Jul
17

Level Production

7 years, 4 months ago 0
Posted in: Projects, Samples

If you’re familiar with what makes a good level (PART 1: Design Concepts) and how to build that level (PART 2: Design Structure), then it comes down to scheduling the effort. The best way to ensure your level is greatest it can be is having checkpoints along the way reviewing your work and anyone else’s contributions.

Topics

  • Overview
  • Pre-Alpha
  • Alpha
  • Beta to Gold
  • Other Versions

Overview

To have a successful production, a roadmap is needed to guide the team through key stages of level creation. While each stage has an owner, people can always contribute or make suggestions. It’s the owner’s responsibility to complete that stage, though.

Each level is given a chunk of time from Pre-Alpha to Gold Master. Earlier levels might need more than the allotted time; later levels might need less. Consecutive work days are not required. It might be best to wait until key features or reusable art is finished before continuing. Remember, this timeframe assumes people are familiar with the tech, story, and gameplay, no major technical issues exist, and some reusable assets already are available.

Not every department is participating at each stage every moment. Having several levels in production at the same time allows for a staggered schedule. Departments can now have a steady stream of work, without waiting for different departments to finish their stage.

This is a guidance document to help direct process. This process will be modified to reflect observations. This is not an “if-then” process – remember several tasks happen in parallel.

Reviews

Waiting to check progress until the last day provides no time for changes. All that effort has been wasted if the requirements were misunderstood. To prevent this, a review is initiated half-way through the scheduled time. Task owners should strive to get at least 50% of the requirements in place for this review. If the review is successful, there might be no need for a second one.

Before meeting, participants should review the level to be familiar with the changes (up to a day before the meeting). Producers or owners should send out reminders. Using these checkpoint reviews should reduce the need for day-long meetings. Reviews last up to an hour. Anyone can join. Feedback lasts up to a day after the meeting, providing people time to reflect and give constructive criticism without hasty reactions.

Roles

Positions listed below might not match your specific company’s titles. Adapt as needed.

Lead – from each department: Art, Audio, Design, Animation.

Layout (or Builder) – builds the physical level. Serves as the “Lead” for the level, maintaining the Level Doc.
Scripter – adds events and encounters to the level.
Writer – story plot and script dialogue.

Animator – creates unique animation for level events.
FX Artist – creates and adds special FX events.
Lighting Artist – provides direction and finalizes level lighting.
Environment Artist – creates unique and repeatable art for the level.

Starting Point

Story drives the level! It creates a reason for the level, providing answers why the player is there. A story doesn’t have to be a classical narrative – it can be “written” with dynamic gameplay. It’s also important to understand where an event takes place. The setting and history of a location affects the story. With dynamic gameplay, the setting needs to support the player’s current abilities and choices to create a satisfying experience.

Include 1-3 Story Events in each level (or load). Remind the player he’s involved in an exciting adventure. Create other supporting events to reflect, reinforce, and expand these progression moments.

Flowchart

Each task and review for each stage is detailed on the following pages (enlarge to read if needed).

Remember, level creation is a staggered once in full-production. When a layout is finished and passed to Art and Scripters, a new layout is started for a new level.

Pre-Production

Beyond what’s described on the previous Flowchart, Pre-Production isn’t discussed here in great detail. All Pre-Production features are required before any final game levels should be started.

Here’s a rough estimate what’s needed for a typical FPS/Action Game before full production should begin:

Pre-Alpha

This is the critical stage when core gameplay is validated and agreed upon. It’s fragile, functional, and linear.

Vision Kick-Off

Review the Story Outline for what happens before, during, and after this level. Reference the Pacing Chart for weapons, gameplay, character use, and story beats. Translate these details into a Level Doc (1-2 pages):

  • The purpose for each key encounter
  • Region (i.e. Bright Side) and Style (i.e. Prison)
  • Time(s) of Day
  • Weather
  • Introductions (weapons, gadgets, gameplay, characters, locations, story events)
  • Modifications (…same as above…)
  • Restrictions (…same as above…)
  • Estimated size, Action Zones, and key content

Store the Level Doc in Perforce at: /game/*docs/Levels/<abbreviation>_<name>.doc. The Design department is responsible for updating the Level Doc. Collect reference photos and concept art related to the level’s style. Now the Level Team has the requirements and a direction to start from.

Team Meeting

This “buy-in” meeting is to guarantee all departments agree on the level’s purpose. Review the Level Doc. Each department can share their requirements and concerns. Such as “Is this area worth the effort?” or “How many characters will be used?”

Participants:

  • Project Lead
  • Art – Lead, Environment
  • Design – all Designers
  • Producer

Outcome:

  • Everyone agrees on the key elements and signs-off on the Vision.
  • All key elements are noted in the Level Doc.
  • The Layout Designer takes the Level Doc and translates it into a 2D map.
  • (optional) Art continues refining Concept Art.

