Souhail Zribi, Lead Level Designer
For more than five years, Souhail Zribi has worked successively as a Level Designer and Lead Level Designer at Ubisoft in France and Canada. For Stories, he looks back on his career and how his job evolved for more than ten years.
Discover this article in French and a lot of other articles on Stories!
First of all, can you tell us in which videogame context you grew up? When did video games come into your life?
Very early in my childhood, in fact, I had older brothers who were maybe a little turbulent, and my parents always had a positive look at the medium. They even thought that video games were probably a good idea to keep us all busy at home, under their supervision. So I discovered this universe with quite old and relatively obscure consoles such as the Hanimex, I believe (with Pong) or an Atari 2600. But the first consoles I really played a lot were the Sega Master System, especially when playing Shinobi, and the NES. From then on, video games never left me, and I pretty much played and explored the catalogs of all the consoles released afterward, and a little on Arcade and PC too.
Things have changed a little bit since I joined the gaming industry. Driven by my career, I try to play a little bit of every type of game if only out of curiosity, to enrich my culture and do some technology watch. Even though these are games that I don’t always complete, I try to focus on diversity. I can have four or five games in parallel, which I’ll pick back up here and there. And then my outlook has changed too, I focus more on analyzing the flaws and qualities of a title, and it is enriching in my work.
It’s all the more interesting because, initially, video games were not a career goal for you when you started your studies. You turned to applied arts and illustration. How did this ambition come about for you?
As a child, I always had a strong interest in drawing, and clearly, my dream was to make a career out of it, so at first, I turned towards literary and artistic studies. I considered many different paths in professions such as illustration and comic book drawing, product design, visual communication, or architecture. After completing my Baccalaureate L (Humanities) with English and Visual Arts, I started a preparatory course in Applied Arts. Still, I could not continue to an art school for personal reasons. So I went to an English university with the idea of passing the CAPES (certificate of aptitude for secondary school teachers) and becoming an English teacher. But this was at the time of educational reform, so I once again changed my professional objective quickly. And that’s when I stumbled a little by chance on a “Level Design” training at the University of Paris 13. It was at the end of the 2000’s and it was the first class that was starting up.
Your arrival in video games learning will indeed start from a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding on the Level Designer’s job.
It’s probably a little crazy, but it’s true. I’ve always been fond of video games but had never really looked at the other side of it and the industry’s jobs. So I initially applied for this professional license thinking that it was training to become a Concept Artist focusing on environments and saw it as an opportunity to maybe return to my first love: art.
I quickly discovered that Level Design was, in fact, something entirely different, a rather technical job calling on a varied field of skills and areas of expertise: architecture, space design, or a specific sensitivity for the player’s psychology, etc.
I remembered many things, and listing them all would probably be too long as this year brought me so much. I came from the first class of this Professional Degree, and you have to imagine that everything was to be built, both for the teaching team and for the very diverse group of students we were. It was a rewarding and challenging training for someone with my profile (for example, I had to start doing math again and learn to program (without much success).
In any case, if I had to give only one, it is that in the end, as long as you are passionate about what you do, regardless of the initial course, I believe that you can always acquire the skills that allow you to branch out and find your way.
What did your first experiences with Level Designer look like? How would you describe this work as it was in the early 2010s when you came into the industry?
I had the chance to have a reasonably rich course that allowed me to try many subjects that can bring together the profession of Level Designer on many different types of games (from MOBA to ARPG through racing games etc …).
During my final internship, for example, I was able to practice Level Design Multiplayer, and afterward, I had the opportunity to tackle very diverse things. My first missions were to produce design-level documents before making the said maps.
These documents had the function of defining the structure of the map, its atmosphere, the recurring patterns of gameplay or navigation that the player would use. I was trying to put forward robust mechanisms to have biases.
Then on a solo project this time, I tackled another aspect of Level Design, events scripting (which consists of managing the difficulty of the levels by integrating all the situations that the player will meet, from the enemies to the puzzles in particular, but also the cutscenes and all the narrative unfolding). I was also able to do boss design on this same project.
After that, I worked on other genres of games, such as an interactive drama or a Rally game. However, by joining Ubisoft right after all this, I had the opportunity to do Mission design and Worldbuilding on my first AAA Open World.
Throughout this journey, I was able to work on productions with varying budgets and ambitions, and I was able to observe the constant evolution that the industry is experiencing in its methods and tools, constantly pushing the limits of creativity and experiences that we offer to players. Finally, I would say that my first experiences as Level Designer were on AAs. It involved me being very versatile as we do a lot more at this role in a smaller structure than in very organized studios and on AAA, where it is necessary to specialize more.
The word Level echoes the levels in games, which have long been closed, with a beginning and an end. Would you say that open worlds, especially as they are made at Ubisoft, are always “levels”?
