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The Future of Content episode 14: Video Game and Level Design

27 Min. ReadImmersive technology

As video games have evolved into immersive experiences that entice players to log hundreds—sometimes thousands—of hours of gameplay, level designers have created increasingly sophisticated worlds worthy of endless exploration. Bethesda Game Studios’ Steve Massey has designed levels for some of the world’s most popular game franchises, including Call of Duty and Fallout.

Fallout‘s actually pretty interesting to do level design for because you get to be involved with a lot of different elements. […] When you’re creating level content for Fallout, it’s not just about layout, it’s also about exploration, which is really fun.

As for the future of game level design, Steve believes increased automation and artificial intelligence will allow level designers to focus more and more on creative work: building massive, vivid worlds that attract avid fans.

Just picture the type of thing that you can automate in the future. […] If you’re able to make enough of this stuff modular, you could just picture the size and scope of these massive worlds that could be created if you have enough people working on it to create custom content. I mean, ultimately there’s probably going to be some kind of AI that’ll be intelligent enough to replace me. And just create that interesting content by itself, right? Luckily we’re not there yet.

Steve Massey

Steve Massey is the Lead Level Designer at Bethesda Game Studios.

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Episode transcript

Note: This transcript may contain some minor wording and formatting errors. Apologies in advance!

[Todd]: Welcome to The Future of Content. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. On this podcast, we explore content—its creation, management, and distribution—by talking with the people who make content possible. Our goal is to learn from diverse perspectives and industries to become better creators. The Future of Content is brought to you by Four Kitchens. We design and develop digital content solutions that get results. Today, I’m joined by Steve Massey, Lead Level Designer at Bethesda Game Studios. We’re going to be talking about game design and the content of level design. Welcome to The Future of Content, Steve.

[Steve]: Hey, thanks. It’s good to be here.

[Todd]: So first things first. How did you get involved in the gaming industry?

[Steve]: Yeah. I’d actually been interested in game development pretty early on. I remember talking about it in high school. But there was no real established way at the time of sort of getting into the industry, so I just went on to college to get a programming degree. And I think it was around my junior year in college—I think either I ran across or my mom did—an article about the Guildhall at SMU starting up in Plano, in Dallas. And it’s sort of an experimental new post-graduate certificate program that wasn’t accredited yet, where you would learn one of the three sort of core disciplines of game development. They had a program for level design, art, and programming. And it’s unproven, but I had been kind of working on small mod projects at the time and—

[Todd]: What’s a mod project?

[Steve]: Yeah, sorry. Basically, if you load up a game on PC, some games will have editors where you can create your own content. Create your own, maybe, a custom skin for a character, a custom level to play on, or basically some kind of custom content that you distribute to the community, and then you can kind of get feedback on that and get rated and have them comment on it. I never made anything that big or popular, but I’d always just been doing it as a way, in my head, I was sort of trying to build up a portfolio. And that ended up coming in handy because when I went to apply for the Guildhall, I had a lot of these stuff I could put together and use as— You had to put together a portfolio just to apply there. And I ended up getting in, which is great. But this was all experimental. We were all very nervous because you’re spending money and you’re moving to a different city and putting a lot on the line for something that’s unproven. So—

[Todd]: Was this like the first year that they were offering it?

[Steve]: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It was when they first got started up. So in my junior year in college, there was one year— They just had started. And so each cohort, they call it, a group of students starts every six months. And so they were on the third cohort by the time I graduated, but nobody had graduated the program yet because the program’s a year-and-a-half. So then I started in the third cohort. And then six months later, I remember we all got really happy because one of the students who graduated, one of the programmers, ended up getting a job at id Software. And I think a lot of people—

[Todd]: Oh, nice.

[Steve]: — Sort of had a collective sigh of relief, right? Hey, maybe this will work out after all.

[Todd]: It works.

[Steve]: Yeah. And—

[Todd]: Yeah. And so id [Software] produces titles like Doom.

[Steve]: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, and actually, the sort of— The people who kind of invented, I’d say, modern level design or just the discipline of level design, which is sort of my job.

