From pencil and paper to locks: how level designers create iconic stealth encounters


Whether you're crawling behind a guard ready to deliver that decisive blow or memorizing patrol patterns to go unnoticed, level designers have an important role to play in setting the moment-to-moment experiences of our favorite stealth games .

It is your job to fix the flow of the level, as well as to organize the moments that make good use of central mechanics. But there can be a big difference in how a studio could address this challenge, as projects often require a variety of philosophies to provide the best opportunities for the player.

To learn more about the complexities of level design, as well as the specific design approaches associated with stealth level design, we contacted three developers who have worked on various projects over the years, from Arkane Dishonor Ubisoft series Assassin’s Creed games.

For starters, it's probably best to get some common misconceptions out first. That is, the role of a level designer and his responsibilities. Among the most common misunderstandings is the relationship between level designers and environmental artists.

"You often hear people refer to a level they like and they say," The level design is really good at this because it looks beautiful, "he explains. Zi Peters, level designer at Sumo Digital, during our chat at Yorkshire games festival at the beginning of this year. "But that's not the level of design; that's just the aesthetic side. That's the environmental artist to come later. Level design has a lot to do with spatial design."

As Peters explains, level design is more about how an environment is built according to game mechanics and systems, so it sticks to metric guidelines, for example. He uses the example of how tall a character is, how high he can jump, his squatting height, and the range of weapons or other projectiles. Typically, a level designer will start by designing a prototype of a level or a lock with these requirements in mind as they develop the scene.

"(At Sumo), we do a lot of things on paper like flow charts," says Peters, who helped design the Colombian level of the stealth action game. Hitman 2 at Sumo Digital (attending IO Interactive), and previously worked at Disneyland Kinect Adventures at the border. "We try to take into account as many different possibilities as we can on paper, then it is cheaper to take advantage of those possibilities and rectify them there to build the environment itself. You have a real sense of things, and they are the things that you will not take into account once start building the actual level (how to) target the targets, making their loops. And then you can see what other problems you're going to have. "

Speaking about his own design process, level designer Steve Lee, who worked on Dishonored 2 and John Wick HexHe comments: “The blocking stage consists of discovering what your level should be by making an approximate but representative version of it quickly, testing it and then repeating it as much as you can. I try to approach things quite logically, in terms of understanding and working from the first level (its key ideas and unique concepts, goals and limitations, themes, environment, etc.). In general terms, the most singular, important and risky receive special attention from the beginning. "

However, in some circumstances, studies may take a slightly unusual approach. For example in Assassin's Creed: SyndicateUbisoft Montpellier's level designers did not have many opportunities to prototype their areas, but rather their role was to assist artists with the flow of levels later in development. This is when they could alter aspects such as the route, the location of the enemy and the flow of the mission. Vincent Barrieres, a level designer who worked on some of the reasons for this more collaborative interdisciplinary collaborative approach. Assassin's Creed: SyndicateWhitechapel District and Jack the Ripper DLC

"In Labor union, because everything was created inside the (Anvil) engine by itself, I didn't have the opportunity to create, you know, some level of gray block or mesh, "says Barrieres." We work directly with the level artist, so it was they who created the visual part of the game. We were just here as level designers to help them: 'hey, i just need that' or 'i really need this'. So, it was a collaboration between the level artist and the level designer more than a level designer creates the entire level on his own and then hands it over to the level artist. "

In terms of principles for building a level, one of the most important aspects of stealth level design is accounting for player freedom. This is especially important if you are working with real-world references that could hinder the potential for good stealth opportunities if taken as they are.

"Sometimes when you look at the architectural plans, you can get a lot of dead ends and stuff," says Peters. "In a stealth game, you want to create these nice loops that you can move around in, so you never get stuck somewhere and then see that someone is following you and you have nowhere to run or hide." To compensate for this, he feels it is important to open more areas for the player to ensure that he always has options available in case of need.

In Dishonored 2They achieve this freedom by giving players a series of skills that they can use to traverse the environment. However, the level design itself also offers great variety by providing players with multiple ways to enter a room or fulfill a search objective.

"Empowering the player to play their way is really central to the idea that games present interesting options and depth of play," says Lee. "But in Dishonor, the notion of different play styles is made more explicit by the way the game recognizes, both in terms of stats and achievements, and also in interactive narrative, how the player is playing. And since that's a mainstay of the franchise, it means that as a level designer, we want our level design ideas to emphasize the importance of player choices and the non-linearity of the game. "

According to Lee, this means presenting the player with game obstacles that have many potential solutions, but he also believes that narrative design plays an important role in implementing these choices in a compelling way.

"For example, the many non-lethal solutions for dealing with murder targets in the Dishonor Games are interesting because, in terms of gameplay, it is generally much easier to kill an enemy than to discover the non-lethal way of dealing with them and then carry them out. And yet, many players are drawn to the non-lethal approach because it is important to them in a purely narrative sense. The story, experience and fantasy that are playing in your head is more important and interesting to some players than the challenge of the game, or just checking all the boxes and getting to the end of a game. "

An excellent example of this practice is in the mission The Grand Palace, where players must eliminate Duke Abele. Upon entering the area, they can either walk through the mansion with brute force by choosing guards or go to the additional length of locating Armando, twice the body of Duke Abele. With the double located, the player can replace Abele as the Duke of Serkonos without a single drop of spilled blood, but not without great difficulty.

Compared to many other games in the stealth genre, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate It's a much more action-oriented title and is less due to the immersive simulator tradition, but its level designers still tried to take action for more stealthy approaches to their missions as players explore their open world. This feat is usually accomplished by using the verticality of the game, as well as the implementation of various hiding places, such as foliage and cars, and the rudimentary patrol pattern of the guards.

"The philosophy always in Assassin’s Creed about the way the player can deal with situations is a 360 philosophy, "says Barrieres." We call that the black box. It means the player can always resolve a conflict or situation in the game by stealth or using force. So for us, we always have to think about those two ways for the player the way we design the level. "

According to Barrieres, it is important that the player does not feel limited by a way of thinking. In Assassin's Creed: SyndicateFor example, players are given the grappling hook, as well as some other useful tools, that allow them to gain greater mastery over their surroundings and unlock new ways to navigate the level and evade guard detection.

As a final question / questions, I was curious to know what advice they would offer to those hoping to get into level design. What should an aspiring designer do to become more employable? And what universal skills should a level designer try to prioritize when working in a stealth game? This is what they had to say:

"The important thing I think you have to work on is a portfolio because that's an illustration of your skills," says Peters. "It easily tells a prospective employer that you will be able to do what they ask you to do. So, I worked using Unreal Engine 3 at the time and Unreal … Editor, creating a level in my spare time and got my first design role at Frontier in Cambridge. "

Lee adds: "I think a key skill is being able to think about how all of your players of different levels and experience styles will experience different parts of your level … I think it's a really good skill to be able to think of both games situations and narrative design that It works on many levels, for every type of player, and not just for players like you, or those who are really dedicated to your game. "


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