- Blocked out level
- Scripted camera events, contextual UI, player pickups, and
- Placed all props and final gameplay elements
- Designed side quests
- Added lighting first pass to level
- Designed, tested, and iterated on gameplay metrics
- Created gymnasium to test core gameplay mechanics
- Designed core gameplay and cosmetic upgrade system
- Defined game pillars and core vision
- Prototyped skating, jumping, grinding, and turning enemies 2D
- Collaborated with gameplay engineers to implement core mechanics, tweak those mechanics, and fix bugs
- Collaborated with art team to create environment art assets, and character assets
- Ran user tests with core demographic for gameplay testing, name testing, and to create game “fantasy”
- Analyzed level design in open world and flow-based third-person platformers
- Researched city structures, especially non-grid-based cities like New Orleans, Shibuya, and river cities in Europe
- Created vision boards and reference images
- Read articles and watched videos from industry professionals about open world level design
- Created 2D layouts of possible cityscapes
- Reiterated to stay in scope of project
- Sketched concepts of interactions
- Created level to show metrics and metrics documentation
- Created gymnasium to test gameplay mechanics
- Created level design documents
BLOCKOUT AND ITERATION
- Blocked out rough shapes of city to test scale and metrics
- More detailed blockout to test layout and the four different areas of the level
- Added tutorial space
- Created Company Corp interior
- Rough lighting pass
- Placed all props
- Tested gameplay throughout this process
Scroll down to see each of these steps in more detail in my DEEP DIVE
DESIGN DEEP DIVE
Research on Open World Games
Before I even started laying out levels, I played and watched playthroughs of open world exploration games that emphasized platforming and flow of movement, namely Jet Set Radio, Jet Set Radio Future, Sunset Overdrive, Super Mario Odyssey, and Infamous Second Son.
I also watched videos and read articles about open world level design. Here are some that I found particularly helpful:
Guidance and Orientation in Open World Maps by Luliu-Cosmin Oniscu
Moving Through Cities by Bobby Schweizer
An Architectural Approach to Level Design, Ch. 3, especially about edges, nodes, districts, hubs, and other gameplay space structures
Open World Design by the Extra Credits
Breath of the Wild by Mark Brown
My main takeaways were these (applying it now to this current project and not all open world games)
Have distinct “districts” that have distinct visual flavor and, if possible, unique buildings
Set pieces and landmarks that can be seen from many vantage points are key to orientation
Landmarks should be part of a hub, and allow easy navigation to other spaces
Open world design should tell the story of the city and how it came to be
Think of difficulty with open world games as concentric rings that come out from the starting point, with areas of increasingly challenge further and further away from the player’s starting point
Gate players with skill, mechanical, or spatial challenges to funnel the player’s possibility spaces
Visual language is incredibly important, so players know intuitively where they can and cannot go
Research on City Structure and City Planning
In addition to this, I also studied the structures of cities. Too many cities were really grid-like, and I ended up wanting a city that didn’t have sharp 90 degree angles to encourage flow, especially since our character was on rollerblades.
So I started studying river or coastal cities, which were often built over long periods of time and constrained much more by natural landmarks. I looked primarily at Shibuya, New Orleans, Boston, and cities in Greece and Italy.
Since I had never planned an open world game, let alone a city, a lot of this stage of the process was trying out different ideas and ways to lay out the city. Using what I learned about zones, I started there, but it wasn't long before I realized that planning an industrial zone, a residential zone, etc would each require their own unique assets, and based on our team composition, this was unfeasible.
I cut way down on the amount of city that the game would cover, and decided to try structuring the level much more like a 3D Metroidvania-style game, where certain areas were inaccessible until you had unlocked a certain ability.
In this stage, I also used what I'd learned about open world level design to make each area have a distinct flavor or feel. I knew that we didn't have the time or ability to create completely unique assets, but I had at least spatial and mechanical ideas about how to distinguish each area with our limited resources.
During this time, I was also focusing on specific types of interactions to make the most of the few mechanics we had. At this point, we had nailed down our mechanics:
Flatten: Turning into 2D graffiti, allowing the player to go under obstacles, move faster, and "pop out" existing graffiti by overlapping it and "unflattening"
Jump and double jump
Kick Off: Inspired by Ori's "bash" mechanic. Allowed the player to "kick off" of flying enemies to reposition or get extra distance. Very similar to Sonic's homing attack.
I created a few dozen drawings like these, something that I could use when I was planning individual interaction hubs. From here, it was just a matter of figuring out our metrics and making sure that this would all work together.
One of my biggest failings on this project was not coming up with detailed metrics sooner. I had some basic things figured out, such as running speed, jump distance, kick off distance, etc, but that was basically it. Below you can see an early gym, with a few metrics. I'm surprised at how far this gym got us.
After watching the GDC Level Design Workshop from 2019 about God of War's metrics (unfortunately not online), I realized how important it was to take flow into account when planning metrics.
I laboriously redid our metrics, and made us a proper gym, including things like buffers before and after an interaction so that the player can maintain flow throughout the game. Below you can see the updated gym, with much more detailed metrics.
Level Design Documents
I'll admit that another failing on this project was not having very detailed level design documents. We also unfortunately didn't have the time to make most of these missions a reality, but you can see the work I did below. If you want to see a much more detailed level design document, check out my Defilement page!
I started out with really rough blockouts to get the general shape and scale of things and got more detailed as I went. I worked almost entirely in Maya, and dropped everything in engine frequently to test it against gameplay. In the end, I had almost 140 iterations of the level.
With this level, I wanted to tell the story of a city that was being invaded by this corporate influence. I wanted there to be a kind of "old" town that had more brick, stone, and wood (more natural materials) and a "new" town that was all glass, metal, and advertisements so that the player's journey became more bleak and sterile as they went. You would be able to see the encroaching and negative influence of Company Corp on the city. I was also trying to cater each area to a mechanic, with lots of powerlines for grinding in the Chinatown area, lots of billboards in Uptown, and a mix of things in the final area.
Area 1: Construction Area
Area 4: Company Corp
Area 2: "Chinatown" area
Area 3: Billboards/
Early iterations covered a much larger space, and ended up being pretty close to my original sketches. In this stage, I was mainly figuring out the scale of the city and testing out different elevations.
In these iterations, I had these rail lines actually running through Company Corp, and I was already experimenting with the balconies around Company Corp (the big circular building). I wanted these rail lines to guide the player to Company Corp
Inspired by the Ponte building in South Africa, I reworked the shape of Company Corp. I also rearranged the layout of the city to make it more circular, which helped make navigation easier and encouraged more open, less linear exploration.
After a bunch of playtesting, I realized we needed more robust onboarding for new players, so I added a front-end tutorial section to teach more of the basics of movement, and to teach the flatten mechanic more fully.
With this near-final iteration, I was mostly working on the layout of Company Corp, which centered around exterior balconies. The final mission of the game is to deface Company Corp by collecting paint around the building and then painting a big dragon mural that wrapped around the exterior of the building. You can see that in full below!