Wednesday, December 28, 2011

General level design theory

The title of the page seems more appropriate for a high level graphic engine but what designers are trying to achieve since decades also applies to the aging goldsrc engine.

In this tutorial, I will show you how color affects the players and how to use color correction effectively. I will also show you how to make your level meaningful to the players, how every single brush in your level affects the players.

Color correction
Color correction is a post processing effect. When you play a game, the graphic card churns out frames at an average of 60 per second. Whatever effect applied after this is know as post process. Color correction acts as a overlay and although there is no post processing effect in goldsrc, you can simulate color correction.

One thing I really hate is when newbie mappers simply add light entities at their default setting of 255 255 255 200. Use different values, play around the settings. Now remember that when people play your map, they are really having an experience. Looks at movies like inception, fast and the furious, matrix, minority report, etc. All these movies use color correction to invoke a feeling in the viewers. Looks at games like bioshock, alice: madness returns, nfs most wanted, etc. These games apply color correction. Here are a few screenshots:
                                          Notice the greenish tinge. The green color here gives off a stinking feeling.
Dark city is a very good noir movie and does not heavily rely on color correction, Rather, it focuses on lighting and gothic architecture. I really recommend you to watch this movie though.

Mirrors's edge is also a very good example. Notice how green color stands out from the rest of the geometry.

The city in mirror's edge is a very good example of how color is used in guiding the player.

Now, when we make maps, remember to guide the player. For example, if there is a particular door you would like the player to open, place a light over it. To invoke a cold icy feeling, change the light source to that of a a bluish light. To make the player have a bad feeling, add greenish light. Also note that greenish light goes well with blood if used properly. This is some food for thought for making a horror map.

Level design
As a mapper, you have to guide the player without using signs and hud guides. But for starters, I will show you how to make the enviroment speak for itself. Look at this forza motorsport 3 screenshot below:
If you zoom in and check out the railing, you will see that it is broken. Right next to the railing are a couple of skid marks which point in the opposite direction(towards the valley). By this, we can conclude that a car must have skidded and probably gotten thrown off the valley. Such subtle hints show us that it is best if we level designers do not explicitly show the player where to go and what to do. The environment must speak for itself.

As for this example, many designers add props in such a way that these props tell stories by themselves. One common trick is used in half-life and its mods. A scientist(any npc) is lying dead with blood splattered around and a shotgun is lying besides. This is a good way to give the weapon to the player instead of simplying handing it to the player.

Guiding the player
I think half-life 2 is okay. I mean the game has go many awards but I felt it to be mediocre. Yet, when I was playing half-life 2, I couldn't help but grin whenever I saw then use color to their advantage. The level designers at valve are brilliant and they have managed to make such awesome games like l4d2, portal2, etc using the aging source engine which makes them better then the rest. For example when you start half-life 2, you are greeted by this scene:
You never though how that insanely tall building is connected with you. But when the end of the game approaches, your mission is to go up in the building. This is a view from the inside:
Creepy huh? See how thay have used blue color to give a icy touch to the enviroment. Moments later, you arrive at the top of the aptly named "citadel":
Great view huh. This type of design is used to tell the player that you will be dealing with this thing later on. When the player sees such a thing later on, he can recognize it and this gives more depth to the building. For example, while playing hard rain in l4d2, you will see a signboard of a gas station. Your objective is to reach to the station. Later on, when you are chased by zombies across a corn field, the gas station sign shows you how near you are to the objective. It serves as a marker telling you to reach out to it.

There are many ways you can guide players through your level. All good level designers know how color works on the brain and how to use it to their advantage. I will post more on color correction later. If you like the theoretical part on level desing, I suggest you to go to Wold. It does not teach mapping but rather level design in general.

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