Zarsky 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!
Zarsky reacted to Alf-Life for an article, Creative Airlocking: streaming in action games
Creative Airlocking: streaming in action games
This article will discuss the loading and unloading of areas in linear single-player action titles, and look at contemporary examples of how the best games mask these so they appear seamless.
When designing levels, Level Designers and Environment Artists must consider that their assets all have to fit within memory at once. While older action games like Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom would load the entire level with a Loading Screen at the start of each map, games like Half-Life started a trend of loading smaller sections gradually so they could squeeze in more detail and also provide a more seamless experience for players, making the game feel like one long adventure.
At the time, going from one space to the next in Half-Life resulted in a seconds-long hitch with the word “Loading” on screen. There was no warning that it was going to happen, although Valve’s Level Designers oftenplaced these level transitions in smart places; usually down-time between combat and in a natural chokepoint. In later years, with faster computers, these load times decreased and are now almost seamless.
Half-Life displays a small loading message when transitioning between levels.
Currently, blockbuster series like Gears of War and Uncharted provide truly seamless transitions. After one long initial load for a new chapter with a completely new location (with new art) – sometimes masked behind a pre-rendered movie – “buffer” Streaming Sections are used, in which the previous area is unloaded, and the next loaded, on the fly. Since a lot of the globally-used entities are already loaded, and the environment is usually the same, assets can be shared, which can reduce these transition load times to much less than the initial level load.
Essentially, these games take the smaller loading bar/screen of a more continuously-laid-out game like Half-Life, Portal 2 or Fallout 4 and make the player spend that time in the game world. If done creatively, players won’t even notice it. They might even enjoy the down-time if it’s well-paced, like The Last of Us where it can be spent on a thought-provoking puzzle or with the characters discussing something interesting.
Most action games budget out large areas, and then connect those with these smaller Streaming Sections.
Section (A) is a huge space with lots of combat, Section (C) is another. Players in Streaming Section (B) can’t see into both (A) and (C) at once. Section (B) is where Section (A) is dropped from memory and (C) starts to load in. Section (A) being dropped shouldn’t happen in view of the player, and unless the game supports backtracking it is wise to place a back-gate to stop players returning, for maximum efficiency. As soon as Section (A) has been dropped, Section (C) can start loading in. It must have been loaded by the time the player exits Section (B), so it is also wise to front-gate players in case they rush through.
The best way to think of a Streaming Section is as an airlock; the “door” behind the player is locked, the next area is loaded, and the “door” ahead opens. Ideally, these sections aren’t literal airlocks but instead nicely-disguised puzzles or narrative spaces between the action.
Back-gating, and Unloading
Back-gating, as the term suggests, is when the player is prevented from returning to a previous area. The ‘gate’ behind them is closed, in a lot of cases locked. This doesn’t have to be a literal gate or door, though. A ceiling can collapse causing debris to block the path behind the player, the player can fall through the floor and not be able to climb back up, they can pass through a one-way portal and not get back.
Back-gating after entering the Streaming Section is usually done around a corner where the player can’t see Section (A) being unloaded.
One-way animations are the main manifestation of these in modern action titles. Think of how many doorways your player character has held open, only to have it collapse behind them. The level section behind that door is now being unloaded, to make space in memory for the next large section. In co-op games, these animated interactions are a great way to bring players back together so that Player 2 isn’t left behind, only to fall through the world, in the section that is just about to be unloaded!
The Last of Us has a huge variety of bespoke, painstakingly-animated back-gates.
A cut-scene can also serve as a good back-gate, as long as it makes sense in the context and/or story so as to not feel tacked on, and is within development budget!
One-way drop-downs are also a great and less flow-breaking back-gate. If the L-shaped area just before the drop-down can be kept in memory, as soon as the player drops down a ledge they can never climb back up, the previous area can be unloaded. The only down-sides to this softer back-gate are that they can feel contrived unless the game’s art and world can support it (terrain and collapsed structures are great for this), and that co-op players may have to be teleported to the dropping player so that they don’t fall through the world when Section (A) is unloaded.
