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Getting good at level design: Learned vs Natural talent?

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This is something that I started thinking about after I read an article on the internet that asked if artistic ability was largely genetic rather than just learned, and if or not this was the reason for why some people can draw or play an instrument where as many others can't. Making video game levels for games like Doom or Quake could be considered a form of art, since you are creating something that has to look cool and interesting so that the level doesn't end up looking like a potato. How much of this do you think is learned vs natural talent? Do you think anybody could learn how to create professional quality video game levels if given enough time?

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I think more of it is natural talent but there is always learning and practice for everyone. I've made maps for other games too, and they were always well received with some varying degrees. I'd say I have the natural ability to make decent (maybe even great) maps, but that doesn't mean that anything I make at any time is going to be good. I still have to practice and improve. There's always more to learn which compliments any sort of natural talent.

 

So in other words... everyone can learn to be a good level designer, but only a percentage can be good at it in a quicker time frame (aka natural talent).

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At this point I don't know if I believe the word "talent" has any meaning. I think it all comes down to exposure (to the tools, sounds, books etc. of whatever field we are talking about), interest/having fun, and practice. That cute girl in math class who knew all the answers and shrugged it off like nothing was actually being drilled by her family since she was 4.

bzzrak, AD_79, therektafire and 5 others like this

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I have a friend whose sister got her M.F.A. (Master's in Fine Arts) degree so that she could teach poetry. That struck me as ludicrous because, as I told him, how do teach someone to write poetry, which I believed to be something that you either could do or couldn't do. He told me that there are still basics involved in writing poetry (rhyming schemes, meter, alliteration, consonance, etc.) that anyone could learn and write poetry. Would it be great poetry that we would talking about centuries from now? Likely not, but you could still write poems and you could become proficient at doing so.

 

Does that mean that you would become as good as any of the other great poets that are still talked about and read in schools? No, probably not. But would still be able to write poems for yourself or someone else. Yes.

 

Level design is, I think, similar. Two people can take the same tools and one may take to the concept better than the other. But the other person can still learn how to use them and the principles and what to do and what not to do. At the end of the day, that person who has learned the techniques and studied mapping styles will be able to make maps that people can play. Will that person be talked about in the same breath as some of the level design legends? Probably not. But with effort, time, and perseverance, they can still levels that people will enjoy playing.

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Some people have natural talent coming out of their ears, others learn their craft with sweat and toil, and some are just so prolific that that sooner or later they score a hit.

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I don't think there is a lot of talent involved. Sure, some people may have more "creative energy" than others, but all things considered, if you have an idea that you think is worth exploring, and you put it down and tweak it so it does work the way you want to, then that's all that matters...

 

The frequency of "output" comes with practice for the most part, I think, because creativity is something that can be "trained", and being fast with the builder and format of your choice is based on experience for the most part. Also, just because someone has different ideas than you may have, it doesn't mean you're less creative, maybe somebody else just has a different approach that you could learn from and vice versa.

 

I wouldn't think about these things too much, honestly, and instead start mapping to see if you enjoy it, because that's the only reason it is worth doing to begin with, in my opinion.

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Having a creative/artistic flare certainly helps towards making maps look beautiful, having a vision of what your map will look like prior to beginning construction is a seriously advantage. 

 

However I think the most important aspects of mapping come from, research, experience (playing) and trial and error.

 

Personally I have absolutely no artistic talent what so ever, so use the above items to build my maps and also my methodical mind set helps. So in my opinion level design is a skill that is learned.

 

@Nine Inch Heels Do you enjoy mapping then? 

 

  

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3 minutes ago, Liberation said:

Do you enjoy mapping then? 

I sure do. Also I like watching people play them to understand how they try to figure out stuff and whatnot. Also I love to see people suffer and struggle, I'm a sadistic type of mapper, after all.

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I often find myself spinning around maps, trying hard to find anything new to add. This gets exponentially worse as the map gets bigger. Ultimately this blocks me, especially if I didn't think through a plot for the map. It's also bad if the map is a huge sprawling mess of new areas added over the years (!).

 

I'd love to become adept at it and be able to advance my maps at a constant pace, because otherwise I seem unable to finish any decent map. I feel this can be a useful skill in other domains than game design too. I guess I should just keep trying...

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I believe that artistic talents are learned. IMO the People we percieve as having "natural talent" are those who can learn pick up and learn faster than others. We can be as good "the natural" through practice and persistence.

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Talent shows are a thing for children because they haven't had enough time to master the skills, as evident by the skill gap between high schoolers and adults and our expectations for work produced by a person from either age group.

