LATTEH 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!
LATTEH reacted to Mapcore for an article, Day of Infamy Mapping Contest
Participants have from the 15th of September 2016 until Midnight (GMT) on the 22nd of December 2016 to create, test and upload an original or Day of Defeat inspired map for Day of Infamy (www.dayofinfamy.com)
Map included officially in game
Void Surround Sound Headphones
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
(*All prizes are subject to participant eligibility. No cash value. The contest Organizers and Sponsors reserve the right to change or remove the prize structure at any point with or without reason.)
In addition to the prizes stated above, GameBanana will also be offering a sub-prize for the best development blog, work in progress or tutorial created throughout the process.
This is an entirely optional part of the contest and is open to members of all communities.
To enter simply create either a development blog / work in progress page OR a level design tutorial / guide for Day of Infamy on either GameBanana, MapCore or the Insurgency Forums.
Entries must be uploaded on or before Midnight (GMT) on the 22nd of December 2016, and include “[DoI Contest]” in the title. Entries will be judged by members of the GameBanana team, as they appeared at the deadline.. No changes or updates are permitted during the judging phase.
Rules and Frequently asks Questions
The submission must be a playable map for the PC version of Day of Infamy.
Remakes of existing maps are not allowed, however maps inspired by classic DoD maps are encouraged.
Entries must be submitted to the Day of Infamy mapping contest section of BOTH GameBanana.com and the Steam Workshop before the deadline.
Multiple entries are permitted, however submissions will be judged on individual quality rather than quantity.
Team based entries are permitted, however the entrants will have to agree how to split any prizes awarded, prior to prize claim and dispatch.
It is essential to thoroughly test your submission before the deadline as entries cannot be modified during the judging phase.
Exceptions: Changes to the submission profile are permitted after the deadline, provided they are purely aesthetic and that the map file does not change. (E.g. Editing the description / screenshots)
Maps that were under creation prior to the announcement of this contest can be entered, provided a completed version has not been released for public Download.
All custom textures, models or code must be contained within the download file or embedded into the .bsp.
Authors are free to share their content on any other websites or services they wish, however the file must remain free to download and play, without requiring membership or payment.
If the submission is distributed on an external website or service, it must clearly state that the submission was created for the "GameBanana / MapCore Day of Infamy Mapping Contest 2016”.
Authors must be able to accept cash payments via paypal and will be required to fill in a prize claim form prior to payment. Winners of hardware and physical products will also be required to provide a valid shipping address.
Judges and individuals associated with organising this contest cannot enter or assist entrants.
Entries must clearly state which game mode the level is designed for.
Participant eligibility: The “GameBanana / MapCore Day of Infamy Mapping Contest 2016” is open to any individual, or teams of individuals, provided they comply with the following:
Participants may not be an employee of the “Organiser” or “Sponsors”.
Participants may not have taken part in the preparation or announcement of this
Participants may not be a direct relative, spouse, direct employee, or long term
partner of any of the above definitions (a - c).
Legal Age: This contest is open to any individual who meet the above “participant eligibility” criteria. In the event of participant who has not reached the legal age in his/her state winning one or more prizes defined below, he/she must provide contact details for the legal guardian who will claim the prize(s).
TWO (2) copies of the map are required for this contest, and must be uploaded on or before the deadline. The primary version (used for judging) must be submitted to GameBanana.com and placed in the “Day of Infamy > Mapping Contest 2016” category.
The second version must be uploaded to the Day of Infamy Steam Workshop
No changes to the downloadable file can be made during the judging phase. Please remember to ensure that all relevant custom content is included, and that your map is thoroughly tested.
Maps will be judged by the developers at New World along with the staff at MapCore and GameBanana. Each map will be scored on the following categories, and given a total score out of 100.
Gameplay (40 marks)
Visuals (30 marks)
Originality (15 marks)
Performance / Optimization (15 marks)
LATTEH reacted to FMPONE for an article, 2014: MapCore's Year in Review
Overview of 2014's articles We published a ton of high-quality, original content in 2014. Take a look — you might spot something you missed!
