How I became… a Level Designer at Crystal Dynamics

Crystal Dynamics’ Kolbe Payne talks to us about getting into the games industry, shipping Halo as his first project, and the key to great level design…


What was the game that first made you want to work in the industry?

As a kid, I grew up playing all sorts of games. I would get the same games as my friends and they would rush to beat it. [However], I would happily take my time, soaking up all the art and content the developers made. At a young age, I knew I had a love for the art of video game design. However, there is one game that made me fall in love with level design. Black Ops 2 will always be my favourite FPS and Call of Duty. The multiplayer level design in that game is some of the best. Treyarch’s three-lane approach to designing its maps is undefeated. After playing that game non-stop, I knew I wanted to get into the level design side of the game industry.

How did you break into this industry?

In school, I knew the games I was making in class weren’t going to be portfolio-worthy. We had a guest speaker from Sony Santa Monica (who is now a good friend of mine) visit our class one day. He told me that portfolio is everything when it comes to most areas of game dev. Especially level design. I knew I had to make a good portfolio as a student. I found like-minded people in my same program. We made an FPS together and put it on Steam. The levels I made for this game were decent enough to put on my portfolio. I applied to 343 Industries shortly before graduating – they were impressed with my portfolio and gave me a shot. I started working on Halo Infinite about three weeks before I graduated.

What was the first commercially released game you worked on? Are you still proud of it?

Halo Infinite, and I am still very proud of it. Having Halo be my first shipped triple-A title is absolutely insane. I am very grateful for the opportunity that was given to me. I was the level designer responsible for half of the outposts. It’s really cool to hear from fans that said they absolutely loved the outposts I designed. Aside from those, I worked on a majority of the gameplay for the High-Value Targets, Forward Operating Bases, and Marine events as well. I was one of the least experienced people there, but I feel like we all made a great campaign and I’ll forever be proud of it.

For you, what are some of the key components for designing a great level?

The biggest component would be learning how to accept feedback and then use that to add/iterate on the level you are currently designing. This is one of the most important skills you can have as a level designer. No level is perfect the first time you design it. It takes massive amounts of playtesting, feedback sessions, and iterations to make that ‘perfect’ level. I learned this very early on in my career; accept all positive and negative feedback and use it to my advantage. There may be some things you disagree on, but that’s what game dev is about. It’s about a team coming together to create something special for players.

Another one is to be sure to provide the player multiple choices throughout your level but try not to overwhelm them. Sprinkle them throughout your level to allow the player to create their own path and have fun playing.

How important is it for a level designer to communicate with other team members?

Communicating with other team members is one of the most important factors you face as a level designer. We’re creating the main experience for the player when it comes to them traversing the level and engaging with the world. A lot of other disciplines in game design go directly into the levels you’re building, whether that be art, narrative, [or] gameplay. You’ll need to be communicating with those teams to make sure you are building a fun experience for players and incorporating certain things that are needed in your level as well.

What’s a mistake you made early on in your career but learned from?

Don’t get married to your work. I’ve had levels that I absolutely loved, and they were unfortunately cut due to project scope. This can happen in every department. You spend a lot of time taking in feedback and iterating on your level just for it to be cut out. You can still enjoy your work – just try to not be too attached to everything you make.

What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

Pick your favourite game genre and try to design levels based on them for your portfolio. My older portfolio had way too many different types of levels in it. I would also suggest not starting out on huge projects. Start small and create levels that you know you’ll be able to finish so you can add them to your portfolio. It can get very draining if you try to create something massive and you never end up finishing it.

Would you say it’s becoming easier to work in games today?

To a degree, but this doesn’t mean designing games is easy. It is very hard. There are many resources available for free out there for you to use that will help you understand game development processes. Many professionals are willing to help you out and steer you in the right direction as well.

If somebody’s thinking about a career in games, what can they do now to help their future prospects?

I think joining game dev communities on Discord and Twitter is a great start. There are a ton of people out there who are willing to help students and younger devs that want to break into the industry. As a level designer, there is a fantastic community on Twitter that is always supporting each other, and [they] will always provide feedback on your portfolio to help you get your foot in the door.

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