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  1. Introduction The number of quality books on Level Design has grown by one with the release of Let’s Design: Combat – A Level Design Series by Max Pears. The book is comprised of 25 subjects organized into 3 different sections (Planning, Blockout, Iteration) over the course of 80 pages. It brings us through concepts such as Metrics, Enemies, Decision Points, Combat Fronts, Verticality, and Local Landmarks. These subjects are presented in bite sized nuggets of insight from Mr. Pears, and supported with fabulously unique graphic depictions. We recently met up with Max to pick his brain about level design, and more specifically about his book on designing for combat. Interview Hey Max. Good to talk to you again. You’ve definitely been one of the most active level design content creators in recent years, putting out numerous articles and videos, along with mentoring others in the community. When and why did you decide to do a level design book? Hey mate, thank you very much for having me and great to be talking with you again. Aha cheers mate, yeah I had not stopped to think about being one of the most active. I guess it’s because more and more people are getting involved in our great Level Design community. It’s a funny one, as honestly I did not think I would write a book. I’m sure some of you who have read my articles on Next Level Design will know I am not the best writer, but I’ve gotten better, haha. My bad writing and jokes aside, it is because people kept asking me to write a book. After the combat article series I wrote and you published here, the demand increased. I thought well let’s give it a go and see what I can do. Another reason I think people were asking was/is because I’m so active. We have many great Design Books, but a lot of them are written by those who are outside of the industry, which does not take away from their value, I just think students and Jr designers want to hear from those who are in the industry. Plus I feel that level design is still not fully understood. So if I can help to reach students or Jr Designers to help them get a clearer picture in a more tangible form, I think a book may be the best way to do it. Yeah, for sure. It's awesome having a full collection of tips and tricks all in one, rather than taking bits and pieces from different places. Speaking of your experience within the industry, that reminds me that there may very well be people reading this that are just getting into level design, and may not be super familiar with you. How long have you been working as a level designer, and can you share some of the projects you've worked on? I have been making games for just about Seven Years now, crazy to think how fast time has flown by. I originally started in mobile games at a studio called FOG (Free Online Games) Media, where I made around 7 games in total, a couple made it to the app charts (Very proud of that). After I left went to Ubisoft Reflections, in which I worked on Tom Clancy's The Division, and the DLC Underground. Once that wrapped up I headed to where I currently am which is CD PROJEKT RED, where I am currently working on Cyberpunk 2077. Sadly right now I can not talk much about CP, but I am sure we will talk again after the game launches. But yeah that is my career so far, I am very happy with the projects I have been able to work on and the other developers I have had the pleasure to work with. Great. Thank you for that. Now let’s talk about this book of yours. Let’s Design: Combat – A Level Design Series is organized into 3 chapters – Planning, Blockout, and Iteration, in that order. I can’t help but point out that this exactly mimics the typical design process order. I assume that was intentional? Do you feel It’s important for level designers to follow a strict process? Should they always (or nearly always) be addressing the subjects covered in the Planning section of the book before moving on to the ‘Blockout’ phase of the process, or should a process be more fluid than that? Also, you’ve worked on games that differ greatly in style, and I’m curious about how process and priorities might change to align with the type of project you’re working on? Glad you noticed mate, yeah I made sure to break it up to make it feel as close to the overall game development process as possible. I think it is important for students to understand how games are made as well as levels, at some parts of your career you might jump into a project at a different stage, so I feel this is a way to help those understand how the overall process looks. Yes, these are the stages everyone should learn, now someone's planning may differ from the next, but the overall experience in terms of big milestone structures are roughly the same. The process of how we design our levels should be roughly the same, but games and plans change throughout development so you might be at a point where an area is already art-ified so you can not block it out with your LD blocks. Yet you can still use the art assets for that area to use as cover instead. There are some adaptations that may be tweaked or less time invested into due to the stage of the project, however, if this book can help up and coming LDs understand how important these stages are to making great levels, then I will be happy as well. I am really glad you pick up on that, as I did think about how to best represent the overall process