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Interview: Chris Totten on What Makes a Great Video Game Level

Knowing how to design a great level is about balancing technical savvy with creativity and vision. Chris Totten is here to give those tools to level designers of all kinds. 

Chris chatted with GDC over a video call about his one-day GDC Masterclass, The Many Faces of Level Design, which is being held on December 10 from 9:00am to 5:00pm PT (12:00pm to 8:00pm ET). Chris talked with us about his background in architecture, why Dishonored's city of Dunwall is one of his favorite video game levels, and the most common mistake he catches level designers making.

Below is an edited, condensed version of our interview.


GDC Staff: You're back teaching a GDC Masterclass about leveling up level design, and I will say that nothing excites me more than a fabulous set piece. To you, what makes a great video game level? 

Chris Totten: It's interesting: I teach game development at a university, and one of the things that I try to tell all our students is that our first and foremost job is to make great experiences for players and—this isn’t my terminology, this is from a textbook by Tracy Fullerton: Be an advocate for the players.

I think with levels, the job of the level is really to conduct that player experience and package all of your game mechanics—everything that the game is—in such a way that the user gets the most out of what they’re able to do. Whether that be a cool set piece, or maybe that's the level that helps them find their way to something rewarding or a cool encounter. Or whether that level facilitates them being able to do whatever it is they're able to do but in the coolest way possible. 

GDC Staff: I remember when I first played "The Ashtray Maze" level in Control, my heart stopped. What is one of your favorite levels of the past few years and why? 

Chris: I really enjoyed the world of [Marvel's] Spider-Man. I haven't played the Miles Morales one yet, but I played the first Marvel's Spider-Man on PlayStation and I really loved the city design of that. I realize that's not a great concise answer, that's like a big open world. But I really enjoyed that because it was so easy to use that environment. I knew where I was at all times, I could roam it very freely. There was always something to do, something interesting to see. 

This is more than a few years old, but I love the Dishonored games. I think those are great. I love the design of those levels. Even [the city of] Dunwall from the first one I think is really fantastic, because you can go to so many places and really pick and choose what you do. You run into these cool combat opportunities to go, like, "Oh I'm going to have this herd of rats take out this guy instead of me taking out the guy."

GDC Staff: Do you remember the first game level you designed? 

Chris: The first ones I designed were when I was in architecture school, actually, and I was starting to see how architecture and level design were very similar. For my architecture thesis, I talked about level design. I compared game levels to real-world architecture to find the similar things they did spatially. And part of that thesis was designing little levels in the Source engine. 

GDC Staff: What would you say is the most important element in a level: where you're going, where you've been, or where you are? 

Chris: Oh man. I'm gonna say where you are, and the reason I'm going to say where you are is because what's really important in levels is thinking moment to moment. Thinking in terms of, "Okay, what information is in front of me right now, and how is that feeding my ability to make my next decision?" Because I think if it's hard to make your next decision, you start to lose the player a little bit. It's not like there has to be some flashy thing on the interface. Maybe in one eye-ful I can see a path up the mountain, or a castle in the distance, or something on fire? Or maybe I see all three of them and I'm deciding where to go, and each of those options implies very different things. Thinking about where the player is and what they're doing is very important. 

GDC Staff: What would you say is one of the most common mistakes you see level designers making? 

Chris: I think the biggest thing I see, especially with new designers, is they will start putting in artwork right away. I think that's a really tough mistake to make. Let's say you start building out a big impressive set piece, you use a big piece of environment art and you build your whole level out. It takes longer to make that level than it does to make it if you're doing "greyboxing," where you're building your level out of the default stuff in the game engine and it's just grey boxes. If you build it that way it's super fast, because you can make it really fast and then hand it to somebody and be like, "Hey play this," then they get horribly lost and you say, "Maybe my level wasn't that good. It's good I figured that out now before I put in all that nice art!"

What I see a lot of new designers do is they'll put in all the nice stuff first. They'll be like, "I have an idea for a level" and then they'll just make the whole thing. And then it's gorgeous and terrible. 

GDC Staff: Your masterclass is geared toward level designers of all kinds of games, from indie to AAA. How do you approach coaching each of them given their differing challenges? 

Chris: This is one of the weird things about level design. I remember 10 or 15 years ago, you'd see books on game design. I remember one—I'm not going to say it by name because I don't want anyone to go, "Hey Chris, why did you say that about my book?"—I remember seeing things where it would say, "Hey, what about level design?" And they'd say, "Level design is impossible to talk about because it changes game by game." And that is legitimately a challenge in talking about game design. Even the question we started the interview with was, "What's an element of great game design?" And a big part of that is, "What's the game?"

With level design, when you approach it for different people, you've got to embrace that it's different for everybody. Because you're right, a top-down 2D game is different from a platformer, and that's different from an immersive 3D sim, etc etc etc. But I also think that's one of the things that allows us to have a class like we have, where it's like, "Let's look at principles that we can see in all levels."

By focusing on universal concepts—rather than trying to be too specific based on any one genre or game type or whatever—by kind of thinking "What's the story of a person going through my level? What's the narrative that my level is expressing? How should encounters be spaced out?" Those are things that can stretch across genres. When you have a class like this, you can start to look at different tools that let you play with that rather than trying to stick to the particulars of 3D combat or something like that. When you get to that point, you should be in your game engine. But when you're starting out, you can make it in anything. And there are universals that you can hit that allow us to use whatever tool we want. 

GDC Staff: What is the benefit of having the attendees practice level design in a small class environment, as opposed to just giving them the instruction?

Chris: I was telling my students about this today, actually. One of the cool things when you do stuff in a group is you're building group knowledge and you're comparing and contrasting your works together, and you can get ideas from each other. So you're building a communal body of knowledge, rather than just, "Hey it's me in my room with a YouTube video." When you're sharing it, you can have that back and forth. And if you have an indie [designer] that's doing a 2D game, or you have a AAA person doing that big 3D immersive sim, they're going to approach it from a different perspective and those perspectives can start to inform each other. You start to see the challenge and the question from different points of view, and I think that's really cool.

Be sure to head to GDC Masterclass for more information on Chris's The Many Faces of Level Design course, which runs December 10. Keep in mind this course is happening virtually, not in person. 

For more information on GDC 2022 visit the show’s official website, and be sure to subscribe to regular updates via FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and RSS.

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