-HP- reacted to leplubodeslapin for an article, Source Lighting Technical Analysis: Part Two
This is the second part of a technical analysis about Source Lighting, if you haven’t read the first part yet, you can find it here.
Last time, we studied the lightmaps, how they are baked and how VRAD handles the light travel through space. We ended the part 1 with an explanation of what the Constant-Linear-Quadratic Falloff system is, with a website that allows you to play with these variables and see how lighting falloff reacts to them. We will now continue with basic examples of things you can do with these variables.
Examples of application
The simplest type of falloff is the 100% constant one. Whatever the distance is, the lighting has theoretically the same intensity. This is the kind of (non-)falloff used for the sun lighting, it is so far away from the map area, that light rays are supposed to be parallel and light keep its intensity. Constant falloff is also useful for fake lights, lights with a very low brightness but that are here to brighten up the area.
Another type of falloff is the 100% linear one. With this configuration, light seems to be a bit artificial: it loses its intensity but goes way further than the 100% quadratic falloff. It can be very useful on spots, the lighting is smooth and powerful. Here is an example:
This is the default configuration for any light entity in Hammer, following as we said before the classic Inverse-Square law (100% Quadratic Falloff). It is considered to be the most natural and realistic falloff configuration. The biggest issue is that it boosts the brightness so much on short distances, that you can easily obtain a big white spot. Here is an example, with a light distant of 16 units from a grey wall:
This can also happen with linear falloff but it is worse with quadratic. Simple solutions exist for that, the most common is not to use a light entity but a light_spot entity that is oriented to the opposite direction from the wall/ceiling the light is fixed to. You can make the opening angle of your light_spot wider, with the inner and outer angle parameters (by default the outer one is 45°, increase that to a value of 85° for example). If needed, you can also add a light with low brightness to light the ceiling/wall a bit.
50% & 0% FallOff
A second light falloff system exists, overriding the constant-linear-quadratic system if used. The concept is much simpler, you have to configure only 2 distances:
50 percent falloff distance: Distance at which light should fall off to 50% from its original intensity 0 percent fall off distance: Distance at which light should end. Well ... almost, it actually fall off to 1/256% from its original intensity, which is negligible. The good thing with this falloff system is that you can see the 2 spheres according to the 2 distances you have configured in Hammer. Just make sure to have this option activated:
An appropriate section for models lighting is needed, because it differs from brush lighting (but the falloff stays the same). In any current game engine, lightmaps can be used on models, a specific UV unwrap is even made specifically for lightmaps. But on Source Engine 1 (except for Team Fortress 2) you cannot use lightmaps on models.
The standard lighting method for models is named Per-Vertex Lighting. This time, light won’t be lighting faces but vertices, all of the model’s vertices. For each one of them, VRAD will compute a color and brightness to apply. Finally, Source Engine will make a gradient between the vertices, for each triangle. For example:
If we take a simple example of a sphere mesh with 2 different light entities next to it, we can see it working.
With this lighting method, models will therefore be integrated in the environment with an appropriate lighting. The good thing is that, if a part of the model is in a dark area, and another part is in a bright area, the situation will be handled properly. The only requirement for this is that the mesh must have a sufficient level of detail in it; if there is a big plane area without additional vertices on it, the lighting details could be insufficient.
Here is an example of a simple square mesh with few triangles on the left and a lot on the right. With the complex mesh, the lighting is better, but more expensive.
If you need a complex mesh for your lighting, you don’t want your model to be too expensive, you have to find a balance.
Two VRAD commands are needed to make the Per-Vertex Lighting work:
StaticPropLighting StaticPropPolys You have to add them here. You can find more information here.
Another system exists, that is much cheaper and simpler. Instead of focusing on the lighting of all the vertices, the engine will only deal with the model’s origin. The result obtained in-game will be displayed on the whole model, using only what has been computed at the model’s origin location. This can be an issue if the model is big or supposed to be present in an area with lots of contrast in lighting. The best example for that is at the beginning of Half-Life 2 with trains entering and exiting tunnels. We can see the issue: the model is illuminated at the beginning, but when it enters the tunnel it suddenly turns dark. And this moment is when the train’s origin gets in the shadow.
This cheap lighting method will replace the per-vertex lighting for 3 types of models:
For prop_dynamic or any kind of dynamic models used in the game (NPCs, weapon models in hand, any animated models...) For prop_physics For ANY MODEL USING A NORMAL MAP (vertex lighting causes issues with normal maps apparently), EVEN IF USED AS A PROP_STATIC
The big problem with these models is their integration in the map, they won’t show any shadow and their lighting will be very flat and boring (because it’s the same used for the whole model). But hopefully there are 2 good things with this cheap lighting method.
First, the orientation from which comes light is taken into account, if blue light comes from one direction, therefore all the faces oriented toward this direction will be colored in blue. And if you have different lighting colorations/intensities coming from different sides of your model, they should appear in game.
Here is an example of a train model using a normal map with 2 lights on both side. If you look closely, you’ll see some blue lighting on the left, on faces that are supposed to be in the shadow of the blue light but are oriented toward the blue light.
The second good thing is that there is still some kind of dynamic per-vertex lighting, but much simpler: it only works with light and light_spot entities (NOT with light_environment), and it just adds some light to the prop, it cannot cast any shadow (it only takes into account dynamically the distance between the light and the vertex). If we use again the high-poly plane mesh we had before as a prop_dynamic, being parented to a func_rotating that ... rotates. Light is dynamically lighting the vertices of the props. There is a limit of 3 dynamic lights per prop, it can’t handle more at the same time.
And if you add a normal-map in your model’s texture, this cheap dynamic lighting works on it:
Projected texture and Cascaded Shadows
Few words to finish the study with dynamic lighting. Projected textures is a technology that appeared with Half-Life 2: Episode Two in 2007, it consists of a point-entity projecting a texture in the chosen direction, with a chosen opening angle (fov). The texture is projected with emissive properties (it can only increase the brightness, not lowering it) and it can generate shadows or not. The great thing with this technology is that it’s fully dynamic, the env_projectedtexture can move and/or aim at moving targets. This technology is used for example on flashlights in Source games. But as usual, there is also a drawback: most of the time you can only use only 1 projected texture at a time, modders can change this value quite easily but on Valve games it is always locked on 1.
The cascaded shadows system is only used on CS:GO. The concept is quite similar from a projected texture but it doesn’t increase the brightness, it only adds finer shadows. It is used for environment lighting, using much smaller luxels than for the lightmaps and it is fully dynamic. It starts from the tools/toolsskybox textures of the map and cast shadows if it meets any obstacle. Shadows from the lightmap are most of the time low resolution and the transition between a bright and a dark area is blurry and wide. Therefore, the cascaded shadow will be able to draw a clear shadow around the one from the lightmaps.
When an object is too small to get a shadow in the lightmap, it will be visible thanks to the cascaded shadows. There are 3 levels of detail for cascaded shadows on Counter-Strike, you can configure the max distance at which the cascaded shadows will work in the env_cascade_light entity at the parameter Max Shadow Distance (by default it’s 400 units). The levels of detail will be distributed within this range, for example:
Since cascaded shadows and projected textures share some technology, you can’t use them both at the same time.
I really hope you have found this article interesting and learned at least few things from it. I believe most of these informations are not the easiest to find and it’s always good to know how your tools work, to understand their behavior. Source Engine 1 is old and its technologies might not be used anymore in the future, more powerful and credible technologies are released frequently but it’s always good to know your classics, right?
I would like to thank Thrik and ’RZL for supporting me to write this article, and long live the Core!
// Written by Sylvain "Leplubodeslapin" Menguy
Additional commands for fun
Mat_luxels 1 // Allows you to see the lightmaps grids Mat_fullbright 1 // Disables all the lighting (= fullbright). On CS:GO, cascaded shadows stay and you should delete them as well (cf next command) Ent_fire env_cascade_light kill // KILL WITH FIRE the cascade shadows entity Mat_drawgray 1 // Replace all the textures with a monochrome grey texture, useful to work on your lighting Mat_fullbright 2 // Alternative to Mat_drawgray 1 Bonus:
Mat_showlowresimage 1 // Minecraft mode
-HP- reacted to leplubodeslapin for an article, Source Lighting Technical Analysis: Part One
After the announcement of the Reddit + Mapcore mapping contest, the website has welcomed many newcomers. A proof that, even if it is a twelve year old game engine, Source engine attracts map makers, and there are lots of reasons for that. It is common knowledge that technology has moved forward since 2003, and many new game engines have found various techniques and methods to improve their renderings, making the Source Engine older and older. Nevertheless, it still has its very specific visual aspect that makes it appealing. The lighting system in Source is most definitely one of the key aspects to that, and at the end of this article you will know why.
About the reality...
Light in the real world is still a subject with a lot of pending questions, we do not know exactly what it is, but we have a good idea of how it behaves. The most common physic model of light element is the photon, symbolized as a single-point particle moving in space. The more photons there are, the more powerful light is. But light is in the same time a wave, depending on the wavelengths light can have all kind of color properties (monochrome or combined colors). Light travels through space without especially needing matter to travel (the space is the best example; even without matter the sun can still light the earth). And when it encounters matter, different kind of things can happen:
Light can bounce and continue its travel to another direction Light can be absorbed by the matter (and the energy can be transformed to heat) Light can go through the matter, for example with air or water, some properties might change but it goes through it And all these things can be combined or happen individually. If you can see any object outside, it is only because a massive amount of photons traveled into space, through the earth’s atmosphere, bounced on all the surfaces of the object you are looking at, and finally came into your eyes.
How can such a complex physical behavior from nature be simulated and integrated into virtual 3D renderings?
One of the oldest method is still used today because of its accuracy: the ray-tracing method. Just to be clear, it is NOT used in game engines because it is incredibly expensive, but I believe it is important to know how and why it has been made the way it is, since it probably influenced the way lighting is handled in Source and most videogame engines. Instead of simulating enormous amount of photons traveling from the lights to the eye/camera, it does the exact opposite. If you want a picture with a 1000x1000 resolution, you will only need to simulate the travel of 1 000 000 photons (or “rays”), 1 for each pixel. Each ray is calculated individually until it reaches the light origins, and at the end the result is 1 pixel color integrated in the full picture.
