Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Talking Level Design with Samuel Dassler

I happened to bump into Samuel Dassler on Imgur, where he posted this thread about his time at DigiPen. He imparted a few tidbits of wisdom in the post, and I thought he'd be an interesting person to talk to.  He recently worked on a game called Mekazoo, which you can find on Steam, Xbox Live, and Playstation Network.

ddrfr33k: I noticed you mentioned that most people don't really understand what game designers do. Could you elaborate on the process you mentioned in taking the art and the code and bringing it together? How does that process work? What tools do you use?

Sam: I kind of think of programming-art-design as three points of a triangle.  On the bottom you have programmers who make functionality. On the other side you have artists making assets.  The top of the pyramid is design, which takes the functionality and the assets and combines it together to create 'content'.

It's like playing with Lego pieces. You don't build the Lego pieces yourself, you put the Lego pieces together after they'd already been manufactured. Designers being at the top of the pyramids doesn't mean they are above programmers or artists of course, but kind of the opposite: designers need artists and programmers or they have nothing to work with. It's also a cyclical, iterative thing as well. The programing and art is constantly informed by design, and the design has to work around limitations of the programming or art.  In my mind all three things have to work together, so no one discipline is less or more important than the others.

ddr: How much of your work involves meeting with the programming and art teams?
Sam: My job the past three years at the Good Mood Creators was almost constantly talking with the other teams.

ddr: How hands-on is your position with regards to creating the actual product?
Sam: We were a pretty small team so very hands-on. I even wrote some gameplay scripts if they were needed and the devs were busy.

But in general, the design is the position that puts together the actual product in my mind.  It's like when a big Hollywood movie is being made and everybody talks about the director or the cinematographer or the actors, but the film editor is the guy who actually makes 'the movie'.  A film editor is only as good as the footage the crew delivers, so a designer can only be as good as the assets and functionality the artists and devs deliver.  This gets into the playtesting part because the actual building of the game is like 20%. Playtesting is 80% of a designers job.

If you asked for a single description of what a designer 'does', in my opinion it's this: 'A designer's job is to put something together as quickly as possible so they can watch people tear it apart. Then they know how to make it better when they rebuild it.' Each time that loop happens, there are less and less things that can be done to make it better. Once there is nothing left to add or take away to improve it, then a designer's work is finally done.

ddr: It almost sounds like there's a significant amount of project management that goes into coordinating all the surrounding pieces. Is that accurate?
Sam: That what producers do.  The biggest problem with every single designer is we always overscope. Always.  Somebody needs to keep us in check.

ddr: Learning how to rein in your ambitions to meet the time constraints is a true art.
Sam: There's two schools of thought: One way is planning really small and expanding, the other is starting big and cutting way down. I prefer #1 myself.

ddr: Any fun/humorous stories about realizing your scope was too ambitious?
Sam: Those kinds of stories are never fun or humorous. They're usually soul-crushing and depressing.

ddr: Touche.
Sam: However, realizing your scope is too large early enough can get you thinking in a totally different direction and you could discover something completely new but way better. So it's not all bad all the time.

ddr: I take it there was a life experience that taught you this?
Sam: Unfortunately, Mekazoo is selling poorly, so yeah. I'm super proud if it but it simply took too much time and cost too much money.  Had we maybe managed the scope better it might have worked out better.

ddr: They say hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back, what aspects of the design process would you have changed, and what would you keep the same?
Sam: There's a lot of things that could have been changed. I think the main thing is we brought artists on too soon. I was designing levels for characters that hadn't been programmed yet.  The first year should have been all about moving capsules around a white scene with a bunch of obstacles, and tweaking them until each character controlled perfectly. Then we could have brought on designers and artists. It's hard to design around a character that is constantly being rewritten.

ddr: Kind of a "Cart before the horse" situation.
Sam: Yeah. Another mistake we made was showing the game off too soon.  Both things happened because we always thought we were 'almost done'.

ddr: To a degree, it gives you a new appreciation for Blizzard's "we'll show it when we're ready" approach.
Sam: You can take it that too far though. *cough*Half-Life 3*cough*

ddr: To those that want to go into the industry, what advice can you give to that aspect? Is there a specific time that "feels right?"
Sam: You know how magazines give 10's meaning the game is 'perfect'?

ddr: Yeah
Sam: I've come to realize that the idea of a game (or anything) being perfect is completely is completely different for each thing.

ddr: How so?
Sam: Like there is no universal 10 that you can give each game.  So people complain that game X got a lower score than game Y for doing the same thing.  So from what I can tell, there is no true way to make a 'flawless' game.  I think the closest that a game can get to 'perfect' is the point where adding or removing things is no longer really feasible.  Or doesn't really make the game better anymore.  Sure, you could add multiplayer to a game, but it doesn't really make it better.  If you've played Spec Ops: The Line, you'll know what I'm talking about. That game had an amazing single player mode, but the multiplayer was a tacked on extra that the publisher demanded.

