Let’s Talk Level Design with Vanessa Little – Borderlands 3 Interview

In this interview I talk with Gearbox Software Level Designer, Vanessa Little. I'll ask her about how to make levels and create easter eggs.
Level Design Interview With Vanessa Little - Borderlands 3
Level Design Interview With Vanessa Little - Borderlands 3

Who are you and what do you do?

Hello! I am Vanessa Little and I work as a Level Designer for Gearbox Software!

 

How did you get started in the games industry?

I grew up in a small Mississippi town called Burnsville. As a kid, video games were always a part of my life, and I feel that I can thank my parents as to why I have such a passion for them. At the age of 15, while playing Ratchet & Clank, I realized that it was someone’s job to bring me these amazing worlds that kept me so entertained. It was then that I saw a future in it for myself.

Fast forward to October of 2010, I had enrolled in the Game Design Bachelor’s program at Full Sail and I was finally able to begin chasing that dream. At some point it hit me that I wouldn’t be able to remain in my small town if I wanted to be successful and have this be a real career. I made the difficult decision of picking a city and leaving everything and everyone I knew so that I could pursue getting a job after graduation. I picked Seattle, WA. I figured that if I were going to be taking this gigantic leap I might as well go as far away as I can and find a place with many opportunities as possible. By the spring of 2012 I had sold my car, most of my belongings, and was on my way to Seattle.

Late 2012, as I was in this new city, scouting jobs for the future, bartending to pay the bills, and chugging away at my assignments when I wasn’t working, I got an opportunity to be a Set Dresser for Rise of the Triad (2013). It was tough working 80+ hours a week between it all, but it paid off when the following Summer I got my first paying job at Wargaming as a Junior Level Designer. I was headed to Austin, Texas!

At Wargaming I mostly did a lot of research and development for World of Tanks, early versions of World of Warplanes, and got to see the beginnings of World of Warships. However, the studio only kept our team around for just over a year, and then it was back to the job search once again. Luckily, I got picked up by a lovely indie studio in Austin called Hidden Achievement.

Fast forward a little more and in 2016 I got an amazing opportunity to work at Gearbox! It’s been such an amazing journey and I am so happy with where I am, now.

 

How was it switching from unreal engine 3 to unreal engine 4?

The switch was quite easy, honestly. There were a few changes that took some adjusting, like learning to work in Blueprint vs Kismet, but overall, UE4 is a great tool that made some of the tasks much more easy to perform than they once were. The modularity and customization, how running a light build doesn’t put your work on hold, and a lot of other quality of life improvements that I don’t even notice anymore because they make my daily tasks so seamless. I do still have a lot of fond memories in UE3, though. It was my first editor and I taught myself most of what I knew by watching online tutorials. I have tons of fond memories of my early developer days.

 

Pandora Screenshot Bandit - Borderlands 3

Pandora Screenshot Bandit – Borderlands 3

How does one get started making a level and how long does it take before a zone is finished? I tried making some levels with Mario Maker but stare at a blank screen not knowing where to begin. Also, creating a 2D level can take up a lot of time.

Starting a new level is always a slow process and can still be a little daunting at times. With our maps, you ideally want to have a theme, a biome, an idea of what missions take place, what enemies you’ll fight, possibly some narrative, and a general world location. From the early phases of blocking out the golden path, getting side missions accounted for, challenges, iterating on all of the different combat and exploratory areas to make sure that they feel good and are fun…etc. It can take several months and even up to a year depending on the map and project to get to the point of where everyone involved is happy and you can focus on polish and bug fixing.

Of course, though, it really depends on the type of map whether it’s a zone, boss arena, Circle of Slaughter, or a hub. They each have their own set of requirements and some will naturally take longer than others.

 

I heard that you did a lot of design on Pandora. While that is the starting planet in the game that wasn’t always the case. How did this change impact the level design?