 

Talent, or a genetic predisposition, is a thing, certainly. One can be born with longer fingers and thus able to play an instrument easier than one with shorter fingers, or born with more fast-twitch muscles, etc. However, if you never use those muscles, you'll never have the chops to keep up for more than 5 seconds; if you never develop the coordination and muscle memory, no amount of stretching or super-flexibility is gonna help you hit that crazily-shaped chord on-the-fly without losing sound quality.

 

I've seen many students who started off behind the curve wind up ahead of it in later years because they developed a work habit that was stronger than that of their "gifted" peers, and thus, when the plateau inevitably came, guess who surpassed it faster.

 

A genetic predisposition will point us in a direction, but it is to us to hone the skills needed to become something truly unique. Muscle memory is far more a factor than talent, and is only a subsector of skill. 

 

If I am genetically predisposed to cancer, would it make sense for me to give up any trying for a health life because it's in my genes and an inevitability, or should I eat healthy and exercise in hopes of keeping other factors strong enough to fight the cancer?

 

Even for something affected by a genetic predisposition, we still have power over it. Hell, I prolly would've been taller if not for imbibing so much caffeine and working out as I grew up. Of course that's something not testable, but it's still a commonly believed trope of our biology. However, let's take something like run speed. Run speed being determined by our composition of fast-twitch muscles, however if one works on sprinting they can train themselves to cover that distance faster. So what is really 100% genetically predetermined? Nothing, if we are to follow the semantics of a predisposition vs a predetermination.

 

Human beings are trainable, but we cannot discount the time invested previous to the now from others merely because we have a basic knowledge before going into something. Ask any of the greats what they do all day, then compare and contrast the puzzle pieces between the different fields of study or art and recognize that all puzzles look the same.

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It seems to be mostly genetics/talent combined with hard work. John Carmack, not a mapper but a good example, would have achieved nothing if he hadn't worked to accumulate the skills to be able to manifest his inborn greatness at problem solving.

 

There's one plus when it comes to the brain as due to Neuroplasticity there could be a higher chance to improve upon what one

was given and get really good - not genius level But Good Enough to produce interesting content in a field of choice.

So map making, being a manifestation of your mental processes, has indeed a high chance of being responsive to improvements if you keep toiling away and let inspiration do the rest. 

 

In sports it ain't so. Try out-lifting somebody who was born to tear things up(reactions, joints, willpower, leverage due to limb proportions) or to beat somebody up who was born to physically dominate... bad idea.

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You need imagination to create worlds. Otherwise they'll be dull or derivative regardless of technical competence.


You need knowledge and practice in order to do your ideas justice. Badly realized idea is no different from a bad idea in the eyes of the majority. Plus, you don't want to get stuck in an inefficient workflow that chips away at your sanity with hardly anything to show for it. A number of things can go wrong.

 

I don't think either nature or nurture should be underestimated.

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Talent is a vague thing, especially in level design where there are several aspects to. Aesthetic, flow, layouting, encounter design, space usage.. those are things that can make a map memorable and enjoyable, and if you come from other walks of life to mapping, you might already have some of these things learned, like someone artistically orientated might have easier time to come up with impressive shots/architecture utilizing proper composition etc. 

While I think there is sort of natural ability when it comes to these sort of things, it is hard to separate from learned ability. 

 

It's not just one of them. I don't personally think that there is anything stopping from just anybody from becoming professional, but there is the edge that makes some people masters, and that talent might be it. 

I have obviously no background in pedagogic/child development/psychology knowledge, but that's just my wagering. 

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I think it's all experience since i don't think that anyone ever opened Doom Bulder for the first in their life and created a masterpiece 32 map megawad out of nothing.

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If I'm being honest, I think a bit of my successful experience with mapping has something to do with natural talent. From an early age, I've had an ability to look at a picture of something and copy the details I see in a drawing with a pencil to recreate the picture with some pretty close accuracy. It's not perfect of course, but most people I've talked to have seen me do it and ask me how and I do it, and I honestly have no explanation for it. I can just do it. It didn't require any sort of training that I know of. I just look at the details and I can make it. Some of that has translated into my mapping because I can look at a pretty interesting screenshot, then observe the individual sectors that make up the image, then transpose it in the editor to create a similar looking thing. That's a skill I can't even begin to explain in a normal way to anyone other than "do it."

 

That said, I and a lot of people I know have accomplished some really unbelievable and amazing things with enough practice, grappling with the mind, and patience. But I also believe that everyone has different manners of interpreting and absorbing information. So when it comes to mapping, having talent is a really good and motivating jumping off point to pursue a pretty solid mapping background, but there is certainly a lot of learned skills and practices that you need to develop in order to get anywhere that's pretty good. And you have to like it enough to sit down and do the work to get there.

