5 Years of Level Design in a Day
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
In preparing for the 5th edition of Level Design in a Day, I was asked by the amazingly wonderful Gamasutra staff to write up a few thoughts on our favorite moments and memories from the past 5 years. Below is a quick trip down memory lane that I hope you folks will enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing.
For the past 5 years, the Level Design in a Day tutorial has been the highlight of GDC for me. From the uncertainty and adventure of our first run, to the dozens of amazing talks over the years, to the small moments that most people don’t notice, I’ve assembled a small treasure trove of great memories from this experience. Here are just a few highlights:
A Big, Empty Room
The first year of Level Design in a Day was a fairly harrowing experience. After months of working hard to determine the format, conventions, and collective voice of the 8-hour tutorial, we had no idea whether our efforts would result in a packed house or an empty hall. I’ll never forget the early morning of the opening Monday of GDC 2010. Hungover from nervous drinking and planning late into the previous night, I got to Moscone West way too early and spent way too much time staring at an endless sea of empty chairs; a vast sea of naysaying furniture, each occupant-less cushion doubting the viability of our endeavor.
We posted pictures of the huge, empty room to Twitter, huddled together and made comfortingly tense jokes about fire codes and attendance records and there being more presenters than attendees. As the clock ticked towards go time, a few attendees trickled in. With 5 minutes to go, a mere sprinkling of filled seats. The feeling of despair was palpable; overwhelming. I was crushed. I think we all were.
A funny thing happened on the way to the forum though. I distinctly remember looking up at a stomach-turningly empty room, looking down to my notes, and then looking back up to see the room a quarter filled, with a seemingly endless stream of enthusiastic colleagues coming through the door!
With jubilant looks between us, we watched in a combination of shock and satisfaction as the room hit half full, three-quarters full, and finally 100% full in rapid succession. It wasn’t until after the tutorial started that we realized the room was standing room only, with many attendees spending over 6 hours sitting, laying, or otherwise creatively occupying the fringes of the room.
From that moment on, the team absolutely crushed their presentations and Level Design in a Day was on its way to what it is today. It’s hard to describe the range of emotions present that day, but it’s not hard to remember the feeling of pure joy that so many came out to support, learn, and take part in this adventure with us.
Ed’s Happy Slides
I don’t have 1024 words to describe how great Ed’s 2011 presentation was, but it was truly outstanding. Inspired by the great Bob Ross (both in dress and in drawing style), Ed exhibited epic penmanship in hand-drawing all of his slides, including individual bullets, slide transitions and producer-worthy charts. In addition to being an oh-so-cool display of creative presenting, his talk on design documentation provided tons of great takeaways that I use to this day.
When Ed pitched the idea to us, we all thought he was crazy. Naturally we goaded him on, because we wanted to either see the result of Ed’s famed doodles pushed to the limit or the inky explosion of his eventual demise, but it turns out Ed had it all in hand. This session remains one of the most memorable talks I’ve ever attended, much less played a small part in.
For the past few years, we’ve done a “Mock Interview” session over lunch where we review portfolios and conduct hypothetical interviews with brave and daring session attendees. We envisioned this session as more of a treatise on interview tactics and portfolio best practices than an actual set of interviews.
With most portfolio review processes, most of the content reviewed is of average quality, with a few exceptional outliers. In this case, perhaps due to the public, high-profile nature of the portfolio review process, only the most prepared job-seekers braved the interview panel to submit portfolios. Accordingly, the quality bar was outstanding.
All that said, there was one portfolio and applicant that was truly exceptional.
In order to protect the innocent, we’ll change the names of the parties to secret, inedcipherable code names. So, an individual who we’ll refer to as Marcus Fenix stepped up to the microphone, and we loaded his portfolio. While most portfolios being loaded elicits a few murmurs of approval, the reaction of the crowd to this one was more akin to the little green dudes from Toy Story reacting to Buzz Lightyear.
“OoooooooOOOOOOooooooooooo…” (to paraphrase).