Slowing the player down, and Loading
As Streaming Sections are usually connectors between two larger areas, they naturally make for slower-paced breaks in the action. Since Section (C) is being loaded in, slowing the player down in (B) – either literally as with Gears of War’s infamous forced walks or cerebrally with light puzzle gameplay – can be more efficient and interesting than just making a large footprint which has to cater for a player, say, sprinting for 30 seconds.
Even when rushed, this plank puzzle in The Last of Us takes time and offers a nice respite.
“Popcorn” encounters with just 1-2 enemies can be a good trick to allow loading to finish and slow players down and prevent them from simply rushing through a short Streaming Section. They also keep players on their toes and vary the flow from, for example, combat to puzzle to combat.
Interactive Objects such as the slow-turning valves in Killzone 2 and the Gears of War games can also buy some loading time, as can environmental obstacles such as jumps or mantles or animations where the player’s buddy looks around for, and then finds, a ladder to kick down for the player to climb (also a good front-gate).
Interactions like the valve in Gears of War slows players down and can also act as a front-gate.
These approaches can also be combined in ways that fit the feel of the game, such as a Grub locking the player in a room and flooding it with frightening enemies in the first Gears of War game.
Batman Arkham Asylum does a great job with additional ‘softer’ methods of slowing players down by playing a captivating well-acted taunt on a monitor from The Joker, or by encouraging exploration with The Riddler’s location-specific riddles or any number of collectibles.
Front-gating, and Loaded
As with Back-gates, front-gates are quite self-explanatory – the exit to the area the player is currently in is locked until certain conditions, such as all the enemies in the room being dead or the next area having loaded in, are met. Again, this doesn’t have to be a literal gate or door, just an obstacle in the world that can change its state from closed and locked to open.
A lot of games from the Call of Duty series to Killzone 2 to The Last of Us extensively use friendly characters to unblock a front-gate; chain-link fences are cut through, doors are kicked open, wooden beams are lifted. New waves of enemies can also open a front-gate for the player and offer the bonus in that noisy, gun-firing AI attract players, like carrots on a stick, to the newly-opened exit. Many action games have excellent examples of enemies blow-torching open a door to get in or a huge monster bursting in through a wall; not only are these cool enemy entrances, but oftentimes their new unorthodox entrance-ways become cool exits, sign-posted by their un-gating event.
Previously-locked doors in Halo often flash and make noise when opened by new enemies.
Not all games front-gate the exits of their Streaming Sections because the time needed to load a Section (C) can usually be accurately gauged, and the acceptable fallback is a slight hitch. However, front-gates do provide that extra failsafe to ensure the next area is loaded before leaving a Streaming Section – in this case, a player with a scratched disk or corrupted file could see out of the world, at best, or get stuck or fall out of the world, at worst (though it could be argued someone with a scratch or corrupted files might see worse issues regardless).
The biggest issue here is that front-gates need to fit the game or the level art – neat doorways or bottlenecks aren’t always possible. The other big issue is repetition; if a specific door interaction animation is always used, the game needs to provide a lot of variety in that animation!
One trick that can be used to alleviate repetition, however, is if the front-gate is out of sight near the end of the Streaming Section (A). A check can be done to see if Section (C) has loaded, and if it has, the door can potentially be pre-opened saving the player another potentially-repetitive interaction but also holding as a true front-gate if a player does rush through.
Batman Arkham Asylum had an interesting front-gate in the penitentiary sections; a security camera scanned Batman once before opening the door. Given the backtracking-heavy structure of the game, when racing through at full pelt, if the next area had not finished loading, the camera would loop the camera’s scanning animation. This is a great compromise because the camera scan completely fits the fiction of the world, and an extra scan animation would probably go unnoticed by many players.
