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    Level Designer Interviews: T. Elliot Cannon

    What is your current role, and what games have you worked on?

    It all started with Unreal. I was one of the original level designers on Unreal doing some 15+ levels in that game and contributing much to the overall design and game play. After that it was Unreal Tournament, which was rather straightforward multiplayer maps. I worked on Star Trek Deep Space 9 – The Fallen at The Collective as their Level Design Director until February of this year when an opportunity to work here at CYAN on their broadband entertainment project (codenamed parable) came along and pulled me out of sunny California to snowy Washington State where I am today.

    My current role is game play designer. My experience with real time action/adventure games in both first and third person is put to use as we are working towards our next big thing; a massively multiplayer broadband only internet world centered around the mythology set in MYST and RIVEN and anchored in D’ni. It’s a large visionary project, and it’s the first project I’ve had to date where I’m not doing level editing anymore.

    What’s lacking in level design today?  What can be done to fix that problem?

    Actually I think the quality level of level design in products shipped this year shows a tremendous improvement over the previous year. Level designers today are doing much more than geometry, lighting, and monster placement, they are laying out and creating game play and cinematics to tell the story. With this being the case, the only thing truly lacking is grand scale, which is more of a technology issue at this point, rather than a missing skill or ability for all the designers out there. What I mean by this is level design that is on a massive scale rather than a series of maze-locked door levels. I look forward to the day when a single player game takes me across a continent, ocean, or solar system rather than from maze A to maze B.

    With 3D engines becoming increasingly more sophisticated, level design becomes more complex, which in turn becomes a time-consuming effort.  Is this a good or bad thing?

    It’s not necessarily good when it takes a game developer takes longer to make his 45 maps than it does for Ridley Scott’s crew to make the sets for Gladiator. Hopefully as poly counts, detail levels, and general technology complexity goes up, level design will shift to more of a production design trade, where multiple people are working on modular elements that are world assembled later. This will speed up the production process and hopefully allow level design intensive projects to move away from the 30 map model.

    The problem thus far has been more of one of financial support than a desire. If single player games had 5 million dollar (or higher) budgets having 50 level designer/modelers/texture artists each working on smaller pieces of the larger package would make sense, and projects would come out faster. If project funding remains the same, and does not grow to increase with the demands of quality and technology, time-tables will slip to longer and longer. So increased sophistication is only bad when our budgets don’t allow us to expedite that sophistication.

    Is there a particular level from any game that stands out as an excellent example of craftsmanship?  Why?

    Personally I am biased towards the level design in Star Trek Deep Space 9, The Fallen for scale, proportion, mood, and RUNE for Organics, and mystical places of fear.

    Where do you draw inspiration from during your level creation process?

    Books, movies, media, experiences, art, architecture, history and other civilizations/cultures here on earth.

    What new features in level editors would you implement if you were designing a new editor from the ground up?

    A simple to use terrain design system with multiple layer texturing would be nice. I really do not like modeling software. They are powerful yes, but I don’t want to render static images or animate characters, I want to create worlds.
    A modular world assembly package for creating massive cities where individual structures/features are objects in a tree that can be moved around smoothly and tested for configuration. Each Object (such as a munitions trader building in a science fiction city) includes descriptors linked to a scripting language that allows you to customize from a standard set in grotesque detail.

    For example: An artist creates a design for a free standing building to go in your city based up art direction and the game play design document. It is implemented into a dataset package that is selectable in a world assembly editor, perhaps even with a low poly simplified reference display symbol. After you place this structure, you merely right click then customize everything about it, ranging from lighting, texturing, scale, proportion, sound, characters inside, vendor lists even the current price on a specific ammo clip if in a MMP setting. Then in the final form these parameters are saved out and a new subclass is created. If the design team makes changes to the original model it never affects my assembly package, because once I update my data set, the changes come right along with it, and my custom modifiers are applied. This kind of work scenario will allow massive cities to be constructed or other designs where individual elements can constantly be massaged and defined, without affecting the development of the entire landscape.

    This type of thinking worked great for scripted pawns in the Unreal Engine, I’d like to see it taken to a geometry world assembly level.

    Where do you see level design taking us in the next couple of years?

    Well hopefully to visit locations that intrigue us. I have always wanted to experience “historically correct” settings. Did you know that 95% of the games created today are always their own quasi-weird mythology? I’d love to see games designed taking place in moments of our world’s history. I guess we would call those “period games”. I wish there were more “period games”

    Part of the attraction to 3d gaming is a sense of escape. It would be nice to escape to a place in time that was accurately represented. I’m getting a little tired of weird-o settings. We have so much history and drama to pool from it’s amazing, yet we as developers always want to re-invent the wheel and make something in some “gamey” setting. Maybe one day someone will do it.

    What game are you most looking forward to?

    For different reasons the following:

    Never Winter Nights-So that my friends in my EverQuest/Asheron’s Call Guild can make our own adventures and link them together.

    Anarchy Online-A science fiction MMP game being done by Funcom. I am very excited to see this!

    Turbine Games has been working on their next generation engine for a MMP project and I am keeping a sharp eye on them because I loved Asheron’s Call and got to meet a few of the folks at E3. I know they will make something I will be addicted to!

    And as always I’m anxious to see what new technology developments come from Epic Games and id Software since their titles and all the license games that soon follow are always extremely fun and diverse and push our boards to new limits.
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