Interview with Mateusz 'seir' Piaskiewicz, Techland Senior Level Artist
Interview with Rosin 'kikette' Geoffrey, Arkane Studios Environment Artist
Deus Ex: Human Revolution scene interview with KNJ
Virtual Reality: The Final Platform
Interview with Francois 'Furyo' Roughol, BioShock Infinite Level Designer
Interview with Thibault 'dkm' Courbet, Wolfenstein: The New Order Level Designer
Interview with Lenz 'penE' Monath, Environment and Lighting/VFX Artist
Interview with Thiago 'Minos' Klafke, Blizzard Environment Artist
Interview with Paul 'PaulH' Haynes, Homefront: The Revolution Senior Level Designer
Korath: The Witcher Saga scene interview? with Krzysztof 'Tepcio' Teper
Level Design in The Last of Us: Part One, Part Two, Part Three
13,500+ reads (all parts)
Contests and challenges Even better, MapCore continues to thrive as a close-knit community. We collaborated, playtested one another's work, and inspired eachother. Thanks to RZL for his great work organizing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive playtests. SpronyvanJohnson also did a great job organizing MapCore contests, where users pushed themselves to improve their skill set.
We had a fantastic contest and two thrilling challenges, all of which received unprecedented levels of support and engagement. You can relive the action here:
Quake 3 15th Anniversary Contest
CS:GO Sticks Mini Texturing Challenge
New logo and branding For the first time since the forums were established in 2003, 2014 saw the introduction of professional-grade branding, which was brought to life by our very own Arthur de Padua (AKA Thurnip), including a wonderful new logo! We also set up a small store for those wishing to spread the wonder of MapCore throughout the world, complete with Arthur's beautiful new designs, and we'll be updating the store with even more new products based on your feedback very soon!
New logo and branding by Thurnip
Babies! MapCore kids were also born in 2014! ...God help us all. A huge congratulations to Skjalg and SpronyvanJohnson for their ultimate creative projects: bringing new life into the world. If we missed anyone, let us know in the comments so we can add you!
By 2-D Chris
Employment As a community, MapCore has always been a mixture of veteran game developers, aspiring amateurs, and plain ol' gamers. One of the best parts about that mixture of experience-levels is when one of our members gets an awesome new job within the industry. In 2014, we got a LOT of great news on that front.
Martin "Sentura" Colith - Level Designer at IO Interactive (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Al "Intelect0" Anselmo - QA Tester at Top Free Games (Sao Paulo, Brazil)
Lenz "penE" Monath - Environment Artist at Yager (Berlin, Germany)
Oskmos - FX Artist at DICE (Stockholm, Sweden)
Morten "Mazy"Hedegren - Game Designer at Brain+ (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Skjalg "Skjalg" Sturlasson Maehre - Programmer at Megapop Games (Drammen, Norway)
mr.P - Senior World Designer at Avalanche Studios (NYC, NY, USA)
Pete_H - Game Designer at Gameloft (Barcelona, Spain)
Jobye-Kyle "deceiver" Karmaker - Level Artist at Ubisoft Toronto (Canada)
Alex "AlexM" McGilvray - Build/Tools Engineer at United Front Games (Vancouver, Canada)
Alexander "Taylor" Taylor - Game Designer at Space Ape (London, England)
Kacper "knj" Niepokólczycki - Environment Artist at CD Projekt Red (Krakow, Poland)
John "Ginger Lord" Crewe - Senior Technical Designer at Cloud Imperium Games (Manchester, England)
Paul "PaulH" Haynes - Senior Level Designer at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios (Nottingham, England)
Toni "SotaPoika" Seppänen - Junior Level designer at Next Games (Helsinki, Finland)
Austin "Setin" House - Designer at Escalation Studios (Dallas, Tx, USA)
Richard "KoKo5oVaR" Malinar - Environment Artist at Krysalide (Lyon, France)
Mateusz "seir" Piaskiewicz - Designer at Treyarch (Santa Monica, California, USA)
Jason "General Vivi" Mojica - Senior Level Designer at Overkill Software (Stockholm, Sweden)
Will "Vilham" Josephy - Senior Level Designer at Cloud Imperium Games/Foundry 42 (Manchester, England)
Chris "2d-chris" Kay - Senior Level Designer at Epic Games (Cary, NC, USA)
Liam "PogoP" Tart - Environment Artist at The Creative Assembly (Horsham, England)
Matthew "bawwwcas" Barcas - Level Designer at Pure F.P.S. (Los Angeles, California, USA)
Francois "Furyo" Roughol - Senior Mission Designer at Sucker Punch Productions (Bellevue, Wa, USA
Friedrich "FrieChamp" Bode - Level Designer at Goodgame Studios (Hamburg, Germany)
Our members' success rate at having their content (gun skins, maps) added into Counter-Strike: Global Offensive also continued to be astronomical.