As we brought the portfolio review session to a close, we all noticed Marcus Fenix talking to one of our panelists. We’ll call him Jazz Jackrabbit. What we assumed was standard GDC networking actually turned into an interview onsite at Mega Epicgames (remember, secret code names) and eventually a realization of Marcus Fenix’ ultimate dream job.
Not only was it wonderful to find out our little mock interview turned into the realization of a lifelong ambition for one attendee, but it makes our future mock interviews even more exciting. Who knows? Maybe the next Mega Epicgames level designer is reading this article RIGHT NOW!
Matt Worch Blows Everyone’s Mind
Matt keeps us on our toes.
Every year, without fail, he suffers a catastrophic hardware failure or act of god that completely and thoroughly wipes out his presentation mere days away from the conference. Yet, every year, Matt gives amazing, best-of-class talks, almost always without the benefit of preparation time, practice, or sleep of any kind.
Level Design in a Day 2012 was no different. 24 hours before the show, all slides are gone. He spent most of the day rewriting slides on-stage at GDC and then proceeded to explode the brains of everyone in attendance with a magnificent opus of interactive storytelling. Literally starting from the beginning of human history, building through every age and paradigm of human communication, Matt tied it all together in one jaw-droppingly-epic series of revelations that relate perfectly to the challenges facing modern game designers in a very real, very applicable way.
This brief synopsis can’t do the talk justice. Go to the GDC Vault and look up “Talking to the Player – How Cultural Currents Shape Game and Level Design". It’s some heady material, but absolutely worth digesting in its entirety.
It’s so good, I’m considering trashing my laptop the night before GDC.
Quite simply, I just didn’t want Zach Wilson’s “50 Questions to Ask Yourself When Your Level Sucks” to end. It was just too good; too relevant. The elegance and simplicity of Zach's format was brilliant and each individual point resonated with the audience enough to prompt spontaneous synchronized head-bobbing, quantized approval grunting, and laugh-track-level belly laughter.
We’ve all had that moment. You follow the design. You follow the best practices. You use every trick you’ve got and your level is just…bleh. In the same way that Jesse Schell’s Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses provides dozens of useful lenses to pull a game out of that stall, Zach’s presentation provides the same for level design…plus lols.
Joel and Nate’s Kit-Building Talk
While lacking in signature moments, dramatic reveals, or well-timed punchlines (well, maybe there were a few) Joel and Nate’s incredibly detailed talk on the kit-building method used in Skyrim was a jaw-dropper in its own right. From the high level strategy and inspiration for the kit system to an eye-opening level of integration detail, Joel and Nate catalogued – in entertaining fashion – the level and art pipeline for creating the vast worlds of the latest entry in the Elder Scrolls series.
The talk is available on GDC Vault and is worth a look for anyone working on any sort of open-world or large scale combat game.
On the high level/aspirational side, EA’s Seth Marinello leads off the program with his talk on overcoming “writers block” for level designers while 2K’s Matt Worch closes the day of lectures with his talk on Meaingful Choices. On the implementation and details side, talks on Iterative Level Design from Bethesda Softwork’s Joel Burgess and Level Design Analytics from Epic’s Jim Brown highlight the program. New to the LDIAD crew, Naughty Dog’s Elisabetta Silli brings us a fascinating talk on her role in the creation of The Last of Us (I’m stupid excited for this one!). Throw in our always entertaining portfolio review and drinks after the session and it’s shaping up to be another fantastic year.
As the coordinator and emcee of this merry band of geniuses, I get the distinct pleasure of previewing the talks as they’re going through final iterations. As in past years, we experienced the high of getting accepted into GDC (that’s an email notification that never gets old!), the overwhelming sense of despair when progress is slow and talks aren’t coming together right, and the rising tide of feel-goods from seeing the final product come together. Having seen the latest iterations of the talks, I promise you this: Level Design in a Day 2014 is going to be the best session we’ve ever done.
See you on Tuesday!