In a GDC talk titled "What Modern Interior Design Teaches Us About Environment Art," Ubisoft Toronto level designer Dan Cox had simple advice for other environment artists and level designers: watch HGTV.
Cox worked on Splinter Cell Blacklist, and was teaching at Seneca college when he had his epiphany. "I was watching a lot of HGTV with my wife and I found it really entertaining," he said. More importantly, he found inspiration in the techniques interior designers use to make a space interesting. "Level artists are interior designers," he said. "Our fundamentals are so much closer than might be obvious."
After listing techniques and going through examples from interior design — with plenty of examples of kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms, Cox launched into direct applications for level designers, highlighting an example from his latest project, Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
He showed off early screens from an in-game environment — a natural gas refinery. It looked realistic, but cluttered. "This was not supposed to feel like a 'designed' space," he noted. "We focused on function over form — but players got confused looking at this space."
Working off of interior design principles learned from design-oriented shows like Sarah 101 and Pure Design, Cox and team de-emphasized elements that were confusing and highlighted things like lighting fixtures and interactive elements, leading the player intelligently through the stage. And Cox is confident this approach will work for games of all kinds: "If we can do this in a natural gas refinery, we can do this in caves and mountains," he said.
"We want to learn from interior design for inspiration," Said Cox, noting that movies and other games have already been well-visited. "It can be something we can come to to get new and fresh ideas."