Who was there: id Software design director Matt Hooper (Rage, Quake 4, Doom 3), Splash Damage lead designer Neil Alphonso (Brink, Killzone 2, original Splinter Cell), Respawn Entertainment lead designer Todd Alderman (Call of Duty 2, Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2, Fat Princess), and Bethesda Game Studios lead level designer Joel Burgess (Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion).
What they talked about: The QuakeCon 2010 panel kicked off with a look back at the evolution of the gaming industry, starting with the veteran Hooper talking about how quickly things can change in a week, much less over the course of a career. When he started, there was a garage band mentality about the business, and one person could handle absolutely everything, from map design to sound effects.
Alderman echoed that sentiment, likening games to the movie industry. As games have grown, the tasks have become increasingly specialized. Big games today require teams of people with a laser focus on their own area of expertise working together.
While the design duties are more specialized now, they still have to work with other parts of the development team and often boast a wide variety of skills. Hooper said some designers at id are close to environmental artists, while others have skill sets closer to programmers. However, he stressed that every studio can handle the assignment of duties differently. All members of the panel stressed the need for communication, collaboration, and cohesion.
That can be particularly difficult, Burgess said, because so many designers come from a modding background where they are used to having complete control over their projects. Different viewpoints on the team can be helpful, but that stops being beneficial when it affects the end game and players see that different levels have different "personalities" behind them.
Even for the best designers, Hooper said there's always something to learn from peers. He said the developers on the panel all share a passion for design that was almost ego driven in a way. As a creator, Hooper said he wants to create worlds that people want to inhabit, explore, and experience. That's the same whether a designer is professionally employed or working on a custom level for Fallout. Hooper said content editors are still a great way for aspiring designers to get their start, and the experience is something he looks at frequently when hiring at id Software.
Burgess said people have very different ideas about what level design is because so much of it is based on intuition. When people try to apply specific rules to what makes a good level great, he said it can rob the craft of its "special sauce."
The panelists also talked about some of their favorite games from a design perspective. Burgess talked about Dark Forces, specifically the level Narshatta, and how in one part, the game deprived players of ammo to encourage them to become adept with ammo-less weapons.
Alphonso said he was inspired to get into level design by a pair of deathmatch maps from the original Quake. He had been in college on a computer programming track but switched majors and started pursuing design after nearly failing out because he was playing too much.
Alderman echoed both Alphonso's love for the original Quake deathmatch levels, as well as the scholastic troubles caused by gaming. He also talked about Counter-Strike levels Dust and Office and how perfectly tuned they are to the game. You can't play them in Quake or other games and expect them to work the same way.
Hooper talked about the drawbacks and benefits of working with a new intellectual property for Rage. It's liberating being able to create something new, he said, but there's also something special about working on something with an existing fan base that's passionate about the franchise. Burgess said he didn't have much experience working with new IPs, but he's enjoyed the limitations of working with someone else's brand, adding that it fosters a tremendous respect for the efforts of those who came before.
Burgess said whatever the project, the first thing to consider is the world the game exists in. That's the primary character of the game, and he lets decisions on the rest of the design flow from what works for the world. Still, the process of creating is so fluid that he said designers need to be open to following different threads that come up in the middle of a project. Sometimes they won't end up where Burgess originally expected, but he said it frequently produces something that works just as well or an idea to be squirreled away for the future.
"If you have a blueprint, that's probably a recipe for disaster," Hooper agreed. "You really do have to let things spontaneously combust here."
The panel was in similar agreement about fighting a perfectionist streak. Alphonso and Burgess both stressed that nobody is ever perfectly happy with his or her work because there's always something that can be improved in some way. Despite that, they need to set up boundaries and learn to accept when a level is close enough that they can move on to the next issue.
While Hooper and Alphonso are both lead designers, neither does much level creation. Alphonso said he tried creating levels and acting as lead designer for one project, and it nearly killed him. Since then, he's focused on the lead design duties. Hooper noted that the lead isn't necessarily the best level designer on the team because the skill sets of management and creation aren't always overlapping.
Another duty for the lead designer is to figure out what's going to give the most bang for the developer's buck. When he first started as lead designer on Brink in March, he said he cut about 50 things from the game because the features weren't making the game better in his opinion, and the team needed time to polish and iterate the rest of the game.
Quote: "Basically it's just so subjective; we throw a lot of s*** at the wall and see what sticks."--Burgess, on the art of great design.
Takeaway: Being a designer isn't an easy or straightforward job. It's a constantly changing and creatively challenging job dependent on inspiration and passion, and there's not always a right answer to any given problem.