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  1. Several years ago my work tasked me to build a cooperative dungeon themed around a volcanic palace. We wanted the dungeon’s difficulty to rise across a series of rooms and end with a fight against the Fire King. At the half-way point through the level, we wanted to challenge the players with a combat-puzzle encounter.For my prototype of this encounter, I locked the players in a room with several waves of combat and environmental hazards. Each wave, the players needed to complete an increasing number of objectives in order to survive lava that would rise through the floor.Outside the specifics of the theme, I designed this encounter to test player coordination across multiple objectives under pressure. The encounter also served as a gear check through the enemies. In the abstract, this encounter is typical of raid design, which was our goal. The problem was the theme and converting my prototype to final art without losing clarity.In one of several meetings dedicated to solving this problem, another designer asked why the Fire King would have this hazardous room in his palace at all. This led to question about who (within the game’s fiction) built this room, why they built it this way, and what happened since it was built.When a level is able to answer these questions, it passes a test I think of as “architectural realism”. If a level does not hold up to this scrutiny, and we’re left saying “no one (within the game’s fiction) would have built this place or built it this way”, it fails the test of architectural realism.This concept overlaps with environmental storytelling, world-building, and immersion, all of which are important for high-fidelity AAA narratives games like Last of Us and God of War (2018). As an industry, we place a lot of value on these concepts.But my level was not for that kind of game. We used a distant 3rd-person camera, larger-than-life characters with exaggerated proportions, and abilities that worked at massive scales. We built our levels and the environment art to match.So, when one of these design meetings entered a third hour of argument to solve the problem of architectural realism, I was ready to ship the level as it was, in Mario-like abstraction where primitive meshes clearly conveyed their function. Immersion be damned.Architectural realism had no place in the problem we were trying to solve, and the efforts to pass its criteria wasted development time and made the encounter’s mechanics opaque. A bad application of best practices made my level worse.Now, when I see the ideas of architectural realism described as best practice, I remember how it can harm the development process when it does not serve the intended experience. Here for example, Mark is correct when referring to most real-world architecture, but most real-world architecture ports badly to video games. This is obvious for those of us who learned level design through modding; our rite-of-passage was to build a replica of our house—or school, or office—in Counter-Strike, Doom (1993), or one of so many other games with mod tools. This was a rite-of-passage because it was a painful realization that we can’t just copy what works in the real-world because the context is different. Even within the same genre, the context of Quake 3: Arena was different from Unreal Tournament 2004. An excellent level in one game will be different, often terrible, in another.The act of design is to recognize a context, its local needs and constraints, and find a solution that fits best. The practice of greyboxing is a way to prototype a solution, evaluate how well it fits the context, and—in professional game development—communicate the solution to the team. The study of level design is too often concerned with the skills of building and not the skills of design, which persist across genre convention. Christopher Alexander wrote about design this way in his 1964 essay “Notes on the Synthesis of Form”, where he created a visual metaphor of constraints and relationships. The dots each denote a constraint, and the lines denote relationships. The + and – along each line indicates whether the constraints support or conflict with each other. This visual metaphor is powerful because it lets us step aside from convention and any dogma around best practices to instead face the specific needs of the problem.In real-world manufacturing, material and production—what Alexander labels “economy”—are real constraints. Even in our digital world of level design, material and production are constraints we need to consider. We have our level construction processes, our art asset pipelines, and our production methodologies. We also have our studio cultures and divisions of responsibilities. All of these factor into the local context within which we solve our design problems.For my lava palace encounter, the values of architectural realism diminished once we recognized the whole context of our production process. Solving the encounter for world-building and immersion conflicted with too many other constraints. // Around the assumed best practices of AAA development, there are assumption of roles and responsibilities. In some studios, level designers are also layout artists, world builders, environment artists, content designer, scripters, and quest designers. Each game and studio has its own needs. (Jeff also clarified in a later tweet that his advice “can be true