Go with the Flow: Level Design in VR Hoover Dam


It takes a team of experts working together to share their knowledge to build a game as comprehensive and detailed as the virtual reality Hoover Dam game. Dr. Scott Ahrens is the primary level designer for the VR Hoover Dam project.

A 1970s photo of Winthrop Davis’s cabin in Toledo, Washington. This is the first environment players will explore. The team is re-creating this cabin site in VR, and it sets the scene for the game. There, Wint directs players to help him recover his lost work.
An early in-progress screenshot building the cabin environment in Unreal Engine. All of the trees, grass, dirt, buildings, hills, sky, clouds, fences, and every piece of the environment need to be placed by the designer.
An overhead sketch of the cabin site layout. We used this as a reference for where to put each of the buildings and how the scale of everything would fit together.

How Does Virtual Reality Work?

Dr. Scott Ahrens, Professor of art and design at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth is the lead level designer for the VR Hoover Dam project. He’s no stranger to virtual reality design. Years ago he taught his first class on the subject when he and his students were able to get their hands on one of the very first stereoscopic headsets, the special apparatus worn by game players to immerse them in a virtual world. 

The stereoscopic headset works similar to those chunky, cardboard-cutout 3D glasses that movie theaters pass out before you watch a 3D movie. The way the brain interprets dimension is that each eye is fed a slightly different image because of the offset of our eyes, or the difference in their positions on our face. These different images provide us with a sense of depth, that is, our place in the world compared to other objects around us.

If you think of each eye as a camera that’s perceiving the world, then each of your eyes has a slightly different vantage point, or viewpoint of the world. Stereoscopic headsets for VR project two images, one into each eye, which creates the illusion of being in a three-dimensional environment. Or, at least a different three-dimensional environment than the one you’re in when you remove the headset.

What is Level Design?

Level design is like directing a movie: you’re given a script, and your job is to translate the script “into a narrative sequence of gameplay encounters.” 

A gameplay “encounter” occurs any time a player is in a situation that requires them to “do something” in order to proceed with the story. For example, you may need to learn how to unlock a door, solve a puzzle, or maybe even defeat an enemy. The term “encounter” comes from classic roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, where players encounter a situation, which requires them to make any number of decisions in order to proceed. 

In our virtual reality Hoover Dam game, players will encounter photographer Winthrop Davis who sends you off on quests to find keys, to open locked doors, to locate his lost photographs, and more. Some games include subtle level design clues, such as a journal, or clear objectives “superimposed over the world that [remind] you what you should be doing at any given time.” In our Hoover Dam game, “we have Wint barking orders at you. If you sit still for a few minutes, you know, he squawks at you to remind you what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Storytelling is important to level design, too. The level developer’s job is to create a fun and appropriately paced journey through these little encounters, which means that we work together to write the game script, and then work to plot how that will play out in the narrative inside the game. A level designer must be able to anticipate the needs of the audiences who play the game, and after anticipating their needs, create resolutions for those needs. Ultimately we need to make sure players are challenged and interested enough in the game, that they continue playing it! 

Level designers work closely with a development team’s 3D modelers, or the people who create our 3D setting. The goal of any design team is for players to forget that they’re playing a game at all; part of that is creating realistic landscapes and challenges to interact with within those landscapes.
Looking up the path to where Wint’s cabin, shed, garage, and garden will be.

Why should I care about level design?

Level design is a key feature of any successful video game because it has to do with what people refer to as “flow.”

We want to have flow, which is when the player sort of loses track of time. They lose track of the fact that they’re playing a game because they’re so engrossed in the gameplay that the real world sort of melts away.

The balance that an entire game development team needs in order to get players into the “flow” of the game, and keep them there, is tricky to get right. Players need to be challenged enough that the game is stimulating without being too difficult that they want to give up; the game needs to be long enough that it’s considered thoughtful and organic without dragging on in any way that bores its players, and so on. 

Level development is also important so that if a player doesn’t remember what they’re supposed to be doing, then there’s a system in place to remind them. Otherwise, you may find yourself wandering for a while until you truly do get bored enough that you quit the game. 

Level development is a continuous process, and as new players try out the game, our team must respond to anything they find particularly difficult, or worse; boring. 

Where else does level development show up in our game?

One in-game example of level development is Wint’s refrigerator. The fridge is padlocked shut, and players will need to figure out how to open it. Wint will drop hints and bad jokes along the way, while players will need to find and use tools and avoid dangers. They do this by using their hand controllers to interact with objects in the virtual environment. 

As level design is concerned with space, architecture, sculpture, three dimensions, and thinking about how that space translates to story, the effects of level design are felt continuously by the game players. 

An in-process shot in Unreal Engine of Wint’s shed which holds his old refrigerator. During development, a 3D modeling team makes the shed, the padlock, the tools, boxes, and all of the other things you see and interact with. The level designer puts everything together so that it fits the narrative.

How can you get started in level design?

Level design is an influential characteristic of any successful video game, but Dr. Ahrens says you don’t need to be the best writer or computer programmer to face the challenge. 

“There’s not a lot of writing… we leave the writing to the writers. But you do have to be able to tell a story visually, and so we can learn a lot from film.”

Film, and even other genres of art such as graphic novels and video games are able to rely more on visuals than on words to tell their stories. “Film language is really important because I mean, as you know, there are amazing films that tell stories with no audio whatsoever,” and there’s “this idea of moving through space and allowing someone to sort of experience small spaces and large spaces and dangerous spaces, and, you know, there’s a lot of storytelling there too.” 

Playing a lot of games also helps with level design, because the more games you play, the more spaces you explore. Like any artist, you’re drawing on the features of spaces you remember, whether they’re fictional or real. 

Architecture is another form of design that will help future level designers think about space, and storytelling through space. 


If you’re interested in learning further about level design and our virtual reality project, please reach out. Your question or comment may be featured on our blog!

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