Hey everybody! So for those of you who might have missed the first post, Lockdown is a first person narrative walking simulator set on a space station orbiting an unknown planet with the aim of terraforming. You are a maintenance engineer on the space station and find yourself waking up in the medical wing only to discover that the entire crew is gone and has seemingly left you behind.
In this post I want to talk about a concept called block level.
What is a block level?
Benefits of the block level.
How to create a block level?
Being a programmer one of the excuses I have for not developing a game level has always been... well that! "Hey! I'm not an artist therefore its okay for my levels to look and feel like shit, duh!". However, in this project I discovered how terribly wrong this was and that you don't need to be an artist nor have any art to actually build meaningful game levels. The concept I am about to discuss is going to sound rather obvious and rudimentary, but until today I had never actually put this into practice. So here it goes.
In the block level approach, all you do is simply put everything in your level/world that you think should belong, however you do that by using simple primitives (in our case we built the level literally in engine).
How simple is that? My biggest reservation with the block level was, "Wait... lol. You really want me to use cubes and cylinders to make my world? Really? How the hell is that supposed to help at all? How can you even tell what things are?"
And yet... you can (refer to images/video)! Now, then... with a little bit of effort using simple geometry you can build a level well enough to at-least portray to yourself and the development team/artists what those props are and what purpose they serve. Once again, this might sound ridiculously obvious, but I hadn't realized just how powerful and empowering a block level can be especially for someone like myself who couldn't model a low poly tree to save a life.
Blocking out the level in such a way helped tremendously in two ways.
1 - It gave us a sense of spacing. We could walk around the level and get the feel for the actual game, i.e go here, then here, then do that etc etc. It also lead us to conclusions such as, "hey, perhaps our level is too spacious, perhaps it needs to be changed, perhaps this doesn't make sense...or that?". A lot of these questions could not have been answered prior to this block out.
2 - The block level also gave us a sense of the prop list. I.e once you put everything in the world, the artist has a pretty damn good idea of all the assets required - throw them all into trello and start knocking em off one-by-one!
So, you want to create a block level and you're not sure where to begin? Creating the block level isn't a science, in fact its the exact opposite and its done for quick prototyping and its done to tell you more about your world and its coherence more then anything else. However, I will tell you ONE way that worked for us.
We broke our block level creating into multiple passes.
First pass (Boundary pass) - In this phase we put in the walls and created the bare bones outline of our level. I.e we defined the playing field. This was first done on paper, we drew up a few maps and we picked one which he thought worked well (until later we realized, it doesn't xD) and then done in engine. Now in the pictures and in the video you'll see that the walls are not primitives... well it just so happened that we had the first version of the walls already made and so we decided to use, but for all means and purposes that is unnecessary for the block level.
Second pass (Prop pass) - Once we had the raw outline of our map we decided to do the prop pass. We knew what each room in our level was, and so we went about populating those room with the relevant "things" which make the room feel like what it in fact is supposed to be! I.e we created the hospital room/bathroom to resemble that as best we could. We created a nurse's station and a break lounge with what we thought would go in them. Of-course, this was done by simultaneously looking at a lot of reference images and photos on google. The prop pass was simply, to put in the props in the map which would hopefully make those rooms look like believable spaces.
Third pass (Story pass) - Once we had the walls and the general props, it was story time. In this phase we did a room by room pass over the entire map and went ahead and planted every story element/prop where we thought it should go. I.e the interactables/collectibles/notes/etc. This was our way of layering the story on top of the existing map.
Keep in mind that these passes are simple guidelines and there are things which might fall between the two passes, i.e a nurse's call button interactable is not only a prop but also a story prop. That's okay! Don't fret about it and put things in as you go. The point of the block level is to do it quickly so that you can see if everything "works" but also be ready to tear the whole thing down if it doesn't. In our case, the first version of the block level took us about 15 hours straight AND afterwards we realized that the first pass of the level was flawed. As soon as we realized that we threw away the level and quickly built a new one and dumped the rest as is and tested once again to see if it made more sense (more on this in the next update)?
If you made it so far, high five! Drop a comment and let me know what you think! Feel free to also put in your thoughts regarding level design and how you go about things! Thanks and I'll see you soon!