The Long Road to BioWare: A Designer’s Origin Story, p3

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Part 3 of 4, by David Feltham

So what does a Sr. Designer on Mass Effect 2 do?

Well for one, I write blog articles while building AI paths or cooking to an Xbox Development Kit.

Before I tell you what I do, I have to start with a description of what a Level Designer does. A Level Designer determines the building blocks of an area of the game, is owner of the fun of the level, and is a funnel for all departments who bring their work into the game. We model the blueprints of the level, we script in events, we give XP and treasure, and we put in combat that is challenging enough that you find it rewarding to finish, but not so hard that you die a lot. If a level is great fun or not fun at all, that’s due to the Level Designer. Blame him or her.

A level at BioWare, and specifically on Mass Effect, starts with a writer’s rough overview for the plot. After everyone involved with the level (artist, Level Designer, cinematic designer, cutscene artist and writer) are in agreement with, on paper, what will happen on the level, the Level Designer takes that and begins to craft the level. Sometimes a sketch is made in the meeting, other times not. But the narrative playable, the 3D version of what was discussed in that writer’s overview, is the goal: show how the level looks, show me how the mission is paced, and show me where the conversation and combats happen. And if this is approved, then everything evolves from this.

At this point the Level Designer and artist collaborate while they work, segregated in the software but sitting close in the office for clear communication. They negotiate areas back and forth, and work with the writer to ensure plot fidelity. As some of you may know, Mass Effect uses the Unreal Engine. So while placing objects is pretty straight forward, a majority of our time is in Kismet, scripting logic for the levels or placing objects to make the battlefields even more fun. The Level Designer sets up events for the plot and spawn systems for combat, all in an area that is within performance. It sounds pretty straightforward, but it can get pretty complicated, especially when environmental events, plot and combat combine. The scenarios can go from the complexity of firing a more difficult combat if a certain conversation choice is made, and then changing the battlefield on the fly depending on how the player navigates to something as simple as having a door open after you reach a certain point in the level. My art background is thankful that Kismet is as straightforward as it is.

For every hour or two of scripting I put in, I play the level of the game on our development kits. Sometimes this is playing as if I were a player exploring the level for the first time, reading everything, making choices like a player who’s concerned for Shepard’s outcome. Other times its hitting X as fast as I can through conversations so I can concentrate on combat or even going straight to loads to right before a fight, bypassing large sections of the level. To someone on the outside it might seem ‘fun’ or initiate the response I usually get when asked what I do: “must be nice”. And don’t get me wrong, I do have one of the best jobs in the world. But testing the game is not the same as sitting down at home and playing Halo, or Mass Effect 1 for that matter. Playing an area I have scripted requires constant and repetitive testing of the logic, and sometimes this will mean playing the same area, over and over again in a row, to ensure that it doesn’t break, or that it works as intended. The more complicated or free-form the area, an area with lots of choice or variation, the more times I have to play. Sometimes I will play through the entire level, testing everything I’ve done for the day, only to find out that one simple line of logic is broken, requiring me to play that area over again.

Sometimes I’ll tinker with logic and object placement in between plays to tweak the fun factor, changing how and where enemies spawn and sometimes even changing what is spawned. It’s a back and forth process: back and forth between artist and Level Designer, Level Designer and writer, Level Designer and QA, QA and the focus testers. Rinse, wash, repeat.

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.