One of the most important things I have observed in people who get really good at their field, and especially in an artistic field like level design, is who they compare themselves to.
I’ve spent a lot of time in university CG classrooms with people who don’t generally make contact with the global CG community. These students didn’t hang out on CGTalk or NaliCity of BeyondUnreal. They didn’t make contact with the best in their field. That level of art was simply outside their reality.
As a result, they were satisfied when they did well relative to their local peers. This never got them very far. The truth of the matter was that I never met a single student in any of my classes who I thought was good at any form of CG. They simply never had that motivation to do ten more optimization steps after they had already reached parity with their classmates. It was so sad, because they didn’t lack talent. I hate to see such a waste of potential.
There are two main reasons that this local-exposure-only situation crippled my classmates.
The first is motivation. Creating really kickass art or design is generally not about ‘talent’ or the quality of an idea. These things can be important, but what is also required is an almost obsessively repeated iterative process of optimization. People who do really well at these fields are never satisfied. They always know that they can do better, and they always do. They optimize over and over and over. They look at a piece of work that most would think is complete, and then they go over it a few more times because they understand that there is always room for improvement. My classmates were only trying to beat each other, so they barely got past their first draft.
The second reason why my classmates never got that good is that since they only had contact with others who were similar to themselves, they had a rather narrow and paltry set of inspirations to draw from. Nobody works in a vacuum. In any level, most of the elements will have been executed before by yourself or other designers. Level design, like much art, is largely a matter of recombination of visual and design vocabulary. My student friends were hamstringing themselves and they didn’t even know it, because they were denying themselves access to an incredible array of inspiring work, all of which is available for free on the Net.
Part of the insidiousness of this problem lies in the fact that it is totally silent. It is like a disease that hobbles you, but which somehow prevents you from perceiving the symptoms, since it is based on a lack of knowledge.
(Also note that my classmates had other things against them as well – a faculty-indoctrinated love affair with the vacuous concept of ‘high art’ among them)
Learning a field like level design is, for the first long while, based on a 3-step cycle:
1. Exposure to work done by people better or differently than you.
2. Observation of the differences between that work and your own.
3. Practice executing these differences until they become part of your own vocabulary.
So search out people who are better than yourself. Be competitive (in a friendly way of course). Try to see how you might be able to pull ideas or elements from other designs to improve your own. Understand that not having seen the best work out there is a silent handicap that afflicts all of us to a great degree. If you realize how much you don’t know, you are already at a huge advantage.
Practice doesn’t make perfect. Exposure and practice make perfect.