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Light of Alariya

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PROJECT SUMMARY

Project Summary

Role: Technical Level Designer

Genre: Open-world, third-person, exploration puzzle

Editor: Unreal 5

Platform: PC

Process: Iteration, Scrum, Prototyping, Playtesting

Tools: Jira, Monday, Slack, Zoom, Perforce, Miro

Development Time: 4.5 months (15hr/week)

The Game: (2022)

"Light of Alariya is an open-world, third-person, exploration puzzle game in which you traverse ancient alien temples and ruins to restore the power of the stars and awaken your sleeping civilization."

Yellow Puzzle Swing Pit
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POSTMORTEM

Postmortem

WHAT WENT WELL

  • I was able to use my landscaping experience to make our landscape look more natural in the main city and various POIs and puzzle areas.
     

  • I used my prior understanding of collision to simplify the collision on assets in the main city and block the player from escaping the map in natural ways. 
     

  • I was able to hone my skills in technical design, blockouts, and combat design. I was personally able to create several prototypes including player traps, combat patrol paths, footprints in the sand, an objective system, and a dialogue system. I was also able to block out an entire cave system.
     

  • The team worked well together and everyone contributed to things that mattered.
     

  • We all learned how to use this new engine together with relative ease.
     

  • We leaned into people's strengths on the team. 

EVEN BETTER IF

  • This team was very ambitious from the start. The original plan not only had an open world with puzzles as it has now, but it also included a full combat system, AI enemies, environmental hazards, and scrap collecting and crafting to create parts for the ship to be upgraded allowing the ship to traverse other areas of the map in a gated way. Combined with the open world target, this project quickly became over-scoped for our time frame. It would have been even better if we came together to understand this much sooner and cut things, and then used that time to develop the gameplay in the point of interest areas. 
     

  • The team ultimately decided to program the ship to steer away from a mountain's edge if it got too steep in lieu of using collision volumes. I noted in Jira, and informed the producer, that this would cause unintended consequences with the ship's general steering ability in a hilly desert; in the shipped game, there are noticeable steering issues. It would have been even better if I had requested a meeting with the lead programmer and lead designer to explain in more detail why this was an issue and that I had time and the experience to add collision volumes to the map. 

WHAT I LEARNED

  • The biggest thing I learned in this project was Unreal Engine 5. While it was similar to Unreal Engine 4 in many ways, I found the changes in file-sharing, particle systems, and collision tools to be a large shift and all things I needed to utilize for this project.
     

  • I also learned more about landscape holes and layer blending on this project; in the past, I had only ever used one landscape layer with multiple layers of paint that blended well.  Learning how to make holes was new, but it was pretty easy. It took me some time to understand how the landscape layers worked in our game though; I was not the initial creator of the landscape base and it was created with a procedural tool in the beginning of production.
     

  • I learned the importance of taking photos and videos of early work before things change permanently. 

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CONTRIBUTIONS

Contribution Summary

  • Researched functionality and viability of a new engine

  • Prototyped proxy mechanics with blueprints

  • Planned implemented patrol paths and combat encounters

  • Refined terrain in all areas of the map

  • Designed Yellow Sands Puzzle Area

  • Painted landscape for conveyance

  • Added collision to mesh buildings

  • Placed blocking volumes in all areas of the map

  • Playtested all areas of the world

  • Reported Bugs to Jira

  • Created Points of Interest

  • Designed and Implemented the original Red Sands Cave

  • Added post-process volumes into Red Sands Temple

  • Created rock cluster prefabs for procedural world generation

  • Collaborated on a world-building strike team 

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Main Contribution Areas

Design & Implementation:
POIs, Puzzle Areas, World-Building

Combat Encounters & 

Environmental Hazards

Aesthetics & Player Flow:

Landscape, Props, Collision

A. Design & Implementation

Design & Implementation: POIs, Puzzle Areas, World-Building

I soley designed the original Red Sands Cave entrance, initial exploration and combat areas, and tunnel exit; a colleague designed the lower portions of the cave where the skilled platforming and puzzle area would be. 

 

The cave was meant to be the entrance to the puzzle area for this region of the open world. I began by working with a colleague to map out the progression of the area on a whiteboard.

 

Then, we made a rough blockout to present to the leads before continuing to refine the cave's shape. 

 

To refine this area's blockout and to save time, I collaborated with an artist and combined premade rock mesh prototypes into blueprints with character scale references on them. 

