Mapping (at Valve)

A documentary on one of the most important parts of games

Overview

This is an informational documentary (sort of) about level designing (or "mapping") at one of gaming's most beloved companies, Valve Corporation. I will cover how mapping uses the 4 "C"s, which are collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.

What is level design?

It may seem obvious, but level designing has much more than what you might think it might cover. There's making it seem real, making the player totally immersed, triggering whatever it is that triggers the suspension of disbelief in the player, and making sure that there is enough things in the level to make sure that the player doesn't walk off in boredom.

Collaboration

Collaboration is important in level design. At Valve, there are multiple games with stories that the maps have to adhere to. Sure, you can make something like a tech demo map, to show off what you learned or if there's a new weapon that you can show off with some barrels, but most maps you have to collaborate with the writers to make. This means making sure that the map and the story are parallel with each other, and so that the maps and the story are one.

Communication

Communication has much of the same reasons as collaboration, but mostly just about the level designers getting along well with the writers. This means that the level designer and the writer do have to communicate with each other, in order to make sure that the map is the thing that brings out the story and makes sure that the player understands what's going on fairly well.

Critical Thinking

Now, critical thinking happens most if you were a mapper for Valve's main (and only) puzzle series, Portal. You would have to think up original, hard yet easy to solve puzzles, and again, collaborate with the writers. Making up a puzzle also means making up a solution, and making sure that things are never too hard, yet also never too easy, for the player. Not only Portal has puzzles, though. There are tons of "mini-puzzles" in the Half-Life series. These are normally physics puzzles, with the all-too-known see-saw puzzle, where you have to stack stuff onto one side in order to raise the other. These are more simple, though.

Creativity

And finally, creativity. All of these 4 C's have a purpose, and creativity can be arguably the most important. You really need to be original when thinking up map designs, otherwise people might start to notice that the level design is repeating, which isn't a good thing in video games. You always need to have a fresh idea in your head. Level designers also have to be original in any puzzles they make, as said earlier in the "critical thinking" part of this. Creativity is the heart and lungs of the big body of game design, and if it fails, then the entire thing is just a hollow undead, so you need to be original.

Requirements

To apply for level designer at Valve, you need:

A working knowledge of a professional level design tool (Source SDK, Unreal Engine SDK)
Three years of experience in the industry (meaning you should know how it works)
Experience with programming or art
Experience with shipping projects
A demo of a map you have recently made, showing off your skill in the area

Sources

Pretty much everything:
http://www.valvesoftware.com/jobs/job_postings.html

Everything else:
Common sense and my thoughts