gaming since 1997

The Level Designers – Part 7

Yes ! Another part of our level design features has arrived ! To celebrate our new launch, we talked with Brian Ball and Wright Bagwell, respectively lead and senior level designer over at EA, currently working on the upcoming Bond-game The World is not Enough

What did you do for studies ?

Brian : In high school, I took several drafting and art courses which I think may have helped some when it comes to level design. Later in college I studied industrial design and CadCam (AutoCad 1) which probably helped as well. Mostly though I’ve just played a lot of games.

Wright : I studied Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh as an undergraduate and went to Graduate school with the intention of getting a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the same school. I really enjoyed school, but I dropped out because I thought that making games would be far more interesting. I think I was correct!

What brought you to the gaming industry ?

Brian : I’ve been playing video games pretty much all my life. I was present when ‘Pong’ was first taken off the truck and rolled into our local bowling alley. I’ve also been fairly artistic and creative but never really knew that one could get a job in gaming until a friend of mine told me that his brother was doing game art for Sierra and I thought that would be really cool. I hooked up with an internet mod for Quake titled SWATteam. After that I did textures and a dm map for a commercially licensed Quake mod ‘X-Men – The Ravages of Apocalypse’ Not long after I was hired by Cavedog for their FPS ‘AMEN’

Wright : I began making levels for Quake in my spare time in graduate school and as a way of winding down after very long days running lab experiments. After making a few levels that got very good reviews on many of the popular level review sites, I decided that making games might be a lot more fun than pursuing a career in academic science (which is by no means dull, just not nearly as fun as figuring out better ways to make stuff blow up!) So I began searching for a level design job, and eventually I landed a job at the ill-fated Cavedog Entertainment working on the consequentially ill-fated Amen: The Awakening.

How did you start making levels ?

Brian : I first started designing levels and painting animated monster sprites for Doom. I was unemployed at the time and just sat at home playing games and hacking them every way I could while my girlfriend supported us… It’s kind of funny cause whenever she would give me a hard time about not contributing (having a job) I always told her I was in training to be a game designer someday.

Wright : See my response to question 2 above…

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

Brian : I first used DEU for Doom. When Quake came out I used Thred for a while but eventually switched to Worldcraft. I’ve messed around some with UnRealED but not much. I’ve also worked a lot with Eden which was Cavedog’s proprietary editor for Amen. I now use EAradiant which is Electronic Art’s version of Radiant for TWINE . Currently, EAradiant is the best editor I’m aware of.

Wright : I began using Worldcraft when it was first released. When I worked at Cavedog on Amen: The Awakening, I used Eden, which we designed and built from scratch. I used Worldcraft at Valve as well, and now here at Electronic Arts, we are using a highly modified version of Q3 Radiant we’ve dubbed EARadiant.

For which game did you like most to make levels ?

Brian : Definitely my current project, James Bond – The World is Not Enough. TWINE has an awesome design and both the levels and gameplay are extremely varied. In the past, I really enjoyed working on Amen because of the keyframing and scripting abilities, if anyone of you got a chance to see the subway train wreck demo I did for E3 1999 you’ll know what I mean. Maybe the most fun though was back in the day just starting up with Doom.

Wright : That’s a tough question to answer. I probably enjoyed making levels for Quake more than anything else, since they were so simple and I had a much better idea of what was possible. Making levels for games that are in development is very difficult since often times you don’t know what your limitations are, what enemies will make it into the final cut, what functionality you’ll have to create complex events, and how much time you’ll have to polish the content. But, on the other hand, working on a game in progress can be a lot of fun when you get to play with new technology that allows you to do things you’ve never been able to do before!

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

Brian : Anything to do with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Duke, Doom II, Quake, Jedi Knight, Quake II, Half Life, Kingpin, Quake III, Deus Ex, Voyager Elite Force, and American McGee’s Alice.

Wright : The environments in Outcast were by far the most impressive in any game I’ve ever seen. It’s a real shame that the game did so poorly in the States – most people I know never even heard of the game. I found the levels to be very impressive for several reasons – the artists’ use of color, the quality of the music and the fact that it matched so closely the environments, the feeling of being in a large, living, breathing world where characters appeared to have real agendas and real emotions… the voice acting, the character designs… the look of the engine… all fantastic. There were certainly some big shortcomings to the levels, as all games have, but that game provided an experience more powerful than any game I’ve played in a very long time. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the sequel.

Where do you get your inspiration for making levels ?

Brian : Mostly from my gut, drawing on 40+ years of personal life experience. I’ll also study movies as well as other games. When doing real world stuff I love to research various architecture reference books, but as we all know… awesome architecture ‘alone’ does not a great level make.

Wright : I get inspiration everywhere I look – movies, books, real life, dreams… When I first began designing levels, I tended to get inspiration from places that simply looked cool. Now, when I see a place that provokes a strong emotional reaction in me, I tend to become really interested in figuring out what it is that causes that reaction, and then I wonder how I can somehow capture that in a game. I’ve learned that level design is as much figuring what colors to use in your textures and lighting, what ambient sound effects to use, what music to cue, how to pace your storytelling… the list goes on, and gets longer as game engines become more and more sophisticated. Wouldn’t it be great if smell-o-vision, surround sound, and some form of tactile and thermal feedback was standard equipment on everyone’s computers? 🙂

Lately, I tend more and more to be interested in the surreal than the real – now that we’re seeing the development of more and more sophisticated rendering engines and level creation tools, I hope to see more people creating spaces that challenge people’s expectations of what games should look and feel like.

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

Brian : This may be rather out of step with common thought, but they’re much the same and share many of the same elements. What I mean by that is both types have to play great and look good (in that order)

Wright : These really depends on what your game’s design calls for. I’ve been working on single player games for a very long time and like to focus on those experiences… next question?

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

Brian : Jay ‘Shade’ Wilson, because he always tells me so. (If you don’t believe me just ask him)

Wright : I’m not quite sure who the best level designers are out there. Everyone has their specialty – there are people I admire for their ability to create beautiful architecture, some people I admire for their ability to work extremely quickly, and some people I admire for their ability to dream up unusually interesting gameplay situations, etc. As a rule, there’s something to be learned from everyone.

But if I had to answer, I’d say all the guys I’ve worked with over the years – I really admire nearly everyone I’ve ever worked with and am currently working with. The Amen team, The guys at Valve, and the guys here at EA on TWINE – all passionate and very talented. I tend to have a very nostalgic respect for the guys I worked with on Amen, since were we all new to the industry, overflowing with passion and creativity, and in addition, all became really great friends. I’ve never worked with a more fun and interesting group of people – and luckily, most of us are re-united and working together again on TWINE!

What is the most fun about your job ?

Brian : Being surrounded by talented, passionate, and creative people such as those here at EA is a huge factor. I love to design games and play games. Being involved in cutting edge interactive entertainment is a dream come true. I’m fortunate to be able to do this for a living.

Wright : The best thing about this job is that it requires a degree of creativity and technical ability that no other job I can think of does. It’s nice to use every part of your brain every day in your work. Oh yeah, and being served beer at team meetings is pretty nice as well!

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