By using the laws of physics we discovered centuries ago, we can obtain a physically-accurate rendering that looks incredibly realistic. This method is used almost everywhere, from architectural renderings to movies. As an example, you can watch The Third & The Seventh by Alex Roman, one of the most famous CGI videos of all time. And because it is an efficient way to render 3D virtual elements with great lighting, it will influence other methods, such as the lightmap baking method.
OKAY LET’S FINALLY TALK ABOUT THE SOURCE ENGINE, ALRIGHT!
A “lightmap” is a grid that is added on every single brush face you have on your map. The squares defined by the grid are called Luxels (they are kind of “lighting pixels”). Each luxel get its 2 own properties: a color and a brightness. You can see the lightmap grids in hammer by switching your 3D preview to 3D lightmap grid mode.
You can also see them in-game with the console command mat_luxels 1 (without and with).
During the compilation process, a program named VRAD.exe is used. Its role is to find the color and brightness to apply for every single luxel in your map. Light starts from the light entities and from the sky (from the tools/toolsskybox texture actually, using the parameter values that has been filled in the light_environment entity), travels through space and when it meets a brush face:
It is partially absorbed in the lightmap grid A less bright ray bounces from the face Here is an animated picture to show how a lightmap grid can be filled with a single light entity:
When you compile your map, at first the lightmaps are all full black, but progressively VRAD will compute the lightmaps with all the light entities (one by one) and combine them all at the end. Finally, the lightmaps obtained are applied to the corresponding brush faces, as an additive layer to the texture used on that face. Let us take a look at a wall texture for example.
On the left, you have the texture as you can see it in hammer. When you compile your map, it generates the lightmaps and at the end you obtain the result on the right in-game. Unfortunately, luxels are much rougher, with a lower resolution, more like this.
On the left you have a lightmap grid with the default luxel size of 16 units generated my VRAD, a blur filter is applied and you obtain something close to the result on the right in the game.
In case you did not know, you can change the lightmap grid scale with the “Lightmap Scale” value with the texture tool. It is better to use values that are squares of 2, such as 16, 8, 4 or even 2. Do not go below 2, it might cause issues (with decals for example). Only use lower values than the default 16 if you think it's really useful, because you will drastically increase your map file size and compilation time with precise lightmap grids. Of course, you can also use greater values in order to optimize your map, with values such as 32, 64 or even 128 on very flat areas or surfaces that are far away from the playable areas. You can get more infos about lightmaps on Valve’s Wiki page.
But as we said before, light also bounces from the surface until it meets another brush, using radiosity algorithms. Because of that, even if a room does not have any light entity in it, rays can bounce on the floor and light the walls/ceiling, therefore it is not full black.
Here’s an example:
The maximum amount of bounces can be fixed with the VRAD command -bounce X (with X being the maximum amount of bounces allowed). The 100 default value should be more than enough.
Another thing taken into account by VRAD is the normal direction of each luxel: if the light comes directly against the luxel or brushes against it, it will not behave in the same way. This is what we call the angle of incidence of light.
Let us take the example of a light_spot lighting a cylinder, the light will bright gradually the surface - from fully bright at the bottom to slightly visible at the top.
In-hammer view on the left, in-game view on the right
Light Falloff laws
One of the things that made the Source Engine lighting much more realistic than any others in 2004 is the light falloff system. Alright, we saw that light can travel through space until it meets something, but how does it travel through space? At the same brightness, whatever the distance is between the light origin and destination? Maybe sometimes yes… but most of the time no.
Imagine a simple situation of a room with 1 single point light inside. The light is turned on, it produces photons that are going in all the directions around it. As you might imagine, photons are all going in their own direction and have absolutely no reason to deviate from their trajectory.
At one time, let’s picture billions of photons going in all the directions possible around the light, the moment after, they are all a bit further in their own trajectory, and all the photons are still there, in this “wave”. But, as each photon follows its own trajectory, they will all spread apart, making the photon density lower and lower.
As we said before, the more photons there are, the more powerful light is. And the highest the density, the more intense light is. Intensity of light can be expressed like this:
You have to keep in mind that all of this happens in 3D, therefore the “waves” of photons aren’t circles but spheres. And the area of a sphere is its surface, expressed like this:
(R is the radius of the sphere)
If we integrate that surface area in the previous equation:
With ♥ being a constant number. We can see the Intensity is therefore proportional to the reverse of the square of the distance between the photons and their light origin.
So, the further light travels, the lower is its intensity. And the falloff is proportional to the inverse of the square of the distance.
Consequently, the corners of our room will get darker, because they are farther away from the light (plus they don’t directly face the light, the angle of incidence is lower than the walls/floor/ceiling).
This is what we call the Inverse-Square law, it’s a very well-known behavior of the light in the field of photography and cinema. People have to deal with it to make sure to get the best exposure they can get.
This law is true when light spreads in all possible directions, but you can also focus light in one direction and reduce the spread, with lenses for example. This is why, when Valve decided to integrate a lighting falloff law in their engine, they decided to use a method not only following the inverse-square law but also giving to mapmakers the opportunity to alter the law for each light entity.
Constant, Linear, Quadratic... Wait, what?
In math, there is a very frequent type of functions, named polynomial functions. The concept is simple, it’s a sum of several terms, like this:
Every time, there is a constant factor (the “a” thing, a0 being the first one, a1 the second one, a2 the third one...), multiplied with the variable x at a certain degree:
x^0 = 1 : degree 0 x^1 = x : degree 1 x^2 : degree 2 x^3 : degree 3 ... And
a0 is the constant named “constant coefficient” (associated to degree 0) a1 is the constant named “linear coefficient” (associated to degree 1) a2 is the constant named “quadratic coefficient” (associated to degree 2) Usually, the function has an end, and we call it by the highest degree of x it uses. For example, a “polynomial of the second degree” is written:
Then, if we take the expression from the inverse-square law, which was:
With a2 = 1 and D being the variable of distance from the light origin.
In Source, the constant ♥ is actually the brightness (the value you configure here).
It is simply an inverse polynomial of the second degree, with a0 and a1 equal to zero. And we could write it like this:
And here you have it! This is approximately the equation used by VRAD to determine the intensity of light for each luxel during the compilation. And you can alter it by changing the values of the 3 variables constant, linear and quadratic, for any of your light / light_spot entity in your level.
Actually you set proportions of each variable against the other two, and only a percentage for each variable is saved. For example:
By default, constant and linear are set to 0 and quadratic to 1, which means a 100%quadratic lighting attenuation. Therefore, by default lights in Source Engine follows the classic Inverse-Square law.
If you look at the page dedicated to the constant-linear-quadratic falloff system on Valve’s Wiki, it’s explained that the intensity of light is boosted by 100 for the linear part of equation and 10 000 for the quadratic part of equation. This is due to the fact that inverse formulas in equations always drop drastically at the beginning, and therefore a light with a brightness of 200 would only be efficient in a distance of 5 units and therefore completely pointless.
You would have to boost your brightness a lot in hammer to make the light visible, that's what Valve decided to make automatically.
The following equation is a personal guess of what could be the one used by VRAD:
With constant, linear and quadratic being percentage values. The blue part is here to determine the brightness to apply, allowing to boost the value set in hammer if it is as least partially using linear or quadratic falloff. The orange part is the falloff part of equation, making the brightness attenuation depending of the distance the point studied is from the light origin.
The best way to see how this equation works is to visualize it in a 2D graph:
This website provides a great way to see 2D graphics associated to functions. On the left, you can find all the elements needed with at first the inputs (in a folder named “INPUTS”), which are:
a0 is the Constant coefficient that you enter in hammer a1 is the Linear coefficient a2 is the Quadratic coefficient B is the Brightness coefficient In another folder are the 3 coefficients constant, linear and quadratic, automatically transformed into a percentage form. And finally, the function I(D) is the Intensity function depending on the distance D. The drawing of the function is visible in the rest of the webpage.
Try to interact with it!
This concludes the first part, the second part will come in about two weeks. We will see some examples of application of this Constant-Linear-Quadratic Falloff system, and a simpler alternative. We will also see how lighting works on models and dynamic lighting systems integrated in source games.Thank you for reading!
Part Two : link
-HP- reacted to Thrik for an article, Introducing MapCore's new logo and store
Designed by professional designer Arthur de Padua (AKA Thurnip), the new logo was developed over a period of many months and incorporates some of the successful themes that came up during the logo design contest we had some time ago. Unlike the existing logo which only existed as a low-resolution render, this one is perfectly crisp and comes in numerous formats suitable for print — allowing us to finally offer high-quality merchandise.
So, head over to the MapCore store if you want to show your MapCorian allegiance in public! All items come as a 'Regular Edition' (no profit for MapCore) and 'Donation Edition' (£5 profit that goes towards MapCore hosting/development costs).
We're currently offering a small but carefully designed selection of products. Once we make sure everything's running OK and we don't need to change vendor for whatever reason, more products will be added. We'll also soon be adding a way for you to donate while receiving a small token of appreciation (e.g. a sticker that can be bought for £5, £10, or £20) for those who want to support us but don't necessarily need or want a T-shirt, etc.
If you buy anything, be sure to post some photos for us to look at! I have some orders on the way, so will create a thread for such snaps if nobody else beats me to it. If you'd love to buy something but the item you want isn't available, don't hesitate to leave a comment or get in touch with me — I'm happy to build up the products based upon what people want.
-HP- reacted to Radu for an article, Level Design in Max Payne: Roscoe Street Station
Level Design in Max Payne: Roscoe Street Station
Max Payne is a third person shooter developed by Remedy Entertainment and published on July 2001. At the time of its release, the game gained critical acclaim for its use of the bullet time mechanic - a special ability that slows down time around the character. Inspired by Hong Kong action films and hard boiled detective novels, the game focuses on intense action sequences and the protagonist's internal struggle as he attempts to avenge his murdered family.
The game's story is structured under three parts, each containing several chapters. For the purposes of this article, we will take a look at Chapter One: Roscoe Street Station, from the first part of the game, and deconstruct the level progression as well as state design decisions when encountered.
