An Interview with our Level Design Department

Hi! First of all, please introduce yourselves. How did you come to join the team at Grinding Gear Games?

Josiah D: I attended one of our local game developer meetups and Chris mentioned that Grinding Gear Games was looking for a level designer. I had not done any game design work since moving back home to New Zealand and was keen to make use of my previous experience.

Tom M: I returned to New Zealand after working abroad for many years in countries such as Russia, Malaysia, Korea, Australia, and the UK. I really wanted to get back to the forests, seaside and pleasant climate of my own country. Path of Exile had just launched when I got to Auckland, and I found a job teaching digital media which involved game design using UDK, amongst other things, and tools like ZBrush and 3ds Max. The whole time I was there I had an eyeball on working at GGG. I played the game for about three months straight and decided to write an application, and even spent a whole day on the bus to go watch Jonathan give a thirty minute talk about the development at a games summit. What interested me was the ongoing development of the same product. It's a really big scale project. Luckily, just when I was finishing the teaching work, Chris contacted me back and said they needed a level designer.

Chris G: I was looking for Level design opportunities around Auckland when I stumbled upon a YouTube video of Jonathan's live presentation for the Random Level Generation system.
I had been looking into procedural content generation and a more systemic approach to level design for a bit at that time, so it really got my attention and excitement.

What have you worked on before Path of Exile?

Josiah D: I've worked on Pirates of the Burning Sea, Neverwinter Online and Age of Empires Online.

Tom M: I started professional CG work in 2000, and I've bounced around a lot of small studios in various roles. I worked at Mosfilm, I worked for universities, and broadcast and game studios. Just to see if I could, I wrote a technical guide to UE3 for Packt, a work-from-home project which turned out really nicely but took about six months. I also made a hand-painted graphic novel, Void Horizon.

Chris G: My experience is mostly AAA console titles: Bioshock Infinite, Borderlands 2: The Pre-Sequel, Rainbow Six: Siege, Alice: Madness Returns and a few others... When I moved to New Zealand I got into mobile game development for a short time until the local Gameloft office was shut down.

What is your favourite thing you've worked on for Path of Exile?

Josiah D: The Labyrinth is certainly one of the most interesting things we've done from a level design perspective. I love using our random terrain generation system to make replayable content though. You can't make perfectly curated experiences, but the potential for fun and varied environments and interesting combinations is well worth it.

Tom M: In terms of what players see, I guess there's a map where the Daresso Pits and Colosseum areas, which are separate in Act 4, are combined with heights you can go up and down. I pushed this mashup of two tilesets through to see how it would look because I thought it was cool, and nobody objected. It's a carnage level full of monsters, so I guess mostly people are busy trying to survive it when they play it rather than looking at the scenery, but it was fun to push the content further. We then took the same idea in the Labyrinth by combining the dry garden area with the elegant house area to make a hybrid indoors/outdoors extra section. The technical features of doing it weren't trivial, because the lighting has to work and the heights of the tiles is different. I thought it would be easy, but we had to figure out a slew of little technical issues to get it to work. I also did first pass concept art on the Stone Circle feature of the Talisman league. We had to make this asset that would fit in any level type, so I thought floating stones would help, which is how it ended up in production.

Chris G: The trap challenges made a very interesting subject to work on. Because I had just joined the team I had to get accustomed to the PoE design philosophy. At the same time I had to find a different way to approach level design to create interesting hand-crafted traps and challenges, as opposed to the more random / systemic design that had been used until then.

Path of Exile has randomly generated areas. How does this affect the level design process?

Josiah D: We need to broaden our designs to include a lot of variation. We want players to feel immersed in the levels they're playing through and have interesting experiences there, but the areas we design do not have one specific path to them. We'll make several different interesting encounter spaces and plan for them to work well combined with each-other, multiplying the possible combinations as we add more pieces. Sometimes we impose restrictions to limit poor combinations (and of course, sometimes we plan badly and introduce them), but most of the time the goal is to build a big set of distinct and interesting terrain, and allow it all to be interchangeable in a way that creates a fun area. Fairly challenging to pull off, but it's great when it works well.

