps them navigate within the area and it teaches them what the places that can be explored are using the abilities they have. The game needs to have a progression and it’s important for the player to feel that progression. While they player advances, the areas get more detailed, the rewards higher in value and in risks. All these small details make the player feel like all the effort is bringing rewards and that they are growing in power and experience to be ready for the final challenge.
Personal projects image
Connecting Different Areas
I usually consider the level design as theatrical representation. The plot is divided into acts and every act is divided into scenes. There are general lines that are a constant in the story but the locations change and so do the environments.
When designing a level, usually there are aspects of the environment that are always present and that the player considers constant. This does not preclude the fact that each district is different from the previous one, and has characteristics that make it unique and easily remembered by the player. The transition from one area to the next must be gradual: there must be references to the previous area but at the same time, there must be the introduction of new aspects, such as new shops or new enemies that inevitably distinguish a new chapter albeit partially linked to the previous one.
Personal projects image
Another important aspect is to place landmarks in each area. It can be a tall building, a statue, or a big tree that can be seen from the distance with the purpose of helping the player in orientation within the environment. An area always needs to be connected to the previous one or the player will feel lost and won’t be able to feel the progression in the game.
Personal projects images:
Level Design Mistakes
I think the biggest mistake is to think that a level is just a bunch of platforms placed in the space without any logic. Behind a level design, there is a deep understanding of the player mind, a meticulous planning of the events and an accurate analysis of the game mechanics. If these three elements don’t work together the result is a boring map that will lead the player to the idea that there is no reason to play the game if there is nothing that involves him emotionally.
The best thing to do is analyze games that made the history of level design and start wondering why they have been made like this and not in another way. Ask yourself if you think that something might have been done differently and if yes, why. When designing a room, place the items with a purpose, not just to fill an empty space and most importantly, ask feedback from someone who doesn’t know about your ideas: if they easily find the way out, it means that the environment is leading the player in the right direction.
Advice for Learners
There are only a few recommendations that in my opinion can make the difference if you are a level designer or planning to be one.
- Teamwork: learn, even if partially, the art and code pipelines. This is really important if you want your level to work in the way you want. Working as a team is essential to achieve a good result and this is not possible if you can’t understand how the rest of the team works.
- Ask feedback: Don’t be precious of your ideas and always ask for feedback. This sometimes can be hard but the more feedback you ask the closer you are to a perfect result. There will always be someone that won’t like your work but it’s always good to see things from a different perspective.
- Learn as much as you can: CGMA is an affordable and easy-to-use platform to get closer to the game industry. All the lecturer are great exponents of the game industry and can only help in getting your skills better.
- Keep up with the times: Game development is always changing and updating. It doesn’t really matter what you watch, read or play as long as it helps you improve your knowledge and understanding of how level design works. I personally read a lot on 80 level, Gamasutra as well as watch a lot of Playstation access, Extra Credits videos which help me in understanding what an expert player is seeking in a game. They usually analyze the games not only in the gameplay but also in the stories, the maps, the art, the process of development and highlight aspects that can be improved.
- Love your job: Confucius said, choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life. Put as much passion as you can in all your projects and never get tired of doing it.