or false depending on the situation”) On another project as a professional level design, I spent several months sculpting and painting terrain. I placed foliage and props. Again, I did this work as a level designer. For the experience we intended to provide, we needed rolling hills and grass, and someone had to implement that solution to the design problem. This is level building, but we still call the job level design.As another example, look at Dear Esther. Where does the level design end and the environment art begin? This division is artificial until we separate design from building. To provide the right experience, the design of Dear Esther called for an island with terrain and foliage; it doesn’t matter whether it was a level designer or an environment artist who did the work of building.All of that said, when I see talk of “best practices” that don’t specify their context, I get grumpy. And when these “best practices” are directed at students, I get angry. I think about the days of my life wasted solving the wrong problems, and I think about all of the work I shipped that was less than it could have been. // What remains if we throw out “best practices” and say the quality of a design depends on its context?There are fundamentals we can still apply. Gestalt psychology has value. There are also psychological models like Self-Determination Theory to help us better recognize our players’ needs. I personally am skeptical of any application of shape- or color-theory that says “[x] will make the player feel [y]”, but there is still value in studying these areas as well.What remains is local level design, where our work serves a specific context to the best of its ability. To me, this enriches the many forms our levels can take, frees us from the International Style of AAA best practices, and returns us to our position as experience designers instead of overspecialized level builders. This lets us escape high modernism and enter postmodernism (and maybe we’ll catch up with the rest of the art world eventually).For students, my suggestion is that you shouldn’t greybox levels in Unity or Unreal by imagining a context that you can’t playtest. Doing this is making fan art levels, replicating solutions that already exist rather than learning how to solve. Instead, take a game with mod tools and an active community and design a level for that context. Seek feedback, not to hear how your level is good or bad, but to better understand who your level is for. Then build another level with this knowledge. This is the only best practice I know to learn the skills of design. *Note: This article is posted on Next Level Design with permission from the author Source: https://andrewyoderdesign.blog/2019/02/23/against-best-practices/Follow Andrew:Website: https://andrewyoderdesign.blog/Twitter: https://twitter.com/Mclogenog
  2. Radiosity, Ray Tracing, and Rasterizing...oh my. In this talk, the father of Doom and Quake discusses light and rendering. John explains the challenges of creating realistic lighting and rendering in video games, how the industry has approached those problems thus far, and discusses what the future may bring. Follow JohnTwitter: https://twitter.com/ID_AA_Carmack
  3. Next Level Design has been given permission from the author to host this entire book in PDF format. Download the attached PDF at the bottom of this article for the entire book, or view it here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1uB3pUjPkHuWWOYEc70nkVjVlR09ua70zStill not sure? Read through this section on lighting that was recently posted on Next Level Design: In addition, we've included another small section of the book right here: pg. 25 INTRODUCTION Due to games’ ever-increasing complexity and the expanding nature of levels in general, it can certainly be said that levels are not easy to design. Levels, as said before, are combinations of dozens of different aspects, the conglomeration of which render them complex by nature. This combination of complex systems itself requires good design from the start in order to avoid an inconsistent and downright messy result. Because the different aspects are so interdependent, it’s very important not to lose sight of a level’s ‘big picture’. This chapter highlights some of the issues that can pop up when designing a level, as well as some more minor aspects to keep in mind. The overall design is the foundation for a level. Without a clear, strong design, there is no solid base on which to build the level. THE CREATION OF A NEW WORLDThe most important part of a successful level is its beginning. The way a level starts will determine a great deal about how the rest of the level will evolve and how quickly. In these days of growing complexity, efficiency and speed are valued highly. Getting off to a bad start or using bad work methods can cost time which is usually at a premium to begin with. Part of starting a good design is foreseeing potential problems before anything is created. By doing this early in the process, a good level designer can quickly and easily modify the design to better fit the available time, workload, difficulty, technical limits, or all of the above.How one begins a new level is different for every person. One designer may write everything down in a design document while another, like me, just plans it out in their head. The method used also depends upon if one is working in a team environment. Working with a team