Wrap-up At the end of the day though, MapCore has always been about one thing: sharing work in progress, receiving feedback, and learning from one another. In 2014, MapCore's WIP threads buzzed with life and activity, and our 2D and 3D forums were a goldmine of beautiful work, interesting ideas and fun experimentation.
Our community is working better than ever, and 2015 should mark even further progress in the growth of this awesome forum.
SpronyvanJohnson's map given feedback in the form of an overpaint by Seir
LATTEH reacted to Furyo for an article, Level Design in The Last of Us: Part Three
This is the third article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three
Combat tutorial The entire space for this first combat against humans is built to be an action tutorial. With no elevation changes in the space, and the single red tone of textures, this is the simplest arena one could design, which foreshadows a quick and easy fight. Notice the number of crates and cover objects on the ground, and their geometrical position. Clear “camps” are established on either side. Both NPCs are scripted only to move left and right, never to flank Joel, which leaves players with plenty of time to assess the situation. This space is built to encourage players to flank these NPCS to the left (Tess crouches to the right of the player). Another visual cue used to great effect here are the electricity lines, that circle over the space. They make the space feel tighter, and add a loop that mirrors the path down below.
One also finds all three distinctive signs of a fight being over in action games: Tess stands and starts walking again (her AI state changes from InCombat to Normal), she starts a conversation with Joel and the combat music ends. In terms of scripting, these three signs are tested against the state of all spawned enemies (in this case, whether they’re alive).
At the end of the passage under the arch, another instance of the “boost and pull” move, once again the only gate short of an actual door that can be used in this game. Right after this, a typical example of an “S” shaped corridor. Historically found everywhere in FPS games a decade ago, they’re still used in today’s non open-world games as occluders and loading corridors between two heavy areas. And what occludes one way works in multiplayer too, you’ll find them in many MP FPS levels (Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, etc.) to break lines of sight and separate large areas to obtain the highest frames per second.
As a side note, and something you may have noticed all along these levels, the environment artist broke up the monotony of this flat wall by making an entrance to a courtyard, to the left of this corridor. You could for instance find this same addition of depth inside the transition building in part 2 where players first learn how to heal themselves.
As a side note, one of very few bugs in The Last of Us can be seen here, as the shader for the gameplay helpers is rendered through walls (normal behavior) but also over Joel's head.
After dropping through the hole in the fence – another typical Naughty Dog gating mechanism - a new cinematic starts as players enter the combat arena. Enemies are now scripted much more freely, with their back to the player to enforce a stealth approach. The shape of the combat space itself is built to allow NPCs to move in long straight ways. The left hand side’s purpose is actually solely for this NPC to go there and allow for more movement in stealth (added difficulty) over the initial takedown against the infected in part 2. Tess continues to help kill two of the four enemies, as long as players play by the rules of this tutorial. Both signs above the doors to the building are once again not placed here by chance; the green one indicating the ideal path inside, and the red one a sure way to get spotted. And with both signs having these warm colors, the rest of the building wears a very cold blue to make the signs much more noticeable.
This second combat also introduces dialogues between characters. Beyond their initial role as threat identification and background information, these conversations also serve as cues that NPCs are likely to change their patrol path once done. It’s therefore important to design these dialogues so they are not ambiguous when they stop.
As with the gate to the previous occluding corridor, this space also features a strong light to indicate the exit. We’ll see the same light used in all four of these combat tutorials each time to direct the player to the exit of the arena. While this doesn’t seem too necessary in these instances, players’ orientation is often confused when leaving nonlinear spaces in which they were dedicating their attention to the action rather than the environment. These help players getting their bearings again. And now that doors are used in combat spaces - wide open not to collide with players or NPCs fighting - , they’re also textured in strong warm colors to be seen better. Doors in exploration spaces in this game never bear these colors.
For this third and final tutorial combat (once again, magical game design number 3 shows up), Tess stops helping in any way other than shooting if the combat gets to that but a new mechanic is presented that offsets Tess. Joel can now pick up objects to create a diversion, essentially what Tess was doing before although she can’t be seen by NPCs. That’s a great way to progressively increase difficulty while not changing enemy type (all humans). The distance between the safe area players start in and the first threat is made longer to increase difficulty too and the same background info is given by NPCs to locate them with the help of the conveniently placed window. The orientation of the starting piece of cover also indicates the sense of direction of the upcoming fight, and where the exit will be located.
