Sometime next year we’ll all get to play Rage 2, a frantic mix of Mad Max vehicle combat and Bulletstorm execution combos. It’s an odd project that probably has more DNA from other franchises than its own — and that’s a good thing. While the first Rage was forgettable, the second looks much better.
We’ll have to play it before we know for sure, but in the meantime we were able to speak to Tim Willits, studio director at id Software, about the knowledge sharing between id Software and Avalanche Studios – one the grandfather of traditional level design, the latter more versed in open worlds – and also how Bethesda checks three key metrics at each milestone to make sure targets are being hit without resorting to crunch.
FANDOM: We imagine being a level designer under you is both enlightening and challenging, having one of the people who helped create level design as we know it as your boss.
Tim Willits: I love level design. Because I feel level design is kinda where the rubber meets the road in terms of gameplay.
You know I still, when I get the chance, help some of the younger level designers with their levels. It’s really rewarding. Like when I go to Sweden, and I meet with Avalanche on Rage 2. The level designers – they’re so funny – they call it Willits University. So I get them all in a room, and bring up the whiteboard, and I’m like “Okay! Let’s talk about corners…This is a typical corner. But if you add a cutout here, and move the wall here, there’s a little extra gameplay. Most people turn right here… And here’s how to draw attention to something… ” So there are some techniques and things I’ve learned over the years that I try to teach people.
In the old days, when it was just like one or two people working on levels, we did everything. But nowadays level design is kind of a group effort. Where you have a blackout person, and you have a lighting person, an environment art person… So levels are far better now than when I was younger, but they require a much more concerted effort, and better communication between each person who adds to the level at some point.
But I try to work with the kids as much as I can. Newer designers. I love it. Some people just have a gift. Some of the new folks we have on the team are so good. They’re far better than I ever was. It’s fun working with them.
You were involved in the earliest days of FPS level design, going from the technological innovation to perfecting how it should be used. Now that open worlds are a more mature technology, what does perfection in open world level design look like to you?
I have learned a lot about that. I discovered that I did know know as much as I thought I did about level design. Before I started working on this.
For example, I’d sit down with the Avalanche designers. And we’d be talking about a mission. And I would go straight into classic id Software mode. And be like “Okay, you start here, we go here, this guy jumps out, and this explodes, and this opens…” And the guys are looking at me, and say “Okay, what happens if you drive a tank through the back door?” And I’m like “Oh, I didn’t think of that.”
So I’ve definitely learned to approach level design differently. So in an open world, it’s the robustness. It’s creating fun play spaces that you can approach from any direction. But then also, you need AI which is smart. Which is way harder than you think. Open world AI is so difficult to program. Because the player can do anything, and approach from anywhere. And when you play Rage 2, you’ll see where we try to push the player in certain directions, that’s the id Software coming out.
So perfect level design is robust enough to approach from anywhere, the AI is smart enough to react, and play spaces that are fun and exciting from any direction.
It also has to double as a level for vehicle combat and infantry combat. Outside spaces are used for both, is that right?
So one of the things we struggled with in Rage… We had some fun things in Rage. We had some great levels, we had some great driving. But they were all disconnected. Which kind of made the game feel like separate pieces. Whereas in Rage 2, we’re in a complete open space.
And obviously yes, things like the tunnel, the sewers, there’s a main entrance that you go in. And when you go in there, you’re going to have to feel like you’re really in that area.
But then you just walk out back, and you get your stuff, and you’ve gotta find your car, and you talk to the person that sent you there. Whereas then we have some more areas that are more open and accessible from all directions. So I think we have a good mix. It flows well, nothing feels jarring. There’s no level loads, which is nice.
That’s I think the biggest issue with the first game, all the level loads and all the pieces that didn’t feel like they fit together.
The hot topic at the moment is crunch, and some Rockstar apologists point to the attention to detail in Red Dead Redemption 2 as a reason why crunch is a “necessary evil.” Do you think any game could be special in that way, or is crunch just a failure of management planning?
At Bethesda we try to have regular check-ins where we check scope, time, and resources. Because you know every game you start with has more scope than you can ever do. But at each point, along the way, we figure out if we’re still good on all of those.
So we’ve applied those techniques to working with Avalanche, so yes they have their own sprints, and their own scrums, and their own internal development, and they’re very organised. But we had to really change the way they do production, we had to make sure they hit big milestones.
Whenever we have a big sprint, we have a thing we’ll do on Thursdays where we’ll have taco day. We’ll line those up, with our sprints. We have the big team meeting, where the departments showcase what they’ve been working on in the sprint. Then we talk about what the next sprint’s going to be, and then we’ll go eat tacos. Or we’ll have cupcakes or something.
We often give our managers a little leeway there, if you work really hard here we’ll give them a little more time off there. But we try hard not to have death marches, if you like to call them that, in our scheduling, and our check-ins, and it’s a whole thing, it’s a multi-year process that Bethesda has done really well with.