Once the rock prefabs were created, I started designing an interesting cave shape with the prefabs; the goal was to replace these later with individual larger meshes to save performance.

 

I was sure to include exploration areas and areas of depth to make the cave seem much larger than the playable space was. For the blockout, I made sure to colorize the pathways and steps to help convey to our stakeholders the intended critical player path.

I was also responsible for combat encounters (discussed on a separate section of this page) and that is why character placeholders are standing in the scene.

Once the blockout was approved, I adjusted the rocks along the critical path to make the path stand out better and create a less jittery and overall better feel for the player walking down the path.

 

Through collaborative efforts with the other designers and artists, the cave's overall shape, character meshes, and lighting effects began to give the cave some life and the colorized path was no longer needed.

As it sometimes goes with game development, this area, its combat, and its pickups were ultimately cut, in favor of a new red sands puzzle area that was designed for the final product that matched a new narrative in place.

Once the combat and the original Red Sands Cave area was cut from the game, I began working with the puzzle design team in the Yellow Sands area. While an initial build was in place, we were tasked with redesigning the area for new mechanics, skill progression, and player flow

 

Our small team began by jumping into Miro to paper prototype some ideas. We then took screenshots of the existing map in the editor, and created annotated images to better show the leads what we were aiming to remove and what we planned on adding. 

 

Once approved, I began working on the puzzle area entrance and newly needed swing-over pit. This involved heavily moving mod-kit pieces around the scene, sculpting terrain, and placing conveyance decals where appropriate.

Later, in our Beta milestone, our stakeholders gave the leads feedback that would alter the design of the swing-over pit. The leads requested that I enclose the swing-over pit in a new way to create a more-funneled segment of gameplay.

I redesigned the area in about two days with frequent feedback and iteration. In the final game, the player is now funneled into an exposed tunnel area before unveiling the first major puzzle section of the game. 

I finalized this design by ensuring that collision was properly reviewed and modified to create nice-feeling stairs and an unescapable play area that felt realistic.

Along the way, I also blocked out a few points of interest (POIs) in our open world environment, and I designed some prototype blockouts in zoo levels to pitch to our leads team before implementing them into the larger open world. Some of those blockouts included"

 

  • the original Red Sands Observatory

  • a mine entrance exterior

  • an oasis

  • and a variety of combat encounter action blocks (discussed in more detail below)

Quest Dialogue Prototype

I also participated in a few other strike teams throughout the project:

 

In the beginning of the project, I designed and implemented a functioning dialogue and objective system. My contributions and time on the task included designing a proxy UI for the HUD, prototyping blueprints for these elements, implementing a placeholder quest giver, and programming the initial objectives to fire sequentially. 

I also served on a world building strike team where we resolved some of the world's overall narrative concerns. Aside from refining the character names and backstory of the game, I worked with the team to nail down how many collectable memories and journal entries would be in the game. 

B. Combat & Hazards

Designing & Implementing Combat Encounters & Environmental Hazards

I spent the majority of the beginning of the project on the combat team. One of the first things the combat team did was analyze some of the mechanics and enemy types that the leads had communicated would likely be in the game. We used Miro to document what we already knew, what we planned to action block, and what we would need from other departments to make various scenarios happen.

 

In the beginning, the player would have a whip that could be used for traversal and various attacks. Enemies would vary depending on biome, they would have varying degrees of difficulty, and they would range in terms of speed, weapon type, and fight range.

Miro Document: Combat Brainstorming

From there, I chose 6 of the ideas we documented and began action blocking these to show the leads.

 

In the end, several of our blocked out ideas made it into the final game despite the fact that combat was eventually cut around the alpha milestone simply due to scope and deadlines.

In the meantime, I was asked to implement a few of our ideas in the open world environment.

I initially implemented enemy encounters in the mine entrance, red sands observatory area, black sands observatory, and Red Sands Cave entrance.

 

Implementation included placing enemies in place, selecting their enemy type, placing patrol path markers around the area, and programming each AI enemy to follow a path of my choosing.  To keep things interesting and realistic, I tried to give enemies a more complex path than a simple back and forth or circular path.

Later, I worked with the Black Sands Puzzle team to integrate scripted, dynamic combat encounters into their puzzle area. 

Quicksand Prototype

In the middle of the project, it was determined that we needed to shift from combat encounters to environmental hazards

The first thing I did was brainstorm what types of hazardous situations could occur in the desert or in a cave. My goal was to come up with ideas that seemed as natural to the environment as possible.

