WILDBORN

Wildborn is a 2.5 Adventure game, where you venture across an alien world in search of the sanctuary your instincts guide you to.


Utilize the character’s innate traversal abilities to navigate the dense cavernous jungles, and manipulate the ancient stonework, left behind by distant descendants, with your powerful psionics.

A Conclusion and Summary of Wildborn

This week marks the end of Wildborn’s refinement and production; leaving myself plenty of time to go over my report drafts and prepare for Expo tees. This post is going to detail the entire process through the form of a brief conclusion, summarising my experience, the project’s evolution, and what I learned throughout.

Final Thoughts.

I am very happy with the final outcome. Not just because I am satisfied with the result, but because the whole process was challenging, dynamic, and rewarding. Huge technical hurdles resulted in issues that had to be overcome, bolstering my confidence and giving me new knowledge of the process of Level Design, Environment Art, and Programming.

This was the game I always wanted to make. Unfortunately it didn’t sate my desire to make it. It made me want to tear it all down and start again, reliving my experience with the project over, making it better, making more. But that doesn’t mean I regret pursuing Wildborn. I enjoyed it thoroughly and I learned so much. Which is a good topic to address next.

What I learned.

Even though I took on a pipeline I was familiar with, It’s difficult to absorb everything I discovered to make it better. From an Art standpoint I learned so much about how to make my forms more striking; doing more with less in my scenes, as well as certain rules to do with lighting gave me huge insight into how to add depth to my scenes, and also highlight the playable area. Creation of proper structure and flow in my level design, and how to reward the player for adapting to the games mechanics purely through the shape of the space they are traversing.

I could write a four-thousand word report on everything I learned (in fact, I’m pretty sure I have to). This was a great project to explore my specialisms, and it makes me eager to think about what I’ll work on next.

Wildborn’s Evolution.

As the crafter of a project, especially one that is so personal to me, it is hard to accept changes in the “perfect vision” I had when I started. But Wildborn shifted and changed, evolving into a better version of itself, as I adopted a stern philosophy, that I would let it grow into what it wanted to be.

This all started with the shift of attention away from puzzles. Wildborn was a Puzzle Adventure game, where the player manipulated the world around them to overcome challenging and mind boggling puzzles. But I left that behind, instead, turning the puzzle mechanics into ones that enable success instead of imposing a barrier to progress.

Wildborn’s main puzzle mechanic is moving giant stones around with your mind, stacking them, repositioning them, riding them, blocking them, to create new paths in the world. But as the game grew, they became tactile tools that let you surmount the world, and break the scenery, something that felt more fun to players, and made them walk in the footsteps of this ancient, tribal, creature that they play.

Traversal became a huge focal point in the project, I never expected my levels to looks like great tropical racetracks that the player would spring and dash across as though it was nothing. It ended up really serving the game’s playability, and this is something I would love to flesh out more if I ever returned to Wildborn with the intention of really fleshing out the mechanics.

In terms of mood, I ended up reaching into a much broader spectrum than just the bright and wonderful world on the surface, diving down into the melancholy depths of the burial passage showed a side to Wildborn I wanted to see more of, and show players; that life in the wild isn’t all just magnificent awe and inspiration, but also festering dread and a looming shadow that tells us to climb back up again when we fall.

Trouble and Triumph.

Every day a new issue presented itself; my physics were broken, my game wont build, there are bad hitches, hardware issues, players getting lost, players getting frustrated, this area looks crap, I just can’t look at this project today… etcetera. But everything passed, some days I just got my head down, and sometimes I had to look away, I’d be lying if I said the whole project was a blast, because at the worst of times it was real pain. But it conditioned me that issues aren’t abnormalities, or even things I need to stress about and fix right away, but rather something to take at a reasonable pace. Not to see them as obstacles that are looking to quash my success, but opportunities to learn and become a better developer. I didn’t need to make hacky work-arounds, because these things were useful to think about, and they taught me so much when I worked on Wildborn.

Final Words.

Even though this project probably gave me a thousand things to improve, and gave me thousand issues to work past, and probably consumed a thousand hours of my life, I don’t regret any of it, and I am glad I finally got the chance to work on Wildborn, to work every week day from 9-5 on the project I wanted to be apart of more than anything else.