[Todd]: Well, let’s get into that stuff. So you mentioned that this program that you were part of focused on three different disciplines. There was level design, art, and programming. Are those generally the main disciplines of game designs, or are there others?

[Steve]: Yeah. Those buckets are pretty comprehensive in terms of the people creating content for the game. There are support disciplines— Like production is a big one, for instance, and quality assurance. And then—

[Todd]: What would production do?

[Steve]: Production sort of wrangles everybody, right? If there’s a sprint system in place, they’ll be in charge of that.

[Todd]: Oh, so they’re kind of like project managers, in a way?

[Steve]: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And typically, each department or discipline will have a different producer, and they’ll help— It’s scheduling and organization and sometimes being the task master [laughter].

[Todd]: So content for each of these disciplines would be— For art, perhaps that’s a little self-explanatory. It would be things like skins and graphics and illustrations and stuff like that, right? And programming would be— I guess that’s code, clearly, but is it specific to game mechanics like physics, shading—? What’s incorporated within programming?

[Steve]: Yeah. I mean, the simple way to think about these three disciplines is programmers are responsible for the functionality of a game, and art is responsible for the visuals, typically, and then design is responsible for the gameplay and how it feels. So with programming, just like any of the other three disciplines, it’s going to be broken into a bunch of different departments. You have gameplay programmers who are more involved with the gameplay systems and implementing those. You have engine programmers who are a lot more high-level, math-related stuff. You have physics programmers. I’m not a programmer. I can’t go into too much detail on what each one does, but yeah, just like any other discipline, there’s a wide spectrum of departments.

[Todd]: When I hear the word “level,” right, I think of something like Super Mario Brothers’ World 1 Level 1, and I think of the map. Here are the question blocks and the bricks and all of that stuff. Or I might think of a map on Doom, or a map on Team Fortress, or something like that. I assume that that’s part of what you do but not all of it.

[Steve]: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I mentioned earlier that games that id [Software] made, like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom and Quake— Sort of evolved the modern discipline of level design. Traditionally, in the ’80s and ’90s even, I think a lot of games were made with programmers and artists. And you had the game designer, but level design is fairly new. And so you have a lot of games— Even into the 2000s, you have a lot of games where the environments were made by art. But the purpose of a level designer is to, I think, bring a lot of thought into how players are going to interact with that environment. How the combat scenarios are going to play out, what it feels like to explore and loot these areas. Even something as subtle as making sure things are lit the right way to point you to the right openings or make sure the—

[Todd]: Oh, right. Like wayfinding?

[Steve]: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Like being able to intuitively navigate— I mean, if you’re playing a video game, and you get from point A to point B, you don’t really think about it, and that’s kind of the point, right? But if you struggle, and if you ever had that experience, where you get stuck in a video game and frustrated. You don’t know where to go. I mean, that’s a failing of probably a lot of systems, but level design as a core example, right?

[Todd]: So how did it wind up becoming its own focus? You mentioned that, in the early days, artists and programmers would sort of— They would handle this kind of work. But what made level design its own thing? Was there a specific moment in time where that emerged?

[Steve]: I am not super well versed in the history. There’s a book called Masters of Doom that’s actually about id Software that I’d recommend checking out. It’s really interesting. But you have guys like John Romero, who are kind of, I think as far as I can remember, the first people who called themselves level designers. And it’s basically just somebody who dedicated themselves to creating these 3D spaces and making sure that they felt good to navigate. A lot of the terminology “level” was referring to almost smaller levels, closed-off environments that, when you play a multiplayer game mode, then you’ll have these 10 different levels that you switch between, right? It’s very compartmentalized. But then, level design now is also being applied to open-world games, where maybe art will create the terrain that you navigate, but then level design will actually go to these different points of interest in the world and create those and make those interesting places to discover.

[Todd]: So in other words, levels used to be things like Super Mario Brothers, level one or world one, level one or [inaudible]. I forget how the naming convention of Doom, but it was something like level one, level two, whatever, right? Where, when you say self-contained, you mean that there is a map, and the level is contained entirely within this map, and everything that’s in the map is within the purview of the level designer. Everything from when you pass this point, then suddenly a bunch of enemies are going to tu\r\n \the corner, or this is where you’re going to hide the secret stash or the high-value item or all of that stuff, right?

