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Game Design Essay #4

referring hugobozzshih007.blogspot.com/2010/01/hugos-game-projects-review-4-bananarama.html

It is very hard to define a role or the work of level design in a game team or a game project. In addition, it is also very hard to find a suitable person to do this job. A talented environment concept artist may decide the theme, elements and the main feature of a main environment. However, there are a lot of technology concerned contents in level design work which probably may not be handled by concept artist who probably lacks the knowledge of gaming technology. How about a designer with architecture design background? If this designer has no basic knowledge or skills of manipulate low polygon models, high polygon models and texture mapping, I'm sure that he cannot succeed this work. In fact, after 90s, lots of architects or architecture student are very skillful in lighting, 3D modeling and texture mapping for virtual environment simulation. We may call these people as digital architects. These people may have some required skill to do this work, but the core of technology in space design and level design is very different. Then, who can do this job? I would guess that a level designer should have skills of 3D modeling, texturing, scripting, and the sense of aesthetic and space. In another word to say, this is a very difficult job. And of course, it is very hard to be a level designer.

How hard? Even I didn't have the industry experience, I would say it is hard based on my passed project experience. I was the modeler in my last BVW project, Banarama. Because of the need of the game design, we need certain level design works to be done, and no one had that kind of experience before. As an architecture background student, I thought that I have to do this job. However, things were much more complex than I had expected.

Space Design

This part could be the easiest part for me. The goal of this level design work was to design a twenty-floors building which allows two players to run through from the highest floor to the bottom floor. There were two required features in this design. One was that players can easily control their character to go through the building on 2D screen-space. The other one was that there are different way to go to down stairs. Basically, it is like a layered labyrinth in a building. In the initial phase of this design is quite easy, I just have to decide the basic module of each floors, such as two walls (dead ends), two holes (falling to down stairs), one stairs (going to down stairs), and two doors (for directly going through the building in the same floor). However, the problem came to me: how do I arrange these module to make it reasonable?

Pacing

Pacing was the first problem came to me. It was so obvious that how I arrange those holes and stairs would affect the pacing of this game. And it was hard to iterate designs without testing the pacing. How fast can a player go from 20th floor to 1st floor? How easily can a player can get away from big monkey's hand? What's the different between going through a hole or stairs. These question often bothered me, till I worked with my programmer to do the play-testing. Although I did a few iteration, I still facing other problems. If every floor was fixed in the game, then every player can go faster and faster if they keeping playing this game. And if I want to dynamically changing the floor design, rules of arranging modules and scripting skills are necessary. However, for this game we didn't need dynamic level design.

Risk Incentive

If a player want to go to down stairs, will he choose a hole or a stair? If a player choose a hole, the character would faint for a moment while he fell on the floor. However, if there were two holes in a row, and if the player choose to go through it, it would be faster than going though the stairs and also easily to get away from the big monkey. However, should I make this kind of design? Will this affect pacing too much?

Memory Control

Although, the geometry of modules is very simple, but the texture is complicated. In order to let user to identify different sides of the building, we hardly painted our building by space design modules. In addition, the big monkey would break the building floors by floors. For that we also need to paint our building in very expensive way which is to paint it floor by floor. However, after first testing, the result told us this way was too expensive for our engine. I had to come out another solution to cut down the memory cost and keep the gameplay. So, I redid the level design of the whole building in this way: I made five floors as a module and repeat four times to compose twenty floors. In this way, we can reuse our textures, but the level would be easily remembered by players. Level designers always have to face the memory budget problems, even they are not programmers.

Work With AI Programmer

Although this was a simple project, we still had an AI character which is the big monkey which is responsible for chasing players and eat them. Although, writing AI is not the job of a level designer, in many situations, level designer need to know the AI rules and even involve the design process. In my situation, I also discussed with my programmers about how the big monkey would perform its AI, and the rules of it. Also, after discussing, I adjusted the level design of the building and the monkey animations.              

For this simple experience, it is not hard to tell that a level designer need to consider a lot of related stuff into the level design. Also, in game industry, a level designer has to integrate 2D arts, 3D arts, game design, and discuss with programmers or do some scripting by their own. Although this role is hard to do, the work does affect the entire game a lot. Therefore, being a level designer is very challenging and also very interesting. And a level designer probably will enjoy the special satisfaction after finishing a title.         
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