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Level Design Workflow Tutorial - IcyApex

Category: Level Design
October 05, 2008

I'm going to cover what it takes to release a map with proper planning and execution. I want to share my experience and knowledge of how I finished and submitted Unreal 3 map for a contest in just three weeks.

The following is the workflow I used:

  • Idea
  • Visualizing/Reference
  • Sketching/Reference
  • Blocking In
  • Textures - 1st pass
  • Detailing - 1st pass
  • Detailing - 2nd pass
  • Texturing - 2nd pass
  • Lights - 1st pass
  • Detailing and Texturing Final
  • Lights - 2nd pass and final
  • Final test and Tweaking
  • Release

IDEA

The idea for this map came from a recent trip to Switzerland with my g/f. We toured JungFrau in the Swiss Alps. It's one of the highest points in Europe. At the top of the mountain there was a lookout area called "The Sphinx". The day we went it wasn't clear like we'd seen in pictures. There was a huge blizzard and most of the outside area was closed off due to snow and ice. There was still one area we could go outside. That area became the inspiration for my map.

When I came back to the states, I sketched out the rough idea of my map.

REFERENCE

I started to collect reference using my pictures as well as reference from the internet.

The following is my reference.

For this particular map I already knew how I wanted the place to look and feel. I wanted to communicate the same mood and atmosphere I had felt in person.

When designing 3d environments I often visualize myself inside the spaces.

VISUALIZATION

This is very important. Being able to see your final product before it is done is key.

Visualizing puts you into the mindset, creating the steps that will help you achieve the final product.

If you do not know your map's final look, its going to be trial and error until you hit something visually by luck. That is not good planning, and will cause a lot of frustration.

PLANNING AND EXECUTION

I took a sketch into Photoshop and started to create a more visually pleasing top down view. This took about 2 hours

This was more of a guideline of how it will play. I wanted to make sure I had proper flow to the map and no matter where you were you could get out. No dead-ends.

Soon after I jumped into the editor and started to rough out the plan. Pure simple BSP. Huge, rough, big blocks. This is very important. You want to make sure you flow works. Scale works. If its fun during this stage, then everything becomes easy.

This planning part from sketch to rough build is one of themost important steps to do. Failing to follow through with these will only create more problems and frustrations later.

ATMORSPHERE

Atmosphere and the feel of the map to me is one of the most important things along with gameplay/fun. I would highly consider for you to research and develop a sense of color and design. For DM-IcyApex I knew what kind of feeling and atmosphere I wanted because I was there. But in other cases I would research images, watch movies with same atmosphere I was trying to create and visualize. As I've said before, its very important to see in your mind what the map will look like before you actually see it on screen. Develop that sense of imagination.

So here I added the sky, terrain and rough light to see how the space will look. I liked this rough initial phase. If you like where its going at this early stage, you will have a winner on your hands.

PLAYABLE MAP

Once you block in the BSP and add the basic lights, terrain and sky. Test it. Run around in it. Throw some bots in there or play test it with a friend. You must like where your map is going.

Do not add textures, do not add static meshes. Absolutely no detailing. This will only hinder you to see and playtest the map at early stages.

TEXTURES

Start blocking in and getting rid of checker flagtextures and applying the textures you want for your map.

ADDING OBJECTS and DETAILING PHASE 1

This is where it gets fun and tedious at the same time. After initial testing I started replacing BSP with Static meshes.

I started to get rid of BSP walkways and adding the real grates to walk on.

From this point on I started to add more objects based on what I needed and wanted for my map. Important thing here is to make sure you work from big to small. Do not add tiny details like lights or any props. Concentrate on big bulky objects and work from big to small. Very important. you will manage this alot better. Also make sure you work at this first stageof detailing all over the map. Don't concentrate on one area. This happens later.

ADDING OBJECTS and DETAILING PHASE 2

After I had major details done I started to focus on certain areas of the map and started detailing that specific part of the map. Room by room, area by area. I worked the whole map. If you get bored with one area move on to another and then come back to it later.

This will take probably the most time. Adding details and polishing up individual areas. You will start noticing how your map is developing into a real place.

LIGHTS

I placed lights last before gameplay elements (such as weapons, health, etc). Know color theory. Know your color pallete. Don't go crazy. Simplicity. Have a specific color scheme in mind. Look at paintings, other maps, graphic design. They all have specific color pallete they use. That is what you want to do. Do not use every possible color combination. If your map looks ok, but your lighting is superb, it will bring up the visual quality of your map.

GAMEPLAY

Test and test more. This will take up alot of time and will require other people. No matter how much you think you know your map, you absolutely have to ask others to play it. They will do things and find things that you would have never been able to catch.

Based on my time constraintsI did not do alot of testing for DM-IcyApex with other people. I wish I did. It would have eliminated alot of problems. Espcially if I would have released a beta.

So, release a beta version. Unreal community is awesome at helping. They will tell you how it is.

RELEASING YOUR MAP

Final thing is getting your map out so you can start working on a new one. Upload to websites and forums. Let others see your map and take all feedback to improve on next time.

Start a new map.

Here was my final beauty shot.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Few things I want to leave you with.

  • You will never have perfect map created. This ideal does not exist. Do the best you can with experience and knowledge you have right now.
  • Always do better then your previous time. Compare youself against your own progress. Look at others for inspiration but do not compare yourself to anyone.
  • Set a deadline for your map. If you need a specific deadline set by others, enter your creation into contests.
  • Have fun.

LINKS

I found these to be very useful when I worked on DM-IcyApex and I hope you will too.

Hourences Unreal Tutorial Index
Ice Cream You Unreal 3 Tutorial Guide
Epic Games Unreal 3 Forums

Updated & Revised - Preproduction Blueprint: How to Plan Your Game Environments and Level Designs

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