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Level design : Cover systems

Is this cover organic or architectural? Am I exposed from the left flank? Can I cross the courtyard without losing half my life? Is the destructible cover piece going to last through the rest of the fight?

Cover combat establishes a language between a designer and a player. Do it right and players feel rewarded by making smooth transitions between crumbled columns and overturned tables. Fail, and watch controllers bounce off plasma TV screens as spittle flies out of angry mouths, gamers loudly cursing your name in a friends living room or a parents basement. Every now and then the process is intuitive and almost effortless, with the space directing the designer’s hand. Other times, we are locked in mortal combat with an environment that refuses to bend to our wills. It is those times that are going to test our design chops, where the weakest of the herd are going to succumb to something that is often referred to as “cover vomit”.

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Cover vomit is exactly what it sounds like; Designers barfing out cover in every direction in a hap hazard attempt to ensure a line of defense from both the player’s and enemy’s perspective. Cover vomit usually breaks the pacing of an area, unnecessarily blocking valuable real estate and adds more work for the artist(s) responsible for translating cover proxy to final assets.

Similar to the thought process that goes into laying out a level, it is imperative to think of the overall experience. What kind of combat is this area going to contain? Are players fighting melee or ranged enemies? How much verticality is going to be in each section? How do players manage transition from cover to cover? How many flanking routes are present in each section of a level?

Cover placement is primarily driven by the environment. Environments are driven by core gameplay systems that dictate both player and AI behaviors. Systems depend on a strong engineering foundation and so on…

While it is hard to isolate one facet of level design, there is a combination of primary elements that form a strong cover layout.

  • Both players and AI need easily accessible cover
  • Cover variety offers tactical choices
  • Well placed destructible cover creates an intuitive guide though a combat space
  • When in doubt, cover should favor the player
  • Lateral movement allows for interesting cover transitions
  • Verticality changes the pacing of a fight and exposes additional cover opportunities
  • Create “dead zones” that ask players to make tactical decisions when traversing a combat play-space
  • Offer strategic cover choices and reward players for taking risks
  • Create flanking opportunities
  • Create cover layouts that build a forward momentum
  • Avoid repetitive cover layouts
  • Architectural and organic cover translation

Cover choice, variety and verticality

Provide players and AI with easily accessible cover. Both sides need cover to create a tactical combat experience. Add cover variety to further emphasize these choices and change the pacing of a fight. Full-height cover offers a more defensible position, partially breaking visibility based on the player’s position while crouching cover provides clear lines of site at the expense of revealing additional player mass to danger. Mixing both types of cover creates dynamic transitions, rewarding the player by providing tactical cover choices.

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Verticality adds another layer of gameplay, drastically changing the playing field. Players experience a sense of vulnerability fighting towards an elevated position. Capturing a section of high ground rewards players with a superior vantage point creating a push-pull mechanic and changing the pacing of a combat sequence.

Destructible cover, dead zones, pacing and forward momentum

Destructible cover plays a key role in combat pacing, demanding a level of commitment during forward progression. When used correctly designers can guide players through an environment offering additional strategic choices. Cover combat is about advancing battle lines and creating forward momentum.

Aggressive players move forward when cover is destroyed; Cautious players retreat to a more defensible/solid position. Most importantly, destructible cover creates tension, changing the beats of a combat encounter.

Combined with dead zones, destructible cover creates beacons of safety that draws the players’ attention while dynamically changing the battle field. Dead zones on their own merit, create an additional rollercoaster effect that designers strive to achieve during level layout. In conjunction with well designed combat spaces, dead zones build on the architectural foundation of a level, acting as high tension combat areas.

Whether using destructible or solid cover, it is crucial to avoid layouts that encourage players to pick off enemies from a safe distance. Placing cover away from doorframes or chokepoints asks players to advance into a given playspace.

A large portion of player forward momentum directly relates to encounter placement and enemy reinforcements.

