Meet Mandi Grant, Level Designer
Mandi has been in the game industry for a long time, and has played many roles in the design as well as the art departments. Today we’re talking with her about her job as a video game level designer.
Pay special attention to her advice on how artistic talent plays a critical role in the level design process.
In just a few sentences, how would you describe what you do every day?
I would describe level design as creative and enjoyable. As a level designer, I work on levels (also called maps) in stages. The very first stage is planning the entire game’s set of maps.
In planning, I answer the following questions:
- How many maps will there be total?
- How many art sets will be needed?
- What does the “difficulty curve” look like?
- What special “one off” features will each map need?
- What story beats occur in each map?
This planning step establishes a framework to build in. It’s like mapping out a new neighborhood.
The next step is to plan each map “on paper” (which usually means in Adobe Illustrator). This step is like creating blueprints for each house in the new neighborhood. This is where the designer identifies recurring features that can be recycled across maps and develop standards, such as jump distances and spawn point locations. These blueprints also allow other members of the team to critique the plan, before too much time or expense goes into coding or making art for a map.
Finally, the maps are built “for real” using standardized 2D or 3D building blocks. Committing to standards is critical, so oftentimes I work with predefined tile pieces to ensure consistency across all maps, placing them roughly in accordance to the planned design. These tile pieces aren’t pretty, just unadorned “boxes”.
Schedule permitting, I am sometimes able to play the map in this “whitebox” form, which lets me find and fix problems before handing the map off to the art team.
While the game artists add props, textures, animated effects, etc, I am busy writing scripted events in a scripting language and hooking them up to nodes within the map. Breakable objects, spawn points, hazard zones, and cutscene triggers are all added.
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How did you come to be a Level Designer?
I personally came into level design from an artist role. At my first job, level designer and level artist were the same role, so I would design the level and then create the art for it. At my second job, those roles were separated, and I landed on the “designer” side.
Level designer is one of the most common “new designer” responsibilities, but doing a good job as a level designer requires a strong sense of space, pacing, and composition. Designers without a knack for it are quickly moved out of level design.
What’s your favorite part of the job? What’s your least favorite part?
My favorite part of level design is building a world and running around in it. It’s very rewarding to create a space, explore it, and then improve it. I also love finding the right place to surprise the player with a scripted story sequence.
My least favorite part is a scheduling gripe. Compressed schedules oftentimes mean the level “white boxes” are built and handed off to artists before the code allowing for playtesting is written. It is very difficult to modify an “art complete” level without incurring additional development expense, so it’s quite scary to hand an untested level off for final art. On projects where this happens and I can’t play the levels until later, I find things that could have been done better and feel bad that there was no time to find and fix them before they were “frozen” by art.
What aspect of the job would be surprising to people looking in from the outside?
There’s quite a bit of planning and standardization involved, and yet, it’s mostly an intuitive and artistic process that can’t be boiled down into a formula. I think to some people on the outside it looks like playing a game, since so much of the testing process is playing it, but it’s also about thinking critically about your own work.
What kinds of talent and personality does it take to succeed at your job as Level Designer?
So many – persistence, empathy, and humility come to mind.
Crafting an experience requires critically looking at your own work and improving it. You have to step into the role of a new player over and over again, even as you yourself become very familiar with the level you’re building.
A level designer must be receptive to feedback from playtesters who veered off the map’s “designed” path. Players are good at doing the opposite of what you intended, and you’ll be reworking your level when all of them keep getting stuck in the same way.
What advice would you give to somebody in school, who’s thinking about Level Design as a career?
Learn a mainstream 3D modeling package. Build environments in 3DS Max or Maya – if you love it, great. If you hate it (and a lot of people do) at least then you know level design isn’t for you. Intro to 3D Modeling is the weeder course. Even the 2D titles I worked on were made using assets created in 3D. It’s everywhere!
Strongly reconsider your desire to become a level designer if you’re not at all artistic, because level design is an art. You’ll basically be building environments, even if you aren’t the person putting the decorative touches and lighting in.
If level design is the right path for you, showcase your talent with a portfolio that includes at least two or three very different level designs. Include renders from the player’s perspective as well as from outside the level, showing its layout. Label story moments, breakable props, hazards, whatever’s important. Imagine this level you built is being given to someone else to put into the game, and include everything you’d want that person to know.
What would you recommend for education, books, or other learning to start down that career path?
Play games – games are the best education if you’re thinking critically as you play. Working for a commercial developer, the levels you design will need to “speak the same language” as other games, and the more of this “language” you know, the better. Play a mix of old and new, and play outside your preferred genres once in a while. My early titles as a level designer were 2D adventure games, but I later worked on several 3D titles. Be familiar with the conventions of both – you never know what you’ll be making next in this fast-paced industry.
You can reach Mandi at her artist/designer portfolio site, majoh.com. If Mandi’s advice was helpful, share it with friends on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.