Level Editing

How can playing an FPS become a informal learning experience, and lead to other learning experiences? Granted, there are those games such as Portal that provide a reasonably new experience (ever heard of Narbacular Drop?) that requires you to learn the rules, which are based at least in a physics that at least is partly grounded in this universe, in order to succeed, but what game doesn’t do that to some degree?

Most games have some kind of tutorial that is a learning experience, but generally these experiences are about learning how to play that particular game in terms of its particular idiosyncracies, something that Portal has in spades, and Blacksite: Area 51 has in terms of just not being that good.

The answer, as you may have guessed from the post title, lies in the magic of level editor. Criticism levelled at computers and consoles these days, if it is written by someone of a certain vintage, often veers off into the territory occupied by, “In my day when you turned your computer on, you had to learn basic commands, or you didn’t get to play anything.” This is closely followed in most cases by stories of weekends occupied entirely by typing in five or six pages of BASIC listings fuelled only by a multipack of Space Raiders and gallons of blue pop.

Yes, I was there as well, although I wasn’t allowed the blue pop. Actually though, we were in a minority then, because in actual fact, that kind of exercise, even when you got to the stage of writing your own game or program from scratch, wasn’t a massive amount of fun for anyone else but yourself, unless you were Matthew Smith or David Jones; and equally as profitable.

Nowadays though, the kids (and us) have it much better. With most titles that are worth playing come copious editing tools. With the release of Unreal Tournament 3 for PC, gamers can finally get their hands on suite of tools that will enable them to design and implement levels for PS3, as well as PC. Exciting stuff.

So, where’s the learning in all of this, outside of just learning how to create levels for a particular game, which can be profitable in itself? Well, I see it like this:

  1. You’re creating something for public consumption, therefore there’s going to be some kind of feedback loop, evaluation and refinement process involving other users
  2. You’re going to have to consider the physics and geometry of the structures you’re placing in the level; the more realistic the game engine, the more this point holds true
  3. When designing a level, you need to consider the kinds of behaviours that already exist in the game, and design appropriately
  4. Maybe you’ll need to work collaboratively with other people who have skills that you don’t, whether that’s musicians, artists or testers
  5. With single player levels, you’re learning to build a compelling narrative; unless of course you’re making a level for Serious Sam

Of course, level design leads naturally to modding, and modding leads to things like Counterstrike, which led to a career for a few people.

Good starting points include the Cube engine and Sauerbraten. I’ve seen some excellent results from Mission Maker from Immersive Education too, and it’s relatively child-friendly compared to UT3 and Half-Life 2.

The next step seems to be entire games designed around the concept of creating the levels yourself. Although this at first sounds incredibly lazy, in fact it’s kind of empowering. YouTube has been a great success primarily because although there are countless videos of people doing idiotic / amazing things that you can point and laugh at, you can also allow people to point and laugh at you as well, so everybody’s happy. It also removes the need for You’ve Been Framed to exist, which is just champion.

Everybody feels involved, and who knows, the video you posted could be the latest Internet hit, and you could end up on the real telly! The most recently hyped of these type of games that rely on user-generated content has been LittleBigPlanet, a game I’m looking forward to myself.

We’ve travelled a long way since Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit, as far as Polychromatic Funk Monkey, to be precise.

Finally, how about a game that requires you to cooperate with yourself?

So, here’s a quick roundup of where you can find these kinds of tools and games:

The Cube Engine: http://cube.sourceforge.net/

“Cube is an open source multiplayer and singleplayer first person shooter game built on an entirely new and very unconventional engine”

Sauerbraten (Cube 2): http://www.sauerbraten.org/

Ogre 3D: http://www.ogre3d.org/

An open source 3D engine.

Delta3D: http://www.delta3d.org/

Another open source 3D engine.

Valve Hammer Editor: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valve_Hammer_Editor

From the developer of Half-Life 2 and Portal.

Unreal Tournament 3: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreal_Tournament_3

Includes editing tools in the PC version

Mission Maker: http://www.immersiveeducation.com/missionmaker/

Child-friendly 3D editing tools, a good starting point

Polychromatic Funk Monkey: http://www.farbs.org/games.html

“[…] a tile based platforming game about building maps for tile based platforming games […]”

Have fun, and let me know of any other examples you can think of.