Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How long does it take to make a level?

Recently I was asked a question about level design and for some advice on how to construct a level. I was also asked about how long it takes to make a level.

As for general advice on how to construct a level, there are entire books on the subject. Achieving a level that is successful both functionally and aesthetically is a challenging task, and the former will depend greatly upon the style of game that is being created. A level for a multiplayer FPS will be vastly different to a story driven FPS, which will be different again to a single player RPG, which will in turn be different from an open world MMO. Simply put, there is no silver bullet solution on how to design a great level. Levels can look great but play horribly, and look horrible yet facilitate great gameplay.

The biggest bit of advice then is to examine good levels for the genre you wish to design for.  If you're looking to create a level for an RPG like Dragon Age, go play single player, story driven RPGs. Of course, this is useless if you're looking to create the latest and greatest FPS map. Examine examples from your chosen genre, and determine what works and what doesn't. Item placement and level movement, chokepoints and dead paths are all important issues in an multiplayer FPS, but irrelevant in an RPG. In this case, you'll be concerned about things like how the level facilitates (or hampers) player combat, potential traps for the player, NPC patterns, and avoiding unnecessary player backtracking.

We don't go to Ravenholm to learn to make a deathmatch map

Ultimately, level design comes down to practice, and lots of it. Furthermore, whenever you switch to a new tool, you're always going to have a learning curve on how to use it effectively. Yes, many of the skills you will learn will transfer; the basic design tenets, but new technology always comes with a learning curve, and after you make a few levels, you'll look back at your starting work and think "that looks horrible." I've done exactly that with some of the early levels I created for The Shattered War (and pretty much every single level creation tool I've ever used).

Finally, the time factor. How long a level takes is widely variable based on the skill level of the person, how complicated the level is and how big the level is.  I've done one level in as little as 15 hours, yet producing Fort Velen took around 60 hours - even more when taking into account finalising it and adding associated waypoints for moving characters, ambient animation and sounds. My most recent level has taken around 35 hours, but again, that's just the base of the level. Sounds, monsters, encounters, scripting and so forth all need to be added before it will be in a playable state.

So to give an indication of what that time creates, here's a look at the near finished product.

A ridge above a gully high in the mountains

Until next time, happy level creating!