Working as a Level Designer at a Game Development Studio

Working as a Level Designer at a Game Development Studio

Malin Wong, a Futuregames graduate from Stockholm, now excels as an Experienced Level Designer at Avalanche Studios Group, sharing insights from student portfolio curation to professional success.

Futuregames graduate Malin Wong is originally from Stockholm, Sweden, and has been working in the games industry for just over 4 years. Malin works at Avalanche Studios Group as an Experienced Level Designer. We are grateful for the time Malin has taken to speak with us about her experience curating a student portfolio and the journey from game art student to level designer at a renowned game development studio.

The Journey

What's your current role and what does it involve?

My role is “Experienced Level Designer”. In level design, I am part of the fantastic world-building of our games, sometimes from pitch to feature complete. As a level designer, I am responsible for building cool locations in our in-house editor that make the player utilise our game mechanics in an optimal way. In part, you could say that a level designer’s role is to tie the other disciplines’ awesome work together in game.

Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?

I work at Avalanche Studios Group, where we first and foremost make non-linear open world games. The studio has quite a broad portfolio, but some categories include sandbox, multiplayer, shooters, rogue-like, hack-n-slash and hunting & fishing simulations.

Ravenbound, Image Courtesy of Avalanche Studios Group

When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?

My parents are actually big gamers, and thanks to them, games have always been part of my life. Like many others, gaming was a big part of my childhood and adolescence. I have always been a creative person, but I never quite thought of the fact that game development was a viable career choice, let alone a job. In my mind, it was simply a hobby.

Around 2016 I had acquired some new friends who were content creators, and they inspired me to do the same.

While I loved the gaming aspect of it, I did not love all of the rest that comes with it. A year later I accompanied one of my friends to Blizzcon, and while admiring Blizzard’s fantastic World Of Warcraft cinematic, I met a game developer for the first time. She told me how she had worked on the game as an animator, and I was stunned. It had never before occurred to me that you could work in games, by making games.

How did you get your first big break?

I would say my first big break was getting accepted into Futuregames, as the admission intake was crazy, being one of the best game development schools in the area. I had taken a random programming class in high school, where I had studied media, but other than that I had no previous experience with game development. I studied a lot, watched a lot of Brackeys, and in the end just did my best for the admission test. When interviewing, I was open and honest, especially around the fact that I did not know everything. I was quite surprised actually when I got admitted.

For a long time I had a lot of impostor syndrome, especially seeing how incredibly talented all my peers were. I think a lot of people can relate to this. If I could have given myself back then/people in that situation some advice, it would be to not be so harsh on yourself. Everyone is there to learn, there is never an expectation that someone needs to know everything. Just continue to keep an open mind and ask questions. In my opinion, the ability to learn is way more important.

Describe the journey you took into your current role?

As mentioned before, I studied at Futuregames in Stockholm. It was my first choice, partly due to it being ranked so high, but also due to the school’s “hands on'' approach and the 6 month internship that is part of the curriculum. I was lucky to get offered an internship at Avalanche Studios, where I was hired after I graduated. I was also very lucky to have had a fantastic mentor at Avalanche as an intern, an industry veteran and senior level designer called Tomas Almgren. We worked closely together, and he taught me so much during my internship and helped me develop into a “proper” game developer, to the extent that I felt fully ready after my internship ended and managed to get hired immediately after.

Ravenbound, Image Courtesy of Avalanche Studios Group
Ravenbound, Image Courtesy of Avalanche Studios Group

How does your education complement your work?

During my education I was exposed to other disciplines for the first time, and we had a couple of cross-discipline game projects that were vital in terms of learning how to work together for a common product. We learned a lot from each other, and the game projects were like crash courses in game development, from pitch to “release”, but of course with a much smaller scope. During my education we also became proficient in different game engines, such as Unreal and Unity, as well as learning a lot from guest lecturers who were industry professionals in different fields and from different companies.

[At Futuregames] everyone is there to learn, there is never an expectation that someone needs to know everything. Just continue to keep an open mind and ask questions. In my opinion, the ability to learn is way more important.

Day in the life

Describe a typical day for you and your team?

