Project DRONE Development
Project Drone started with an intention to improve my level design skill and understanding of the entire level development pipeline by practising level design principles and developing all assets independently. The first part began as a diorama. As a result, the most challenging aspect was learning Substance Painter and Designer, and UE4 in 3 months while designing and assembling the diorama, and developing all the models, textures, materials and effects. The second part of the project was strongly inspired by part one. However, the objective of the project shifted from the development of a small environment to one that could be freely explored. Therefore, in Black Soot, the player controls a drone that is constrained by walls of the ICBM silo and sunlight. This allowed the environment to be open while keeping the flying character to a confined area.
INSPIRATIONS AND RESEARCH
The concept for the diorama was constructed from memory of places that I have seen in the past. Most of the references were collected so as to create an accurate representation of how I envisioned them. The Black Soot POC on the other hand, required more research as it needs to serve the gameplay functions but also to look like a believable ICBM silo.
District 9 movie inspired the exploration of the world through a recording device. Dear Esther, Inside DarkSouls 3 The Long Dark, PT, Alien Isolation inspired the level design structure and the overall atmosphere of the level. Atlas Hardened ICBM silo and TITAN 2 nuclear ICBM silo were used as a reference for the level design architecture. YARS Launch at the TOPOL silo, ICBM bombing Craters, CAPE Launch control room and photographs made by Lana Sator were used as references for the decorative elements of the level.
The motivation for this project was to improve my understanding of the entire pipeline for developing game levels. All the assets in the diorama were developed from start to finish by myself. I strongly relied on the core principles of level design during the development of the project. The diorama format was chosen because it can be more effectively saturated with small and unique level design details and it is much easier to be in control of every single detail without the need to worry about programming. Moreover, it allowed me to more effectively showcase creative skills through the uniqueness of each model, composition and the colour pallet. The secondary benefit of this project was in expanding my abilities at troubleshooting 3d environment at various stages of development. Furthermore, the challenge of designing this composition, learning how to make a diorama, learning substance and assembling it all in UE4 in 3 months allowed me to practice my planning skills and further improve my focus and attention to detail.
The development of all assets for the diorama started with research into their specification followed by a breakdown into pieces that can be used during the creation of kits and trim pieces, modelling and texture material. Overall the diorama is made of 4 types of models: unique pieces, filler models, kits and set pieces.
Unique pieces include the brick wall cement floor and the back of the diorama. These were specifically modelled and textured to seamlessly fit together and provide a surface that the diorama could be built on. Kits were mostly used to decorate and reinforce the overall aesthetic of the environment. For example, pipes, foliage and rocks were designed and made to have as many potential uses as possible. Filler models like cupboard, worktop, large water pipe and arches were built to populate the space and give it more context. Finally, set-piece models like cables or the iris flowers were developed to stand out as much as possible in terms of colour texture and level of detail.
Diorama DEvelopment Process
The development process for the diorama involved 3 stages: conceptualisation, block-out and integration and set depressing and polish.
A quick sketch and a photobash concept image were made to put the idea on paper in less than an hour, ask for feedback and decide how to proceed.
A list of assets that required research was collected and the environment was blocked out in Maya. Most iterations during the block-out stage involved changing the layout of the space.
Afterwards, the necessary assets were produced and assembled in UE4. Additionally, lighting was adjusted to create nice rim highlights and the HDRI skybox, custom sharpening effect and post-processing effects that were set up to reinforce the detail and give the diorama a stylised look.
The entire level went through approximately 20 interactions. Each iteration was designed on grid paper and then straight away blocked out and tested in the level.
The process of designing Black Soot’s level began by thorough designing and testing the flow and the properties of the space and the playable character. When the space was interesting to fly through and explore, and the player could be effectively taught every necessary element of the game, the rough block-out was rearranged to look like an ICBM silo while retaining previously designed and tested outcomes.
The level rigged with all the necessary audio events for the narration system and events. Finally, the level was set dressed and further tested and iterated to resolve edge cases.
LEVEL BUILding PROCESS
The environment was designed to have 3 sections in a gated hub formation. The narrative in each section follows the traditional three-act structure and The Hero’s Journey structure.
The initial level took place in a season that was intact. It felt very claustrophobic and most players did not think that exploration is the focus of the game. To solve that, the silo was destroyed. However with a flying drone as the playable character, players instantly flew away, therefore it was decided that sunlight will damage the drone. This mechanics solved a lot of gameplay issues and tested an interesting way of confining the player to the environment.
Furthermore, the mechanics effectively reinforces the plot points of the setting and supported the dialogue between the characters.
BLACK SOOT POC. NARRATIVE
Black Soot has two storylines running side by side, a local and the main one. The local storyline is only tied to the location that is being explored and is told from start to finish as the location is explored. The main storyline is delivered through the entire game but because in this POC players explore only one location, they get to hear only hints of what the main story is. All the local narratives are told through the environment that players can opt into acknowledging and discovering, whereas the main story narrative is delivered in a linear format, mainly through an audio dialogue between the characters. The game has no meta or HUD UI that greatly influences the narrative, other than the UI on the drone footage which has the date and time that are used to put the events of the game in context. The main narrative explores the relationship within the surviving family and the way human relations and behaviour change in the time of a severe crisis. Conversely, all the local narratives explore the issue of WW3.
The development of Black Soot required the development of a custom character controller to emulate the drone controls.
Additionally, it required a custom event system to make sure that the conversation that characters are having on the background are flowing naturally while also triggering guiding and tutorial messages.
Visually most complex shaders developed for Back Soot were the water shader and the glitch shader that appears when a drone hits a wall or goes into the sunlight.
Finally, most of the sections of the level were separated into the individual section and the connection using trim pieces and seamlessly linked together during the set dressing stage.