Game developer - Level Designer - Environment Artist - Author - Tutor - 15 Years of experience with Unreal Engine 1, 2, 3, 4
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About me

Q: Who are you and what is your experience?
A: Check out my my portfolio website for more information.

Q: How did you start out?
A: I started out by creating stand-alone custom levels for the original Unreal Tournament in 1999. I got into the industry through my large number of quality mod levels, and through the contacts I made in the mod community.

Q: How did you learn all of this?
A: Nearly everything I know, I learned by myself. When I started with the original UnrealEd, I didn’t had access to the internet at all, and only very limited knowledge of English. I just clicked on everything in the editor to see what would happen and I continued doing that until I understood enough of it to begin building my own levels. By the time I got internet access around 2001, I had already mastered a good deal of the editor. I am ironically not a tutorial person, I am pretty bad at anything theoretical in fact, but really fast at learning things by just doing them. Nonetheless, tutorials definitely did help me master the really complex things later on.

Q: How long have you been doing this?
A: I started with level design in 1999 and I got into the industry around late 2002, early 2003. So as of 2013 that makes 14+ of level design experience, 10+ years of professional experience.

Q: Why did you get into this?
A: I don’t know really. I used to play a lot with Lego and the like, so I guess that I just continued with what I was already doing, designing buildings and other kind of constructions. At first it was never my intention to ever do this professionally. The first two years it was just a hobby and nothing more than that, but then I realised that I was good at it, and greatly enjoyed doing it. At the same time I began talking to others in the community in the same situation as me, and it made me realize I was to pursue a career in this.

Q: What do you value most in levels?
A: Atmosphere! An extra layer of depth. I want an environment to really immerse me into the world and to invoke emotion within me. I want to feel the humid air, the warmth, the anger, the fear, and so on. That, and consistency within an environment, are two things I value highly. I have a weak for dark underground environments as well, and for mysterious environments.

Q: What does your name mean?
A: Nothing really. It is a random word I came up with back in 1999 while making some mod content, and as it grew on me, I decided to use it as my own name. It is a completely unique and made up name.

Q: How long does it take you to create a level?
A: Depends a lot on the type of level, its size, the amount of custom assets, level of detail, the engine it runs on, and so on. Some levels I did in less than 20 hours, several other levels however easily took me more than 500 hours of work. I am usually a very quick worker though.

Q: How much time do you spend on this a week?
A: I used to work at least 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, but as I got older that has gone down to about 10 hours a day, six days a week roughly. It is a highly competitive business that requires a lot of time to stay on top of.

Q: Do you want to make a level for my mod or indie game?
A: No, sorry.

Q: I need help with the Unreal Engine!
A: I am available for short term contracts, either remotely or if it is within Europe, on location. Workshops, private training, development advice, and polishing/optimizing your existing content are all possibilities. Please contact me@Hourences.com for more information.

I want to work in the industry

Q: I want to become a professional Level Designer one day, should I learn to program?
A: Not necessarily, but it won’t hurt having some understanding of it. A big issue with the profession of a level designer is that every single game studio on the planet describes the role of a level designer differently. Whereas at some studios a level designer never ever touches anything that even remotely looks like programming, at other studios level designers may spend large amounts of time scripting gameplay through a scripting/programming language. So it largely depends on the studio. I am personally really bad at any type of programming or text based scripting though, and usually focus on level design jobs that are more visually orientated. So in short, if you like the visual side of level design more, do not get into programming but get into 2D and 3D art programs instead. However, if you are into gameplay design, do try to get a grip on a simple programming/scripting language. Look up LUA on google, C# is popular as well. Those are relatively simple scripting languages used in a large number of popular games. Mastering something like that will definitely help.

Q: What about a modeling package such as 3DSMax or Maya?
A: Again, this depends on the studio, and on your personal view on level design. If you are visually orientated and you care more about looks than gameplay, then yes, do get into such programs.
On the other hand, if you especially like to design gameplay, do get into it, but only master the basics. Sometimes studios may require you to build basic mockup levels (very low poly cubic levels) in a 3D package, so as soon as you can do that in a 3D package, you are good to go!