Batman Arkham Asylum’s Penitentiary’s doors only open when loading is complete.
In most linear action games, keeping the player immersed in the world is preferable to seeing a loading screen. If developers can create interesting activities, take advantage of slower pacing through narrative, or just make smart use of assets and an interesting space to traverse, Streaming Sections can be part of the world and not feel like generic winding corridors that stand out even to uninitiated players as padding.
Copyright © Martin 'Alf-Life' Badowsky 2016
Zarsky reacted to Rick_D for an article, Making Agency, the popular CS:GO map
What is Agency?
Just in case you have never heard of Counter Strike: Global Offensive, it's a hugely popular online FPS, successor to Counter Strike: Source and the original Counter Strike. The original came out in 1999 and the core gameplay has remained almost unchanged. Players are split into two teams and challenge each other in various game modes such as Bomb Defusal (one team has to plant and detonate the bomb while the other tries to stop them) and Hostage Rescue (one team must rescue the hostages whilst the other attempts to prevent that). The Bomb Defusal mode is by far the most popular, with maps designed with such detail that players can predict down to the second when another player is due to arrive in a certain area of the level. It's also the only mode played in competitive events and for huge prize money.
This leaves the poor Hostage Rescue mode sitting on the sidelines twiddling it's thumbs and feeling a little rejected. In part this is because the Hostage Rescue mode is far more of a roleplaying experience, often with very poor odds of success for the team tasked with doing the rescuing. Often the levels are designed in such a way that the defending team has a large positional advantage, where simply staying-put will give them a good chance of winning.
That's where we can start talking about Agency. Agency is a Hostage Rescue level, created as a collaboration between level designer Patrick Murphy, and myself doing the art. The basic idea being that Hostage Rescue could be just as precise and exciting as Bomb Defusal. It's been included in three official releases from the games creator, Valve, as part of their community level packs: Operation Bravo, Operation Phoenix and Operation Bloodhound. Phoenix being a community-voted choice, which was especially great to see that players enjoyed the style of gameplay and visuals that Agency brought with it.
In this article I will go over the process of creating the art, from props to set dressing, texture creation and lighting, while maintaining a visually pleasing aesthetic and serving to enhance the gameplay. This isn't a postmortem but rather a walk-through of the various stages, hopefully to give some ideas to others, with lessons learned both positive and negative.
Iteration from Whitebox to Final
Starting out you should always have an idea of what you're going to create, even if it is quite vague, as it'll point you in the right direction for both creating architectural spaces and letting your imagination fill in the blanks as you build the basic shapes of the level. We knew we were going to build an office space, but style was leaning towards an older government building with red bricks and musty wood. As I started to put in some basic textures we decided it felt too bland, and similar to other levels in the game. In order to stand out and create something really interesting and intriguing that would entice players to want to explore the level we decided to modernize the space and use white as the primary colour - this would help players see each other more easily and provide a striking visual setting it apart from other levels.
"Modern Office" is not exactly a style that has a single look, if you search for images you'll get back a lot of contrasting designs and ideas, trying to put every single one of those into a level would create a visual mess with no consistency. It's important to choose the right references for what you are building, something that looks cool in a single image or from a specific location might not fit into the theme of the level, and in a worst-case-scenario it might actually start to detract from the level as a whole. Trying to cram in as much content as possible simply makes your level feel less unified and jarring.
Unfortunately when you are presented with so many fantastic designs and ideas it can be hard to pick out what is important. After settling on the location: a modern advertising agency's office, I broke down the needs of the level into a few different categories:
Area Specific General Use Overall Theme The Area Specific content is "hero assets" for each location in the level. These are the things that help the player tell different areas apart from each other, a reception desk, a kitchen, a bathroom, etc. Assets that won't be used anywhere else except in their specific location.
Examples of Area Specific Content
The General Use content is the backbone of the building, it's wall sockets, ventilation tubes, sprinklers, desks and chairs. The things that could be used anywhere and would blend in to the background and not stand out unless you were specifically looking for them.
