Subramanian "Vishal" Venkatachalam has provided some tips and tricks for aspiring Level Designers, shared several informative guides and resources on the topic, and explained which recent games have the best level design and why.
Hi! I am Subramanian Venkatachalam. You can call me Vishal. I am originally from Mumbai, India, but I currently live in Savannah, Georgia. I recently graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design. (SCAD). I received my master's degree in interactive design and game development in the fall of 2022.
Prior to completing my master's degree, I spent five years working for Sun Technologies Inc. in Bangalore, India. This experience provided me with valuable career insights. I had the opportunity to wear a variety of hats while working on projects as a graphic designer and user interface (UI) designer. Eventually, I transitioned into game design, development, and production support. My proud projects with Sun Technologies Inc. include Captain Kosmo and Jolly Roger's Pirate Rumble.
The Game Development Journey
Have you ever burst out laughing or sobbed after finishing a video game? I have a lot of time! That, among other elements, is what distinguishes a successful game. My interest in games goes back to my childhood. My first gameplay experience was on the old Nintendo systems, playing the ever-popular Mario and bounce ball games on Motorola phones.
As a kid, I was fascinated by video games, and my interest in how video games are developed has only increased. Sun Technologies gave me the opportunity to work as a junior designer on 'Captain Kosmo,' an adventure mobile game. As a game designer, I soon realized that in addition to planning and detailing the game's elements, one of my most essential responsibilities is to bring all of the people involved in the game's development together.
With a solid grasp of game art and game development, I could quickly bridge any gaps between teams and successfully communicate design concepts. This experience prepared me to lead and work with diverse teams on the production and design of Jolly Roger's Pirate Rumble. I worked with artists, developers, and quality assurance to define and agree on content and project timelines. This experience has helped me understand that the combination of art, technology, creativity, and bringing multiple disciplines together to create a gameplay experience, is what drives my love for games.
In 2020, I chose to seek a master's degree in game development in order to delve deeper into the realm of game development and become more familiar with video games as a product and business.
Getting Started With Level Design
During my time at SCAD, I had the chance to learn a variety of skills and software. After taking classes in environment design, character creation, and basic game design, I learned that level design is an important part of game development that helps make games that are fun and interesting. Level creation also requires a wide range of skills, like being able to understand space, solve problems, and think creatively. This makes it both an exciting and hard job to do. I like the challenge of making levels that are hard and interesting, as well as encounters that pull players into a new world.
At SCAD, intensive classes provided me with knowledge of game development pipelines and planning. I was able to work on my skills with agile methods and improve my ability to work with others as a major contributor by communicating, planning, solving problems, and managing my time better. My coursework included:
- Ludic Methodology: Researching a wide range of subjects, from history to design methods, to improve my game analysis. Working through a variety of game principles and design patterns, studying various game approaches, resulting in a non-digital prototype.
- Game Engine Pipeline and Practices: getting experience working with a game engine while studying various art and design processes used by various disciplines within the game industry. And learning to handle the step-by-step process of game development by focusing on the creation of virtual spaces, keyframes, and cinematic camera work.
- Gameplay Scripting: Gaining experience by scripting gameplay elements and making small playable games.
- Virtual World Building: Real-time game environments are designed and built using industry workflow and methods. From the creation of block outs to the development of modular asset packages and the creation of well-crafted environments in a game engine.
- Immersive Level Design: Taking level design courses helped me grasp what level design is and how level designers create engaging, dynamic, goal-driven experiences in games by utilizing design techniques and practices such as timing, rewards, and cinematics.
- Collaboration Classes: I was privileged to participate in collaborative design projects with business leaders to find creative and innovative solutions to real-world problems. This facilitated me in learning about production, product development, project management, scheduling, and identifying risks and weaknesses.
The Challenges of Level Design
The main challenges of level design can be categorized as such:
- Tools and Software: Level design frequently necessitates the use of specialized software and tools, which can be intimidating for beginners. It can take time and experience to learn how to use these tools efficiently.
- Player behavior and psychology: The goal of the level building is to provide players with an immersive and enjoyable experience. As a result, it's critical to comprehend how players think, behave, and respond to various game elements.
- Composition: The arrangement of visual components in a game level or setting is an essential part of level design. The process of creating an aesthetically attractive and cohesive layout that directs the player's focus and supports the narrative of the game and mechanics is known as composition. Line, focal points, contrast, scale, and balance are all important compositional components.
- Balancing gameplay and aesthetics: A level should not only appear nice, but also be entertaining to play. Beginners can find it difficult to balance the two aspects of level design, resulting in aesthetically spectacular but disconnected levels or irritating or imbalanced gameplay elements.
- Iterative Design Process: The process of developing, testing, and improving levels is iterative. Beginners may misjudge how much time and work it takes to build a polished level.
Playtesting and getting feedback are important, but often overlooked skills that beginners tend to underestimate. Testing a level with a variety of players and being open to player feedback can help find problems and make the level design better. Communication and teamwork skills are also important, especially when working on big projects with other people.
Here are some tutorials and resources that might help aspiring creators to get the hang of level design:
- "The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses" by Jesse Schell – This book offers a comprehensive summary of game development, including level design.
- "Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design" by Scott Rogers – This book emphasizes video game design, particularly level design. There are numerous examples and case studies included.
- "An Architectural Approach to Level Design" by Christopher W. Tottem – The book applies architectural design concepts to game-level design. This method stresses practical and aesthetically pleasing levels.
- Design Den – This YouTube channel features educational dev log series for various personal projects as well tutorials on Level Design fundamentals, industry advice, and portfolio reviews.
- Steve Lee – A level designer with 15 years of experience teaches level and game design principles.
- The Level Design Lobby Podcast – The Level Design Lobby is a podcast that features interviews with level designers and covers various topics related to level design.
Overall, there are a plethora of tools accessible to assist beginners in getting started with level building. To improve your skills, it's important to choose a resource that fits with your goals and interests and to practice regularly.
Examples of Great Level Design in Games
And here are some examples of recent games with excellent level design:
- God of War: The game's level design immerses players. The levels improve gameplay by emphasizing the game's themes and narrative and encouraging exploration and discovery. God of War level design is effective because it fosters immersion and investment in the game's environment and narrative. The game's levels are entertaining and unforgettable thanks to a mix of scale, exploration, pacing, cinematic techniques, and environmental narrative.
- Control: The level design in this game is distinct and immersive, with surreal and unsettling settings. The stages are dynamic, with items that can be moved and used to solve puzzles. The game also has a Metroidvania-style level design in which players must backtrack and investigate previously explored regions to find new secrets and abilities.
- The Last of Us Part II: This game has extremely detailed and realistic settings that help to convey the narrative and create the atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic world. Each level is carefully planned, from the layout of the environment to the placement of enemies and obstacles, to create a sense of tension and danger.
- Celeste: Celeste is a challenging platformer with a variety of levels, creative and unique features. The levels are designed to progressively introduce fresh challenges to the player while building on previously gained skills. Optional collectibles that require precise platforming abilities to reach are also included in the game, adding a further level of difficulty for players looking to put their skills to the test.