A sign of a space specifically designed for a fight is to open up multiple entry points to each zone. Here this staircase lost its railings to allow players to go over to the second floor. A simpler exploration area would most likely not have this, and in some cases would have been worse for it if it did as player exposition requires certain camera shots. Here the game moves away from being purely about exploration and makes players evolve on a two-floor loop, gated to a coop move with Tess. Many fights in this game are optional, but this isn’t one of them and the space reflects it.
As a final reward to completing all combat tutorials, Joel is rewarded with finding his very first shiv, while still inside the combat space. The shiv, much like the first aid kit tutorial (see part 2) is forced to the player as its effect is as straightforward as its game mechanics are complex (upgrades, use). Here the elevation, on top of increasing the difficulty of the fight, also serves to create side exploration spaces. Notice the color of the handrails that add a lot of depth to this scene and help players focus on one of the purposes of this tutorial: elevation.
The final combat is the fourth human encounter, second unassisted combat, and first active choice on the part of the player between “stealth” and “action”. This choice is actually shown on screen and justified by Tess’s dialogue. This fight is simply a summary, taken to the next scale, of every theme explored in combat tutorials seen this far: navigation, object interaction, enemies visibility cone, player noise and elevation (or lack thereof in this case). The choice of color palette reinforces these options, with the cold colors used on the left for a stealthier approach, and the warm yellow tones used with the sun on the right hand side to show danger and action. The right hand side approach also contains more immediate rewards (weapons) for having been bolder.
Robert being another human, there was no reason to turn him into a boss. But as Naughty Dog also needed to carry the scenario forward, it made sense to turn this fight into a chase sequence. For the same reason as Joel and Sarah move away from Joel’s office in the prologue, here the chase sequence allows to introduce Marlene much more dynamically and not have her simply appear in the middle of the previous combat space. That latter solution can usually be seen with less important characters, usually from the same faction, as waves of reinforcement.
The calm before the storm This marks the end of the tutorial section of the intro levels. A few more mechanics will be introduced all along the game (enemies, weapons, upgrades) but the vast majority of the systems has already been presented by now. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the spoils: right after the cinematic ends, Joel is presented with both bandings and blades – the resources needed to create shivs - in two distinct locations separated by the first vista in the game, itself to be considered a narrative reward for having completed the first chapter, as well as an introduction of the destination ahead.
As Joel progresses through to Ellie, and the tutorials are now all gone, combat spaces become larger, with much longer lines of sight, introducing the many challenges ahead and giving the game its true scale. The next "co-op" take down between Joel and Marlene pushes this type of gameplay another step further by hiding one of the two enemies to kill inside the building, which shows that the gameplay itself will also take place over longer distances, not just the locations.
Another sign of the hands free design for the rest of the game, the first puzzle players encounter shows no hints at all. After another dialogue corridor designed to present Joel and Ellie’s early relationship, Tess joins them again and the adventure starts. Have fun with the rest of the game!
Thank you for reading this detailed level design analysis of the intro section of The Last of Us. For any additional question, or to discuss this further, feel free to contact me through LinkedIn.
This is the third article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three
LATTEH reacted to Furyo for an article, Level Design in The Last of Us: Part Two
This is the second article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three
First Level The intro cinematic here serves two purposes: Introducing Tess and her relationship with Joel, and giving players a goal for the upcoming level. With that done, it’s not necessary to give players other intermediate goals along the way.
Follow Mission Following an NPC is an excellent, tried and true means to expose players to a completely new world to discover. Tess plays the role of a learning tool, and it’s precisely once players have learned enough about survival in the game that she dies and leaves room for the new relationship between Ellie and Joel to grow. This is an absolute classic process - death aside - used in a great many third person games from Uncharted to Prince of Persia, Enslaved and many others. FPS games also use this technique, but to a lesser degree as following an NPC in first person is often a much more arduous task. Half-Life 2 famously used Alix Vance that way, mostly in non-combat spaces. More recently, BioShock Infinite also followed the same model but made the entire game about that NPC.
Once outside, players are immediately presented with a good combination of narrative and level design. Tess mentions the curfew that will hit in a few hours, while in the same frame, players can see once again in yellow, the sign that mentions the curfew hours. Attention to small details like that is what will make an entire world more believable. The use of red and white bricks for these buildings adds contrast and depth to this scene, and with Tess going around the corner, helps imagining the path forward.
