“Talking to the Player – How Cultural Currents Shape and Level Design”
April 24, 2013 · Print This Article
I have posted a full recording of my 2013 GDC game design lecture. It’s called “Talking to the Player – How Cultural Currents Shape and Level Design” and examines in detail how video games are the perfect expression of our current cultural values. It also gives some hands-on advice on everyday problems faced by level and narrative designers.
GDC 2012 F2P Panel
February 28, 2012 · Print This Article
Speaker/s: Soren Johnson (Game Developer Magazine), Ben Cousins (ngmoco Sweden), Matthias Worch (LucasArts), Tom Chick (Quarter to Three) and David Edery (Spry Fox)
Day / Time / Location: Friday 4:00- 5:00 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl
Track / Duration / Format / Audience Level: Game Design , Business and Marketing and Management / 60-Minute / Panel / All
GDC Vault Recording: Video Recorded
The free-to-play movement is here to stay and will touch every corner of the games industry. However, the format blurs the line between game design and game business, so that business decisions will become increasingly indistinguishable from design decisions. Free-to-play content must be fun enough to attract and retain players but not so much fun that no one feels the need to spend some money. Managing this tension makes free-to-play design extremely difficult, especially for traditional game designers who are used to simply making the best game possible. Our panelists will discuss this transition and best practices for building free-to-play games with soul.
Takeaway: Attendees will gain a deeper understanding of the trade-offs inherent with free-to-play design and how to navigate them while maintaining a game’s core.
Intended Audience: This panel is targeted at anyone interested in the design and business of free-to-play games.
Eligible Passes: All Access Pass, Main Conference Pass
GDC 2012 Level Design Tutorial
February 28, 2012 · Print This Article
Speaker/s: Coray Seifert (Slingo, Inc.), Ed Byrne (Imba), Neil Alphonso (Splash Damage), Jim Brown (Epic Games), Joel Burgess (Bethesda Game Studios), Seth Marinello (Visceral Games Redwood Shores) and Matthias Worch (LucasArts)
Day / Time / Location: Tuesday 10:00- 6:00 Room 2016, West Hall, 2nd Fl
Track / Duration / Format / Audience Level: Game Design , Production / Full-Day / Tutorial / All
GDC Vault Recording: No Vault Recording
In this intense day-long tutorial, attendees gain deep insights into the art of Level Design from an all-star cast of industry veterans. This year, everyone’s favorite Level Design tutors return with new topics, new formats, and new genres, plus acclaimed Dead Space level designer Seth Marinello! From the iterative process behind a production of Gears of War level, to the process of creating the most stirring moments of Dead Space, this tutorial reviews best practices and lessons learned from almost a century of collective level design experience on a vast array of contemporary and classic games. Topics of focus include documentation, pacing, environmental storytelling, balancing, player agency, narrative agency and others. This fun, high energy talk features portfolio deathmatches, talk show-style panel discussions, extended Q&A and a post-tutorial trip to the bar to wrap up the day with speakers and colleagues.
10:00–10:15am- Level Design in a Day Introduction
Speaker: Coray Seifert
10:15–11:08am- Building a Universe Through Details
Speaker: Seth Marinello (Visceral Games Redwood Shores)
Seth Marinello details his experience helping bring the terrifying world of Dead Space alive through careful pacing and environmental storytelling. Pulling from numerous sources such as film, literature, and traditional games, Seth outlines how to create immersive spaces and craft memorable gameplay moments.
11:08am–12:00pm- Player Stories, Designer Stories and Narrative Agency
Speaker: Matthias Worch (LucasArts)
Whose story does a game tell? That of the player, the game character, or the designer? This lecture provides a comprehensive review of how games create narrative by structuring designer and player stories through level design. It also offers suggestions on how we create game stories don’t simply provide context for the player’s actions but integrate the gameplay and narrative layers of the game.