means that the level’s design must be communicated throughout the team which usually means some sort of written, drawn, or quickly modeled design that can be passed around and/or presented. How it’s done isn’t important as long as several key aspects are kept in mind and the end product is of a sufficient quality. If the technology used cannot create lush jungles, for example, then this must be recognized before starting.A design should progress only when exactly what is wanted and how to accomplish it is known. Exact information is the key to this. Again using the jungle example, one must know what the jungle will look like, the colors it uses, the overall style, how the player will move through it, if the engine can render thick vegetation, what kind of physics will be involved, and too many more to list here.To assist in this task, I have developed a type of checklist that is at the base of everything I design. The list compares several key values against each other to see if they are possible and if they should be modified. It also helps define the values better. The list checks to see if the rules of, for example, lighting and composition are contrary to each other and if the goal is possible and what direction to take. This extensive chapter will mostly be about the latter.A level is complex and it takes increasingly more time and effort to successfully complete one; thus failure is not an option. All the areas that could potentially cause a problem should be identified before starting any work. Once the design process starts it should go smoothly; design dilemmas should not occur or, if they do, should be easily overcome with few modifications to the overall plan. Getting stuck can be very demoralizing and time consuming. pg. 26THE CHECKLISTA level always begins with a goal, a theme, or both. The goal may be that the game requires a medieval castle, or that it’s missing an ominous environment, or that the level is to be the central hub of the game.After identifying the basic idea, certain key information needs to be pinned down before starting the level. This ‘key information’ will be referred to as ‘the keys’. The keys communicate important properties about the level. They are the key words the level is built around and provide more information on the level’s requirements.The following are questions to determine the key information for the level-to-be: • (1-Time) How much time is there available? Is there a deadline? • (2-Tech) What tools and game engine will be used? • (3-Limitations) What limitations are there? Is there a shortage of art assets or staff/personal skill limit? Can anything be made or are some aspects beyond the scope of the project because of their complexity? • (4-Requirements) What kind of requirements are there? Are there any specific elements, for example, special buildings or areas that have to be in the level? When compared to the rest of the game what visual style or theme must the level adhere to? • (5-Purpose) What is the overall purpose? For example, is it a multiplayer practice level or a singleplayer boss arena? • (6-Gameplay) What should the gameplay be like? How should it be played? Should there be enough room for a large boss encounter? Or does it need to be large enough to contain a large number of enemies attacking the player? Perhaps it’s a vehicle level? Or it is a stealth level? And so on. • (7-Theme) What theme and/or style will the level have? Will it be a castle or a jungle? Will the style be cartoonish or realistic?This is all essential information for a level. The order of the list is not as important as the answers. Once the essential elements of the level have been identified it can be run through a checklist to see if it holds up. Will it work? Look right? Play right?The keys provide the information while the checklist determines if it is possible or not. The checklist combines two or more keys in order to determine if they fit together or not. If the desired theme is a jungle, but the engine can’t handle rendering dense vegetation, then these are two keys that do not fit together and the design will need to be adjusted accordingly. This is the type of information the keys provide: essential information that design decisions can be based on before actually starting work on a level. Thinking ahead is the key to success.The checklist itself is a system for asking questions and making comparisons. The questions are different each time, but the comparisons remain the same. Verify that the individual elements compliment each other.Here's the entire Table of Contents: Download the attached PDF below, or view it here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1uB3pUjPkHuWWOYEc70nkVjVlR09ua70z *The Hows and Whys of Level Design is hosted on Next Level Design with permission from the authorFollow Sjoerd De JongWebsite: http://www.hourences.com/Portfolio: http://www.hourences.com/portfolio/Twitter: https://twitter.com/HourencesYoutube: https://www.youtube.com/user/Hourences/feed The Hows and Whys of Level Design.pdf