when coming up with this book, as there are some subtle details and others less subtle in the presentation & structure of this book. I hope other readers notice this as well. Your comment on understanding the importance of the various stages of designing levels brings to mind a semi-related question that I'm really eager to hear your thoughts on. I've noticed that as designers are in the learning stages of understanding level design (and we're basically all always at the learning stage), we tend to focus really heavily on particular concepts as we learn about them, perhaps to an extent that isn't really justified by their actually usefulness. One obvious example in the level design community would be 'leading lines'. Now while this is a cool concept, in the grand scheme of things it's probably not amongst the most important concepts to understand and incorporate. I won't ask you to call out the most over-hyped concepts in level design (but feel free to do so if you really want to, haha), but what are one or two of the concepts covered in your book that you think are undervalued, and really important in the level design process? Aha, yeah leading lines. I won’t lie, I have highlighted these before in my tweets and use them as an example in a few talks I have done. Now is this part of level design over exaggerated? Yes, by a country mile, haha. The element of why to consider is because it is easy to highlight over social media. It’s harder to break down more detailed topics over 280 characters or in a picture. Now that does not mean that we should ignore leading lines, as they are a useful tool, but think of it more as an additional tool. On its own it’s not the best, but when combined with negative space or lighting it really helps. As for a topic of level design that is not spoken about enough, I believe that has to be metrics. When I graduated and started working at Ubisoft, when they started showing me the metrics graph and making sure I stuck to metrics (I was a renegade haha) I was so confused as to how some created them. Why? Because it was not taught to me. Metrics is so crucial for your LD process, we need to be much more aware of how metrics work, how to use it communicate with the player, and when to bend the metrics to craft an emotional response from the player in our spaces. To any up and coming LD, do try to find out more about metrics. Metrics for sure are important and overlooked. I suppose that's part of the reason why it's the very first subject covered in your book. Moving on to a different subject, one of the first things that jumped out at me as I was reading through the book is the graphics in the example depictions. I personally really like the style you went with. It's very unique. There must be a story behind how this graphic style came to be? Yeah exactly mate, hopefully when people read and see it as point 1, they will take notice and prepare as best they can to understand more on metrics. I am glad you liked the graphics, I think it is for sure one of the coolest elements we nailed down for the book. Haha yeah, there was a lot of thought which went behind it. What you might notice with the grey grid and ui in the top right hand corner, is that we wanted it to look like it was taking place inside a game editor. Really ground it to the fact that you as a reader can feel that what you see on the pages can be instantly transferred into say Unity, UE4 Or whatever editor you are using. Which is why the text is window shaped boxes. It is making it not only give information you can apply but feel like it is already applied for you. The process of the pictures was super cool as I would actually block the Out layout, to then give to my artist J. She would then translate it to the beautiful images you see on the pages. She also brought those characters to life, as we wanted to make it super clear what everything was as well as throw in our sense of humor. As learning can always be fun. But I think one of the biggest inspiration for the art style was my Twitter (not in an egotistical way). I found that a lot of people would like to see my early blockouts or 2d layouts for my layout. With that in mind I wanted it to feel like that. I am really glad you liked it, as I feel anyone who reads this book will be delighted with not only the information written but also with the presentation. It's been really nice talking to you again Max, and getting some insight into your book, Let’s Design: Combat – A Level Design Series. Can you share some logistics with us? When and where will the book be available for purchase? What can we expect the price to be? And also, one final question... I can't help but notice that the books subtitle says "A Level Design Series". This would seem to suggest that it's part of a series of level design books. Do you have plans for a follow up book/s? Always a pleasure talk with you buddy, thank you so much again for us sitting down giving me a chance to be on your site. Yes, so the book releases 21/07/2020 so not long, of us doing our interview. Very excited and nervous haha, I hope everyone who purchases it will enjoy it. In terms of picking it up, you can buy either a physical or ebook copy of the book, which can be found here: Ebook £15 ($18.84 USD) - https://bit.ly/2WvrTUR Physical Book £25 ($31.38 USD) - https://bit.ly/3fBQ2k9 The book will be available on other stores like Amazon, but the best way to support me is to buy it