gaming since 1997

The Level Designers – Part 3

Part 3 of our level design feature has arrived, and the lucky people to answer our questions are Mike “Oz” Schulenberg, designer of Star Trek Voyager Elite Force over at Raven Software, and Warren Marshall, Professional Nuisance over at Epic Games

What did you do for studies ?

Mike : Hmmm, well I was never really into the college scene much. I took some classes, like english, creative writing, college algebra, and some science, but back then I was more interested in playing guitar and jamming with the band I was in back then than in acculumating esoteric knowledge

Warren : I went through school primarily for computer programming which was the job I wanted … initially at least

What brought you to the gaming industry ?

Mike : I used to build levels in my spare time when I wasn’t busy delivering pizza. Eventually I started sending them to companies that were looking for designers, and doing interviews and stuff…but nothing really panned out until I sent some stuff to Raven

Warren : I got lucky and got some contract work with Glen Dahlgren doing level design on the initial Wheel of Time game concept. After a while, he offered me a full time position and that was that

How did you start making levels ?

Mike : I first learned to do it from this really cool book called “Tricks of the Doom Programming Gurus.” It came with this cd that had all these editors and utilities and things. Good stuff

Warren : I honestly don’t remember. 😛
I remember hearing about level editing programs for Doom2 so I downloaded and checked out DCK … the next thing I remember is working on my multi-level WAD for Doom2 (“99 Ways To Die”)

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

Mike : I use Raven’s special blend of Radiant. Back when I was an amateur I, at different times I was also into Worldcraft, Quark, and my personal favorite editor, BSP

Warren : Well, in the Doom2 days, I used DCK. There was just nothing else that even came close.
Once Quake came out, I used Quest for a while, and then I actually wrote my own level editor called “ToeTag”, and I made several levels with that.
With Quake2, I started out using Worldcraft for my first map and then switched over to QER and never looked back.
I made one DM map for Unreal and then Wheel of Time consumed my time. I also did a level for UT once Wheel of Time was finished … both of those, naturally, were using UnrealEd.
These days, I’m pretty much exclusively an UnrealEd kinda guy

For which game did you like most to make levels ?

Mike : I guess I would have to say Elite Force…partly because it’s my first professional level gig, but mainly because of all the cool intricate stuff we could pull off with the scripting language

Warren : I would say Quake2. The themes in the game were good, and the colored lighting was just too much fun to play with. It had textures that could emit light, etc … it was a level designers playground. 🙂

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

Mike : That’s kinda hard to say, as I like different things at different times. I liked a bunch of the stuff in Unreal a lot…especially how they do their skies. There were also some levels in Heretic and Hexen which I loved, and also picked up some tricks from back when I was learning

Warren : Oh that’s easy, Half-Life. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to make a level for Half-Life but I just never had the time. Especially after OpFor … I badly wanted to make a series of SP levels or a DM level or anything! 🙂 But it just wasn’t to be …

Where do you get your inspiration for making levels ?

Mike : Lots of places…games, movies, books, other people’s levels…even real-world architecture. Music too…I pretty much listen to nothing but Ozric Tentacles when I work because it feeds my imagination so much

Warren : I guess just from … my brain. I can’t say specifically what makes me decide, “I think a spaceship with a big curving thing in the middle would be a neat map” …

I actually draw a lot of inspiration from screenshots of games. I’ll see something that another mapper has done that looks really nice for whatever reason … it’s scale, it’s shape, it’s lighting, etc … and I’ll set myself to doing something similar. It evolves over time and in the end the piece you started with is not even in the map anymore. But it serves to kickstart the brain and get the juices flowing …

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

Mike : Single player levels are my definite preference. You have to design your environments with this consistent internal logic. Multi-player stuff can be fun too, though…it’s a good venue for experimenting with geometry because it’s multi-player, which doesn’t always have to be logical, as long as it’s fun and flows well

Warren : Well, the distinction is fairly clear. In SP maps, you have to provide the player goals and give them the tools to accomplish those goals. Put things in their path … puzzles, traps, monsters, etc … and let them get through as best they can. Balancing the players progress with rewards is important
as well … “Want that railgun? Earn it!”

In MP (I’ll assume we’re talking about DM here), you’re looking to create a level that interconnects nicely, and gives the players a nice battleground to kill each other on. You generally want faster running speeds then in an SP map, and item balance is very important if you want people to use the entire surface of the map.

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

Mike : That’s a tough one. I always find stuff to admire in other people’s work, and probably will for as long as I play games

Warren : There’s really no good answer to this … I don’t think there’s any real undisputed king. All the great mappers have had their moments. 🙂
So instead, let me name some games that have impressed me, level design wise …

Wheel of Time. Yeah, I know, I worked on it … but I still feel much of the level design in it was just excellent.

Kingpin. I loved the theme of the game. Everything was so dirty and ‘real’. The levels looked great.

Half-Life. I love the Half-Life graphical style … and that style comes through in the maps.

Unreal Tournament. They weren’t all gems, but there were several maps that were real eye catchers. Some new stuff I hadn’t seen before as well as unique environments

What is the most fun about your job ?

Mike : Heh…apart from the work itself, I would have to say my cubicle. It’s all decked out with these black lights and posters, lava lamps, a laser and a fog machine, and it puts off a good vibe while I do my level thing. I also have the good fortune to work with a lot of cool and talented people

Warren : Well, the freedoms that Epic affords me allow me to enjoy my job to the maximum. I also love working with the people here. Finding people this talented, all in one place, working toward a common goal … it’s awe inspiring. 🙂
Also, since my official title here is “Level Designer/Programmer” I can do whatever suits me best. If I’m bored of programming, I can work on a level for a while, and vice versa. … that kind of flexibility really helps me to stay focused and not get too burned on any one thing

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