  4. I hope everyone is doing well and enjoying either a game that they are making or one that they are playing! I have been thinking about what to write about, what deep design philosophies can I share with my fellow devs? So many wise thoughts and the one I landed on is “Where is the Toilet?” Now you may be thinking “What the F*** does this have to with Level Design” and I am glad you asked, even though I did not like your sass there. When I ask this question I am asking about the research you have done before building this level and also where is the toilet in your level. (The ‘where is the toilet part’ may not apply to all games or levels) In case you hadn't guessed this post is going to be about Level Designers needing to do more research before starting work on their levels. I know this sounds like an obvious part of level design but I see a lot of young level designers go in and making the level instantly without much thought. I too was guilty of this when I was younger as well. Now when creating anything, the blank screen can be the most intimidating thing ever! We have all been there staring at the screen thinking, “where to begin?” well the answer should always and I mean always…….. No back chat here sonny Jim. Research! So what research am I referring to for level design then? First think of the theme of your level, such as Victorian, utility, native, and also the location of your level as well. A house out in the mountains of Alaska will be designed different to a house in London’s city centre. Gather as many reference pictures as possible for your research. One of my leads (Daniel Molnar, great guy and very intelligent level designer) said to me, “Only when you have 100 pictures, do you start to understand the space” And true to his word he would not let me touch the editor until I had enough pictures, an understanding of the space and how it worked. Thanks to Dan I made a great sewer level and now know the stages of the sewage processing system. So ever since that I ALWAYS try to make sure I make time to do my research, sadly I do not always get as long as I want but I do make sure I have enough pictures to help me create a picture in my head. Now that you understand the location of your level and the theme you want to start looking into the architecture of these buildings and areas. As level designers, we should be looking at architecture regularly. (A cool article on what it was like for architects to work on video games: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DeannaVanBuren/20151012/254238/Architecture_in_Video_Games_Designing_for_Impact.php). Look around the room you are sat in now, and see how many indents, angled corners and other shapes there are which make your room Not a box. Once you start to research these things you will start to pick this stuff up. One thing which is noticeable with inexperienced LDs work is all the rooms are boxes. Architecture is where we see a lot of real level design work every day. How their structures of these buildings affects how we move through them, the layout of rooms, what rooms they have in these buildings, space certain rooms may need and how the flow from one room to another works. One of my favourite things to research is floor plans of buildings. Each of these layouts will be different depending on the theme and will obtain different items as well due to the theme. These will not only help influence your design but also help your artist (or artistic side depending on how you are working) understand how to decorate your level and may possibly help you guys come up with interesting methods to signpost. Another reason is you never know what you might see, which could inspire your design and provide you with something even more incredible. Now for example look at this power plant, which in my opinion is super cool, this top catwalk is interesting as instead of the bridges connected maybe the player has to rotate them from the ground floor to get them to join. With all these layers and sections, it looks like a great area for traversal. Being able to go up, around and under this area is amazing. When it comes to white boxing your level you will be able to show these images to your artist and they will be able to understand what you mean by those giant boxes. “Pictures speak a thousand words”. If you were to put a twist on this power plant and to make it feel like a maze, then now you want to start researching what? Mazes! 10 gold stars (Sounded way more patronizing than I meant it to be). So now we can see that there dead ends but also viewpoints to allow players to find their bearings. When designing this level we can add vantage points for players to scan the area for clues, maybe even have loot/collectibles in certain dead ends to reduce player frustration and reward exploration. Summary on why research/reference is important: - Give you a better understanding of what is believable in this theme. - Provide an idea for your artist on what you want. - Inspire your design choices Where is the toilet? Now onto the second part of the blog (I swear readers are going to get sick of that question) of where is the toilet? Dan had now let me work in the editor it now came time for his reviews on my work, and what was the question he asked me for each of my levels! Yeah you know what it is, now we working together on Tom Clancy’s The Division – Underground which in case you do not know is a procedurally generated dungeon expansion in which players travel through the underground areas of New York, from the subway system to the sewers to clear out the threat brewing underneath the civilians feet. Overall the review was going well, the flow was good, it had good landmarks for players to orientate themselves in case they were lost. But Dan felt some of these areas were not believable because there were no