 

The Highlands Alpha Gameplay Video

I have recorded a short video showing the first level in action, start to finish, in its current state. Lots of optimizations are to be made, as well as more polish before the level is complete. Sound, Animation, and VFX are still making their way into the project, but hopefully the video captures what is close to feel of the final game.

The Burial Passage: Art Pass 3

The Last couple of weeks have been devoted to building up from the previous art passes. Things have been reworked, added, and taken away, to hopefully leave behind the best possible level I can make.

Major Changes.

There were two significant focuses of the third art pass; to better capture the mood and atmosphere of the levels, and to make the environment more user friendly.

The Mood.

So far I had carried over the work-flow used from the previous level almost too closely. I realized that the bright and wonderful atmosphere of the first level wasn’t correctly guiding the tone of the second level, and wasn’t doing the more sombre mood of the burial passage justice.

I collected feedback from peers, staff members, and industry professionals as a means to help guide my decision on how to better set the tone of the environment. I adjusted the post processing values, and lighting style to see an almost immediate improvement in the delivery of this darkened mood that I wanted to show players.

User Friendly Composition. 

An item of feedback that occasionally came up was that it was either sometimes not so easy to pick out the playable plane in the game’s environment from screen-shots, and also that more could be done to bring out layers of added depth in the environment.

With this in mind I established some lighting rules that I would follow. I picked three hues for the lighting to be used at different intervals; The Background, the playable plane, and the foreground. Any one of those intervals could also be substituted for darkness at any given time.

After applying this into my art, I really started to see a difference. I had immediate clarity on how to properly light my scenes, as well giving the player a more definitive path to follow that doesn’t compromise the creative integrity of the project.

The Level Design Pipeline

Throughout the Development of Wildborn, I have applied everything I know about level design, from player teaching philosophies, to rapid iterative design. I refined my pipeline to a fine edge, allowing me to produce high quality work, at a competitive speed. This is my entire Design pipeline, from start to now.

The Grand Plan.

This stage of the process is what I call the grand plan. A brief and broad idea of how the entire game would flow from start to finish.

I use this process to decide how entire game would flow, even though the levels I wont make, as a means to gauge when to teach the player certain mechanics, when to hit certain narrative beats, and when to challenge the player with certain game-play elements as their skill grows overtime.

This process takes a couple of hours of iterating, before a very basic plan is formed.

Level Focus.

This stage is very similar, just with more detail. I started to think about what mechanics to introduce to the player and when in the level. Ensuring that the player is taught and tested with the mechanic or idea a couple of times throughout each level.

It is essentially a checklist of things that I want the player to experience throughout the level in order. Challenging them at the right times, and making sure everything happens in a sensible order.

Level Blueprints.

The most traditional step of grabbing some pen and paper, and scribbling down many iterations of the level as possible. Thinking up core themes, and playing around with shapes. This helps my quickly visualise and record lots of ideas, as well as start a process of Taking away bad ones or tweaking ideas that looks as though they are fun to experience.

My approach the Wildborn’s level design is very modular. Each area acts as a room that could very easily transition from one to the other, instead of being one large cohesive environment that doesn’t offer me much flexibility, and allows me to give the player a more varied and interesting experience. It also means its very easy for me to take away a section of the level that isn’t fun or doesn’t add to the player’s knowledge of the game.

Blockout.

Using the most simple primitives possible, build a framework for the player to traverse. I try to copy my Blueprints as closely as possible, but make obvious adjustments as time goes on, since this stage often reveals flaws in the original design that need to be tweaked.

This is the most tactile and involved process throughout the entire development stage of the level.

It is frequently tested by myself and others, to see if it achieved the goal of Wildborn’s game play philosophies; to be Simultaneously Fun and Informative. If is isn’t one or both, it gets discarded or adjusted until it is. Knowing full well that if my game isn’t hitting the mark at this stage, no amount of art will fix those problems.

The entire level goes through MANY iterations at this stage.

Intensive Testing.