Examples of General Use Content
The Overall Theme content is what sells the theme of the level to players, advertising boards, company logos, large art installations and so on. These can be used everywhere but sparingly and should only be used as a subtle reminder to the player of where they are thematically. They shouldn't detract from the Area Specific content but should stand out more than the General Use content. This came in the form of abstract paintings, corporate logos, rotating advertisement panels and so on - things that would subtly tie the level together.
Once these categories were laid out, searching through reference images became much simpler as you know what you need and only have to find an interesting design or detail that enhances a specific category.
This isn't to say that everything was completely planned out or that development was flawless. Sticking to a plan only works until you open the editor, and if you try to force something you'll end up frustrated when it consistently fails to work. As an example we originally had the level set on the ground floor of a tall skyscraper. I spent a few weeks working on content for the ground but never really getting it to feel right within the theme of the level: the contrast between a dirty exterior street section and a spotless interior didn't feel right for the level, and felt a little too similar to another Counter Strike level. Patrick played around with some ideas and tried something I was afraid of: simply deleting everything I had done on the outside and adding an epic city vista. Instantly it felt right. The important thing to take away from this is that just because you have worked on something doesn't mean it's the right thing to be working on, and that getting input from other people with different ideas can vastly improve what you are working on.
The first mockup of Agency's rooftop exterior
The same space after an art pass
Another incredibly important thing I realised is making use of modular assets. If you are going to duplicate something in your particular modelling software you should ask yourself: is this efficient? Chances are you're just making things harder to change later and locking yourself into a particular shape; eg: a walkway has a railing around it, you model the entire railing as a single object. Now if you need to change that walkway a month later you're going to have to go back and change your railing model. It's better to create a smaller tiling mesh that can be used multiple times, as often you'll find you can use that model in other areas and in different ways than you had initially intended. You're simply applying the concept of tiling textures to models, and in the process saving yourself a lot of time.
A Believable Clean Art Style
Creating a clean environment can often be more difficult and time consuming than a very dirty and cluttered one, simply because any mistakes are magnified by the lack of other objects to disguise them. A room with a single chair in the middle is going to end up with the focus being on that chair, if you fill that room with a hundred chairs you're going to be less concerned with the details of the chair and more worried about why someone would fill a room with a hundred chairs.
In the modern office setting of Agency it would have made little sense to fill it with props and clutter, but a large empty space would just feel unfinished. A delicate balance of larger architectural shapes and smaller objects was needed. I like to think of this as functional art: it serves a purpose in the lore of the game world. Window and door frames, electrical sockets, thermostats and card swipes along with the maintenance apparatus of ventilation systems. These are the general use objects mentioned earlier, they fill out space and prevent an empty wall or ceiling from actually looking empty and at the same time they contribute to the believability of the level. It's important to think of the infrastructure of the building when placing these assets - if a wall has an air vent on it then the wall needs to be thick enough to support the ventilation pipes that feed it, Card swiping mechanisms need to be placed near doors at the correct height, electrical sockets should be placed logically in areas where they would be of use to the fictional inhabitants of the level and so on.
Several examples of functional art details
One of the most important things to do right when creating clean environments is to get the most out of the materials. It's not possible to cover every surface in dirt or decals, so the surfaces themselves become your way of showing detail.
For Agency this was achieved by making liberal use of the phong shading techniques in the Source engine for models, and cubemaps for world textures. Almost all models in the level have some amount of phong shading, and although it doesn't produce a completely physically accurate result it can be used to create materials and surfaces that look relatively accurate. Simply by increasing or decreasing the intensity of the phong amount allowed for a vast majority of the levels surfaces to be rendered accurately. As I didn't need to have a lot of noisy detail in the materials due to the clean style I simply used a small phong texture as a mask for 75% of the models and let the lighting and general shapes of the models do the rest of the work.