My overall impact on Pandora mostly took place in Cistern of Slaughter, Destroyer’s Rift, The Great Vault, and Devil’s Razor. Devil’s Razor was a map that I had inherited from another designer that moved onto other tasks. I added in a few combat areas, cleaned up combat in others, added challenges, and overall landed the map as we got closer to ship. With Cistern of Slaughter, I inherited that map as well, but after it was all said and done, I had reworked so much of it to where in the end, it was mostly my layout. Destroyer’s Rift and The Great Vault were completely mine from the start and it were a lot of fun to work on. Even though they are boss maps, they didn’t go without their fair share of challenges.

As for the starting area becoming Pandora when it wasn’t initially so, I think it more impacted Narrative than Level Design. Sure, they had to make a few new maps to account for the change, but overall it didn’t impact the workflow for most of the rest of us. I do love how it turned out, though.

 

Besides having a hand in creating Pandora, you also worked on the second DLC. Guns, Love, and Tentacles. That Icy planet is on the opposite spectrum of the Badlands on Pandora. How does that impact level design?

My impact on the second DLC was relatively small in the grand scheme of the project. I worked with them for about a month to help figure out what the zone map was going to be and to bring down the scale of it. I really enjoyed my short stint working with the Quebec team, however. They are all a great bunch and it was a pleasure getting to help them as much as I could have. I really like how it the maps turned out!

 

Borderlands 3 Logan Easter Egg by vr00mie

Borderlands 3 Logan Easter Egg by vr00mie

You added cute easter egg for your cat, Logan, to the game. Which we all went looking for a little while ago.  Can you just add those or do they need to be approved? I imagine you can’t just add a “Tannis on a fish” easter egg on each map.

I’m glad you liked it! That was kind of a quick thing I added in to be silly, but when I showed my lead he said that I could leave it in. A lot of our designers add little touches like this around the game and as long as it doesn’t pose a licensing issue, we are usually free to add in our own little flair. My only regret is not putting a few more in, but there’s always the next project.

Also, I apologize for anyone expecting an X-Men reference, haha. If it helps, he has a very cute X-Men collar (that he refuses to wear but I got photographic evidence before he threw a fit).

 

Currently, we all just started playing the Revenge of the Cartels seasonal event. It has some secret challenges. What goes into creating those? Because you want puzzles or collectible to be challenging but not impossible.

I didn’t work on that particular event, but overall challenges and puzzles depend on the designer as far as where to place them. We work with the game designers to be sure we are incorporating their challenges as they had envisioned, but they sometimes leave it up to us on how to implement them. For puzzles we just have to be sure to stick to the types of mechanics already in the game, be sure not to add anything that doesn’t already exist, and make sure it’s solvable.

 

Do you have any advice for the new generation of designers out there?

My biggest piece of advice is to chase your dream, and you don’t need a degree to do so unless you want to. Full Sail taught me how to learn on my own and showed me how to search out for what knowledge I was after. Nowadays, there are so many different resources online that you can learn how to do almost anything without ever going to a class. Be sure you know what avenue you want to pursue and really focus on that. Want to be a level designer? Work on making interesting blockouts, creating fun combat spaces, challenging puzzles, etc. Want to be an artist? Challenge yourself with different types of art. Want to be a programmer? Learn various languages and stay up to date with what’s current. It’s easy to want to be the Swiss Army knife of game development, but be sure you know how to do one of these really well first, and it will grant you more success when pursuing opportunities. Knowing what you want to do is paramount.

Other advice that I will offer is to not take for granted those trying to help you because a good mentor is invaluable. Be sure to start on your portfolio early and challenge yourself to be a better designer with every new project. Above all (and is sometimes the most difficult) remember to have fun. The opportunity of creating entertainment experienced by people all over the world is not only humbling, it is wildly fulfilling. It never gets old watching someone play a map that you helped build and having fun while doing it.

 

Is there anything you would like to add that I didn’t ask?

I just want to say thank you to everyone who played Borderlands 3! It was a massive labor of love for the entire studio and I am proud of what we accomplished.

I also wanted to say how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to do this interview. I love sharing my experience with others as I hope it inspires or persuades someone to take that leap. It’s not easy, but the journey is worth it. If anyone needs advice, please reach out to me and I’d be happy to help out as best as I can. . And I’m reachable via twitter @vr00mie or email Vanessa.Little (at) gearboxsoftware.com.

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