from the links in the article (Gumroad and Lulu bookstore) as most of the money goes to me so I can reinvest into.....your second part of the question. Yes I intend to aim for three right now, the next one will be about Traversal/Exploration and I will start work on this around November and try to release it around Q1 of 2021. I want to make ‘Let’s Design:’ the best possible series I can so aspiring LDs can be better prepared for when they arrive into the industry as well as help those who are already on their great design path. It is an exciting time, I hope those who do pick up ‘Let’s Design: Combat’ truly enjoy it and find it helpful. Resources Looking for more content from Max? Here are links to all of his articles shared on Next Level Design: - Level Design for Combat Part 1 - Level Design for Combat Part 2 - Level Design for Combat Part 3 - Shape Theory in Level Design - The Illusion of Space - Do Your Research: Where’s the Toilet - Game Design: Introducing Mechanics Follow Max/Level Design Lobby Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaxPears iTunes: https://apple.co/2CwAkqD Spotify: https://spoti.fi/2ybMelK YouTube: https://bit.ly/2XUXcLf SoundCloud: https://bit.ly/2XYIo9K Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: http://www.nextleveldesign.org/index.php?/register/ Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NextLevelDesig2 Discuss on Discord: https://t.co/hkxwVml0Dp
  2. Create layers over time A classic mistake to make when setting up game encounters is to allow all of the AI to attack at once without any spawn delays. The player will end up just being overrun by AI from all directions and the encounter will quickly descends into chaos. There is a good chance that most players discovering this 'surprise' will not enjoy it. The trick to any encounters is pacing, to stagger the spawning over time and create different waves that are triggered via an event. As the different waves are spawned in, the encounter can eventually build up to a crescendo event and a distinct pause. The break in the flow might seem counter intuitive, but this is the moment to look around, investigate and explore the environment. Limit attack direction Most players approaching an encounter will expect the enemies to be attacking them from one direction and will not expect attacks from multiple angles (side or flank) all at once. This does not mean multiple attack directions should never be used, but wide angle (135+ degrees) attacks should either be linked to a skill level or that the player has plenty of good equipment to cope with the situation. Often players will claim they want enemies to be smart and more intelligent/aggressive with their attacks, but there is a point at which enemy attacks from too many different angles at once can be regarded as cheating or a cheap trick by the level designer. If you are planning to attack the player from multiple angles be aware that this kind of tactic can become tiresome if used too often. Compliment attack types Most game enemies have a couple (1-2) of different types (range, melee, AoE or debuff) of attacks and the level designer is responsible for creating different combinations of the enemies with complimentary attacks to challenge the player in different environments. Each enemy individually should not be much of a threat, but once they are grouped together they should become part of a complex puzzle of different threats which the player has to learn how to prioritize in order to survive. Some group encounters are more difficult than others and that is mainly to do with how many of their abilities overlap and how diverse they are with attack types. A group of enemies which has a single attack (1 melee or 1 range) will be far easier to deal with than a group with a large variety of different attacks because of priority concerns. This is how difficult can be scaled up or down when creating encounters for the beginning or the end of a map. Roller coaster pacing Many games are built with a pacing, a distinct ebb and flow to how events unfold and an intensity to the encounters. Some games vary the rate of pacing by using different activities like using reflexes for encounters and lateral thinking for puzzles. When designing a map try to break it down into zones or bubbles of player activity. Consider each zone being a mixture of different types of encounters and try to vary the pace by having sections where there are puzzles. Remember to keep the combat away from the boundaries to each zone and don't be afraid to create empty spaces to allow players time to breath before the next climb upwards on the roller coaster. Always iterate As encounters become more complex with larger groups, multiple waves, and special events, the testing of the pacing can quickly get time consuming because the order of each new encounter will affect the overall flow. I highly recommend to start the testing at the beginning each time to make sure the encounters are balanced in sequence, otherwise there is a good chance a gameplay difficulty spike will appear due to lack of resources. *Note: This article is published in accordance with Creative Commons Guidelines Source: http://www.simonoc.com/pages/articles/gamedev_advice.htm Follow Simon Twitter: https://twitter.com/SimsOCallaghan Website: http://www.simonoc.com/ Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: http://www.nextleveldesign.org/index.php?/register/ Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NextLevelDesig2 Discuss on Discord: https://t.co/hkxwVml0Dp