I built a survey that asks the many play-testers how they rated Wildborn’s features, from 1-5, and then to fill in a short improvement on what would make it a 5 in their eyes if it wasn’t already.

This feedback is still being actively used to improve the levels and features of the game.

Composition Pass.

Starting with basic composition, this is factored in to the game-play of the level. using the composition of the space, camera angles, and lighting, to not only create a dramatic effect. But to guide the player and help them achieve their goal.

Art Pass.

At this stage, the Gameplay of the level should be relatively finished. The art now being used as a tool to aid the player’s visual experience of the level, adding to the foundation level behind by the level design.

A Midpoint Optimization Pass

With the first sweeping Art pass completed a lot has changed about the level. Spaces have been iterated rapidly, ideas have been quickly evolving, and interesting new concepts have been experimented with. All of this has completely changed the foundations of the level, namely the rendering.

Optimization.

I thought this would be a good time to make sure the level was being optimized correctly; thus allowing testing to continue going smoothly, iteration to carry on at its quick pace, and also doing future me a favour, by simplifying the final optimization passes on the final game.

Current State.

So far, so good. Most of the level runs at a silky smooth 80 fps. Some areas climbs to 120, however, there was the occasional drop to 50 or so. Which in my eyes would be a huge issue, since that would only get worse as more art was added.

The main culprit were dynamic light sources, resulting in massive costs to shadow cube-mapping. So these were looked into first.

Lighting.

The obvious one was lighting. Using the GPU visualizer as a way to hunt down any costly elements was relatively straightforward.

The offenders were primarily movable lights, that could easily be downgraded without any real cost to the visuals.

Some hanging light sources within the scene were Movable instead of Stationary.

The Green glow on the clamber points asset, that was used up to a hundred times per level, was using a Movable light instead of static. Fixing that made a huge positive impact on the shadow map cost.

Instancing.

I have adopted an instancing work-flow to reduce the cost of static meshes in the scene. All foliage, and certain repeating meshes, such as ground debris, and chain links, is instanced, as to massively reduce the cost of their draw time.

Tick Reduction.

I have designed a macro for the code that can somewhat pinch the tick rate of certain functions. Things like scripted checks that call heavy procedures such as ForIf, or GetAll have been reduced downwards of a couple of times a second, as opposed to 60+.

Debugging.

I designed my own debugging tool inside blueprints, that uses the game’s frame rate to deliver warnings about poor performance. Whenever it drops below a certain amount, the tool records when it happened, and where it happened, by using draw features, such as rendering world space statistics directly into the game world. Giving prompts during my personal testing of the game, so I know exactly where to scan with the GPU visualizer for detrimental features.

The Burial Passage: First Art Pass

With the Game-play pass complete and tested, the composition stage began; ending with a scene that captured the atmosphere and physical content intended for the Burial passage.

The Process.

References and inspiration was assembled en masse, and I started to more intensively inspect my resources.

The first step was to give the environment shape, making scene boundaries obvious, and began framing my focal points. I wanted each area or quadrant of a larger space to be set like an independent scene that communicated an idea, suggested a solution, or set an emotional tone. I used my dynamic camera volumes to aid this goal.

Building Up.

With a rough shape to the environment, I started creating rough meshes, procedural materials, and simple assets to act as blueprints for the future art assets, and layers that will be built up over the rough draft.

Evolving.

With my physical ideas engrained within the project, I can now undergo a more intensive art feedback process, where I will seek out peers with environment art experience to critically evaluate my ideas and execution.

Repetition.

The previous step will be repeated until as many necessary passes are completed.

The Burial Passage: Moving Towards Art

The second level is shaping up to be mechanically complete. More peer testing sessions of the block-out are being arranged, and are more important than ever, given that a very basic lighting pass has been completed. This pass can play a large part in how coherent the player’s objectives are. This basic compositional pass can make or break the player’s informed navigation of the level, the artistic cohesiveness, and most importantly: its enjoyability.

Approaching The Art Pass.

While the level was designed, it was always done so with art in mind. I started each level with a few mood boards, each with interesting shapes, themes, and spaces. I feel this plays a large part in how the level will be experienced. In each image, I am looking for a combination of how lighting is used, how the shapes could be traversed, and also how the spaces could frame a particular piece of game-play.

