Game Developers Conference Day 1 – 1

Conferences, Game Design and Development, GDC 2011

This morning we woke up early, at around 6:30 ish to shower and then ate breakfast at around 7:15. The hotel we are staying at had free continental breakfast. This included toast, muffins, pastries, hard boiled eggs cereal and waffles. I just had 2 waffles and a blueberry muffins. Both were good and had my fill. After that the honors group, that I was traveling with, got together and began our treck to the Moscone Center, where the Game Developers Conferences was taking place. The walk was around 40 minutes but it was not bad at all as the weather was really nice. Once we got there, we placed the pixel piece that we got during registration and placed it on the pixel wall. Each attendee got either a magenta, yellow, cyan or black color square. Once all of the squares are placed on the wall it will form a picture. We then tour the Moscone Center visiting the North, South and East buildings and locating the rooms where the Summits or Tutorials were going to take place. We met other people from RIT and they took us to the IGDA booth where they were giving out playing cards to the attendees. This was a meta game that anyone could participate. It is like an Apples to Apples card game but various game themed. The more “holigraphic” cards you got, the higher the chances are that you can enter in the debate tournament on Friday.

Basement of the North Hall Moscone Center

The tutorial that I attended was Level Design in a Day and this is what I learned from it. The talk started off with Ed Byrne and how Level Designers are usually considered to be scape goats when something goes wrong. He starts off that scapegoating is the fear of the unknown and targeted frustration. It is a misunderstood practice however it is essential as it is an outlet to prevent internal conflict. Scapegoating allows the transfer of fear of failure. There is no real hierarchy in game studios. A level designer usually takes what other creates and create a product that the sum is greater than the parts. They also need to know when it is fun and if it is not fun, to know how to fix it. Scapegoating is bad because it can destroy morale, trust and risk the quality of the work. It can also replicates virally where other people on the team will attempt to assume the role of the level designer. Scapegoating is not a solution but a reaction. Interation usually prevents scapegoating.


The four things to help make level designers are time, tools, talent and trust (4 Ts). A good tool allows the level designer to see the affects of the changes so they can quickly test to see how fun it is. A great tool also allow for great iteration when the change or effect loop is compressed as much as possible. Changes can happen easily and be assessed quickly. Difficult tools bogs the level design process as it does not provide feedback (especially when it is used incorrectly). They also restrict the number of people working on a level at once. Tims is important as iterations take time and there is no way to get around this. Honest scheduling and Realistic scoping helps to preserve time. Not every good idea should be a feature and not all the features should be in the game. Just need to see what is working and if it is not working let the other team members know. Preserving time allow the level designer to experiment and create more iterations.

The 4-Ts

Talent of a level designer includes their communication/problem solving skills, improvisation and flexibility. Good communication and problem solving skills allow to bridge departamental gaps. Improvisation allows the level designer to create what they currently have. Flexibility allows them to work with others. Trust is the hardest to preserve and to continue to build. It comprises of information, discussion, education, pluralism and management of expectations. Information is the communication of intent to allow others to comment. Always communicate when no one is listening. Discussion is to seek critique from other members of the team to illuminate the problem publicly and to receive feedback regularly. Education is to make sure the level is runed through everybody to see how the level plays out as it all comes from experience. Pluralism is the need to understand that not everyone agrees with your decisions and a level designer need to create an outside expectation so you can understand their point of view. This leads into the management of expectations. The level designer needs to evaluate the level and see it as a concept and not as a product. Do not need to have too much interference as it leads to a slow process and creates fear. Trust permits iteration to happen. In closing, not feer when progress is perceptible. No panic when the game is fun, no blame when changes are easy and not mistrust when the answers are plentiful.

Closing for Level Design in a Day 1

The next talk was one of my favorites. It is known as Encounter Building presented by Forrest Dowling. Dowling really goes into depth on basic of what a level designer is looking for. Even it revolves around first person shooter, there are some concepts that I can see be applied to other game genres. The four stages for the encounter are plane, execute, improvise and regroup. The plan is the moments before the encounter that allows the player to form a mental map of the space and to think about what they will be doing in that that space. During the execute phase the player has a plan the level designer gives them options. The designer should be placed in the player shoes to understand if the options are portrayed to the player effectively and that they understand the threat. Improvise is the moment when the player begins to deviate from the original plan. This is to encourage imperfect planing by hiding things, showing new threats or changing the relationships with the space. At this stage, the player needs to understand that a new threat has arise and a emotional shift when the power balace changes. Usability testing is used a lot to understand how people, especially players who do not play games regularly, understands what is going on.The final stage is regrouping. It is the least importnat stage as it comprises the player looting bodies or reload a gun. It is an important pacing step that allows the player to breath.

GDC 2011 Level Design Encounter Building

Encounter narrative comprises of setup, confrontation and resolution. It is where the player ask “What do I want?” to find a purpose of the encounter. It is important to build up to the climax to be mind exploding and also to make sense to the player. The decision layer is comprised of strategic, tactical and twitch. Strategic is when the player has a pre-set plan. This depends on the unique play style of the player. You want to make sure to be supporting the other style else where in the game when you force them out of their comfort zone. Tactical is the decision making within one encounter and where they can change route. The level designer should make many meaningful choices along the journey and to make sure that a single counter have a fluid progression. Twitch is the second to second decision making like reloading, moving, crouch, etc. This require to think of enemy location and their postion plus cover. The player goes through self-preservation to decide where to find cover. In-game artificial intelligence should not appear to be suicidal and they thy should find cover also. When designing the level, never create a perfect cover as it would not be an exciting experience because weaknesses in the area causes the player to continue to improvise their plan and would not stay in one place for too long. However, spider webbing the level would make it hard for the player to parse the encounter space. In the battle space there should be some negative area, “no man’s land”, to allow the player to see the area. Hardpoints in the area are good to cover for the player to view multiple angles so they can have tight threat management and distance. Also to test this experience at sub-optimal level (like on an SD TV resolution).

GDC 2011 Level Design Four Stages

Variety is also a huge part in player encounter space. Changing up the enemy types is key in creating a great encounter as it forces for a player decision to be made. Their location should also vary and be able to show where the biggest threat is as this adds to the player decision layer. The level designer can twist the level up to make certain enemy types stronger and the player weaker. This can change the feel of an enemy without changing any of its properties. Level Design is not a science as the rules are more like guidelines. Use it to judge the encounters and make your own rules.

GDC 2011 Level Design Encounter Space

This talk has been useful in understanding level designing. The next part of the tutorials have a Q and A session covering various questions from the audience from portfolio/resumes to why boxes are used most often in level design. Stay in for part 2 of this Level Design tutorial day.


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