It is entirely acceptable to allow players to walk into a combat space, assess the layout and the potential dangers and let them have the first move. Reinforcements are easy to come by and ultimately this is a small price to pay for players committing to a given cover layout. Another popular solution is to allow players to enter the room, tripping an encounter in an area that provides multiple cover opportunities while playing up to the strengths of a given cover layout.

Lateral movement and flanking

Lateral movement is synonymous with flanking, rewarding players for making smart choices and creating gameplay variety. Lateral movement allows players to change their strategy during a fight and turn a losing battle into a tactical victory. Similar to level layout, cover creates flanking opportunities, offering non linear transitions through a combat space.

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Flanking is an excellent tool to empower players and provide gameplay rewards for taking risks (A slow moving character has difficulty turning in sync with player movement, exposing an armor weakness on the back of the character model).

Conclusion

Ultimately, all of the proxy cover is going to be transformed into final art assets. While gameplay remains king, it is important to think of how our cover layouts translate into a final product. I like to think of cover as architectural (i.e. pillars, walls, facades, etc.) and organic (broken pillars, rubble, cars, etc.) Using this approach helps me come up with new cover layouts, creating distinct gameplay spaces. Most importantly, organic cover breaks repetition that is easy to fall into when building linear combat spaces.

The above mentioned principles should serve as a foundation for building successful cover layouts. These cover layouts should be further refined by complimenting enemy types, smart encounter placement, strategic enemy entry points, line of site adjustments and lighting readability. Hope you enjoyed the tips.

Ryan

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About Level Design and Remember Me : framing, light and color as gamespace modification tools

This is a sum-up of (a tiny extract of) a piece of work done along with other SIG2 comrades. Don’t hesitate to tell me if you have more detailed interogations about Remember Me’s use of space, particularly in terms of gameplay or narrative, I’ll try to answer as best  I can. Enjoy :)

When it comes to developing AAA games, very few actors of the French video game industry can compete. However, some companies like DONTNOD still have the power to stand out and release work (and money) on heavy projects.
With their first project called Remember Me, the DONTNOD team (formerly a group of 5 friends ) grew to over a hundred developers, which was enough to draw the attention of both the press and, most importantly, gamers!

When the game was released, critics went mad over the original atmosphere the game put the player into, offering a superb visit inside the futuristic French capital, (Neo) Paris in the role of Nilin, a woman with the power to control other people’s memories though technology. However, some issues made the experience somehow less… fun: fighting was boring, most gameplay sequences were hollow and the key-feature of the game, called “Memory Remixes”, was way under-used. In a nutshell, Remember Me missed its opportunity to enter video games’ history.

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The fact that Remember Me was, for numerous reasons, a failure, doesn’t mean everything it tries to make up is pure trash. For instance, the mastery of the game space for both entertainment and narrative purposes works rather well, which is why I’m gonna tell you a bit about it.


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Controlling the frame

As Remember Me was originally based on a very detailed universe (a 3000 pages bible written by Alain Damasio, one of the game’s scenarist and author of the famous book “La Horde du Contrevent”) and on a very strong imput from the project’s graphic team, level designers had to adapt to these constraints by showcasing the world’s appearance everytime they could.

The first element of this permanent highlighting is the use of sporadic panoramic views thorough the whole experience. These panoramas act as

-rewards: aimed at the player for completing a sequence, showing her / him a unique and breathtaking environment, –teasers: showing an important building to drive the player forward in order to anticipate the following sequence) or simply –landmarks for non-French players to immerge in the world by observing the landmarks of the capital, ie Sacré Coeur…

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Panoramas in Remember Me were also cleverly placed , having their top part slightly above the on-screen avatar’s height (in order to ensure an impression of vastness) and always following a tighter gamespace. Indeed, most of the panoramas are presented after long corridors, strenghtening the impression of being overwhelmed by the cityscape when the gigantic scenery is revealed :

Here’s a video

Another interesting choice by DONTNOD was to restrict or modify the camera frame from time to time so as to reinforce the visual and narrative aspect of specific sequences (which is allowed by the use of the third person camera). For instance, the specific camera view at the beginning of Chapter 1 highlights the main theme addressed by the narrative at this precise moment : Nilin’s loss of identity due to the manipulation of her memory.

