Team Focus – Blaze Lightcap Sep 19 - Tosh

"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." -Sir Winston Church

Hello everyone and welcome back to your regularly scheduled Team Focus updates, sorry I haven't been around for a while. As you all know from the weekly update not too long ago, we were enjoying a fantastic trip to Redmond Washington to attend a Halo community event hosted by 343 industries at their offices. We had a ton of fun, but we couldn't wait to get back to work. This week will be a familiar face; we're sitting down with Blaze Lightcap our level designer here at Installation 01 (And the guy with the crazy tattoos from the pictures) to learn more about his work, how he builds these fantastic Halo maps, and how you can too. Let's get right into it!

You know the music, time to dance. Who are you and what do you do here on Installation 01?

Hey Tosh. Thanks for having me. I’m Blaze Lightcap. I primarily do level design for Installation 01. If you see a basic block-out with a beautiful tiled texture plastered all over it, that’s more than likely my contribution.

To anyone unfamiliar with the pipeline, they may look reasonably boring, but these block-outs are relatively important. They are made for the first testing phases to find a balanced, fun and overall solid experience before art gets their hands dirty. This is a great way to save time in the later stages, as you’ve already found the feel that you are going for and can quickly iterate on the basic shape and flow of the level to patched up any significant exploits, and issues early on. I also assist with any internal debates related to gameplay as I have a good amount of experience building for the Halo sandbox that we have come to love.

Of course, thank you for sitting down with me today Blaze! So a level designer, eh? That means I can blame you when I don't like a map right? And I don't know if I would call the block-out tiles beautiful, but to each their own haha. So as a level designer you're an essential part of the multiplayer experience and to some extent the overall gameplay balance. Where does one even start when building a map?

Indeed, I will be the guy you can yell at. Haha. I’ll hope you find more to enjoy than you dislike, however. Or I could just blame it on the artist. ;)

Well, since I joined the team after there were already some maps in progress and same others planned out, I had to go about this a little differently than I would with my own personal projects. The first thing that I did was figure out the roles that I had to fill with each map. Since I do mostly originals and Installation 01 is supposed to mirror the essence of classic Halo games, this was particularly important to capture the feel of iconic maps but in a new and exciting way.
For a specific map, I usually start out with a set of goals. For instance, Judgement, I knew that I needed a fast-paced, 2 base 2 tower, 4v4 map to replicate some of the feelings from the iconic midship map since that style of map wasn’t in the team's plans as of yet. In this case, I had a previous iteration of the map in my back pocket. It just so happened to fit the role that I needed. It was just a bonus that it had already been tested in a similar sandbox and that I had plans greater than what the H2a forge limitations would allow.

Though, not every map starts with the same plans and not every plan, regardless of how it comes up, comes to existence. There’s always a chance that it won’t turn out the way that you picture it in your head. To answer the question more directly, It usually always starts out with an idea and a quick block-out to test the waters. Whether that idea is a gimmick, a rough 2d sketch or even a set of goals you know that you need to accomplish with the design.

Wow, so much thought and work goes into the map before you ever start building it. You speak to the importance of ideas and keeping within the limitations set by Halo already, what would you say the most challenging part of building maps within these limitations is while still creating something new and original?

Honestly, it’s the same as probably any task for this project, living up to the legacy of Halo and satisfying the most passionate and critical community I’ve ever seen for a game series. That, I’m sure will be the most challenging part, if you consider that a limitation. It’s a welcome challenge though because I have that same passion and this is what I love to do!

Absolutely, a challenge is always welcomed, and we've got big shoes to fill. I don't think anyone who isn't madly in love with the franchise could pull it off. So let's get into a more technical side of things here, what tools are required to build these fantastic maps in video games, and which ones do you utilize?

Personally, I prefer to use unity for the majority of my tasks, if I am able. Unity paired with the Probuilder add-on is easily the most efficient software that I’ve found to block maps out. If and when I do terrain sections, I will usually use Unreal instead though. Even with add-ons in unity, it’s easier for me to do there. Halo 5’s Forge is probably the only tool that I can pump out first drafts faster, but it’s also much more restrictive and obviously can’t export that.