Q: And how skilled should I be in drawing concept art?
A: I am personally really bad at drawing. I did an art course for a few years, and I know all the rules and things to keep in mind concerning drawing, but I am still terrible at it. So is it necessary? No, not at all, but of course like with many other things, mastering it won’t hurt either! The most important thing is that you can communicate your idea and design in a clear and understandable way to other members of your team. Whether you do so by drawing concept art, or by simply googling photos online and assembling a collage, it doesn’t really matter.

Q: What should I really add in my level design/environment art portfolio?
A: It depends on the kind of level design jobs you want to apply for. There are many different ways to present your work if you are going for an art position such as an environment artist or level artist, but in general the most important thing is to your work in-game! You need to show that, besides simply being a great artist, you can also handle the more technical side of the job. How to import and set up your assets, work with specific limitations, handle annoying things such as simplified collisions, work clean and efficient, that you are aware of common tricks you can pull off to fake this or that without wasting a huge amount of resources, the implications things like vertex lighting may have on your model, and so on.
If you are on the lookout for a more gameplay orientated position, it would be wise to motivate your design decisions. Show that you put thought in the level. Why is your floorplan shaped like it is? What impact does the floorplan has on the gameplay and why did you choose to do it this way? Motivate the gameplay related design decisions that you made. Also, make sure that your levels can be downloaded and played so they can test out your levels themselves. It may also help to provide some of your best gameplay scripts, and design documents.
Whatever position you are looking for, always specify what exactly in the level you made yourself, and how long it took you to build and design it. If you used an existing piece of concept art, mention that. The same goes for use of assets that came with the game or that you picked up somewhere online, and basically anything else that you didn’t do.

Q: Do I really need to use level editors such as Hammer or UnrealEd if I want to build levels?
A: No, not really, but it is advisable. Especially the Unreal Engine is hugely popular, so mastering that certainly isn’t a bad idea. However, there are still hundreds of studios out there who do not make use of specific editors, but build all of it in Maya or 3DSMax. In general a level editor does a better job at it than a general 3D package, as the latter isn’t really made to do that kind of work, and lacks certain features and tools that you do (usually) have in an editor. Also, it is of great importance to a.) be able to actually play your level, something a 3D package does not allow you to, and b.) to have your level be rendered in real time.

Q: Should I attend a game development school?
A: That is a very difficult question that I cannot answer for you. I discussed the pros and contras of game development schools quite extensively in my book "The Hows and Whys of the Games Industry", but in the end it is up to you to decide whether or not it suits you and if you really need it.
How many game development schools are there in your area? And are they any good? How skilled are you yourself already? If you are already quite good, you might be able to get hold of a job without any degree at all, as plenty of people got into the industry that way, although the last few years that has beginning to shift some.
How disciplined are you? Some just can’t get anything done if they don’t have someone that checks up on them and motivates them. Where do you live and where would you want to live one day? Countries like the USA are notoriously hard to get into without proper degrees. And so on.
There are a lot of really bad schools out there so if you do decide to go for such course, do some extensive research. You don’t want to waste three or four years of your life.
And if you really don’t know what to do, do both. Attend a game development course, and while you’re doing so, keep applying to studios. If you fail to get hired, no problem, you will still have the game development course to fall back on. If you do get hired, all the better! Lastly game development educations can also be great to get in touch with the local industry and build up a network of contacts. Check how well connected the education is to the local industry.

Q: How many years of experience does one need to get into the games industry?
A: Depends on how much time you put into it, how much luck you have, and how talented you are. Most people spend about two to four years practicing, before they manage to get hired.

Q: What is the best way of getting into all of this?
A: By just doing it. Don’t talk about it, just do it. And most important, like, even love, what you are doing or you won’t keep up in this demanding industry. You don’t get into this for the fame or money, but because you really really like what you do. Game development is not a career choice, it is a calling.
These days there is a massive amount of support available for people who wish to get into modding and game development. Nowadays people can attend a game development school, there are several books available on mastering the Unreal Engine (and others), thousands of hours of video tutorials on just about any popular engine or 2D/3D package, and tens of thousands of tutorials are available online. Pick the approach that suits you most. I personally got into all of this by just experimenting, and reading a couple of small and random tutorials here and there.
Learning by simply experimenting still is one of the best ways to master something though, and in fact indispensable within the games industry. Not everything is documented and if you can’t get around a problem using nothing more than your own insight and some logic thought, this industry won’t work out for you.

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