The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Level Designer, p1

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Part 1 of 2, by Cori Nicole May

For one, it’s nearly impossible to explain to people outside the business, including my friends and family, what it is exactly that I do. When I say ‘I make video-games’, I mean that quite literally, but no one seems to believe me.

“But what do you do?” they will inevitably ask.
“I’m a level designer.”
“So you’re an artist?’
*deep sigh* “No, I’m a technical designer – we take the writer’s story and implement it, using the art and programming code. So, in short, I make video games.”
“Oh,” they’ll usually say, pretending they understand. “So it’s like programming?”
Defeated, I’ll say, “Yeah, it’s like that.” (Sorry, programmers; I don’t mean to claim your title because providence knows I don’t deserve it, but there’s no other way.)

There are other trials – the tools not working or slow, the builds that break everything, the oxen that refuse, no matter what you do, to walk across the damnable swamp. (It turned out – EVENTUALLY – that the particular ox in question did not actually HAVE the walking animation I was trying to script. But how’s a poor girl to know that oxen only walk in a particular manner? No trotting for oxen, it seems.)

But the real joy of my job is that, if I wait long enough, I get to do everything, at least a little bit. Level designers are at the hub of every part of the game, and thus they get feedback on all those parts, and sometimes even get to dig in and get their hands dirty in them.

Don’t like the way a particular character looks? Back in the old days, it was just a matter of pleading with an artist until they changed it. (When I tried to get C**** to be a little prettier, the artist looked so hurt I thought perhaps he’d modeled the character on himself). But now, I can go in and make my own head to show them what I was thinking of. Sometimes they’ll even accept it! (And then make it much, much better. It has become very clear that while I may have far-too pronounced opinions on art, I sure am not an artist.) And I swear, I did not go in and change any heads when the last call for lockdown came in, not even to fix a certain henchman’s skin problems. Honest. But I was very, very tempted. I love creating the way a creature looks, actually; head passes and clothing passes are very fun, changing little things here and there just to achieve a certain nuance. It’s probably lost on most people, but I know it’s there, and I can point it out to my friends later.

I’ve also made areas – infinite areas, actually, as the dungeons in Infinite Dungeons were under my purview. By the end of my time on ID, I knew every tile in Neverwinter Nights in painfully intimate detail. And I had completely forgotten how to script. Thankfully, it comes back quickly.

One of the pitfalls of this job, and I fall into it every time, is that occasionally you get giant tasks that have nothing to do with scripting – treasure passes, head passes, clothing passes, encounter passes – and by the end of it you’re trying to remember how ‘if’ statements work. And then there’s the end-run before release, where only a chosen few are even allowed access to the toolset, and all you can do is playtest for weeks on end, sending bugs and, if you’re lucky, finding bugs that only you can fix. Actually, that’s a lot of fun – you get to play with the near-completed version of the game. I think I played Jade Empire more than anyone who wasn’t QA.

(Apparently I’ve talked too long already. Stay tuned next week for the juicy finale.)

Cori Nicole May sometimes feels barely qualified for the work she loves to do, but they keep letting her do it anyways. Perhaps because she goes ‘squee’ a lot, and the only videogames she likes to play anymore are BioWare’s. Also, they had to make a special cheat code on KOTOR, just for her, so she could get through the space fighting part, and she had to get a friend to come over to kill thresher maws in Mass Effect. In what remains of her spare time, she plays Dragon Age, just because she can.