Messages painted across walls is as fundamental a narrative design technique as any, but great games will make use of them sparingly, and at the very least won’t reuse the same message more than once per section, so as not to destroy the immersion they’re designed to create. It’s the same thing for talking NPCs, designed for very specific situations, so their speech doesn’t get repeated.
During this entire level Tess keeps waiting for the player by staying idle on a few of the nodes on her scripted path. This is of course so she can keep being the player’s guide. Notice here however that the implementation of that system is just the bare minimum expected in today’s games. In reality, follow missions are few and far between in this game, as NPCs usually trail behind the player in non-scripted ways. In a game where the NPC is as essential as BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth would have stopped her scripted movement, retraced back her steps to the player (or been teleported behind him) only to resume her script from there. This is a good example of the limitations borne from early creative decisions that dictate the systems developed for the game. It’s entirely normal, but something to be conscious of when creating levels.
Following on to the main street, where a scripted camera takes over and introduces the new playable zone. This sort of introduction is a dead giveaway of a Naughty Dog game, and is most useful in locking the player in place while the army vehicle passes left, preventing the player from reaching the far end gate and exiting the playable area. With the camera locked in this way, the vehicle may very well simply disappear once passed.
Arriving in a large area is often a good occasion to introduce more exposition scenes, and in this case two well-constructed ones. Right in front of the player as he arrives, the first scene presents survivors waiting for their weekly ration in a line, behind fences. The fences here work great with the theme of a post-apocalyptic world, but the wall they form is absolutely necessary in scenes like this to limit player interaction and bugs. We find the exact same use of containment barriers in the scene that follows, with the extra touch of the military personnel pushing then killing Joel if players venture too far. Inside closed spaces, most games generally use windows, which we’ll see in The Last of Us later.
The arrival at the checkpoint is a textbook example of how to center player attention with a dynamic element. On this crossroad, the first semi open area in the game, players may very well be tempted to go either way, but the arrival of the armored vehicle against the player’s direction, the closure of the gates, Tess's placement near the checkpoint and the yellow sign above all point the player effortlessly to the left instead. Naughty Dog manages to seemingly open the game much wider, while remaining in a narrow exposition corridor.
Another textbook example, and a difficult one to achieve, the quick return tutorial. The narrative scene that introduces it is meaningful as it introduces the Fireflies for the first time in the game, but it also pits the player right against a fence in a position of danger. Just like in the combat tutorial, the necessity to move away from this fight makes it ok to block player controls and require a specific command. Players rarely question this.
As a side note, some of you will have noticed that the main street had not been gated yet in the game, and Naughty Dog made sure it was by adding this little scene of police blocking the street.
When addressing player accessibility and teaching, it's important to make the distinction between the two learning models players can be separated in. The first type, Explorative Exposition, describes players who learn by doing; while the second type Experimentation Exposition describes players who by fear of failing expect to have a maximum amount of information given to them before they try. Designing tutorials for these two types of players is very hard, since their learning methods are diametrically opposed.
Naughty Dog chose here to address both types by designing tutorials for either type and alternate between them. The more complex tutorials, those that either require a huge amount of information given, like weapons for instance (see The Shiv in part 3) or would demand a very expensive and convoluted setting (like this health kit) are designed for the second type of players, stopping the game and giving them everything they need to know before experimenting. The intention of showing the time it takes to heal is well convened here. And to make sure the player actually sees this most important item, Tess gives it away instead of having it placed on a nearby table. Perfect introduction of the mechanic and it reinforces their relationship as no one else would ever have given this for free to Joel.
As much as accessibility is often separated in three stages (exposition as seen above, validation and challenge), players often find these cobbled together. The second stage for instance is largely unnecessary when designing for a core audience that is already very used to these game mechanics and gamepad controls.
Follow a few textbook examples of light placement inside this exposition corridor, with inviting diffused lighting that propel Joel forward. At the end of this sequence, we find the first of many trademark moves by Naughty Dog when Joel jumps down a hole. This kind of transition keeps showing up in Naughty Dog almost invariably to transition into a cinematic mid jump (we’ll see that later in the second combat) or to be used as a loading screen to the next level. It also helps segmenting big levels into smaller pieces where NPCs won’t travel large distances back and forth, limiting bugs.
