A lot of big name engines have editors that the common person can tinker with. There are plenty of fan made levels out there for various games. Some common level designers are getting jobs for level design, even without a college degree. I have known quite a few of them over the years. Now that indie games are taking flight, companies and game developers are becoming more accessible for you to get paid for your work. Before you go sending in your name to companies, you need a portfolio or heck you need to even design levels themselves. Without getting lost in too many details, here is how you too can make money as a paid level designer.
First off, if you’ve never designed a level, I can really recommend making levels for Doom. Why Doom? It doesn’t have complexities like having a room over a room. There are Doom engines that fake such things, but the engine keeps it simple for beginners. It is essentially a blueprint or wall maker. Another reason I suggest making levels for Doom is you can hone good level design. You have keys, doors, damaging floors, floor and ceiling heights. There are abysmal levels out there that have you looking far away for a key then literally back tracking to the door that it opens. Good level design has you get a key, but brings you back to the door with a new path. Say a door that requires the push of a button to open that is next to the locked door. You can also study things like seeing your objective long before you get to it.
However, no one uses the Doom engine anymore, because its not in true 3D. From there you can go to the Elder Scrolls Editor. This is the real editor used by developers to make Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim. The reason why I suggest this is because you have room parts and hallway parts. More complex editors have you making two walls, a ceiling and a floor for a hallway. The Elder Scrolls Editor has prefabs of a hallway so you can quickly make what you want. Then add details to the inside. You can still assemble your hallway or room one wall and floor at a time if you want, but that’s just inefficient. There is also a nice exterior design tool as well. With this engine you can make beautiful things, forests to look down on, but for level design you need to focus on gameplay. Enemies can hear and see you in these games. You can make several routes to deal with enemies. The enemy intelligence can have them pace back and forth, not want to fight and so on. This is all part of level design that makes a professional.
While the Elder Scrolls Editor is efficient and a good place to learn, its only for the Elder Scrolls games. If you’re going to make money, you need a game engine that companies make money with. So I suggest the Source, Unreal Engine, Cry Engine and yes even Unity. Colleges have courses with the Unreal Engine, but now a days its very easy to find tutorials online and get the knowledge they have. All at your own pace. These engines aren’t just in high demand, but they’re becoming more friendly to outsiders looking to make levels. Source is free on Steam, Unreal offers a $20 per month subscription and Cry Engine is $10 per month. Its all very financially accessible.
What games have been made with the Source Engine? Well all Valve games really, but more than that. Vampire The Mascaraed: Bloodlines, Dino D-Day and E.Y.E. have all been made in Source Engine. Unreal is the industry standard and more than first person games have been made with it. While I can say some awful games like Aliens: Colonial Marines have been made with Unreal, great games like Bulletstorm have come out. CryEngine has Crysis and Lichdom: Battlemage come to mind. Unity has its awful share of games, but the better first person money making experiences are Slender: The Arrival and Gone Home.
All of these engines make it very easy to get up and running to make money. First you want to create a portfolio of levels to get recognition. Don’t just come out of a game. You want to be a level designer, not a game developer or programmer. Find a game with a hot modding community. Source Engine games come to mind right away. Team Fortress 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have a ton of levels. Since Valve selects fan made levels to become official, its a good place to start.
For the most part, these engines are mostly the same. You make a two walls, a ceiling and a floor for each hallway. You see a top down, side view, front view and a view in game. A four screen panel and they all let you adjust the panels. There are cut tools and your imagination and time are your greatest assets. When developing levels, there are four easy steps to streamline things.
This is where you design a basic level. Don’t texture it, just make it. If you need to use basic textures, go for it, but don’t make it pretty. Finish it, add enemies, doors and clutter. Then play it. Play it over and over. Evaluate is it fun? Did it stay fun? Was there a long segment somewhere? Try to break it. Try going through walls, jumping over objects, getting stuck in things. Evaluate different play styles like stealth vs Rambo combat. Is there enough ammo or health? The reason why you don’t texture or beautify it is because you will keep changing it. I have seen a lot of people put work into making one room beautiful then having to destroy it or find a way to keep it in. If the game has good enemy intelligence did the level make use of it? Like if enemies try to flank you, did you just make a hallway where they can’t flank you or was it an open area? If enemies have grenades was there good cover for the player so the enemies are forced to throw grenades? Not every first person game has combat. Consider if the level just straight forward on one plane or are their stairs, overlooks and overpasses?
Now that you’ve perfected your level and its fun or engaging, its time to add the art. Put in textures and objects. You need to make sure the objects haven’t changed the gameplay. Like a solid wall doesn’t suddenly have a window in there now. Just work on making it as pretty as it can be. Grass, trees, statues and so on. If an area looks bare or similar to a different area in the level, put in something to make it unique like a poster. Think about what makes this level different from the others artistically.
Now its time to make it look cool. Are you going for a dark and brooding look or a crisp, clean and pristine look? Work your magic on the lighting. Can the player see clearly or are there dark spots here and there? If the player walks nose first into a wall is it too dark or can the player see enough to turn around? I have seen plenty of awful games that fall into the too dark. Not just that, but if the level is big enough to get lost in, add a light somewhere to guide the player. If a room is full of lights, make one flickering. Make sunlight if not random weather effects if you can.
Play and play again. Add details like interactivity, reflections and sound cues. Play it over and over again. Evaluate the fun and the look. Put new players in the level and watch them play. See what they do. Are they confused? Do they pick up on cues to know where to go? Take notes! Most importantly and overlooked, know when to finish your level. You can polish it forever, but a professional knows when its done and moves on to the next. The new players and testers will let you know if its not.
With a level under your belt and an active community with popular games, you will get recognition. The ball will be rolling. People will know your name and give you feedback. Not just that, but you’ll get more efficient at churning out quality levels. Make Youtube videos of playthroughs for your portfolio. I would say take other people’s playthroughs of your level, but you the designer know what you want to show off. Details here and there, draw attention to things, have your own audio commentary to explain things. The videos help a lot more than simple static screen shots. Its not the 90s anymore. Videos sell things.
Game developers will look to you and your portfolio. It may start with a quick job. I need a level or three in a week to rush a game out the door. Even working for free pads your resume, but you need to know when its time to ask for money. Serious developers will have money to let you know they’re serious. Others just want levels for a kickstarter. While you might want to take a gamble on that to pad your resume, it is still a risk. You will get there. The trick is to always keep working. Don’t let it be a side job. Make it a career. Take it seriously. Level design is an art and there are a lot of starving artists, but the ones that make it big, make the money.