Creating a Level: From Concept to Finished Product

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a post about how we make Levels when working on Where Shadows Slumber. The only problem was a lack of documentation. I forgot to take screenshots of the early stages of the Levels we’ve completed so far. What I really wanted to do was show our audience the growth of a Level, from it’s earliest conception and then show the various stages of the design process along the way.

When I thought of this idea, I tabled the blog and decided to wait until I started on a new batch of Levels… and here we are! We’re going to take an inside look at Level 3-1, Noria, the first Level of the Aqueduct World.

 

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Step 1: Draw The Level

Every Level has a reason for being in the game. Noria is the first Level in the Aqueduct World, which makes it extra special. Whenever we design the first Level of a World, we like to communicate to the Player:

  • Why the World is going to feel different from the other Worlds in the game
  • What mechanics you’ll be dealing with in this World – especially new ideas

For the Aqueduct, we wanted to make it all about mechanical devices, switches, rotating things and whirring machines. Our game doesn’t exactly have a precise historical setting, but it’s fair to say it isn’t modern day. This gives us some leeway with technology. It has to work, but it can look really old.

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Jack’s notebook!

The Aqueduct World is all about Buttons. Buttons are Nodes that do something when you step onto them. There are all kinds of Buttons, but the most basic Button does a thing every time you step on it, no matter how many times you step on it.

To show that off, Jack designed a Level (above) where the only way to cast shadows and move the light was with a single Button. In addition to that, there are Buttons near each light in the Level to turn them on and off. The proximity of the light to the Button it’s attached to is an intuitive connection. These Buttons work like regular domestic light switches too, so it’s a cheap way of using existing Player knowledge about the real world and transmuting it into knowledge of our game.

When a Level exists in this form, the only thing we can really do is discuss it. Jack will attempt to guide a very confused Frank through the mechanics of the Level. I’ll try to poke holes in it (literally, with my pencil) and find problems with the design. We’ve never shown these sketches to testers because it’s too high-level for them to understand. If we like the idea of the Level, Jack makes a grey box prototype of it in Unity for us to test.

 

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This Level doesn’t look too special yet, huh? Just wait!

Step 2: Make A Grey-Box Prototype Level

With a design solidified, now we’re ready to make a version of the Level that can be played and tested. It doesn’t need to look pretty yet, so we use basic template cubes to represent walkable space. Affectionately called grey box prototypes, this technique is how we prototype every Level in the game. Watch a video of me beating the Level below:

As you can see, it’s playable in this stage, and everything works. You can solve the puzzle, which means testers can assess the strength of our design. (We just tell them to ignore the visuals.) We brought this Level, in this format, to AwesomeCon 2017 looking for feedback from players. When we show grey box prototypes to people, we want to make sure they can complete the puzzle. More than that, we want to make sure that they solved it on purpose instead of just by brute force. If we get good feedback, we proceed to Step 3.

 

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Step 3: Draw Some Concept Art

This might seem backward, but this is the time when I draw a concept image of the Level. Why do I do this after the Level has been prototyped, and not before? It’s because Jack knows best which Nodes need to go where, and I don’t. I need to take cues from him about where everything must be, which often includes the actual length and width of shadow casting objects.

This is actually beneficial. It gives me good constraints to work with. I draw a paper sketch and say, “OK, if everything absolutely has to be in this location, what can I do with it? What makes sense for the setting [Aqueduct] whether it’s man-made or organic?” As you can see in the drawing, the following ideas have been spawned:

  • Obe should enter from a pipe (bottom right) to match the cutscene that plays directly before this Level.
  • The pillar now looks like it belongs – it’s a crumbling structural element of the Aqueduct, a man-made structure in disrepair.
  • The mechanism by which the lamp moves left to right is not just a magical back-and-forth switch. Now it’s a waterwheel! Why a wheel? Google “Noria”…
  • The lights need to look like actual man-made lights since they are powered by Buttons on the ground. Why not lamps?
  • There are stone pathways going horizontally that have crumbled over time. Those need to be repaired by shadows.
  • The bridges going vertically are metal grates that allow water to pass under them. This is an Aqueduct, we can’t just have standing water blocked in!
  • There’s a back wall with a door. I like to give the Player as many visual cues as possible that the finish line is an actual exit.

The concept art phase is another chance for us to critique the design. If we know the puzzle is good, but it produces an awkward-looking Level, we have the opportunity to reconfigure things. Perhaps the exit needs to be in a different place? Maybe objects should be closer or further apart? Now is the time to match the design to the intended context, the Aqueduct. Once I have good concept art to work from, I proceed to Step 4!