The presence of masks subtly reminds the player that Nilin has lost her own mémory. Even though the meaning may not appear to everyone, the original composition makes the  very easy platform sequence more visually appealing.

In other sequences, the camera also tends to step back from the avatar to induce a feeling of smallness in the face the urban environment, which is quite common in sci-fi games. One of the most interesting uses of this feature is situated in Chapter 3, where Nilin is hanging above a vast and dark emptiness emphasized by convergent lines running deep into it. This scenery provides a great sensation of vertigo by upseting the player’s perception of space.

Chapter's 3 platform sequence makes a great deal of making the player uncomfortable with space thanks to converging straight lines.

Finally, the frame also provides great visuals and sensations when used freely as a composition tool to highlight an entire game scene.  This contrasts with the forced camera method seen earlier, which is much more directive and only applies to very small level chunks. In chapter 5 for instance, Nilin is placed above a flooded city street where common citizens are struggling to arise from the waters. The player can also hear cries and senses, by the use of flashing lights, an atmosphere of anarchy. Here, the reader may have noticed that, in the game’s narrative, this flood was directly provoked by Nilin in a previous chapter, making this passage an observation of the consequences of the caracter’s actions. However, by chosing to put “normal people” down in the streets below the avatar, DONTNOD makes the player understand that he’s litterally above these people’s problems and has to focus on his own important mission.

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Even though this design choice might be seen as vaguely immoral if seen in the game’s context, it works perfectly fine in showing the player that he is, indeed, a step ahead of the rest of the game’s characters.

The frame control used in Remember Me shows the attention paid by DONTNOD to the composition of the game’s space, both from a macro and a micro point of view. This process allows the designers to center the player’s attention around the graphic assets provided by the team and adds a substantial amount of new feels and meanings into the space of Neo-Paris.


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Colors and Lights : influencing feelings through repetition

Since DONTNOD’s level design on Remember Me was first thought in a graphic fashion, its quality may seem to depend a lot on the use of lights and colors to tell the player something meaningful :

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As we can see, lights and colors are very important to set the global mood of Remember Me’s levels, primarily to step away form other cyberpunk-ish universes which often portay the future as dark and dull. However, these elements also have specific meanings that are taught to the player through repetitive patterns in every level. For instance, a glowing blue aspect will usually refer to a peaceful and calm environment, which can potentially hold a secret reward, whereas red will alert the player to dangerous threats.

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These patterns allow the player to automatically recognize the use and potential of every game space so that the experience in itself doesn’t feel odd by being too surprising. A fighting sequence will, for instance, never be displayed in a blue-illuminated environment.

The environment’s color tones and scenery are also heavily influenced by the heroine’s state of mind during specific game sequences. Consequently, a same gameplace can look totally different by changing both color moods and visual elements. For example, in Chapter 6, Nilin is showed (through a dialogue with her boss, named Edge) as being very disappointed by the turn of events, questioning the legitimity of the “errorist” cause (the main opponents to the hegemony of a few over everyone’s memories). Consequently, the environment of the “Bastille” was made very dark, with agressive silhouettes and a great use of warm colors diplayed by fire, reflecting Nilin’s story.

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This staging choice makes total sense with the flow of the narrative : when Nilin first came to the Bastille earlier in the game, with a brighter and clearer mindset, the environment was also displayed as a lot brighter and clearer.

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These light and color associations make a great impression on the most inattentive player by subconsciously making her / him feel the stakes of the narrative.