Art Sample Environments

This task is considered part of Concept Art & Level Styles, sometimes called a “Beautiful Corner”. While it involves a technical perspective, it greatly affects the development of a level. Its purpose is creating a Beta quality location with final textures, materials, models, FX, and lighting. Explore several ways of modular construction to discover the best look with repeatable elements. Some of those elements become less important as the team gains confidences with their modeling and texturing quality. A critical element is lighting. A level needs to have an example what the lighting style will be as it relates to gameplay and material (texture) creation.

Designers and Artists need to work together to determine what’s needed to start this task. If a playable game space will help scope, than provide it. If a final sample area hasn’t been created to showcase the Level Style yet, it needs to start now. It helps to have this finished early, but development can continue up to Beta. A great “Beautiful Corner” could inspire the team to make the level differently – or vice versa – a great layout might change how “Beautiful Corner” is approached.

Phase 1 – Blueprint

Owner: Level Design

The Blueprint is a rough sketch to outline core Story Beats and physical scope. A flowchart should be included to guarantee everyone agrees on the event pacing through the level. There are no arbitrary areas – each encounter should exist for a reason.

  • Translate the vision to a top-down layout.
  • Provide general scale and vertical usage.
  • Identify key story locations, missions, and lighting.
  • Identify neighborhoods to show how they’re unique from each other.
  • Call out repeatable areas/elements.

Team Review

Does it meet the project requirements?

Participants:

  • Project Lead
  • Art – Lead, Environment
  • Design – Lead Level, Lead Scripter, Layout, Writer
  • Producer

If successful:

  • Everyone agrees on the general layout and signs-off on the Blueprint.
  • The Blueprint and Flowchart is added to the Level Doc.
  • The Layout Designer takes the 2D map and translates it into a 3D layout.
  • Art continues refining Concept Art to match key locations.

If unsuccessful:

  • 2 days are given to incorporate feedback then re-reviewed.

Phase 2 – Whitebox Layout

Owner: Level Design

The Whitebox Layout is a 3D block-out to visualize the Blueprint and discover the playable space. A rough pass for cover and affordances (climbable edges) are present.

  • Create a Whitebox layout based on the top-down layout – adjusting for scale and sightlines.
  • Critical paths and mobility are playable (ignore vehicles or scene cuts).
  • Global lighting created and critical key lighting noted.
  • Initial Asset List completed.
  • No heavy artistic detail or scripting logic.

Team Review

Is the core footprint, sightlines, and key location verticality and placement satisfied? Only after this should other things be added or fine-tuned (such as proper cover and affordance distances).

The level is a work-in-progress and shouldn’t be considered as a final layout. This review is to generate feedback, both positive and negative, and bring forth ideas to maximize the fun-factor. These ideas will help transform good designers into great ones. If the Level Designer is stumped and doesn’t know what to do in a specific area, they should seek input from other designers or the Lead Designer prior to this review. Levels may require more than one review at this stage.

Participants:

  • Project Lead
  • Art – Lead, Environment
  • Design – Lead Level, Lead Scripter, Layout, Writer
  • Tech
  • Producer

If successful:

  • Everyone agrees on the general layout and signs-off on the Layout Vision.
  • Any changes to the Blueprint or Flowchart are noted in the Level Doc
  • The Layout Designer translates the level into key repeatable parts (doors, pillars, catwalks, buildings).
  • (optional) Art can start Sample Areas like “Beautiful Corner”.
  • (optional) Art continues refining Concept Art for the level.

If unsuccessful:

  • 2 days are given to incorporate feedback then re-reviewed.

Phase 3 – Model Layout

Owner: Level Design (or Art if managed by Level Design)

The Model Layout converts the Whitebox Layout into repeatable, modular assets. This includes replacing blockout geometry with prefabs, proxy models, patches, and props (both new and from existing levels). Effective cover and affordances are present to allow gameplay development in the next phase..

  • Clearly defined game-specific areas and filler-art areas.
  • All key routes present (more can be added as the map develops).
  • All key game floor objects/structures represented (cover).
  • All key mobility represented (jumps/clambers/slides/affordances/grapple points).
  • All view blocking objects/structures and vis-portals placed.
  • Simple placement of other key lights and/or fog.
  • Key models and locations should be more defined with proxy models or patches.
  • Cut into Action Zones, named correctly, and saved in Perforce as prefabs (i.e. L04_2_Geometry.map).
  • Playable from beginning to end on a target platform (i.e. Xbox 360).
  • Maintains 30+ frames per second.

If it’s a larger Action Zone sub-level (prefab), it should be saved in /maps/game/*levelname/zone/. For all other prefabs, use a Naming_Wizard.xls to help find a place to save the prefab. If it’s to be replaced later, use the directory “whitebox“.

