You can catch the talk at 2:30pm on Monday the 15th of August at the GDC event (or later on the vault).
Hopefully I’ll have more content for the blog soon!
Creating Conflict: Combat Design for AAA Action Games
Michael Barclay | Lead Level Designer, Cloud Imperium Games | Speaker Sam Howels | Principal Designer, Deep Silver Dambuster Studios | Speaker Pete Ellis | Level Designer, Guerrilla Cambridge | Speaker
I finally have managed to find the appropriate amount of time to get stuck in to The Witcher 3.
While I have managed to rattle through Dragon Age: Inquisition, clocking in an obscene amount of hours, I found I couldn’t get any momentum with The Witcher. With RPGs of such immensity, when you don’t get any flow you will put it down one afternoon and not revisit it for weeks.
I bought in early but found its control scheme wasn’t to my liking. It reminded me of trying to navigate through doors in Red Dead Redemption, clunky and unresponsive. I don’t have some kind of deep rooted aversion to floaty controls but I found it quite frustrating.
I also found I would constantly snag on the (albeit beautiful) scenery and watch Geralt start-stop-start-stop before getting a run on again. This was particularly bad while riding his horse (Roach).
I’d heard a patch introduced a new control scheme and tried again. Using mouse and keyboard I still found it a bit of a chore to control, but then I switched entirely to gamepad.
Now I’m in.
I’m thoroughly enjoying the design of the overworld. I am a “Hooverer” in RPGS, by which I mean I try and hoover all content in an area before moving on to the next. Something I loved in Skyrim was the gentle encouragement to stray from the critical path by small quests, distant landmarks and the sound of dragons. The world of The Witcher is so beautifully crafted that i am finding it just as exciting to wander off to side-quests and events as it is to complete the expertly written story missions.
This helps give rise to the best kind of game stories. Just as you are fulfilling the main objectives laid out by the game, an intriguing event pulls you off to one side. “I’ll just check this out then get back to it” you think. Suddenly, hours later, you’ve gone off on a completely separate adventure that seems to have sprouted organically amoungst the scripted paths the developers laid out.
Looking forward to more.
Also, I’ve been complimenting my dive into The Witcher with a great fantasy novel I highly recommend: Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle: The Name of the Wind.
I really like trains. Not in a parka-wearing, notebook-wielding kind of way, but in a “this is the best way to travel, specifically if I have to travel between Dundee and Manchester” kind of way. You see some excellent scenery and fascinating people. I once sat adjacent to a gentleman on a train travelling from Stockport to Edinburgh who had booked a table seat so he could watch Rab C. Nesbitt VHS taps on the Combo-TV/VCR he had brought with him. Even the tinny sounds of Gregor Fisher bellowing through the carriage couldn’t dampen my mood on a train. It helps that the UK countryside is a marvelous source of inspiration, if you get a chance to actually see it through the rain and fog and trips to the small kiosk next to the toilets for a £5 bag of crisps.
Clearly level designers love trains as well, because they just keep showing up in games! And when they do, a twinge of excitement usually follows from yours-truly.
To that end here’s a list of my favorite train-based levels and some designery notes about them to keep it all above board and pretend I didn’t just want list some levels with trains in them like an absolute nerdling. I just hope I can get to the end of the list without running out of STEAM!
Steam, like a steam train. Choo choo!
Uncharted 2 – Locomotion
Right lets get this out the way because it’s the first thing people think of now when they think about train levels, which, if you’re like me, is at least twice a day. This level floored me when I first played it and it set the (level crossing) bar for all future locomotive-based adventures.
Naughty Dog described this level as a “fully traversable set-piece” and had to develop new technology (the Dynamic Object Traversal System) to pull it off. They essentially produced a level within a level, where the player is traversing across a train as it speeds through the Nepalese mountains.
Like all the best levels, the result is a an experience that holistically fuses everything exciting about video-games: technology, story, agency and to top it all off it was beautiful to look at.
Level Design Notes
This level is not just a cool set piece but it is a great example, probably the clearest example, of Naughty Dogs design sensibilities (at least, at the time). The physical space the train inhabits represents a linear timeline of progression and pacing which we can observe when considering the layout of the vehicle alone. What the movement of the vehicle brings to the level, beyond simply looking and feeling epic, is that the “fall to death” areas (that are usually vast distances in the rest of the game) are now much shorter (falling off the train kills you). The result is a level that pushes the player to utilize Drake’s traversal set to progress over a tighter area, with hazards that can actually kill the player. This pushes the tension of the level up incredibly high. To add to that, the technology allows the train to bend and sway, moving the jump destinations around, making progress feel tense and dangerous.
Crysis: Warhead – From Hell’s Heart
I’m a bit biased here because of my history working at Crytek on the Crysis games, but this level, designed by Zoltán Katona, is just the ticket. Much like the Uncharted 2 example above, the scenario leverages the best principles of the game it lives in. In the case of Crysis, that comes in the form of nanosuit abilities such as super-jumping and super speed as well as the sandbox level design philosophy Crysis is famous for.
Level Design Notes
The player can board and disembark the train whenever they want using the super-jump, they can run off to get up close and personal with enemies in the distance then use super speed to catch up with the train again and they can utilize many of the sandbox options Crysis offers. For example, the train is armed to the teeth with mounted weapons and, again like Uncharted, physically moves through the game world. The result is a moving unit of destruction with the player as the conductor. A real joy to play.
Red Dead Redemption
One of my favourite games of all time, as a huge fan of westerns this game just runs through the list of western fantasies we’re all familiar with in a giant seamless open world. It feels like a cheat to call the entire open world a “train level”, but it is a level and it does have a train moving through it so you can fulfill all your fantasies of train robbing and executing bandits by hog tying them and laying them on the tracks. I want to give a special mention to one particular mission however…
Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare – American Imperialism
A motherflippin’ TRAIN? Check!