  3. Hey everyone, it has been too long and I am sorry about that, I meant to finish up this final section of the topic last month but got distracted. Regardless, I am here now to give you my final article of the year, and thank all of you for reading my articles and wishing you all a Merry Christmas & Happy holidays. Now what could be more Jolly and Christmasy than that of how best to defeat your enemies in ranged combat. If you have not read my previous entries in the series I do recommend that you check Part 1 and Part 2 out before continuing with the finale. Recap In previous entries we spoke about how important it is that you understand your metrics for the weapons, cover, avatar and much more. We next discussed the importance of 2d maps and research. With all of that in motion I can now go forward and show you my blockout. To give some context as well, as I mentioned in the previous articles the layout we will be looking at today was from my time on the CGMA Course I took part in earlier this year. This challenge was to create a combat layout of a certain size (30m x 30m). There was no theme, no story, etc, just pure focus on making a great combat layout. We were given a set of LD Kits that we could use as well for these blockouts. Now with this in mind lets see the magic. Level This was the 2d map of the level, a 30x30 map: Here is a top down shot of the blockout: I wanted to share these just because I have seen people talk online about not doing a 2d plan or google sketch up before starting a level as they “do not want to constrain themselves”. I am writing to say that is not true, they are tools to help you plan your level. When you look at the two images you can see that there are differences, as I needed to make some to help the level improve. Just showing you how planning does not restrict you, these planning tools are there to help you, then you can go to adjust accordingly. A 2d map helps you create a footprint of your level, it can not and will not represent how it will feel with the overall camera, mechanics etc. Changes With me mentioning how it is important for you to make changes from your plan to your blockout, let us talk about some of my changes. The biggest one for sure is my mix up with the height. I have raised the back section of the level. In the previous article I mentioned that I wanted to section off my level, and I divided it into quarters like so: With having some combat take place within interiors and other combat areas take place out in exterior areas. Yet when I was running through my level I noticed that although you can feel differences in sections they do not feel so different, so by raising up parts of the level you would feel a difference, a transition. Not only this but it would help divide the space up even more, one half would be raised while the other would be lowered, one half is in an interior space while another would be exterior, again helping the space feel memorable and helping players build a mental map. This was not the only reason I wanted to raise up the space, it was to put players at a disadvantage, to increase the challenge. Something to memorise “It is easier to shoot down, than up” so by dividing the space and having players start on the lower section, it would make them feel as if they were charging into enemy territory. Second biggest change you can see between the map and top down shot was that of the cover placement. That one for sure is always going to change, as you can plan but for sure that is always subject to change, as until you understand how the enemies will move, which archetype of enemy you will use, etc., these are always ideas at best. I did not get functioning enemies in this level working, but I did place down placeholders and routes for the enemies to still help me shape the encounter. From this I was able to help picture the cover and plan the combat fronts for my level. Now these are some of the changes, I do not wish to go into too much detail here as there is still so much to talk about and we are almost 1000 words into this blog. As mentioned previously it is okay to make changes, as iteration is how we as level designers make better levels. We do not accomplish it in the planning stage. We do not ace it in our first blockout. We make it slowly with each iteration. Walkthrough After discussing these changes, let’s break down the level step by step to show you my design choices and why I made them. First up, is the players starting position: As you can see in the blue circle, the player starts in the bottom right corner, in almost a corridor like space. So there are a few things to break down in why I chose this starting position: I did not want the player to start exactly in the corner so later on the level can open up and feel bigger, so by manipulating the space and eating it up I can make it feel larger as the player progresses The starting position is a safe space for the player, allowing them to gather their bearings without feeling threatened. From this position I can slowly feed information to the player, when they turn left they can see another section of the level and a challenge, making sure players do not get overwhelmed with everything going on. I wanted to slowly give information to players. You can see this slowly happen so that players can tackle certain challenges one at a time, and it is also a way to encourage exploration. With the fact that players do not know the whole space, nor can they see it, they will want to go and explore. The space opens up more and more, so the player can start to see more and take in more information. Something to remember is “How we interact with the world, comes from how we see it” If you want players to plan and stick to more of one area, show more of the level, if however you want players to go and explore, then slowly feed them information. 