Scrapbot Dev Diary #1 - Level Design and Early Choices

Hello and welcome to the first non-forced blog in quite a while! This one is all about a personal project of mine, that I have been working on to and from for a few weeks now (trying to relax on a break and still work is a bit hard for me still). In this blog I will be discussing the main idea, then talk a bit about some design choices i’ve made, and then finally talk a bunch about the level design, as that has been the main focus these last few weeks.

So let’s start talking about the idea itself. What I wanted to go for when making the game was a Mario 64 or Banjo Kazooie feel. Kind of an open world platformer where you collect items in order to progress. I wanted to make something that didn’t use many difficult programming elements, as I had decided to make the game in Unreal Engine 4, rather than Unity which I am used to working in. My game had two characters. Two different robots that the player could switch between in order to complete puzzles and challenges. The original idea was that the player could collect three different types of currencies that would be used to construct different tools (like launch-pads) to assist the player further. The main goal of the game was to help a third robot (NPC) to go to space in a massive rocket that is located in the middle of the map. As for the map itself, it was split up into four different areas that I would lock off and release over time as I developed this project. This was the original Idea for the game, however below I will talk about some design choices and issues I encountered that changed the game slightly.

First off is my choice to remove character swapping and two characters. In a game world as “open” as mine, it would be tedious to only move one character at a time to move across the map. It is probably countered through the level design itself by moving the characters in small increments, but it didn’t correspond with what I wanted for the game.

First iteration on level. one part of several massive quadrants that would progressively be released after game release by me.

First iteration on level. one part of several massive quadrants that would progressively be released after game release by me.

The second issue was the map size. I liked the thought of having different zones, but I eventually realized that I probably won’t want to work on this for another few months to fill out all areas with unique ideas and content, so I removed the zones and decreased the overall map size. Because of that I also had to decide what activities I wanted to include in the game. I started off with trying to come up with four different activities, one for each quadrant. However I ended up changing it to four jumping puzzles instead, as I wanted to focus on the level design and platforming aspects of the game, rather than amount of mechanics. So the final decision became four jumping puzzles starting in or being located in, the different quadrants.

New iteration on the level design. This iteration features a significantly smaller level with objectives all around.

New iteration on the level design. This iteration features a significantly smaller level with objectives all around.

Upper Left Quadrant of the new level. Here I have mapped out a jumping puzzle and all it's possible paths as well as locations of bolts.

Upper Left Quadrant of the new level. Here I have mapped out a jumping puzzle and all it's possible paths as well as locations of bolts.

Next up was some smaller changes that I had implemented, but then decided to remove completely. One of them being the three currencies. I had nuts, bolts and springs that all were made for the player to collect. However, none of them had any specific purpose at all, so I removed two of them, keeping the bolts. The reason for keeping the bolts was partially because I feel like bolts do more good than nuts, but also because the internet has ruined me and I didn’t want to keep writing nuts in my documentation. The second issue I had was the mechanic to carry items. Originally in a very early idea I wanted the player to be able to have to place boxes on pressure plates to move through puzzles, but since this became a jumping puzzle based game instead, I decided to remove the functionality completely.

Since I have one of the quadrants ready for grey-boxing, I wanted to dive in to unreal engine and start mapping out the area and test the size of the level, as well as get used to exporting from maya to UE4. The first step was to create a cylinder that would cover the size of the level. Since I had made the level smaller from the start, I decided to make the radius of the level 50 metres, rather than 80. This however, was incredibly far, and it could take me as much as 3 minutes to reach the end of the level, which was way too far. I tried changing it over and over again, and eventually ended up at 15 meters. It's around this point that I figured out that since 1 unreal unit is equal to 1 centimeter, that means that 10 unreal units is 1 meter, meaning that my "50" meters actually were around 500 meters. So my 15 meter radius made more sense as a 150 meter radius. This 150 meter radius was a pretty good size since it didn't feel too long nor too short. I played around as well with the size of the crater the map is in, and the size of the rocket in the middle. I wanted the rocket to be a very clear center-point so I needed it to be visible from everywhere.

Level design test, with final size iteration of 150 meter radius

Level design test, with final size iteration of 150 meter radius

Previously in my degree one of my weaknesses was to ask “why” questions. Why do I implement X, what purpose does it have? Does it add to the game experience? If the questions were no, then there is no reason to have it in the game. For this project I think I have evolved in that field significantly, and I believe my game will turn out better for that.

Darkness Dwells - Metrics and Research

During earlier blogs I have talked a bit about promotion and social media and I have talked a bunch about research, but I haven’t really concluded how it worked out for us or what we did with feedback that was provided to us. That is the purpose of this blog.  

