Happy Friday, dear reader! This week, I’ll be talking about our level design process.
First and foremost, PAMELA is a game about inhabiting a believable space. Even though Eden has fallen by the time the player enters the world, it was once a vibrant, bustling utopia in which thousands of people lived their daily lives. The player needs to become invested and immersed in the world before we can deliver a great survival horror experience, and the physical environment itself is a huge part of achieving that goal. Sounds, AI, gameplay are all layered on top of this base to create a harmony of senses that never breaks immersion while you’re playing.
So how do we do it? The design process is something that’s always very personal and subjective, and difficult to truly explain to someone. It’s a fluid process, always shifting as moments of inspiration come, and inevitably fade away; cue head banging against wall. With that in mind, I’m going to lay out the basic steps and questions we always go through when designing a new area in Eden.
Step 1 – What is its purpose?
Does someone live there? Do they shop there? Do they walk through there on their way to work? During what time of day would people occupy the space? These are the types of questions we ask ourselves to start envisioning what kind of feel the space needs to have. This may seem trivial, but thinking through the seemingly obvious elements that define a space can be a surprisingly useful way to start the design process.
In imaging how people would use the space in their daily lives, stories start to emerge; maybe John Smith walks through this hallway every day before heading to work. Even if these stories don’t directly manifest themselves in the final product, the fact that they exist in your mind as the designer will come out in your subconscious.
Step 2 – Where is it located?
Consider the area’s proximity to neighboring spaces, and what kind of relationship these areas have. For example, what kind of sight-lines do you want between the spaces? A residential unit would require more privacy than a corner store, for example. We take these design rules for granted in reality, because our world comes pre-designed for us! When designing virtual environments, just like when an architect designs a real space, it’s crucial to consider the area’s context.
Step 3 – What does it look like? (AKA the hard part)
Now that we’ve built up the story and location of the area, we can get to the “fun” (read: occasionally/often depression-inducing) part: designing the architecture of the space! This process can vary greatly depending on the area; we’ll either start with finding references that inspire us, drawing up some concept art, or sometimes just jumping right into 3Ds Max to model some blockout geometry to get the process started. Usually it’s a mix of these 3 things; each area has its own inherent challenges and design is rarely a one-size-fits-all ordeal.
At this point, it’s not uncommon to restart quite often. It can be frustrating at times to spend hours on something, and face the grim realization that it isn’t coming out the way you intended, but it’s critical to realize when this is necessary. Re-designing a nearly completed area takes an order of magnitude longer than redoing a blockout, so make sure to bite the bullet early on. I generally don’t leave the blockout phase until the “feel” is pretty close to what the final area should have; things like lighting, proportions, etc. will not change much when detail is added later on.
Step 4 – Ok, but how do we make it look awesome?
So we’ve got a story, we’ve got some references and a nice little blockout model, but we don’t have a finished area. We’ve planted the seed, but this baby still needs time to grow. Thankfully, this stage of the process is often easier than the initial phases. While it may be time consuming to add those finishing details and props, you’ve already set the area on a certain path by this point so you can be pretty confident that you’ll be doing the right thing.
Of course, this is where the more technical aspects of the process come into play- modelling clean shapes, authoring classy materials, and keeping optimization in mind so that the game will run smoothly. Modelling, texturing, lighting, and optimization are all mammoth topics in themselves so I won’t dig into them here; suffice to say that you’ll always be learning in these areas for as long as you’re making games.
Step 5 – Am I done yet?
Maybe? But probably not. Designing a city like Eden is full of interconnected spaces; for example, the central courtyard touches almost every district in some way, and for this reason it can never truly be “finished” until each of those areas’ entrance has been designed and implemented. There’s a reason why real-world architectural design can take years- each and every area needs to be considered, and imagined as though YOU are John Smith, walking through the park on your way to work. While I’ve tried to break down the steps we use here, the design process truly is a fickle thing that you can’t always be in control of. And sometimes, this is perfectly fine; the term “happy accident” certainly rings true here.
What I can say is that the process gets easier with time, and you have a body of work to build upon. Each consecutive area becomes ever so slightly less difficult to envision, like slowly filling in a painting that you’ve never seen until it’s finished. Good thing too, or else we’d be modelling and designing for a few more years!
That’s it for me this week. This post was a bit of a teaser for a presentation I’ll be doing at Unite Boston this September, so make sure to bookmark that if you’re interested in hearing more.
Check back next week for a rather exciting post from Christian; learn more about personality-driven AI in…
Dev Blog 8 – They’ve Gained Sentience!
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