Level Design: Concept, Theory and Practice
If you want something doing right, do it yourself. Talented level designer Rudolf Kremers has done exactly that and has written the book he wished he could have read at the start of his career. More than just an industry insider’s guide for wannabe level designers or another academic text filled with jargon, diagrams and code, Kremers presents us with a fascinating and accessible examination of a variety of fundamental concepts and theories to do with gaming. The spirit in which the book is written is that of encouragement. Kremers doesn’t expect the reader to agree with all his opinions in the book, it certainly never feels preachy but instead lays down a foundation for considered thinking and then suggests ways in which this can be applied practically. Though the focus of the book is level design, Kremers takes time to acknowledge a whole range of elements that go into making a game such as emotional feedback systems, game environments and visual experiences, puzzles, story and narrative, lighting, A.I., audio as well as looking at the very notion of play, gaming and what it means to be a gamer.
It’s certainly ambitious but the book never suffers from Kremers’s diverse and personal approach, rather it makes it for some provocative and smart reading for anyone with an interest in video games. Indeed, it’s almost as if he’s dedicated this book to all of us who have no idea how games are really made, lack any specific technical knowledge but continue to fall for their magic and charm and would like a peek behind the curtain. Forget instruction manuals on how to carry out level design (not that there are many of those about either – hence the need for this book); Kremers makes it abundantly clear that this book should ultimately be used as a vehicle for change.
As level design is still a relatively youthful profession, most people entering the industry learn on the job or are self taught which often means “level designers have a limited understanding of what tools and techniques they can use to achieve their goals, or even define them”. So much so that Kremers goes on to state: “A lot of level design isn’t actually designed”. I’m sure gamers everywhere could think of a dozen games where they feel they’ve been served a hodge-podge of ideas or mechanisms that have totally ruined the experience. With clarity, Kremers firmly believes that good level design is born out of a sharing, understanding and determining at the very start of the creative process what appropriate rules need to be in place to achieve the desired gameplay – or in other words, how best to make sure you do good work so as to not alienate, frustrate or totally annoy the hell out of people playing your game.
Much of what he says sounds like common sense, but perhaps has never been accurately recorded or explored in any depth like Kremers does. Broken down into thematic areas that flow well into each other, his are informed opinions on all elements of games studies. “What I am trying to offer instead is a book that gives the reader a number of useful tools to work with. This includes tools for examining the subject itself, tools to form or study theories, and tools for applying knowledge in practical and tangible situations. I firmly believe that an informative approach, rather than a dogmatic one, works best.” Happily with an authentic and knowledgeable voice, Kremers does exactly this. With his latest game Eufloria now available from the Playstation 3 Store, Kremers practises what he preaches. An ambient game of intergalactic gardening and evolution, it looks amazing. A mix of patient exploration and speedy invasions, you send out little seeds to do your bidding and conquer asteroids, growing new seed trees or creating organic type turrets, it’s a battle of wits knowing other seeds are also vying for the same precious resources.
Back to the book and importantly, Kremers reminds us that level design is not exclusive to video games and can be found in all disciplines. Tracing level design through a history of game design including sports, boards games and Dungeons & Dragons, it’s hard to believe that people who work in video games still have some way to go in terms of receiving recognition for being beneficial to society as a whole akin to film directors, screenwriters, composers or theatre set designers. However, Kremers leaves us feeling positive about where level design and ultimately, gaming is heading. Anyone who has ever picked up a controller should dip into this and feel confident that as games grow more complex emotionally and technology advances, games design will also continue to push boundaries and give us many more hours of pleasure. There’s also no doubt that this book will certainly better equip students and teachers in the field of level design. With industry leader Ian Livingstone and Culture Minister Ed Vaisey calling for computer science to be returned to the national curriculum, “Level Design: Concept, Theory and Practice” is an excellent starting point for some or a chance for re-evaluation for others. Well written, its timing is crucial and critical to the future of gaming.
Review By Tracey
Level Design: Concept, Theory and Practice is published by A.K. Peters and is available online with free delivery from The Book Depository or on the high street from Blackwell and all good book stores.