So, I’ve started playing Bioshock 2 again (Third time now.) and it got me thinking about the matter of level design in modern games. Sadly, many developers nowadays seem to spend more time and effort on squeezing out as much graphic power from the the latest hardware as they can, instead of focusing on designing compelling and memorable worlds. Allow me to demonstrate:

Yeah, this is what it looks like

To the left we have the level design of Doom. To the right, your average modern FPS-game.

This is the problem with game design in general and FPS-es in particular. Too much effort is put into “perfecting” the graphics and making the game as “cinematic” as possible. This usually means that you’ll end up with a level that looks nice but plays just like the above image illustrates: A linear corridor full of cutscenes.

Now, the reason Bioshock 2 got me thinking about this is that it actually has fantastic level design. Not only are the levels open to explore and largely non-linear, but the artistic design is great as well. Unlike most modern games, Bioshock 1 and 2 didn’t go for the “realistic” colour pallete of greys and browns, instead opting for true realism, with walls in varying colours and bright neon signs contrasting the(often) dark walls and ceilings.

Fort Frolic

Rapture, where grey-brown colour schemes come to die.

My point is that level designers nowdays seem to limit themselves, even though they have access to extremely powerful tools and software that could allow for something more. They’re going backwards in a sense, opting for linear, hard-scripted gameplay and nigh monochrome colour schemes. Why is this? My hypothesis is that game desingers are finally starting to realize how much of a drawback it can be to constantly opt for “next-gen” graphics. I mean, “next-gen” graphics take up a lot of space and processing power, which means that while the computer might be able to render beautiful surroundings, it can’t render much of it at once.

Developers are essentially shackled in what they can do since they constantly have to find ways to circumvent the fact that the graphics engine is a tremendous resource hog. To once again bring up Bioshock: In order to save processing power, the developers implemented a system for not rendering rooms behind closed doors until the door is opened, all to save processing power. I’m worried that this “flaw” in game design might escalate even further. The more powerful the graphics engine, the harder it is to create a working game around it.

Just look at Crysis, a series of games marketed for having top-notch graphics. Graphics that are so good that you need a high-end rig to even play the game. Is this what’ll happen in the future? Will we get games that look increasingly better but play increasingly worse? I hope not. Now, Nintendo is a great example of a game company that doesn’t let super-powerful graphics engines shackle them in the slightest. Just look at Super Mario Galaxy (both of them). Neither of them have high-end graphics, but they still look and play amazingly. Developers need to understand that top-notch graphics do not make the game, design and well-made gameplay does. Or in less diplomatic terms: A turd is still a turd, even if it’s polished until it shines like a christmas tree.

Bottom-line: Developers need to stop obsessing over having the latest in graphics technology and instead spend money and effort on making genuinely good games. A linear, grey-brown corridor with cutscenes does NOT make for a good game, even if it looks so sharp you can cut your eyes on it.

D3

SMG

Epic Games, play this and despair. Or start making games that don't look like they're viewed through a used coffee-filter.