Category Archives: Features

Troubleshooting Your Level: An Inside Look Into Level Design Techniques



Games are starting to get too… “hand-holdy.” Not even 10 minutes after I’ve started playing a brand new game, and I’m already reading a wall of text about how to scorch my enemy with a fireball, how to swing my sword, or how to jump. The intro story is laden with break after break. I’m over-burdened with too much information at once, and I’m not even sure what’s going on with the story! The first couple of hours of Final Fantasy XIII were a nightmare; let’s face it. It’s hard enough trying to figure out what a fal’Cie is, but throw in a complicated menu and battle system, then sprinkle some multi-page tutorials in the mix and you have a recipe for disaster.

On the other hand, Portal is a masterpiece from top to bottom, and their level design stands out amongst the accolades. What’s ironic is that the majority of game players don’t even realize they are being led through the levels and are being introduced to game mechanics until they’ve already done it. There are no lengthy menus or breaks in the action that spend 500 words trying to explain what a portal is, you just kind of… figure it out. Very few developers really know the art of level design.

I had the chance to spend some time with one level designer, who had some special insight into level design techniques that are sure to make your game top-notch.

Enter Jesse Tucker.

Jesse is currently a level designer for Runic Games, the masterminds behind the wildly popular game, Torchlight, but his experience doesn’t stop there. Prior to working with Runic, he was a level designer for Bethesda Games and had a hand in developing for Fallout 3 and its award-winning DLC packs. Jesse had a lot to say about the difficulties of level design and provided helpful feedback for those who are currently learning to perfect the art.

Visual Cues

Moving a player from the beginning to the end of the level, while keeping the fun-factor high, is more difficult than it may seem. For the designer, it may seem like common knowledge for the player to take the path to the left instead of the one to the right, but many players will become frustrated when they can’t determine the best route without trial and error. The player wants to have some idea of the consequence or reward that takes place, when they decide to go right. Jesse explains that visual cues are a very basic and useful techniques that lead players to the suggested path. The path that leads to your next objective may be the one with neatly placed columns, while the side path will be narrow or harder to see. Some gamers will choose the path with the overgrowth and dead bodies, rather than the path with the beaming light, because they want the challenge. This is all part of the risk and reward that a level designer provides to the player.

Audio Cues

The sound in a game plays a much larger part than you might think. A deep rumbling from a side room could warn the player of danger, or serve as a signal to fight a looming beast in the distance carrying a high-level battleaxe. On that same note, a melodic piano tune may ease the player’s nerves by informing them of a nearby safe-zone on the brink of an imminent attack. Portal utilized this technique with their sarcastic character, GLaDOS. GLaDOS was an ever-present audio technique used to tip the player off, when they were headed in the right direction. If GLaDOS was silent, chances are you weren’t making progress. Even though her snarky comments seemed like humorous narration, they had a strong effect on leading the player through the puzzles.

Offering Opportunity

Jesse also offered a specific example of how he used level design in Fallout 3 as a means of teaching the player the consequences of using a laser pistol near a gas leak. In one particular area of the game, the player has the opportunity to equip themselves with a laser gun. Not too far ahead, there is a hallway with a dangerous gas leak guarded by an enemy. Instead of trusting that the player would automatically make the connection, Jesse placed a context specific “Laser Gun Manual” nearby, to warn that firing the weapon near the leak would cause a consuming explosion. Once the player was introduced to the enemy, surrounded by gas, they had a chance to fire the gun from a safe position into the hallway, where the enemy lurked. The combination of the safe haven and the “Laser Gun Manual” allowed the player the opportunity to test what they had learned without distractions or fear of being attacked. Giving the player too much stimulation can often distract from the mechanic you’re trying to teach them.

