Max Pears — Level Design Lobby
Creator of the Level Design Lobby podcast, who worked on different mobile, AR and AAA titles, including The Division.
What led you to the game dev industry and how did you become a game designer?
For me, it has to be back in 1998 when I first saw my dad and uncle playing Metal Gear Solid. I was blown away by what I was seeing, from them being able to control a character on screen to the fact they were fighting a Robot Ninja!! I mean to any 6-year old I think a robot ninja would blow there mind aha. After this, I played more and more games, started to write stories for games I wanted to make. Then at 14/15, I started to use Flash and early Unity to make small simple games. Then I went on to study game design at Teesside University in England, worked very hard and started my career making Mobile games at FOG Media before moving on to Ubisoft Reflections.
What does a typical day look like?
Hhhhmm a typical day, that is a good question. Generally, it will start with me planning out my day for what tasks are needed by which time. Breaking this down I will go talk to all other members involved in creating the level I am working on, to make sure we are all in sync and on the same page. After this, I will either start planning my level with reference gathering or 2d maps. To then blocking out a level, testing it to make sure it achieves what I am aiming for, get it reviewed by my peers or leads. That is normally what happens.
Which apps and services do you use most to complete your main tasks?
That tends to be the editor my studio uses, in which I create my blockouts. There are many amazing editors out there such as UE4, Unity, Construct as well as in-house engines. But normally a game engine which my employees provide is what I use the most. I also use a lot of photoshop as well to help me with my 2D maps and Powerpoint.
Where do you gain inspiration from?
That is a very good question, I think it can come from anywhere, maybe another game I am playing or a tv show. I like to go for walks and take photos and something I may see on my walk can give me inspiration. Mainly though it is when I am carrying out my reference gathering that is where I find my main inspiration, where you see an amazing building with some fascinating architecture, or the story of people who were visiting similar locations you are making. One of my personal favorites was when I was creating a sewer level for The Division Underground expansion pack. I took reference from Star Wars Episode 5. The scene where Luke loses his hand and is above that giant tube or exhaust pipe in cloud city, I decided to place a massive pipe in my level and it worked fanatically, one of my favorites levels I have ever made. But yes inspiration can come from anywhere.
When and how do you start working on a new feature? Could you describe the process?
New features tend to come from more Game Design rather than Level Design, however, I have been fortunate to work with great teams who have encouraged anyone from any discipline to come forth with their ideas. How it should go from my experience is you first will plot a paper design for the new feature discussing how it will work, does it cost the player anything? What is it’s the radius of effect? etc. Then after reviewing this you will create a prototype (always remember this as this was someone of the best advice I had received) show them, do not tell them. Games are an interactive medium so let them experience it for themselves. If it is approved you will then create an asset list of what the final version will need, animations, sound, particles etc. Then it will be iterated on till it reaches that final stage. But yes do take time plan out your idea with some documentation and then show a prototype, not just the documentation.
Which games have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?
I have to say that this year (2018) has been an incredible year for video games, and there are still so many games I need to play. The first one that comes to mine has to be God of War (2018) with the leviathan axe. Most games have a ton of mechanics for players to use, but God of War (for the most part) keeps the player using the axe, and because of this you can use this in so many, ranged attacks, close quarter combat, or for puzzles. It is also how that mechanic feels, how players throw it and it does not return in a straight line but a curve, with fantastic feedback. I go much further into this in an episode of my podcast. Another one recently was the swinging in Spider-Man, how they use the momentum with different moves, to then combine them made swinging feel like no other. I could ramble on about many more, but those are two that I have recently played and spring to my mind.
What achievements in your career are you most proud of?
Off the top of my head, I am unsure, I have had some amazing experience in my short career, and been fortunate enough to work with some incredible people, meet some of my heroes and had my games win awards. But if I had to pick one then it would be back in 2013. I was in a small team of five working on a game for a competition called Dare to be Digital, we made an Augmented Reality game called Pygmy Panic, in which players had to defend a pygmy from these brutes, and we wanted to make that pygmy feel like a child’s imaginary friend. When we were showing the game off, a man came with his granddaughter and she was autistic. He came over to me and said that he had never seen here interact or be as engaged as she was playing our game, so to see the look on both their faces to me is something I will put as my proudest moment as a designer. As that was a positive effect that had reached two people in a meaningful way, ever since then, that feeling is what I have been chasing.
If you could change one thing about your career, what would it be?
Honestly, right now I am not sure, my personal career is going rather well (I do not mean to sound arrogant when I say that) as long as I am still learning from great people I am happy.
Which recent task turned out to be much difficult than you expected?
This is not a recent task, this is just globally for level design. Sometimes there can just be one level which needs constant iteration or redesign, which can be tough if you feel that none of your ideas get a chance to develop further, yet that is just how some levels go and we all will face more than one on any project. You just have to try to stay motivated and figure out how you can make each version the best version it can be.
What do you do to self-improve in game design?
Now with so many resources available to us as designers, I think self-improving has never been easier. There are many ways I like to learn, first is playing games, seeing how others do things and breaking a game down, so doing my podcast forces me to take a closer look at games I might not have prior to doing this, which helps me take a deeper look into design. I will also watch talks or read articles online as well as it is always important to learn from others, and finally, I have personal projects that I do which helps me improve as well.
What music do you listen to whilst designing?
Many different genres, currently going through some alternative rock and video game soundtracks such as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Persona 5. It all depends on the mood that I am in.
Any advice for game designers in general?
Yes, do as much personal work as you can because now with all these courses for games around the world, it is getting harder to stand out. By doing personal work you will show that you are passionate about your craft as well. When creating a level, think how to lead the player, do not rely just on markers, think about leading lines, shape theory, colours, etc. Look at games you enjoy and break down how they lead you, as the best way to lead someone subconsciously.