The Hows and Whys of Level Design Review
Books are one of the best ways to gain incite and knowledge into an industry, especially the graphic industries. Books can provide an unbiased view on the workings of the subject at hand from a professional of the industry. No need to be force fed out-dated techniques by tutors when you can get it at your own leisure from a professional who has had years of experience in the field. Level Design is one area of expertise that is usually understated in education and the only books on the market are for beginners, which pretty much only tell you what level design is, which we already know. Normally learning Level Design has been about following tutorials, practise and being part of a community such as Interlopers. That can only get you so far, you can learn a great deal from getting into the industry and experiencing it for yourself, even joining a mod team is a good idea to improve your skills. Still, these are both hard things to accomplish so every last resource you can harvest will speed up the process by improving yourself. One of the lacking ingredients that could help you immensely would be a decent book on the subject, that is, if you enjoy reading.
The only book I've found to be worthy of use is a book named "The Hows and Whys of Level Design" by one Sjoerd "Hourences" De Jong. This book isn't another tutorial on how to create a virtual room but it explains what makes said virtual room part of the great experience the game should be for the player. The book is completely universal because it doesn't explain how to use certain tools in certain programs but it explains the effects that can shape the user experience. Now, when I say effects I don't mean particle effects or anything similar I mean the affect that the environment has on the player, this can be a audio-visual affair or even a gameplay. In essence it is a book full of the most incredibly useful tips for all situations, allowing the reader to really understand the depths of level design.
The author, "Hourences" is a 23 year old environment artist and level designer, he has been participating in game development for over six years, four of which are professional work for companies in which he has helped produce well acclaimed games such as Unreal Tournament 2004, Killzone and Shellshock nam 67. He has also won multiple awards for the "Make Something Unreal" competitions including first place, thoughout the entire contest he received more nominations and prizes then any other submitter. He produced two of the most played maps for Unreal Tournament 2004, Torlan and Rankin. In short, this dude knows his shit!
Upon receiving the book you will instantly notice that it is a rather small book. Hourences has stated that because he produces the book himself (or at least something like that) he has had to try to use as little amount of paper as possible, to keep the costs down. Don't worry though, to achieve this he just used a smaller font, you won't be missing anything because of it. The book is extremely shiny and very well styled which looks great on my, and hopefully your shelf.
The book is split into a number of different chapters, the first being "Design". This chapter firstly shows you how to use a check-list to deem if an idea or project is plausible. Measuring factoids such as the purpose or time limit of the project against each other you can find out if there is any problems with the general idea of the level. Next up he teaches you how to create a floorplan and the uses of it to help improve your level. He also moves on to talk about beginners trouble and has an in-depth discussion about originality, and more. Effectively this section provides a very informative incite to many of the questions you should ask yourself before you actually start producing a level. It also shows you some techniques to foresee problems and correct them before they come a larger problem later on in production. An extremely important skillset that is very useful to master.
The next section is "Gameplay", this section really explains what makes a level fun to play. We all know that level design is where it all pulls together and it is important for a level to be fun to play and stand out. Hourences talks about Single Player and Multi-Player gameplay, how they differ from each other and the requirements for each. He also separates the core gameplay from the map gameplay, teaches you the differences between them and how you can promote the core gameplay through your level with topics such as height variance and weapon placement. Hourences has taken a small section of this chapter of the book and uploaded it onto his website as a free example.
The meat of the book is the "Audio-Visual" chapter which is the largest chapter within those two glossy pages they call the covers. This chapter covers everything that makes the level look and sound spectacular. Hourences covers some basic principles such as composition and weight & balance but also goes extremely in-depth in areas which should be of great interest to most of you. Within the Audio-Visual chapter are a number of different sub-sections, the first of which discusses the "Geometry and Architecture" of a level, teaching you about that different kind of shapes that are used to create a level and how they can be used to create make things more interesting. He discusses many different methods and means to use the geometry and architecture to create a more interesting and immersive environment.
Another sub-section is dedicated to "Terrain and Natural Landscape", this section discusses the structuring of an exterior environment as well as the texturing process for it and how to make items fit and become part of the terrain ultimately creating a more believable experience. Another sub-section is dedicated to the "Textures and Materials" of the level. It talks about selecting a colour pallet for the level and how to immerse the player due to good texture choices. It also covers some of the common mistakes and pitfalls that artists usually find themselves falling into regarding texturing. The next sub-section; "Lighting" covers how light can be used to direct players and how it can also create feelings. Why talk about it though when Hourences has uploaded an example of the section, which you can read yourself.
The last two sub-sections of the Audio-Visual chapters are "Sound" and "Immersion and Atmosphere". The "Sound" sub-section talks about how a well rounded level is greatly supported by providing a very nice sound system to back it up. Hourences teaches you some advanced theory about sound which will become very useful to really giving that last piece of polish to an environment. In "Immersion and Atmosphere" Hourences discusses some of the many fine details that people miss that can break the illusion of the level. It covers how to keep people in the state of belief when they are playing your level and gives you tips on how to enhance the feeling further.
The last two chapters are very interesting pieces and makes the book worth buying by themselves. The first, "Level Examples" uses all the information that has been taught in the earlier chapters of this excellent book and shows how the knowledge was used in two levels that Hourences has created for Unreal Tournament 2004; Sae and Redkin. Hourences goes into great depth regarding the workings of his levels and it also shows you, the reader how the production flow of a level created by a professional studio works. The very last chapter is a group of five interviews that Hourences has prepared for the book. These are interviews of five different professionals within the gaming industry. Each person talks about a certain aspect relating to level design and it is a very interesting read to read the views of a large amount of professionals. Hourences then provides a final conclusion for the book.
I have not even scratched the surface of this one hundred and fifty two page book. So far this review has been lacking opinions, I wanted to cover what is actually within the book so you can decide for yourself if it is a worthy buy, that being said I haven't wrote about everything and there are many, many more pieces within the the book. Onto the opinions shall we?
This book is the absolute best of any level design books I have read, it isn't outdated, it isn't written by a wannabe and it isn't another guide to building a virtual room. It is a extremely well written piece of educational literature produced by somebody very much like us. Hourences began in the modding community and grew to become a professional, showing it's possible for all of us. The book is completely universal, Hourence is predominantly a Unreal Engine editor, but everything within this book can be used in Hammer and any other editor you can think of.
I don't think there are many, if any books on the market that look at level design in the way that Hourences has, he has given back to the community and has filled a surprisingly large hole in the market. To put it simply, if you only have enough money for one book this year, this is the book you must buy, seriously.
It gets a top mark rating of "AwesomeSauce" for it's extremely indepth and detailed information which has helped many level designers. I highly recommend this book.
By Sjoerd "Hourences" De Jong
By Stan Lindsey