Jos is a video game level designer who works at BioWare and is currently working on their new game, Anthem. After spending the day building levels at his day job, he likes to kick his feet up and relax in the off hours by making is own levels at home.
Disclosure: Ryan Troock and Jos (try) to play games together, and are currently spending the next decade playing through Odin Sphere.
Ryan Troock: How did you first get into modding? How did you decide what tool-set to use?
Jos Hendriks: I've always really enjoyed building things. It started with LEGO, and then I drew my own Super Mario levels on pieces of paper, as well as levels for a PC game called Pharaoh's Revenge which I had played a lot of.
There were a few games that incorporated building cool things into the gameplay that I played a bunch of, like SimCity 2000 and Rollercoaster Tycoon, but the first real level editor I got my hands on was Warcraft 2. I would build elaborate maps that were perfect for making cool bases, more than make simply building levels that functioned well.
Fast-forward to the release of the first Unreal Tournament in 1999. A classmate in high school told me he knew how to use its level editor (UnrealEd) and he spent an afternoon showing me basic things I could do with it. I've been hooked since, and that introduction for a long time cemented my choice of tool-set.
I didn't really know about there being a level design community for games like that until Unreal Tournament 2003, and discovering there was a whole community of folks making custom levels for games really opened my eyes to designing levels. Having a like-minded group of people to draw inspiration from and to learn from and share things with was instrumental to me growing my level design skill.
Ryan: Let's talk about your process. Do you start immediately in a toolset, or do you work ideas out beforehand in another medium?
Jos: It depends on what I'm making. For work there is usually a visual theme/concept that we want to evoke, or a certain structure that we’re trying to follow, or narrative beats we want to hit. In these cases what I do is dig into these guiding materials and work from there, which can include doing some design on paper and documentation. Even with these materials, how I work with them depends on what they are.
A visual theme, art assets to work with, or a concept that's been created usually help guide the architecture of a space, and so I try to get a feel for the architecture and shapes by building out a single room and adjust that until it feels right to walk through that space. I build the rest from there using that first room as reference for spacing and pacing of the level.
A narrative and narrative beats that need to be hit as part of a level usually inform a lot of what needs to be made, because it informs what function the space needs to fulfill. For instance, a space that has a conversation between the player character and a non-player character, even tone or content of the conversation aside, needs to also have the function of being a space that provides good set-dressing for that conversation. Lighting and spacing can provide a lot of context to a mood, and having a conversation in a small corridor with uninteresting walls is not as cool as a room that has windows looking out to a vista or some intricate looking geometry.
When I make something in my spare time, my process usually goes with whatever inspires the creation. Sometimes it's someone else's levels, whether as part of a game I play or someone's own personal project. Sometimes it's a particular concept or gameplay mechanic, other times it's just exploration through creating or playing with a visual theme, or even a random doodle.
In a creation game like Super Mario Maker, in which I've built a couple dozen levels in my spare time, it's usually been about exploring a particular trick or mechanic or concept: bob-ombs being able to destroy platforms, or platforms moving along a path and avoiding obstacles, or a switch turning coins into platforms temporarily.
In a game like Unreal Tournament, there's a lot more flexibility in what you make, and so it can easily just be an exploration of a cool visual theme in another level.
Ryan: How do the levels you work on professionally compare to the ones you did while modding? Are there any habits or patterns that have stuck, even as you evolve in other ways?
Jos: I think the most important difference for me is that making levels at work involves collaborating with other people in various disciplines to create something together. Making things in my spare time, or modding, usually has far less direct collaboration.
The thing with collaborating with people in other disciplines, as well as within my own discipline, at work is that there needs to be room for everyone to try and contribute something cool. Making sure that everyone gets to contribute something cool supersedes my need to explore something I want at any expense. I try to find something small or particular that I want to contribute and I balance it against the contributions of the people I work with. It builds a better working relationship if you think with the folks you work with so they get to make what they want, and in turn it encourages those people to think with me when I want to add something that might require some adjustment or extra work from them.
