Musings on Level Design and Quality Control

I originally posted this at ThinkingWithPortals.com, the Portal / Portal 2 community that I operate. I posted it in response to the fairly common complaint that our community standards are “too high” and that we “ridicule” less skilled mappers. Read on for the full rant in it’s entirety copied straight from the site.

I’d like to preface this by saying that I’m not the average gamer; I’m a game developer, I’ve been making games for a long time, and I have long since lost the ability to not look at games critically. A chef analyzes every meal he eats. An architect studies every building he enters. I examine every game, every map, every puzzle I play. But more than that, I’m the type of person who views games as more than just trivial entertainment. I’m not going to go off on a huge tangent on “games as art”, but my point is that games (and custom maps) can and should be given the type of importance that you would a painting, a sculpture, a play, or a piece of music.

I recognize the disconnect that exists between myself as the site administrator and the chief forward thrust for what I want and work towards the culture here being, and the fact that many new map designers don’t have the background that I do and don’t have the same goals and drive that I do (even if I wish they did). When I give tough criticism to a map by someone new to the tools, new to the engine, probably new to 3D design in the first place, I feel like I really have to go out of my way not to make myself feel bad. Not because I’m worried about hurting someone’s feelings, but because I genuinely, legitimately want to see everyone who does post maps to do their absolute best work for their own sake… And it’s hard to articulate that to someone who doesn’t have a firm understanding of what it means to really examine something critically.

The problem with this is that very frequently, I see new people “giving their best shot” and I know that isn’t the case. The best artists all started out somewhere, so while I don’t expect everyone who learns Hammer for the first time ever to produce something like this, I can’t help but feel like you are just giving up if you’re doing this in your map and say “This is the best I could possibly do.” I don’t really know what would drive someone to make that and decide it’s good enough to show to the public. My guess is that either you assume because you don’t have a high standard or care about your map then others probably don’t care about quality either.

Or, what I’m afraid of, is that the mapping and modding scene – really gaming in general – is such that people feel entitled to encouragement and praise simply for putting forth effort, regardless of the amount or quality of that effort. And I feel this is sadly the case when someone says “you should cut me slack because I’m new.” That shouldn’t matter, and here it doesn’t. I can’t even come up with a list of great maps made by people who were new to the tools or the engine. Unfamiliarity with the toolset does not mean that you as an artist – and that’s what you are when you make a map, you’re a 3D artist – have the right to totally forgo receiving criticism when you refuse to look at your own work critically.

Over the years, I’ve found that there are two very different types of bad maps made by new designers. There is the map made by someone who has put in the minimal effort required to get their map to work (despite lamenting that they put in “their best attempt”); these maps usually have single texture surfaces, very little or very poorly executed lighting or detail, and really just the bare minimum to get something that can be – and there isn’t enough quotes in the universe to put around this – “played”.

And then there is the type of map that has all of the right elements of a map there at play – diverse world detailing, props, varied lighting, attempts at interesting game elements, and so on – but unfortunately gets most if not all of these things totally wrong. This is the person who has the potential to make something really great, even if they didn’t do it on their first try. This is what I’m okay with seeing put up here, because it shows genuine and honest effort. These are the people I like giving feedback and criticism to, because I know that they give a shit about what they’re doing, they just need to know how to do it right.

This is why I have worked for years to develop the “quality culture” here. Why great works are praised, why mediocre works are given the criticism they deserve, and why maps that proclaim “I made this in 3 hours it is fun map I am new to Hammer pleace rate 5 stars” get panned and laughed off stage. If you don’t care, then we don’t care. If you don’t try to make the best thing you can, if you decide your map is “good enough” and upload it when you know that there are plenty of things you could spend more time working on, then we’re not going to try to make you feel good.

I don’t expect everyone who shows up here to be perfect. What I do expect is that everyone who uploads a map, regardless of skill or ability, will put forth their honest best effort. If you don’t then, really, why are you even wasting your time making something in the first place?

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