The Level Design Career Part 2: How

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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 2: How

In my previous article, we discussed the “why” of level design. We learned that level design is not just making maps, but encompasses a large variety of game industry skills. However, a level designer should consider adding a little something extra to the table, beyond basic level design skills. In this article, we’ll discuss how sub-specializations help us answer the question of how to become an effective, employable level designer.

The Minimum Viable Level Designer

First, let’s talk about what skills are common across all good level design candidates. Please understand that we won’t discuss the skills themselves in much detail here, just what they are.

Every level designer is be able to do all of these things:

  • Simple documentation. Before creating a design, a level designer can create a clear, simple plan of the level with documentation. A two dimensional map is part of this document. It needn’t be long, but it should be free of typos and grammatical mistakes.
  • Create level layouts at a block out, white box or gray box quality in several industry standard tools. These include Unreal 4, Unity 5, Lumberyard, 3ds Max, Maya, or others.
  • Execute basic scripting tasks in a game engine. Such tasks could include making a door open when walking through an invisible trigger, making game objects visible or invisible at different times, or changing some aspect of the gameplay in an obvious way.
  • Simple set dressing from available art assets. Given a set of art assets, a designer can arrange these pieces in an appealing way, or in ways that enhance gameplay. Bonus points if the designer can use these art assets in unexpected ways!

From Minimum Viable to Maximum Employable

While any designer that can master the above skills and demonstrate them in a portfolio website is certainly on the right path, there is one remaining task that is needed to make oneself stand out in a crowded field of entry level candidates. You most certainly need a sub-specialization.

Of course, a sub-specialization is a term we’re using here and not any kind of official game industry language. Simply put, a sub-specialization is a special area that you excel in, in addition to the minimum viable skill set for your discipline.

What makes a good sub-specialization?

  • It should not be a primary level design skill. That is, it shouldn’t just be, “I can block out level layouts extremely well,” for example. Your primary skill set should always be professional grade. A sub-specialization is something beyond these core skills.
  • It should be supportive to your main level design skills. It should help you do your job better.

So with that in mind, here are some common sub-specializations that I see in the game industry from level designers:

  • Gameplay programming. You have moved beyond simple event scripting and can create simple objects and tools for other people to use. Today we are in a golden age of resources and tools for learning programming. It is very possible to pick up these skills with focused practice!
  • Environment art. You can go beyond placing assets and actually create them: including creating kit pieces that are meant to interact together. You aren’t just using the lego pieces now, you are making the lego kit. An extremely valuable skill to cultivate!
  • AI programming. Yes, you heard that right. This can be a skill that a level designer can cultivate and use to their advantage. I saw this first hand when working on Bioshock Infinite, where the programmer in charge of Elizabeth, the AI companion in the game, was also a level designer. Since great level design always accounts for the abilities of players and AI agents in a game, it makes great sense that these two disciplines are a great combination when combined in one person.
  • Concept art. A designer can be greatly assisted by a mastery of traditional artistic skills. Illustrating maps, story boards, and the like can be a great boon to the planning of levels. Even just the ability to effectively sketch on a whiteboard can help effectively communicate ideas quickly.
  • Creative Writing. While all level designers must be effective, clear writers, a few find success cultivating writing in a genre fiction context, which is of value to certain employers who create story based content.

Of course, the list can go on. The most common sub-specializations are probably gameplay programming and environment art, since these go hand in hand with common level design activities, and would be the two I would select for most to pursue. But the level designer community is a vast ocean of talent, so if some other skill fits your interest, go for it!

How Sub-Specializations Manifest in Jobs

The need for sub-specializations becomes clear when taking a look at job postings. It is rare to find a job that is simply “generic level designer.” Almost always, a job leans towards “level designer +,” that is, a level designer plus some other skill. Sometimes, the job posting isn’t called “level design” at all. For jobs that lean in programming talent, a common title is “Mission Scripter.” For those that lean on environment art talent, it might be called “Level Artist.” I’ve seen postings for “Narrative Designers,” which are often level designer + creative writer.

Always Be Fluid

Change is the only constant in the video game industry, and that should include your skills. In my own career, I’ve gone from traditional level layout and design gigs, to jobs that have been very programming heavy, and back again. Often you get hired to be a certain thing, only for the circumstances on the ground to change. Never be afraid to tackle a new sub-specialization. If you have attained a well-rounded education (something my own school, SMU Guildhall, does a great job of doing), you have the basics of many different disciplines already, so enhancing a particular area is always possible.

So now we’ve learned how to pursue a level design career: build a core set of skills, plus a sub-specialization to round it out. In the next article, I’ll discuss what: exactly what types of materials should be on a portfolio in order to maximize results.

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