Another difference is this: where my personal work is usually motivated from something I'm interested in or inspired by, my professional work usually has a lot more constraints, requirements, and ideas that are provided to me. I don't really have to worry about hitting performance targets for running my personal work on a console or multiple platforms, or satisfying specific narrative beats or working within a specific visual theme. The focus at work is far more concentrated on level design itself, as audio, environment art, and visual effects are all handled by folks far more experienced and skilled at those particular disciplines, where for my personal work I'm also building the art/audio/vfx (always from existing assets).
There are similarities, as well. I personally really like having a solid idea and grasp of the visual theme I'm working with/towards, whether an artist will be turning the space I build into something gorgeous or I'm piecing it together myself. Building out a single room that tries to capture the spacing of that theme is a very effective way for me to have a much easier time building out the entire level. If I'm doing the art myself in my personal work, it always gives me a solid base to work from, and if an artist at work is coming in and turning the spaces into pieces of art it makes the handshake/negotiation between maintaining a level's playable space and allowing the artist to build what they want easier.
One other similarity is that I always like to think about the functionality of a space, and what feels natural for a space to contain. When making a level aboard a space ship, I like to think about what spaces would speak to the imagination of people playing through it, what kind of spaces people would want to see when going through a space ship, and then how those spaces fit inside a larger whole. Sure you might go through a mess hall, or an engine core, or a weapons battery, but does its place within the layout of the level make sense, and can players extrapolate the spaces that may beyond doors that won't open? I think it's really important to try and make my levels feel like they're real places that extend beyond the space you visit as a player, and that applies regardless of whether it's personal work or professional.
Ryan: Can you talk about your design process in taking the basic concept of the Unreal Tournament 3 map "Vertebrae" and how you translated that into your own map design?
Jos: So Unreal Tournament 3 shipped with a level called CTF-Vertebrae (Capture the Flag), and the core concept of that level is that the layout is very vertical in nature, which isn't really a common approach for that game or the game mode in games like it. I really loved the concept of having a vertical layout, and it inspired me to try and make a level of my own that incorporated that concept. The resulting level, CTF-Gravis, took about 6 months to build, on and off during the production of Mass Effect 3.
The biggest challenge to creating a layout that is primarily vertical in nature is communicating the flow and directionality of it to the player. Guiding their eye and giving direction through layout so the players know where to go is a big part of level design. While that is an interesting challenge for any level, it is easier to do in a space that is largely horizontal as the way to go is usually relatively on eye level with where a player is looking. When a layout is vertical, you have to draw the player's eye up and down effectively and communicate clearly how to go up and down safely, which requires more effort than simply moving into a direction. You have to consider fall damage, and how looking up or down means they won’t be seeing what is straight ahead.
Another challenge for CTF-Gravis in particular was that I wanted to combine the vertical layout concept with a second concept I saw in several other levels made by folks in the level design community: having the opponent's flag be visible from the location of your team's flag is while not providing direct access.
It meant that the location of the flags had to be somewhat close, making the layout a bit more compact. The challenge there is that I wanted to make sure that there was enough space to comfortably move around, while also making a vertical layout, and ensuring that the core tenets of CTF level design were adhered to: several paths to take, and have them be relatively balanced for risk/reward/distance so that players carrying a flag have viable choices to make while players defending a flag don't get to just guard one direction people can come from.
The level was a lot of fun to make, and I just have a lot of fun tackling challenging concepts like it.
Ryan: A bonus question - your level design signature is the use of ornate windows; are you willing to reveal where this comes from?
Jos: Honestly, there is most likely a real world inspiration for this. The thing about ornate windows in my levels is that they provide a great way to cast interesting looking shadows, which in turn makes an environment look a lot cooler. I've always really liked windows in general, the way they allow light into a space and cast shadows. Ornate framing, stained glass windows, even just decorations in front of regular windows alter the shape and effect light has on the space, and having ornate window frames in my levels has been a way for me to bring that kind of effect into the levels I build. That goes for my personal work, anyway.
For levels made for actual games, my artists have always been fantastic at lighting the scenes, and making games that take place in space usually means there's a lot of windows to look out of, anyway.
Except for Geth ships, since the Geth consider windows a structural weakness.