The Paradox of Anti-Design

Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu
5 min readNov 3, 2022

So recently, I've been thinking a lot about fundamental changes happening in the level design/world design bubble.

I've felt a profound dissociation from the level design medium, primarily due to my direct involvement in the open-world design space.

It feels to me, at least in the context of my current working situation, that I am sitting at the very beginning of a new and hard-to-articulate medium called world design.

It’s so new that it becomes hard to frame accurately and adequately, and naturally, everyone interprets it differently since it is very subjective.

The reason why I feel this way is because it seems to sit antithetical to common design traditions or schools of thought.

I’ve been struggling and failing to understand this for a few years, mostly because I was raised to believe that what I have been doing all my life has been in most aspects level design. But despite that, my work failed (from a professional standpoint) so often, not because of the level design but due to its commitment to level design.

And that has felt paradoxical at times. It always came under the pretence of it now being rooted in reality, not being realistic, being too gamey, being too bespoke.

The argument seemed always to be the same:

  • The gameplay is good to have.
  • The level should tell a story, drive the narrative, and be rooted in the fantasy context.
  • It should be an excellent place to visit.
  • Players should be free to explore the way they want.
  • The level should not be built for the player (bespoke), except it should be made to the player's specifications (metrics).

This leads me to the topic of anti-design.

If you are not designing things for a specific purpose, what are you designing them for?

In this statement stands the entire paradoxical nature of anti-design.

How do you design something that can serve many purposes, services no one in particular and fits in the environment naturally, but simultaneously (paradox) incentivizes people to interact with that thing?

That is the difficulty of modern level design, or what we would call world-building. That is the puzzle we are trying to crack in this job.

And that's not level design anymore. It doesn't need to be.

Most modern design sensibilities are built on several factors:

  • Tradition
  • Culture
  • Tech
  • etc.

All of them contribute to the development of the designer and, to some extent, feed their drive to do this job.

That's why you get activist designers, traditional rld designers, tech focus design gurus, etc.

It’s like carving wood with different tools. It leads to different results. Some are better than others, but not all designers have the same tools, and some are better with specific devices.

While working at Machinegames, I think I saw this conflict first-hand.

World Design, context-focused, player freedom-inducing mechanics vs traditional linear level design, designer driver-induced experiences, and so on.

Could you marry the two? I didn't manage to see where the crossover point was. I tried, and ideologically it just felt like that did not work. It does not lead to any conducive collaboration. It leads to conflict. Why? Because of tradition.

I have felt like all my training has gently pushed me towards the topic of world design, but I didn’t know it because it was labeled as level design.

I recently found that I am having a lot of fun world-building in a more traditional world-building way:

  • Looking for RPG books that focus on context-defining methodologies.
  • World Building based on clear context. Context is defined by prior events (deterministic design). Always asking why something is the way it is, rather than just having things the way they are because they are that way.
  • Spending time looking for references and getting hyped by what might be rather than just making things up and hoping they would be good.
  • Less focus on why something is good or what good is; instead, do something and let others' feedback loop the results to you.

I a way to mentally dissociate from the process, while at the same time doing the association process between what is already there.

So yeah, it is hard to articulate anything accurately.

I guess it's more like writing. It's really about how much you write, is about how much you sit with an idea, play with it, explore it, write it, re-write it, take a break, get drunk, despair, burn the idea, throw it away, dissociate yourself from it entirely for months until it finally clicks in your head. You can put it down on paper, and it exists there.

Some colleagues recently had a hard time due to their work being too bespoke. There was a collective managerial effort around the situation to convince them to understand that bespoke, intentionally targeted design is not what is expected of them.

It felt like a tragic live burial, mostly because design might be hard to articulate, to explain, but it is, in the end, Ideologic.

It permeates us and makes us defensive and protective of our work.

We think something is good because we look at it through the lenses of years of experience forged in ideological design wars with other designers, built on top of mountains of user data, and ultimately validated by games released and held in high regard these days.

And that makes us obsessive and resistant to change and hard-headed and stubborn.

More willing to challenge the status quo rather than accept it, because… who are these kids, with their old ideas again? Didn't we try this before many times, and it didn't work? Why would it work today? Wait… am I old and alone in this?

It's the precursor to madness. It's the ideological shock of being displaced. All those years of trying to solve the finer things were just waved away by youthful ignorance, all in the name of innovation.

So perhaps, as a final effort, we should separate the two. Build a great big fence between them.



Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu

As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Senior Open World Designer. #Leveldesign #Open World #Design @notimetoulose.