Ever get stuck in a video game level and decide you could make it better? Maybe the enemies seem too tough or the jumps are placed in just the annoyingly wrong way. Perhaps the free life or health packs were too few or the placement of automatic restart points too unforgiving.
Well how could a game maker really prove that he or she can do better? They'd need to get a job as a level designer, a gig that is seldom entry-level in the game-development industry. Recently Lesley Mathieson — design director of "Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters," the first PSP installment of the popular "Ratchet & Clank" PS2 series — explained how she convinced people she could design a good video game level.
She had to pass a test.
Mathieson got into the games industry in 1994 while she was studying film in college. She got a summer job as a "role-playing consultant" on a Monty Python game being made at the now-defunct Dallas game development studio 7th Level. She worked in film after school and then got a job as a game tester at Interplay, did the same at Microprose and became a lead tester at Ubisoft.
As the century turned, she got a call from a recruiter looking to fill a spot at Insomniac Games, a studio then known for its "Spyro" purple dragon platforming games on the original PlayStation. Insomniac had been churning through candidates for a level designer. They sent her a "Spyro" design test.
"They basically give you sort of criteria for a level and you do a written description first and then you do a map of the level and everything going on in it. It tests not just your creative skills but also your ability to take feedback and revisions and layouts for maps.
"They wanted a farm level," she said. Insomniac's boss, Ted Price, based his test on "Spyro 3," which had added some Spyro friends to the series' roster of playable characters. "Basically, it was a Spyro section where you had to fight some guys and then you had to do a little Spyro mini-game, and then you had to do a segment with this other character." She wrote out her ideas. Price called her with feedback. She drew a map. As she was doing that, the studio gave her some key information, like Spyro's running speed.
Naturally she passed the test and now gives it to people interested in joining High Impact Games, the young studio that made the PSP "Ratchet." That written first stage is partially an exercise in brevity. "You write a description and the description says what all the gameplay is going to be like and what the enemies are and how the enemies behave," she said, adding that she asks people write two pages max. "If you don't, people will write like novels sometimes, and you don't want that. The goal is to get people to say, 'How do you communicate something to somebody in as few words as possible?' Because if you're working in a studio and I write a giant document on the enemies, no one is going to read it. No one has time to sit down and read 30 pages on an enemy."
Mathieson doesn't remember the feedback Price gave her a half-decade ago, but she shared some of the critiques she give people who take her version of the test. "Someone might come up with a platforming challenge. They'll make a big room with spikes coming out of the wall. There's no way for the player to know when they walk in the room that spikes are going to come out of the wall. I might comment that they need to create a setup that introduces the player to the idea in a very safe way so they learn how it works, so you can introduce the more difficult things later. Or I might comment that their enemy combat doesn't really ramp out. They'll just have a whole bunch of rooms with five guys in each instead of having — every bit of gameplay should build up to a climax. It should start simple and get more and more exciting and intense as you go through."
"Size Matters" is High Impact's first game, the product of about a year and a half of work. Mathieson is proud that the studio has figured out a way to run a "Ratchet" game on Sony's handheld, tweaking the series' control scheme to accommodate the PSP's single analog stick and peppering the title with gameplay homages to the four previous games in the series. They've even added new ideas, including a shrink ray, an armor system and several multiplayer modes. Previous "Ratchet" games rewarded players with new content for playing through the game a second time. She said this one is designed to give players new material if they come back twice.
But, really, the question is, did High Impact's designs pass the test?
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