1 2 3
The level begins with a cutscene of Max riding the subway train towards Roscoe Street Station to meet with his friend Alex. As soon as Max gets off the train, he remarks that “The station was drenched in gloom. Alex was a ghost nowhere to be seen. I’d have to look for him”. Although we aren’t given much information to work with, it’s enough to build a sense of mystery and give the player a goal.
Taking control over the character, we discover that our main path is blocked (1) and are forced to explore a side area (2) where more narrative is to be revealed. As we burst open the doors of the personnel room, we stumble over the body of a transit police officer (3). Once again, a quick cutscene centers on Max while he delivers his lines and sets the tone accordingly: "Death was in the air at Roscoe Street. I'd have to find Alex fast." At this point, Max pulls out his pistol and we can either return to the starting area or explore the room for hidden ammunition and health. Doing the latter teaches the player that exploration is rewarded through much needed supplies.
On our way back, we encounter our first two enemies and notice that the main path is no longer blocked. Though, If the player takes his time and waits around the corner before engaging the enemies, bits of story will be delivered by them, explaining their reason for being there or informing on the overall situation. And as trivial as that sounds, it can have a major impact on immersion and believability. Clearly this is something the developers have identified early on and implemented throughout the game. Giving the player the option to advance at his own pace goes a long way and makes for a more dynamic experience. Those who want to rush through the levels can do so. Others that want to explore and listen to bits of story can do that as well. It’s an ideal situation that satisfies both worlds.
After our first encounter, we can proceed through the main path where we immediately find two more enemies. As previously mentioned, we have the option to directly engage in combat or wait for the enemies to reveal additional information. An important thing to make note of is that despite the fact that the gameplay space is tailored around the player’s needs, the environment always feels natural. A good example is this specific bit (4), where the player is now emerging from a set of stairs and can dive on his side towards a nearby mail box for cover.
When designing a space that is supposed to represent a real life location, it's essential for the level designer to always keep in mind that everything placed in the scene must abide by the real location's logic. Of course, adding something unusual or out of place is a good way to draw the player's attention, but in general we all have expectations of what kind of objects to find in most environments. Meeting those expectations is key to creating a believable game world.
5 6 7
Going down the corridor, we hear another enemy, but this time located behind an inaccessible gate (5). Although his placement seems odd, this set-up accomplishes two things. Firstly, it creates an audio cue to draw the player forward. Secondly, it gives the illusion that the environment is much larger than it actually is. It's a simple trick and probably one of the oldest in the level design book, one which the developers have used extensively throughout the game to their advantage. If you find yourself creating a fairly linear level, simply adding a few inaccessible areas is a quick and painless way of providing some visual depth to your environment. As in real life, there are plenty of areas that we cannot access.
Continuing with the idea of guiding the player, we begin to notice even more ways of doing that. This time our direction is implied through arrow signs in combination with an enemy audio cue (6). And after encountering the said enemy we acquire a new weapon type, the pump action shotgun, as well as discover the Subway Control Room (7). Unable to access it, Max elaborates that “The security panel let off a mocking cackle. I’d need the right code”. Without knowing specifically why we need to gain access, we can nonetheless conclude that opening the Subway Control Room is somehow tied to the level progression in some way. Turning to our immediate left, we begin to descend to a closed station.
8 9 10
At this point, having also acquired the shotgun, the difficulty starts to increase as we encounter three enemies on our path. Once they have been dealt with, we find ourselves in a fairly elaborate space with two options for exploration:
Taking the path to our right, we end up in a room (8) designed to replenish the player’s ammunition and health. Going to the back of this room, we locate a corridor leading to a locked grate door. Even though we cannot open it, reaching the end will deliver additional information through the means of dialogue between two enemies situated on the other side. In contrast to previous encounters, this time we have the option to kill our enemies by shooting a nearby propane canister. After dealing with them, Max notes that "The gate was locked. I would need to find another way to get to the tunnel". This gives us a hint as to where we need to go in order to progress with the main goal.
Opting for the path to our left, towards the end of the station, we locate a personnel room, a bright yellow maintenance train (9) and a small supply room. Checking out the maintenance train, Max states that "The power to the rail had been cut. I'd have to get it back on to get the train moving". Looking to the opposite side of the train, we notice a tunnel blocked by a series of wooden boards. Putting two and two together, we must find a way to power up the maintenance train and crash though the boards to reach the level's final area. Of course, now we realize why we must gain access to the Subway Control Room. Turning our attention away from the train, we open the door to the nearby personnel room. Inside, we find a transit police officer held at gun point by an enemy (10). After killing the thug, the officer informs us that he can access the Subway Control Room and so we begin to backtrack. Having reached the security panel, the officer unlocks the door, but is shot dead by an enemy already on the inside.
Reopening the door, we notice the enemy has retreated to a secondary room. Pursuing him, we encounter 3 additional thugs, totaling 4 enemies, the most we have yet to fight at once. It's important to notice that, as we advance through the level, the number of enemies we encounter at a given point increases, but in a manner that is fluid and balanced. So far, the pattern has been to include single enemy encounters between group encounters. This way, the player doesn't constantly feel overwhelmed and has time to recuperate before a larger fight.
After dealing with the enemies, we discover a third smaller room to the back. Inside this room there is an electric panel (11) that controls the subway power lines, a cabinet with health supplies and a series of camera displays. Using the button on the electric panel triggers a green line to rise on it's display, giving the player visual confirmation that power is now back on for that specific line. Additionally, using the nearby camera display will show an image of the bright yellow maintenance train and compel Max to state that "The train lit up like a Christmas tree. The power was back on".
12 13 14
We then proceed to backtrack to the train. Backtracking again. Sometimes, and especially if overdone, this design decision can become tedious and potentially confuse players. However, when used sparingly in design and with a bit of logic, forcing the player to go back and fourth between parts of the level in order to progress can make the environment seem more connected as a whole. Backtracking can also prove to be a good way of making the most out of a given environment by squeezing as much gameplay as possible.
Once we have reached the train, we can either immediately operate it or explore the area behind it for ammunition. Manning the wheel (12), the train begins to accelerate and shortly crashes through the wooden barricade. Advancing in the tunnel (13), we encounter 3 enemies and reach the area seen previously from the locked grate door. Our only path to follow now is through a rusty door leading to the next level (14). While we didn't accomplish our primary goal in this level, we still managed to gather information about the situation, be it directly from Max's lines or indirectly from the enemy dialogue.
Despite it's ever growing age, Max Payne still proves to be relevant even today. Examining how the gameplay unfolds in Roscoe Street Station, we can only conclude that the people at Remedy Entertainment are without a doubt true masters of their craft. And for those passionate about designing single player levels, here are 10 principles that we can learn from them:
Story is revealed in small amounts to keep the player interested for more Exploration is rewarded through useful items Inaccessible areas can give more depth to the environment Players that want to be engrossed in the game world are rewarded with additional information Environments are designed with a certain logic to meet player expectations Players are guided through subtle visual language or audio cues Progression obstacles are designed to be relevant to the story Intelligent backtracking uses the gameplay space to it's full potential and makes the environment seem more connected Interaction with the environment is reinforced through audio-visual feedback Properly balanced difficulty allows the player moments of rest and doesn't constantly overwhelm with enemies
-HP- reacted to Rusk for an article, Effect and Cause - Titanfall 2 Level Breakdown
Titanfall 2 was one of the best FPS titles of 2016, featuring a very strong single-player campaign with interesting combat and puzzle gameplay for both players and their Titan. Additionally, each level featured its own special twist: "Effect and Cause", for example, presents players with a memorable time-traveling mechanic.
The time-travel mechanics of "Effects and Cause" serve couple of purposes, influencing not only the way players traverse the environment and its associated obstacles, but also how they fight through the level's combat scenarios. Two different time periods are a threat to the player, so the designers decided to allow players to see where the enemies from the past are located.
Once you move from past to the present, enemies leave a small blue particle in the place where they had been standing. Although the effect lasts no longer than two seconds, it’s enough to help players plan their next move. This twist on encounters makes them much more interesting and dynamic.
For "Effect and Cause", the developers created distinct enemies archetypes with different engagement distances and attacks for each time period. In the present (a destroyed version of the map) the player deals with robots and wildlife. In the past, players face armed guards in the facility. Eliminating the danger in one reality does not make it disappear in the other, forcing players to think constantly about their position versus the enemies in the different time frames.
Let’s discuss three selected encounters from "Effects and Cause" in-depth to see how they work in action!
The first encounter where players freely use the time-shift mechanic starts shortly after players exit a lab area. Here, enemies are located only in the past, when the facility is operating and functional. This prevents players from becoming overwhelmed with two types of enemies in two different realities within the first big encounter of the level.
This encounter is set up in two distinct spaces. The first space is a big room with a single entry point in the form of a double door opened by a panel, with combat focused at the far end of the room. The second space is a large corridor with a pocket in the middle and a security room at the end. A panel in the security room must be used in order for the player to progress.
Both encounter spaces are divided by a time-shift puzzle, the only way to continue onto the next arena. This time-shift puzzle serves as combat gating and also adds variety to encounters that are otherwise only about shooting. The gating also teaches the player that some spaces cannot be traversed in any time period, and that the only solution to the obstacle is to find alternative routes.
There are eleven enemies in this encounter: four located in the first room, and seven in the second room. Once you eliminate the two enemies in the first room, the remaining two enemies get into position. The second space has a fixed number of soldiers, with no additional waves. All the soldiers are using guns or rifles. The advantage/challenge to the player in this encounter comes from the number of the enemies, not their abilities.
Once the player enters the first space, they see two soldiers talking to each other. It’s up to player to start the fight and pick their preferred attack method. Once the first two enemies are eliminated, players enter an area with clearly defined architecture and a no-man’s-land inbetween. Players should also see a weapon lying on the desk, a gameplay "carrot" which helps to draw players into the fight. The enemies will hold their positions and try to shoot the player from behind the safety of cover.
The second area gives players more options, and also allows them to scan the area earlier (both from the first room through the lasers, and also from a vent). The designers ramp up the difficulty here, introducing more enemies into a tighter space.
