Okay, Aduline succeeded in forcing me to write a few lines about level design. Since Yamato introduced the editor we use at Ankama in a previous post, I’m not going to go over that again.

I’m going to try to make an exhaustive list of everything the mystic title “level designer” encapsulates.

Stage one: map creation.

Be it for an MMO an FPS or an RTS (or any game for that matter), maps and what happens on them is conceived at the beginning of the process by the game designers (Tanuki-sempai must have spoken about them already. If not, he’d better hurry). Level designers then closely study these details, which are accurate enough to give a general image of the area and of what the game designer wants. The first thing to do is to make a list of any graphical elements, which are then given to the lead graphic artist in order to ensure that all ‘Pics’ will be ready before the creation of the map.

With a sufficient foundation of pictures, construction begins. The first phase is straightforward, but it takes some time. The (magnificent) pictures that were provided by the (talented) graphic artists are positioned coherently. The most basic images are those that make up the terrain, but the process quickly gets complicated when we move onto buildings, some of which require one week. The second phase concerns having the maps checked by the game designer(s) and the graphic artist(s) for aesthetic touch-ups.

The world begins to take shape but the level designer isn’t out of the woods yet! After this preparatory work, we are left with a blank map, which is pretty, but void of any game play. A nice picture, but a useless one. The aesthetic touch-ups continue with the addition of shadow and shade. Since Wakfu is not in 3D, all those shadows are not automatically projected, but have to be individually placed by the nimble, overworked hands of the level designer (it’s a job for ants, this one).

Every tree, every rock, every house, every house’s shadow and any deterioration to houses have to be positioned by hand.

Stage two: dynamic elements.

The scene is now a little prettier. But as you might have guessed, there are a good number of elements that still have to be added. You’d be right! Next, the particles (moving graphic elements such as insects, light or fish under water).

This will make the picture less static and a lot more enjoyable. This part of the process is done with another tool. Since the particles (which we call APS here) are generic, they must be adapted and placed on the maps manually. It’s exacting work.

Stage three: sounds.

The scene is finally complete. Visually! In order to perfect the player’s immersion in the world, however, we’re now going to add some sounds and music. What should players hear when they go into this Inn on walk near that waterfall? What should the background music be when players step into a boss chamber? Level designers have to answer all these questions and accordingly ‘position’ sounds (with hearing distances, frequency of repetition, volume etc.) on maps.

Stage four:Genesis.

Now that we’ve created a world, we have to breathe life into it. The first task is to position the elements that players will interact with most frequently. That means resources and monsters. If you’ve been following the first principles of Wakfu, you’ll know that all we have to do is position monsters and resources, because the world will then evolve according to the actions of players (that means you, reader, and future player).

The positioning process can be fairly quick because it concerns “generic zones” of resources. All that remains after that is to correctly manage the frequency at which elements appear and in which quantities etc. On the other hand, there are particular areas where all resources and monsters are completely controlled. In these cases, monsters and resources are positioned by hand.

Stage five: evolution.

So life is now present in our world, and we have a good idea of what it’s going to look like. But not all monsters and resources are completely passive. These rare intelligences react to the actions of players. Monsters, resources and other elements therefore have to be scripted. Script is a simple programming language which allows particular elements which are independent of the game motor to be managed.The possibilities are therefore enormous. Every element that makes up the world (such as creatures, interactive objects, sounds and lights) can be scripted.

Stage six: Scripting.

At this stage, we have a game that more or less holds its own. Granted, it still resembles a “hack and slash” like Diablo more than an MMORPG and since Wakfu will be an MMO we’ll have to add a few touches to set it apart from the other power gamer games where what matters most is the size of your “sword”. What I’m talking about is the quests or missions, what we call the challenges, which involves giving players (and their characters) more or less complex or difficult objectives, thereby taking them through the world in which they evolve. These challenges may have several themes: commerce, combat, exploration, dialogue etc…

These generic themes are composed of sub-categories which culminate in the primary objective of each of the missions. For example in commerce quests, players will be asked to plant, harvest, transport and sell resources. Rewards will then be accorded to players when they complete missions. So not only does the level designer have to come up with missions, dialogues, objectives and rewards, but also the monsters, objects (interactive or otherwise) which will form the substance of the missions. All this has to be scripted in minute detail. This phase is what will earn an MMO it’s stripes (one each for R, P and G!) because this is exactly what will involve the players in the roles they have chosen for their characters and in this way, they will become immersed in the world of the game.

Stage seven: completion and follow-up.

By now the (exhausted) level designer has constructed the maps, positioned the pictures, houses, sounds, particles shadow and shade. Monsters and resources have been put in place, bosses and dungeons scripted. Hundreds of missions have been written and scripted. But the torture will soon be at an end because all that has been created will soon be placed into the bosom of the world at large.

This stage consists mostly of testing the creations in order to weed out bugs, possible loopholes for cheaters, spelling mistakes and other errors that spoil the gaming experience. Then all that remains is to follow-up all this once the testers (before the official release) or the players (through the forums and Support) have given feedback.

Well those of you who haven’t fallen asleep by now might have a better idea of what it’s like to work as a level designer. Now they can put others to sleep with the news that you have to be very patient and indulgent for this protracted and exacting job, and that although it’s not as straightforward as you may have thought, it’s all the more enriching for that. I might as well take this chance to tell you that we’re looking for level designers (with experience in the area).

Go here for details: I’ve nothing much else to say really.

Just that we’re in the Chinese year of the rat. I like rats!

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