On the other end of that tunnel comes the first introduction of the “vault over” move, which will be reintroduced at a later point as well. All move tutorials in Naughty Dog games are introduced a number of times in slightly different combinations so players learn by doing more than once. It’s rare enough in games to notice how good they got at it; in reality this entire level is a mixed sequence of tutorials.
Immediately after this “vault over” move, Joel is presented with his first “safe zone” to pick up his weapons. In the rest of the game, this workbench will allow him to upgrade his weapons. The more interesting part is the left hand side “boost and pull” move, which uses very strong warm colors. Once again the use of the yellow signifies interactivity/where to go. All third person games like Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Prince of Persia, etc. use specific colors on their palette to orient the player, particularly at the start of a platforming sequence. The move itself is gated to players having picked Joel’s backpack on the workbench, and the combination of both tutorials in the same room is not by chance, it’s the only move in Joel’s arsenal that can be disabled given it uses a prop and an NPC.
We’ve already seen “jumping in a black hole” as a gate, and lifting this door here is just another example of subtle gating mechanisms used to unload the previous part of a level and load the rest dynamically, so as not to require loading screens, or the strict minimum. It’s now so standard that we’ll soon forget it’s a rather recent addition to the arsenal of level designers, created when dynamic loading became possible with PCs and consoles becoming more powerful.
This leads us into the first puzzle space in the game. Notice the multiple ways to leave this interior space, including the first crouch position to the right. We’ll see the move introduced on the critical path afterwards, but it’s not unusual for Naughty Dog to include such moves before their tutorials are introduced. A few hints give us the direction the player should head in. First the busted up ground is a good tool to shape the ground in the general direction of the gameplay, and make the space visually more interesting (less flat) and more interactive with the player needing to repeat the “vault over” move to get out. Another tool is the direction the crows fly in when leaving the hood of the car. Finally, the red bricks and vines uniformly applied everywhere is a giveaway that the exit is not necessarily straight forward.
Notice the rug over the destroyed wall, accenting the solution to this first puzzle. This tutorial is a great example of puzzle design, where the problem needs to be presented front and center, so that the discovery of the solution leads to a minimal amount of attempts once found. Portal is the most recent game to have perfectly followed that credo. Of course, this is here simplified to its core essence, but the same principle follows in the rest of the "ladder-based" puzzles. A sign that you have a great game mechanic on your hands is the ability to design variants of the same puzzle throughout the entire game. It means it's a deep enough mechanic, and not a gimmick.
After picking up the ladder, Joel enters the very first exploration space where he will be able to pick up game resources. Seen as this type of loot is what the entire game economy is based on, it makes sense to present them exactly in the opposite way to the narrative elements of the rest of the intro. Meaning shrouded in darkness when important narrative beats were placed in brightly lit areas. The lighting in this area is worked so the cabinets are mysterious, so that adventurous players learn this classic challenge-reward combination.
After reaching there and turning around, players can then notice glimmering the very first Firefly Pendant located in the room beyond, with a nice Firefly symbol placed on the wall as a final hint. The placement of that desk in this room is studied to allow that to happen. You can safely assume that this is the easiest of all Firefly Pendants. Having presented the first resources and the first collectible separately is a good move to make sure players understand their different role.
Jumping down (once again, a gate), Joel enters the first spore-infected area in the game. Tess is once again used as justification, by stopping Joel and putting her mask on. Players immediately understand the nature of the threat and that they won’t ever have to put the mask on themselves. The change in lighting and visibility also preface the incoming danger, immediately shown in a safe situation moments after hitting the spores. The relationship between the spores and dead body are made perfectly clear, and this example of narrative design through environment art is perfectly paced.
Just like the doors to Joel’s office in the prologue, here is a great example of using interactive objects to place the character in a specific situation and justify the camera transition to a cinematic. The plank, with its forced interaction, is only here to make players notice you can go through the door by squeezing through. In fact, even the dialogue is designed with that n mind. Once in this position, the camera is entirely scripted. One should always expect a narrative element on the other side of that type of sequence, particularly when entering a brand new space. Using this type of contrived cinematic moves has become a main fixture in Sony titles, noticeably in God of War and Uncharted, and in competing titles such as Tomb Raider. BioShock actually was one of the early titles that always tried to justify camera placements. These sequences also sometimes serve to limit the speed of movement of the player, particularly to help loading times in and out of expensive areas. But there are sometimes ways to include these delays in gameplay itself. For instance some of Elizabeth’s lockpick animations were gated to the loading of the area beyond the gate she had to open. In these cases, conversations between her and Booker would also be timed to the necessary delay.