With the time-switching mechanics at hand, players can prioritize threats in order to set up their own tactics. It’s clearly up to player how to plan and play this encounter. As there is no threat in the past timeline, players can experiment with going back in time without punishment, ‘escaping’ the combat at any given moment in order to reload, reposition and jump back to the action. This encounter is memorable as it is the first time that players fully use their time switching mechanic, functioning as a safe environment to learn. In other words, it's a skill check and a preparation for what lies ahead...
The second encounter worth analysis is much more varied with how it positions enemies throughout the level. It also places enemies in both time periods, serving as a playground for prioritization strategies and other interesting player tactics. This encounter also features more verticality, which helps prevent players from feeling too overwhelmed with enemy forces, while also allowing players to use more of their Titan-piloting skills.
This encounter is located in a fairly large room with ample verticality. Players enter the space on the upper floor through a single entry point and continue their way onto a balcony, letting players familiarize themselves with the space from above. At the far end of the room, players will spot a staircase going down to the lower level where elevators are located. This area has two big areas of standing cover, accessible on both heights, and a variety of crouch-height cover such as railings, desks and potted plants. This space also has a small side-room allowing further tactical options. This whole area is gated with an elevator door which does not open until the combat encounter is over.
This encounter is quite varied in terms of the enemies players face. In the past timeline, players face eleven soldiers: nine regular soldiers and two heavy soldiers with shields. These soldiers come in four groups of two or three each. The solders come with short intervals inbetween each wave, so that the player has time to react and make more intellectual choices.
In the present, players face three robots appearing almost at once when they walk along the balcony at the top of the space. Once the player goes down, they have to fight four prowlers which appear one after another with a couple of seconds delay between each new spawn.
We start the encounter in the present timeline, with the gate blocked in the past timeline. On the way to the staircase, three enemy robots spawn but do not pose a big threat to players. Once players move down, their attention is drawn to a desk with guns. This helps players to immediately position into a location in front of the elevators.
Once players shift to the past, enemies start to appear from the elevators. There is not enough cover to fight off all of the attackers, forcing players to prioritize and switch in time to better position themselves for attack. Once players go back into the present, prowler enemies will start to appear, forcing players to continue constant movement.
This encounter may feel a bit hectic, but it is a good test of both pilot skills and thoughtful time switching. It's the first encounter which forces players to prioritize which enemies they want to deal with first in different time periods. Due to the designer's smart use of the elevators, vents, and robot storage, enemies are brought into the field in an interesting way. But at the same time, enemies are introduced to the player with clear sound and visual cues, so they remain alert to upcoming surprises.
The third encounter I want to breakdown is by far the most robust yet. It features different height levels, space divided into two areas, and flanking paths which can be accessed only through certain time periods. It serves as the "final skill check" for all of the pilot abilities and time-shifting gathered thus far in "Effect and Cause".
This encounter is spread across two areas of vertical space, connected by multiple paths that create nice loops for players to use to their advantage. There is one clear entry point with a wide view of the whole combat space and one exit located in the second area, but the space inbetween offers a great deal of choice in terms of how players can tackle the encounter.
Playing through the encounter, players will learn that there is a geometry difference between the two different time frames that can be overcome with some of the pilot skills at their disposal. A big catwalk goes around the whole room with additional rooms with guns and ammo on the bottom level, for example. The amount of space available is needed, because the combat space is packed with enemies.
In the past, players have to fight twelve soldiers: nine regular soldiers and three heavies with shields, as well as three robots. The enemies are spread out across the whole space of the encounter, but because the areas are connected with each other through multiple paths, the enemies will try to chase and eliminate the player. This means that the encounter feels very dynamic and tense.
In the present, players face robots: eight prowlers inside, and even more of them outside fighting with BT (the player's Titan). The enemies in the present are hostile to each other, showing players an example of how the enemy AI can actually fighting eachother: information which players can then use to their advantage.
Players enter this area in the past, where they witness a single back-facing enemy, instantly inviting them to perform a takedown. From this point, the encounter is very open to experimentation: the player can either continue in the past and fight a big wave of soldiers coming through the main path (a staircase in the middle), or they can switch to the present, where they will find open flanking paths on both sides of the level. Going with the latter option offers a moment to breathe before prowlers are spawned, but it will also disable an ammo dispenser in the first area, adding consequence to player choices.
Staying in one place will result in a massive pile-up of enemies in the area, so players are motivated to move around a lot, time shifting when needed. The second area of this encounter is one of the level's biggest in-door combat spaces. If players choose to go into this second area in the past, the encounter will be quite vertical with soldiers located both on the ground and on the upper catwalk. Switching to the present will cause a bigger concentration of enemies on the ground floor.
Players are given enough space to fully use pilot’s zip-line ability to create shortcuts across the room, accessing the various loops and ammo dispensers needed to create a fair fight despite overwhelming enemy forces. There are very few conditions placed upon this encounter, so players can leave the area and jump into his Titan to deal with different threats at any time. Overall, this encounter serves as a test of everything learned previously, with players having the option to ‘lower’ the difficulty of the encounter using their titan.
The above examples are just a slice of Titanfall 2 gameplay contained within the excellent level "Effects and Cause", but in my opinion clearly shows how this great game was enhanced by its time shifting mechanic. The idea is fairly simple: time-shifting is nothing more than teleportation between two different levels, one layered on top of another, but the strong execution makes for a memorable experience that really stands out in comparison with other shooters. I highly recommend playing "Effects and Cause" as it is both challenging and fun, a level where Titanfall 2's time-shift mechanics comes into focus, providing additional depth to the whole game.
Thanks for reading!
-HP- reacted to Radu for an article, 2017: Mapcore's Year in Review
(New logo by Yanzl)
I'm sure that by now most of us have our sleeves rolled up and are ready to tackle yet another year, but before we move forward let's take a moment to look back at what 2017 meant for our community. It was a time of immense growth for both professionals and amateurs alike. A time when everyone seemed to have surpassed their former selves. And without slowing down, some have even managed to land their first job in the industry. I don't know what this new year holds, what challenges to overcome will arise, but I know for certain that I'm excited to see everyone become even greater!
2017: Mapcore's Year in Review
Overwatch - Oasis
by Phillip K, Bram Eulaers, Helder Pinto and others
Dishonored 2: Death of the Outsider - Curator level
by electrosheep, kikette and others
Payday 2 - Brooklyn Bank level
by General Vivi
Sniper Elite 4 - Regilino Viaduct
by Beck Shaw and others
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Offtime
Team Fortress 2 - Shoreleave
Art pass, props and sound by Freyja
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus - Farmhouse
Modeled, textured and composed by BJA
Half-Life 2: Downfall
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Studio
by ZelZStorm, TanookiSuit3 and Hollandje
Portal 2 - Refraction
Counter Strike: Global Offensive - Breach
by Yanzl and Puddy
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Berth
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Kaizen
by Andre Valera and Jakuza
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Asylum
Half-Life 2: Episode 2 - FusionVille: The Shadow over Ravensmouth
Unreal Engine 4 scene
by Dario Pinto
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Grind
by The Horse Strangler, `RZL and MaanMan
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Aurelia remake
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Tangerine
by Harry Poster
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Abbey
by Lizard and TheWhaleMan
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Apollo
by Vaya, CrTech, Vorontsov, JSadones
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Sirius
by El Exodus
Unreal Engine 4 scene
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Subzero
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Biome
-HP- reacted to FrieChamp for an article, Finding your own path as a professional Level Designer
The following article contains quotes from interviews with Todd Papy, Design Director at Cloud Imperium Games, Geoffrey Smith, Lead Game Designer at Respawn Entertainment, Paul Haynes, Lead Level Designer at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios and Sten Huebler, Senior Level Designer at The Coalition. A big heartfelt 'thank you' goes out to these guys who took the time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions!
On the MapCore.org forums many amateur level designers ask for feedback on their portfolios or for advice on how to break into the games industry. But once you have signed your first contract and you have your foot in the door you will realize that this step marks merely the beginning of your journey. It is a winding path with many diverging branches and without much information available on the road ahead. This is the reason why I decided to interview professional designers in Senior, Lead or Director positions to share their personal experiences and advice with others trying to navigate this field. It is worth mentioning that the questions were not selected and phrased with the goal in mind to compile a ‘how to get promoted fast’ guide. Instead I wanted to give level designers insights into the careers of others - who have stood at the same crossroads before - in hopes that they get the information to pick the path that is right for them.
Hands-On VS Management
At the beginning of his career, Todd Papy started out as a “designer/environment artist” – a job title that dates back to times when team sizes were much smaller and one person could wear both hats at the same time. As the project complexity and team size grew, he specialized in level design at SONY Santa Monica and worked on the God of War titles. During his time there he moved up the ranks to Lead Level Designer, Design Director and eventually Game Director. From level design to directing a game - a career thanks to careful long-term planning and preparation? “It wasn’t even on my radar” says Todd. “I just wanted to build a game with the team and soak up as much information from the people around me as possible.”
So how do level designers feel who step into positions where the majority of their daily work suddenly consists of managing people and processes? Do they regret not doing enough hands-on-work anymore? Todd says he misses building and crafting something with his hands, but instead of going back to his roots, he decided to look at the issue from a fresh perspective: “As a Lead or Director, your personal daily and weekly satisfaction changes from pride in what you accomplished to pride in what the team has accomplished.“ Today Todd is designing the universe of 'Star Citizen' as Design Director at Cloud Imperium Games.
Geoffrey Smith - who created some of the most popular multiplayer maps in the Call of Duty and Titanfall series and who is now Lead of the ‘Multiplayer Geometry’ team at Respawn Entertainment - says his output of levels remains unchanged thus far, but he can “easily see how being so tied up with managing would cut into someone's hands-on work”. Geoffrey calls for companies to provide the necessary training to employees new to management positions: “Managing people and projects is hard work and is normally a vastly different skill set than most of us in games have. Maybe that is why our industry has such problems with meeting deadlines and shipping bug-free games. A lot of guys work for a long time in their respective disciplines and after many years they get moved into a lead position. They certainly know their craft well enough to teach new guys but managing those guys and scheduling would be something brand new to them. Companies need to understand this and get them the training they need to be successful.” At Respawn Entertainment, the studio provides its department leads with training seminars, which helps the staff immensely, according to Geoffrey.