 

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Step 4: First Aesthetic Pass

Now it’s time to take that ugly grey box prototype (sorry Jack) and make it look and sound beautiful! I’m ready to apply my toolkit of Aqueduct paths, walls and bridges to the design. Once the art is laid down, Alba and Noah have their first chance to put some audio effects into the Level and set the mood. It makes a huge difference: now the Level doesn’t sound like it takes place in a silent death vacuum! Creepy chimes and rushing water converge to give the Level a sense of place. Here’s a video of it all in action:

The Level doesn’t look grey anymore! That’s awesome. But… it also doesn’t look finished, does it? This kind of art would pass for a student game or something in a game jam, but we want to be an App Store Editor’s Pick and win a ton of awards. That means the art needs to be worth the price people paid to download the game. It needs to be extraordinary! It needs to be… polished.

 

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Step 5: Aesthetic Polish

Polish is a game design term for taking your finished product and finishing it again so it’s even better – much like shining a shoe with shoe polish. You want to make your Level shine! If you’re making an island paradise, it needs to be the most relaxing paradise the player has ever experienced. If it’s a scummy slum in a city, you need to make that slum as dirty as possible. Everything needs to be pushed to the extreme.

My personal philosophy is that I want to turn every Level in the game into my favorite one. Obviously, I know that can’t happen. But at least while I’m working on it, I can take something boring and give it life. Speaking of which, this is usually where animation enters the picture.

animate (verb)

1530s, “to fill with boldness or courage,” from Latin animatus past participle of animare “give breath to,” also “to endow with a particular spirit, to give courage to, enliven,” from anima “life, breath”

Animation is the most time-consuming part of aesthetic design, and it requires a lot of setup as well. It makes sense for this to come last. But it’s definitely the most important artistic layer. Bad video games tend to feel frozen and stale: great games are always in motion, even when everything appears still. I think our modern brains are conditioned to assume that a screen containing no motion is frozen, as if the app crashed. If you look at games with a high level of polish (Blizzard’s Hearthstone comes to mind), there’s always something moving around to give the player the illusion of life. The goal of polish is to make your game appear to crackle with the spark of life. See for yourself:

Pretty different, huh? Our water shader adds some much needed liveliness to the water, and makes it feel like a rushing stream. Buttons now move and bounce under Obe’s weight. An animated glyph on the ground lets you know where you’ve just clicked. The lamp posts are now chains dangling from the ceiling, which lets them sway gently on a loop.

The other perk of animation is that it allows you to add a third sense to the game: touch (or, feel). In a very real sense, players can only experience your game using their eyes and ears. But if you do your job right as a game designer, certain elements in your game will make the player feel things. Have you ever gotten hit in a video game and exclaimed out loud “ow!” after seeing what happened to your avatar? You didn’t actually feel pain, but something about the experience was immersive enough that it made you connect with your character. That’s what polish is for. That’s how games rise to the top!

 

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forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever

Step 6: You Never Finish, This Goes On Forever

Here’s the dirty little secret about my strategy for artistic polish: I’ll never be finished. I will never finish this game. I will work on this game every day until I am dead. It doesn’t even matter if I’m improving the artwork, even if I’m actively making everything worse I will never finish anything in this game.

Whoops! That’s not what I meant to say. Where was I?

Eventually, you need to stop working on a Level so you can move on. This is always a heartbreaking moment in game development. If I could choose any superpower, I would choose a very specific one – the ability to do things on my computer without time slipping through my fingers like grains of sand into an endless void.

[  . _ . ]

You have to move on so you can finish the rest of your game, so when do you do that? It’s at the point where your hours of input are only reaping very marginal gains. People won’t spend an eternity looking at your Levels, so you shouldn’t spend an eternity working on them either. If anything looks truly awful at launch, you can always sneakily patch in fixes that you missed. Just say you’re fixing bugs. and blame the programmer!

Besides, I can always improve the artwork again when we remaster Where Shadows Slumber for BlackBerry…

 


 

I’ve been working on this blog post for too long, and now my hours of writing input are reaping only marginal gains. Time to end this post. Thanks for looking at this inside scoop into our process! If you’re wondering why game development takes so long, imagine doing this for all 38 Levels in the game. That’s not even including the cutscenes…

Say, that gives me an idea for another blog post!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this deep dive into our development process. You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter directly using the handle @GameRevenant, find us on Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

 

Hey, Listen!