Outside of Installation 01, I honestly use just about any in-game editor, game maker or 3d software that I can get my hands on. It’s been something that I’ve always been interested in. Since I was the kid, building parks in the Tony Hawk games for the PS1 or making large towns in RPG maker. Later on, came Forge, Sketch-up and Blender mock-ups, making portal levels in Source Hammer; and then a bit more recently ReflexArena’s editor, Maya, Radiant and many more. I could ramble on about that forever. Just know that if there was a way to build a level for a game and it looked remotely interesting to me, I probably dabbled in it. Haha.

ALL THE ENGINES! Haha. To say it lightly, you've used just about everything, you're very clearly talented, and know what you're talking about. So if you don't mind, what's some advice you can give to aspiring level designers? (Where can they start, what tools are the easiest to dabble in, etc.)

First thing I’d say is that you should just go for it. You don’t need a fancy computer or degree if that’s not your thing. There are plenty of accessible ways to start designing maps. If you have a computer (even if it’s a potato… trust me, I worked on one for a very very long time), get some software that you’ve heard about, look up some youtube videos and start building. You probably won’t come up with anything amazing right off the bat, you may not even be able to play it, but it will get you to a place where you can see if you enjoy it and hey, you might discover something outside of level design that you grow to love; like asset building, environmental art or something entirely different.

If you don’t have a computer and/or want to know that you can play your creations, there are plenty of games that feature in-game editors that are easy to learn and let you jump right in with friends. Far Cry, Halo, Murder Miners or even Doom have some editor attached to the game that could help you get acquainted with the basics of level design and open up the possibility of receiving feedback.

Another important thing, in my opinion, is getting involved in a community. Find friends that can help provide feedback, teach you tips and learn along the way with you. And it might be overwhelming but stick with it. If you enjoy doing it and make some friends, that’s the most important part.

That's fantastic advice. It's amazing how accessible level design is these days really. Just going back a couple of years the industry has made tremendous strides. If they are interested in more of an academic approach, what are some degrees would you recommend?

Truthfully, I have no clue. I’ve never looked into schooling. I feel that you will learn the most through experience and most of those lessons you learn that way can’t be taught in a classroom. That being said, I’d only really recommend that approach if you’re having a hard time learning the tools on your own. It might be beneficial in how you yourself provide feedback to others, but I’m not sure, that may be dependent on the teachers, class structures and your peers.

I can’t stress how useful YouTube is. Don’t feel like this is the end all best way; I would just recommend this over anything else because it’s the way I’ve learned. On the other hand, in a way, it could look good on your resume. I may not be the be the best to answer that question for many reasons.

That's entirely fair, sometimes school isn't the best way and isn't required at all. Practice is after all the best teacher for everything. Now, To become a good Level Designer do you believe it is important to play a variety of different games?

I’m not sure. I’ve played Halo almost exclusively for the past decade, and the majority of that has been testing my own stuff. There have only been a few games I’ve really got into outside of the franchise, except ones that I want to design levels for. I can’t say I would be better or worse if I’d have played more. It’s always fun for me to analyze the design philosophy of different games though. I guess I’ve sort of formed an intuition around level design and how sandbox/game mechanics compliment or harm it. So, it could very well be insightful for designers who have not acquired that quite yet.

It’s important to know the sandbox of the game that you are building for well enough that you can play to its strengths, that’s obvious. In the industry today, however, nearly every game is a clone of the most recent trend, and because of this, it’s probably more important than ever since you’ll want to do it better than the game set that course. And getting ahead that way might be best If I had to make an educated guess.

I see, so it's not entirely too much about having a vast knowledge of how all developers build their levels; instead, it is import to understand the franchise or genre you're developing it for and perfecting that. I can get behind that guess haha. So, to build onto that, would you say it is important to look towards non-video game related architecture to take inspiration from, and if so, which architecture influences you the most?

Basically. That’s not to say you can’t benefit from other types of games ever though. There are plenty of examples, just may not always be important.

I love looking at architecture. Sometimes, I look back and think that it would’ve been cool to be an architect instead. I am surely happy about where this path has taken me though.