Simultaneously, a great effort was made to symbolize danger by using both light and space in gameplay situations. Indeed, light and dark hold special meanings  in Remember Me, characterizing the heavy use of the player’s primal instincts. For instance, many fighting sequences display a special interaction with the environment : turning on lights to make invisible enemies fightable (as Nilin is only a prey to these enemies when the light is turned off). In these sequences, darkness becomes a threat in itself by reflecting the enemies it could hold.

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In another level, Nilin will struggle to escape the lightspot of an helicopter (being revealed by the spot would result in a certain death).

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The numerous (there’s more than 2 !) uses of lighting through gameplay sequences make the player rely on a certain scheme to undestand the gamespaces :

-When she/he is in a predator condition, heavy-lighted spaces become places to take advantage of bad guys. -However, when  in a prey condition, darkness becomes the only way to escape the most dangerous enemies (like the helicopter).

In short, this constant play between light and dark but also between warm and cold colors remains a good way to influence the player’s own feelings and behavior through her / his own given instincts.


In a nutshell, Remember Me’s use of framing, color and light didn’t just showcase simple visual elements but embrassed the globality of the experience, reflecting Nilin’s own trip through her neo-parisian adventures. Using level design to induce feelings and meanings is not an easy thing to do in the entierty of a game development pipeline and it is to be noted that DONTNOD achieved a great sense of balance between all the elements in their obsession to deliver the best possible experience. This process involves techniques and tricks to be noted by any aspriring level designer, may she / he be working on a AAA title or another type or project, even in an architectural fashion. As Le Corbusier used to say…

“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.”

 Thank you for reading 😉
-Anton

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DEOS boardgame




Cover_WIP-04-13



DEOS

This article is part of a 3 fold series on the DEOS game project : early stages, production and final line.

Part 1, early stages

Hello I’m Mathieu Girard, a first year student and one of the two artists currently working on the card game DEOS. In this article I’m going to discuss mostly the early development of the game from my perspective.

 

DEOS is one of the 12 first year projects of Supinfogame promo 2019. The objective is to create a fully working boardgame or cardgame prototype in the course of the year. The project is supervised by Pascal Bernard, especially for the game designers, while graphists are mostly on their own, apart from the unfortunately rare interventions of François Cormier. The project subjects were chosen by throwing random ideas on a board. We then grouped complementary ideas into theme groups. Teams of 2 graphists and 2 game designers were then randomly assembled and randomly assigned to a theme. We luckily got Mythology, Creatures and Heroes.

Our guidelines from there on were to wait for the intensive week which would be fully dedicated to working on the game. We disobeyed of course and started talking about the general ideas of what we wanted to do. At the time we were going for something rather complicated with a lot of depth. We had a huge interactive board in mind with cards and figurines, players would build cities and temples or go on quests. It was a mess.

Thankfully came the intensive week. We decided to completely scratch our previous vision and go for something very simple and casual with cards only. Our pitch then was that each player would play as a mythological god or a pantheon of gods who battle against each other for glory. They would destroy entire planets with cataclysms to prove their might. The player with the most planets destroyed would win the game. The word that often came to mind when describing our game was “epic” (we realized later that it was attributed to heroes and not gods, but whatever). At the time we wanted to create our own world and mythology, drawing inspiration from Magic, Dota 2, Warcraft,…etc while still being original. The following images were some quick concept art that I personally had in mind previously.

Lord of Darkness LDChar_design

However, popular opinions were against a brand new world and favored known mythology, so we asked what people wanted to be able to play as in our game. We came up with a list of classical gods such as Zeus, Loki, Anubis and so on as well as Buddha as a warlord and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. Hence our first real concept art :

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I spent most of the latter part of the intensive week working on this. We ended up sticking with classical mythologies so this illustration was later discarded.

