I was pointed to an article on Gamasutra yesterday, covering realistic level design for Max Payne from the 2002 GDC. Whilst not exactly complex stuff, it’s interesting merely because it demonstrates some of the problems with realitic level design.
The biggest problem is of course scale. Anyone who has made more than a few maps knows that you can’t simply adopt a real life scale and expect the map to ‘feel’ right to the player; typically you have to scale up to avoid claustrophobia. Doors have to be taller than they should be, wider than they should be. These days engines have actually got a little better at accounting for the medium, and Source seems to feel a lot better than say, HL1 did, but this could be due to art as much as it is the engine. Even so, it’s still something that requires consideration.
Then there’s over-compensation, when the player looks too small within the environment.
…and the problem where everything looks fine in one spot, then too small in another and too big at another with no obvious reason why.
However, that’s trivial stuff. It just requires practise.
The interesting stuff from the article, in my opinion, is the less obvious but still common-sense point regarding detail levels. In a nutshell, you don’t need to put detail into areas the player cannot see close-up. That is, detail on the floor and walls is more likely to be noticed by the player than the intricate piping system 20 metres above them in the ceiling. Similarly, don’t put important gameplay elements in the distance where the player is unlikely to spot them.
This also means that you can spend more time detailing some parts of your map and not others, which is fairly obvious, but is too easy to forget about. As nice as it might be to have a fully detailed warehouse, chances are the player will only notice or care about 20% of the stuff you put in. The remaining 80% is just a waste of polys and time, so spend the 20% wisely and where it matters.
Then you can spend the other 80% getting the scale right and making sure the game elements are more obvious than your intricate pipework.
So, give the article a read if you haven’t already. It’s worth it!