To answer the question, I’d have to say that it’s hugely dependent on the game that you are building for. You could get inspiration either way, but some are definitely more important. The thing that I love about building for Halo is that the rules of realistic architecture do not restrict me. I can create what I want to make it play exactly how I want because the world behind it allows me to. And again, not saying this is the only way, amazing artists could find ways to justify a lot of weird structures and layouts; Halo’s world just lends itself to it particularly well.

Absolutely, architecture is so important to our world and so many different cultures that you can always take something from studying it. Halo is easily one of the most open-ended when it comes to what is actually possible in architecture. It allows for some magnificent structures and areas that otherwise would never exist. One of the best parts about it is Halo can stay grounded in reality with structures from the UNSC then throw all realism out the window and make something Forerunner. All this level design talk is fascinating, but I'd like to learn more about yourself Blaze. What do you do outside of i01 to fill your time?

I spend a lot of time with my wonderful fiancé and my 3 kitties. We watch a good bit of TV shows together. I listen to a lot of music. And I like to find other indie games to help out with when I have time. Not a whole lot different than those few things and work. Haha

A man dedicated to work and family, what more can you ask? Haha. It doesn't really sound like you have a lot of time actually to play the games so I must ask. What's the last game you played from start to finish?

Hmm, you’ve gotta stop with these hard questions. Hahaha.

Last game that I can think of that I played through was Her Story. It’s a really neat and experimental indie game. I’d recommend it. I believe it’s about $5 and it’s well worth it. I was certainly impressed.

That was probably a year and a half ago, or longer and only takes about 45-50 minutes to complete. Plus it’s almost not a game, in the general sense. So does it count?

Aside from that, I couldn’t tell you. The last game I dove into was Titanfall, and you can’t exactly ‘finish’ that. I played the cooperative missions for Splinter Cell: Blacklist, awesome experience by the way. And I’ve dabbled in a few games that I needed to review for work discussions. Pretty much all Halo otherwise.

I got to play Her Story as well, it was honestly super unique in its approach of being primarily an interactive movie. I don't know if that makes it not a video game though. So we'll go with Splinter Cell: Blacklist, which I agree, is a great game. Haha. As for stopping these hard questions, let's go onto an even harder one. What is your favorite Halo game and why?

Halo 2. I don’t think it’s the best overall game (That goes to Halo 3 in my opinion), but it is my favorite.

I love how smooth everything feels in Halo 2. Everything else mostly boils down to imperfections and imbalances. It’s super high meta created by glitches and button combos. The simplicity of the actual geometry for the maps that made them look like glorified block-outs. And as someone who doesn’t really connect with the story and campaign overall, I had so much fun finding all the hidden stuff throughout the single player, breaking the maps, speed running, and doing things that you weren’t supposed to do.

Even though we’ve improved on a lot of things since Halo 2, there are some things that we have lost over, and I don’t think that we could capture in the today’s industry.

I can agree with that, though, I personally wasn't a fan of the button combos myself even though they increased the skill-gap tremendously. Indeed we've lost and gained a lot over the years of the series as a whole. Sometimes this is due to time others it's due to poor decisions, but it's something to be said that an 18-year-old series is still breathing and inspiring so many people. Honestly, no matter what your favorite Halo game is, there's something to respect out of all of them. So, Halo 2 is your favorite, but Halo 3 is the best overall in your opinion. I've got to ask, what is your ultimate Halo match?

Halo 3, MLG King on Construct. Or 1v1 on Halo 2’s Lockout. It’s a hard decision between those two.

Those are both excellent choices. But does that mean you were a 1v1 me bro guy? Haha. Let's end this with one last question about your time here on Installation 01. How would you describe working on i01 in one sentence?

Essentially. I was that guy, but back then, I could back it up with the 15-0 if you didn’t quit before I got there. Haha.

One sentence wouldn’t do justice for the time I’ve spent with the Installation 01 team.

That sounds like bragging, 1v1 me then bro! Haha. I'd say that's a great way to say nothing and everything at the same time. I want to thank you so much for sitting down with me today and allowing us to learn more about you. It's been an absolute pleasure. If you’d all like to follow Blaze’s work or just get to know him that much more go check out his Twitter and Artstation


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