28 August, 2010

Little City Update: map scale and progression

Note: I’m switching to mostly present tense. Writing these posts in past tense, while chronologically accurate, feels weird; like referring to oneself in the third person. Nathan had a substitute teacher in third grade that did that. He found it unsettling.

So, with the basic layout settled, I am dying to visualize things a bit. I also want to get a feel for the scale of the environment. My main concern is verifying the scale of the central skyscraper versus the triangular park to the north. I fired up UDK for a basic scale test using BSP and stock materials. The layout is a good start, though the scale may be too small. This map will later serve as a jumping off point for greyboxing.

(Perspective view - Click image to enlarge)

(Top orthographic view - Click image to enlarge)

Now it’s time to start thinking about flow and traversal. Since I don’t yet share payroll with writers, concept artists, and programmers, my goal is to design and build a mechanically solid level while introducing minimal story or complex gameplay.

In terms of drama, here’s my starting line: the theme, an abandoned city under automated lockdown; a plot goal, escape the city somehow; the level objective, Get To Point B. To help myself focus, I brainstormed very simple mid-level objectives for the player that take advantage of the map’s topography and fit with the dramatic elements listed previously.

Here’s the list:
1. Emerge from starting alleyway (Ground level)
2. Take Police IFF device find (Ground level)
3. Take elevator to skyrail metro station (Ground level to mid elevation)
4. Jump from Track 1 (broken track) to Track 2 (Mid elevation)
5. Follow Track 2 south into the building (Mid elevation)
6. Take the elevator from the platform to the roof (Mid to high elevation)
7. Cross from that building to the central building using the skybridge (High elevation)

Step 2, the Police IFF, will be expanded on in a later post. Step 4 was in my head from almost the beginning when I was thinking of how to gate the city streets without duplicating the same police barrier or car crash. Forcing the player to drop down or fall is a classic gating technique that I’m approaching from the perspective of this story world.

Here is the flow mapped out in Illustrator as a green line:

(Click image to enlarge)

It’s a work in progress. I still haven't decided on how to gate the player from traveling north on Track 2. Possibilities include track damage, a stopped train, a physical gate on the track (perhaps a Stop sign for the train operator,) or rubble from the collapse on Track 1.

The next post will talk about issues of level flow (mainly critical path and action curve.) Also coming soon: design comments on Kane & Lynch 2.

18 August, 2010

Little City Double Update!

I've been without home internet access for a bit, so this post is a double update to include back content. So long, Starbucks, and thanks for all the internets.

Here’s the very first concept work done in Illustrator:

(Click image to enlarge)

This establishes a very basic layout. It isn’t meant to be a readable map yet, since there’s no scale or significant content. It’s a springboard for brainstorming.

I’ve been switching between pen & paper and Illustrator to help flesh out the space and environment. Seeing the actual environment in some form helps change my perspective and keep creativity flowing.

(Click image to enlarge)

I wanted to experiment with the skyrails around the central tower. Birds-eye isn’t the player perspective, but it’s helpful in creating basic global level flow. I decided I wanted the player to enter the tower via a skybridge connecting to a nearby building. Working backward yielded a sequence: ride the elevator up to the skyrail terminal, get on the tracks, fall from one skyrail down to the other, follow that track inside the building and get to the roof. At this point, the “why” isn’t important. I’m approaching the “how” just to have some content to bounce off of. If this configuration doesn’t fit the story or gameplay it can still be changed in the design phase.

Back in Illustrator, things are getting a bit cluttered with building details and the skyrails:

(Click image to enlarge)

My solution was to change the tone of overlapping objects to indicate their elevation, darker objects being higher up. This de-emphasizes unimportant buildings but also provides a physical cue our brains, which expect farther objects to be lighter due to atmospheric haze. It’s a small detail, but helps readability with no extra work. Thus, the basic area map is finished.

05 August, 2010

Design comments on Mass Effect 2

This post is long, so I'll briefly say that I liked Mass Effect 2 overall. BioWare continues to do good things. As a player, I enjoy their products; as a designer, I think they are doing good things for gaming and interactive storytelling.

Things I liked:

Character interaction: I am a sucker for backstory (I actually read all those encyclopedia entries) and by the end of the game I felt connected to my crewmates. In talking to them, I got to know them as people and not just extra guns with legs. Thane and Samara were my favorites. While extremely capable and powerful individuals, they still have flaws. (This is something BioWare is very good at. To my knowledge, there are no Mary Sues in their stories.)

Dilemmas: There were a few points where it actually felt like my decisions affected more than just the little blue and red paragon/renegade bars on the character screen. In particular (no spoilers: the dilemmas of Tali and Legion, and the choice you’re faced with at the very end of the game were all defining moments for me.