Sten Huebler, currently working as a Senior Level Designer at Microsoft-owned The Coalition, in Vancouver, says he definitely missed the hands-on work when he worked in a Lead capacity on 'Crysis' and 'Crysis 2': “I was longing for a more direct creative outlet again. That is why coming to The Coalition and working on Gears of War 4, I really wanted to be hands on again.” To Sten it was the right move because he enjoyed working directly on many of the levels in the game’s campaign and could then experience his fruit of labour with others close to him: "After Gears 4 shipped, playing through the campaign, through my levels with my brother in co-op was a blast and a highlight of my career. He actually still lives in Germany. Being able to reconnect with him, on the other side of globe, playing a game together I worked on...So cool!"
'Gears of War 4' developed by The Coaliation and published by Microsoft Studios
Paul Haynes, Lead Level Designer at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios, encourages designers to negotiate the amount of organizational tasks and hands-on work before being promoted into a position that makes you unhappy: “I always told myself that I wouldn’t take a Lead position unless it could be agreed that I retain some hands-on, creative responsibility, after all that’s where I consider my strongest attributes to lie. I agreed to both Lead positions (Cinematic/Level Design) under that principle - I never understood the concept of promoting someone who is good at a certain thing into a position where they potentially don’t get to do that thing anymore, as they spend all their time organising others to do it. So far I’ve managed to maintain that creativity to some degree, though I would imagine it’s never going to be quite the same as it used to be, as I do have a team to manage now. On the flip side though, being able to control and co-ordinate the level design vision for a project and having a team to support in fulfilling that is quite an exciting new experience for me, so not all the organisation and planning is unenjoyable.”
Specialization VS Broadening Skillsets
For the level designers who aren’t afraid of management-related tasks and who are willing to give up hands-on work for bigger creative control, what would the interviewees recommend: specialize and strengthen abilities as an expert in level design further or broaden one’s skillset (e.g. getting into system design, writing etc.)? Paul believes it doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other: “I think it’s possible to do both (strengthening abilities and broadening skillsets) simultaneously, it would really depend on the individual involved. I would say that a good approach would be to start with the specialisation in your chosen field and then once you feel more comfortable with your day to day work under that specialisation, take on work that utilises different skillsets and experiment to see if you find anything else you enjoy.” He started out as a pure level designer but subsequently held roles that involved game and cinematic design at Codemasters, Crytek and Dambuster Studios. “I’ll always consider myself a level designer at heart”, says Paul, “though it’s been incredibly beneficial for me to gain an understanding of multiple other disciplines, as not only has it widened my personal skillset but it has enabled me to understand what those disciplines have to consider during their day to day job roles, and it has helped me to strengthen the bond with those departments and my level design department as a result.” This advice is echoed by Todd who encourages level designers to learn about the different disciplines as “that knowledge will help solve issues that arise when creating a level.”
'Homefront: The Revolution' developed by Dambuster Studios and published by Deep Silver
Sten also gained experience in related disciplines but ultimately decided to return to his passion and do level design. He explains: “It’s a good question and I feel I have been wondering about this myself regularly in my career. I think those priorities might change depending on your current situation, your age, your family situation, but also depending on the experience you gain in your particular field. (…) In my career, I was fortunate enough to try out different positions. For example, I was a Level Designer on Far Cry (PC), Lead Level Designer on Crysis 1 and Lead Game Designer on Crysis 2. Each position had different requirements and responsibilities. As a Lead Level Designer I was more exposed to the overall campaign planning and narrative for it, while on Crysis 2 I was more involved in the system design. However, my true passion is really on the level design side. I love creating places and spaces, taking the player on a cool adventure in a setting I am crafting. My skills and talents also seem to be best aligned on the level design side. I love the combination of art, design, scripting and storytelling that all come together when making levels for 1st or 3rd person games.”
Picking The Right Studio
As you can certainly tell by now, all of the interviewees have already made stops at different studios throughout their career. So each one of them has been in the situation of contemplating whether to pass on an offer or put down their signature on the dotted line. This brings up the question what makes them choose one development studio over the other? To Geoffrey it depends on what stage of your career you are in. “If you're trying to just get into the industry for the first time, then cast your net wide and apply to a lot of places. However, ideally, someone should pick a studio that makes the types of games they love to play. Being happy and motivated to work every day is a powerful thing.”
This is a sentiment that is shared by all interviewees: the project and team are important aspects, but as they have advanced in their career other external factors have come into play: “It’s not just about me anymore, so the location, the city we are going to live in are equally important.” Sten says.
Paul is also cautious of moving across the globe for a new gig. “The type of games that the company produces and the potential quality of them is obviously quite important – as is the team that I’d be working with and their pedigree. More and more over the years though it’s become equally important to me to find that balance between work and life outside of it. Working on games and translating your hobby into a career is awesome, but it’s all for nothing if you can’t live the life you want around it.”
And it is not just about enjoying your leisure time with family and friends, but it will also reflect in your work according to Todd: “If my family is happy and enjoys where we live, it makes it a lot easier for me to concentrate on work.” He also makes another important point to consider if you are inclined to join a different studio solely based on the current project they are working on: “The culture of the studio is extremely important. I consider how the team and management work together, the vibe when walking around the studio, and the desk where I will sit. Projects will come and go, but the culture of the studio will be something that you deal with every day.”
'Star Citizen' developed and published by Cloud Imperium Games; screenshot by Petri Levälahti
But it goes the other way around, too: When it comes to staffing up a team of level designers, these are the things that Todd looks for in a candidate: “First and foremost, I look for level designers that can take a level through all of the different stages of development: idea generation, 2D layouts, 3D layouts, idea prototyping, scripting, tuning, and final hardening of the level. People that can think quickly about different ideas and their possible positive and negative impacts. They shouldn’t get too married to one idea, but if they feel strongly enough about that specific idea they will fight for it. People that approach problems differently than I do. I want people that think differently to help round out possible weaknesses that the team might have. People who will look for the simplest and clearest solution vs. trying to always add more and more complexity.“
For lead positions, it goes to show yet again how important a designer's professional network is, as Todd for example only considers people that he already knows: “I try to promote designers to leads who are already on the team and have proven themselves. When I am building a new team, I hire people who I have had a personal working relationship before. Hiring people I have never worked with for such positions is simply too risky.”
Ups & Downs
While the career paths of the designers I interviewed seem pretty straightforward in retrospect, it is important to note that their journeys had their ups and downs as well. For instance Geoffrey recalls a very nerve-wracking time during his career when he decided to leave Infinity Ward: “We had worked so hard to make Call of Duty a household name but every day more and more of our friends were leaving. At a certain point it just wasn't the same company because the bulk of the people had left. The choice to leave or stay was even giving me heart palpitations. (…) After I left Infinity Ward, I started working at Respawn Entertainment and by work I mean - sitting in a big circle of chairs with not a stick of other furniture in the office - trying to figure out what to do as a company.” But he also remembers many joyful memories throughout his career: Little things like opening up the map file of multiplayer classic ‘mp_carentan’ for the first time or strangers on the street expressing their love in a game he had worked on. To him, shipping a game is a very joyful experience by itself and the recently released Titanfall 2 takes a special place for him. “The first Titanfall was a great game but we had so many issues going on behind the scenes it felt like we weren't able to make the best game we were capable of. (…) After all the trials and tribulations of starting a new game company, Titanfall 2 is a game I am very proud to have worked on.”
'Titanfall 2' developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts
As a response to the question of what some of the bigger surprises (good or bad) in his career have been thus far, Paul talks about the unexpected benefits of walking through fire during a project’s development and the lessons he learnt from that: “It surprised me how positively I ended up viewing the outcome of the last project I worked on (Homefront: The Revolution). I’d always thought I would aim to work on big, successful titles only, but I guess you don’t really know what’s going to be a success until it’s released. Obviously it was a disappointing process to be part of, and a lot of hard work and effort went into making it, despite the team always knowing that there were some deep lying flaws in the game that weren’t going to be ironed out. We managed to ride the storm of the Crytek financial issues in 2014, coming out on the other side with a mostly new team in place and yet we carried on regardless and managed to actually ship something at the end of it, which is an achievement in itself. I see the positives in the experience as being the lessons I learnt about what can go wrong in games production which stands me in good stead should I decide to take a more authoritative role somewhere down the line. Sometimes the best way to learn is through failure, and I don’t believe I’d be as well rounded as a developer without having experienced what I did on that project.”
Last Words Of Advice
At the end I asked the veterans if they had any pieces of advice they would like to share with less experienced designers. To finish this article I will quote these in unabbreviated form below:
Geoffrey: “I guess the biggest thing for guys coming from community mapping is figuring out if you want to be an Environment Artist or a Geo-based Designer and if you want to work on Single-Player or Multiplayer. Each has its own skills to learn. I think a lot of guys get into mapping for the visual side of things but some companies have the environment artists handle the bulk of that work. So figuring out if making the level look great is more enjoyable to you or thinking it up and laying it out is, will help determine which career you should follow. Other than that, just work hard and always look to improve!”
Todd: “BUILD, BUILD, BUILD. Have people play it, find out what they liked about it and what they didn’t. Build up a thick skin; people will not always like your ideas or levels. Try out new ideas constantly. What you think looks good on paper doesn’t always translate to 3D. Analyse other games, movies, books, art, etc. Discover what makes an idea or piece of art appeal to you and how you can use that in your craft.”
Paul: “The games industry is not your regular nine to five job, and everyone is different so it’s difficult to lay down precise markers for success. Different specialisations have different requirements and you can find your choices leading to different routes than your fellow team members. You need to make sure you carve your own path and try everything you can to achieve whatever your personal goals are within the role; success will come naturally as a result of that. You need to be honest with yourself and others, open to criticism and willing to accept change. I’ve seen potential in people over the years hindered by stubbornness, succeeding in the games industry is all about learning and constantly adapting. Also it’s important to keep seeing your work as an extension of a hobby, rather than a job. The moment it starts to feel like a means to an end, you need to change things up to get that passion back.”