Removing Distraction

How many times have we spent 30 minutes or an hour back-tracking through a maze of rooms and hallways searching for the next destination, only to get frustrated, throw down the controller and flip off the system? What about when you’re talking to an NPC, trying to get some valuable story information, and that chatty citizen interrupts the conversation and tells you about how his wife keeps complaining that he spends too much time at the pub? “Why don’t you do us all a favor and glitch yourself off of that cliff?!” These are the moments that pull the player out of the experience and ruin what the developers worked so hard to achieve. Jesse wants to teach designers that removing distractions, and drawing the player’s attention to the desired point of interest (ie. a newly opened door), is essential to keeping the player happy and having fun. When you are designing something in a game that players need to see, give them the opportunity to experience it. Don’t pile on the distractions. Wait until after the explosion before you make the previously locked door fall off its hinges.


It’s very easy for a game designer to get so wrapped up in their work that they occasionally forget, despite their constant involvement with a specific game mechanic, that gamers haven’t experienced it yet. Jesse says, “When you’re designing a system, it’s impossible to view it with a fresh set of eyes. You already know how the whole system works together, and your mind doesn’t have to make the same mental links that someone who is new to the system would.”

One of the biggest points that Jesse stressed is that, as a designer, you are going to fail hard at getting people to understand what you want them to do. One useful tip is to grab someone who isn’t familiar with the new mechanic, and watch them play through your instance. Jesse states, “Once you watch someone play through your experience, you figure out where the communication is failing. Then you have to figure out some creative mechanism that lets the player understand what you want them to. It’s different in every situation. The key is that you need to understand that the experience won’t be perfect at the start, and you need to watch others play through your spaces.”

Level designers need to be willing to bend in response to moment-to-moment design. The techniques listed above are not all-inclusive, and it’s likely that you will be faced with demands that don’t fit nicely into the problems we’ve discussed. Be willing to bend, and occasionally break, in order to find the right fit for your levels.

Know where you want to lead your audience, and take them there in as many interesting ways as possible, without making it too obvious. Jesse finished with the following comment, “The most important thing is to listen to other people’s issues with what you’re working on and try to improve on that.”

Torchlight 2 is Runic Games’ next title, which should be releasing soon. Check it out to get a glimpse of Jesse Tucker’s dynamite design techniques.

Michael Johnson is a games industry marketing professional with a focus on feature and review writing, as well as social media management.

Jesse Tucker is a level designer at Runic Games, and is currently working on Torchlight 2. He also did level design and trap design for Fallout 3 and its expansions during his time at Bethesda.


Keith Fuller, Speaker for IGDA Leadership Forum Shares Thoughts on Game Industry Production Practices

We’ve all heard the horror stories about employees of game development companies being forced into large amounts of overtime in order to meet, or miss, a deadline. Who can forget the reports of the terrible working conditions and unpaid wages at Team Bondi? It’s a shame to watch any person have to take the brunt of forcing these high-production titles out of the door. It’s no surprise when we hear about 60, 70, or 80 hour work weeks during “crunch time”, and I can only imagine the strain that it can put on a marriage or a new family.

In a recent interview with Keith Fuller, founder of Fuller Game Production, he attributes his decision to start a production consulting company to a specific instance during mandatory “crunch time” developing a AAA game.

It was late one night… and the guy to my left, a level designer, is fixing the scripting in one of his maps instead being at home with his fiancee helping to plan the wedding that’s occurring in a couple of weeks. And then I look to my other side and there’s a Senior Technical Artist, and he is working on the art in a map to bring up the framerate instead of being at home with his less than two week old daughter.

When you hear and see situations like these you can’t help but want to see a change for the better. Fuller Game Production is designed to help take the stress off of game studios and their employees by going in and managing the production and project management aspects of development.

A study conducted in February and March 2011, by Keith Fuller, sheds some light on many production practices and opinions of a number of development studios. In our interview, we were able to discuss some of the results of the study and how Keith’s company is equipped to alleviate these burdens from game studios.

In just a few short days Keith Fuller will be speaking at the 5th annual IGDA Leadership Forum in L.A. in order to discuss the results of his study with the attendees. He plans to address the findings showcased in his article featured on Gamasutra as well as another 40% of the results that were a little more ambiguous in nature.

The questions posed at the end of the survey proved to be more open-ended and will require more feedback from the studios who agreed to remain un-anonymous, and from participants in the audience. He hopes to attract some industry involvement by allowing people the opportunity to give their insight on the results and perhaps give feedback on their own studio’s practices.