At the beginning of the week when we initially pitched the game concept to the class, people were quite psyched. However by the middle of the week things started to get rough. Our problem was that we had not found a way to translate the sensation of mass destruction and thirst for power into an enjoyable game. Our prototype looked like a bad ripoff of UNO. Seeing our troubles Pascal Bernard told us to put aside what we had previously done and think it over from another perspective, which we (kind of) did and still we could not come up with a fun game that looked even remotely like what we had pitched. However the game designers had put a lot of effort into this prototype and were reluctant to discard it, so we stuck with it and tried to improve it instead of starting over.

During this time we also had to decide our roles in the team, namely the Project Manager and the Artistic Director. We didn’t really feel like we needed titles, we had gotten along well this far without any chain of command. Benjamin Leblanc filled the position of Project Manager out of necessity because he was the better fit. As for the Artistic Director, in a group with two graphists, it’s hardly useful but as it is a job I’m interested in for my career and I’m more experienced and skilled than my fellow graphist Camille Gangneux I imagined I would fill the position. However he was eager to take it on so I “let” him. This has worked rather well so far since most of the artistic decisions were made together anyway and the boring writing stuff is his problem.

By Friday we hit a big wall. The intensive week was over and we had a crappy, boring prototype. Our instructions then : send a week’s worth of intensive work to oblivion. Start again,with one week to catch up with the rest of the class with something new and exciting.

During this week the game designers tried many times to improve the game. On the graphists’ side we had to decide what each one of us would do. In order to do this we each drew in an hour a composition of an oracle/prophet which the other would colorize.

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Camille’s oracle composition on the left and mine on the right.

Below is my shading of Camille’s composition and attempt at colorization. He didn’t finish his as it was pretty obvious I would be doing that part. This is the workflow we have adopted since then, he does the composition and I take care of the rest.
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The evening before the dreaded day we did a last playtest to see how the game held up. It was terrible. We were preparing to get shredded the next day. However in the morning Benjamin made last minute changes before presenting it to Pascal Bernard and it worked. I had no knowledge of this so when I crossed his path at lunch and he was encouraging and positive I thought he was being sadistically sarcastic. This prototype is the one we would work on for the rest of the project.

 

This concludes the first part of this article series. Coming next is the production and the detailed artistic direction (with prettier illustrations).

 

Mathieu GIRARD

 

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They see me rolling… (Hits Playtime Game)

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“My name is Namaspamus, and I’ve lost my body ! Would you help me to look for it ?”

Namaspamus is a game that I’m currently making for the Hits Playtimes 2015 contest, an annual game-making contest for game design students.

The game is a 2D platformer in which you play Namaspamus, a head seeking its body. You need to make it roll in the levels to progress. You can also jump, but be careful : as a head, you can hurt yourself very easily ! Each impact makes you lose life, depending of the type of ground you land on.

You need to finish each level without being hurt too much, which can be very hard as you’ll have to go through dangers like enemies or bombs. Some levels will almost be puzzles in which you have to find the way to reach the end without dying.

There’s a use of physics to make interesting situations like chain reactions. It has a silly and absurd universe, and some cruel humor too : watching this poor Namaspamus getting hurt should be quite fun. The artistic style uses old paintings from the renaissance, and the tone is quite inspired from Terry Gilliam’s Flying Circus animations.

The name “Namaspamus” is based on a bad pun in french (we could translate it in “Gathernomoss” or something like that).

There are only 3 of us in the development team (the teams for the contest can have up to 6 people) with two game designer/programmers, and one game artist. The project is currently on stand-by because we have a lot of work, but don’t hesitate to support us by liking our facebook page !

https://www.facebook.com/namaspamusgame

You can also check our Devblog, even if its quite empty for the moment…

http://hitsplaytime.fr/namaspamus

You could find Namaspamus bouncing on your screen one day, so keep an eye out ! :)

Adrien Poncet

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Game Development Tips for Wannabes

How to begin game development when you don’t know a thing ?