Level Design Notes
Like Crysis: Warhead, you’re escorting the train through the wilderness fighting off enemies. Unlike Crysis, however, those enemies are zombies and they arrive in hordes! This insane mashup is just a brilliant slice of fun that really utilizes Rockstars open world systems, great arsenal of western weaponry and plain fun mission design. While you can jump on and off moving locomotives in the open world at any time, this mission makes it the focus and keeps you engaged.
Timesplitters: Future Perfect – The Khallos Express
More bias, there’s a reason I wanted to work for Free Radical and that was down to the awesome TimeSplitters series. Future Perfect is often overlooked due to the milestone achievement that was Timesplitters 2, but my memories of the third installment are just as fond, late nights playing split screen on the Gamecube with friends.
Oh yeah and Future Perfect HAS A TRAIN LEVEL which makes it THE BEST TIMESPLITTERS, END-OF.
Level Design Notes
This level excels in continually keeping up the excitement. It starts off with some stealth, moves into tight corridor shooting, out into the open for some frantic action and follows with multiple setpieces including a chopper, wormholes, a SECOND train, puzzles and a jetpack flying boss fight. The levels tempo is set by the great music track which follows the action brilliantly.
This level also includes the remote control cat “Strudel”, which is worth mentioning just for sheer novelty alone.
Realistically textured and all
Gears of War – Train Wreck
On paper, there’s nothing that a train brings to Gears of War other than sheer novelty. In practice, it just works. The momentum of the rhody run coupled with a level that is itself charging through the environment adds a satisfying level of empowerment to the already JUICED Gears of War protagonists.
At first it seems like standard Gears of War fare, cover shooting as you make your way up the train carriages.
And then they throw this hackit bastard at you…
And suddenly it becomes clear why the level designer put you on a train.
This is a brilliant example of how Epic took the established mechanics of the Berserker boss fight and married them up with an environment that enhances the tension of the encounter. Ultimately it’s a simple one, but it’s a great twist to kick off the level.
The mechanics of Gears work wonderfully on all sections of the level. The trope of the chopper enemy is replaced with the, suitably Gears, “Reaver”. These come in waves and add an element of verticality to the action.
After some open-air shooting the level progresses into the tight corridors of the carriages. Here the level designer chooses to throw lambent at the player, enemies that are very dangerous in close quarters. The mechanics of Gears put to great use once again. Suddenly the momentum from earlier is put into question as the player cautiously approaches new carriages and unseen corners in a tight space such as a train this raises the tension even higher.
Special mention here to ending the game ON the train with the final boss fight. If you thought it was odd that the Berserker was thrown at the player at the start of the level, this is why. The boss uses all the previous mechanics of the level, so it turns out the level was a great way to make sure the player had a paced progression through the core features that would make up the finale.
End of the Line
Something inherent in all the levels mentioned that permeates through each experience is the concept of a “destination”. The idea that all this momentum is destined to end, one way or another, creates a sense of urgency in these levels. It adds a concept of a timer to the players experience often without literally showing a countdown. I believe this diegetic form of a timer – the physical passing of the environment – is an incredibly strong and implicit way to raise the tension in a game and can be used for a spike in pacing and tempo.
It also helps that trains are awesome.
An honorable mention at the end here for Resistance 3 – The Train to New York.
This level uniquely utilizes the concept of a hold out and a moving level to create fantastic set pieces. Backtracking to defend different sections of the train and the deterioration of cover keep it feeling fast, frantic and fun.
Originally I was going to call this “why Hearthstone is my favourite game right now”. Reason being, I can play Hearthstone without eventually falling in to one of the many patterns that turns playing games into a long analysis of how the game was built. Here are some examples of routines I go through when playing a game.
I sit with a notebook when I play. If the game is a benchmark title or one that I think I’ll enjoy I usually reserve the notebook for a second playthrough and try and experience the game as the designer intended first time round (that is, not stopping to take notes every 2 minutes). When I’m taking notes it’s usually about the structure of a level, particular mechanics I felt were integrated well, or just interesting locations and their position in the game. Most of all I like to analyze the pacing of levels I feel flow really well. Here’s an example of some old notes about The Last of Us: Hydroelectric Dam. (Warning, illegible writing but these notes are just for me so I’m not worried about presentation!).
Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of my most played games of 2014. The level design of each chapter is superb and there are often multiple paths and routes through a level which are intricately detailed in Id Tech 5. When I played through Wolfenstein: The New Order my game experience went something like:
Stealth everywhere as much as I can exploring the level.
Kill everyone. Everyone.
Spend 20 minutes exploring the environments taking screenshots.
It’s not uncommon for me to hear an NPC shouting “hey let’s go!”, “hey we should go this way!” as I run around a level I just cleared of enemies.
Finally, if I play an encounter or a scenario I enjoyed for any reason, I’ll try and rebuild it to help analyze how the architecture supported the gameplay. This lets me see the level from perspectives not possible in the game, getting a sense of how each corner works. It’s helpful as well to improve basic blockout skills, using a pre-existing level as a sort of “concept art” to practise building. Here’s a room from that Dam again:
Super quick like a speed painting but useful for analyzing a simple combat space.
Here’s another of my favourite encounters in the same game, the Pittsburgh Book Store which I tried to reassemble in Maya.
Finally, I just want to note that while I love breaking down other games and trying to see how they tick, I believe a level designer (and game developers on the whole) cannot get by simply playing games. Analysis such as this is only a very small way in which you can improve and finding time for other pursuits is critical to become a better level designer.