 

The first thing that came to mind was quicksand. So, I prototyped that first and sent it to the leads to review.

I would later make an even better quicksand prototype of this on my passion projects YouTube playlist.

I quickly realized I could craft a similar-functioning hazard with some kind of poisonous liquid or gas. With some research and a helpful YouTube tutorial, I was able to recreate a complex shader system that created layers of hazardous fog. I intended to add damage triggers to the fog volume, however, the shader was performance heavy and I decided that it was better to prototype a liquid ground hazard instead of a a fog volume; either way, I did pass this along to our leads in hopes that a case for performance could be made. 

After speaking with the puzzle design teams, we decided that it made sense to have this kind of environmental hazard in the black sands area only. So, I collaborated with the Black Sands Puzzle team to see how we could implement this into their puzzle area as a ground hazard, and planned to place small pools and puddles of this hazardous liquid around the black sands biome.

Using similar methods, I was also able to create a simple spike trap that could be placed in pits or as a hazard on the ground. 

Lastly, I created a hazard intended for the Red Sands Cave. When I thought about what it would be like to walk in a cave, the sound of dripping liquid came to mind. So, I thought that perhaps, droplets could fall from the stalactites in the cave roof, and perhaps, those droplets could be acidic

 

I realized that the droplets would need to be highly visible and only hurt the player if they hit the player in order for them to feel like a challenege but not frustrating. For this reason, I made the droplets oversized. I brainstormed a variety of ways to make this hazard but decided to try to use a particle system as my drop of liquid. I was able to get the particle to behave the way I wanted from scratch, with collision properties, but in the end, after discussing this with my lead, we decided to table the droplet prototype as it's scripting requirements involving damage became overscoped on the programming side of things.

In a few cases, the leads would ask me to prototype other game mechanics. One of the first requests involved prototyping effects that could make the player's walking seem more interesting. For this, I added footprint decals that disappeared after a delay (self-clean-up for performance), and added SFX and VFX to the player's feet on each footstep.

I was also asked to prototype the puzzle piece collection system. This first involved creating a puzzle piece blueprint and creating a trigger for interaction and then, collection. Then, I would need to duplicate the asset and make unique and distinguishable instances for other puzzle areas. Lastly, until the programming department was ready to implement custom events into the puzzle areas, I needed a way to keep the player from collecting the puzzle piece too soon. For purposes of proxy gameplay, I simply encased the puzzle piece in a semi-translucent mesh and removed it via script at the time the player was allowed to collect it. 

C. Player Flow & Aesthetics

Modifying & Refining Landscape, Props, & Collision

I have had considerable experience sculpting and painting terrain, set dressing, and working with collision for performance and gameplay purposes. I've also been formally trained on level design theory and best practices. So, it was no surprise when I was asked to apply those skills to this project. 

With Unreal Engine 5 came some interesting new challenges for the team, as well as myself. First, as a team, we needed to figure out how to simultaneously work on a massive, singular landscape asset for our open world without overriding each others' work. So, first, we figured out how to use the world partition and one-file-per-actor features. 

Then, we determined that we needed a way to differentiate each part of the landscape. Since Epic Games made the engine, and since I am an avid player of Fortnite Battle Royale (made by Epic Games), I suggested that we did not reinvent the wheel and instead, use a grid system that Fortnite players had been using for some time: an alphanumeric grid. We discussed how large our chunks would be and ultimately decided to break the world into 8 pieces; after a few iterations, we determined that it was best for our grid to consist of A and B vertically and 1-4 horizontally. If someone needed to check out part of the landscape they put a sticky note on the square with their initials.  

I began my terrain work on this project by refining the terrain that already existed in the world. My goal was to find terrain that looked unnatural and make it look and feel more natural to the player.  

I worked on the main city terrain substantially. I smoothed out the surrounding sands, and I went into the city to thin out the sand naturally against buildings, ledges, and ground planes. I also sculpted the sand to look as though sand has blown onto staircases. 

During the process, I paid special attention to the physics of sand -- how it would naturally fall onto things and how steep sand piles might become before beginning to roll off and fall to the ground while the pile would spread out at the base.

Inside the main city temple, I created a sandy staircase from scratch, smoothed out the terrain to make it feel natural, and made sure that the sand was flush against the walls to ensure the player would never get stuck between the terrain and the mesh walls. Note: In the staircase photo, I made the staircase but not the surrounding steeper terrain; the staircase was added in beta as a stakeholder request and I was only given permission to add the stairs and modify terrain around it.

