Designing the Experience

Level Design is a really important process in the development of a game. Without level design we would only have a pretty space to walk around in. It is much more than just drawing a map that looks cool. This isn’t solely the visual experience but is the way the map, puzzles, and visuals come together to create a cohesive picture. Level design is the process of creating the world that the player experiences. It takes a lot of work and iteration and as a team we have done much of that.

We start with discussing what game elements should be in each level. A list is created of all of the aspects that will make the level unique: the kinds of puzzles, what obstacles the player should come into contact with, as well as the visual aesthetic of each level. The visual aesthetic is extremely important. It tells us the basics of what we can and can’t do. For example, the water themed level should have a lot of puzzles that involve water and swimming, but should not include anything fire or lava related. This limits what we can do aesthetically and what we can do with puzzle design.

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A very early example of going through each level and deciding the elements that will be included.

After the list of all of the elements that should be in each level is created, we begin drawing out maps. This allows us to think visually about the flow of the level design. Drawing out the maps helps us to begin designing the puzzles, thinking through the steps that make a puzzle fun but challenging. There needs to be a variety of puzzle difficulty. Some puzzles need to be difficult and others that the player can solve pretty easily. Additionally, we need to work on the flow and order of the game. Having important concepts introduced to the player in early levels is important so that he or she can successfully navigate more difficult levels later in the game. At the early stages there is no right or wrong design. Many of the best ideas come from the most random encounters.

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Great ideas can come about at any time hence this napkin drawing.
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Some early pencil level drawings of the water level.

Our team comes together after coming up with much of the level design to look at the positives and negatives of each other’s ideas. Working as a group really helps the overall decisions making. Everyone sees things differently which allows for a lot of unique and interesting discussions which lead to better design overall.

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Updated water level design after team discussion.

After we have a good idea for different puzzles we begin to build everything out in Unity. Gray boxing is the process of creating a level through the use of basic geometry. It lets us build prototypes of individual puzzles and whole levels that our team is able to play test. We want to make sure the gray box experience is what we want the actual experience to feel like. If a puzzle isn’t intuitive, fun, or working as intended, it will not work as fully functional play experience even if looks pretty. The gray box stage allows us to do lots of testing to refine our game before we start putting in tons of work to a level or area that might get cut from the final game.

At this point we go into each level and do a rough visual pass to make it feel similar to the rest of the game. The visual pass is the process of going through and replacing all of the gray boxes or in our case blue boxes with real assets that the art team has been working on.

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This is a great example of gray boxing and first pass on set dressing. You can see the drastic difference between each screenshot.
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Top down view of the water level. Left: “Blue” Boxed. Right: First set dressing pass.

After the set dressing pass we push it on to our lighting guy to do an early lighting pass. The lighting pass is an early test of what the overall lighting of the game will look like. This allows the artist to have a better idea of what the space will look like while they do the final set dressing. Once the lighting pass is done we can go back into the space and really refine the visuals. We work to make each level feel unique but also have a cohesion across the game. This is when we introduce more of the individual models of specific pieces needed for each area. For us this includes owl statues, mushrooms, plants, and more.

Our most recent challenge for level design has been reworking our temple level. The temple level is a large temple created by the ancient owl civilization. It is supposed to be grand but dilapidated. It is introduced early in the game and is where you access other levels. It has been a challenge to design this place both visually and mechanically. Originally, this space was supposed to be its own completely contained level. Our project scope was too large for the amount of time we had and we had to make compromises. In order to keep the most important area of our game, without having to cut an entire space, we decided to do some massive changes to how temple level would work. Instead of being complete level it is now a hub space. This allows us to keep the space for use as the end level of the game without having to change much of the original design.

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Above is an early design for what the space was originally supposed to look like. Before the redesign you were supposed to do a small puzzle that returns you to an environment similar to each of the past levels you encountered and offers you a chance to further refine your understanding of the puzzle in each area. After completing all of them you would unlock the entrance to the temple.

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Thanks for reading and I hoped you learned a lot about how we do our design. Also above is a sneak peak of what our temple hub might be looking like.

-Mitch Design Lead Strix Studio

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Crystal Cave

As you have seen with some of our art from previous blog posts, our game takes place in an elaborate cave system. One of the most important parts of building an environment is having good references. Luckily for us there is a wonderful cave close by. In order to get the best and most realistic depiction of what a cave may look like we went and visited Crystal Cave in Spring Valley, WI. We had all of our art team come to make sure they each person could experience it firsthand, and have good visual representation of the cave in their head. Along with the art team we had most of the design team and some of the programming team come as well to help them get an idea of what we are aiming for the future of the game.

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This is a great example of the many areas that can be found within the cave.

Research is a really important part of game design. It helps to get a greater understanding of how these environments function in real life, as well as giving us visual references. Even if your environment doesn’t exist in reality, it’s still important to look at what does. This helps ground your creation in reality. Our cave isn’t photorealistic, but starting with real geology and cave structures was important to make sure we abstracted it in a way that was easy to believe.

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An example of a really nice texture resource.
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This is an example of a paint over that was done for one of the small areas.

While at Crystal Cave we took numerous reference photos both to use as examples of how to build our environments but also as texture references. The cave itself is quite large with 3 different levels of elevation and is very winding, switching from very tight spaces to larger areas that are roughly 600 sq feet. The deepest part of the cave is roughly 75 feet underground. This is actually not that large, especially in comparison to the gigantic Han Son Doong cave system, which was an original inspiration.

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There is a lot of variety in the looks of the rocks.
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Another example of variety in rocks.

We made sure to take lots of photos from the the perspective of an owl, trying to get low to the ground instead of from the height of a human. There are ton of wonderful small little spaces within the cave, each with uniquely formed structures. The most notable feature is that these tight spaces are filled with lots of mini stalactites and stalagmites.

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There are tons of areas just like this spread through out the cave.

While there we were able to get some really great panoramic pictures in the cave, as well as full HDR images. These images may eventually be able to use for lighting in the game. We would be using these HDR image as skyboxes. These skyboxes are large images that use the color information to light the scene as if it was the actually sky/ceiling.

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An example of a Skybox, this is a full 360 view of the wedding chamber in Crystal Cave

While there we also ran into many small bats, as it’s getting closer to winter and they are coming to the cave to hibernate. We have bats in the game too, so it was helpful to be able to observe their behavior (even if they were fairly still most of the time).

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Its very tiny but you can just barely see the bat in the center.

Our last task was to do some sound recording to absorb the feel of the cave. There is a real good sense of ambiance which we will use to help the creation of future music. Listen below to some of the recordings we did of the water drips within the cave.

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Hue holding the mic for recording and trying to stay absolutely still.
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Phoenix and Megan holding the cords to keep them off the wet floor and also trying to be super quiet.

Overall Crystal Cave was the a really great experience and we got lots of very useful references that we will be using heavily in future development. I also want to thank Crystal Cave for giving us time in the cave, If you want to see more from Crystal Cave you can check them out at acoolcave.com

-Mitch, Strix Studio Design Lead