Team Review

Has every layout element been separated into its smallest component?

Participants:

  • Project Lead
  • Art – Lead
  • Design – Lead Level, Layout
  • Tech – (Lead?)
  • Producer

If successful:

  • Everyone agrees on the general layout and signs-off on the Layout Metric.
  • Update the Level Doc with any changes to the Blueprint or Flowchart. List all known art assets.
  • The Layout Designer gives the level to the Scripter to add game events (and transfer any test work).
  • Art starts creating content for known and safe prefabs (to match concept or “Beautiful Corner” work).
  • (optional) Scripters can start experimenting with a copy of the level.
  • (optional) Art continues refining Concept Art.

If unsuccessful:

  • 2 days are given to incorporate feedback then re-reviewed.

Gameplay Vision

Owner: Scripter

The goal is to achieve the right pacing, scale, and flow to the gameplay experience, without any focus on making the level look aesthetically pleasing. Simple lighting and fog is recommended to assist in the visualization. This is the stage where feedback and rapid iteration should take place between the Level Designer and the rest of the Design team. Rough-in the “Critical Path” for major encounters:

  • Key enemies placed with basic spawning/scripting/pathing (no branching or side-events).
  • All audio call-outs specified.
  • Player objectives defined and added (with debug text if needed).
  • Identify any key geometry that needs to change for gameplay reasons.
  • Changes in key lighting for gameplay or mood.
  • Basic scripting for key dialogue/cinema/moments using debug text and placeholder subjects.
  • Basic vehicle pathing (if required).

The Level Doc is expanded to detail each Action Zone:

  • Purpose for each key encounter.
  • Theme(s) (i.e. Power Station, Central Plaza, East Side, etc.).
  • Mood(s) (i.e. Cautious, Heroic, Spooky).
  • Gameplay outline and difficulty.
  • Player objectives (primary and secondary).
  • Enemies & Allies.
  • Department requirements (i.e. Audio, Models, Game Feature).
  • A simple, top-down screenshot of each Action Zone.

Review

It’s ugly – now is it fun? Review the pacing and variation. Does it have memorable moments?

Participants:

  • Project Lead
  • Art – Lead, Environment
  • Design – Lead Level, Scripters, Writer
  • Producer

If successful:

  • Pre-Alpha complete!
  • Everyone agrees on the gameplay direction and signs-off on the Gameplay Vision.
  • Any changes to the Blueprint or Flowchart are noted in the Level Doc.
  • Scripters share the level with Art.
  • (optional) Art continues refining Concept Art

If unsuccessful:

  • 2 days are given to incorporate feedback then re-reviewed.

 

Pre-Alpha Complete!

 

Alpha

To become Alpha, all final models representing floors, walls, ceilings, and other architecture will have 1st-pass textures. 1st-pass lighting representing direction in terms of color and mood is complete. The level can be played from beginning to end. Gameplay is completed (linear and non-linear), while the final script is not required. Other levels might factor in to the final script. Cinematics or Cineractives can be absent. Audio and FX is being finalized. When a level reaches Alpha, it’s put aside until all other levels have passed Alpha.

The next series of tasks run in tandem groups….

Art Vision

Owners: Environment Artists, Lighting Artist

Art has been providing support up to this point. This is the first time Art has the task and responsibility to improve the level. All known art assets should be placed in the level. They don’t have to be pretty and perfect, but they do have to be identified and properly stored as a proxy.

  • Convert all layout assets to official art proxy models or prefabs.
  • Improving placement of key lights and/or fog.

Gameplay Metric

Owner: Scripter

Fill-in adjacent, non-linear encounters, and refine the “Critical Path”. With final models being added, the Scripters return to the level to tune, balance, and bug-fix gameplay. NO NEW SCENARIOS ARE ADDED.

  • All encounter branching and conditions added.
  • All combat playable:
  • Valid pathing networks through all intended gameplay areas.
  • All valid cover objects functioning and placed to metric.
  • Appropriate DataNode assignments (i.e. Idle, Alert, Patrol Nodes).
  • Spawn refinement:
  • Timing and proper placement of all intended AI.
  • Specific starting animations.
  • Re-enforcements if required (alarms).
  • Interactive objects functioning:
  • Destructibles, Degradables, or Dynamic.
  • Doors & Switches.
  • All key pick-ups placed and functioning:
  • Weapons & Ammo.
  • Story objects.
  • Mission Objectives set and defined.
  • Advanced scripting of key dialogue/cinema/moments.

Review

It’s now gorgeous and exciting – does it perform?

Participants:

  • Project Lead
  • Art – Lead, Environment
  • Audio (formal introduction)
  • Design – Lead Level, Scripters, Writer
  • Tech – (Lead?)
  • Producer

If successful:

  • Everyone agrees on the art direction and gameplay details, signing off on these stages.
  • Any changes to the Blueprint or Flowchart are noted in the Level Doc.
  • The level is given to Audio for the first time (officially).
  • (optional) Art continues refining Concept Art.

