This guide is an overview of how to leverage a non-destructive workflow alongside an iterative level design process. More information about the level design process can be found in my process guide!
In each section below, I explain what a 'Non-Destructive Workflow' is and provide some examples of how it can improve efficiency in a production environment.
A 'Non-Destructive Workflow' is a method of working in which a designer intentionally preserves incomplete iterations of their work throughout its development. Initially, this seems akin to the practice of creating backups of files to protect against loss of work through file overwrite, corruption, or deletion, and while this an inherent part of the workflow there is an additional layer of intent.
The intention of this practice is to curate a library of workable content which can be leveraged for development as needed. This library can be generated by saving entire levels or parts of levels as they experience changes throughout their iteration processes. Typically, as a designer experiments with ideas many are eschewed in favor of ones which better fit the specific needs of a level. These rejected ideas are a perfect example of content which might be worth preserving, as ideas which might be a poor fit for one level could be a perfect fit for another.
Knowing when to save an iteration is invaluable, and it is important to remember there are often turning points in a level's creation- where a sequence of changes could take the level in a radically different direction. For example, a designer might choose to remove a large central structure and replace it with a landscape feature, or on a smaller scale, they might choose to re-organize the cover available in an encounter space. Recognizing these turning points allows a designer to save unique iterations which provide perfect opportunities to do any of the following:
Creating a remixed version of the level
Creating an entirely new version of the level
Rolling back changes without starting from scratch
Sampling level geometry for other levels
Sampling set dressing for other levels
I have leveraged this strategy to great effect many times in production to generate new levels or add additional content to existing levels. There have been many occasions where I have found myself in need of a combination of geometry I had previously created, and have been able to visit an unfinished level to recover it. Furthermore, there have been even more instances where I have created modular prefabs from existing level geometry or proxy assets and reused them when creating new blockouts. Use cases such as these can save a tremendous amount of time and allow me to focus on creating more unique and high quality content.
It is important to keep in mind there are advantages to working in this way, but hoarding everything and becoming disorganized is not advantageous. Remember to measure the value of the content preserved against the cost of maintaining it in an organized manner.
An important part of the non-destructive workflow is the recognition of the value inherent throughout the different stages of the iteration process. Again, ideas that might be a poor fit for one level could be a perfect fit for another level. For example, in the image below I have created two iterations of a simple arena level for a duel mode in a shooter game.
After creating the second iteration I recognized there was potential to expand the scope of the level and create another arena large enough to accommodate a greater player count and support other game modes. Doing so would however, would require a sequence of changes which would render the level unacceptable for the duel mode, and consequently represented a major turning point for the level. Coincidentally, this also represented a perfect opportunity to save an separate iteration of the level which could be revisited later for new development.
In the next image I have completed another iteration of the duel level, but I have also completed an iteration of a new level by using a reserve of the original as a base. Now, instead of having one working level I have two but with less effort than would otherwise be required. In a production environment, the value of kick-starting the development of a new level by working from existing content can be immeasurable.
Often, good ideas can be derailed throughout the iteration process by necessity of delivering a final product which aligns with task or project specifications. It is important to evaluate the merit of those ideas in circumstances other than those in which they first appear and determine if they might be a good fit for preservation.
Overall, the Non-Destructive Workflow is a valuable method of increasing efficiency while reducing creative waste. It is important to recognize the value inherent in all of the work you do and keep an eye open for opportunities to capitalize on that value throughout the development process.
A Note About the Author
Evan Brooks is a professional level designer currently working at Funcom and making awesome video games alongside awesome people.