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Level design, environment design, or game mapping is a discipline of game development involving creation of video game levels—locales, stages, or missions. This is commonly done using a level editor, a game development software designed for building levels; however, some games feature built-in level editing tools. Level design is both an artistic and technical process.
In early days of video games, a single programmer would create the maps and layouts for a game, and a discipline or profession dedicated solely to level design did not exist. Early games often featured a level system of ascending difficulty as opposed to progression of story-line.
The first game genre that required significant amounts of time to design areas were text-based games, such as MUDs. Often, promoted users were assigned to create new paths, new rooms, new equipment, and new actions, often using the game interface itself.
1983's Lode Runner was one of the first titles to ship with a level editor, and its designer, Doug Smith, reputedly paid neighborhood children to design levels for the game. That same year the multiplayer dungeon crawl Dandy was released, and it also shipped with a level editor which was documented in the manual. ZZT (1991) is a later game with user-accessible mapping and scripting.
Doom (1993) and Doom II (1994) were two of the first games to attract focused game modding activity, and many WAD level files were made for them. One of the reasons was a clear separation between the level files and game engine itself. Half-Life, Quake 3, and many other games have notable mapping tools and communities focusing on user-generated content.
Level design for each individual level in a modern game typically starts with concept art, sketches, renderings, and physical models. Once completed, these concepts transform into extensive documentation, environment modeling, and the placing of game specific entities (actors), usually with the aid of a level editor.
A level editor may be distributed as a complete stand-alone package, at times, rivaling commercial 3D modelling software. There are various steps involved in laying out a map and these steps may vary dramatically across the many different game genres that exist today.
General steps include:
- Laying out the large-scale features of the map, such as hills, cities, rooms, tunnels, etc., for players and enemies to move around in;
- Determining environmental conditions and "ground rules" such as day/night, weather, scoring systems, allowable weapons or gameplay types, time limits, and starting resources.
- Specifying certain regions where certain gameplay activities or behaviors occur, such as resource harvesting, base building, water travelling, etc.;
- Specifying non-static parts of a level, such as doors, keys and buttons with associated mechanisms, teleporters, hidden passageways, etc.;
- Specifying locations of various entities, such as player units, enemies, monster spawn points, ladders, coins, resource nodes, weapons, save points, etc.;
- Specifying the start and exit locations for one or more players;
- Adding aesthetic details such as level-specific graphic textures, sounds, animation, lighting and music;
- Introducing scripted event locations, where certain actions by the player can trigger specified changes;
- Placing pathfinding nodes that non-player characters take as they walk around, the actions they will take in response to specific triggers, and any dialog they might have with the player.
Cut scenes may be triggered by events in a level, but require distinctly different skills, and may be created by a different person or team.
There are many map bugs that level designers try to avoid, but sometimes go unnoticed for some time.
A player might get stuck in map geometry with no way to escape or to die. A player might be able to find a specific spot where they do not have to move to gain experience, because monsters are constantly spawned but can be easily and immediately killed. In multiplayer maps, a player may be able to reach areas of the map designed to be inaccessible, for example, reaching an advantageous rooftop position and camping other players. In the worst case, a player might be able to fall out-of-bounds of a map where other players cannot reach them. Invisible walls are cited to be level design bugs, and might be "left-over geometry" from an earlier version of the level or an object's improperly aligned "collision box".
In some cases, specific mapping tools can be designed to automatically detect problems such as falling "outside" a level, and reaching "stuck" areas. Careful level designers run these tools as the last step before releasing a new version of a level. In most cases, the best way to improve a map is by playtesting it with experienced players, and allowing them to try to exploit any problems.
A level designer is a game designer who creates environments and scenarios using a level editor and other tools. Level designers will usually work on a level from pre-production to completion; working with both incomplete and complete versions of the game. Video game programmers usually produce level editors and design tools for the designers to use. This eliminates the need for designers to access or modify game code. As opposed to the level editing tools sometimes available to the community, level designers often work with placeholders and prototypes aiming for level consistency and clear layout before required artwork is produced by game artists. Many level designers have skills as both a visual artist and game designers, although in recent years the responsibility for visual, structural and gameplay related tasks has been increasingly divided among several specialists.
Level design is necessary for two primary purposes - providing players with a goal and providing players with enjoyable play experience. Good level design strives to produce quality gameplay, provide an immersive experience, and sometimes, especially in story-based games, to advance the storyline. Skilled use of textures and audio is necessary to produce immersive player experience.
Maps' design can significantly impact the gameplay. For example, the gameplay may be shifted towards a platformer (by careful placement of platforms) or a puzzle game (by extensive use of buttons, keys, and doors). Some FPS maps may be designed to prevent sniping by not including any long hallways, while other maps may allow for a mix of sniping and closer combat.
Gimmick maps are sometimes created to explore selected features of gameplay, such as sniping or fist fighting. While they are briefly useful to level designers and interesting to experienced players, they are usually not included in final list of levels of the game because of their limited replay value.
Often the level layouts features power-ups and items aligned in path and combinations that collecting them inevitably progresses the game and advances the story-line. This is one of the basic player direction technique and is most often seen in platformers.
Lighting and illumination, as well as distinctly coloured objects are often used to unambiguously steer the player towards the correct path. Similarly, clearly marked choke-points can be introduced.
Another method is strategic placement of obstacles and aesthetic environment props, that direct the player's attention to "clear" paths instead. This is often used in closed, "stuffed" environments.
Levels may be designed to force the players to explore the map and advance. Most RTS maps give each player a starting base, but will have resource distribution and terrain features designed to draw players out of their base and engage each other. Teamplay maps can provide noticeable advantages to one team over another, when designed poorly.
Level designers sometimes create hidden rooms and areas that usually require more effort for the player to reach or to notice. These usually give some additional rewards, such as ammo or powerups. Casual players usually do not discover these, but these areas are interesting enough to be discovered and documented by dedicated gamers. Sometimes, they serve as easter eggs, containing messages such as the level designers' names or pictures, or political or humorous messages. One of the first games with a 3D engine to feature hidden features was Wolfenstein 3D, where certain walls could be "pushed" to reveal hidden passages. For example, Quake has many secret areas that reward the player with ammo, weapons, quad damage powerups, and in one hard-to-reach secret area, Dopefish makes an appearance. In fact, the hardest difficulty level, titled "Nightmare", is only reachable through a secret portal in the fourth dimension's entrance hall.
Sometimes, a whole level may be designed as a secret level.
A wide variety of tools may be used by someone designing a level. Although it is faster to design models and textures with general purpose multimedia creation tools, games usually require the data to be in a unique format suited for that game's engine. For this, specific compilers and converters of models, textures, and audio data may be required to lay out a level.
Sometimes, professional 3D editing software, such as 3D Studio Max, Blender, AutoCAD, Lightwave, Maya, Softimage XSI or Grome is used, usually customized with a special plugin developed for the specific game.
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