toilets. Because the Division is based on reality I had skipped one thought process when doing my research and that was “How would these spaces of been used before chaos struck?” Boom mind blown, I had created these thrilling and high octane areas but not grounded them in reality or the law of my game’s world. Dan then showed me one of the Senior LDs work who was working on a subway level and what did he have….toilets. His space felt not only good to play through but also was grounded by reality. (Some playthroughs of the expansion HERE) These critics’ could have been avoided had I done my research on these areas I was making and thought about how they are originally used and not just how I would use them for good combat or traversal. If you go back and look at those pictures of the floor plans I have in this blog. You will see how all of them have bathrooms laid out on them. The floor plans are mainly residential or commercial buildings so they will. When making your level, (again will not apply to every game or level) think about how was this spaced use before the player reached it and more than likely how did the people inhabiting this space use it? Because if they are bipedal human-like creatures I think we all know that they will need to use the bathroom at some point or another. Next time you are in a realistic gaming setting, try and find the bathroom, as it will most likely be there. Hope this helps guys and “Where is the bathroom?” is a question I keep asking myself when creating my levels as well as researching the buildings, themes, environments etc, for my game. I hope it makes you think about carrying out your research before starting work on your level. Which trust me will make your level much better and more believable. *This article is posted on Next Level Design with the author's permission Source: https://www.gamesfounder.com/articles/do-your-research-wheres-the-toilet-level-design/ Follow Max Level Design Lobby: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCncCrL2AVwpp7NJEG2lhG9Q Website: http://www.maxpears.com/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaxPears 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
  5. The Importance of Planning I think there are a lot of different and often very good ways to start a level and what you should do depends greatly on the kind of game you want to create something for, your own experience, and so forth. So there’s no ready recipe for that. In general the most important thing is to think things through. Properly sit down and think about what it is you want to make. Especially if you are new to this. I do a lot by the flow, because I base what I do on previous experience and I know it will work out anyway, but if you are new to it – plan everything. Whether you plan by just sitting down somewhere and thinking it through, or by drawing a plan, or by using Lego, it doesn’t matter. Just ensure you think it through in detail. Exactly what are you building? What are the potential problems you might face? What will make this special and unique and can you amplify that further? Sculpting The Landscape The Solus Project I’ve used World Machine for one of the sections in The Solus Project but it didn’t help too much. Our landscapes are too specific and small for World Machine. I do use World Machine to generate distant mountains and landscape elements though. Works very well for that. The way you should build the landscape depends so much on exactly what you build. You should of course always take the player’s camera angle into account. A real time strategy game with an overhead camera would see different things than a first person player of course, but other than that it is a very wide question. I personally start out with nothing more than the landscape and sculpt it until it is about what I had in mind. Then I place the biggest rocks on buildings on top, and continue with sculpting the landscape. These objects give me a better understanding of scale, distance, composition and so forth. Style VS Reality A stylized look can be really cool, I love The Walking Dead for example, but it is not my style. I like keeping it realistic, but at the same time I don’t want to make the real world. There is enough of that around us already, and if you do that you need to do it super well because everyone is going to compare you attempt at realism with what they know of the world. That makes it hard to pull off properly. Going more artistic solves that, and it is more fun also. It gives you a lot more possibilities to create something impressive and memorable. Don’t Confuse the Player I tend to place things carefully. Like a tree that fell down can create a line, a kind of border where it fell, so I will deliberately place these kind of things to create subtle barriers and lines where I need them to guide the players in the right direction. Even if people can just step over said fallen tree, you tend to recognize these kind of lines and borders and change your navigation accordingly. Navigation aside there is also visual composition to keep in mind. You don’t want it cluttered with random elements, so I will place things to create balanced and varied yet not too varied areas. In TSP in particular also tend to place stone blocks in rows, statues, or blue ship debris to highlight certain directions or areas. Look At The Sky The skies in The Solus Project are all built by me from scratch. They are not actual