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An additional aspect of just talent and skill is motivation and interest. It doesn't matter how talented you are if you aren't that interested in something. You just won't be any good.

 

For example, I really enjoy mapping, often more than even playing the game. I find architecture and geometry fascinating - I'll visit any cathedral I can merely to admire the construction. I'll happily make bad maps for hours and hours, which somehow over the years have become not so bad maps.

 

Regardless of natural talent, if you don't enjoy something you'll never willingly put the hours in to get better. So it's a combination of talent, practice and passion. 

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On 12/31/2017 at 7:03 AM, printz said:

I often find myself spinning around maps, trying hard to find anything new to add. This gets exponentially worse as the map gets bigger. Ultimately this blocks me, especially if I didn't think through a plot for the map. It's also bad if the map is a huge sprawling mess of new areas added over the years (!).

 

I'd love to become adept at it and be able to advance my maps at a constant pace, because otherwise I seem unable to finish any decent map. I feel this can be a useful skill in other domains than game design too. I guess I should just keep trying...

I think I have realized over time that, for me at least, a lot of these problems come down to issues with my process and my own (overly-self-critical) mindset. lately I try to just go with the flow of wherever my mind is and try not to hold myself to any sort of standard when I don't feel like it. for example:

 

  • I'm working on a map that I have really high hopes for and build a new area only to find it doesn't live up to my expectations. that's ok, I'll scrap the area and try again. OR maybe I just accept that it's ok in its current state and I don't need to fret about it. this doesn't have to be my magnum opus
  • I'm working on a map and get tired of working on that theme. that's ok, I just open up/start something else if I feel like mapping still, or just go do something else
  • I'm watching sunder demos on youtube on my commute and feel really inspired to make something like sunder. later I sit down to map and don't know what to put down that's like sunder but not completely identical, and my motivation drains away. that's ok, I don't need to release this. just copy sunder exactly and I'll naturally find a few things here and there to do differently. worst case I have some fun mapping and testing, best case I make some cool shit that I can later repurpose for something else

 

basically lately I've just tried to let myself map when I feel like it, and do whatever I feel like, without many restrictions or expectations of necessarily releasing. I have stopped trying to force anything out of myself lately and am having a lot more fun (and therefore mapping a lot more) lately, even if I still have nothing that I've deemed release-worthy out of it

 

edit: also might be worth mentioning that I've tried to stop comparing myself to all these other map-making machines out there that churn out quality release after quality release. I try to just be ok with whatever pace I'm working at, even if it's miles behind some folks

Edited by Tango
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@Tango Dude, you made the best map in BTSX E1, you really don't need to doubt yourself. And Mayan Mishap is awesome and distinct from everything else.

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Practice, practice and more practice. You can learn how to design levels, definitely. I remember when I started learning how to create and edit Doom levels, I went through Dr.Sleep's Doombuilder 1 tutorial at around 2007-2008 and I can definitely say that my design has changed positively compared to back then. You just need to understand what is fun for you, what do you perceive as good and entertaining in a level and try emulate it, so playing maps that you find enjoyable and try to understand why you like them and why they work for you so you can establish some sort of a style, but you will also need to get around the technical stuff such as using the editor itself. Luckily in our modern times, knowing how to use Doombuilder is relatively easy and you have access to a plethora of online information so I think it's almost a minor obstacle. 

 

 

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I think it's a mixture of attitude and enjoyment. If your attitude is that you're willing to learn and you enjoy designing then you'll be motivated enough to learn the skills. The more you practice the better you'll get.

 

Some people might have a disposition to being more arty but that'll only get you so far. A dedicated person who enjoys their work will eventually, with enough learning and practice, become more proficient than someone who was gifted.

 

Lol, it's like when you have 200 health and armour. It won't last forever and the player who learns how to be efficient will last longer even if they only start with 10 health and armour.

 

Obviously if you have formal training/education in digital art, programming etc you'll start with an advantage but I've met people who started with no programming experience and no training who later technically surpassed people with a university degree. Training can't give you a love for design, that has to come from within.

 

Always being curious also helps. I'm always looking for ideas. If I'm abroad and see an unusual pattern on the ground I quickly take a photo and use it for inspiration later on. Anything can be inspiration, from some crappy film to something your girlfriend said one day.

 

In a way the less you know the better, because exploring how to do stuff is where a lot of inspiration comes from. E.g. the first time you learn how to make fake floors you do lots of levels with fake floors to explore the potential, then when you learn how to use variable lighting that becomes the new thing to explore. The danger is when you "know it all" you stop exploring. Sometimes it's better to leave designing for a year then come back like you never designed before.

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