Hello! My name is Nathan Kellman. I am a passionate game designer specializing in level design.
Virtual Reality has been on the market for decades, and yet developers are still discovering new things. Many have learned that principles that work for a PC/console game, may not work for something in VR. I have experience with VR games but most of them had simple mechanics, more of an interactive experience than a game. This post will be about my level design process of a VR game called Whipslash, inspired by the Leviathan Axe in God of War, where players use their axes to traverse the environment with a unique movement system and fight enemies. I was responsible for creating the final arena within the game. So far, this project pushed my skills as a level designer. With a unique movement system, enemies, and being in VR, I had to do a lot of playtesting and iterations for the level to feel fun and easy to maneuver around.
I came onto the project when the team produced a playable prototype. Before joining, I was a playtester as they tried perfecting their ax-throwing mechanic. I fell in love with the mechanic even though it was a simple prototype. I wanted to become part of the project and asked to design levels for them and they agreed.
When I first began research for levels, we talked about them being a series of arenas that the player would have to kill all the NPCs to advance through. Below were some concepts for arenas that the player would fight in.
While in the preproduction stage, we shortly gained another designer onto the team. After much discussion, it was decided to develop one large level where there would be combat spaces rather than separate arenas. I would design a vast arena at the end where the player would have to discover a way to unlock the final door. For this, I decided to go back and replay God of War, which sets as an excellent example of pacing between combat and exploration.
As mentioned before, the initial plan was to have the player do most of the combat in arenas. Since we decided to do the one level, the arenas would now become smaller combat ones filled with enemies. In the end, there would be a large arena where the player would fight all the enemies to complete the game.
I produced quick drawings on paper to approach an overall idea for the level’s length (A polished version was created in Illustrator below.) For the final arena, I decided to create sketches in Maya to play around with what made sense in the space and quicker iteration. I proceeded to build the level out using ProBuilder in Unity and the assets developed by our environment artist.
The idea was the player would enter into a combat zone from above then come down and attack the group of enemies.
For maneuvering throughout the world, we wanted to have a unique moving mechanic instead of teleportation. It was decided to use a grapple point system, where the player could throw their axes at them and move to its general location. Originally, players were able to stick to a grapple and then hit the trigger button on the controller to release.
We created two different enemy types, grunt groups and elites. The grunts were a large group of small robots that would surround and attack the player, but in a Kung-Fu Circle method (attack one at a time not all at once) so the player would not feel overwhelmed. the elites were an enemy that shot at you from a distance and took more damage to kill. We wanted to have a variety of enemies so combat would not get stale.
During playtesting, players found the level to be very long. With the combination of my arena and the other designer’s level section, it took over 20 minutes to complete. We realized that the game mechanics and movement system would take time to learn so having a long level could tire the player out.
The combat zones were also very spacious and did not give the player enough reason to move around. Even with many grapple points, players did not have to use the movement mechanic because enemies would come to them and they could stand and throw their axes. Realizing this, we needed them to be mobile within these spaces because not only was the combat fun but so was the movement.
If the player went to ground level, they still felt overwhelmed by the enemies. Since the area was so spacious, the grunts could see them and all converge at once. There were also so many elites shooting at the player that between being shot at and fighting the grunts, it became too hectic.
The main issues we saw during play testing were:
- A very long level
- Players did not move a lot during the combat spaces
- Players could skip through the combat zones if they did not want to engage with enemies
- Overwhelming amount of enemies in an open space
After discussing with the team, it was decided that our other designer would create the beginning level and I would construct the final arena. This allowed me to focus on how the player can utilize all of the mechanics learned earlier and design a complex yet fun space.
For the player’s movement, we decided that to advance through the level, they have to break all the monitors within the area. The monitors were placed in specific locations to promote exploration throughout the environment and encounter enemies. This, in turn, helps with the combat zone being skipped as players would have to come in contact with enemies during exploration. The arena has three levels of verticality for the player to maneuver up and down. It was also split into three sections because having an open area felt very overwhelming to play in.
In the beginning of development, we had bombs that the player could blow up to destroy a group of enemies at once. Many were replaced with generators, that when thrown at, gave your axes explosive power. The bombs were added as a puzzle element and used to get a drop on a large number of enemies in the arena.