ddr: Yeager studios could tell you all about that with Speed Ops The Line. Said the multiplayer was a "cancerous tumor."
Sam: It's my single favorite game, from a narrative stand-point. Narrowly beating out Dragon Quest V.

ddr: I know some studios use Art Bibles religiously, and wizards of the coast shares card art backstory every now and again that's rather fascinating. When designing Mekazoo, did you guys use a style guide or art Bible?
Sam: There was a lot of concept art and our environment team did follow a style guide yeah. There was a game design document as well but it wasn't updated very often, which is usually the case. The game design usually changes so fast keeping up the documentation is impossible.

ddr: What sort of details went into your style guide?
Sam: It was mostly stuff like color palettes and things. Typical stuff.  Our game wasn't heavy on narrative so we didn't have to keep a bunch of character backstories consistent or anything.

ddr: That definitely helps. With something more narrative heavy, I could see it being much more important.
Sam: We had a forest, caverns, a gulch, a neon city, and a factory. But they all looked like the ''Mekazoo style' so they worked together. But it's not like we knew exactly the dimensions of the city relative to the entire game world or anything. We were able to get a way with a lot because once you have robot animals jumping around, it doesn't really matter if something 'doesn't make sense.'  That's really what design is all about: figuring out what works or what doesn't for your game.

ddr: When designing characters, how many hands are involved? Who usually gets involved when?
Sam: This is where the terminology gets murky because 'designing characters' usually means the art process. And that is usually one person doing a bunch of concepts until whoever is in charge finds the best one.

ddr: What about gameplay mechanics and how the character fits with the rest of the team? Or do you consider that a different part of the whole process?
Sam: Well really the initial 'design' is the creative director or vision holder or whoever thinking of what kind of character they want. But depending how big the studio is, the narrative design, gameplay design, and art design could be done by all different people. In our case apart from our concept art person, it was all the two guys in charge who thought of each character and then planned out how they would play, and then tweaked them once they were in the game to feel right. I was the level designer, so I didn't have as much to do with that process other than throwing out some feedback.

ddr: When designing levels, what was your preferred process? Did you have something in mind when starting a level? Or did you just wing it? Maybe a bit of both?
Sam: The first thing I did was come up with a standardized design process. This involved two things: creating a hierarchy of objects that every scene used, and creating a production pipeline. The scene hierarchy was like layers in Maya or 3DS Max. It was to group objects together so it's easy to find something in a scene. The production pipeline worked like this: when the initial prototype of the level was being created, the level was called X_Y_greybox. Once the prototype was ready for testing, I duplicated the scene and called it X_Y_testing.

ddr: So you worked primarily in 3D Space?
Sam: We used Unity so it was all 3d space.

Once the testing was sufficient to begin arting, we duplicated the scene again and called it X_Y_Arting. The actually making of the level was informed by the world that level was part of. A level in the caverns overworld for instance, needed some kind of cave theme. But for the most part the level design was just coming up with some crazy level concept, putting it together, and testing it. My favorite level to make were 4_1 and 4_2, the first two neon city levels. 4_1 is all about riding the back of trains, and 4_2 was about dodging cars.

ddr: Wow, that's got to be a lot of fun to make! How long did that take to design and tweak?
Sam: Most initial level prototypes only took a week or so, but the testing and arting process was years long.  It's not like once the level went into testing or even arting the design never changed. Some levels in the final game are completely unrecognizable to their greybox origins. Some levels changed worlds even. The level that is now the second gulch level used to be the final cave level. Those switches all happened before the art starting going into the levels though. It was fun but don't forget all the heartbreak that comes with watching your 'genius level ideas' completely fall apart because playtesters can't get it, so you have to change it. But after a while you accept that is part of the process and don't get too attached to your levels.

ddr: You can lead a man to reason, but you can't make him think. If the puzzle is too difficult, sometimes it has to go.
Sam: Or sometimes your idea just isn't as fun or engaging as you thought it was. It happens.  We ended up cutting quite a few levels. Some were because there simply wasn't enough time to finish them, others were because the level just wasn't very good.

ddr Have you had a chance to play around with Super Mario Maker?  I'm curious to know what you think of it as a level editor.
Sam:I was drooling over that game since the first time it was revealed. I made 8 levels for it. I haven't touched it in a while but I always think about going back to it. I think it's an amazing tool. First off it's so incredibly easy to use, and it's actually fun.  The portal 2 editor is like that too.  Sure it's missing some functionality that the 'real' Mario games have, but it makes up for that by how accessible it is. The level sharing feature are a bit obnoxious to deal with though.

ddr: Indeed. Some people are definitely better at making levels than others.
Sam: The mark of a truly great designer is somebody who can making fun despite limitations. The first Mario Maker level I made only used pipes, trampolines, and an invisibility star and it rules.

ddr: That's awesome! What was the reception?
Sam: I was on the r/MarioMaker subreddit for a while. most people seemed to like it, but after watching some people play it I realized most people struggled to figure it out. I actually made an updated version but I never submitted it. For a while it was my most popular level but I think now another level I made called 'The Thinking Man's Castle' is the most popular of mine. It's a castle level that is more about solving puzzles than platforming.

