Coming up with a level design for a narrative driven survival game was not an easy thing. A lot of Survival Games are know for their procedural generated open world layouts such as Minecraft and Don't Starve. Then we have games such as Long Dark who have a certain level design around a narrative path. In the case of indie game, The Mills, I wanted to create an inbetween of a procedural generated open world setup and a narrative one. I decided first to make a demo level version of the full game. My resources and modular terrain pieces would be procedural in the future but I settle for putting things in place for right now. Here is my process and challenges thus far:
A beautiful junkyard of Classic Rolls Royce, Bentley and Jaguar parts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
First Level Design Sketch
At first, I thought to do a linear narrative path. The large dark chunks of art illustrated below are representing broken pieces of large Robots. They where used to create wall systems to guide the player about. The player starts in the bottom of the layout and moves their way up. In my mind I thought maybe a player would still go back down thinking of the idea of an open world scenario. This was all an illusion in my mind - no chance at an open world level in this way.
Second Level Design Attempt
I read Architecture - Form, Space and Order by Francis Ching. Francis outlines the different types of layouts that are used for Architecture. One of them was a spiral design. I also discussed the level design challenge with NYU Game Center professor, Robert Young, who pointed out that a spiral design could work. A spiral design seemed promising as illustrated in my sketch below.
The idea behind the spiral design, was to give players the feeling they could keep going (like an open world design) but making sure the player passed trough the narrative areas which ever path they took.
Section A | Tutorial Area. Player learns they can pick up resources and craft. Robots can do the same.
Section B | A new habitat is encountered by the player, robots are more hostile about the resources they need.
Section C | The player and the robots are starting to run out of resources. Some robots are dying by losing their battery life.
Section D | The robots died from a lack of getting resources such as batteries that keep them alive. Resources do not spawn back. The level is deadly.
First Level Design Block Out
I then made a quick block out level prototype to measure its effectiveness with playtesting. A bunch of things did not work from this design. The balancing when the player made it to interacting with Robot NPCs did not work correct based on using the exact dimensions from the sketch. I did make the interior of the rocks spread further out as I could not even get camera to properly see the starting of the game. Then, there was the challenge that playtesters felt confused that instead of going trough a spiral design smoothly at the beginning, it was as if they had to be the ones turning around to find where to go. Getting the camera to work correct was not helping. In this stage for some reason I decided on a 2D camera because I thought it would add an interesting effect and for the player to hit the key 'Q' or 'E' to rotate the camera around. The center spiral layout and in combination of the camera, completely lost playtesters. Not to mention that after a player left the center of the level, they where greeted by a wall of fog - making it hard to see their path. This gave a lot of player frustration.
We quickly Incorporated a 3D camera to give players more visibility. The player could hover the mouse on the left or right side of the to move the camera. In this way, players had an easier time moving around the space. However, turns out visibility is not always good in a level design. What with this new camera, the player could now see everything beyond the rocks; all the resources and the enemies. The wall of fog was not enough and so was this layout.
A space between where the player started and the rest of the world had to be made. Also, this environment was suppose to be a bleak one. Therefore, the rocks (that where added to block the players view and path) had to go. They mainly cause too many issues with the camera. A future for them could work if a better plan was made. For now, adding a cliffs instead of rocks, seemed more feasible.
For an update of the level's space, we decided we should work with modular cliff pieces. In the previous blockout, the entire piece was a solid model that made not efficient for level design. The image below illustrates a more boxy look achieved with only one modular cliff piece.
The critical path for the players to navigate through is now cleaner and more effectively. There where additional changes made to from the original sketches to balance the timing when players interacted with NPCs as illustrated above. I also changed the camera to follow the player from their back instead of panning from left to right. This and a combination of giving the players an easier path out of their starting point, helped out.
This level design is great to achieve a demo version of the game. Everything so far will help us when a procedural level will be created. Different habitats would be spawn based on a critical path.
Hello, my name is Nova Villanueva. I am the Game Developer; Game Designer, 3D Artist, Programmer and Concept Artist for The Mills and in my other work life I’m the Game Design Adjunct Instructor of Pratt Institute, New York.
Live Stream of the development for The Mills at: Twitch