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How To Become A Video Game Level Designer

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This article is part of the Quest for Your Career series. We focus on each specific job in the video game industry by interviewing an expert in the field. Learn what they do, how they got started, and whether it's a good job for you.
Mandi Grant, Video Game Level Designer

“Playing games is the best education, if you’re thinking critically as you play.”

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.

“doing a good job as a level designer requires a strong sense of space, pacing, and composition.”

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.

READ  Video Game Programmer Salary for 2017

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.

“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.”

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.

READ  How To Become A Video Game Technical Director

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?

“you never know what you’ll be making next in this fast-paced industry”

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.

Read my new book!

Making games for a living is an incredibly rewarding career, but it’s hard to break in unless you have insider knowledge. This book levels the playing field.

READ: Start Your Video Game Career

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45 comments on “How To Become A Video Game Level Designer
  1. Austin M says:

    Yes hi, i was wondering what course in college i would take? would it be video game design or video game art

  2. Zen says:

    Hi, Im a 25 year old and do coding during my spare time. I want to be a game developer but game developer is a broad term nowadays. Lately Ive been doing some 2D games with sprites. I got no talent at all in art. I enrolled to an art school for 3 months and realize that 3D model isnt as fun as I thought it was. Theres a lot of grindy things you gotta do. But with VR getting popular I kinda want to learn level design. What can you recommend for people who are more of a logical thinkers(programmers) and less of an artistic mind, to learn level design?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      If you want to focus on the gameplay aspects of level design, and less on the art side, try learning how to do “white boxing” in a game engine like Unreal, and start building a portfolio of game levels that are white box but have some fun, interesting game play to demonstrate.

  3. Patricia says:

    Hi Jason,

    It’s really inspiring meet that site, thank you for that incredible work.

    I’ve a bachelor in System Analisys and worked as a game programer, but I’m really interested in work with level designer. What you think I need do to as a researcher to teach level design and/or be a level designer using my programer skills?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Patricia, the skills used as a level designer are mostly different from the skills needed to be a programmer. There is some overlap, though: many game editors use programming languages (or programming-like languages) to create the game and character interactions, so that will be helpful for you.

  4. Gabrielle says:

    Jason,

    I am in a difficult position. Currently I work retail and have started my own game development team. Myself and 3 other individuals. Progress is going well, but I have been made a job offer as a CAD Drafter with a local company. I have sent out at least 50 applications as a 3d Environment Artist/Level Designer, but have yet to hear back from any of the aforementioned prospects.

    The pay increase isn’t a dire need at this time, but I am unsure as to if experience as a CAD Drafter would help me towards my goals at all. In my mind CAD Drafting experience is “okay” but I feel as if a game studio would want prior experience with other game studios, not a CAD Drafter. The new role would definitely take away from the time I currently have to pursue my indie project. I am currently our Environment Artist, Level Designer and Game Designer. Any insight you could provide would be tremendously helpful.

    Thank you,

    G.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Gabrielle, that is a tough decision. First of all, it’s important to be financially stable no matter what, so if the CAD job is a big pay upgrade from your retail job then that does look attractive. Secondly, I do think that CAD experience could help you towards your goal as an environment artist, in fact here is an interview with an environment artist who got his start doing 3D visualization for an architectural company. I think that interview will be helpful for you, because he got his start by doing non-game work but doing game art on the side, which seems like a good strategy for you as well!

  5. Samuel "DJHattomi" Presley says:

    Just wondering, are there any promotional opportunities to get in this job or to get into a higher one? I read online somewhere that you can sometimes get in if you were a QA Tester, but I was wanting to know if there’s a way to this job from a lower level, or if there are any jobs higher than this that could use this job as an entry to get in? I’m planning to become an indie game developer, figured this would be a great job to learn about.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Game design (including level design, systems design, and more) is a full career path that could take you all the way to Creative Director and other more senior jobs. There are many ways to get in, QA is definitely one path that can work. I recommend taking a look at this article that covers the various ways you can get educated for game design.

  6. Aaron says:

    Hi Jason,
    I live in the UK and I’ve just turned 19. For a number of years I’ve been playing the popular Indie Sandbox game Total Miner. This game has enabled me to practice: level design, layouts, stories, characters, tone and replay ability. By enabling me to make ‘games within games’ I managed to create my ‘Adventure series’ which proved successful.
    However, I also happen to be autistic, albeit, classed as high functional. So for me, level design is not just a passion but a necessity as it keeps me ‘centred’. I have always known that this is the career for me and I’ve been told repeatedly that I have a natural ability.
    What advice would you give to someone like me, who in all likelihood cannot go the traditional route into the games industry having struggled through college on various courses none of which were games related?
    Fortunately, I have a very supportive family who would love nothing better than to me succeed in my career choice.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Aaron, congratulations on the success of your Adventure series. There actually isn’t a “traditional route” into game design — getting a formal degree in game design is only one path; it’s more important to have good experience and a portfolio to show for it. I recommend you check out my article about game designer educational requirements, it might spark some alternative ideas for you. Propelled by your ongoing modding experience and a supportive family, I think you have a good chance!

  7. Joshua Prince says:

    So i would like to get into level designing, but not sure what qualifications i need…What degrees or courses are recommended to be taken?

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