Designing for VR
During development, I realized that creating levels for VR would have an alternative approach than 3rd person games. In 3rd person games, you have to produce a composition on the screen to guide the player to the next objective. When doing block-ins for 3rd person, I possess a good understanding of where to place models to guide the player in the scene. I would then playtest to make sure it is perfect. With Whipslash, I would block out the level thinking that the props are in good locations. Once the headset came on, I realized there were more issues than I saw in the editor. I would see some scaling issues with props or that they were not placed whereas intended. One aspect of the level that was constantly adjusted was the grapple points’ positioning for the movement. I was constantly switching from editor to gameplay to make sure they were set up the best way possible for the player to maneuver around without any issue. Even though creating levels was slightly different from PC to VR, the rules of shape language and framing were still brilliant ways to guide and focus the player.
During playtesting, we found players did not have a reason to keep moving around the level. We came up with the idea of having locked doors to hinder the player’s progress and they have to break monitors around the room to open the door.
With the doors, however, we saw players were confused about how to open the doors. It was decided to include glowing, purple wires going from the door to the monitor, so it was easier for them to be located.
In the arena, there is a door in the middle of the space and four monitors located within the area. Two are in the first section and hallway for positive progression to make the player realize they may have to break multiple monitors. Once closer to the door, they can follow wires that lead to more monitors in the back of the arena. Once all four are broken, the door opens for them to proceed through.
There are also three levels of verticality within the level because it was more fun to move up and down with the movement system. I also established vantage points for the player to survey the area, so they could plot their attack and see where the next monitor is.
Shape language, colors, and framing was still a big part of creating the level. I realized that while I would have to adjust the placement of props for VR, all of the level design principles still apply.
For enemy placement, I decided to spread them about instead of having them cramp in one space. The grunts were now far enough away for the player to see but they would not travel across unless the player was close enough. Any space that had a large number of enemies was accompanied with generators or suspended bombs to take a larger amount out at once.I also decreased the amount of elites so they would not be overwhelmed by being shot at all directions.
Some elites were given shields that could only be destroyed using the generator power up. This was done so we could encourage the player to use the mechanic.
The level section was constantly going through iterations to make sure players could have a fun experience. As mentioned above, the section I developed was large in the beginning and both levels together took over thirty minutes overall to complete. While this showed we had content, we wanted to submit the game to showcases and did not want people to wait thirty minutes to play one after another. The length would also tire players out since they had to swing to throw the axes so they could move around and confront enemies.
The most challenging part was lining up the grapple points so the player had room to move, but did not break the puzzle elements. If one grapple point was moved, I would have to play the level over to make sure it did not disrupt the flow.
An example of this is the third section of the arena. The player has to climb to the third floor to destroy a monitor. To do so, they have to blow up a bomb attached to a grapple point to move up without falling. If they throw at it without destroying the bomb, they will fall to the first floor.
When I initially did this puzzle, you could see a grapple point on the third floor and skip it. Next, I realized that if they fall to the 1st level and look up, that same grapple point can be noticed and players move to the third floor. I was changing grapple points and modular pieces to where the only grapple point the player would notice was the one with the bomb. If they fell, then the grapple point above can not be seen. While the concept of the puzzle was simple, it took longer than expected since it had to line up perfectly to work in VR.
Adapt but trust the fundamentals: Whipslash was a fun challenge because I was designing a level on a platform I was unaccustomed to. I learned I had to adjust my way of thinking to create the best level possible. Though this was different from what I was used to, I learned the fundamentals were still crucial. Aspects such as shape language, color, and composition remain as great methods to guide the player but they have to fit in VR.
Playtest, Iterate, Repeat!: As a level designer, I know how crucial playtesting and iteration is so a game can be as polished as possible. With Whipslash, I had to try different approaches to the level’s layout so that the mechanics we had were used at their fullest potential. It was a humbling experience to block in Unity thinking that all was set up properly, only to play and discover the numerous errors and level breaking placements there were. I saw that for VR, you may think everything looks good within the editor, but it can be a different story once the headset comes on.
Feel free to play the game and other games I have worked on by going to my website here. Any comments you have for them, my contact information is on my website as well.
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