A typical day for me and my team starts with a morning stand-up, where we brief each other and our producers of what we’re working on that day. It gives us an opportunity to stay up to date with each other's work, and is important for our collaboration. After which we usually continue with our tasks, which for me would be syncing with stakeholders and finally building locations in Apex - Avalanche’s own engine. Usually for me, this means my lead, game designers, environment artists, other level designers and our world designers, with the purpose to have collaboration and mutually move towards our common goals and game pillars.

What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?

At Avalanche Studios, we work in our in-house game engine called Apex Engine. I also use Perforce, Jira, Miro and Confluence on a daily basis. We usually communicate via Slack during the day, and have meetings on-site or virtually through Google Meets.

What does your workflow look like?

My workflow usually starts with syncing with any potential stakeholders, making a plan for whatever I’m going to build, and communicating with my lead and producer. I like to have a clear vision of what I’m trying to achieve beforehand, whether it’s writing documentation or making paper designs, before I move on to prototyping and blocking out levels in the engine.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

As a Level Designer you are constantly utilising all the amazing work from the other disciplines in your team, so it’s important that you have a form of communication with pretty much everyone.

With that being said, my most regular and close collaboration happens with other world content creators, such as World Designers, Level Designers and the Environment Art team. This is important as we have collective ownership of the design of the game world and spaces. It’s also very important to have an ongoing collaboration with Game Designers, to ensure that I am aware of things like game mechanics, narrative and resources, and taking that into consideration.

Of course industry trends can change the type of games you work on, but in my opinion a level designer will always be needed for the types of games I work with, at least for the foreseeable future.

For example, in my opinion AI still isn’t capable of creating the same type of quality as handcrafted content, as there are so many aspects which are needed to make really great Level Design. I think as tech progresses it could make certain aspects of Level Design easier, but I view that more as a possibility to have more advanced tools at my disposal rather than fundamentally changing my role. Again, I work with open world/non-linear games in 3D spaces, and I think (and hope) that it will continue to live on as a “trend”/genre as it’s quite big and non-defined in terms of what type of game it has to be.

Ravenbound, Image Courtesy of Avalanche Studios Group

One thing you’d never change about your job?

The creative freedom. Even within constraints, it’s ultimately you who build the location, of course in various degrees of collaboration with your peers. I love the process of having a cool idea and getting to execute it, and seeing it come alive through iteration and collaboration. In games, perhaps because I am a level designer, I often recall specific levels or areas of other games that introduced really fun or powerful moments, and getting the opportunity to actually build those for someone else to experience is very special to me.

But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?

I honestly can’t think of a straight answer for this. I suppose since Level Design utilises other disciplines so heavily (mechanics, art, etc) it means it’s prone to a lot of changes as the development process goes on. I wouldn’t call this something that needs to be changed however, but on the contrary something you have to keep in mind. I think it’s a healthy mindset to not be afraid to alter your work, or to not be afraid to “kill your darlings”. Sometimes an idea can be great, but just not for that specific game. In the end, the goal of all game developers should be that we collectively make the best game we can, and make decisions based on what’s best for the game rather than ourselves.

Career Advice

Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?

While it’s not a necessity if you’re very well self taught and have a good portfolio, it certainly helps. Especially when it comes to getting into the games industry, it can be easier to find an internship when you’re applying from an established school, as many game companies have various degrees of ongoing cooperation with certain schools, or have hired alumni which help boost the reputation of your education. A school like Futuregames where your guest teachers in different courses have jobs at various game companies is also super useful for networking, as you now have a valuable contact who hopefully thought you were a good student and may even be willing to help you with mentoring.

Even then, I would say that from my experience, a mix of a formal education and learning by yourself is the best way forward.

What tasks would you be typically asked to do as a junior level designer?

I think this probably varies a lot depending on what company and what game you’re working on, but for me I was building locations, brainstorming, making documentation and doing low level scripting, led by my mentor. For a junior it’s more or less “normal” level design work, except with a lower level of responsibility in terms of ownership and expectations. You would probably work very closely with your lead and more senior Level Designers, who would do their best to guide you and offer assistance if/when needed, and give you regular feedback sessions. At Avalanche, even as an intern or junior, they were super welcoming from the get go. They made sure that I was part of the team and felt like I belonged, and never “looked down” upon me or any of my suggestions due to the fact that I lacked experience. My fantastic mentor let me work with him on shared tasks, side by side, but without any pressure of having to personally “own” a feature or having to know everything in regards to what to do or who to ask.