Simple phong shading to mimic real world materials
As most of the surfaces had a single layer of material, ie paint or coloured metal, the phong shading could be completely even without breaking the illusion; however some of the dirtier surfaces such ventilation tubes and water pipes had several layers: a painted metal surface with area peeled away to reveal with metal underneath or a layer of dust. These had specific masks that would enhance the different materials, and showing wear and tear in the background assets added an extra layer of depth without compromising the clean style.
Most of these textures were created with dDo, an excellent tool for quickly creating textures. I generally started with quite a dirty texture preset and toned down the details and noise until they were barely perceptible surface imperfections.
Agency features probably close to 95% custom art, and that's a lot of work for a single person. Using dDo allowed me to make a lot of content relatively quickly, and kept it all visually consistent.
The process of creating the assets with dDo was quite simple: first I modeled the basic ingame asset, then did a very quick and dirty placement of edge loops that allowed me to smooth the mesh and get a workable high poly. A very rough normal map was baked (along with a more solid ambient occlusion map), this rough normal map would never make it into the game, it was used purely for texturing with dDo. This rough-and-dirty technique was mostly used on the more general purpose assets that nobody would spend a lot of time looking at. For the objects that were in high traffic areas or that required finer detail a more robust normal map was created.
Tiling textures used throughout the world were photo-sourced and tiled in Photoshop. A few examples worth pointing out are the plaster wall textures and the marble floors:
The image above shows the ingame result, the diffuse texture, and the normal map of the standard plaster that is used throughout the level. The normal map was authored at 1024x1024 compared to the diffuse texture which was 512x512. I created several colour variations of the diffuse texture and for a very plain surface using a 1024x1024 diffuse didn't make much sense. The final touch was to add a subtle cubemap effect to bring out the normal map and add interesting coloured reflections in various areas.
Another example is a marble floor used throughout the level. The normal map is unrealistic in that it portrays an uneven bumpy surface when in fact it is more likely to be uniformly flat. However to break up the reflections and add some visual interest to such a large and empty area I added a subtle bumpy normal map which warps the reflections, but is subtle enough that it doesn't get picked up by the lighting and actually appear like a lumpy mess.
Good shading only gets you part of the way there, however. A poorly scaled model can break immersion instantly, especially when you are trying to create a believable real-world environment. There are tried-and-true metrics for Counter Strike so having a base to work from helped immensely, but these only give you a good starting point or a bounding box for your object. It's important to study real world reference and make sure your object is proportional to the world around it and also to itself. A unit in Hammer is an inch, so having wood that's 2 units thick, or a doorway that is 1.5m wide quickly makes things look wrong.
Working with Designer Blockouts, and not Destroying Gameplay
Agency was a collaboration, with Patrick doing the design work and me doing the visuals, this meant there was a lot of potential for overlap and working on the same areas, the potential for breaking things was huge.
Often when you create things as an individual you don't have to worry about version control or stepping on someone else's toes, however when you work with other people either for pleasure or business you, as an artist, need to change your mindset. You are not creating a portfolio piece but rather something functional that has to withstand hundreds of hours of real people playing it.
Your first role is to support the designer, and this benefits you as well. By creating the basic structures of the level: doorways, window frames, stairs, railings, cover objects etc, you are allowing them to work with the final assets and tweak gameplay according to those assets. Nothing needs to be finalized instantly, it's better to provide a rough mockup of the intended asset so the designer can play around with it and give feedback on the shape, size and silhouette. Once you are both confident it's going to work they can populate the level with these assets which saves you time in the long run, and once you finalize the model and textures they are going to be updated across the entire level without having to manually replace assets.
