The Village

TYPE: Personal Project
RESPONSIBILITIES:
  • Designed the layouts of the entire map.
  • Modeled the entire map in Maya, including smaller scale props, architecture pieces and details.
  • Implemented AI asset pack for gameplay. Designed enemies' patrol routes, and combat behavior.
  • Extended level's functionality by adding environmental hazards, player vision system and interactable objects.​
SOFTWARE USED: UE4, Blueprints, Maya, Photoshop
INSPIRATION:
  • ​HITMAN (2016), "Sapienza" level: for its multilayered design for the layout.
  • Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, "Hidden in Plain Sight" level: for the detail in design of specific areas such as the market. Also for core gameplay.
  • Dishonored: Multi-layered layouts, Many different Approaches, Verticality

In this Project, my main goal was to create a sandbox level - a space of many opportunities and possibilities that will allow the players to take multiple approaches and have high replayability value. The main focus of this project is on the layout itself - creating a small village where all the areas are connected with each other. The challenge to create a network of spaces, each one with different qualities and variations in gameplay, yet interconnected as a real village would be. The core gameplay is modelled after third-person action games that have a combination of all-out shooting and light stealth. 

GAMEPLAY: THREE PATHS, THREE DIFFERENT APPROACHES

GOLDEN PATH: THROUGH THE MAIN MARKET

The "Golden Path" is the most obvious and straight forward approach players could take. Here, this involves going through the main market area and entering the Church from the front entrance. This path contains more enemy encounters and although it is more obvious, it is also more difficult to navigate stealthily.

ALTERNATE PATH: THROUGH THE DOCKYARD AND CATACOMBS

In this path, a more stealthy approach is encouraged. Players can go through the dockyards and enter the Church through the Catacombs. This path involves fewer enemy encounters, and contains less ammo and health pickups, but also presents more opportunities for environmental kills.

ALTERNATE PATH: THROUGH THE UPPER ALLEYS AND ROOFTOPS

This path is designed to facilitate a more guns blazing approach, where players can engage in combat in either open or tight spaces. Players go through the alleys in the western part of the map, and from there they can access the rooftops of certain buildings. From this path, they can access the Church through the upper level and gain an advantage over the enemies. This path features more ammo, fewer cover opportunities and more occasions where the use of shotgun is encouraged.

LAYOUT AND BASIC DESIGN PRINCIPLES

The player's objective is to traverse the map and reach the church, in order to kill a specific enemy. The main idea behind the design is that players can take multiple approaches on their way to the Church, the final objective of the map. With this in mind,I started by creating three different pathways, each offering a different gameplay experience and a different entry point through the church. However, players can change paths at various points throughout the level, making use of horizontal and vertical space. The final design is a map with multiple approaches in the different path themselves, resulting in varied gameplay and high replay value .

PROCESS: CRAFTING A SANDBOX

STEP 1: Reference Moodboard and relationship with Gameplay

Sandbox maps feature multiple approaches, different routes and a sense that "there's more than meets the eye". My ultimate goal was to create a map where every space is connected with each other, a level with no no dead ends and a high degree of verticality. To achieve these qualities, I started looking for complex, multilayered spaces with a distinct identity. I was drawn by real-life examples, such as Italian coastal villages and ports. I also draw heavy inspiration from HITMAN'S (2016) "Sapienza" map and Uncharted 4's "Hidden in plain sight" level. I gathered different references from all the aforementioned sources and created a moodboard that encompassed all those qualities: Landmarks, scenery, close and open spaces, signature props and spaces with distinctl architectural layouts. Simultaneously, I started associating the spaces I was putting together with possible gameplay elements. Where would make sense to place more loot? How different spaces effect gameplay in terms of weapons and approaches? How can I make this space convey enough contextual information through my whitebox? 

Landmark!

Main Market

Alleys - Scale

Tight Spaces

Elevation and Complexity

Signature Props

Place a lot of loot here?

The final showdown will

take place here!

Open combat - favoring assault rifle/shotgun!

Secondary spaces - provide depth/ player can experiment with different approaches?

Make the environment unique - contextualize actions

Opportunity for the player to assess the situation and strategize?

STEP 2: Sketches and Putting it all together

My next step was to draw diagrams that depicted how many interconnecting spaces I wanted to have in my map, as well as their scale. This was the first attempt to estimate the scope and the expansiveness of the level. After many different approaches and experimentations, I concluded on  the drawn layout depicted below. At the same time I was thinking about how players will experience the map both in terms of aesthetics and gameplay. Noting down points of "wow" moments and making sure each approach rewards the player in a different way were crucial factors, shaping the final design.