[Steve]: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I mean—

[Todd]: And so now in the open-world games, it’s not really a self-contained level like that because you can wander around these environments, and there’s sort of like some degree of blank space in between, but there are distinct areas. I know you’ve been working on Fallout 76, and from what I understand, there are areas that you’ve designed to— There will be like a district or like a building that has some hidden stuff or certain experiences. Is that accurate?

[Steve]: Yeah. And, yeah, Fallout‘s actually pretty interesting to do level design for because you get to be involved with a lot of different elements that— Traditionally, my career has been in first-person shooter games and a lot of multiplayer. The first game that I worked on was Call of Duty 4. And then, I made a lot of just sort of multiplayer maps. But when you’re creating level content for Fallout, it’s not just about layout, it’s also about exploration, right, which is really fun. Sometimes you get to write terminals, or nodes, or lore, or create what they call visual storytelling. So maybe you have a skeleton that has a pickaxe in his hand, and you can kind of tell a story, and then you can create a node or a terminal to supplement that or even a Holotape, so.

[Todd]: And in the world of Fallout, for those who aren’t familiar, a terminal is a computer terminal you walk up to, and you interact with it or maybe there’s a diary or a log, and so you kind of read the story of what was happening in this space.

[Steve]: Yes. So you get to be involved with a lot of different things. And even aside from actual physical locations in the world, I’ve been able to create things that— We call them random encounters. So it’s these things that you encounter as you traverse the world. One of the random encounters I created was called Insult Bot. And it’s a robot that will randomly walk up to people and kind of do a lighthearted but cutting insult and then just laugh at you and walk away. And it’s become really popular in the community.

[Todd]: So now it sounds like what used to be considered level design, which is like, okay, there are these hallways and there are these doors and there are these enemies and there’s the switch and that activates this thing, it’s now grown into— Well, you need real storytelling you need— Whether it’s like a major plot or a minor plot or just sort of like interesting facts or visual storytelling like scenes being posed in a certain way or items lying around in a certain way that tells a story, it’s all to make the level more immersive. And you as a level designer are responsible for writing text, for doing art direction, for making something difficult or easy or rewarding, like all of the above.

[Steve]: Yeah. And it’s really different from company to company. It really just depends. There’s core things that— I think every company has some form of level design unless you’re making like a 2D puzzle game or something like that. Any game with a world typically has some type of level design, but it really just depends. And one of the things that probably varies the most is the art or the visuals. Some level designers traditionally did a lot more of the art back when games were built with editors, with BSP—binary space partition—which is kind of like the old school way of creating levels. You build blocks and then—primitives, primitive shapes—and then you apply materials to them, and you cut them.

[Todd]: Like stone, or wood, or dirt.

[Steve]: Yeah, exactly. And you can create buildings to go with them. And typically, there’d be some way to create terrain in these as well. So the problem with this is that the fidelity you can create into— The visual fidelity you could create with those types of engines was limited. And so a lot more game engines now are— You create a lot more complex art to assemble these things. But something cool about what I do now with Fallout is it’s a modular-based system. So you’ll have different kits, say like a concrete bunker kit. And it’ll have walls and doors and floors and ceiling pieces, and you can assemble these. So actually, when I finish my block out for location, it looks pretty good because the art is already there. It’s a kit that was designed to make that.

[Todd]: So you’re actually— You’re building this essentially. You’re traversing the space and you’re laying down floors, walls, ceilings, stuff like that?

[Steve]: Exactly, yeah. It depends. This is what I’m talking about. I know of other friends at other companies who as level designers create 2D layouts. And maybe they do a very rough what they call a “gray box,” which is they’ll block something out and everything will be just completely flat, one color, and it’s just enough to navigate. And then you send art loose and you get to run free and do that. But personally, I like having that art hybrid role with what I do because it’s just another— It’s just another fun thing you get to do. You get to actually control how it looks and then you work really closely with art, with environment art, when they do come in there and work on that. But the way to think about it is level design owns the gameplay of the environments, but then environment art would own the— Ultimately own the visuals.