12:00–1:45pm- LUNCH SPECIAL! Portfolio Review for LD Newbies and Vets
Portfolio Review for LD Newbies and Vets
Design has always been one of the most competitive disciplines in game development when it comes to landing a position, and this of course rings true for level design. This talk will provide an arsenal of tips and tricks for everything from getting noticed initially to waiting for a response after an interview. Before this talk, we’ll send out a request for level design resumes/portfolios and put them head-to-head in brutal Portfolio Deathmatches. Two enter, one gets the job offer.
1:45–2:30pm- LIVE with Matthias Worch & The Level Devils
Speaker: Matthias Worch (LucasArts)
With bellies full of food and eyes full of sleep threatening focus levels, it’s time for an upbeat, entertaining romp through the lighter side of level design with our effervescent host Matthias Worch and his enigmatic group of ne’er do wells, the Level Devils. Audience members are invited to join the panel on-stage in a cable talk show format as we discuss audience topics from the first half of the tutorial, burning questions about the art and craft of level design, and the meaning of life in general.
2:30–3:30pm- Occam’s Level Designing Razor
Speaker: Joel Burgess (Bethesda Game Studios)
A study in “the least complicated solution is usually the best” with examples from game balance, layout and scripting. While inexperienced designers often implement tons of convoluted safeties and edge case handling edge cases, before the situation ever actually calls for it, the best solution is often the one that is simplest in nature.
3:30–4:00pm, 4:30–5:00pm- Level Design Documentation
Speakers: Ed Byrne (Imba) and Neil Alphonso (Splash Damage)
Generally looked upon as an unfavourable relic of old-school game development, documentation and sketching is a fundamental part of any design process. Using examples from his work on contemporary and classic games, Ed explains the reasons for understanding and using planning materials, how to go about creating them, and why sometimes the old ways are the best ways.
5:00–6:00pm- The Legacy of Fail
Speaker: Jim Brown (Epic Games)
Jim Brown describes his experience in learning from mistakes and the importance of iteration. Jim will take a shipped level from a recent Epic product and show it at each stage of development, tracking how and why it changed over time.
Takeaway: Level Design newcomers gain a solid foundation in the art and science of level design. Experienced level designers learn tips, tricks, and best practices from the best in the business. Non-Level Designers gain an intimate understanding of the level design process, becoming better equipped to collaborate with level design teams.
Intended Audience: Designers, writers, and scripters involved in the level or scenario creation process. Programmers, artists, team leads and testers interfacing with level design teams. Anyone interested in learning more about the art of crafting great moment-to-moment gameplay.
Eligible Passes: All Access Pass, Summits & Tutorials Pass
IGDA SF Pecha Kucha Download
April 9, 2011 · Print This Article
I presented a short, 7 minute session at the IGDA SF’s “Pecha Kucha Night”, talking about level design, how it fits into game design, and when we’re doing it wrong. It’s 22 slides, which you can download right here. (2MB)
IGDA SF Meeting
April 4, 2011 · Print This Article
I will be doing a quick game design rant at the IGDA San Francisco’s ‘Pecha Kucha Night‘ this Wednesday. Stop by if you’re in the area!
GDC 2011 Level Design Workshop
December 11, 2010 · Print This Article
(110) Level Design in a Day: Best Practices from the Best in the Business
Monday, Feb. 28, 10am-6pm
- Coray Seifert, Senior Game Designer, Arkadium
- Neil Alphonso,Lead Designer, Splash Damage
- Matthias Worch, Senior Level Designer, Visceral Games
- Jim Brown, Lead Level Designer, Epic Games
- Joel Burgess, Senior Designer, Bethesda Softworks
- Forrest Dowling, Senior Designer, Irrational Games
- Ed Byrne, Creative Director, Zipper Interactive
In this intense day-long tutorial, attendees will gain deep insights from some of the most experienced level designers in the industry, delving into every aspect of the level design process, from early concept and white-boxing to narrative design and level design metrics. This session brings back last-year’s highly-rated tutorial roster with an all-new line-up of best practices, lessons learned, interactive audience participation and case studies from Brink to Dead Space and Gears of War to Fallout 3.