Tom M: Well, there's pockets of designed layout and set pieces that get randomly distributed, but it's still quite controlled. In fact the process of controlling it so it balances is quite complex. If I hadn't marked zillions of CG students using spreadsheets I wouldn't ever have been able to handle the spreadsheet work we do to track relative experience points for each area of the game for example. We have this massive document that lists things like monster count and chest count per area which is batch produced from running thousands of generated levels to get an idea of averages. Each level has to fit within scope so it's not too bare or too dense. Sometimes changing one feature, like adding an extra variant to the first level, The Twilight Strand, can tip things in unexpected directions. Racers noticed immediately when I added an extra level variant that was a bit longer because it impacted their chances to win instantly. The fix is also part of the soup, so even though the levels are generated with randomisation elements, it's the maintenance, as much as the creative part, that we spend a lot of time on.

Chris G: This was something very new for me, I was used to hand-crafted levels where every square meter of the level is is controlled and carefully placed for a reason and there's no room for variation or randomness. So when I started making levels here, and I had to wrap my head around the fact that rooms do not have controlled entrances and exits, and can be rotated in any direction or even flipped... it was quite unsettling at first, I had to rethink my whole design process. Since I could not use the traditional "I know where players will come from and leave from" method, I had to be way more flexible and "multiple-configurations-compatible" in my designs.

The Ascendancy expansion introduced The Trials of Ascendancy and The Lord's Labyrinth. How does the level design for these areas differ from the rest of the game?

Josiah D: Well, we added traps, which is thematically really cool, but mechanically pretty tricky to keep fun in Path of Exile. Wherever traps are involved, we're doing a lot of classic level design, making a very specific thing for a player to interact with in a set of specific ways. This is the first time we've done dangerous terrain in the game, and we needed to add some new tech and do a lot of tuning to get it to play well. We're not done yet actually, as extended playtesting and feedback from the community continues to expose things we can improve and iterate on.

The labyrinth also has another fun level design feature: daily static layouts. We use these as a sort of community challenge, where each day the labyrinth has a set of challenges and rewards that remain in place for a day. Enterprising explorers (shoutout to redditor SuitSizeSmall) can share their discoveries with the rest of the community, and help people who are looking for shortcuts or tips find their way through an otherwise punishing area. Of course, if the labyrinth were fully static this would get pretty boring, so we use random variation within this larger structure to keep things from getting too stale.

Tom M: I remember Erik (our Creative Director) asking my opinion of the game when I first joined. I commented about the environment, and that it would be cool to have world damage to the player and player damage to the world - a deeper interaction. The labyrinth answers that quite well, since suddenly the whole environment is out to thwart your progress. It's not just traps, but pathways squeezing around them, and the available space, and the darkness. We had a lot of areas being re-factored like the Prison and Crypt and Chamber of Sins. One addition was blocking fences and gates, to prevent movement skills skipping around traps, though there was some notable gaps here and there. A player reported on the forum there was a bug on gold key doors, that you could skip passed by jumping over a wall gap, and everyone was like "Why did you report that!?" So we didn't just design it, we're still working on it and responding to feedback and making additional content.

Chris G: It's a pretty complex structure, as Josiah said it's dynamic, as it changes every day, and it also uses the standard PoE random features. But on top of that we needed to have a bit of control on some of these rooms in order to categorise them into types (combat room, or trap room etc…) so that when it gets generated it's not just putting a bunch of trap rooms one after another, that would make a lot of rage quitting happen…
It was a challenge for the team to create traps that were hard and punishing enough but still remained fun. It was also a bit tricky to make it so that players wouldn't just want to skip through the whole trap section thinking "ain't nobody got time for this", we had to make sure it was worth going through and not just a simple speed bumps section.

How can an aspiring level designer break into the industry?