[Todd]: So when you’re creating a level, what’s your goal? What do you want somebody to get out of a level?

[Steve]: So when I’m creating a level, I think that it really depends on your ultimate goal for the gameplay. So we actually do something called a “pass zero,” but at other companies, it’s called maybe just a “level design document.” And you’re determining, at that point, what you want to accomplish with this. Sometimes your goal is to facilitate a specific quest. And to create an environment to make that quest come to life. Sometimes you just want to create an interesting combat arena. Sometimes you want to create a cool place to stumble upon and explore and have a self-contained story. So it really just depends on what your goals are. And with multiplayer level design, I mean obviously your goal there is just to— Players are going to be interacting with the same environment over and over and over again, you want it to—

[Todd]: Because it’s not part of the linear plot, it’s where people get together and they play, so they’re just going to sort of use the space over and over and over again.

[Steve]: That’s right. Like one of my maps for Call of Duty 4 is called Crossfire, which is probably the most popular one I made for that game. And it’s a small environment that— The goal is that it has a lot of strategic depth. So you have high ground, you have low ground, and you have flanking paths and routes. And you want to have— It’s almost like, if you think about it, like a sports arena. It’s a more interesting sports arena, in my opinion. I mean, it has a little more variety than that, but that’s that’s how you would sort of interpret it is here’s this cool environment that has a lot of depth that you can really— The players can really learn and maybe they discover different things about it as they as they play it more and more.

[Todd]: And so a level for a game like that, for Call of Duty, where it’s multiplayer and it’s— I guess like a team versus a team, or like one versus many or something like that— Your goal as a level designer is to create spaces for people who maybe play the game differently, like some people who prefer to play the role of like a sniper or some that prefer to be more on the ground. You want to create areas where each of those people can play the game they want to play while also remaining balanced and not giving any one particular style of play or any player an advantage.

[Steve]: Yeah, exactly. I mentioned Crossfire, and I think one of the reasons that map was popular is because it has very natural— There’s a very long road from uphill to downhill and it has a very natural sniper sightline at the top and the bottom. You had these buildings you can hide in and shoot each other, but then there’s enough flanking routes circling around the sniper path that you’ll have people constantly circling on the outer area avoiding that center sniper lane and doing their run and gun gameplay and if the snipers aren’t careful they’re going to come up behind them and get knifed. So they’ll plant claymores by the door and try to defend themselves. So it’s kind of like— It’s kind of like an interesting— It’s an environment that supports multiple play styles, but you have to be aware of the other people at the same time.

[Todd]: Let’s take a very quick break. When we return we’re going to talk with Steve about what’s on the horizon for game development. What’s the future of game and level design?

[Voiceover] Hey everyone, Todd here. We’ll get back to the episode in a moment. I wanted to quickly tell you about Four Kitchens. You may know that Four Kitchens creates websites, but we do so much more than that. Our team of Web Chefs can help you make better use of your content, scale your web team, and create world-class digital experiences. Most importantly, we get results. We’ve helped media companies streamline their streaming platforms, we’ve helped public broadcasters increase donations, and we’ve helped universities enroll more students. To find out more about how Four Kitchens can help, visit us at Now, back to the episode.

[Todd] Welcome back to The Future Of Content. Our guest today is Steve Massey, Lead Level Designer at Bethesda Game Studios. So let’s talk about the future of game content. Whether it’s level design or games, where do you see the industry headed in terms of how games are content and how you produce content for games?

[Steve]: It’s funny, I was having a conversation with a friend about this a few months ago and he is convinced that big triple-A game companies are going to go away because the way the tools are developing, they’re allowing smaller teams to create larger worlds.

[Todd]: And, real quick, what does triple-A mean?

[Steve]: Yeah, so triple-A it’s— I suppose is a vague term. I don’t know of any game company that would call themselves double-A.

[Todd]: So either you’re triple-A or you’re nothing, in other words.

[Steve]: I mean maybe it’s triple-A and that’s typically what you consider Call of Duty, Halo, Fortnite, I mean, the big titles. And then you have game companies that are maybe either considered independent that has smaller teams or just games with smaller budgets.