Sten: “I always feel people should follow their passion. I firmly believe that people will always be the best, the most successful at something they love. Of course, it is a job and it pays your bills, but it’s also going to be something you are going to do for gazillions hours in your life, so better pick something you like doing.”
Written by Friedrich Bode for mapcore.org
What are your personal experiences? Do you agree with the statements made by the interviewees? Any advice you would like to share with fellow level designers or game developers in general? Let us know in the comments!
-HP- reacted to Sentura for an article, Exploring Unreal Engine 4 Scripting: Part One
On the other hand, UE4 has also been somewhat stripped of “default” content in order to emphasize the user-generated content located on Epic’s new marketplace. This tutorial series is designed to bring you up to speed on UE4 level-design by showing you how blueprints work and how you can create your very own blueprint building-blocks.
Understanding Blueprints The Blueprint system is a visual scripting language central to all game interaction in UE4.
Blueprints come in two flavors: Level blueprints and Class blueprints. Level blueprints are attached to your level, whereas Class blueprints are self-contained templates for a single type of object in your level (a “class”) only. Anything you do in a Level blueprint can also be done in a Class blueprint, but Level blueprints additionally enable you to set up communication between multiple Class blueprints.
Let’s take a look at what actually goes on inside these blueprints.
Inside Blueprints Let’s start with the two basic blueprint nodes: Functions and Variables. Variables can be explained as containers of object data, while functions essentially perform game logic upon variables.
The next section will cover these nodes in more detail.
A Player variable with a Jump function. As illustrated, executing the function (f) causes the player to jump
Object Data (Actors and Variables)
Although they are very versatile, variables are most commonly used to control actors, objects that exist inside the game world. Characters, weapons, doors, switches are all examples of actors. Additionally, every actor’s variables can potentially be manipulated by functions, for example the health of a character stored as an integer value.
A actor variable (player) with health and position stored as an integer variable (green) and a 3D-vector variable (yellow), respectively
Actors can also contain components: other actors incorporated inside the main actor. This enables static meshes to have component collision boxes, or to be paired with component particle effects, among other things.
The components of this door object are two meshes (a door and a doorframe) and a collision box that helps control the door’s physics behavior
Functions are nodes of logic which can be executed (called) to perform a certain task. If something needs to take place in-game, such as a player picking up a weapon, functions can enable as well as add additional consequences to that action.
A function execution string (the white line)
Functions present and modify variable information. For example, a function which acts upon information gathered by a variable could teleport players to specific game-world coordinates. A ‘getter’ or ‘pure’ function, on the other hand, merely relays information for use elsewhere, such as reporting a player’s current coordinates in the game world.
A ‘pure’ function (green). Notice that ‘pure’ functions do not have independent execution, only when linked with a regular function (blue) does this particular function have effect
So, we’ve covered Variables and Functions. But how does the Blueprint system know how and when to react to incidents inside the game world?
Events allow different actors to communicate with each other. For instance, an event controls when an actor collides with another actor, or what an actor should do if a collision actually occurs. More examples of an event are a door opening as a character nears it, a switch being thrown, or a barrel exploding after it has taken sufficient damage. An example of an event could even be as fundamental as a player using controls to move their character model. Customized events can be called much in the same way a function would be.
Event (red) called if an actor is hit. The event triggers a function linked to taking damage. This example is intended for learning purposes, not for practical use
Quick aside: In general, as a good practice, variables, functions and events should be named for their exact purpose. This helps both you and others read what’s going on in your blueprints. An actor named “player”, or an integer named “health” is easier to understand than one named “asdhjkashdj”!
For more information on variables, functions and events, please refer to Epic Games’ own documentation, which provides encyclopedic knowledge about the topic.
Case study Now that we understand the building blocks of UE4’s Blueprint system, let’s look at a practical example: the Class blueprint of a sliding door (If you want to create your own sliding door, I recommend taking a close look at Epic’s in-depth guide.
When a player gets close to it, the door opens. When a player leaves the door’s vicinity, it closes. Let’s examine the door’s blueprinting:
You can see that the door actor is composed of several components: a frame object, a door object and a triggering box
In this image, we can clearly see the nodes used to trigger the door’s opening and closing. For example, the event OnComponentBeginOverlap triggers once a player steps into the Box component actor listed. That triggered event starts executing anything along the execution logic path, such as the Timeline function and the Set Relative Location function.
The Timeline function changes an integer with decimals - the Driver float variable – between 0.0 and 1.0 over time, and sends execution updates every time the float changes. The float variable is called Driver in this case, because it drives the door to either open or close. The Lerp function’s Alpha parameter then uses this float value to determine the exact position of the door between being open (float value of 1.0) and closed (float value of 0.0). The Vector variables Door Closed Position and Door Open Position are end points for Alpha to blend between. This is to ensure that the door opens and closes smoothly over time rather than instantly.
Set Relative Location then executes the data received from the Lerp at intervals put forward by the Timeline’s update execution for the door that we use. The result is a door which slides opens when players are nearby.
Lastly, our OnEndComponentOverlap event triggers the closing of the door by reversing its operation when players leave the triggering box.
Here you can see our moving door in action:
To be fair, this case study is a bit over-simplified in order to provide an example that can be easily understood. The real version of this door (which will be shown in the next part of this series) is a bit more advanced, but its core principles are exactly the same.
So far, we’ve covered the structure of variables, functions, events, as well as a common gameplay element like a sliding door. In the part two of this tutorial series, we’ll learn some more advanced blueprint features, such as class recognition, level blueprints and blueprint communication.
Thanks for reading!
-HP- reacted to FMPONE for an article, Reddit + Mapcore CS:GO Mapping Contest!
(Art by Thurnip)
/r/GlobalOffensive and Mapcore are teaming up to grow Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s mapping community!
Check out the reddit thread for this contest »
The Big Reveal
We’re hosting a map-making contest for original, competitive 5v5 bomb defusal maps AND competitively-minded hostage maps, open exclusively to mappers who have not yet had their work featured in a Valve Operation!
Older projects are fair game: now’s the perfect time to polish up that map you’ve been working on but never got around to finishing. Experienced Mapcore judges and prominent members of the Counter-Strike community such as Sadokist, Moses, DDK, James Bardolph, and Anders Blume will be weighing in – but only one map can win it all.
Every week for the length of the contest, eligible maps will be playtested during /r/GlobalOffensive community nights according to a sign-up schedule. Slots on this schedule will be filled on a first-come, first-serve basis following an approval process, but we will try our best to accommodate everyone at least once. However, because it’s impossible to guarantee that all contest entries will have the chance to be playtested, /r/GlobalOffensive playtesting is a supplemental, helpful tool which will have no bearing whatsoever on contest judging.
You can register for a playtesting slot here. Remember -- playtesting registration is first-come, first-serve!
Enter Your Level
To officially enter your level into this contest, post a WIP thread with a link to your level’s Steam Workshop page in Mapcore’s official event forum.
Posting a WIP thread with a link to your level’s Steam workshop page constitutes your official entry into the contest, however you don’t need to do both at the same time. In other words, you can post your WIP thread and then update it later with your workshop link if you’re not ready to go right away. You can also feel free to continue updating your workshop level after you’ve posted your workshop link – contest entries will not be judged until after the submission deadline.
Your level must be submitted to Mapcore by August 31st, 2015 at midnight Pacific Standard Time (PST).
Our panel of judges will then select four finalist levels based on the following criteria:
Fun factor Visual/thematic presentation (graphics) Overall polish
Grand Prize Deadline
After the top four maps have been announced, /r/GlobalOffensive users will put them to the test!
Once all four finalist maps have been tested, mappers will have two weeks to revise their work based on community feedback. After those two weeks, an official Grand Prize Winning Map will be chosen!
The goal of this event is to raise awareness about Mapcore's incredible level design community and the incredibly useful playtesting capabilities of /r/GlobalOffensive. Both Mapcore and /r/GlobalOffensive are free resources available to all mappers. To date, Mapcore users are responsible for creating more than 70% of Valve Operation levels. Mapcore’s staff are unpaid volunteers, and do not personally profit in any way from additional traffic to the site.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a contest without a reward… In addition to the helpful feedback and free publicity that CS:GO mappers will receive by participating in this event, each finalist will also receive:
Eternal Bragging Rights™ and a showcase on Mapcore (where their level will be highly visible to industry-veteran game developers and the rest of the community) A monetary prize ($1000 + Mapcore swag for first place; $400 for second place; $200 for third place; $100 and Mapcore swag for fourth place) The top-finishing map will also be played in a competitive show-match casted and streamed by goRGNtv, for all to watch and enjoy! *NEW* CEVO has generously agreed to host the winning map in their PUG rotations for one month! *NEW* Added $1,000 to prize pool thanks to Gamebanana.com and EGO DEATH (gun skin creator) *NEW* Valve prizes!
Top 4 will receive
1. Signed CS:GO poster
2. CS:GO Lanyard
3. CS:GO Vinyl Sticker
First place will receive a CS:GO prize pack:
1. Signed CS:GO poster
2. CS:GO Lanyard
3. CS:GO Vinyl Sticker
4. CS:GO SteelSeries Kana Mouse
This is your big chance -- get to it!
Good luck, mappers!
Remakes of older maps are NOT allowed. All works must be original to you and their layouts must not have appeared in any prior versions of Counter-Strike. Custom artwork is allowed and encouraged, but must meet workshop guidelines. Collaborations are allowed and encouraged. Any contest winnings arising from a collaboration will be split in accordance with the collaborators' mutual agreement.
Mapcore staff will rate their top four maps of the contest, results will be tallied and all votes given equal weight. Some time later, the judges and guest judges will rate the top four finalist maps and results will be tallied, with all votes given equal weight. Guest judges will be asked to act as tie-breakers in the event of any ties in the voting.
