Thursday, October 16, 2008

Level Design Musings

I've been thinking a lot about level design recently. I use the term "recently" in the relative sense; it's effectively consumed every free thought for at least the entirety of 2008, but... something's changed.

I realized the change when I was playing Super Mario Galaxy this weekend. Somehow 6 months ago I was unable to appreciate the sheer genius of the game's level design; so simple, so purposeful, so charming, yet so complex. Why can't other games live up to what SMG has done? Maybe it has to do with sheer dedication and time spent in development (the game was in production for nearly four years, and I’m sure was conceived of long before that). Maybe it has to do with Miyamoto’s overall vision. Without having worked with large development teams, that's not a question I can yet answer, but hopefully soon…sooooon.

These days when I walk into a room I think about how it would fare as a gamespace. What type of game would this space lend well to (if any)? How would I change the layout? What is this space’s intended function and was it designed with that in mind?

When looking at these IRL spaces, one difficulty arises in my mind over and over again, namely, if I were to recreate this space as a level, would I still include the obvious architectural flaws? For example, in the hallway of the building I live in, between my apartment and the elevator, this is an area where the beam running along the ceiling is misaligned, creating a ledge in the ceiling with a gap about one foot wide. It may have been the building was remodeled, or possibly poor architectural design (judging from the rest of the building, I have a feeling it was the latter).

So the question is, should this obvious error be included in a gamespace recreation of my apartment building, and in what context would it be most appropriate? If I were to recreate it as it was, it would probably look like my world modeling skills were sub-par, or at the very least it would be a little distracting.

As level designers we create a world for which the player to lose themselves in, and we want that world to be as believable as possible in the context of the game. At the same time, as level designers we must ask ourselves the purpose of every detail, and unless it adds to the believability of the gamespace, my instincts tell me that a flaw like this should probably not be included (unless of course the goal was to do an exact recreation, warts and all).





Aaron Miller said...

Flaws can definitely add to realism in many cases. They can also hint at or reveal history, as you imagine the crooked beam does. Both of those effects can be very significant and even play a vital role.

I'd say whether or not to include them mainly boils down to cost-effectiveness. If an artist can draw a meaningful imperfection in just 5 or 10 minutes, then it's probably worth it. But if the artist has to manipulate the model's structure to the risk of messing up objects around it, or if the addition has the potential to be bugged, then it probably isn't worth it.

In the end, it just depends on the particular game, the object and the designer.

Savid Daunders said...

Sire Miller,

You're right, as with most things worth debating, the answer is "it depends."

Any examples come to mind where flaws have added to the realism of a game (other than, say, Fallout where things are intended to be broken)?


Aaron Miller said...

My first thought when writing the original comment was of modeling human faces. Modelers learned long ago that old people are easier to simulate accurately than young people, because the skin imperfections make the skin seem more real.

Perhaps another example is tree modeling. Trees generally don't look realistic without variation. Each tree is shaped by its response to unique challenges (ex: competing for sunlight) and setbacks (drought, bugs, disease, etc). One might argue that a perfect tree is one unhindered by any obstacle. The variety we see in believable tree simulation replicate the plants' struggles to survive and conquer.

I'll offer one more example: item placement and arrangement in interior settings. Games started simulating building interiors more accurately when they started to include random objects and messes, like magazines scattered on tables and floors. When an interior setting is entirely neat and orderly, it feels unnatural... which could mean only that someone recently cleaned it up for a special occasion, like guests coming over.

I think I'm going to cheat again and make this comment my post for tomorrow. :) I've got too many great games to play right now.

Savid Daunders said...

Bah, it's not cheating to use comments as a post! You still wrote it, didn't cha?

Your examples are great, and I think you're exactly right - in many cases imperfections can actually make the space feel more cohesive. I hadn't even thought in terms of characters, that's a good one.