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Cryptid Chronicles

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The Project - Cryptid Chronicles

  • My Roles: Level Designer

  • Time: 7 weeks

  • Team size: 9

  • Tools: Unreal Engine, Perforce

  • Date: 2021

About:

The game is a Single-Player Simulation where the player assumes the role of a young cryptozoologist named Thaddeus Tankston - On his journey to a mysterious island to track and document a mythical creature that resides there.

Gameplay:

The game is played from a first-person perspective. While tracking the creature the player has access to a number of tools to help them navigate the world and make progress.

My Contribution

Level Design

  • From mapping, blockout, to final result

  • Tutorial & Main Level

  • Worked with gameplay designers to develop the gameplay loop

  • Decorated the levels

  • Optimization testing

Gameplay Loop

Inspect Clue

Observe & Discover

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Follow Tracks

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  • Spyglass - Used to survey the landscape and find points of interest

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  • Map - Fills in upon discovering waystones that help navigation

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  • Journal - Keeps track of objects of note, and discoveries made on the creature

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Level Design

We wanted exploration, discovery, and a thick atmosphere to be key elements of the gameplay experience, so we opted for sandbox approach to the game world. This was exciting for me personally as I had never attempted this before.

Design Process

Part I: Research & Level Rules

Research

 

First we looked at a theme for the setting, while looking at reference photos we decided to go for a european forest setting. These references helped me get a sense of how assets should be used, and help set the tone.

 

I also pushed for a nighttime setting as I felt it would add to the mysterious atmosphere we wanted, while at the same time keeping it bright enough that we didn't need additional features to help navigate the world.

 

I also thought a full moon could serve as a reference point for players to help give a sense of direction.

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Level Rules

 

The level rules were established in conjunction with the core gameplay loop. 

  • Vantage points - Located on high ground where the player could use their spyglass to survey their surroundings and find points of interest. This is where the gameplay loop starts.

  • Clear sightlines - giving players easy to identify points of interest, and send them on the next part of the loop. 

  • Highlighted paths - Since the map was nonlinear it was important to highlight sidepaths and other areas I wanted players to explore.

Part II: Mapping & Greyboxing

I then drew up a quick map of the proposed layout. To make the gameplay loop work in a non-linear setting I needed to create a "start point" if players were left with no clear direction. 

I marked the red zones as vantage points, designed to be high ground where the player could use their spyglass to survey the landscape.

Purple locations were proposed clue-locations, this would change as the map evolved.

Early map layout
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Once I had an idea of the map layout I started greyboxing to establish the scale. One of the challenges I had was figuring out how to make the map large enough to support features such as the spyglass, but not make exploring the map long and tedious.

 

I added placeholder trees to help get a sense of the scale, and to set up a parallax effect to give more depth to the world. These would also became important when establishing sightlines from the different vantage points, to help frame areas of importance.

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Part III: Assets & Atmosphere

Assets

 

We used megascans for the forest itself, but had to scale them down for optimization purposes, rendering their quality somewhat moot. 

On the plus side this meant we could start implementing assets relatively quickly since we had no pipeline for the main environmental art assets. I worked with artists to select the assets we needed for the game.

One of the artists then cut a chunk of the level out to run an art pass while I kept working on the blockout. I could then use it as a guide when finalizing the level, while the artists went on to other work.

Art pass

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Bringing the level to life

I added the night sky, moon, and tweaked the lighting to help me guide the atmosphere while working on adding assets to the map, starting from a corner and working my way across the different areas of the level. I kept a steady flow of updates to share with the rest of the team for feedback.

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Part IV: Iterating on the level

Changes

 

Originally I had proposed 2 levels in addition to an onboarding section, before the scale was properly established. I learned after a while that I would neither have time to get the second map past the blockout phase, or our gameplay loop supporting a larger scope. So the exit to the Forest map was removed. 

Some of the feedback I received at this time was that the level lacked defining landmarks, and felt very same-y. So now I had to find a way to address these issues.

I worked with our gameplay designer to define what clues were at what locations, which let me iterate further on the sightlines. The cryptid would also have specific behaviors for each spawn location, so I started looking at distinct areas like a lake for the creature to drink from. More cryptid spawn locations were also added.

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The level was divided into zones, for the ingame map item to decide what areas were going to be filled in when a waystone was inspected. This helped me in figuring out where to focus adding some more variety. But in the end I still don't think I was able to put enough time into making each area feel more unique.

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As placeholder trees got replaced with the final assets, and the addition of new clue locations, I had to look at the vantage points again to make sure the points of interest were highlighted and framed properly, to provide the player with options.

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The addition of areas like the lake helped give some areas of the map more of a character, in this case contrasting the open plain of the western area, with the heavily wooded area to the east that the player starts in.

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I used glowing crystals to help illuminate dark paths where the lighting couldn't reach, but I wanted to avoid making the world feel too artificial and visually noisy. So  I tried using rocks to frame and draw attention to the more obvious sidepaths.

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Part V: The final result

During the final week of the project the level was in the hands of a lighting artist, while I looked to finishing up the tutorial level. I took part in playtesting the final map to help with the performance optimization. I learned a lot from this project, not just with designing a nonlinear space, iterating on feedback, but also some of the engine tools I used for decorating the level as well.

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Tutorial

The tutorial was the last level I designed, after all the mechanics and the gameplay loop was set in stone, and I felt I had learned enough to set up a good introduction.

Unlike the main level of the game, the tutorial would be more linear, teaching players the mechanics and communicating the gameplay loop one step at a time in a controlled environment.

The player starts inside their tent, overlooking the rest of the world on a hill. 

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Starting on high ground served two goals:

  1. Create a vista for the player - I wanted the player to not just have an overview of the world they were setting foot in, but also make them interested in exploring it.

  2. Introduce the spyglass to the player - Providing them a vantage point from the very start to introduce the game loop.

This view also shows the first waystone and clue location, which ties into the other tools the player has access to. The fallen log on the right also hints to the path to get down there.

In the blockout for this level I had the player take the long way down. After some feedback I decided to barricade it and create a shortcut down, here I had to use rocks to draw attention to the fallen log at the edge, in case players missed it before.

After making their way down to ground level and investigating the points of interest, the player finds their first tracks. This area was made more open to ease players into the gradually expanding play area, acting as a buffer between the sandbox level that would follow, and the linear intro that came before, while still having a track to follow to the end.

The tutorial ends with the player catching a glimpse of the cryptid as it runs into the level ahead. 

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