(ddrfr33k's note:  Sam shared a few level codes with me.  You can see them below:)

Catch A Bouncing Star: 8750-0000-0025-3F21

The Thinking Man's Castle: 9966-0000-0048-E336

The Floor Is Koopas!: 4F55-0000-006A-AB45

Sam: I was planning [The Floor is Koopas!] out for a year before the game even came out. That's how much I was anticipating that game. I test my stuff a ton before submitting it if it's a thing like Mario Maker or Portal 2 because once it's out, it's final. I didn't test Mekazoo that much because we always had a constant stream of playtesters - As long as it didn't have a glaring error, like a spot where you could fall off the level or something.  I mean, I didn't test my own levels that much before beginning playtesting. You are your own worst judge of your work, as they say...

ddr: I believe it. You tend to need someone else to catch the things you miss. It's why authors have editors
Sam: And just like popular authors who get veto power of their editors so their books become massive, incomprehensible messes, a designer who trusts themselves over playtesting that will start running into trouble.
ddr: Wise words. What other wisdom can you impart to level designers?
Sam: Think really hard about being a programmer or artist instead. It'll be way easier to find a job and you'll get paid a lot more. Design can't be something you want to do. It needs to be something you HAVE to do. For those who know Design is their destiny, the best advice I can give is the standard design mantra: Fail Faster. Build whatever you can as fast as you can and playtest as much as you can. Keep what works, throw out what doesn't. Don't get too attached to any particular design or idea. Just like how film directors have to cut their favorite scene, A Level Designer is going to cut their favorite level at some point.
ddr: So don't become too attached, because the sacred cow will eventually get slaughtered?
Sam: It's more like it wasn't a sacred cow in the first place.

ddr: What tools have you used besides unity and Mario maker for level design? Have you ever played around with other level editors?
Sam: Unreal, Game Maker. Portal 2 has a really nice editor as well. Basically any game with a level editor is fair game. I even put my best Portal 2 level on my resume sometimes.  If you know how to design a level well it doesn't matter what tool you use.

ddr: In your opinion, what makes the levels you really enjoy pop? What general concepts are the most fun to implement to you?
Sam: I think the thing that makes levels, and games as a whole, really come together is that they have a natural progression that feels consistent and holistic. A level that has a couple of puzzles or obstacles that are completely unrelated to each other scattered around usually feels disjointed.  I like making levels that have a flow to them, like the kind of level where if you hit the buttons just right, you'll blaze through it in a cool way. Levels that you can get through without touching the ground are always fun to make. They aren't always fun to play though.

ddr: What's your take on "Nintendo hard" levels? The ones where the slightest misstep leads to instant death, but judicious practice can get you thorough it?
Sam: Not a fan. There is a couple of reasons levels used to be made that way. 1) They were arcade games that were super hard so people kept dying and had to put in more money. 2) Level design wasn't really a thing at that point, because games were usually made by one guy. 3) It made comparatively short games seem longer.  I personally hate games that you have to die over and over to get through it, which is why I've never been into Dark Souls. But some people love that. I'm sure some people think Mekazoo levels are Nintendo hard.

ddr: It all depends on the person, I suppose...
Sam: That's another reason you can't please everybody.  Not everybody wants the same thing.

ddr: More on that point, what do you do to reconcile the differences of desires amongst your customers? Is there anything you can do to compromise? Or do you look at it in terms of scope and vision?
Sam: I don't think that's the way to go. I think finding a niche is a better way. Otherwise you get these generic, mass-appeal games that are trying to be everything, so they end up doing nothing that well.

ddr: Final question: Are there any levels or chapters/scenes in video games that stand out to you as good level design?
Sam: Most of Half-life 2 but especially the first scenario when you're escaping City 17. It's really good at direction you in the right direction and building tension.
All of Portal 1.
The first Halo I admire because they reused the entire game going out as well.

ddr: What do you mean by reused for halo?
Sam: The first half of the campaign is going further into the Halo, and the second half is going back out of the same maps but in different ways. Also, Castlevania Symphony of the Night is pretty genius that the entire castle was designed to work upside down.

ddr: Ah. So the concept of backtracking after the fact.
Sam: Not backtracking in general, but making back tracking as interesting as going through it the first time.  Again with half-life 2, but that one part you go across the bridge, but then come back on the scaffolding the way back.

ddr: So it's less about the backtracking and more about going back and discovering new content in the same space.
Sam: Yeah. Straight backtracking is boring so you gotta do something to make it feel new.  There's a level in Halo 4 where you're going through this base and always see a giant mech armor, then the once you reach the armor, you get to smash through where you've already been with it. Best level of that game.

ddr: And lastly, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, I really appreciate it!
Sam: Yeah it was fun. Thanks for being interested.

I want to thank Sam again for taking the time to talk with me over the Thanksgiving weekend, and the enjoyable conversation.  You can visit Sam's website here, and be sure to check out Mekazoo on the PS4, Xbox One, and on Steam.

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