Mage's Dungeon

Genre: Empty Level
Project Role: Solo Developer
Platform: PC
Engine: Unreal 4.22.3
What is it?

"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 exploring lighting and material contrasts, VFX, and utilizing procedural generation.

References

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 game? 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 starting. 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 about 3 minutes), I wanted to learn about the use of environmental storytelling and 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, because, as an avid Elder Scrolls and Zelda fan, I have a solid understanding 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 also 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.

I utilized:

  • "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.​

overview.PNG
Test Build

I then needed to find the best way to enable these kits to handle a variety of situations. I built a small test room to practice using modular kits in general as well as specifically exploring the various kits being utilized. You can see the results to the right.

First Pass

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

At this point, I had only completed very basic lighting and particle passes as more of a reference point to determine the palettes and moods of the areas. I didn’t place any props yet, as I hadn’t determined their place at that point.

Overall Layout

My next step was to design the overall layout so I would be prepared with a plan before white-boxing. I accomplished this by sketching various versions until I achieved the layout that would be most effective and fit my design goals.

The resulting layout to the left focuses on telling the most immediately interesting environmental story and identifying impactful ways to show each part of it.

White-Boxing

Once the general layout, the general constraints of working with modular kits, and the assets available to me were confirmed, I started white-boxing the space.

The original intent of this level was to have the player "escape" from the dungeon, and the white-boxing reflected that. The primary intent behind this process was to determine the scale, layout, lighting, and mood of the level in a 3D space.

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

Second and Third Passes

Once the structure of the level had been built, I performed a second pass and added props, more basic lighting, and VFX to the scene to confirm that each space worked as designed.

On my third pass, I added even more props, as well as more lighting and VFX. I also added some basic SFX for the scene, primarily on objects that required audio (for example, for the torches, since torches are not silent).

Fourth and Fifth Passes

For these passes, I went through and added spatialized audio to support the environment, a background audio track, and some reverb zones. The purpose of the zones was to ensure the audio behaved believably in areas like the grotto where environmental SFX should echo lightly.

My fifth and final pass consisted of polishing and playtesting the level to make sure that everything was cohesive and achieving the desired effect. One of the most important things for this level was that the player felt immersed in the space while still being able to easily find their way through the environment without external help. Through my testing, I found that I had achieved the desired effect and players could easily navigate the space.

What went wrong?

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to complete a cutscene showing a flythrough of the level. In addition, because of how some of the meshes worked, the collisions were way out of place, or didn't have the correct type of collision, so the player had to unpossess the character to utilize the level. So, while the level looks very pleasing, it still needs some work to be fully functional.

What went right?

Overall, I feel this project was very successful. Players felt immersed and could easily travel through the space without any external guidance. Reportedly, the level was very atmospheric but also contained an appropriate amount of tension in specific areas, which was the intent.

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© 2019 by David Robson.

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Redmond, WA

david@dsrobson.com

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