[Todd]: Like Minecraft back in the day, before—

[Steve]: Sure, yeah.

[Todd]: — Microsoft bought it for what?

[Steve]: Before it was worth $2 billion. Yeah.

[Todd]: A billion dollars. Two billion? [laughter] Jeesh. Has any game sold for more than Minecraft?

[Steve]: I mean, I’m not aware of any story that’s more exceptional than that.

[Todd]: To satisfy my curiosity and to just kind of help me understand how things sort of mature, would Minecraft now be considered triple-A? Or does it still kind of adhere to like an indie cred that makes it, I don’t know, feel like an independent game or not necessarily be called like a triple-A title?

[Steve]: I think once you have merchandise in GameStop then you start being triple-A—you have to consider yourself triple-A at that point. I mean, it’s—

[Todd]: Fair. If you have a Lego set— multiple Lego sets.

[Steve]: Yeah. I mean, Minecraft is big business. I don’t think anybody would consider it independent at this point.

[Todd]: Okay. It looks like one, but it’s definitely—

[Steve]: Right, right, right.

[Todd]: It’s not. Okay. Got it. So anyway, triple-A— Maybe this is equivalent to—I don’t know—a lot of sports terminology. I’m going to mess it up, but I know that some teams are called, I guess, double-A or triple-A, something like that. Maybe it pulls that terminology from the sports world?

[Steve]: Possibly. I don’t know the history behind it. But just think of it— I mean, it’s a Michael Bay movie. Right? And the interesting thing here, going back to the original point, is that triple-A, it’s the big budget stuff, it’s the stuff that isn’t— You go there for the spectacle. You go there to see better graphics than you see in any other game, to see more polished gameplay, hopefully. And to see sort of this— A scope of game that you can accomplish with a smaller team. But then, independent games, I think typically tend to be a little more experimental. And so you get a lot more interesting stuff there.

[Todd]: And how much of that, the independent nature, whether it’s like a garage band or like an independent movie. A lot of people draw parallels between the film industry and the game industry. I think largely, like as a layperson, the way I hear it is people just constantly being surprised and mystified that the game industry is larger than the film industry and that games, the cost of producing games rivals that of major blockbuster films—maybe even exceeds it, I don’t know. But independent movies in that way can be more experimental, probably should be more experimental to set themselves apart, whether it’s using unknown actors or unusual storytelling techniques or unusual cinematographic techniques or whatever. Independent games do similar things, right, where they’re just trying to kind of stand out, because it’s usually just one or two people developing a game, and they want to create something that’s totally unique or unusual.

[Steve]: Yeah. Yeah, actually, one of my favorite games that I played in the past several years, I believe it’s called Return of [the] Obra Dinn. And it was made by one guy. And it’s super interesting gameplay. You go to this— You’re in the 1800s and you’re essentially an insurance inspector. So it sounds incredibly boring, but you go into this pirate ship that had kind of washed up on shore and nobody is left alive. And it’s your job to determine of all the crew members, what were their name and rank, how did they die, and what weapon did they get killed with? So it’s essentially like one big logic puzzle. And the thing that makes—

[Todd]: It’s a little bit like Clue.

[Steve]: A little bit. The thing that makes it interesting is you have the capability of, you have a magic watch that lets you look into the past, into moments in time, so that’s kind of the cool part about it. But it’s just kind of the gameplay that you would never see a big triple-A company commit to because there’s no guarantee that it’s going to sell well. And I think it sold well for—

[Todd]: Well, it’s also limited in scope, I imagine too.

[Steve]: Exactly.

[Todd]: It’s not like, “We’re going to create a game that takes—” a lot of games are measured in terms of the number of hours they take to complete, right? So these triple-A games, I mean what’s considered the lowest amount of time it takes to complete a game to be considered triple-A?

[Steve]: Yeah. I mean, talking about your question about the future of game development, I think there’s a lot of things that automate processes. And so you can extrapolate that games could be made in the future with these big triple-A companies that have these tools that can automatically generate a lot of content. And you can picture how the standard for a game could be hundreds of hours or thousands of hours. I mean right now, it really depends on the type of game. If you have an open-world game, I think players expect more gameplay out of it. I mean, if hundreds of hours— if you have something like The Last of Us, maybe it’s 10 or 20 hours. But if you have an online game right now or a service-based game, people play those things for thousands of hours right now. You can just imagine what that could be like in the future.