4. Presenting the player with knowledge and options. From this position the first thing players can see are windows, this informs the player that there is an interior space in front of them. This is crucial for a later choice, as it is foreshadowing how the space is divided. (These windows would be blocked by glass as well, hinting to my second point) Next is the opening on the left, by having that negative space as well as the cover there as well it peaks the players curiosity, and with the fact that in the west we read left to right it is the first thing players can possibly help pull players in that direction. As players turn the corner, we move on to their next view: (Before we break this next step down, I just want a huge shout out to a truly amazing Dev Miriam Bellard, Miriam has such a phenomenal mind for design. In her superb talk Environmental Design in Spacial Cinematography Miriam talks about how each view of the level should contain vital info for the player. I really enjoyed that and tried to think of it as I blocked out this level, anyway side note over, do check out Miriam’s talk and follow her on twitter if you have it) In this shot I wanted players to have a decision point, this space allows players to See the Challenge and then allows them to Plan for said Challenge. In this shot we would be able to see one enemy: From here players can decide if they should engage in combat, or move closer. To help pull in the player I have done a few things. Number one is having the enemy have a patrol path, so the enemy won’t be static so the lineup for the perfect shot is there, but only for a limited window. Number two is through cover placement, if we look at the cover it is a stepped position to help players move through the space. By staggering the cover like this it still allows the player to feel safe as they move through. giving them an advantage. Now I do this because this is the first enemy encounter, so I want players to feel safe and still decide as they move through the space. Another choice that will be noticed from earlier is that there are more windows hinting to the player that there is still an interior space to be explored. As the player gets closer they see an option to enter the building. Now this entrance not only works because it is an extra option for the player so that the player can strategize, but also it helps to add loops to the combat. (With combat loops, the aim is to make sure that players or enemies do not run into dead-ends, or out of choices (over simplified explanation)) From this position players can possibly see the other enemy as well, alerting them that they are outnumbered. If players chose to enter the interior space, one of things is that I wanted it to feel different than the exterior space. I did this in two ways. First is with the ceiling, it instantly feels a lot more claustrophobic as well as feels limiting in where to shoot, as now players will only aim on the X & Y axis vs that of when outside where they have more freedom to aim higher. Secondly is through lack of cover, compared to where we were, there was a lot more cover close by, while here there is a lot less. Most of the cover comes from the architecture itself. Once the player has picked their path they can then start to engage the enemies in combat. In order to make sure that space helps players know best how to tackle this encounter is by making sure that the Fronts are clear to the player. (Fronts - mean a clear line of combat, knowing where your cover is and knowing where the enemies line is. We all see those games where we are walking around and suddenly see a lot of crates in an area, we as players know that combat will take place here) EF = Enemy’s Front PF = Player’s Front In this space there are actually two Fronts of combat, in the picture above we will be engaging in combat from this direction to start as we take on our two starting enemies, however there are two enemies up the stairs that the player is not aware of. For pacing, the encounter would go along the line where players would engage with the first two enemies, after one has died then an enemy from uptop the stairs would start attacking the player so the Combat Fronts would change. A reason for doing this, is to keep the encounter engaging and challenging. By moving the fronts, it means players will have to move as well, making it so they do not camp at certain spots. Creating movement in the fronts allows players to see more of the space and master it. Gears of War were great at this, as they would have sections of the level where players had to fight their way up to take down an enemy using a turret, only for the enemy waves to attack the player while the player had the turret, making re-use of the level as well as allowing the player to see the level from a different angle. By also switching the front as well, I am now changing the difficulty of the encounter. During the first