Level Concept Art: Why Does Level Design Need a Concept Art

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Level design concept art creation

Level design concept art is a part of common level design. Basic level design is not as hard as it seems: level designer needs to build a level that is fun to play. It may even consist of grey blocks without textures but still be fun. A perfect example is a popular multiplayer map in CS:GO “AWP LEGO”.

level concept design lego

But if you are making a story-based game, multiplayer shooter or a turn-based mobile game, you’ll need level design concept art to make things pretty. Level concept art will show these things:

  • how the level is meant to play;
  • what story may be told in these decorations;
  • what points of interest can be added;
  • what the player will feel while playing this level.

By looking at level concept art you can clearly see if it is interesting already, suits the game world and may tell a story about it.

Why do developers need level design concept art

Main purpose of concept art is to visualize what the story writer or game designer can describe in game design document. Concept art or sketches allows game developers to quickly see if the proposed thing would or wouldn’t work in game. Also concept art can give the story writer ideas he couldn’t think of himself.

Level concept art serves the same purpose: game designer says “We need a fairy tale eastern-style castle!” and concept artists draw sketches of castles with domes, pillars and giant carved doors. Game designer notices a long narrow bridge and decides that it is a good spot to set a fight between the hero and main villain. And that dome on the main tower — maybe it would be destroyed in the prologue.

arabian castle level concept art

When the level concept is approved, 3D modellers can use it as a reference to create the detailed environment parts and textures. Then level designers will use them as bricks to set up the final level.

Imagine this process as development of a new Lego set. At first the concept artist creates an image of what we can build with Lego, a car for example. Then 3D modellers and level designers try to reproduce concept art with pieces they have.

Still, the concept art is needed as a reference to make a final product. Designers and artists can change it a little so the art will suit their needs and later use it as a blueprint. Also, it’s impossible to keep in mind an image of what the level must look like. The natural way to solve this problem is to draw level concept art.

How the level concept art creation starts

At first the level concept artists cooperate with one who has a vision of a complete game: game designer, producer or story writer. They need these details:

  • game setting. Time, place on Earth, area description;
  • story. What will be happening in this level and in these decorations exactly;
  • emotions. What the player needs to feel while playing the level.

The more detailed these descriptions are, the easier it is to produce environmental concept art. Bad case:

— We need a building.

— What kind of building? 

— A building.

— Okay…

— What it is?

— A dutch style private house.

— I wanted a big industrial building with neon lights and glass walls!

Good case:

— We need a building: 100 floors high, strict forms, neon lights everywhere, big antenna on top, big hole in a center.

— Why do you want hole? 

— Because there’s demon invasion and a giant one tried to punch a hole and destroy it. Also, antenna is needed so survivors will try to communicate with resistance. 

— OK, I’ll draw a slightly tilted skyscraper with a hole, broken neon lights and athena capable to send signal to Jupiter. And maybe will add a crashed plane.

— A plane? 

— A plane.

post apocalypse environment concept art

Thanks to the communication between game designer and concept artist we’ll got one of the most atmospheric levels in Doom Eternal. We got it not because the game designer or story writer were geniuses (of course they were), but because the concept artist got the idea and added something unique to it. That’s the key to creating memorable levels.

How the level concept artist work with references

References are images, videos and text description which help the artist to better understand the subject and get inspiration. Artists may not do this alone, because he’s not the only person responsible for the final result. He needs help from a game designer and scriptwriter so they will tell him what references are close to their vision.

References can not be translated without changes. Not just because it’s a lazy way to make games, but because the real world is huge and boring. For example, the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey map area is 90 square miles. Real Greece area is 50 949 square miles — 560 times bigger. Now imagine, that the developers carried the real Greek cities into the game. It would be huge, yes, but boring as hell. For example, compare the Manhattan Island in real life with 1:7 scale copy in Spider-Man which clearly looks smaller.

spider man level design

So the references are used only to get inspired and create something new and beautiful, but still connected to the real world. For example, when the concept artist needs to portray an actual city, the artist can use most famous buildings and a few streets of it to create an illusion. The concept must be full of interesting details, so the developers could use them in future.

Sometimes there are no straight references. For example, if the artist needs to create an alien ship inside, an underwater city or a nuclear wasteland. In this case only creativity can help. The artist needs not only to imagine some strange things which may interest the players, but to explain how do they work only with visual. And this process must be done for every level.

Game level art: details rule the world

When the artist knows all about the setting and storyline and has found all the references he needs, he may start with rough shapes. Place a building there, a stone here… And after a few hours of work the rough sketch is done. Now it’s time to add some details: doors, windows, flags, ornaments, embrasures, statues, benches, trees and so on.

Those little details must help to distinguish one level from another, set the mood and serve as landmarks for the developers and players. For example, a giant mountain will surely be seen from anywhere and the players can use it to navigate without a map.

concept level design example

Also, every detail must tell a clear story. A castle with a ruined wall and broken bridge? It’s abandoned. A village with flowers and trees? It must be a good place to rest. A desert with a lone tree on a sand hill? It must be a miracle or mirage. Smaller details like broken glass, fresh asphalt or blue flags flying in the wind grab the attention and force the player to discover something new about the location he’s walking.

Game level concept art is based on story, lore and purpose

While drawing level concept art the artist may often consult with the story writer and ask him “What happened here? How was this location used before the player came here? What the player will do here?” With detailed answers the artist will get the inspiration and ideas to show the idea to the players.

The biggest challenge is to draw environmental concept art of unknown grounds: streets of future, spaceships, alien planets, parallel worlds and mystic things. Nobody knows what they should look like, nobody can help. Artists are left alone with imagination and understanding of what our environment is capable of.

For example, let’s imagine an alien ship. Aliens for sure need to eat and sleep. So in their spaceship must be a kitchen and a few bunks. They need to maintain the engines, so there must be an engine compartment. Also don’t forget about the armory where they store weapons and a special compartment for stolen cows.

ufo level concept art

Now when we know what the aliens do inside a spaceship and know how they look like, we can add details to the concept. We have typical little green man aliens who are 3-4 feets high. They naturally have small arms and legs, so they don’t need the doors to be 7 feet high and doorknobs on 4 feet height. To portray the size difference the concept artist can draw a human in front of a main entrance. The players wanted to take aboard the flying saucer — but reality strikes again. All they can do is to crawl inside and find some canned martian smuck plucks in the alien fridge.

alien ship level concept art

Same thing goes with every possible setting: details must have purpose and a story behind, or the players won’t believe in the portrayed world.

Final steps in concept level design

Final steps are to refine the sketch and turn it into a masterpiece. Sketches from previous steps only show the proportions and details, just like the polygon mesh in 3D modelling. To make use of the concept art the artist has to add colors, textures and lightning to it.

Colors and lightning are the best tools to define the art’s mood. For example, if the colors are warm and bright, the scene will be perceived as something positive. If the colors are muted and cold, the scene will be sad.

concept design level art

Valuable details has to be highlighted with contrast. Details should lead the player like a breadcrumbs. For example, in Devil May Cry 5 in the occupied city the player often sees bright objects while the rest of the level is dark. It may be a big screen with advertisement, a red bus, a green balloon or an eagle statue. These objects grab attention, the player comes closer, sees other interesting objects and goes through the level.

Conclusion

Level concept art is not so well known among fresh game developers. But level designers and concept artists know for sure that without concept or napkin sketch at least they won’t be able to build a good level. So if you are struggling with level design — maybe you haven’t a concept art?

Hire our game art outsourcing studio to draw level concept art. We will understand the setting and mood of your game, offer you a dozen different concept variants and also help with level design, if needed.

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