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.