gaming since 1997

The Level Designers – Part 1

In our first part of “The Level Designers” we talk with Harvey “Witchboy” Smith from Ion Storm, lead designer on Deus Ex, and James Parkman, level designer at Legend Entertainment, currently occupied with Unreal 2.

What did you do for studies ?

James : I studied under the watchful gaze of ninja masters in the east. My more mundane studies included English, Philosophy, and Computer Science, each of which I am about 3 courses from a bachelors degree

Harvey : Formally speaking, I dropped out. I was an English major. Writing analysis and learning to form up ideas in an articulate fashion has helped me tremendously in understanding games and sharing this understanding with others. Informally, I’ve played as many games as possible, from age 10 or so onward. I especially love PC RPG’s, shooters (the ‘deeper’ the better, imo) and strategy games. I have always been a big tabletop RPG player (and GM). I like some board games, but I cannot claim to be a huge board game fan.

What brought you to the gaming industry ?

James : During my senior year of college I decided that creating Quake 2 single player levels was far more rewarding than going to class. Luckily this paid off as I got a job at a fledgling company a few months later, after which I landed my current gig at Legend where I worked extensively on Wheel of Time and now on Unreal 2

Harvey : I applied for a test/QA position at Origin, almost 8 years ago

How did you start making levels ?

James : I downloaded QERadiant and just started making them. Before this, I dabbled in creating Doom and Quake 1 levels but it wasn’t until Quake 2 that I truly immersed myself in mapping

Harvey : I’m not purely a “level” designer, per se. I’m into game mechanics and fiction, and I love working in team leadership roles. I made 2d maps for games before making 3d maps. I started making 3d levels on the side, using Worldcraft to make levels for Quake. I was never the best at that sort of thing–for me, making levels was just a way to get more involved with the game creation process. There are many other aspects of game design that I enjoy more that level/map construction.

Which program(s) do you use to make levels ?

James : Currently I use UnrealEd2, and 3dStudio MAX 3.1 extensively. I’m also pretty familiar with QER but haven’t used it in about a year

Harvey : Currently, UnrealEd. I prefer working in subtractive environments with a tool that allows for quick rebuilds

For which game did you like most to make levels ?

James :I have a soft spot for Quake 2 mapping, as it’s where I got my start

Harvey : Deus Ex. The challenge of creating detailed real-world environments was huge. Also, providing for ‘multiple solutions to all problems’ was a really interesting undertaking

Which levels for what games do you like so much that you regret you didn’t make them ?

James :I always meant to take time to create some Half-Life single player maps, but spare time is rare in this job. I don’t really regret it though, as the stuff we’re working on now is definitely challenging and rewarding

Harvey : Some of the Thief levels really impressed me. Lord Bafford’s Manor, for instance, was conducive to incredibly awesome game-play. The designer was able to create an amazing gestault effect, taking into account the AI, the player-character’s tool set and the game’s incredible atmosphere. There are little examples here and there of spaces I wish I had been involved with: The first ‘haunted house’ level for Realms of the Haunting a few years back had a nice feel. The bombed out cities in Terminator Future Shock were cool. Some of the Half-life levels had a great tactical feel. More recently, the Counter Strike level called Italy is something that I admire a lot

Where do you get your inspiration for making levels ?

James : Movies, music, books, driving around looking at buildings, dreams occasionally… inspiration is a sneaky commodity, something that’s difficult to obtain but always seems to appear when I need it the most

Harvey : For me, it’s mostly a matter of what sort of space I want the player to have the chance to explore. (And, you might say, the sort of space that I myself would want the chance to explore.) With 3d RPG/sims it’s a bit different than with pure shooters–we’re less about graphical polish and deathmatch flow and more about the ‘possibility space’ (as Doug Church would say). In other words, for games like Deus Ex, it’s all about the thrill of exploring and interacting with an interesting location. I like moody places–I listened to Radiohead MP3’s the entire time I was working on Deus Ex maps. If you can make the player care about the space, he’s more likely to enjoy the game

Where do you make the difference in making levels for single player or multiplayer ?

James : I love single player mapping. My true love lies in creating scenes of awe-inspiring proportions and ambience. SP maps offer the chance to give the player that feeling of discovery, such as when the dropship first comes out of the clouds in Aliens, and you see the atmosphere processor before them in all it’s ominous glory, or the Tyrell Corporate building in Blade Runner’s intro… Deathmatch mapping gives a chance to hone your balancing skills, keeping speeds tight and still trying to achieve a pleasing aesthetic under harsher constraints. My skill at multiplayer mapping is definitely not as strong as SP. Perhaps that will shift at some point but I feel that I still have room to grow in both areas.

Harvey : See above. Mp maps are all about flow–chokepoints and such. Mp competitive games are very sports-like when you break them down

Who do you find to be the best level creator and why ?

James : My Legend colleagues (Scott Dalton, Matthias Worch, Grayson Edge) are truly master level designers. Grayson is a relative newcomer but his work is outstanding, look for it in Unreal 2 and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Warren Marshall who’s now at Epic is an outstanding mapper as well. The guys at Valve are very good, especially skilled at crafting fun play situations. It’s been a while since I’ve browsed the amateur scene so I can’t comment on that at the moment

Harvey : Hard to say. Depends on your values. There are some people out there who have a great sense of 3d space (like Steve Powers, who did Hong Kong for Deus Ex). Other people, like Dorian Hart (recently of Looking Glass), have a great feel for atmosphere. Designers like Monte Martinez (also from Deus Ex) are just awesome architectural talents. Sometimes I most admire people who can create realistic, believable environments, but at other times I admire map makers who can really get wildly creative with a space, like the people working on Alice

What is the most fun about your job ?

James : My job is just… great 🙂
Seriously, I work with smart, interesting people, I have creative freedom, and I’m constantly pushing my design and technical skills.
I get to make alien spaceships and I get paid for it

Harvey : Hmm…the people. Working as part of a passionate, committed team has consistently been an incredibly positive experience for me


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