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Take Aim: An in-depth look at the Level Design of Sniper Elite 4


Sprony

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Earlier this year Rebellion released Sniper Elite 4. The game received a lot of praise, especially for its large and well designed levels. These environments have a huge impact on the gameplay. Players are provided with a wide array of options to tackle their objectives and each level needs to accommodate to that freedom. But how do you create these unique experiences? In this article I’ll try to answer that question with the help of Beck Shaw, one of Level Designers who worked on the game.

Hello Beck. Congratulations on the successful release! Shall we kick this off with a little introduction?

Thank you! I’ve been playing games most of my life and as a kid it was always a dream of mine to create them myself. I’ve now been in the industry for almost six years and landed my first job at Codemasters as a Level Designer on F1 Race Stars creating race tracks. After that I joined the F1 team as a Level Designer working on cameras and tuning AI so your opponents could get around the track as fast as possible. Then, two years ago, I moved on from the racing genre to work at Rebellion on Sniper Elite 4.

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For those familiar with the game, which levels did you work on and what was your role in the development?

When I joined Rebellion I started working on mission 3 ‘Viaduct’. The level tasks the player with bringing down a huge viaduct which has a railway gun parked on top of it that’s causing problems for the Partisan allies. It takes place in the mountains of Italy, in a dense woodland area with a small village and other points of interest dotted around the level. Later on in development I was tasked with finishing off and bug fixing mission 8 ‘Fortress’. It’s the final mission of the campaign which has the player infiltrate a secret underground fortress in order to stop the Nazis launching an advanced missile against the American fleet. 

When we moved on to the DLC I was given the first mission in the three part campaign called ‘Inception’. Here the player is sent behind enemy lines to a military port in Northern Italy. It’s set in the winter and has the player investigate some unusual activity the Allies have spotted from their recon planes. As the game is a team effort I have also helped out with other levels when required and jumped in where needed to do what I can to reduce the bug count across the entire game.

On your portfolio website you stated that you researched and created the Inception DLC level. Could you guide us through that process? 

Sure thing! The storywriter for Sniper Elite 4 also suggested some ideas for DLC campaigns, including mission locations. Eventually our Senior Management chose which story they liked best and passed this on to the Level Design team. The missions then got divided among the team based on preference, schedule and workload. For my mission I sat down with the writer to discuss what he needed in terms of objectives for the narrative to work. We also discussed other optional objectives which might be cool to add. From this point on I pretty much had free reign over the level. So long as I met the guidelines set by the story I could create the level how I saw fit. 

With all this information in mind I went and found lots of reference images. I read some history on which the campaign is loosely based and began to get an overall idea in my head of what I thought the level should look like. I then very quickly sketched this on paper. I don’t spend long drawing the layout on paper as I feel working on a whitebox is more important. For the record, a whitebox is a very basic version of a level. We generally use simple geometry such as boxes and low poly modeling to quickly create the level so we can get a sense of scale and how the level will flow. 

Since the level is so basic we can quickly iterate and begin getting feedback from other departments before the level becomes too complex for any big changes. During development we constantly share our progress with the entire team and we get feedback at least once a week, but usually more often. It ensures the level is progressing in the direction we want it go. Once everyone is happy with the whitebox we move on to full development.

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Seeing the size of the levels, how do you go about implementing the core gameplay features? How much of a team effort is that?

For the most part one Level Designer will work on a single mission. They’ll implement the AI into the level giving them paths, weapons, goals and even use the animations we are provided with. This breaks up their loop and makes them feel more lifelike. We’ll also implement all of the objectives, conversations and lines spoken by Karl Fairburne, the game’s protagonist.

We work closely with the Art team to ensure the level is readable from a design perspective and our routes through levels are clearly defined and easy to follow. We’ll suggest areas which need cover and also populate our level with traversal to allow the player and the AI to climb or jump around the level so they aren’t confined to just the obvious paths on the floor.

Additionally, each level has lots of collectibles, weapons, ammo and health kits to find. These are all placed by us. We try to be creative with these if we can. For example, in Viaduct, I’d often place trip mines where I knew there were choke points the player could lead AI through hoping the player would use this. There are also traps and environment set pieces like hanging crates which we place strategically in the level for the player to use against the AI.

Underneath all of this there is the stuff players never see. Level Design also looks after and maintains the collision mesh for each mission in Sniper Elite 4. A massive task given the size of the levels, but it is very important for how the player gets around the level and ensures the AI can find its way to the player at any given location. 

Could you clarify the collision mesh remark? Because I know about meshes but I’m not really sure what you mean.

Generally, in game development, you will hear talk of different meshes. At Rebellion we have a number of technical meshes along with the render and collision meshes. A render mesh is something the player can see and, in Sniper Elite 4, this is generally the terrain and water. Buildings, trees and other props are usually made up of objects which are made separately and placed using our tools. All of this is looked after by the Art team. 

The collision mesh is an invisible mesh which the player will actually stand on. It’s what the ragdolls collide with and prevents you from running through walls. This is looked after by Level Design and has to be accurate to prevent the player from floating above the terrain or grenades being blocked by invisible collision. 

We also flag polygons on the collision mesh which various systems in the engine will read. For example, we can tell the engine where we want the AI to be able to walk by marking certain polygons on the collision mesh to be a walkable surface for the AI. The engine would see these flags and then generate the AI’s waypoints from the collision mesh which has been flagged.

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Thank you for clarifying. Please continue about how much of a team effort implementing the core gameplay features is.