Newcomers to the world of level design will gain a solid foundation in the art and science of level design while experienced level designers will come away from the talk with a bevy of tips, tricks, and best practices being used by the best level designers in the industry. Experienced producers, artists, and testers will gain an intimate understanding of the level design process, and will be better equipped to manage and collaborate with this essential part of the game development process.
Level designers, mission designers, game designers, and scripters responsible for crafting moment-to-moment gameplay. Writers, level artists, and quality assurance professionals will come away from this talk better prepared to collaborate and contribute to the level creation process. All attendees should have a solid understanding of the level design process, as well as a basic familiarity with the tools of the trade.
My GDC 2011 lecture is announced!
December 9, 2010 · Print This Article
Speaker/s: Matthias Worch (Visceral Games)
Day / Time / Location: TBD
Track / Format: Game Design / Lecture
Description: Who is the actor in a game? Is it the person holding the controller in the real world, or the player-character who moves through the game-world? The answer is Both, and the game designer must work carefully to keep the interests of these two consciousnesses aligned. This session presents a design approach for reconciling developer-defined and player-derived character identities. Games often feature strong pre-authored characters and story arcs, while trying to give the player the feeling of uninhibited agency. The practical techniques presented here show how to design stories that dont simply provide a context for the players actions, but instead create impulses and motivations within the player that are in alignment with those of the avatar. Player and avatar float along in unison inside an identity bubble, working towards a common goal.
Takeaway: Attendees understand how games establish a high level of character identification, and they acquire techniques that can be used to achieve similar results. Writers (and developers working with external writers) gain insight into the design and identity concepts that should guide the development of character, story and mission objectives in games.
April 9, 2010 · Print This Article
I want to catch up on a few articles that have been posted since the Game Developers Conference, all of them recapping and furthering the topics I talked about at the show:
Tim Stellmach, veteran game designer of many esteemed titles, weighs in on the topic of environmental storytelling. Using our GDC session as a starting point, he digs deeper into the idea of systemic environmental storytelling:
“See, for me, the interesting thing about this so-called ‘Systemic Environmental Storytelling’ is that it transfers authorship from the designer to the player. In fact, it has the potential to do so via emergent gameplay behavior, which gives it far more potential for player agency and self-expression than the scripted moments of ‘regular’ Environmental Storytelling.”
It’s a good article, I suggest you go read for yourself! On a different, yet very related tangent, Fantasy Heartbreaker (a blog dedicated to playing D&D “right”) published an article which applies concepts from our talk to the world of pen & paper roleplaying. It’s called Dangerous Archeology:
Smith and Worch are, of course, addressing video games, but their analysis has a lot to offer classic dungeoneering. [...] Environmental story isn’t just the communication of information, it’s another way in which the imaginations of the players and the GM interact. The process is, fundamentally, archaeological: the players unearth the world piece by piece and invest it with meaning from their own speculations and experiences.
It’s great to see both articles expand on the foundation that we tried to lay at GDC. One of the reasons that Harvey and I wanted to do this talk was a feeling that this is a topic many people deeply care about, yet that had been overlooked at previous GDCs.
Not to be outdone, our GDC level design tutorial receives comprehensive coverage on the WorldOfLevelDesign page. Sylvain Douce is covering the entire tutorial in a series of articles, the second of which is a detailed writeup of my session on my session on “Core Space Creation”:
The role of a level designer is to create gameplay through environments and systems. But the task is quite demanding since the gameplay implemented must be meaningful. If it’s not, the game is boring. The play must not feel arbitrary! Try to get all of the game systems connected together: the player can influence more than one of them with a single ability (e.g. the water in Bioshock which can be electrified with the corresponding plasmid).
It’s a good writeup for everybody who wasn’t able to make the tutorial. Admittedly, my session was superficial on a bunch of topics, because I tried to lay the groundwork on (too?) many topic for the rest of the day. But I think it’s a good introduction to 3D action level design.
