This is the development log for my world design for the prototype The Old Ones.
Greybox and Plan
In the first week, I went about making the a greybox for the level using UE4’s landscape tool. Since I was working from an already established prototype, I remade the entire level from scratch. I grey boxed the level and started designing how I want the player to go through the experience.
Textures and Landscape
I focused on making tileable textures for the landscape and painting it. The textures were made using photographs and edited in Photoshop. I then painted over them to try and give them a more painterly look, but it still felt too realistic. To try to resolve this, I worked on stylising them more and eventually painted a mask of this in ZBrush, sculpting in some normals. I then used this bake in combination with height maps in Substance Painter to design the normals and occlusion maps.
Most of the landscape was painted using the UE4 material I developed which procedurally paints the landscape based on the angle and slope. This gave me a really quick result to help visualise the world and paint over it.
The foliage I wanted to create for this was quite extensive. I hadn’t yet nailed down exactly what area of the Himalayas I wanted to focus on and, because they are such a diverse area with a huge range of botanica, I did some research. I narrowed down my area to the state of Sikkim. It had a beautiful range of flora and the architecture was the closest to the style I wanted to capture in my world.
“Sikkim is a small state in northwest India, bordered by Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal. Part of the Himalayas, the area has a dramatic landscape including India’s highest mountain, 8,586m Kanchenjunga. Sikkim is also home to glaciers, alpine meadows and thousands of varieties of wildflowers. Steep paths lead to hilltop Buddhist monasteries such as Pemayangtse, which dates to the early 1700s.”
I made use of Speedtree’s automated systems to design the cherry trees, there was no good default base so I ended up hand drawing the tree’s branches. I tried to make a good variety for the different sections of the map. Speedtree was also able to give some decent wind effects when they were ported into UE4. This became problematic when I wanted to make the grass, I had to play with the values quite a bit before I got a decent effect on the grass, the planes for which were made in Maya.
I like high poly modeling, and this was one of the few pieces which I got to create a high poly model for in ZBrush. Because I knew that I would likely only have the time to create one rock, I tried to make it look good from every angle. I then retopologized the rock in Topogun and textured it in Substance Painter.
Mise en scène & Level Design
After I grey boxed the architecture I was really unhappy with the general flow of the level, I wanted to change what the player saw and improve the composition of my main architecture pieces within the environment. I spent some time sketching potential scenes and what I wanted the player to see as they moved through the level.
The level design and architecture also needed to direct the player in a manner that made sense. With that in mind, I scrapped what I originally had and designed my level to feature the main temple. This is what the player saw first, the bridge and pathing would direct them to the area of interaction and props like flags would be used to guide players. Blocking volumes and foliage were used to stop players from straying too far from the path, or jumping out of the world.
So I started off grey boxing my architecture and looking at several references to take the pieces I wanted for the open flow of the temple.
I then looked at what pieces I could cut up and modulate. I prefer working modular and building from the ground up. I also prefer to unwrap UV’s as I go along to make sure that my textures will tile correctly. This also gives me a good general overview of the colours and balance of the piece, my architecture went through several iterations. The entire temple was made from 12 modular pieces, all of which were less that 100 polys.
Once this was done I went about painting each piece in Substance Painter, all of which were a 512 x 512 texture. The images were also edited in Photoshop and the shaders were tweaked quite a lot in engine. I did a lot of the visual look and feel of the architecture in engine, because I feel more comfortable playing with shaders rather than trying to make the textures work out of editor.
After I had the main basis for the scene in, I needed to add some functionality. All of the necessary functionality was designed to try and convey the general narrative context for the game. I already had a decent first person character blueprint made by Tom O’Brien. From there, Tom also worked on getting a trigger volume around the area where the bell would be and making the functionality for the mask to move up and then appear in the sky. Tom helped me to get this working the way that I wanted it, he also designed the camera shake, light trigger and the was my go to for troubleshooting issues, of which there were many.
One of the first things I worked on was the lighting, I tweaked the sun position and lighting to make sure I was displaying the main architectural piece in the best light possible. The occlusion rays also formed an important part of the visual aesthetic. I used a particle effect from the original prototype, which I made in collaboration with Brianna Fromont, to be the world’s source of magic. This was applied to the sprite and the pillar; the pillar itself was simply made up of a default cylinder with an emissive blue fresnel applied to it.
I also made use of a water shader I made for another game, this was just edited to suit the aesthetics of this world. It is pretty robust shader which has edge foam, lets me change the occlusion depth, colour noise animation speed and wave height.
The trees where using a default breeze and wind function that I applied in Speedtree, however things like the flag’s felt very stiff next to these. I used vertex animation with a gradient to get the flags moving slightly.
Other effects include a culling and blur distance on the foliage which helped the big scene not be too taxing on the engine. I also made use of a post process for my ambient occlusion and UE4’s default distance field ambient occlusion.
Lastly I had to learn how to work with audio and attenuation in the scene, I applied some sound to the end of the river which gave the impression of a waterfall near the temple. The magic effects are accompanied by the sounds of Himalayan wind chimes and the greener trees usually have ambient bird sounds.
The last thing I needed to do was finish dressing the scene. The two most recognisable features from Himalayan culture is their use of bells and prayer flags. I already had the functionality for the flags, but still needed to texture them. I went for a more muted palette and used an alpha to give them more wear.
The bells and prayer flags also functioned as a way to direct the player, using lines to draw the composition in a certain direction. Part of dressing the scene was also painting and optimising the foliage of grass and plants and the spread of this. Because the colour of my scene was pretty vivid, I muted the prayer flags, to make sure they stood out.
The last thing I made was the cinematic which followed the sprite through the level using UE4’s Sequencer. Tom also helped me attach a starting camera to this so that the game would open with a cinematic sequence.
I designed this to quickly take the player through the level in a few seconds; it gives context to the magic which can be found in the world and it gives a brief overview of the important pieces in the scene.
I would have liked to make it more obvious that the further away from magic energy the world is the less life it has, this effect would have worked better if the level was bigger, but I still think it cultivates some sense of mystery.
Overall, I wanted my world to look vivid, peaceful, but strangely empty and void of people. This was all done to cultivate a sense of mystery in a beautiful world a player could explore.
- Narrative context and the concept for the game of The Old Ones was designed in collaboration with the Itsfine team. All level design, technical design and assets were made by myself unless otherwise noted.
- Magic Particle – Made in collaboration with Brianna Fromont while working on the original prototype.
- Waterfall Fog – Default Unreal Engine particle effect
- General Ambient: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Lee_Rosevere/Time-Lapse_Volume_4_Sleep_Music/Lee_Rosevere_-_Time-Lapse_Volume_4-_Sleep_Music_-_07_First_Light
- Waterfall: https://www.freesound.org/people/reinsamba/sounds/24054/
- Loud noise: https://www.freesoundeffects.com/free-track/earthquake-89294/
- Magic: https://www.freesound.org/people/InspectorJ/sounds/353194/
- Birds: https://www.freesound.org/people/InspectorJ/sounds/339326/