The Level Design Career, Part 1: Why

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This is a series of informal blog posts detailing the level design career. With these, I hope to create a collection of practical articles detailing various aspects of the level design career path in the video games industry.

The Level Design Career, Part 1: Why

It’s 2017, and you want a career in video games. Is level design the right path for you? Let’s talk about the “why” of level design (note: for a deeper dive into what level design is, check out this article), to see if this path is right for you.

Briefly, level design encompasses everything that has to do with picking up the pile of assets needed to make a game and stitching them together. If programmers make code, and artists create artistic objects, than somebody has to take those things and arrange them. That is usually the job of the level designer.

Whoa, hold on. What about making maps? Aren’t level designers people who make maps?”

Sure. That is one thing a level designer can do.

But a level designer in 2017 can be expected to do much more. Here’s some examples:

  • Programming. Usually called scripting in this context, level designers may need to program at varying levels of intensity: From simple logic scripting to complete gameplay programming.
  • Art. A level designer may create diagrams for map layouts or other game design illustrations. They may set dress scenes or do simple modeling tasks with 3ds Max or Maya.
  • Game design. As part of the overall design team, a level designer is often involved in the same kinds of tasks that game designers are, such as preparing documentation and prototyping systems (both on paper and in-game).
  • Audio. A level designer is often the person responsible for implementing game audio. It isn’t uncommon for designers to have a musical and/or audio production background (my bachelor’s degree was in music performance, by the way!).

“Wait a minute. Everything you describe… that sounds like almost everything you can possibly do in game development.”

Yes, it sure is! That is what makes the level design career so awesome, if you are the right fit. A level designer is someone who knows at least a little about everything; they get to touch just about every part of the game.

So is level design the right entry point for you? Consider these scenarios:

  • You learned the basics of Maya because the game you’re modding doesn’t have a column in quite the right shape you need, so you make one.
  • You love programming tutorials in Unity 3D because you can actually see gameplay happen, but you aren’t naturally interested in computer science topics like algorithms, data structures, etc.
  • You can’t stand how your favorite game doesn’t have a map that makes your weapons feel useful, so you plan one that does.
  • You want to be a game designer, but you notice that game design isn’t a way to get a foot in the door.

In particular, I’d like to point out how handy the level design career is for those who are interested in game design. Game design is a hard way to break into the industry, because this is typically handled by senior level people, and usually lead game designers and creative directors are individuals that have been in the game industry a long time and have grown into the role (they were probably artists or programmers in their early career). Level design is a great way to develop design chops while learning useful hard skills that can serve you well in the future.

While level designers should be well rounded, it’s useful to have a sub-specialization to focus on. What are those specializations? That’s the topic of the next post in this series, so stay tuned!

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