Jason “General Vivi” Mojica -- Creator of "Rose Iron" Skin (Overkill Software)
Patrick "Puddy" Murphy -- Creator of CS_AGENCY (Overkill Software)
RZL (Independent) -- Creator of DE_RESORT
Shawn “FMPONE” Snelling (Independent)
Johnny “Sprony” van Spronsen (Journalist)
Matt "Sadokist" Trivett -- @Sadokist
Jason “Moses” O’Toole -- @JmosesOT
Daniel "DDK" Kapadia -- @followddk
James Bardolph -- @jamesbardolph
Anders Blume -- @OnFireAnders
Our Thanks to
EGO DEATH (Steam Workshop author)
-HP- reacted to Furyo for an article, Level Design in The Last of Us: Part One
This is the first article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three
Intro Level 1st scene In typical movie fashion, the game starts with an exposition scene which establishes the bond between Joel and his daughter Sarah. Here the watch plays a type of backward MacGuffin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin), which movie fans will be familiar with. A term made popular by Alfred Hitchcock, this initial narrative element will keep showing up in multiple scenes in the game to move the scenario forward and link back to the initial bond Joel had with his daughter. Many other items in this game, which we’ll see exposed in Sarah’s room play the same role. It’s important to note that this game doesn’t use forward MacGuffins, instead relying on the early experience players have with Joel in the intro levels to help them relate to Joel in the later parts of the game, when he faces adversity from the other main characters in the game. This type of catalyst is sometimes linked to gameplay in some games, but not here. For instance, in a quest, looking to get somewhere or obtain something but never managing to. In BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth keeps trying to go to Paris, but never quite goes there in the main game.
Gameplay Sarah goes to bed, only to be woken up by her Uncle Tommy’s phone call. The initial frame of Sarah getting up is a textbook example of player exposition. Using the mirror on the wall, Naughty Dog adds depth to the room, and presents Sarah as a playable character from both front and back. The color of the lamp shade also leaves nothing to chance. Using a warm color near her beloved items reinforces the comfort of her nest (bed) and contrasts heavily with the cold blue of the night in the mirror. These items on the wall, much like the watch earlier, play a narrative role in the rest of the game as tools to drive the scenario forward between Ellie and Joel.
Sound wise, Naughty Dog made a classic choice not to add any music and simply build tension with environment sounds in the background. It plays great and helps focus the attention on the initial reveals. In the room, the placement of the birthday card ties the opening scene with this scene the following morning and introduces the “triangle” button as the “hand interaction” one in the game (pick up item, open door, etc).
At this point in the game, the player still does not quite know what to do, despite having played for a few minutes already. This guidance is given very clearly in a single word, right outside Sarah’s bedroom, as she yells “Dad?”. Perfect example of narrative design coupled with level design, that tells the player his/her immediate goal, and invites him/her to check out every single door, increasing the chances for maximum exposition of every theme in this intro level.
With the goal now firmly established, the placement of the door straight ahead, too obvious, makes that room a natural space for continued exploration of the game’s themes, as opposed to a significant room. It comes as no surprise to find inside that room just one piece of content. The placement of the only light source in this room, obvious as it is, reminds us that lighting is one of the most straightforward tools to guide players.
Joel’s bedroom After leaving this bathroom, players are naturally directed towards Joel’s bedroom thanks to the window, extra light placed in front of it, and the barely open bedroom door. The sound of the TV is an ideal guidance tool, suggested instead of shown. This bedroom also offers the chance to see the gameplay loop closed for the first time. The Last of Us’ gameplay loop is always a variant on four themes: Exploration, Tension, Challenge, Reward, Return to Exploration. With the initial exploration started in Sarah’s room and the tension of having to find her dad, this room introduces the simplest of challenges – opening the door and following the gameplay instructions (L3) – which ends with an immediate reward of seeing the explosion in the distance. Finally, Sarah’s “Daaad?” closes the loop and makes players return to their exploration phase. Gameplay loops can express themselves over varying lengths. Second to second, minute to minute, hour to hour.
Returning to the hallway, a few classic LD rules can be seen in the same frame. The placement of the door allows players to face the staircase in the right direction, and the placement of the lamp at the bottom automatically invites players to go down. Notice its actual placement. While most times placing a light source away from a player’s immediate field of view increases its attraction, this one is placed to the right in plain sight of the player.
Once at the bottom of the stairs, the window introduces a new narrative element, in the form of police cars. Notice that the cars are driving in the same direction as the player needs to move. This is yet another good tool to guide players subconsciously. If the lamp at the bottom of the stairs had been placed to the left, and away from the player, he/she would have likely turned the camera towards it and away from the windows, negating the introduction of the police cars. That’s why this light source was better left in the player’s field of view.
Players naturally progress and now face this door to the garden, this time with a light source hidden beyond the playable space which naturally increases the mystery and tension in the scene. Just like upstairs in Joel’s bedroom with the TV, the dog barking here increases tension and attracts players forward.
Once players reach the window, Naughty Dog doesn’t fall for the cliché of having an infected appear in the garden, and plays with players expectations instead interrupting the sequence with Joel’s phone. Doing so, “L3” is introduced again this time on the player’s critical path to make sure this mechanic is understood by all players.
The placement of the phone to the right of the door is also no accident. It makes players move further away and to the other side of the living room from the office, where players are now supposed to go. This forces players to go by the garden window a second time and the use of the phone has forced the player’s immediate attention of the window to be erased. This perfect set up was necessary to create an element of surprise for the second traversal of the living room.
Narrative scene and transition A sign of truly great narrative games is the justification of every single camera takeover by placing the played character in a situation that allows for a smooth transition. Here, that’s the only reason this half open door is placed here. Since it’s already half open, like Joel’s bedroom door, there is no “triangle” interaction required. The goal of this door is to justify the exact position of Sarah in her animated entrance into the room, therefore the position of the camera, to allow for a smooth take over for the rest of the cinematic and the entrance and reveal of Joel, the very first in the game.
While the entire scene could have played out inside Joel’s office, Naughty Dog chose to have Sarah and Joel leave the office half way through, so as to cut back the length of the walk to the exit door and outside to the car. This allowed them to shave off a few seconds of otherwise boring content and make the action denser. Uncle Tommy’s introduction is pretty hectic with the rapid movements and a lot of information handed to the player, so to reinforce his presentation, Naughty Dog chose to have him turn towards the player once inside the car.
The Last of Us, as many narrative games, presents choices to the player. They come in two types, active and inactive. Active choices are generally self-explanatory and are not even presented as such in games. For instance, play style (stealth or action) influences the outcome of fights, but they can also come in the form of a single button press, which usually destroys immersion in a world, and breaks the fourth wall. Inactive choices on the other hand play with morals and psychology between players and the characters they play. Here we see the first glimpse of the troublesome relationship to come between Joel and Ellie, in the eyes of her daughter Sarah who wishes that the car had stopped to help the stranded survivors. This makes players ask themselves where they would stand, and take sides with the future protagonists.
The accident serves here as a transition and justifies leaving the car behind. The timing of that sequence is probably not purely by chance. First Naughty Dog had illustrated all the themes they could from inside the car, and second the attention span of test players was probably waning beyond that point. Notice however the subtle and progressive introduction of infected in the world. The first one, inside Joel’s office comes in when they may yet be taken for humans, and as an element of a cinematic, it offers no challenge to the player. The second, in this car sequence, attacked other survivors and when posing an immediate threat to Sarah, was stopped by Tommy driving away. The third, much closer view comes in as a direct consequence of the car crash. These three progressive introductions of the game’s main antagonist are a textbook example of exposition that allows players to fully grasp the concept of the infected before having to deal with them. Many games fail to present enemies that way, instead relying on one-shot cinematics with poorly explained antics and backstory. The fact these enemies can’t talk and explain themselves pushed Naughty Dog to work them this way into the game, to great effect.
Combat Tutorial First introduction of the « Square » button for combat. As a rule, tutorials are better introduced when players attention span can be solely directed at the mechanic in question. Here, the tension resulting from the car accident and the sight of the infected nearby focuses the player’s attention on the tutorial for maximum effectiveness. Instead of breaking the immersion of the scene, this tutorial actually flows inside it, and players never question it. Naughty Dog’s choice for minimal UI invasion on the screen really pays off here.
Chase sequence Introducing Joel for the first time as a playable character (and the main protagonist) in the middle of a stressful situation could have been a risky proposal, which Naughty Dog managed to make work by taking away all combat (automatic death if caught by infected and gun given away to Tommy). Sarah, who would have trailed behind and become a center of attention for players is reunited with her dad after getting hurt in the accident. All of these moves act as perfect justification to have players only ever care about their own character. The only action required of the player is to dodge pedestrians, which is exactly the best activity to learn to control a brand new character. The use of a car that crashes into the gas station is a bit of a cliché by now, but remains a very strong justification for sending the player to the right, and have a couple invisible walls across the other streets. It remains better than a simple static object across the street and infinitely better than nothing at all.
The firemen truck across the street serves both as justification for the fire raging in the building next door, and as a way to direct the player to the car crash about to block the street off. This second instance however occurs much closer to the player, increasing tension further, and culminating with stopping in front of the theater beyond. This “three strikes” approach to game design is rampant through most games these days, and certainly The Last of Us, for instance during the combat tutorial (three square button presses to leave the car) and is a sort of golden number first generalized by Nintendo.
The use of audio after the third street blockage is mandatory given the exit is not readily apparent within a 45 degree field of view on either side of the theater. In third person games, presenting exits within this 90 degree angle is generally considered a safe choice to have players flow, on consoles at least where the FOV is usually limited more than on PC games. For instance, this was the rule we followed when designing Prince of Persia in 2008.
In the alley and through to the other side, great use if not subtle of lighting to direct players to the left, and first use of the yellow color on all directional and interactive hints, which we’ll see later in the first level. We’ll find the same use for the ambulance down below, which strong red lights contrast easily with the night, and even the wind indicating the sense of direction. The headlights serve as guidance too of course, much like the hurt survivor on the ground.
This is the first article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three
-HP- reacted to sock for an article, Do you really want feedback?
When a developer creates something that they feel proud of, it usually involves a large amount of time, energy and emotional investment. It is not uncommon for people to pour their heart and soul into something creative and then feel overly sensitive afterwards when confronted with a stranger's opinion.
