Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Postcards from Unreal

I'm building a Unreal Tournament 4 level in preparation for a level design studio class I'm teaching next year. I've been using Unity for a few years and now I feel very comfortable with using Unity for my projects, but I don't really have much experience with Unreal Engine 4. To try to learn how to use it, I thought I'd make a small UT deathmatch map.

Honestly, I think Unreal Tournament is a colossal over-designed mess of a game -- players can slide, wall run, dodge -- use 10 different weapons each with primary and secondary fire modes... I prefer the simplicity (and elegance?) of Quake 3 and its successors. Basically, Quake feels like soccer, while Unreal Tournament feels more like American football with 100 extra rules tacked on.

Nevertheless, it's important to be able to internalize how a game plays, even if you don't like it very much. I've tried to provide opportunities for sliding and wall running, and I've focused on what seems like the core three weapons in UT (Flak, Rocket, Shock) while attempting to channel the UT series' sci-fi urban industrial aesthetic.

Originally I started with a graybox / blockout made of 3D tiling static-mesh modules from the \BaseModularSet\ already included in UT. The workflow is pretty similar to how I worked in Source Engine / Unity: first I create a basic wall slab or floor slab, and then I clone or duplicate that object on the grid. Eventually there's enough accumulated mass in the level where it's easy to shuffle walls around and create new rooms.

As I prototype this, I'm also trying to figure out how I'm going to try to teach level design. What kind of workflow will I enforce for my students? How should they start their levels? When is the level ready for an art pass, and how do you know?

Regardless of my personal process though, part of my job as a teacher is to formalize what "standard industry practice" is, and train students in that kind of thinking so that they can make use of it if they wish. And today, standard industry practice has moved far away from the old school CSG / BSP-style construction idolized by a previous generation of level designers like me and/or Joe Wintergreen.

In my gay sex games, I can usually comfortably dive into development "art-first" and I spend relatively little time in the graybox stage for my game environments. So it's been an interesting change of pace for me to try to figure out what art passing really means here. I inevitably end up adjusting sizes and dimensions to fit the visual logic of the room (even though that was supposed to be "finalized" in the graybox stage) while allowing space for details and extra greebles on the walls.

This brings me to the problem with the historical split of level design into separate fields of formalist "level design" and a decorative "environment art" -- they both heavily inform each other. From a holistic perspective, level design is environment art is level design. The color palette, texturing, and lighting in a map all have a huge effect on the readability of other characters and game objects. It seems like a big mistake to separate the two practices so sharply, to pretend it's not actually a blurry complicated distinction to make.

Right now, I would say my environment is too dark and detailed. But does UT support those kinds of game worlds? If this were Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, FMPONE might be chastising me about how busy the bricks are, and how it's hard to read silhouettes against these surfaces. Is this as much of a problem in "less-realistic" games like UT or Overwatch, where every character takes longer to eliminate than in CS:GO, and anyway, the games already apply heavy glow / rim lighting shaders to their characters? Maybe not.

So I'm currently at a design stage where I'm thinking about the post-art-pass "gameplay pass", about how much to decrease high-contrast lighting / flatten scene compositions to make viewpoints easy to read and parse. But maybe it's OK.

(And anyway, does it even matter? I think UT currently has a global player count of, like, 500 people. Every UT message board I've seen is full of month-old threads about how Epic Games has deserted them. It doesn't look good from here.)

Wish you were here,
-- R