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The Level Designers – Part 2

In part 2 of our feature with level designers, Dave Halsted, level designer over at Human Head Studio’s, and Scott Dalton from Legend Entertainment give their answers to our questions.

What did you do for studies ?

Dave : Grew up around the world and went to a lot of different types of schools. In college I had a hell of a blast and managed to graduate with the jokiest major I could find

Scott : If by studies you mean formal schooling then I was a college dropout (to take this job in the industry) one semester prior to graduation. I was a Japanese Language and Culture major. Video games are part of Japanese culture, so I did a lot of extracurricular studying. I’ve been playing computer and console games since I was a wee child on my first Atari 800 PC, and I think the first game I wrote was a text adventure on my Apple ][+. I’m mostly into FPS, fighting games (2d/3d), and RPG (mostly console these days, although the occasional PC one is fun too).

What brought you to the gaming industry ?

Dave : A strong life-long desire and a hint of nepotism

Scott : Well, I a very fanatical Quake 1 player, and made a lot of mods and maps for fun. The impulse 9 home (a q1 clan formed from a group of us who all lived together) was local to Brandon James (amongst many others who also are now in the industry, oddly enough). He invited me to work on a q1 mod that would become Zerstörer, although Brandon would soon leave to join id software. I worked on textures, models, and maps for that primarily. After we finished that up, I was creating some maps just to learn Q2’s ins-and-outs (just after it was released) and sent them off to Legend. Soon after I was returning from Japan to work on Wheel of Time.

How did you start making levels ?

Dave : I’ve always thought about levels and games I’d like to make, and gave myself early training on my Amiga in high school – a lot of 3D pictures and animation, and “programming” simple games with high-level languages like Blitz Basic and Director. I started at HumanHead in a general-purpose Production Assistant role and got myself onto the mapping side (which is what I was after) by figuring out UnrealEd in my off hours and learning from the experienced game-makers here

Scott : Well, aside from the few Doom levels I fooled around with, I began with a primitive Quake editor called Wax. It was one step above using notepad. When it was available, I switched to Worldcraft, then to QE4/Radiant. Initially making maps was just one facet of creating fun stuff for myself and my friends, another outlet for those energies

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

Dave : UnrealEd, UnrealEd, UnrealEd. “Edward the Unreal”. Eddy. Or RuneEd, I should say now. Good old Ed

Scott : These days primarily UnrealEd2, with occasional jumps into 3DSMax or PhotoShop as needed

For which game did you like most to make levels ?

Dave : Rune is my first, and I’ll no doubt always remember it with that fondness that comes from being fresh at something; I’m loving making maps for Rune and am very excited for this sucker to go Gold so I can start in on extra Deathmatch maps and levels for whatever game I do next. You learn a lot in a year and a half – it’s going to be great starting a new game with all that I’ve learned through Rune on the professional side of getting maps made

Scott : Well, I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for Quake 1

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

Dave : Top of the list would be top-notch levels for 2D platform games. Mario, etc. Then there’d be games like Tempest, where the level design is less about aligning textures and tweaking torch light radii all day and more about taking something simple (a set number of enemies with limited AI), and balancing, building, and timing it up to where it has ‘intelligence’ and messes with the player’s emotions. I’d love to work on stuff like that, where you really get into the player’s brain; that happens a lot less with ‘realistic’ 3D environments, it seems

Scott : Q1’s DM2 – Claustrophobopolis

Where do you get your inspiration for making levels ?

Dave : 1950’s crime fiction

Scott : It really depends on what I’m trying to create. That being said, I’m constantly reading books, watching movies, and listening to music for inspiration. Often times, inspiration for me is a synergistic creature created by interacting with those around me. Seeing the amazing work of my coworkers often inspires me far more than anything else can

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

Dave : With single player you have complete control over the total experience and everything the player will be able to do, so you can make an area combat-heavy, you can make an area work more toward thematic mood, etc. and intermix these things as you please. With multiplayer you’ve got to find and go with the ‘style’ of play that the game’s DM settles into as people figure out the weapon balancing, movement, etc [i.e. the “Quake” feel, or the “Half-Life” DM feel]. That’s why making a DeathMatch map is less mysterious – you just have to watch people play it and work up whatever they enjoy about it.

Scott : Well, aside from actually laying down the brushes, they’re totally different beasts.
Singleplayer is about atmosphere, exploration, tension, pacing, story, action, and more atmosphere. These elements all have to be combined in the right ways to create a truly good singleplayer experience.
Multiplayer can vary depending on what type of game you’re going for, but the most important elements are usually flow and balance. In a DM situation for example, drawing the player all around the map by good item placement helps keep the action fast paced and exciting

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

Dave : I don’t know. I don’t really pay attention to these things when I’m playing games. Especially in modern games, where the work is the product of so many people combined, it’s sort of irrelevant.
Like film (director/producer/writer/sound/actors/etc.), these days it’s about the teams. That’s why it’s such big news when a development house splinters and new teams form; people wonder, “OK, let’s find out if the guys who left were the ones with the magic, or the guys who stayed?” But I’ll answer the question with “Jeff Minter”.

Scott : Hard to say. I have a great amount of respect for all my fellow LD’s here at Legend. They’re constantly keeping me rethinking what can be done better in my own work. I also totally respect the designers responsible for Half-Life’s levels, as well as those in Deus Ex. I’m also always impressed by Tim Willits’ ability to put out interesting and fun maps time after time

What is the most fun about your job ?

Dave : It never feels like work and the atmosphere is about as comfortable as you could imagine. When I’m driving home after a 50-hour stretch, I just feel excited and want to get back at it

Scott : I work with a bunch of smart and talented people, making games for a living, and I -have- to study other games as part of my job. You have to ask?

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