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A gaming and technology blog by TWHL admins Penguinboy and Ant. A music blog by TWHL users Ant and Hugh.

Detail vs. Design, part 2

By Dave Johnston

(click here for part 1)

The problem with detail is deciding when to add it, how to add it, and what to add (of course, detail doesn't need to be an additive process - it could be modification or even subtraction). The details mentioned previously are quite inane - aligned textures on surfaces where textures needn't be aligned, and trims absolutely everywhere. I'm not saying a designer should be ignorant of these factors - indeed without them, some maps would lack the ambience needed. Yet sometimes, such attention to detail acts against the map.

Almost religiously, we can again look at Half-Life. Thinking back to the "On A Rail" chapter, one can most probably remember where some switches, crates and stairs were at some point during the whole experience. The chances are you ignored trims, or at least consciously ignored them. You wouldn't stop in a run from a pack of grunts just to gaze at the wonderfully crafted trim separating one area of flooring from the next. You don't notice these things, sometimes even at a sub-conscious level. Yet, aside from trims, there were many other details in this chapter.

It seems important now to define what I call 'detail' in a map. To me, detail constitutes the addition of geometry that doesn't add to gameplay directly, at least not compared to what it adds to the ambience.

Back to "On A Rail", there were/are lots of 'details' carefully scattered across the chapter. No area is boring or cumbersome, but to the unsuspecting designer it's never obvious why. I refuse to describe what it is here. It isn't attention to detail - lining up small textures on minature parts of the map, in fact sometimes its the opposite. The ignorance of complete visual perfection. It is the tapping into the players subconscious through design, and more. That's for designers to discover. In the process of discovering what makes a map you learn much more than I could possibly remember and/or describe.

I know many budding designers out there will hate me for not describing it here, but discovery alone is not only educational, but improves self-confidence. I've been there.

What I'm desperately trying not to suggest is that complete mis-alignment of textures is the way forward. That is underkill. I've almost said aligning of textures to edges isn't important. That's a lie. It is. What is important however is knowing when to do it, when it is worth the time, and when it isn't.

Generally, the problem with some 'designers' today is their obsession with tiny things that in reality, don't matter. Maybe its jealousy. One shall look at another map, be awed at how well designed it is, and in order to attack it, criticise how textures aren't aligned - assuming the original designer doesn't know how to align textures properly. In order for a map to be perfect among mappers (notice the distinction between mappers and designers), everything has to be done to make the look perfect. Edges have to be sharp and concise. You'll never find paving slabs ending halfway into a wall. Pipes use designated pipe textures, nothing else. Cables and supports use textures you'd never see used on anything else. Everything has a single use.

That's not the right approach. That is just a shallow way of sucking away confidence from people who could be excellent game developers. I have seen people with so much hope and promise turn their back on what they enjoy simply due to unneeded criticise from others (those who are considered 'friends', but actually act in competition - I am guilty of this crime in the past, and I admit it).

Keeping an open mind is what designers need. Not only is the understanding of game flow and artistic design important, but also how to use it in unexpected ways. Realising how one thing, no matter how unconnected it may seem, could work extremely well for something else. Being prepared to be different, and willing to practise this is needed.

As an overall look at the detail issue, let me give a basic way to determine when 'detail' is needed and when it isn't. It's actually common sense. It works on the basis that players will actively notice some things about an environment, and will ignore others. Players notice if walls aren't aligned to the floor or ceiling properly. They notice if paving is at a weird or unconvincing angle to adjacent walls. They'll notice if a door has edges in its middle. They don't notice if a glass texture has been used to seperate two floor types, and even if they did, their involvement in the game - due to its gameplay - should determine if they are convinced by it or not. An unconvincing game leads to amplified criticism of its environments.

I know, after my rant here, some people will argue I am complaining about things I am guilty of, in essence, being hypocritical. Yes, I have been 'guilty' of some of the acts I have mentioned, including over-attention to silly detail that doesn't matter. I realise it doesn't matter. I know I could have done these things better. I have said before in interviews I am my own best critic. I criticise everything I do. If other designers did the same, the quality of maps released today would increase substantially. Some people just need to take a step back, look at what they are doing, and realise that everything has imperfections. Then they need to put their overexaggerated ego aside and realise that these things need addressing. On the other side, those with potential need to understand how it should be used, and how it will be criticised.