Whilst most of the work is done by an individual, we definitely do work as a team here at Rebellion. We’ll often jump on each other’s levels to help with collision whilst someone else does gameplay setup and another one works on the missions traversal. We can and do have multiple people working on a single mission, especially near the end of development when we’re trying to polish as much as we can. We’re also playing each other’s levels and giving each other ideas or feedback. We all want to make the best game we can and feedback is a huge part of the design process.

I saw the Sniper demo at E3 2016. I understand you worked on that. What’s different about creating a demo experience? Which factors do you have to bear in mind?

Yeah, Viaduct was the first level journalists and the public could play at E3 2016. It was really exciting that people’s first taste of Sniper Elite 4 was going to be on my level, but at the same time really scary as there were going to be so many eyes on it. 

So the great thing about demos is the whole team comes together to try and get that level as close to a release state as possible. It becomes a vertical slice - section of the game which is pretty much release ready. We had multiple artists working on the level at the same time to put the finishing touches on. Multiple coders and designers were working on finishing off any features we needed for the demo. VFX and animators were taking requests for new environmental set pieces and the audio guys were adding some great background ambience. Everyone got involved.

In terms of Level Design we had to ensure the entire level was playable. In Sniper Elite 4 you can approach objectives from any direction and tackle them any way you want. We wanted that to come across in the demo too so the whole level was open and playable for the demo. 

We moved the start position so players were closer to the main objective to give them a chance to complete the level within the demo’s time limit. We also shuffled some of the AI around so players could interact with the different types in a smaller area as these are normally spread out to various squads across the level.

We wanted players to have the ability to try multiple weapons and gadgets so we made sure a lot of equipment was at or near the start area. We added some extra patrols for players to set traps for and ensured the players had a great vantage point to snipe from. So the opening vista for the demo had the viaduct in full view and it was covered in guys with some extra explosives to show off the new explosive killcams which Sniper Elite is famous for.

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I appreciate you sharing details about your day-to-day job with us. I’m confident it will give aspiring Level Designers a better understanding of it. Before we close, anything you like to add? I assume that you have worked on the last DLC as well?

Yeah I did and the final Deathstorm story DLC recently launched. We’ve received a great response from the fans overall which is always amazing to hear, it’s one of the best parts of my job. It’s been an intense journey working on Sniper Elite 4. We have a lot to do here at Level Design - the levels are huge and we work together with every department. We get to see, help shape and often implement many aspects throughout the game. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s also great fun! 

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Interesting article in terms of level design. Collision mesh left some questions open to me, as in what are the benefits for having that separate instead of letting the geometry handle the collision itself? Sounds like a lot of extra work to just keep that in line with the whole level. I assume models still have their own collision from the collision mesh that level designers created?

But apparently this is commonly used method, as i've seen games where players drop through the level for multiple of reasons so i assume those games might use the same thing and just texture where it looks like it's solid ground to walk on, but instead you dropdown through it to under the whole map area.

Working on only with Source engine myself, separate collision mesh just feels like a lot of extra work where you have collision intact with the brushwork/displacements automatically.

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Was great to read, great article, really inspiring.

Could you elaborate a bit more about how you worked on the whitebox version? You explained that you show the level to multiple people frequently and use their feedbacks to improve it everyday, but how did you get the original ideas ? Was it just a mind work between you and the storywriter, or did you use some creativity methods with a group of persons to generate ideas or stuff like that ?

Thanks :)

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4 minutes ago, leplubodeslapin said:

Was great to read, great article, really inspiring.

Could you elaborate a bit more about how you worked on the whitebox version? You explained that you show the level to multiple people frequently and use their feedbacks to improve it everyday, but how did you get the original ideas ? Was it just a mind work between you and the storywriter, or did you use some creativity methods with a group of persons to generate ideas or stuff like that ?

Thanks :)

Thank you!

So as I mentioned in the interview I sit down with the writer and he says we need a dockyard set around this area and in this time period with these objectives. We'll also bounce back and forth about areas we'd like to see and what additional objectives might be cool. From there I do pretty much have free reign over the level and can create what I want. The story for the DLC was inspired by real events so I took a look at some of the real locations and gathered references on things I liked.

As I was doing this I kept in my mind the objectives we needed and kept an eye out for things I could use to make them work in my level. Whilst looking at all the references I get ideas in my head for a layout and I quickly scribble them down on paper so I don't forget them. Eventually I get something that looks kind of like a basic level layout.

I make sure there's room for the objectives in the layout and that they're nicely spread out then I just go into 3DS Max and start whiteboxing. I import it into the engine quite often to make sure the scale is about right and the level isn't getting too big. I'll normally show my lead at least every couple of days to make sure they're happy with the direction the level is going. Usually producers, designers and AI guys will also play the whitebox levels and give their feedback. Maybe there's areas where the AI are likely to have difficulty to navigate. AI will let me know and I'll improve that area. The design guys might say it took them too long to get to an area and maybe I'll adjust or add routes. 

We iterate a lot until we're happy with the whitebox. Once we are we'll get senior management involved and get it signed off for full production.

Hope that answered your questions ok!

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25 minutes ago, FMPONE said:

Really enjoyed this article!

My favorite part was the graphics with the stages of the level, that's quality content. Great job @Sprony and thanks to @Beck for the great interview!

Thank you!

Yeah I really wanted to get something like this into the article. It's not often the public gets to see the process behind the games they play and I'm thankful to Rebellion for letting me show some of it off.

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