GDC 2010: Level Design Tutorial
March 17, 2010 · Print This Article
I cleaned up the slides from the lecture I gave during the GDC 2010 Level Design tutorial. This was an introductory look at the world of level design – what he does and how he does it. The material is entry level, but a good overview of the disciplines. You will find some overlap with the environmental definition that Harvey and I used in our “What Happened Here?” session.
(201) Level Design in a Day: Best Practices from the Best in the Business
In this intense day-long tutorial, attendees will gain deep insights from some of the most experienced level designers in the industry. The tutorial will cover every aspect of the level design process, from basic navigation and object manipulation tips and tricks to best practices for encounter design and level flow. As the development discipline responsible for crafting the vastly important moment-to-moment player experience, a deep understanding of core level design principles becomes essential for level designers, game designers and design managers alike. Likewise, an intimate familiarity with the level creation process can be a massive advantage to producers, testers or artists. This year’s session will focus on the Unreal Engine, while subsequent years will focus on Source, Quake, and other popular engines.
Level designers, mission designers, game designers and scripters will gain deep insights into the best practices and proven processes used by our industry’s leading teams. Additionally, writers, level artists and quality assurance professionals will come away from this talk better prepared to collaborate and contribute to the level creation process. All attendees should have a solid understanding of the level design process, as well as a basic familiarity with the tools of the trade. Experience with the Unreal Editor will also be beneficial this year, but is not required to fully participate in the tutorial.
Newcomers to the world of level design will gain a solid foundation in the art and science of level design while experienced level designers will come away from the talk with a bevy of tips, tricks, and best practices in use by some of the best level designers in the industry. Experienced producers, artists and testers will gain an intimate understanding of the level design process, and will be better equipped to manage and collaborate with this essential part of the game development process.
Coray Seifert, Game Designer, THQ – Kaos Studios
Matthias Worch, Senior Level Designer, Visceral Games
Neil Alphonso, Lead Level Designer, Splash Damage
Richard Carlson, Level Designer/game designer/musician/sfx dood, Digital Eel
Ed Byrne, Creative Director, Zipper Interactive
Forrest Dowling, Lead Multiplayer Level Designer, THQ – Kaos Studios
Joel Burgess, Lead Level Designer, Bethesda Softworks
Jim Brown, Lead Level Designer, Epic Games
Download the slides for this session below.
GDC 2010 LD Tutorial Downloads
Slides (PowerPoint 2007 .pptx, 4.5MB)
GDC 2010: “What Happened Here?” – Environmental Storytelling
March 11, 2010 · Print This Article
What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling
Speaker: Harvey Smith (Game Director, Arkane Studios), Matthias Worch (Senior Level Designer, Visceral Games)
Date/Time: Thursday, 3pm – 4pm
Track: Game Design
Format: 60-minute Lecture
Experience Level: All
This lecture examines the game environment as a narrative device, with a focus on further involving the player in interpreting (or pulling) information, in opposition to traditional fictional exposition. We provide an analysis of how and why some games in particular create higher levels of immersion and consistency, and we propose ways in which dynamic game systems can be used to expand upon these techniques. The lecture presents the techniques for environmental storytelling, the key to the creation of game spaces with an inherent sense of history; game spaces that invite the player’s mind to piece together implied events and to infer additional layers of depth and meaning. In addition to commonly-used environmental storytelling tools (such as props, scripted events, texturing, lighting and scene composition), we present ideas for using game systems to convey narrative through environmental reaction. Environmental storytelling engages the player as an active participant in narrative; game systems that reflect the player’s agency can do the same. The lecture will analyze existing cases and provide a framework for dynamic environmental storytelling in games.
This session is aimed at creative directors, narrative designers, level designers and level artists who want to take the environmental storytelling of their games to the next level. A good understanding of the subject matter, and game environmental design in general, is a bonus.
Attendees leave with a clear understanding of traditional environmental storytelling techniques, the current state of the art, and ideas on how to expand these concepts to new proportions using systemic environmental storytelling approaches.
Download the slides for this session below. I recommend the notes file, which gives you all slides along with the talking points. You can also download the slides and speaker notes individually.