It can be difficult to determine exactly when you should start an art pass, especially when a level is constantly evolving. Rather than sitting idly by whilst Patrick was ironing out the design of the level I started on the creation of a few visual test levels to explore materials, lighting and modular assets. Once the first iterations of Agency were created, with rough shapes for important cover and controlling lines-of-sight. I went in and created an art pass and altered many of these original gameplay ideas, simply experimenting with different shapes and designs for the rooms. We had a constant dialogue and never considered something finalized just because it was finished. Playtests would determine whether an idea was valid or not in a way that speculation can only hope for. The most important lesson learned during this process of constant iteration was that work is very rarely wasted, and it is far more important to stay true to a gameplay ideal than to have an area that looks interesting in a screenshot but utterly fails when players get their hands on it. A box is a box is a box, it is down to you as an artist to imagine how that box can be interpreted within the context of the environment.
Initial art pass ideas for the central area (above) versus the end result (below)
Initial art pass ideas for the reception (above) versus the end result (below)
Initial art pass ideas for a hostage (above) versus the end result (below)
An important part of any environment is the lighting. Too contrasted and moody and it becomes hard to identify players, too bright and monotone and it becomes boring and a strain on the eyes. For Agency I used a series of instanced lighting setups: a model to visualise the light source, a spot light to direct the light, and a sprite or light cone to add a visual effect around the light. Each light setup was unique to the type of model used for the actual light source, ie: all spotlights were identical, all fluorescent lights were identical etc. This meant I could change a single light and have the others update automatically, and always get an accurate result.
Then it was just a case of placing these different types of lights where they logically made sense in the environment, and if an area was too dark an appropriate light source was added, and if an area was too bright lights could be moved around or removed entirely. This made it quite easy to light as everything was guided by reality, which has plenty of reference material, and had the side effect of helping to make the environment more believable. By using various colours on the floor and walls I could direct lights towards them and take advantage of the Source engine's excellent radiosity and spread interesting colours to nearby surfaces.
In many areas the ceiling was opened up to reveal the sky and to let natural sunlight into the interior spaces, this was done to provide contrast to the electrical lights and to get extra radiosity bounces into the environment. Some areas had lights removed or toned down to allow other more important gameplay areas to stand out, for example the image below shows how the corridor here was darkened both by using darker textures and by using restrained lighting to make the room in the distance appear brighter as this is an area that enemy players will appear from.
This could have been taken even further by possibly using emergency exit signs to add hints of colour to important gameplay areas and chokepoints. A consistent lighting language would have helped guide players during the first few times playing the level. There are some large open spaces that would have benefited from some coloured screens or lighting panels, or possibly making some of the larger glass surfaces tinted, to add a little extra colour and prevent such a monotone look whilst not being over-bearing or detracting from the realistic style of lighting I was aiming for.
During the course of developing Agency I had a chance to learn a few things and come out the other end a, hopefully, better artist.
So, what went well?
The iteration process never had any hiccups, by using modular content and being prepared to discard ideas and art styles that weren't working we ended up with a better level. If we had tried to force the original idea of a ground-level government office we would have ended up with a completely different level, complete with underground parking lots and elevator shafts. Exciting stuff!
The power of iteration cannot be understated, and understanding that a mockup or a blockout of a level is simply a temporary phase that doesn't represent the end result. Areas changed drastically between versions, sometimes due to design requirements, and sometimes of shifts in art style; but each version was better than the last, more refined and polished.
What went less well?
In direct contrast to the statement above, sometimes the iteration interfered with more important tasks. I got stuck on areas trying to get them to work instead of letting them sit for a while and returning to them later. I tried to force an idea for the exterior part of the level and it never felt right and consumed way too much time, when all it took was getting some outside perspective. Luckily during the process I learnt to trust designers when it comes to art, just because they might not build high poly meshes doesn't mean they aren't artistic.
Another problem was building too much content completely unique for an area which meant when we inevitably changed things it became time consuming to shift assets around, and makes it less easy for others to re-use that content without creating an almost replica of the area it was designed for. These unique assets helped sell the realism of the level but made them harder to work with.
Hopefully this has been interesting and insightful!
Zarsky 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.