Things I disliked:

Disjointed science fiction: Sci-fi is established when the story world exists outside the “real world,” with enough connection to be believable or accommodated by suspension of disbelief. (For example, Star Trek characters eat and drink regular food that is impossibly constructed atom-by-atom in a few seconds.) Two examples from Mass Effect 2: the salarian GameStop game shop clerk on Ilium who talked to me about DRM, and the chain email I received at my personal terminal on the Normandy (as in "forward this to five people or you'll be mauled by pandas" chain email). Immersion was broken for me both times.

Inconsistent dialogue patterns: Normally, the left-most conversation option opens branches with more information (the “Investigate” option.) Once you are finished in that branch, you can resume the main thread and progress conversation. In a few instances, some of those Investigate options move the main dialogue thread forward. It’s rare, but frustrating.

Mystery meat design: *SPOILERS AHEAD*--------- There are a few people out there mystified by the ending choices [1] [2] [3]. When I myself lost two of my team members during cinematics, I almost put down the controller without finishing the game.

I thought I had been so thorough, pairing what I knew of my squadmates with the bio information in the selection screen to choose the best person for each job. Anthony Burch sums it up well in his Destructoid article: “[They] died not because I'd made difficult choices that indirectly led to their deaths, nor because I'd specifically chosen to save one person over another. No: they died because I chose the wrong answer to a multiple-choice question.”

I was especially frustrated when Grunt was killed by stray bullets coming through the door. Grunt’s loyalty mission teaches the player that Krogan are the toughest fighters in the galaxy with redundant vital organs and physical regeneration, with Grunt himself being the “ultimate Krogan” (i.e. the one creature in your group that can’t be killed by a few stray shots.)

I respect the drama and finality that the designers wanted to put into this part of the game and I can't wait to see this refined and expanded in Mass Effect 3. However, this time I was left feeling like my team members were killed not by our mutual enemy, but by bad design.

(Next commentary, Kayne and Lynch 2: Dog Days)
(Previous commentary, Red Faction: Guerilla)

04 August, 2010

Little City Update

I started with a single city block and built out. Required elements for this design include: a central building which serves as primary focus for the level, vertical traversal, and a feeling of largeness and urban sprawl without exceeding the scope of the project.

Here’s my very first pen & paper work, just to get started.

(Click image to enlarge)

The same day, Lindsey and I talked about the basic design using a chatroom with drawing functionality (shown below.)

(Click image to enlarge)

03 August, 2010

Project Intro: Little City

Little City is the working title of a small, simple level built in Unreal to showcase my design and world building skills and the environmental art skills of my friend and colleague, Lindsey Anderson. This exercise starts with a simple idea and will end with a playable level, published using the Unreal Development Kit.

The elevator pitch: you have woken from a crash-landing in a city. The city appears uninhabited except for the automated systems which continue to function, oblivious. Signs point to an emergency of some kind. Robotic police still patrol quarantine barriers, though the overgrown vegetation and apparent disrepair of the city suggest that no one has been here for a long time. You must find a way out.

The project is currently in early design stages and will be documented here until it is finished or until I find a game studio job.

01 August, 2010

Design comments on Red Faction: Guerilla

Some things I've had in my head that I'll kick off this blog with:

Red Faction: Guerilla was a fantastic game that frustrated the heck out of me. The random spawning of enemies (sometimes literally right behind you) necessitates hit-and-run tactics, i.e. don't hold still, because you'll be surrounded and shot down. However, one of the game's main mechanics (and greatest selling point) is destroying physically realistic buildings. Buildings take time to destroy, either methodically chewing through with a sledgehammer or finding and attacking weak points with explosives, and obviously require you to stay more or less in the same place.

For me, there was a constant struggle of trying to destroy buildings (extremely fun) while dealing with soldiers appearing from the ether (at best distracting, at worst pointless and irritating.) I watched my radar and saw red dots appearing around corners, inside buildings, and outside the game's rendered view.

Ultimately, I was armed to the teeth with an arsenal that I felt was mostly wasted on fighting an unending stream of foot soldiers rather than using it to bring down buildings in superbly rendered bouts of physical destruction.

This enemy spawning isn't turned off for all missions, either, so the player must contend with the designed encounter on top of whatever the random spawn algorithm comes up with. The difficulty curve becomes exaggerated at times when the player can't even rely on rote memorization to pass a tough spot because the parameters of the fight keep changing.

The random spawning does add some great tension to the open world. I really did feel like a fugitive, avoiding main roads and driving through most roadblocks rather than fighting. It quickly gets old, though, as enemies appear from impossible places in never-ending waves.

As a designer: the action curve starts going up and quite often never comes back down until the player is killed or artificially reduces it, i.e. interrupts what they are doing and drives back to base.

As a player: can't a guy just kill everyone in the base and then raze it in peace once in a while?

(Next commentary, Mass Effect 2)