Level Design and Research with Ted Halsted

Human Head
07 / 18 / 18
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This blog is guest-written by Ted Halsted, narrative director and one of the co-founders of Human Head Studios. Learn more about Ted and his work in his Head Count!

Level Design and Research

As a level designer, one of the most engaging aspects of my job involves research. This is where I get to dig into the real-world equivalent of the environments we’ll be developing for a game.  Regardless of the game’s genre, aesthetics, or time period, I find it helpful to develop an understanding of its environment by studying the closest real-world parallel. This understanding helps me make more informed decisions along the way, from the high level layout stages to set-dressing details.

Let’s say I’m working on a game that takes place in the future in the Future City of Mega-New Delhi. To make my future city convincing, I’ll want to learn something about the real New Delhi, not only how it looks, but how it functions.  When studying visual and functional components of real world locations and their often dizzying complexity, I find it helpful to ask basic questions that I learned in a detective story-writing class: who, what, when, where, how, and why?

  • What is X used for?
  • How was it made?
  • When was it built?
  • Why was it built in this particular location?

It helps to not only think about subjects as an engineer or architect, but also as a sociologist. Humans shape nearly every kind of location they come into contact with, in ways both obvious and subtle, with their needs for food, shelter, transportation, occupation, comfort, convenience, and much more.

It’s a game

If a particular setting is important to your game, and you want players to feel it; then the more thorough your research the more convincing your game world equivalent will become. This is not to suggest that the game environment you develop has to precisely match your research. You’re making a game, first and foremost. Your environment must serve the game’s mechanics.

I used to have to walk thirty miles backwards in the snow to get to school

When I illustrated comics years ago, getting my hands on quality visual reference was much more difficult than it is now. There were libraries and picture libraries that were often very limited. I relied upon published books (I was out of luck if my topic or setting wasn’t a popular one), museums (I’d go and sketch samurai armor, muskets, anything I needed), and sometimes film and television documentaries. Now the internet’s endless trove of location images is search word-driven one-stop shop. You can sail on three dimensional maps right into a city like Paris for a reliable look at its neighborhoods and the distances between its buildings, even the distances between the trash bins.

Sometimes, nothing beats actually visiting a location to take my own photos and measurements, where items like this were my best friend:

Handheld laser scanner (inexpensive)

Now, if you require nearly absolute authenticity, you can go with one of these:

Image result for artec spider 3d scanner

Artec Spider 3D Scanner (not inexpensive)

And I still like to sketch at the museum.

But that’s not how it’s ‘supposed’ to look…

Finally, there’s sometimes a visual gulf between what your research reveals about a location and how that location has been represented in popular media. In reality, New York City has very few alleys–dark and steamy or otherwise–though you wouldn’t know it from watching police procedurals and movies. You may have a creative need to represent things the way they are, or take them in your own direction. Just be aware that your audience may come to your game bearing popular (and often inaccurate) preconceptions.