Clearly, the job and the notion of Level Design have evolved enormously over the years, as the whole industry does from the first 2D games and their intrinsically concise paintings to the gigantic open worlds that we make today. The first games I worked on were segmented into levels; they were first maps for a multi-game (MOBA) or traditional levels for a single-player action /adventure.
In the end, and with hindsight, I would say that everything is a question of scale. For open worlds, even if they constitute a coherent whole, a kind of immense level in which exploration is done without transition. At the time of production, many Level Designers divide up different parts of the world and who will then have to coordinate so that everything fits perfectly. In addition, there is often a work of consultation that must take place between two specializations of Level Designers, the World Builders and the Mission designers. Their joint effort consists of making the game space and the gameplay in it coincide so that we still feel that many game zones are “levels within a level”.
Can you remind us what procedural is, what tools you work with, and especially how it has disturbed your work on Level Design?
“Procedural” means, to put it simply, an automated content generation model. At Ubisoft, we use tools such as Houdini in Art and Level Design.
The term essentially refers to two fields of application in the video game. The first is to automate the distribution and placement of graphic assets such as vegetation in our open-worlds semi-assisted. This type of tool can be pushed much further, depending on the vision of the project and its needs. For example, it can generate entire villages in areas and according to predefined rules. It is genuinely game-changing because it frees Artists and Level Designers from daunting tasks and maximizes their time instead of fine-tuning key locations in the world or with significant added value on the gaming experience.
And then the second field of application of the term “procedural” can also refer to generating gameplay content in the middle of the game, which is dynamic, scalable, and offers better re-playability, for example. In Odyssey, we had quests created according to a combination of elements that we had defined, such as the quest giver, their location, and the objective itself. Each player, therefore, had a virtually infinite experience and different every time.
These are avenues that we are exploring more and more. In my opinion, this approach constitutes the future of level design, in which game areas would no longer be fixed and would potentially offer a totally different gaming experience from one player to another, or perhaps even based on their preferences or their “skills.”
While the player is free of their movements and choices in an open world, how can we impact their experience in terms of Level Design? How do they directly perceive this work during their gaming experience, which is essentially based on emergence?
Unfortunately, absolute freedom does not really exist in video games. Open worlds all have limits, including physical ones. And then often, the stories they tell involve constraints of progression, for example, for the sake of coherence of the narrative. The ideal, in my opinion, is to let players experience the game the way they want and allow them to choose the order in which they want to see events take place. No matter what the direction is, designers have many “tools” to understand these constraints and define these limitations.
But more generally, there are now quite widespread and commonly accepted visual codes. This accurate grammar allows us to build play spaces that resonate with the players instinctively, to mark the path and guide them without being too obvious, unless, of course, it is done poorly.
Game Designers set the framework in which Level Designers work. To what extent can this collaboration also be done the other way around? Can Level Design also directly influence Game Design?
Game Design and Level Design are totally complementary and are incredibly close disciplines. While it is true that the Game Designers mechanically intervene on a more “macro” scale than the Level Designers since they design the rules of the game. Yet, it is not unusual that the design of a level gives rise to proposals that will bring the discussion on the field of Game Design and encourage the addition or modification of game mechanics. An excellent example of this kind of situation has recently been described on the YouTube Game Makers’ Toolkit, about a level of the game Ori and the Will of the Wisps.
Today, what does your daily life look like now that you have become a Lead Level Designer?
As a Lead Level Designer, I manage a team of nine people, organizing the work of Level Designers, accompanying them in accomplishing their tasks, and providing my expertise and skills in the form of advice. I also assist them in finding solutions to the problems we encounter in production. I also have the responsibility to coordinate their work with other teams close to ours: Gameplay Programmers, Game Designers, Level Artists, to name a few. We can simplify by saying that it ensures that designers can provide the best possible content for the game in the best possible conditions. Indeed, I rarely do work in the game editor or very occasionally, but what is rewarding as a Lead is to set an objective and see the path designers take to achieve it; often, they do not really do it as one would have done it oneself and this different perspective allows to continue to learn about the profession.
To date, after almost ten years of career in the field, is there a level or a zone that you have designed and that makes you particularly proud?
The Game I’m most proud to have worked on is unquestionably Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at Ubisoft Quebec. I had the chance to participate in this project with incredibly talented people and truly passionate; we were supported by state-of-the-art tools, which allowed us to achieve our slightly crazy ambitions and put a lot of heart into this title.
Without going into too much detail, I had the opportunity to work on game zones supporting procedural gameplay. It was an enriching challenge both in terms of design and technology, and we had to realize this crazy vision in the middle of the game’s production. It was a truly significant human and professional adventure.
Written by Vincent Manilève on Stories !