Expect a large part of the discussion to focus on one very specific point addressed in the second question of the survey. When participants were asked, “Name the area in which your company excels the most,” a majority answered by saying Production was their studio’s strongest attribute, but absolutely no one responded by saying that Mentoring/Training, or Company Leadership were strong attributes of their company.

On the flip-side of that question, participants were asked what they would like to see improved the most, and Company Leadership received twice as many votes than any other single question.

While this doesn’t provide definitive data, Keith believes that many companies are lacking in either proper leadership, or the realization of that leadership within the production process. Keith said, “there are a lot of situations, especially in a comparatively young industry like game development, where you can get put into a leadership position not because you have the skills necessarily, but because you may be the best person available, or they just need to have somebody.”

Keith believes that organizations need to address these issues and hopes that involvement with the IGDA Leadership Forum, and his session in particular, will open their eyes to the possibilities that his services can provide.

For those not familiar with the IGDA Leadership Forum, it is an annual conference held in Los Angeles that features industry leaders and professionals from all over the world who speak in various sessions that last throughout the weekend. This years Leadership Forum is on October 27 & 28, 2011 and is being held at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel, LAX at 6101 W. Century Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA.

Keith speaks highly of the IGDA LF and states that it’s imperative for anyone who is, or is working to become a leader in the video game industry. “It’s absolutely a phenomenal experience for someone who needs more exposure in the industry,” Keith says, “but also to be able to learn from a lot of the thought leaders in the industry.”

Don’t think that the IDGA Leadership Forum is only for leaders or those aspiring to be one; this conference is equally as beneficial for someone who may have just taken an entry level position at a studio. Keith sums up its benefits by saying, “You get exposure to what is of critical importance to people in leadership…you get to see and hear from people in those positions talking about what’s important to them, and you get a sense of their knowledge, their background, their training, and the sorts of things that they still need in their position.”

So whether you are an entry-level game tester, or the CEO of a multi-million dollar game development company, there is plenty for you. Take time out of your busy week to rub elbows with the best in the industry, and if you can’t make it out this year then mark your calenders for next year. Make sure to visit Keith’s discussion on Friday, October 28, at 11:00 A.M. called “Industry Survey Results on Improving Production Practices.”

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Pop-Gaming – We Asked For It

It’s high time I discussed the phenomenon that is sweeping the video game realm. I’ve avoided it so far – mostly because I want to pretend like it’s not there – but I can’t help but see it creeping into my daily life. What started out as mere curiosity has become a huge part of my gaming life, and I can’t imagine it subsiding anytime soon. My will may be strong, but as more people are embracing this paradigm shift I find it hard to avoid. The phenomenon I’m referring to is “Pop-Gaming”.

At first glance, you might decide to bash the Pop-Gaming market, and complain about how Farmville has given many people a false idea of gaming; or how Prince of Persia should have never been a movie. A closer look will reveal that this is what we’ve been demanding all along, but we never expected it to come to this.

As many people spent the 90s sitting at home, playing hardcore games alone in their basements, they experienced the judging glares and condescending comments of pretentious detractors. These gamers quickly began to demand respect and understanding of their hobby while politicians accused their beloved Mortal Kombat, and other “violent” video games as the core reason for high school shootings and the like. As time has progressed, people have slowly dropped the misconceptions and are taking an interest in our hobby. What started out as a misunderstanding and a “waste of time”, has shifted to curiosity and respect for this thing we call video gaming.

When I think about this shift, thoughts drift into visions of game-related novels, movie adaptations, Farmville junkies, and masochistic little birds with a hankering for pork. These images are enough to make a JRPG fan go nuts and begin slandering these wannabes. My initial reaction was very similar, but as I see these mediums begin to permeate the world outside of hot, sweaty dungeon-crawling warlords, I started to realize that hardcore gamers have very little reason to complain.

Take World of Warcraft, it contains what appears to be a niche market; but how niche can 12 million players be? You may have started out on the ground floor of this MMO movement, but you’ve opened the gates and happily welcomed your friends. You showed them around, got them a glass of wine, and displayed grade A hospitality; but by the time you turned around, the entire room was filled with people. Now you are upset all because you forgot to close the door.

