On Mass Effect 2 we divide all Level Designers into groups of around 3: 2 Level Designers and 1 Senior. Each of these groups is called a Scrum or dogpile and each dogpile has a puntastic name: Fighting Fish Dogs, War Beasts and us, the Hellhounds…Yeah I think we got the best name too. These dogpiles have one or two designated QA, usually one artist per Level Designer, and a writer and cinematic designer who float between dogpiles for best distribution.
As a Senior Designer, I am the Senior Level Designer in my group of Level Designers: I am the first line of defense and critique by being the first person who approves, disapproves, gives advice and direction on all levels our dog pile is responsible for. My day to day is the same work as the other Level Designers: I am responsible for 2 levels and, if need be, to jump in and help on any other level our dogpile is responsible for (this usually happens when someone is sick, over tasked or on vacation). And while the level designers in my dog pile report to me, and I am the person who gives their first stamp of approval, I report to Dusty Everman, the Level Design Lead for Mass Effect 2, who gives me my stamps and stars. It’s a great set-up: I get to learn new technical things about Unreal from the others in my group, and they get to learn more broad game design goals and tricks from me and my years doing this. The level approval process can advance without having to over task Dusty’s time, and while Dusty and I might not agree about everything (like any good couple, we compliment our personal preferences instead of duplicating them) he can rest assured that for each dogpile, he has someone keeping an eye on things.
It’s a complicated and in-depth process, made even more complicated by the fact that our industry is lacking in standards: new employees have to be re-trained with BioWare’s work flows. But when everything comes together… when the level art is finished, Cinematics have put in their cut scenes, cinematic design has all the conversations been acted and the combat is fully balanced and you watch someone else play the level (especially the Lead Designer) and they put the controller down (ie they didn’t throw it) and they give you a sly smile and say “Man. that was AWEsome.” That’s the shit, right there.
That is what a Level Designer does. We make people say Awesome.
But perhaps this description of what I do as a Sr. Designer doesn’t give you enough of an idea of what I do on a day-to-day basis. Read the final part in which I’ll give you a Twitter account of my day.
Dave Feltham, who hails from Toronto, is a Senior Designer on Mass Effect 2. He doesn’t like to think about the number of days multiplied by the 9 years he has in the game industry, never mind the 3 before that in the TV industry. He has done broadcast design work for many major TV networks and has released games for the launch of every new-generation console since Microsoft’s Xbox. He giddily walked through BioWare’s doors 2 years ago and still can’t believe he works here. He likes coffee. A lot. He’s drinking one right now.