What skills do you look for when hiring a level designer?

I want to preface this by saying that I am not the one who decides who gets hired, but I can share some of my personal opinions or feedback that I got when looking for an internship/things I usually see when mentoring students. Having a portfolio is super important - but having a good portfolio is even more so. At the end of the day, recruiters often have a lot of candidates for a role, and making a good first impression is vital.

Make sure your portfolio is easy to find and navigate, has valuable knowledge in regards to your work and that it matches the role you’re applying for.

A good portfolio entry would be something that catches the reader's attention, clearly states what you did at a quick glance, and shows that you understand Level Design. I would look for things that show the “what, how and why”. Tell me about your design process, why did you do the things you did, is there anything you would change, etc. The purpose for this is to gauge your design mindset and see that you actually understand what you make. Having a good overview of your different projects would also help the reader see if your skills are applicable to the company or project they’re hiring for.

I would say that other than this, the most valuable skills someone could have is being nice, good at communicating and cooperating in a teamwork setting, and being open and willing to learn.

Ravenbound, Image Courtesy of Avalanche Studios Group

What skills seem to be missing all too often?

In my opinion, when people reach out to me for mentoring or when I browse student portfolios, it’s often immediately clear to gauge someone's passion. Consider doing your own research first - perhaps you can find out the basics by yourself, there are tons of resources available online if you look for it. When someone is passionate about level design they have usually already covered the basics or made something by themselves, which is then a lot easier to give feedback to or answer questions about. Basically if you’re trying, it shows!

Other than this I would reiterate putting time and effort into your portfolio. Someone once said these words to me, and I think it really makes a lot of sense;

Level Design is still Design. Make sure your portfolio reflects that you’re a good designer. UX Design and Level Design might share more in common than you might think. And on top of that, this is for game development. If you manage to make your portfolio fun it’s a big advantage.

Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you implement it into your work?

I think game development at the core is another form of entertainment media. I draw inspiration from a lot of different sources. It could be a cool moment in a film that I’ve seen that inspires a level, or a mix of other games. I think it’s important as a game developer to stay up to date with new game releases and to try and play as many relevant games as possible, both to follow any current trends and to draw inspiration. I try to think about how that relates to the game I’m working on - is there a mechanic or something else that sparks an idea for a prototype, or is there something in the world building or narratively related that I can get inspired by? Before starting work on a location I like to make a mood board of different things that inspire me. It could be layout, mood, composition, anything. For me, it makes it easier to spark creativity.

Describe a project brief that you’d recommend level designers create for their portfolio?

I would be interested to see your key contributions highlighted, so for example perhaps “level design, scripting”, what engine you worked in, is this a solo project or a team effort, and what type of entry it is. For example, if it’s a game project, what type of game is it, is it a first person shooter or a platform puzzle game? How long did you work on this, or how long ago - and if so, is it still relevant? I would also recommend structuring each content page with easy access links that take you down to specific parts on the page.

What mistakes do you see level designers making when applying for jobs?

I am not part of the hiring process, but I would say make sure you reach out when your portfolio is ready! Try and put some effort into a matching CV and personal letter, and make sure it’s tailored to the specific company that you’re applying to. Perhaps some parts of your experience have different degrees of relevance depending on what types of games they make?

Ravenbound, Image Courtesy of Avalanche Studios Group

If you could give one piece of advice to level designers starting out, what would it be?

Level designers often have varying work depending on what company you’re working at. Some are more art oriented, and some are more tech oriented. If you want to learn both, great! If you don’t, don’t worry, you can still find a job. I would however recommend at least dabbling a bit in the fundamentals of both scripting and composition, as it’s a very useful skill to have and could be what sets you apart from the crowd.

If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?

Perhaps a bit contradicting as per my previous “rants” about portfolio work - but I would tell myself to take it a bit easier during the portfolio process. Making a portfolio can be super tedious and stressful, make sure you take care of yourself. I know you’re passionate and you strive for perfection, but it’s a fine line between that and obsession. The idea is that you will have this career for the rest of your life, you will have a lot of time to work on things.

Don’t crunch too much, don’t burn yourself out before your career has even started.

You can reach out to Malin via LinkedIn, and check out upcoming work from Avalanche Studios Group here.