There has been a large movement into the realm of MMOs recently. Leaders of free-to-play games such as Nexon, have paved the road and found ways to convince normal people to pour hundreds of hours and dollars into an endless grind. That market is getting bigger, and as more companies jump on board we will see more people losing their time to the micro-transaction model.

How about first person shooters? How many of you spent countless hours in front of a computer screen with Unreal Tournament, fragging your friends and scoffing at those who just couldn’t understand why you thought that could be fun. Now the tables have turned. You complain because some of the same people who laughed at you then, have all but sold their soul to Call of Duty. It’s a fight that you’ve fought for so many years, but you never thought it would come to this.

We were the ones who wrote blog and forum posts demanding respect from unreasonable parents and conservative politicians, who said that shooting and fighting games were the leading cause of juvenile violence. We fought, and continue to fight, in fear of losing our precious games, and the battle is slowly being won. We proudly wore our Legend of Zelda t-shirts and honorably display our allegiance to the Horde and the Alliance. The floodgates have burst open and we now stare in disbelief at the wave of support we’ve ushered in.

Every movie, book, cellphone or Facebook game that comes out is not bad, but I can understand the frustration when you watch your favorite genres or series get watered down with under-par content. What was once a labor of love has slowly been loosed from the grip of the video game forefathers, altered, and injected into the mainstream of America. Now corporations have seen ways to make additional profit off of our favorite games and have all but forced us to support them.

We can’t blame anyone but ourselves. No matter how much we think that motion controls are ruining the core experience, or cell phones and Facebook have inaccurately inducted business men and stay-at-home moms into the gamer category, we supported the development of our current predicament. If you feel like the issue has gotten out of hand, but you aren’t quite sure what to do about it, then I have one thing to say…VOTE.

“How,” you might ask. With your money. You may be able to get your comrades to support your antics by posting on forums about how much pop-gaming should die, but you aren’t going to affect the decision makers unless you refuse to buy their product. If Angry Birds is ruining your gaming feng shui, then don’t “accidentally” download it and get caught up in the addicting gameplay. If you have to choose between Prince of Persia and Bride’s Maids, then go with the latter…though, at that point, you may have a completely different problem on your hands.

You could, of course, choose to support this change. It’s not all bad. In fact, I find the new shift to be quite the stimulator for the industry. As revenue continues to pour in from the pop-gaming market, we will see funds shift to develop higher powered consoles that can hit the market at more affordable prices. Expect to see the Wii U announced with a fairly low price point, due to the astronomical financial success of the Wii. There’s a lot of good that social, mobile and motion-control gaming can do to support hardcore gamers. Plus, Angry Birds is just plain fun.

At the least, don’t forget the role you’ve played in making pop-gaming a reality; even you have made some bad judgment calls. So, dismount your self-constructed throne of conceit, uncover your hidden stash of Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat films, and face the facts…you’re a Pop-Gamer.

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Nintendo Announces the Next Generation – My Predictions for the Wii’s Successor

Say what you want about Nintendo, but they know how to make money. If this past generation wasn’t enough of a wake up call for gamers everywhere, then it’s time to reconsider your stance on the validity of gimmick gaming. Our first look at the Wii had many of us rolling our eyes at the idea of shaking our bon-bons in front of our TV screens; but take another look under, beside, or on top of your entertainment center and what do you see? A Wii! On November 19, 2006 Grandmas and Grandpas all over the US were shimmying their way into retail centers to buy up the cheap hardware; and Nintendo made billions.

The hardcore audiences that loyally barnacled themselves to underside of Nintendo’s ship felt neglected as it seemed like casual gamers were getting the high-scale treatment on deck. Many of them, understandably bought up other systems in hopes of filling the void that Nintendo had left them, and the recent video game converts eventually left the Wii to dust and abandonment. Now the executives at Nintendo are left to count their money, and have no one to share it with. So what’s the next step? A new console, of course.