Front players and enemies are both on the same level of height, while when it changes the enemy is now higher than the player. In order for players to get on the same height as the enemy, it means that they have to cover more ground and expose themselves before they can get up the stairs. What I have done to help the player, but also another way to help encourage movement within this combat space, is by mixing up the cover height. In these pictures you can see that some cover are 1m Low cover and while high covers are 2m tall. Now we could go into how the different sizes of cover impacts players, but we are already pushing the word limit here, so I will say that by having some High Cover it blocks Line of Sight so players will have to move around in order to line up the shot that they want. By using Low Cover as well, it may not always be the safest option for the player, again forcing them to move. This will also help players strategize as they chose which cover to move to. We could continue you on with the level, as this so far is only just one quarter of the level. However, during the time of writing this it is getting closer to xmas, so I am going to cut things short around here. Also, go enjoy your time as well with the ones that you love. Learning Points Although I have only showed you a section of my level, let us talk about what you should take away from this article and apply to your own combat encounters: Starting Point - When choosing how or where to start the player, think about a safe space in which players can get their bearings first (unless it is an ambush situation) Revealing Information - Depending on the situation will dictate how much you will want to show your player. Just remember that the amount you show will impact how players move, as well to make sure you do not overload your player too much. Provide choices for the player - this can just be as simple as which cover to use, but by providing a choice it helps players feel that they are in control. Provide Combat Loops - It is simple but will help reduce frustration for players, by making sure that they do not end up in dead ends, it helps keep the flow of combat engaging. Establish your Fronts - Make it clear where the fight will take place so players can best prepare themselves Change the Fronts - It is great to have your fronts, but by changing it part way through combat, it encourages movement and allows the player to see and understand more of your space Mix Up Cover Height - Mixing up cover height is great for variety, as well as having players interact with the space differently Height Level Changes - Are a great way to break up line of sight, change up the difficulty as well as a nice way to break up the traversal and process of aiming. You can do it by making your space two floors, but also just by raising an area by 1m. Every game, combat encounter, and level is different so these are not hard rules, more of suggestions. It is about knowing when to apply them as well. I do hope they help you when you create your future levels. Improvements This small encounter space may be something I am proud of considering the time constraints I made it in. Yet that does not mean it is a perfect space, I know that there are some things I need to adjust and change in order to make this a more memorable level. I am going to mention a few of them here, so you can make even better levels than myself. Help make each section more memorable - I spoke about how I tried to divide this level into quarters, which I think I did okay, but I should have experimented with local and global landmarks so players would instantly recognize the sections a little better. I tried with the architecture of the space, however I should have looked at more propage ideas as well. Less Cover - Now that is not a sweeping statement for the overall level, just in certain sections I should have reduced the amount of cover, that way it would encourage more long range combat forcing the players to hold their ground in certain sections. Tweaked metric guideline - For this space it may not seem like a huge deal but my cover buffer was 2m, I think I should have pushed it for 3m to have more space and not have certain areas feel as tight as they did in the level. Have actual enemies - Now these red boxes helped me for sure, but nothing is better than having actual AI inside your level, as that would give me far better feedback for my level. For sure there is more than this, but these are the bigger issues at hand when I go through this level. As I said before, we do not get everything right the first time we do it. Our levels get better with each iteration. With that said, if you have enjoyed this article and level, then maybe you want to see another level I did this year, which has objectives, a theme and a location to show you how I applied these rules to a new space. Check it out here: Please Support If you want more Level Design tips then please follow me on twitter. If you want more quality LD content and want to imagine how my silky voice sounds, then please come check out my podcast. iTunes: https://apple.co/2CwAkqD Spotify: https://spoti.fi/2ybMelK YouTube: https://bit.ly/2XUXcLf SoundCloud: https://bit.ly/2XYIo9K Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: http://www.nextleveldesign.org/index.php?/register/ Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NextLevelDesig2 Discuss on Discord: https://t.co/hkxwVml0Dp