On the outside of the temple, I conformed the terrain around the temple to make it feel as though it was embedded into the mountains. I hand placed large rocks into the sides of this mountain as well to make it feel more natural and unique since this was a focal point the player might see from the main city and recognize. 

At one point, I was assigned to a team of three to collaborate on the design of the Yellow Sands puzzle area. I took ownership of the swing-over pit and entrance areas. When I started working on the swing-over pit, there existed a lot of chunky landscape and the player actually walked on collision from a landscape layer underneath the visible landscape layer which made for bad gameplay, poor aesthetics, and unrealistic physical appearances.

To tackle this problem, I first spent time to figure out how the landscape layers were structured. Once I passed that hurdle, I flattened all of the terrain in the center areas of the pit to get a baseline for how deep it needed to be. Then, I extended the walls to a much lower level all the way around the pit. Then, I went around the edge of the pit to flatten the sand against the walls. While some areas were simple to fix, others were challenging because directly on the other side of the wall, there needed to be landscape that was much higher. This involved a firm understanding of the terrain tools outside of simple raising and lowering with circular brushes. 

On several occasions near the end of the project, I served on a small strike team with the producer to fix minor issues with terrain, floating objects, decal placement, and other set dressing concerns. The goal was to knock out as many small issues as possible in a short time frame. 

One example of these fixes was a large gap we discovered under the stairs leading up to the temple. I was quickly able to patch the gap in 60 seconds

When not serving on the strike team, I would do perimeter searches along the open world map to find what I call "seams" where a degree of slope drastically changes in the terrain. These were often caused by a procedural tool used in the beginning of production. For Beta, I went around the entire map and made sure that all seams were smoothed out and the sand was blended properly with the terrain painter tool.

In one instance, I was asked by leads to modify the terrain and props at the edge of the Main City to better frame the Main Gate in the game. 

To fix the issue, I first determined the critical path that the player would likely take to exit the city, and I adjusted the fence props to funnel the player towards the gate in front of them in the distance. The fence props also served as leading lines pointing at the gate.

 

Then, I sculpted the terrain between this area and the gate to not only frame the gate, but to create additional lines that would lead the player's eyes to the gate (their next objective). Essentially, I created sand mounds that had natural roll off curves. As the mound curved down, the roll off would end in the direction of the gate leading the player's eyes to follow that roll off and also end at the gate.

Another role I had on the team was to correct collision issues. Most of my time was spent reviewing and modifying collision in the Main City and in the various puzzle areas or points of interest in the game.

 

In one example, a pile of rocks had blocky collision, almost resembling simple collision. If these were pebbles, that might have been fine, but these rocks were medium-sized; so, it was clear when the player walked over them that it had unnatural collision that needed an adjustment. I weighed the pros and cons, and ultimately decided that for this case, I simply changed them to complex collision because they were only in a couple of areas of our open world map, and I knew that it would not impact performance to a large degree. This also allowed the player to traverse the rocks in a more natural way.

In other cases, it was unnecessary to use complex collision. The player could mantle onto things: so, collision on ledges did matter, but there was no need for the collision to be as detailed as the ledges actually were. For these, I simply added custom collision boxes around the ledge that the player actually needed to be able to climb up and kept the rest of the building flat with simple box collision as shown in the photos.

My other collision work involved improving gameplay feel and ensuring that the player could not get stuck or escape the map. 

One of the first things I did early in the project was go to each staircase and add an additional collision ramp over them. By doing this before stakeholders played the game, they would be less likely to experience jittery player movement when utilizing stairs. 

Arguably more important, I reviewed all of the edges of the world and looked for places the player could simply walk right up and over to escape the map. In some cases, I raised or reshaped the terrain. In other cases, I added collision volumes in natural ways the player would barely notice. 

I also reviewed places in puzzle areas where the player could escape the puzzle and break the linear progression of the main quest. 

One of my responsibilities was to work on the gate areas (4) to make them feel realistic and block the player from escaping the map. This involved multiple iterations and different elements. 

In the earlier days of the project, there was a bridge that lowered over a ravine between the sand biomes. During this stage, I added ground rocks around the edge and created a rocky cliff that the player could fall off of into an abyss. 

By the later days of the project, we had done away with the bridges altogether, and I sculpted the terrain to enclose the ravine from the player's view. I placed some rocks into the terrain to hide the gate track and hand-blended the sand colors to create a natural transition between biomes.

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