[Todd]: Literally, there are people who have logged multiple thousands of hours over the course— How many years does it take to accumulate that much time on a game?

[Steve]: A couple of years. I mean, I don’t have the exact metrics on anything in particular, but people get really absorbed into games in a lot of ways. They become familiar with that world. They want to be a citizen of that world, and they want to kind of exist there. And so you can picture in the future how if you’re able to generate enough interesting procedural content, you could picture a world. I mean, that’s what Ready Player One is about, right? The book that’s written here in Austin and then the big-budget movie that came out, right? It’s about a game that becomes so big, it contains every other game ever made, so it’s the biggest game in the world. And who knows, maybe that’s where it’s going. Maybe it’s going into a game that’s a platform that you can access and get another game on.

[Todd]: Oh, interesting. So it’s less about— It is a game, but it’s a game that contains games, and that can be used to build games all at once.

[Steve]: Yeah. I mean, you can already— There’s games that have easter eggs. So I can’t think of a specific example, but actually, I think in one of the Uncharted games, you can go in there and play an earlier Naughty Dog game on an emulated PlayStation. So the modern game can emulate an older game, and so you could picture what that could be like. I mean, I don’t know how the licensing for all this works.

[Todd]: Wow. [laughter] Yeah, right.

[Steve]: It’d be really cool.

[Todd]: That’s probably what it comes— That’ll be the biggest hurdle in the future. It’s just like you’re trying to somehow collect all the licenses. And speaking of Ready Player One, they had to make key changes to the plot because they couldn’t secure all of the IP, so there were certain important things that they had to change because, apparently, if you do a book, you don’t have to— You don’t have to get any IP, but yet if it’s a movie or whatever— I don’t know how this works—

[Steve]: Yeah, how does that work?

[Todd]: Who knows? So you’re thinking that one of the— That a future of games or part of the future of games could be games becoming just so massive that they almost become like worlds unto themselves where people can just sort of— I don’t know. I don’t want to say live a second life, exactly. They could spend an unlimited amount of time, and they’re doing whatever, building things or playing things or something. But earlier, you did say that you and your friend were talking about how you think that the triple-A titles or the triple-A studios might not exist in the future. How do you square those two ideas?

[Steve]: Well, he feels that way. My argument is that the triple-A companies will have the same technology except they’ll have more people and a bigger budget.

[Todd]: Oh, okay.

[Steve]: I think they’ll be able to— I think that modders and the— Sorry, independent companies in the future will be able to make games on par with, say, Skyrim, right? But then, what are the games from triple-A companies going to look like then?

[Todd]: Well, I imagine part of what triple-A— The content that’s contained inside these triple-A games, the big titles that I can think of are the EA Sports, like NFL, so you have the entire NFL, right? You have the likenesses of every player in the NFL, you have how they move, how they play, how they talk, right? It’s all built into the game. Or you have games that involve hundreds and hundreds of hours of voice acting and incredible art. Perhaps that is the kind of content. Perhaps it will be content, in other words, that makes a game triple-A. Just the sheer volume and the difficulty of producing it, as opposed to say having really great graphics, or really excellent physics engines or something like that.