If unsuccessful:

  • 2 days are given to incorporate feedback the re-reviewed.

Art Metric

Owners: FX & Lighting Artists, Environment Artists

  • Refine and polish all art assets to fit within performance
  • Technical adjustments to gameplay are allowed

Audio Vision

Owner: Audio

Start work on adding basic audio to the level and building sounds for placement during the Audio Metric phase.

  • Add key ambient sounds.
  • Add placeholder audio for major events.
  • Add placeholder dialogue for encounters.
  • Verify all audio requirements for the level.

Review

Are all the major sound events present in some form? Is all Environment Art accounted for?

Participants:

  • Project Lead
  • Audio
  • Design – Scripters, Writer
  • Producer

If successful:

  • Everyone agrees on the final look.
  • Everyone agrees on the audio direction and signs-off on the Audio Vision.
  • Any changes to the Blueprint or Flowchart are noted in the Level Doc.
  • The level is handed to the Writer to incorporate any changes and finalize dialogue.
  • (optional) Art continues refining Concept Art.

If unsuccessful:

  • 2 days are given to incorporate feedback then re-reviewed.

Lighting & FX

Owners: Writer, Scripters, Audio, Animation

Final story decisions are made and dialogue is added.

Audio Metric

Owners: Level & World Artists, FX & Lighting Artists

Fine-tune all art to fit within performance and make adjustments for gameplay. The level is assigned to FX Artists, Lighters, and Sound Designers.

Review

It’s now gorgeous and exciting – does it perform?

Participants:

  • Design – Scripter
  • Art – Lead, Environment Artists
  • Tech – (Lead?)
  • Producer

If successful:

  • Alpha complete!
  • Everyone agrees on the final touches, signing off on these stages.
  • The Level Doc becomes a reference or walkthrough document, with no major updates.
  • Production is halted on this level until all other levels are Alpha Complete.

If unsuccessful:

  • 2 days are given to incorporate feedback then re-reviewed.

 

Alpha Complete!

 

STOP on current level – START another level
until all are Alpha-Complete.

 

Beta

A level starts the Beta stage when the story and script are complete. All gameplay and art has not only been added, but is deemed polished – everything is places and playable in final form. After Beta, changes are only made based on performance or optimization.

Story Dialogue

Owners: Scripter, Writer

A story outline was provided at the beginning during the Vision meeting. The writer should be constantly checking development of the level and re-evaluating the story based on team decisions. Placeholder dialogue (in text or audio form) is used up to Beta. Ideally, final dialogue and voice recordings shouldn’t be cast until a successful Alpha review. When Beta begins, all story events are considered final. The Scripter needs to let the writer know what encounters have been added or changed.

  • Confirm all expected dialogue
  • Finalize the script for voice recording

Cineractives

Owners: Animation, Audio, Scripter, Writer

Cineractives are story moments requiring special animation or key dialogue which takes place in real-time (not cutscenes). Animation and Audio work with the Writer and Scripter until all major story events are finalized.

  • Replace all placeholder animation, dialogue, or text with official assets.

Review

It’s now gorgeous and exciting – does it perform?

Participants:

  • Art – Lead, FX, Lighting, Environment
  • Audio
  • Design – Scripters, Writer
  • Tech – (Lead?)
  • Producer

If successful:

  • Beta complete!
  • Everyone agrees on the final story events.
  • Any changes to the Blueprint or Flowchart are noted in the Level Doc
  • The level is handed to Q/A for final assessment.

If unsuccessful:

  • 2 days are given to incorporate feedback then re-reviewed.

 

Beta Complete!

Release Candidate

All level content complete. Performance, environment, and faulty gameplay have been addressed.

Play Test

The level is now officially passed to the QA department for heavy-duty testing.

Baby Proof

After the QA Department has tested and documented poor performance area or locations where the player can “break” the game, it is assigned back to the Designer, Artists, and Audio for fixes.

Review

It’s now pretty and fun – can it be broken?

Participants:

  • All Leads
  • Producer

 

Release Candidate Complete!

Gold Master

Package it with the rest of the game and send to the printer! Pop the cork and celebrate!

Older Versions

The original chart for this whole idea was more simple when I first made it. Over the years it’s grown and changed, but the core concept remains the same. Here are those earlier versions.

Version 1

 

Version 2

Version 2b

In this version, I flattened all the different tracks. It was designed to be printed up like a banner and mounted on an office wall. Each level had a stick arrow with its name that could be placed anywhere along the timeline to mark its status.

Printable Charts

These next images can be saved and printed if desired. The first one is the larger, full-length chart. The remaining images are each individual checkpoint (Pre-Production, Pre-Alpha, Alpha, and Beta/Release Candidate).

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