Josiah D: When I first started doing this, there was really poor educational support, and the skills required were difficult to pick up without just starting from nothing. Few companies will hire people to learn how to do a job, and so most of the level designers I know started at their companies as QA or other "entry level" positions that companies are willing to hire for without previous experience. Education continues to improve, but you should probably be aware that there are a bunch of cranky old level designers with a very dim view of for-profit universities and the "skills" that they teach people.

Aside from getting a job, *learning* level design is much more straightforward. Grab a game with excellent content creation tools like Starcraft II, Divinity: OS, Monaco, etc. Go make some levels and get your friends (or anyone you can) to play them, see if you can make something that your players find fun. If you're willing to put even more work learning slightly more obtuse tools, Valve's Source Engine or Unity will let you build just about anything, and practice your general game design as well as content creation.

Tom M: That's a deep question, because level design has many features you need to show you can do, and there are also different personality types in this work. For example, most of our designers can code and have a good mind for gameplay mechanics, but I'm definitely light on scripting and more into landscape art and world building. I've forced myself to learn at least some basics of programming and it helps amazingly. Nowadays I believe learning procedural art tools like Substance is beneficial, and a lot of studios seem to have adopted it. I notice I don't make half as much art as I used to, since we have an art team who are all awesome. But to show you can produce or assemble or orchestrate good levels as a designer requires you to be able to at least handle or process the art assets. I'm lucky to have teammates who can analyse problems and faults on what's broken or buggy, to diagnose issues, so I would say that's a great skill to develop. In a way, the thing you are worst at is what you should be trying to train up. Maybe it is worth mentioning that it helps to move to where the work is. It's a step to make yourself more employable.

Chris G: I'm old school when it comes to getting into the industry, and might be borderline "cranky old level designer" as Josiah puts it.
I got into the industry as a QA intern on a French MMORPG. From there I just made friends with the designers and showed them the maps I was making on my spare time in Unreal Tournament and got into the LD team.

I'm not a big believer in learning level design in a school, but whether you go through a game school or not, the most important thing is: make stuff.
Doesn't matter what it is: a Unreal FPS map, a starcraft simple terrain, a 2d clone of crappy bird… whatever.

Make, fail, repeat. That's how you learn. That's also how you're going to build your portfolio.
Once you think you have enough stuff you consider "decent", show it to as many people as you can. Apply for junior level design jobs and show them your levels, they might not hire you but it will push you to polish your stuff and learn more, go to local game dev conventions and talk to people, show them your stuff, get their feedback.
If I'm hiring level designers, I'd rather hire a guy with no industry experience but a kick ass maps portfolio rather than someone with a fancy diploma who hasn't done anything except a design document in Word for a school project.

What can we look forward to in the future of Path of Exile's level design?

Josiah D: We just added a bunch of neat tools for interactive elements in levels, and we hope to use them for more optional puzzles and other tricky things. We're going to support and improve the Labyrinth. We've got a big update for that coming soon. The next major things we're working on outside of there will be more along our usual lines of super variable terrain and monster based challenges for future content. We've got some cool terrain coming, and we're making sure it's fun to play on as well as look at =)

Tom M: Significantly more animated environment features is definitely something I'd love to see. We have a lot of new staff recently, so it's getting easier to create more content faster.

Chris G: More content coming: new locations, new challenges, more interactivity in the levels!

From Left to Right: Josiah, Chris, Tom
Last bumped on May 1, 2016, 12:17:38 AM
neat, ty for the interview!
thanks guys!
Random reply
Enjoyed the interview!
Harvest is the BEST league EVER. Deterministic crafting ftw.
Ripped 760pdps +2arrow bow 16 Aug 2020 - 16 Aug 2020
Bioshock Infinite? Hell yes.

lets see
who the fuck cares ?!
Please tell me more about the player retention and how good the current league is
P.s 2 Lonk didn read
Last edited by intersept on Apr 26, 2016, 1:46:52 AM

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