Bubbling pools of lava. Rushing water echoing throughout a cavernous aqueduct. An eerie graveyard. A lonely mountaintop buffeted by unrelenting snow.

For the longest time, Jack and I imagined these sounds in our heads as we played the development build of Where Shadows Slumber. Neither of us have any formal audio training, so our game was a silent vacuum waiting to be filled with lively sound. We imagined footsteps clattering on tile, creepy birds in the distance, and the distant growl of mysterious beasts as we dreamed of a day when our game felt complete. Finally, that dream has come true!

To be sure, this game is still very much in development. But we’re finally ready to show off some of the sections of our game that have complete sound. It’s taken many months of recording and composing by Alba S. Torremocha and Noah Kellman, our powerhouse audio team, to get here. All the while, Jack has been diligently programming a complex system of triggers to ensure that their sound plays correctly during the game.

I underestimated the amount of work it would take to set all of this up! But I was right about one thing – our game feels so much more alive now that you can hear things like the crunch of grass under Obe’s feet. Every visual element in the game has taken on a weighty-ness that gives it a sense of place, whereas before everything just seemed to float. If you normally don’t play mobile games with your phone’s sound on, you’re going to want to reconsider when you download Where Shadows Slumber next year.

Without further ado, let’s watch some videos of the game in action accompanied by a brief interview with Alba and Noah.

TURN YOUR SOUND ON! ([ ^_^]);

 

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At a planning meeting, we discuss scene audio transitions.

 

Interview With Alba and Noah

FRANK. What was the name of that event you guys went to?

ALBA & NOAH. The event was a GANG (Game Audio Network Guild) monthly panel and feedback meeting, one of the only venues where us audio nerds can safely enter the outside world and socialize.

F. How secret was it? Can you tell us anything?

A&N. We can tell you that Tom Salta (Composer for Killer Instinct, Prince of Persia, Halo), Jason Kanter (Audio Lead at Avalanche) and Gina Zdanowicz (Owner of SerialLab Studios, Sound Designer for Best Luck) were all there to give us feedback, and they all had great things to say about the game! They also offered us some really fantastic feedback with good ideas to help us continue to improve the soundscape.

F. What parts of the game did you show off?

A&N. We chose one Level from each of three Worlds (World 0, World 2, and World 6) and demonstrated how the audio interactivity works, as well as our aesthetic sound choices so far.

F. How much audio is done – what have you done so far?

A&N. It’s crazy to say, but we’re almost finished with our first pass of sound for every World except World 7! Whoa. Once that’s done, we’ll head over to the UI sound design and the cutscenes, while continuing to make improvements on the rest.

F. What part of the game are you working on now?

A&N. We’re finishing up music and sound for World 4 and we have some crazy ideas that might hold back the schedule a bit… (oh crap, I hope Frank and Jack aren’t reading this…)

F. What audio features are you most looking forward to creating?”

A&N. We’re really excited to freak out our neighbors with a bunch of strange, deep grunting sounds while we work on Obe’s voice and character sound design. And also, wait, did someone say… string quartet?

 

 

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What Do You Think?

We’re very proud of the work that’s been done on the game so far. That doesn’t mean the game is finished, though! We’re also not above taking criticism or honest feedback. Now is the time to tell us what you really think – don’t wait until the game is on the store, and you’re agonizing over whether to give it four stars or five stars…

Leave a post in the Comments section below and let us know what you think!

 

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Thanks for checking out the game’s audio in this blog post update. Please leave a comment to let us know you’re not a Russian Twitter bot scanning this page for mercenary purposes. You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

Introducing Our Audio Team!

We’ve been waiting a few weeks to announce this, but now it’s official: Where Shadows Slumber will have professional audio designed by Alba S. Torremocha and Noah Kellman. Please extend them a warm welcome to the team!

It would be a shame if I spent this entire announcement post blathering on instead of handing the spotlight over to them, so instead I’ll let them write their own introductions. Take it away, you two!

 

Hey all!

“Here we are! Finally! The last pieces of the Dream Team, reaaaaady to rock! And roll. Mostly roll, since we’re recording A LOT.

Everybody knows that sound guys are always the coolest, but let us introduce ourselves
real quick so there’s no doubt left about it.

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Alba was expelled from Hogwarts for using her wand as a baton.

