I’m a professional level designer – and to 99.99% of the population that is an utterly meaningless title.  Even to other video game industry insiders, ‘Level Designer’ is a pretty unusual job – one that varies from studio to studio.  So why is Hollywood (and the books it’s based on) doing so well at answering that common question: “Yes, but what is it that you do?”

In the Hunger Games book series, and included in the recent movie version of the first in the series, there is a hidden group of employees in the Capitol called ‘gamemakers‘.  These gamemakers are shown in plain white clothing; unadorned and quite at odds with the average Capitol citizen enrobed in technicolor, foppish and garishly extravagant garb.  These muted workers’ focus is on the map that dominates the center of the room and the players within while massive amounts of information streams across their glowing blue desks.

What do they do?

  • At the touch of a button, they set a furious forest fire to herd one of the players in the direction of their choosing.
  • After what is apparently a great deal of work, one of the gamemakers presents her creation – a terrible monster of light and pixels – ready to be unleashed on the remaining victims.  They ‘throw’ it into the map, and when one isn’t sufficient, they spawn a whole pack of these beasts to harry the last few survivors.
  • Day becomes night, which becomes day – all at the touch of a slider at the gamemakers command.  Night is more appropriate for the horror, so they change the sky and the sun in the game’s world.
  • Fireballs blast from hidden locations, steering a player away and doing the most terrible damage.
  • When sufficiently bribed/bought, the gamemakers ‘graciously’ deliver drop-packages of healing salve, food, or other desperately needed supplies.

All of these things, a level designer in a video game would do.

  • Using a forest fire to stop the player leaving the game zone – we’d call that gating with a ‘glass wall’.  There are edges to a video game world, and the worst offending games simply put a ‘glass wall’ in the way to stop you.  Slightly more creative level designers use cliffs, rock-falls, road blocks, or, indeed, walls of fire.
  • Customizing an enemy and then ‘spawning’ it in to the game to challenge the player is the bread and butter of a level designer’s day.  Every enemy in every videogame is put there for a reason – it’s called ‘spawning’, and unless it’s done randomly, then there’s a level designer pulling the strings.
  • Setting the scene for a level/mission is part level design, part art and part audio – but setting that tone and understanding how to heighten the tension of the moment is a level designer’s task.
  • Fireballs have been a tool in the level designer kit since before Mario decided to jump on turtles.
  • Pickups of health packs, ammo, bandages, weapons and more are all there at a level designer’s beck and call.  Some games even detect what you need the most, and select an appropriate ‘drop’ from a list the level designer has provided.  It may not always fall from the sky with a parachute, but it may be hidden in the long grass, inside a wooden crate, or on the body of the enemy you recently defeated.

All in all, the Hunger Games as described in the book, and shown in the movie, is a live action videogame done in a better way than any I can think of.  The gamemakers in their clinical room are the game developers – the level designers – given a glamorized Hollywood makeover.  Even the effects company they brought in to make the control room graphics is owned by videogame giant Ubisoft of Montreal.

So, the answer to the “What is it you actually do?” question?  I’m like the gamemakers in the Hunger Games – I block the player, send them supplies and challenges, set the tension and tone, and murder teenagers.  Wait.  Not that last one.

(There are more movies, older and more recent, which also help explain what Level Design is – I may touch on them in future posts.)