Mass Effect 2’s Level Design Involved An ‘Orange Box’ Stage. Yes, It’s A Valve Thing

Mass Effect 2’s Level Design Involved An ‘Orange Box’ Stage. Yes, It’s A Valve Thing

The Mass Effect series certainly had some memorable characters, but how about levels? While it might be hard to recall them now, each level required an enormous amount of work to get right. If you’ve ever wondered exactly how much, this GDC 2009 presentation for Mass Effect 2 should prove very enlightening.

The almost one-hour talk from BioWare’s Cory Andrusko and Dusty Everman provides incredible insight into the process behind Mass Effect 2‘s level design, which is a lot more involved than you might think.

Each one was crafted in phases, with the first being “narrative playable”. As you might expect, the idea here is to make sure the dialogue (if any) and story make sense, as well as the general pacing of encounters.

This is followed by the “white box” and “orange box” phases. The first is a blocked-out version of the level with AI-disabled enemies, without cover and collision, while the “orange” phase adds in the collision and has enemies with full AI.

According to the presentation, this latter phase was based on Valve’s methods for level design:

We have an “Orange Box” stage, which we did borrow from Valve. It was not from their great games, it was actually from a Gamasutra article they had before then, talking about a “collision-only” level.

Beyond making well-designed and fun levels, the process helped developers be more efficient. By having what was essentially three prototyping phases, gameplay could be locked down and tuned before artists began the time-consuming work of painting textures and building geometry.

Mass Effect 2’s Iterative Level Design Process [YouTube]


    • The video was published 26-05-2016. For most people this will be the first time they can view the talk, assuming they weren’t in attendance at GDC in 2009.

      Is there something wrong with reviewing anything from the past?

      • Pay him/her/it no mind, they are still mad about ME3, and who can blame them….so am i… so lets revel in nostalgia of 2009 and pretend 2012 never happened, ever.

  • I find it weird that this is talked about as some amazing thing that Valve pioneered. Prototyping is level design 101.

    • No it is not. It completely made one class obsolete. There was no story progression at any point in the over all story, unitl the end. The missions where good, but ME1 was far better, thanks to having a story that followed though the whole game, and the RPG aliments where MUCH better than ME2. On top of that, they added ‘ammo’ to we pones, when they did not have them in ME1, the first of many lore braking things….

      ME1 is best, ME3 is seconded, and ME2 is the worst of the 3. That is not to say its shit, but its not on par with ME1 in multiple aspects. I love the ME games, but I am not so dumb as to blindly see the games without there flaws.

    • I thought it was the worst of the three. I realise that this is an unpopular opinion.

      For me, number 1 was a great RPG with not so great combat. 3 was a great action combat game with solid RPG stuff. 2 was bullet sponges and waist high walls as far as the eye could see with almost zero RPG elements at all.
      Story was good, though.

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