[Steve]: Along those lines it’s interesting. Something that I really struggled with early on in my career was— For Call of Duty 4, I was the person who had to do what’s called occlusion, or optimization for every multiplayer map. So this is basically— The simple way to think about this is I’m standing in front of a brick wall. The game engine is not drawing the geometry on the other side of the wall. And you’re physically telling it to do that. And when you want to be able to view geometry like through a window, or a doorway, or a street, or something like that you create what’s called a portal. And so this is a very time intensive and painful process that I had to go through for every multiplayer map. And it’s really kind of depressing, honestly, to sit there for just weeks and weeks and just— You’re looking for leaks in this thing that has to be airtight. And 15 years later, there’s a third-party solution called Umbra, that the past few games that I’ve worked on have utilized that just does it all automatically. You don’t have to— I mean, you have to do a few touch ups here and there, but it just— If there’s a brick wall, it knows that you’re standing in front of it and it knows not to draw the stuff behind it. So you have this stuff that’s becoming automated. In addition to that, I mean, you have the pretty standardized third-party physics solutions, third-party audio solutions, that are integrated into a lot of modern game engines. So just picture the type of thing that you can automate in the future. I mean, if you have games that have combat, maybe there’s a way to standardize the weapons. If you have games that are about talking to characters, maybe there’s a way to standardize those dialog trees. Or to standardize just having a character walk around a city and standardize their AI behavior. I mean, if you’re able to make enough of this stuff modular, I mean, you could just picture the size and scope of these massive worlds that could be created if you have enough— If you have enough people working on it to create custom content. And then, yeah. I mean, ultimately there’s probably going to be some kind of AI that’ll be intelligent enough to replace me. And just create that interesting content by itself, right? Luckily we’re not there yet.

[Todd]: Right. So the kind of content that an AI would produce, how far do you want to take that idea? It would learn from itself what is considered fun and challenging, or by observing human behaviors? Or are we talking like creating content as in compelling dialogue and plot twists?

[Steve]: I mean, who knows? I was listening to a podcast the other day that was talking about some kind of adaptive program that you feed in an artist. Say you take Michael Jackson. You feed it in all of Michael Jackson’s songs. And then it can create a new Michael Jackson song.

[Todd]: Oh, come on. [laughter] [Steve]: And they have examples that— I can’t remember the name but it’s pretty good. But so I mean, you can picture if you have— I mean, I like to think that the decisions I’m making every time are interesting and unique, but I probably have a patte\r\n \to the way that I’m implementing these levels. I probably have, whenever I train new employees, I have these standard things that I teach them. You don’t want to have too many open sight lines. You want to make sure to have plenty of cover. There’s rules.

[Todd]: And that’s kind of like the Steve Massey fingerprint. And at some point and AI could lea\r\n \that.

[Steve]: Sure. Why not? Yeah. I mean, you couldn’t— Maybe you couldn’t design an AI to learn what makes a fun level, but you could design an AI to create levels like somebody that makes good content.

[Todd]: Oh, that’s wild. Okay. Well, let’s wrap up in just a moment. But before we do, I’m curious, what— What’s one of your favorite levels? And I mean that in the broadest sense, whether we’re talking about a 2D scroller on NES, and area in an open world. What’s an example of a level that you really love, or that has really impressed you, or that you keep coming back to again and again?

[Steve]: Yeah, that’s a tough one. I think that the stuff that is most impressionable on people is probably the stuff that they experienced when they were young. So I would probably answer something on— from a Super Nintendo game like Chrono Trigger. I’m not sure if you— If they would even call it level design at that point if there were actual level designers on that game. You go into certain towns or cities, and the layouts are just interesting to explore, and look around and so distinctive that here— I haven’t played the game in probably 20 or 25 years. And I could probably go into it and know exactly how to navigate it and remember where all the secrets are, right? So yeah, probably something like that. I mean, there’s modern games that I really appreciate too, obviously, but I tend to— For modern games, I tend to appreciate the work as a whole. So if there’s a really good multiplayer game it has 10 to 16 multiplayer maps. I tend to appreciate the variety and the different play styles they’ll bring together as a— It’s almost like looking at an album rather than an individual song if that makes sense.

[Todd]: Oh, interesting, rather than singles. Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Steve, for taking time out of your day, and on a Saturday no less to have this conversation. I really appreciate it.

[Steve]: Yeah. No. Thank you. This has been a lot of fun.

[Todd]: Well, thanks again, to Steve Massey for joining me today. I hope you learned as much as I did. And I can’t wait to see the content you create next. Feel free to send it my way via email, at You can also reach out to me @FoCpodcast on Twitter. To find out more about Four Kitchens, and how we solve complex content problems, visit Finally, make sure to search for The Future of Content in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts—wherever you get your podcasts. And click subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. Until then, keep creating content.