The Ship Level Design: Tips & Tricks
Written by [OL]ReNo
[OL]ReNo always starts with a pad of paper, a pencil, and an eraser. The level designer should begin by drawing rough overlays to plan the layout. Specifics are unimportant at this stage, as a lot will change from this point to your final level. The level will end up deviating quite a bit from the original design, but planning things out on paper to begin with can help more than one might expect. Room designs should be included in the planning phase. One does not need to be an artist to reap the benefits of this approach - its very quick and painless to put pencil to paper and solidify ideas. If the level calls for a grand vision of a large open lobby with 2 sweeping staircases and arched viewing galleries overlooking the fountain below, the level designer can sketch out these designs in 3D or at least plan the layout. Some may use graph papers and rulers, but [OL]ReNo prefers to keep the work rough in this stage of development.
Blocking Things Out
Once the planing phase is complete, it is time to begin blocking things out. General guidelines [OL]ReNo follows are: Wall thickness = 8 units - "Most of the transitional props like door frames and windows are designed for 8 units thick walls" Height differences between floors should remain consistent throughout the level (especially when elevators are used that move a set distance between floors) Most of the standard maps leave 128 units for the internal space between each floor (with a further 8 or 16 for the ceiling/floor) The level designer may choose to have an area with higher ceilings to further detail the level - 160 is the next standard measurement after 128 so the author suggests that.
Ensure there is enough space for everything - if you've got a section of the ship where there are 2 corridors and 2 rooms to fit within the ship's width, make sure that your ship is wide enough to accommodate! Throw in some temporary props to get a rough idea of the room layout - put in the beds, wardrobes, chairs, etc... Don't worry about being precise, just make sure you've made your room spacious enough. If things turn out too large you can always extend walls and build brushes to shrink them down. Doing that also allows for some secrets to be built in retroactively (though planning them in early is always good!). On the other hand you don't want to make things giant and shrink them down too often, as you'll end up with needlessly long corridors to trek down which could hurt gameplay.
Once you've got things blocked out you can get started on detailing (something I'm rather guilty of falling into while blocking things out). Use the cordon tool a whole lot as it saves you so much time on compiling, particularly if you're making quite a large ship and you're compiling with HDR. Doing this means you can compile far more often - its an absolute godsend when you're tweaking lighting.
I'm also a huge fan of elaborate visgrouping as it gives you so much control over what the editor renders, and can make complex maps so much easier to work with. At the very least get into the habit of assigning visgroups to each deck of the ship, and think about putting the ceiling brushes into their own sub-visgroup of their respective floor. It makes it really easy to fly around whatever deck you are working on from above and make tweaks, and gives you a really nice and clear way to look at the layout. I also suggest creating a "filter" visgroup, and within that visgroup create several others such as "room triggers" and "interactions" (to which you should add all your ship_trigger_rooms and ship_base_interaction entities respectively for easy hiding), and whatever else you find clutters your view often. Note that there are auto-visgroups that do some of the job for you - hint brushes and clip brushes, for example, can be hidden from there. Note that you can de-anchor the visgroup box, resize it to make it taller, and then re-anchor it to the sidebar at its new length if you have the screenspace to do so - I'd be lost without my tall visgroup box
Familiarise yourself with using the texture application tool as efficiently as possible. Switch to "lift and select" mode, and left click a face to select it then alt-right click on other faces to apply it already lined up properly. This feature comes into its own when you are working with angled geometry; its one I've seen a few people unfamiliar with but is an easy productivity increase. Likewise, try and get to grips with using keyboard shortcuts for all the tools. Once you know them by heart you'll work more efficiently than moving the mouse around the screen needlessly, and as a plus you can remove the toolbar and earn yourself a wee bit of extra screen for the editing views.
Hmm, this is getting a little long and general purpose now, apologies for lack of Ship specific advice. Hope there's a few trinkets of useful knowledge in there anyways.