Understanding what type of feedback is being offered can help you get past defensive feelings and realize that feedback is about helping to improve something, not hinder it.
"Yeah your game is awesome!" Receiving compliments about something that you have worked on for a long period of time is great. Apart from the feel good factor, Candy feedback can also lead to other people being curious enough to want to try the game as well.
The best type of Candy feedback is when it is specific about something in the game and that is usually a good indication that the game is going in the right direction.
"Why does it work that way?" Questions are always good feedback because it is someone trying to understand why it works. This is the perfect opportunity for you to learn how to express your ideas in a way that others can easily understand. When someone initially asks a question they usually have further feedback, but they don't know how to express it yet and need more information.
Always remember there is no stupid question and answer politely because it will often lead to feedback that has been thought about over a long period of time.
"Your game sucks!" Nobody wants to hear negative comments and it can be really easy to take this the wrong way. Feedback posted in anger is about frustration and lack of understanding. You need to put on your detective cap and find out why, be polite and ask simple questions. Why? What? How?
Remember to keep your replies free of emotions and to the point, if this is someone who genuinely does not understand it will often lead to good feedback because their problem was so frustrating that it drove them to comment!
"Your game is good, but..." Usually starts with a good compliment to break the ice, quickly moves onto the feedback and then sometimes a solution to fix it! The perfect feedback is when someone has logically thought through a problem, able to explain themselves and give a possible solution.
Thinker feedback is often referred to as constructive criticism and is the easiest type of feedback to understand because the thinker is direct and to the point, they want to improve the game.
"No comment" There is nothing more frustrating than ‘no comment'; I would take a hundred angry people shouting feedback at me any day of the week than wondering why no one has made a comment.
Besides access problems (lack of login id, restrictive websites and foreign language) the lack of comments often stems from social convention that if you got nothing positive to say, then say nothing. At least a negative comment can lead to change, ‘no comment' leads to nothing.
If you are defensive and angry towards feedback eventually no one will comment and this is not where anyone wants to be. Try to engage people with questions, get people involved in the process of creation and most importantly accept all kinds of feedback without prejudice.
"This game feature is so stupid!" Fanatically feedback is ultimately positive because it can highlight really obvious problems that should be fixed. Passionate fans of games get a bad deal when compared to sports fans because they are so vocal.
Having someone engaged and wanting to be heard is the perfect starting point for a conversation and once all the feedback has been broken down into facts it can often highlight the most obvious problems that are overlooked because most developers don't think like new players.
Conclusion Feedback is something that should be embraced because it can take a game in new directions and add features that were obvious to new players. Looking past the emotion of Internet feedback will stop you from getting upset when someone is not being subtle with their thoughts. Posting stuff on the internet is about asking for feedback and expecting only good comments all of the time is naive. The best kind of feedback is pointing out things that are wrong because then your game will improve rather than just be ‘no comment'.
-HP- reacted to Froyok for an article, Technical breakdown: Assassin's Creed II
The following breakdown is based on my own guesses and how I understand the game from the textures and meshes I have watched. I can't tell you exactly if I'm right or wrong since I'm not a developer of the game. However, I believe I'm rational enough to think that most of what I say is close to what the developers have done. The purpose of this breakdown is educational and the work presented here belongs to its respective authors.
Anvil engine The Anvil Engine is a proprietary game engine used by Ubisoft's game projects for a few years now (the first game using it came out in 2007). We can call the Anvil Engine a next-gen engine since games for the previous console generation (like the Playstation 2) were using the Jade Engine at Ubisoft. The first project using this engine was the first Assassin's Creed game. Its initial engine name was Scimitar (before the release of the first game). Today, eight games are using this engine.
The engine has since been updated with Assassin's creed III under the name 'AnvilNext'. Mostly to support the new game challenges and configurations that we have today and probably to be ready with the future game consoles coming along.
Atlas and batching As with every open world and/or huge city, you have to deal with a very high number of resources. Mostly to keep the player in a fresh world and avoid repetitions. Games over the years have used various techniques to get past this problem. One of them is to reuse any resources that you have created. Creating a texture for only one object in this type of environment can be a problem in term of memory footprint. So reusing a texture will allow you to keep you memory low in size. Pretty obvious, however it's a hard balance that you have to deal with: diversity versus quantity.
The size of the memory is not the only problem that you will meet; the number of drawcalls is also very important. As a reminder, a drawcall is a call to the API (the functions of the GPU to draw a set of primitives). For each frame that you render, you have a certain number of drawcalls. Each time you call the API to draw something it takes a given time, regardless of what you want to draw. So you want to be sure to reduce these calls to avoid any loss of performance (taking too much time to draw a frame will reduce your number of frames per second).
Each time you change a mesh for a new one you will create a new drawcall, because for the engine it's not the same geometry. This rule applies for the shaders too. If you change the shader, you don't render the same thing, so you have to change the way you render it. This means a new API call.
A common solution to this is to batch your calls. 'Batching' means to group some meshes together before calling the API to draw them. This is why it takes less time to render a big mesh than multiple small meshes. How to batch these meshes if chosen by the engine, there is no best rule for this and it depends a lot of what you want to draw. In the case of the Anvil engine, you are focused on drawing large and open spaces. The best way to improve the performance in this case is probably to batch per shader. So each geometry using the same shader will be sent together to be rendered. This way, reusing textures will allow you to batch a lot of things and gain a lot of time.
So using atlas textures (multiple textures merged as one) will be a great benefit: you will reduce your memory footprint and you will use only one shader for multiple objects showing different things. Assassin's Creed II uses this system a lot for the environment and the characters. Since we evolve in cities, some houses are often similar, it is logical to find the same design multiple times. Which means that reusing a texture would not shock the player. It will even help for the visual consistency of the level. However, I believe that the engine was not perfect and due to some performance problems (maybe because of the dynamic lighting) they limited the number of textures. In Venice for example, you have an average of 1500/2000 textures in memory (including everything: sky, water, normal maps, shadows, characters and so on).
What do the textures look like exactly? In this game, textures for the walls are often around 512 x 512 pixels. Details, ornaments, water use 256 x 256 pixels most of the time. For example, the roof texture is only 256 x 256, but the tilling is so well made that it doesn't gene at all.
However, these textures being very tiny, the developers used vertex painting to blend details and break the repetition. Since there are almost no specular reflections in the game (probably to strengthen the feeling of the walls are made of bricks and dirt) the vertex painting masks are stored in the alpha channel of the diffuse texture. As you can see in the second screenshot below, the alpha mask uses very defined greyscales, probably because they separate each level of grey as a separate filter.
The textures are very bright, and we feel that in-game: the overall lighting is itself very luminous.
Levels of details Dealing with an open world means dealing with a very long view distance. Therefore, the farther you see, the more you need to draw. Unfortunately you are limited by the hardware (especially on consoles) and you will have to use some LODs (level of detail). The developers have chosen to let the LODs 'pop'; this means no blending transitions between them, which is visually ugly since you notice the change.
The environment collisions are dissociated from the visuals mesh. Probably because you can more quickly hide/disable the collisions of the environment since they are not visually displayed on the screen. This explains why forcing the LODs of the environment allows you to... climb the void!
On the PC version, you can increase the minimum distance for when the environment starts to blend (which is something like 40/50 meters if you blend at the furthest possible distance). It's also interesting to note that some props like barrels, crates and other little things are independent of the global LOD distance. It seems that some props are linked to the LOD of the building mostly because they are at the roof level, while props in the street have their own blend distance.
Characters Pedestrians in Assassin's Creed are based on modular characters. The developers use a set of heads which are combined with hands and different clothes. While the hand and heads have their own details and colours, the clothes are just a totally grey shared texture (except for the letter) and coloured in the shader to add variety in the game. They also add a detail texture to break the linearity of the clothes and bring up some fine details. Characters have also their own LODs.
During a presentation at GDC 2008 about the first Assassin's Creed, Francois Levesque (a technical director on the game) explained their pipeline to produce a lot of different characters without losing too much time. They used a base head which blends to fit to the high-res character. This way they automatically get the LOD mesh at the same time since the meshes always shared the same topology. The only update to do was for the position of the bones on the top of the vertex to keep their skin deformation.
Since meshes and UVs are similar, it's easier to manage and create a crowd dynamically. So there are maybe 5–10 different clothes and then the game dynamically creates a character to add it in the game scene. In the first Assassin's Creed, characters had 2 LODs, which meant 3 meshes per character. In Assassin's Creed II it's the same thing. However it seems that the clothes and the head don't blend at the same time. Probably because they don't have the same space occupied on the screen. So the heads go to their first LOD mesh sooner.
You can see some examples on zBrushCentral with the base mesh topology and also the topology of some bodies used by the game.
Lighting The Anvil engine is an engine developed to mostly show open environments. With the development on this second opus, they wanted to add a day-and-night cycle. To achieve this they naturally chose the cascaded shadow maps technique (more exactly, Parallel-Split Shadow Maps as described in a GameDev.net forum thread) which even today is the best way to draw a unified shadow on such big environments.
There is no Global illumination at all, it's mostly only a main directional light (the Sun) combined with an ambient colour which evolves during the day. Some interiors like the tombs present localised point lights; there are also some point lights which are enabled during the night.
However, regarding the performance, they were obliged to use a very low resolution and a blend distance. This explains why you see a lot of blurred pixels on the ground/walls for the shadow. This is also why you so clearly see the blending of the shadow from one level to another.
Some shaders use the Fresnel term to enhance the looking of the character clothes a bit, but most of the time they simply use direct lighting without complex shaders (again, because it was very expensive). There is no fake sub-surface scattering (SSS) for the characters, even during the cinematics. The SSS only comes in with Assassin's Creed: Revelations and will be improved for Assassin's Creed III.
Conclusion Assassin's Creed II was a really good improvement compared to the first game, however it looks like the engine faced a lot of new constraints which were not totally well handled. The way the LODs appear and the nice but still limited quality of the lighting are good examples of that. Even on modern computers today the game gets some slow-down in certain places.
The engine was improved for the next game iterations and increased the amount of details and the quality of its lighting to finally show beautiful cities as we can see in Assassin's Creed III today.