Alba S. Torremocha (Music & Sound Design) Alba comes from a highly-refined background in classical composition and orchestration. She walks around with an eyebrow raised because well, that’s what snobby classical musicians do. She studied violin for 10 years and then Classical Composition and Conducting in Europe for 4 years, with a strong focus on French orchestration techniques (hence the raised eyebrow). In the US, she won the residency of the NYU Symphony in 2016, and recently received the Elmer Bernstein Award. Her pieces have been premiered and awarded around the world, and she always makes sure everyone is aware of this at all times. Her alter ego appears under the full moon and is a kick-ass film and video game music composer. She recently collaborated with the renowned video game composer Tom Salta (Prince of Persia, Halo, Killer Instinct…) on one of his latest projects. More: www.albastorremocha.com

 

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Noah spits fairy dust when he’s excited. No one knows exactly why.

Noah Kellman (Sound Design & Music) Noah comes from an intensive jazz piano background. He toured the country at the Brubeck Institute while working with many jazz greats along the way. He spent year after year striving to be the best until someone finally said to him, “Your music sounds terrible and I don’t understand any of it, so it must be the best jazz I’ve ever heard!” At that point, Noah knew he was a true jazz master and he decided to pursue becoming a master of other things, including filling his medicine pouch in Horizon Zero Dawn and driving with cruise control set to 11 mph collecting rare Pokémon in NYC. But, in his glorious return to professional sound creation, Noah began creating electronic cinematic soundscapes using acoustic instruments to create strangely familiar yet unrecognizable timbres. Although he works intensively as a composer and sound designer throughout the film and game world, his pride, joy, and utter financial downfall is his independent Cinematic Post-Rock project “Nozart”, which has also garnered him attention as a songwriter, producer and performer in the Indie world. More: www.noahkellman.com

 


 

We often work as a team because, as you can see, we come from very different backgrounds and, when we combine them, really cool stuff happens. Also, it’s more fun to have someone else to blame and panic with when the deadline hits your face. We first heard about Where Shadows Slumber at Play NYC. We played it and were instantly amazed, but we quickly noticed there was no music or sound design.

When we asked them about it, they said: *slo-mo, camera closeup on their lips*

‘We’re looking for a Sound Team.’

(Actual footage of the moment)

Then, a choir of angels appeared and bonded us to this sacred quest. Next thing we know, we’re recording lantern sounds in our living room.

We knew right away that Where Shadows Slumber called for an exceptionally unique sonic landscape. After discussing this in great detail with Frank and Jack, we understood that Obe’s story takes place in a world that bears some nostalgic resemblance to ours, but is actually full of creatures, inhabitants and landscapes of mysterious origin. We wanted our sounds to be surprising, alien, and yet somehow recognizable. We tried to accomplice that goal by using unconventional methods to reflect familiar creatures and landscapes. For example, in the following video of World 0, we used a combination of synthesis and acoustic flutes to create the birds throughout the atmosphere. The two types of birds function differently within the game, bringing the soundscape to life.

We also wanted to break the barrier between music and sound design. Instead of an
inanimate loop that plays over and over, we created a soundscape in which both music
and sound design breath together, affecting and changing with each other as the player makes decisions in the game. For example, different layers of music are activated (or deactivated) with the player’s progress (or backtracking) in solving the puzzle throughout the level.

Overall, Where Shadow Slumber is an exciting challenge, and we love nothing more
than helping transport the player into a completely new, beautiful and immersive world.”

-Alba & Noah

 

Look Forward To More Audio Updates

Jack and I are thrilled that we’re able to bring Alba and Noah aboard! Our game has been a silent vacuum for quite some time, and it gets a bit soul-crushing. Hearing the birds chirping in the Forest for the first time suddenly made the game feel alive in a way that it hasn’t since the Demo days. It really is incredible how one missing crucial piece, like the sense of sound, can cripple the experience.

Well, no longer! Look forward to more audio updates as time goes on. We’re all working on different sections of the game right now; Alba and Noah are making their way chronologically though the Worlds starting from the Forest, as Jack finishes up the game’s ending Levels and I’m somewhere in the middle doing artwork. In time, we’ll converge and show our fan(s) the combined effort of everyone’s talents working together. Until then, you’ll have to be patient!

 

EDIT (Sept. 26, 3:00 p.m.): A previous version of this article mistakenly contained the wrong video file showcasing the game’s audio. The video has been updated.

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More audio updates are coming in the next few months. Until then, you can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.