Once clearing this filing cabinet, a perfect camera takeover to introduce the shooting tutorial. A conveniently placed hurt human (still target) offers the chance for a quick headshot if camera is left untouched. Nearby the ammunition pickup ends this gameplay loop and makes most players come out on top ammo wise. It also offers the game’s first active choice, as are all combats in this game (choice of resources and sometimes tactics). Notice right after this encounter the use of dialogue to justify the next camera takeover and introduce the first combat against infected. The piece of wood falls down just as Tess speaks up, while Joel indicates the need to remain silent. It’s as dynamic an introduction as one can make it and flows superbly.
Please notice the placement of these infected. Them being tutorials, it’s only logical that they are as scripted as they are. The first one plays to the stealth nature of the combat, reinforced by the action and placement of the two other infected. As you can see above on the first floor, they actually are a landmark for players to orient themselves. Most landmarks are used as large objects in the background of a scene, for instance Half-Life 2’s citadel in City 17’s skyline, and in the case of The Last of Us, the hospital Joel and Ellie reach towards the end of the game plays exactly that role, but in tight corridors and encounters, level designers can reverse engineer an NPC as the landmark, and plan their geometry around. In this case carving up the floor just so the infected can be seen below. Near this location, on the bottom floor and the top floor, two exploration spaces that make good use of this gameplay loop (challenge-reward) offering loot just after clearing the combat.
Once again outside, this seemingly uninteresting transition area between the combat tutorial and the upcoming puzzle is made interesting by the basketball hoop that provides a clear sense of direction to the immediate space, and the busted up concrete perpendicular to the court adds a layer of depth to an otherwise flat surface. Notice once again the color yellow used in Mel’s Home Hardware store sign, and its placement over the exit.
Next up is the second "ladder-based" puzzle space that follows the basic rules of great puzzle design. First the exit is presented to the player in the same frame as the problem, and the solution once found (“aha! moment”) only takes one try to complete. Notice how the blue tarp provides a good visual clue in this tutorial as to where the solution is, just like the rug in the first case.
Leaving the puzzle area that shows that the best game mechanics can be used in multiple variations, the same yellow color is brought by lighting through the window. Around the corner, a little reminder about exploration, with a health pickup dropped on the far end of the ladder.
Down yet another gate and Joel now follows Tess through a back alley. This otherwise uneventful place sees the addition of yet another reminder of the “vault over” tutorial, as another way to require a button press from the player and keep him/her engaged. This however no longer requires the UI indication on screen.
Just around the corner lies the second Firefly Pendant. “Hidden in plain sight” is a good way to introduce a second collectible, after having given the first one essentially for free. This one perched in the trees, and the puzzle before it tease the elevation changes of gameplay taught in the subsequent combats. You’ll notice the LD work that went in creating the blockage under which Joel must crawl, which reveals through its branches the glimmering Firefly Pendant.
Forcing the player to continue through a building serves multiple purposes. The first, and smallest is it helps justify the placement of gun ammo on the table, as opposed to having it just lying there on the streets. The second, the door that Joel closes behind him, is yet another gate for the upcoming NPC – heavy survivors camp, which can even be loaded during the third and final purpose, introducing a small child in a narrative sequence with Tess. These windows here give just the right amount of light in and allow the heavy contrast between the two areas to have the animation read a lot better. This room could have been there simply for optimization purposes, but Naughty Dog managed to turn it into a whole lot more.
The survivors’ camp is another gameplay loop closing in on itself. After the initial exploration and learning came the tension of the spores and the challenges of the first fight and puzzle, the camp is a narrative reward for having made it this far, and a chance to pick up another two collectibles. However as it’s not the end goal of the level, tension should still be a constant theme, hence the more and more violent scenes one after the other, that also introduce the upcoming fight with humans. Notice the little girl playing with her stuffed bear in the far corner. She and the little boy earlier are nice ways to feature children in action games where rules dictate that no human child should ever be killed on screen. Emphasis on human; children that do get hurt are often already dead, possessed or otherwise sick (School bus in Prey, Little Sisters in BioShock, etc.)
This is the second article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three
LATTEH 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
LATTEH 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.