The next generation is here, though much later than normal, and Nintendo is tasked with regaining the loyalty of their broken-hearted fans. I won’t sugar coat it, Nintendo’s success balances on their ability to fulfill the fragile hopes of hardcore gamers and finally give what they’ve been asking for. Nintendo can’t hope to win grandma and grandpa back either, they’ve had their fun, and are probably realizing their mistake in purchasing the console in the first place. They have to take two steps forward and hope to quash the steady stream of fans entering the veins of Sony and Microsoft.

If you’ve been following the gaming feed, then you know that rumors have leaked about an upcoming console that may live up to the hype; but don’t get too excited, most of us saw this coming. Rumors point to HD graphics, powerful processors, backwards compatibility, and an intuitive game pad featuring dual joysticks and a gaming screen. Perhaps it’s too little too late for Nintendo. They are known for being one step behind in the most recent console generations, and I can’t imagine Microsoft and Sony not having prototypes in the works that will once again, put Nintendo in the dust. But gimmicks are Nintendo’s forte, and gaming is about getting you to spend your money, not make you happy.

Our very own Dawna Wood commented on the rumors by saying,

Personally, even if some of the reports about its power are true, it still won’t matter. Xbox’s userbase is too loyal and invested to hop over to Nintendo, and more or less is the same for PS3 buyers not to mention the millions who have already purchased a Wii. It’s far too late in the game for a new HD console…
I have to echo her sentiments, because I can’t imagine Nintendo being successful in using HD graphics as a ploy. When we think back on the most recent waves of consoles, we see a few areas where Nintendo has failed to produce. Outside of standard definition graphics the lack of easy-to-use controllers, online capabilities, built-in hard drive, and third party support are just a handful of the issues Nintendo has faced. It’s important for these issues to be resolved or the fans may leave them for good.
We’ve seen feeble attempts to support the classic controller, and then watched as it came crashing down. We watched as Nintendo laughably tried to emulate online interaction to no avail, and cringed when we watched the beauty of Super Mario Galaxy stretch across our flat screen TVs. But in my opinion nothing hurts worse than the lack of third party support for the Wii console. It’s unfortunate to see such great talent go to waste, but when your console doesn’t support HD graphics or provide a controller with logical and easy to use functions you run the risk of alienating yourself.
It’s a shame that Wii owners won’t be able to experience the Mass Effect trilogy, or watch the beauty of a sunset over the Tamriel skyline. There are great games on the Wii like Super Mario Galaxy or the Twilight Princess, but you will quickly notice that most of the top-tiered titles are games created by Nintendo and are sequels to increasingly stale IPs. Unfortunately for Nintendo, many gamers did experience the glory of Mass Effect and the Elder Scrolls and as a consequence Nintendo lost a steady cash flow from these dissatisfied gamers. Check out what SFX-360 writer, Stoney has to say about 3rd part support:
It’s a very much needed console for Nintendo. 3rd Party Development sucks on the Wii due to the Wii’s graphical limitations. Developers can port games from PC to 360 to PS3 with little effort and cost. Porting to the Wii is nearly impossible so a new game pretty much has to be made from the ground up. You can’t blame the controls for this difficulty because look how quickly Heavy Rain and other titles accepted new input from the Move controller.
People will always buy the latest Nintendo franchise releases, but without solid 3rd party titles to collect revenue from Nintendo is pretty much dead in the water right now.
Despite the Wii’s success with pushing out old franchises, we are starting to notice a trend of mediocrity in the quality of these games. Since the release of the Gamecube, Nintendo has only had one stand out IP, Pikmin; but what’s sad about this dilemma is that Nintendo is known for its brilliance in the creation of new game worlds and characters. Link, Mario, Donkey Kong, and Samus almost single-handedly made Nintendo a successful brand, but since their creation, Nintendo has done little to introduce new IPs.
The overarching theme here is that Nintendo has to focus on its games this time around by making their system easily accessible for developers and by offering new games for their audience. There is no doubt that if Nintendo manages to hit on all cylinders then we will witness a phenomenon. Nintendo is a name that sells itself; whether they are selling a console, a Mario game, or a wooden block, people have an affinity towards the name. Add on the updated specs of a current generation console and we may finally relive the competitive days of the SNES and the Genesis.
I’ve got a feeling that Nintendo has been planning this launch for a decade or more, and the Wii was simply a product created to pull in billions of dollars. If my theory proves correct, then Nintendo will launch their new console at a very affordable price despite it’s power. It has been confirmed that Nintendo will be showing their new system at E3, and not only will we see the capabilities, but it will also be playable. I would expect a price announcement, and a line-up of launch games by the end of the show. Only time will tell if my theories prove true.
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How Fable III Effectively Implements Choice

