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In the past I've been rather verbose when reviewing books about game design, as I wished to provide evidence that justified the often less than stellar score I gave the book in question. I'm pleased that I don't have to do that with this book, which as far as I can tell is a nearly flawless introduction to level design. As such, this review will be more of a recap, so as to help you decide if the book's content is right for you.
Chapter 1, "How Do You Make a Game?," discusses the game development process from Pre-Production through Gold Master by way of showing how level design fits into the overall scheme of things. Also discussed are design documents, basic level geometry, and the difference between alpha and beta, and A, B, C and D bugs (A being "fix this now" and D being "nice to have, maybe later").
Chapter 2, "Defining the Game," focuses on the various types of games on the market and the differences between them, from first-person shooters to platformers, action RPGs to MMORPGs. Also discussed in some depth are themes (fantasy, sci-fi), ESRB ratings and audience age, and system limitations.
Chapter 3, "Enemies and Obstacles: Choosing Your Challenges," is where the book really begins to get into the nitty-gritty of the level design process. This third chapter covers the placement of enemies ("mobs") and objects within the level, the types of levels (hubs, boss levels, etc.), skill trees and the application of skills to obstacles within each level.
With an idea of what needs to go where, Chapter 4, "Brainstorming Your Level Ideas," delves into the creation of concept sketches and reference images, the creation of a level's storyline, the drafting of a level description and the design of the puzzles and scripted sequences within the level (which incorporate the mobs and objects discussed previously).
Chapter 5, "Designing With a Diagram," is where all those ideas and brainstorming begin to take concrete shape. A primary concern here is the scope and order of levels within the game, particularly in terms of a player's progress through each level. Once you know where your level fits into the overall schema, the author tells you to lay it out in diagram format by creating a grid; this is not unlike a Dungeon Master carving out 10' by 10' dungeon corridors on graph paper for a D&D game. You know who you are.
Chapter 6, "The Template," introduces the reader to UnrealEd, a level editor for which a demo is provided in the back of the book. The author walks through the basics of using UnrealEd, from the basic creation of a room and the placement of an NPC within it to slightly more advanced topics such as vertex editing and static meshes. It's a fairly technical chapter, but is laid out clearly with numbered instructions and plenty of screenshots to guide the reader along.
Chapter 7, "Improving Your Level," jumps ahead in time a bit, assuming that you've already mastered the basics from Chapter 6 and have created a level template that can now be play-tested. It focuses mostly on that play-testing process and how to adjust and balance one's level based on feedback in order to make it fun and functional.
The next chapter, "Taking It to 11," is more concerned with polish and quality. Topics include architectural style, the addition of details like trim and borders, the appropriate use of textures and props, and the like. The second third of the chapter takes the reader back into UnrealEd to practice some of these skills, including the creation of new shapes and a radial building technique to create curved hallways an rounded rooms. Finally, the chapter discusses the addition of other game elements, including scripted sequences, ambient sounds and music, and other special effects such as fog.
The final chapter, "Ship It!," revisits the concept of Alpha, Beta and Gold Master in more depth, discussing optimization, the creation of zones (with an UnrealEd tutorial to help the reader along), game balance, and bug testing. It closes off with some discussion of helpful skills and practices one might pick up, including how to file a good bug, why you should archive data, and how to take good screenshots.
On the subject of screenshots, it is worth noting here that the book contains one such shot from Flagship Studio's Hellgate: London, a game which I am downloading from the EA store as I write this review, and which is scheduled for official release on Halloween, 2007. In my experience, many books on game design tend to incorporate screenshots and examples from older games, and it's rare to find a book that includes a screenshot from a game that is not only current, but as of the book's publication was yet unreleased. Indeed, most of the examples in the book are of games released in the past several years (Psychonauts, Half-Life 2, Doom 3), and this gives the book added relevance, appeal and longevity.
Aside from the more technical language involved with the UnrealEd tutorials, the book's clear language and friendly tone makes it quite accessible, even for those not of a technical persuasion. While I can't speak to how much the book would help a more experienced LD, it definitely seems appropriate for a beginner who's eager to learn the craft, or anyone interested in the game industry as a whole. I highly recommend it."