Initial Diagrams

  • How many alternate paths?

  • What's the scale of each space?

  • If players select a path, can they return to the initial path before approaching the church?

Sketched Layout

  • 3 main diverging paths

  • Each one access the church from a different entry point

  • Multiple ways to switch between paths along the way

THE FINAL DIAGRAM

The Final diagram that led to the design of the layout introduced earlier in the page, is a holistic representation of the majority of level's elements. There are 5 type of elements depicted here:

  • Difficulty progression and enemy placement

  • Loot placement

  • Different paths

  • How different paths favor different types of gameplay.

  • Relationships between player and enemies in terms of verticality.

GOLDEN PATH

ALTERNATE PATH 1

ALTERNATE PATH 2

STEP 3: Modeling the layout in Maya. Frequent iterations, balancing and testing gameplay.

After the planning phase, I began to block out the sketched layout in Maya. This process naturally involved a lot of iterations. I was exporting the mesh and importing it in UE4, testing scale, gameplay and lighting constantly. For gameplay, I experimented with specific asset packs to figure out which ones better served the feeling of third-person action/stealth gameplay I wanted to provide. Experimenting with different mechanics  (distraction, disguise, cover. climbing etc.) allowed me to better understand how I wanted to modify my spaces .This was an extremely valuable experience as it benefited the level in two ways. Through testing gameplay, I decided to create more options for traversal (avoiding enemy patrols, going through houses, climbing rooftops etc.), as shown in video 1. Second, all the sessions of gameplay testing led to changes in cover placement and how much verticality the space had, resulting in a more open-ended and believable level.

In this iteration, in the beginnig of the map, there was only way for the player to avoid the guards. This was restrictive, so I added an interior to the house and the warehouse, and added the ability for the player to jump on rooftops. This resulted in more diverse and interesting gameplay!

In this iteration, the cover provided for players was very scarce and resulted in very predetermined actions from the layers in order to get past patrols. I also experimented with a distraction mechanic. As I placed more cover to increase the player's mobility I got rid of the mechanic as it was having a negative impact on player's flow.

Initially, enemy behavior didn't favor a guns blazing approach, as AI's reactions were one-sided when having to deal with a threat. I changed the AI asset pack, and modified the behavior so they accommodate both a stealthy and a more aggressive approach. Also, lighting inside the church really didn't favor this type of gameplay - players had issues finding all possible paths. Lighting and rearranging layout vastly helped on  that

Revealing the Landmark: Adding detail and refining the first "wow" moment!

Breaking up the Rectilinear and Balancing: Adding the clock tower and a "buffer" between enemy encounters

Verticality and Lighting: Adding scaffolding to provide gameplay variety and lighting to hint to different approaches

Iterations on the Main Market: This area changed many times. I added different custom made props to find a good balance between verticality, cover system, and many possible pathways. Uncharted 4 was a huge inspiration for this part of the  map.

Adding different types of cover: Through playtesting, I found out that this area was too flat and empty given its scale. changinf the initial way players approached it and adding different types of cover resulted in more variety in gameplay.

LESSONS LEARNED

Key Takeaways
  • Scale: Can have a huge impact in gameplay. Iterating frequently and testing in-engine what I blocked out in Maya was very valuable for the overall scale of the map.
  • Enemy behavior: One of the main things I didn't  properly evaluate initially was the enemy encounters; in a sandbox level that is not linear, enemy patrols and behavior have to work to accommodate more than one approaches. Designing patrols that have "weakpoints" and strengths from more than one direction was a very interesting challenge.
  • Scope: Based on playtesting, the map turned out to be a bit more complex than initially designed. Spaces that at first though seemed easy to designed increased overall scope when started thinking about lighting, cover system and patrol routes in every space.
Technical Skills honed:
  • Maya: I already had prior experience modeling in Maya, but not at this scale. I became a lot more comfortable quickly blocking out meshes of different scales, from stairways, chairs and tables, to entire buildigs. I also became more comfortable designing different elevations directly in Maya.
  • UE4 Blueprints: For this level, I developed an environmental kill mechanic. When player shoots at a crane, tit drops boxes that kills enemies.I also developed an X-ray  vision system that I didn't use because it wasn't consistent with the design of the game.Additionally, I added in-level functionality for opening doors with a press of a button. Now, I am more comfortable with altering already preexisting blueprints including enemy behavior (killing the AI) and player behavior (player's vision).
  • Retargetting animations and changing mannequins: I changed asset pack's meshes for player and enemy mannequins, in order to achieve a more cohesive look. Understanding the entire pipeline process and the significance of skeletal meshes was very important for me.