I’ve been hearing a lot of complaining lately about Fable 3 and how the game nosedives towards the end.  Most people say that they were upset because they were caught off guard by the quick turn-around after you become King of Albion. It broke the flow of the game for many as you were tasked with having to manage your income and make some tough decisions that would ultimately determine the outcome of the game. After reading an interesting article about how Fable 3 showed a player who he really was as a person, it confirmed some feelings I had about some great things that Fable 3 did.

I have an issue with many critics who clamor for change, and when it is served to them they want to spit it back out. In the case of Fable 3, I feel that not only did Lionhead Studios take the risk of trying something different, but they effectively implemented their new ideas into the gameplay. Our standard game presents choice to us in a way that is usually very predictable.  Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2 both give you a choice of doing the good thing and gaining valuable help later in the story, or doing the bad thing and getting lots of money or spectacular items.  If you take the bad path you typically pull in just the right amount of dough in order to purchase the high leveled weapons faster, and if you take the good path you will earn the loyalty of powerful friends. Basically those games are offering you balanced gameplay so you are experiencing similar things in both playthroughs. This usually fans the “anti-complacent” flame in many critics and they shout that they are tired of these predictable outcomes and they want something that shocks them, or provides real consequences. Well that’s exactly what Fable 3 does.


At the end of the first part of Fable 3 you kill all of your evil, king brother’s soldiers and take the castle by force.  Upon completing this action you have successfully stepped up from your humble title of Prince and become Ruler of Albion.  What happens next is what is both shocking and unique; your brother tells you that an attack on your kingdom is imminent and that it’s coming in a year.  Your brother wasn’t evil for the sake of it, he was inducing child labor and high taxes to ensure that there would be enough money in the coffers to save Albion.  Whaddya know, an evil villain with legitimate reasons for his evil actions?  Who would have thought that could make sense?

From that point on you have to make some hard decisions about what to do in order to save your kingdom. You’ve spent the entire game making promises to people that you can either keep or break, and now that you are king you will be making those choices publicly. Generally if you decide to do the noble thing then it will cost you; in the same way that giving citizens a tax refund means that the government has to fork out some change. Making the bad decisions, like choosing to build a brothel instead of rebuilding an orphanage, usually means more money for you but it makes the citizens upset.  The dilemma comes when you have to decide to do the bad things in order to get the good results, or do the good thing but kill all of your citizens because you have no money. What does one do?

No game seems to have successfully captured this real life dynamic that actually makes an interesting story. Where most critics get caught up is in the part where they forgot to invest money in stores before they became king in order to make sure they had an income.  Unfortunately, when the darkness came knocking they didn’t have time to build up their capital, so they were faced with unforeseen circumstances and lost control. Brilliant if you ask me.

Fable 3 presents an idea that is rarely used in games and points out how unpopular decisions can sometimes be the most beneficial.  It catches you off guard and can potentially make the outcome of the game a little different then you might have expected.  Why then are we complaining about the way Fable 3 presents us with difficult decisions?  I know we all complain about how we have real problems in life that simply sneak up on us.  What do you do when you know your car is about to bite the dust? You can save money and run the risk of not have some of your immediate desires or needs, or you can assure that your bills are being paid but you may not be able to gather enough money by the time your car is dead. You may not even have a year to decide…it’s now or never. This is a prime example of a video game trying to relate to its players in a way that is unique to other games on the market.

If you are one of the people who is blasting Fable 3 for its change in pace, or for the way it shoves you into a sudden and important decision making that ultimately changes the game then I ask you to take a step back and reflect on the points I’ve made above. Are these really game-breaking mechanics, or are you demanding change so you can look like a progressive game critic?

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