With this method, every single space in my level has a significant purpose, be it to contribute to the player’s game-play experience, or to set a mood, but usually both. Instead of creating a purely functional space and putting art in at the end “Because it needs art in it”.

My next Move.

Before too ambitiously advancing on to the art pass stage of the level, I am going to start looking towards the bigger picture visually. Using large amounts of reference and my blueprints for the base of the level, I am slowly building a picture that I feel will compliment the world.

I want every corner of the map to have its own identity, whilst still remaining consistent with the theme, as to not stray too far from the original idea, or worse; be ill put together, and be a messy conglomeration of too many different ideas.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself and dive into set dressing too quickly, as I want to make sure the level is properly tested and adjusted to feedback. Otherwise the level will be at conflict with itself, while art and game-play fight for dominance when both elements need to come together in harmony to achieve the game’s goal.

Design by Subtraction; and the Big Level Rewrite

As explained by my last entry, WILDBORN underwent a big scrutinising analysis so ensure that my final product was what I wanted it to be.

I learned a huge deal about my project during this period, and it was a real eye opener, showing me how to develop for WILDBORN, adopting my own design philosophy  of ‘Designing through the discovery of what my project asks to be, not what I assume it should be’.

The Impact.

The most noteworthy thing about discovering what makes my game fun, was that it called for a big rewrite on the level design side of things.

I maintained the aesthetic design of my environments. The beat map, the mood boards, the emotional intention, the bigger picture, and general shape of the environment has undergone minimal adjustments. But the shape, spacing, placing, and utilizations of many physical surfaces and problem solving elements has been completely adjusted from the original white-box.

This all followed the philosophy of Design by Subtraction. Instead of presenting the player with a mechanically rich game, with countless elements to master, many combinations of abilities, and an impressive roster of character potential, i stripped back everything that didn’t reflect the core of WILDBORN.

As a result, the Level seems a lot more fun, more testing is expected to take place in the near future to further define what should be adjusted.

Making WILDBORN More Fun

Teaching myself from Prototypes.

After getting stuck in the with the prototyping stage of WILDBORN’s second level, I am starting to really realize the potential of the game’s current puzzle mechanics.

Players’ impressions.

Testing has taken place in the plain new level, and I am starting to understand what makes WILDBORN fun. Moving the Tablets (WILDBORN’s key game mechanic) feel “satisfying” to players. The ability to shift huge heavy structures around to advance your progress is enjoyable, but reportedly loses a lot of that sensation when difficult challenges or surgical precision is required. Here I begin to understand what makes WILDBORN fun.

What really makes it fun?

I am starting to really understand what kind of game WILDBORN wants to be. And it isn’t a puzzle game. Players report their satisfaction from effortlessly leaping around a busy environment, and shifting huge stone structures with their minds. But they don’t reportedly enjoy traversal that challenges their reflexes, or puzzles that make them scratch their heads as much.

So what is the purpose of WILDBORN? My current impression is as follows: WILDBORN is not a game that is asking to challenge players and to encourage them to slow down and think about in game problems that need solutions. It’s a game that asks to give players effortless satisfaction, to put them in the shoes of the character; a springy, wise, and athletic creature that moves through the environment how we could never hope to.

During this project I really don’t want to harshly integrate my mechanics, I want to show players how good it feels to move through and observe my environments. Using mechanics to enable that, as opposed to creating problems that hinder the player’s desire to move forward.

What am I going to change?

For a start I’m glad I tested these things early on, because I have decided to add a new, but simple mechanic. A timed one. As well as reduce the surgical precision, timing, and problem solving required to progress.

A simple puzzle that a player activates, causing a timed event to occur, giving a player a window to complete a simple challenge.

This mechanic will push the player to do the things that WILDBORN does best; showing them how seamless movement is, and pushing them to use it to its full advantage. This is giving the player a reason to speed up and soar across the terrain, as opposed to slowing them down to think about what they need to do next.

This will still need testing, but I will try to integrate this with my level.