 

Intro

If you’re reading this, you are probably willing to develop your own video games. Before going any further, I have to warn you : Reading this post WILL NOT make you a good game developper. To be very honest, the only way to make good games is to make a lot of crappy games. Like, dozens of them.

So, you want to develop your very own First Crappy Game. Where to begin when you’ve never done anything close to it?

 

1 – Programming

The thing that’s most probably blocking you right now, is the programming part of your game. Programming is a very specific skill, that needs you to learn a whole new language and way of thinking. Well, believe it or not, if you can’t program at all, that’s actually not a problem : There is a lot of middleware available, such as Game maker or Construct 2. They are very easy to use, and will allow you to make games without writing a single line of code. So, if you’re not a programmer, the first thing you have to do is to download one of these two, and learn its basics. It shouldn’t be longer than an hour or two, really.

Go ahead, do it. I’ll wait.

Now, if you’re a seasonned programmer, and you already know a programming language (or even more than one, who knows?), then you might want to use this knowledge, and you’d be right. So, just use Unity, that runs on C#, or Unreal Engine, that uses C++, or Flash, or anything else you feel comfortable with. As long as you keep in mind what you already know and what you need to learn to begin developping your game, you should be fine.

 

2 – The Idea

By now, you should have the technical skills to develop your game, and you should know where to find any piece of knowledge you could be missing (if you don’t, just google it. It’s that easy. Being stuck sucks and someone online probably has the answer to your problem anyways).

To begin developping your game, the only thing you’re missing now is an idea. Just keep it as simple as you can : your goal now is to finish your game, be it the simplest, or even the worst, that has ever been made. If you’re lacking inspiration, just begin with a standard top- or side-view game, the rest will come later. An idea from an other game is totally OK if you can’t find anything else. Don’t worry, more ideas will pop up as you develop games.

 

3 – Aesthetics

By “aesthetics”, I mean the assets of your game, for instance the environment, the character animations, and the cool sound your avatar produces when he punches an enemy, but I also include all the things you can put in there to make your game “feel” better, such as particle effects or the fact that the screen shakes when everything around you explodes.

I’ll be honest here. I don’t think think aesthetics are essential when it comes to creating your very first video game. Don’t get me wrong : I do think they can make the difference between a bad game and an excellent game. Just don’t waste all your time and energy making gorgeous sprites if the rest of your game just sucks.

What I’d recommand for a first game is, as always, just to keep it simple. If you feel inspired, you can create assets by yourself, or else you can use some stuff you found on the Internet (just make sure it’s free ! Take a look at these sites if you don’t know where to begin).

 

4 – Iterate !

When you begin developing your game, don’t worry too much about details. I know it’s hard not to correct that-minor-bug-that-you-could-totally-fix-if-you-just-had-three-more-hours, but you have to put the core features of your game together first. Having a working game is only the first step, and you need to get to it as fast as you can. That’s why I’d recommand you create games with simple mechanics at first, so you can see the result of your work very quickly.

Once you have worked on your game enough for it to be playable, you can begin iterating on it, which just means improving your game, correcting bugs and adding features, until you get bored or it seems finished enough to you (depending on which happens first).

And that’s how you develop your first video game.

 

Conclusion

What to do once you’ve finished your first game? Well, there are a lot of possible answers to this question, mine being “Just make a second game. And a third one. And then another. And another again.” It’s simply the best way there is to improve !

Here are a few general tips that may be useful if you keep developing games :

Keep it simple : Getting small games done is better than giving up on bigger ones.

Be creative : Try to make every game you make different from the previous one, and from any other game out there !

Have fun : What’s the point in making video games if we don’t enjoy ourselves?

Keep learning : Once you’ve made a few games, try to get out of your comfort zone !

– Ask other people to help you : Making games with other people is easier, more effective and much funnier than doing them on your own !

Share your games : Showing your game is the best way to get feedback and advice ! Talk to other game developers and participate in game jams to get valuable experience and meet lots of interesting people !

Henri Couvreur