On social media we very early on made a twitter and Facebook account that most members shared with their followers. On these social medias we kept posting pictures and teasers for the game, but most importantly, we used twitter polls. This allowed us to sort of gauge out what our audience enjoyed at the same time we were developing the game. It also allowed us to be more in contact with our audience and show them that we were interested in their opinions in order to make our game better.  

What we found out through the social media and out of assumption testing was that most people that enjoyed horror games enjoyed challenge with it. Making it a struggle for survival and getting the adrenaline pumping even harder. We decided to take this into consideration when making our game, hence why we added the radio and the use of the bed monster. The bed monster originally wasn’t supposed to be a threat during the entire game, but upon testing the game and having it feel to easy, we made it so that the player has to try and balance the bed monster with everything else happening in the game. On top of this, we added the radio, which makes all the monsters appear faster unless the player turns it off, adding a new layer of urgency and challenge.  

It is not a surprise that streamers and youtubers enjoy horror games, for the main purpose of overreacting to them. Somehow, it seems to attract a lot of views. views that we can guide to our page. The game was originally made with youtubers in mind, which is the whole reason why the game is based around jumpscares. Due to research made by a teammate of the project, we managed to find out that generally people do not care if there is a lot of jumpscares in a short amount of time. Naturally we used this to our advantage and based our game around this as part of our core mechanic.

I believe it is due to our research and interaction with the audience, that darkness dwells at this point is number 3 on most popular game on itch.io, and have been featured on the front page. Thank you for reading this short blog discussion.

Darkness Dwells Post Mortem

What Did We Do?

Darkness Dwells was a continuation on the game developed by Scott Anastasi the trimester before this. In that game, you played a child seeing monsters appear and finding comfort in your parents presence. For this project, we took that game and built it into a horror game where you have to try and keep the monsters out, only using your flashlight. The player had to try and stop three monsters, Longtooth (in the closet), The Gremlin (on the rocking horse) and UnderBed (take a wild guess). Each monster required a different tactic to handle. But there was another factor. There is also a radio that speeds up the rate of which the monsters appear that the player had to turn off.

What Went Well?

During this project our team performed really well in all fields. We communicated often and clearly about what we were working on and when. We discussed changes with each other and made sure we compromised if not all agreed. As project manager I tried to make sure that everyone had something to do at all times, and often tried to tie that into the specialization that that person wanted to use.

As a team we worked closely together with two animators that made the main character models for us. We treated them well and made sure to give them proper feedback and the praise they required. There was large amounts of trust between the game developers and the collaborators, and I think that the trust we had for work to get done was a crucial part for the games completion. We could not have been where we are today without their splendid work.

We used project management tools such as Hack’N’Plan and development schedules with excellency in order to get work done on time, with great success. We scoped when necessary and managed to pivot and change upon feedback with ease.

In my opinion the teams marketing was fantastically executed. We made up a plan, and acted upon it. At the point I am writing this, the game page on itch.io has 1278 views and 342 downloads, as well as being the number 3 most popular game on itch.io. We have had several people play the game and upload the video to youtube where it has received high praise.

What Didn’t Go Well?

This game has been my second game as a project manager, and there was a lot that went wrong with it. I enjoy being project manager, but I believe that some of the things that went wrong was that a) no one really wanted to be project manager from the start, so I stepped in just because we needed one, and b) I didn’t feel super engaged with the project for a while, so I found it difficult to do much work for it.

Nevertheless, I pushed through my feelings and tried to do my best, and it started off pretty good in my opinion. However, I as a person am very passive, and I don’t make a lot of noise when things go against my preference, so when team members started going off the schedule or started giving orders to other members, I didn’t really speak up, making it feel like I wasn’t actually the project manager.

In order to better myself for future projects, I need to speak up more. I need to start taking a stand if roles or schedules are strafed away from, and make sure we end up where we want to be. I need to try and be more inspiring and helpful, while making sure everyone does the work they’re supposed to do.

What Did I Learn?

Working on Darkness Dwells made me learn a whole heap about what being a generalist means. I got to take care of Localization, UI, Options, and many other things I haven’t touched as much before (except for UI). It was a very enriching experience and helped me accept that I am a game designer as well as generalist, instead of trying to find a specialisation.

This project taught me a whole bunch of useful information about marketing that I had no experience with before. I now know how to find a market and make a game that panders to that market, as well as creating a brand/identity and promote all of that on social media. I learned about price points and about making assumptions and researching those assumptions for the selected market.