Mage's Dungeon

Genre: Empty Level
Project Role: Solo Developer
Platform: PC
What is it?

The "Mage's Dungeon" is an empty level designed to be a "tutorial" space that can be filled with mechanics and enemies as needed. This was developed over the course of three months, and focused on level design from a modular approach utilizing procedural generation, VFX, and exploring lighting and material contrasts.


Before really diving in and figuring out what to put where in the level, I had to figure out some specifics for the level. What kind of level did I want to build? What purpose would it serve in a level? What purpose does it serve outside of the game, both for myself, and the requirements of the project? What would my design pillars be?

Before I got too far into research, I decided that the level would be a tutorial-style level, that would teach the player some basic mechanics and draw them into the game within a few minutes, at most, of playing. While the external purpose of the level was to fulfill the requirements of the project (build a level with internal and external components, that lasts for 3-ish minutes), I wanted to learn about the use of environmental storytelling, and environmental guidance through lighting and SFX. The design pillars I focused on were modular design, immersion, and spatial guidance.

I knew I wanted to develop a level that blended aspects of both Legend of Zelda and Skyrim, since, as an avid Elder Scrolls and Zelda fan, I have a good idea of what those levels feel like. I also knew that the level had to have some realism to it, to help alleviate any issues with suspension of disbelief. To that end, I researched medieval dungeons throughout history.

My Legend of Zelda references for this dungeon were:

  • "Waterfall Cave" from Skyward Sword

    • For the guidance through lighting in the space​.

  • "Great Tree" from Skyward Sword

    • To help inform my choices in material and color contrasts to differentiate regions​.

  • "Wind Temple" from Wind Waker

    • For reference for environmental VFXto create a more mystical feeling.

  • "Arbiter's Grounds" from Twilight Princess

    • As a reference in using the space itself to guide the player to points of interest and the path through the environment​.

  • "Forest Temple" from Twilight Princess

    • As an example for more natural environments blended with man-made environments.

My Skyrim references were:

  • "Bleak Falls Barrow"

    • As an example of how to build a more fantasy-style dungeon, that's closer to a tutorial area (because they tend to have simpler layouts)​.

  • "Frostflow Lighthouse"

    • To help inform any decisions on environmental storytelling, and different methods of using the environment to create tension​.

  • "Blackreach"

    • As a reference for how to use light and shadow to guide the player towards interesting points, and away from less interesting points of the dungeon.​

  • "Darkshade Copse"

    • For a reference on lighting VFX and their use in guiding the player through the environment.​

  • "Arkngthamz"

    • For another reference on blending natural and man-made components to create a cohesive feeling abandoned dungeon.​

My real-world references were:

  • Pontrefact Castle Dungeons

    • As a reference for using shadows to create a sense of tension.​

  • Chillon Castle Dungeons

    • As a reference for creating a more atmospheric and photogenic environment. ​

Modular Kits

Now that I had an idea of what I wanted to do with my level, I had to figure out what modular level design kits I could use that would benefit the project most. My decisions were based largely on what was available at the time, as well as what I could actually get my hands on, so to speak.

My limitations were primarily what I could afford to use, as I had limited funds. To make this easier on myself, I decided to only use kits that were free at the time. 

I ended up using the following kits:

  • "Medieval Dungeon" by Infuse Studio

    • For the dungeon and crypt architecture and indoor props​.

  • "Open World Demo Collection" by Epic Games

    • For natural props​.

  • "Procedural Nature Pack Vol.1" by PurePolygons

    • For natural architecture as well as props for internal and natural areas​.

  • "Particle Effects Example" by Epic Games

    • For natural and man-made architecture, lighting references, and particle effects.​

Test Build

Next, I needed to find the best way to work with these kits, and what to do in various situations. To learn these things, I built a small test room, to learn about what is in the various kits, and how to work with modular kits as a general topic. You can see the results to the right. 

Overall Layout

My next step was to design the overall layout, so I have some sort of plan before starting on the white-boxing process. I started this by drawing it out on some whiteboards, until I got the layout I wanted and felt would work. At that point, I transferred it to paper so it's a bit more permanent. 

I figured out the layout by trying to figure out what would tell the most immediately interesting environmental story, and what would be good stages for each part of the story it tells. The end result was the layout to the left.

First Pass

Once the general flow of the spaces was set, I began work on rebuilding the space using the modular kits I had picked out. The focus of this was to solidify the structure of the environment, and ensure the space would flow the way I wanted it to. 

Because of that, I only did very basic lighting and particle passes, more as a reference point for me to determine the palettes and moods of the areas. I didn't place any of the props, as I wasn't entirely sure yet what to put where. 

Now that I had a general idea of what layout I wanted, the general constraints of working with modular kits, and what was available to me from the kits I'd chosen, I started my white-boxing process. 

The original intent of this level was to have the player "escape" from the dungeon, and the white-boxing I did reflected that. The primary intent behind this process, for me, was to figure out the scale and layout of the level in a 3D space. An added bonus, was to figure out where points of lighting and particle emitters should go, as well as the general color palette and mood each region. 

However, by the time I'd finished the white-boxing for the level, I realized the level flowed better if it was reversed from the original intent. In addition, some areas needed scaling up or down, and more or less lighting.

Second and Third Passes

Once the structure of the level had been built, I went through a second pass and added props to the scene, as well as some more basic lighting and VFX to confirm that each space worked the way I wanted it to.

On my third pass, I went through and added more props, as well as more lighting and VFX. I also added some basic SFX for the scene, primarily on objects that had to have audio (for example, for the torches, since they are never totally silent).