skyboxes, but gigantic 3D skies. The planets you see are a million units across and actual 3D objects that orbit the world. The first Unreal taught me that skies are crucial to the experience, so I have always put a lot of emphasis on making good skies. A sky should be varied, have a sense of scale, drama, and give a clear indication of where the light is coming from. The sun in general is crucial. I see a lot of people simply paint in a bright dot in the sky with a lot of bloom and be done with it, but I spend many days making my sun and it consists of many different layers of flares. The great majority of my sun has nothing to do with Bloom or Lightshafts or such at all, it is all done by hand, and I think people greatly underestimate the work you should invest in making the sun and the sky. Do Light Early On I always do basic light early on, after I placed the majority of most important geometry, just to get a sense of space and feel for it, but after that I will hold off doing lighting until texturing and geometry is nearly entirely finished. You cannot do lighting if you don’t know what kind of colors your textures will have, so that must come first for me. Keeps development streamlined also by doing things in clearly divided steps. Lighting has a major impact on gameplay, for example it can help or confuse the navigation of the player by highlighting or darkening the exit. It can make the player careful if it is dark, or it can make the player feel more stressed if there are for example a lot of blinking red lights, and so forth. Everything is Connected In general everything has an impact on everything. If you build games you should always look at the entire picture and never do one thing independently of another. Optimize Your Scene A lot of students hit a problem with optimization for two reasons. First of all they never really get forced to think about it, because a portfolio piece is almost always small in size, plus doesn’t has to run on a wide range of platforms and devices, so they never get to cover the optimization part of the job. And secondly this is also something that just needs a lot of experience, which you don’t have if you start out. I don’t really care if I can make one particular area look nice, that isn’t very hard to do, what I care about is if I can mass produce similar graphics and art throughout dozens if not hundreds of locations in the entire game, and done in such way that I never have to go back in and optimize it. So when I begin building something, I will immediately take into account everything that could potential slow either me, the player, or the hardware down further down the line and I try to cover as much of it as I can right away. Think about the big picture, and think it through what could all end up being slow, and tackle it all before it is a problem. Guide The Player I tend to create pockets of free space, followed by linear sections and bottlenecks. So you can explore freely in certain areas, but there is only one way out of each of those areas. I ensure the way out is always in a way special, for example the top of a hill, or near a large statue. So you can find it back and feel naturally inclined to go there, yet still have the opportunity to go elsewhere also. If you look at a game like GTA 5 which is pretty much entirely about trying stuff out and doing whatever you feel you want to do, that still has a very streamlined singleplayer experience build in as well I would say. So it is perfectly possible to combine the two, but it depends on the type of game on exactly how you are doing it. Technology Does Not Kill Creativity If the technology becomes better you actually have less need for avoiding creative risk because you don’t have the tech to worry about and you can thus go all out on more creative games. I think that that is actually happening in a portion of the market because powerful and free engines like the Unreal Engine create a new kind of niche market. It attracts small teams who don’t need a multi-million dollar hit game to survive, and thus those teams can focus on more creative experiences. That said, there are of course also a lot of run of the mill kind of games being released, but I don’t think the tech is to blame there. What you we are dealing with in general is a games market that has exploded over the past few years. 10 years ago it was very hard to sell a game without a publisher, nowadays there are a 100 different ways of getting your game out there. That attracts a lot of people, and a lot more games get made because of that. That consequently also means you will have a lot more copycats, simply because there are so many more games and because it is so much easier to step into the market. On top we have seen the mid tier developers disappear over the last couple of years, only to begin bouncing back up now. For a couple of years now we have been left with only some of the largest studios around, and those large studios can’t usually take the risk of doing something too new or creative due to the budgets involved. Budgets that are nowadays a lot higher than they were before, and games made for a market that has a million times more competition then 10-15 years ago. Original Article Location: 80.lv/articles/10-rules-of-building-great-games-and-levels/ *This article is posted in its entirety with permission from the author Follow Hourences Website: www.hourences.com/ Twitter: twitter.com/Hourences