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Custom video game levels: an ode to player creativity

Games like the upcoming Meet Your Maker celebrate custom video game levels. Let's talk about why they're brilliant.

I’m a sucker for custom video game content. Give me a game that lets you create stuff and I’m all for it โ€” especially levels and worlds. As a storyteller, I always have the desire to create worlds that feel complex yet approachable, deep yet understandable. With custom video game levels, I can define my own take on the gameplay that a developer has crafted.

The idea of making your own video game levels is nothing new, of course. Modding tools, both official and unofficial alike, have made it possible for players to create custom content and generate their own game worlds. While not all video game companies have embraced them, fan-created content has opened up a whole new avenue for creative players to show their skills and ideas.

Games like the upcoming Meet Your Maker, developed by Dead by Daylight studio Behaviour Interactive, rely entirely on player-generated levels. Let’s celebrate the joys of custom video game levels by looking at what makes them so special.

All it takes is a single spark of inspiration

DOOM
DOOM inspired legions of fans to create their own levels.

Video games are, at their core, a creative outlet for developers and designers. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, especially with how corporate the video game industry can feel like sometimes. But so many developers get into this field because they want to show off their creativity. In this modern age, video games are one of the best mediums to demonstrate that love of creation and dedication to your craft.

Let’s look at level designers specifically, since that’s the crux of our discussion today. Now, the creation of a level encompasses multiple facets of the development process. It begins with a designer drafting the level and forming its basic elements. This includes physical design, landmarks, and any gameplay elements or hazards you want to implement. Then, artists come in to construct the level geometry and apply textures, lighting, shadow, and any effects that make the level shine.

This usually isn’t a linear process; often, artists and level designers have to work in tandem as changes to one element. However, it’s also a testament to the total amount of creativity that goes into making just one level. (Now imagine making dozens for one game!)

Of course, developers are paid to do this. That’s not a slight, mind you; it’s just to say that their job is creating the building blocks that a video game spawns from. Creation is their trade, in a sense.

But what about the fans? The ones who don’t need to create levels, but choose to because they want to? That’s where custom video game levels come in.

The burgeoning player-developer

Zombies Ate My Neighbor
Tools like this one helped fan mods become a reality.

It’s very difficult to pin down exactly where the custom video game level scene began. Almost since video games started to become popular, official modding tools have been made available that let anybody create content for games. Even in the 1980s, tools like The Bard’s Tale Construction Set were released separately from their respective games that allowed players to craft their own levels and unique content.

You could argue that custom video game levels really started to get their groove going with games like DOOM, Quake, and Forgotten Realms. With official modding tools at their disposal and more intense gameplay at their disposal, plus the ability to change out artwork if they wanted, players essentially had the power to make their own unofficial sequels.

The natural evolution of that, of course, is video games designed entirely around player creation. I’m talking about games like Super Mario Maker which is based entirely on played-created levels or Ultimate Chicken Horse where you and your friends battle it out on stages that you construct in real-time. It takes creativity to a whole new level, giving you a subset of tools within which your customization is inherently limited, but giving you the freedom to do what you want with the tools available.

When games are designed around player-created content, you often find a lot of creative-minded people giving them a try. They find ways to break the conventions of the engines given to them, take the game in a different direction, or just expand on the base content available to them. When it comes to custom video game levels, the scene really thrives in games where you’re encouraged to build.

Why are custom video game levels such a delight?

Custom Video Game Levels
In Ultimate Chicken Horse, the level is defined by the player.

Your mileage, of course, will vary on player-built levels. Even if you get behind the core concept, creators are all fallible and wildly diverse in their skill sets and creative goals. You may not gel with the levels a creator makes, and that’s alright.

But that’s the beauty of it. Countless video game players make their own levels. What you don’t like in one creator’s levels, you might adore in another’s. You may love the base content of a game, but you might discover something even greater by seeing what the community has done with it.

Video games should be for everyone. They don’t have to be concrete experiences designed for only a few. If the game tailors itself towards creative types and allows them to express their ideas and try something new, then it can only be a net positive.

Perhaps you only enjoy playing custom levels. Maybe you enjoy making them. Or you might love doing both. Whatever the case, the custom video game level is an art form in and of itself. One that should be celebrated and embraced as a pillar of modern gaming.

Designing custom video game levels in Meet Your Maker

Meet Your Maker Base
Meet Your Maker is based entirely around custom video game levels.

There are plenty of games on the market now that offer some sort of customizable content. One such example is Meet Your Maker, an upcoming PvP raid-and-build game by Behaviour Interactive. Taking place in an apocalyptic wasteland, you’re tasked with building custom fortresses of dooms complete with traps, enemies, and devious level design. Other players will try to raid the materials within yours as you set off into bases that players have already constructed.

It’s a lovely ode to custom video game levels, and you’ll be able to play it soon. Meet Your Maker launches on April 4 for the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC via Steam.

What are some of your favorite custom video game levels? Let us know!

Daniel Hein

Daniel Hein is either A) a lifelong video game fanatic, writer, and storyteller just sharing his thoughts on things, or B) some kind of werewolf creature. We're not quite sure which yet. He also makes mediocre video game retrospectives (and other content!) on YouTube where you can watch him babble on for hours about nothing.
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