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Tools: Unity Editor, Visual Studio
Roles: Additional Design, Quality Assurance
Team Size: 15 – 20 people
Development Period: November 2017 – June 2019 (whole game), April – June 2019 (Update 4)
Overview: Underworld Ascendant is a game attempting to emulate immersive sims of years past, positioning itself as a spiritual successor to Ultima Underworld. First employed as a Quality Assurance tester, I was able to suggest and even implement a few features during less intense periods of development.
After the initial game’s ship, we were fortunate enough to be given resources for a few updates. During these updates, I was more explicitly given design tasks and responsibilities, and by Update 2 going live I was given a credit for Additional Design.
For Update 4, I was put in charge of designing and implementing five rooms to accommodate a new quest type where the player needed to rescue an imprisoned character. Intended to serve as more puzzle-like areas, I had to figure out a few interesting combinations of existing systems to leverage into engaging problems. Seeing as traps were underutilized in the base game, I focused on pushing them as tools rather than combat elements in order to accomplish a number of these.
Going over the minutiae of five of these rooms is probably too much, so I’d like to focus on what I think is the best example: the room added to the Titan’s Reach level.
- Layout, and Iteration on Space: The process of creating these rooms had me working closely with Justin Pappas, lead level designer on Underworld Ascendant. While planning these spaces, Justin tried to emphasize the idea of the Bauhaus art movement, often reminding me “form follows function”. As such, I was encouraged to reduce the elements of each puzzle to their bare minimum, which allowed me to focus more on the framing of each room rather than getting bogged down in making some complex problem for players to solve.
Our process involved me starting with translating ideas for puzzles into paper maps, shown above. Justin would review each sketch with me and make suggestions as to how the spaces could be simplified, which I would then use as the basis for a new iteration. After a couple of these for each room, I’d move to blocking out these areas in Unity. Some of these ended up being very close to the diagrams on paper, while others, like the example in Titan’s Reach, ended up being radically different from experimentation in the editor.
- Design and Player Direction: One of the desires I had when making these puzzle rooms was to re-contextualize some systems we had used in the base game in a limited fashion. For instance, a lot of types of traps aren’t really reliable to use as tools against enemies, existing almost entirely for the player to avoid. Once the player has solved the problem of circumventing them, they cease to be interesting. As such, I thought it’d be interesting to use a trap we had built to launch arrows in a way that pushed the player to use it as a piece of the puzzle, focusing more on clearing its path to hit a particular object. On top of that, the launcher was able to shoot any prefab with a rigidbody, not just regular arrows, which had not been utilized prior. I decided to build a problem involving launching blast arrows, which create a physics force when they collide with something. The concept for the Titan’s Reach puzzle room, knocking down a crate with a blast arrow to weigh down a switch, emerged out of this.Shaping the space to better ensure the player saw the pressure plates’ effects was also crucial. The central divot, where the plate to the portcullis is, goes straight from the entry point to the portcullis on the far end, pointing the player towards viewing it while walking through. The higher ledge with the other pressure plate has it positioned in a way where the player will walk towards the center of the room out from the wall, better lining up the player’s line of sight with the launcher trap the plate is associated with.
- Framing and Lighting: While making these sketches, I was encouraged to think about the “initial read” that a player would have as they walked into the space, what their first view of the room would be. This is vital, as the moments of entering a space communicate what gameplay elements are present, which can be made more effective by presenting this information in a more digestible format.
Lighting important elements, I was also pushed to ensure each element was given enough space on screen to be perceived as separate by the player. This sometimes involved adjusting the layout, and a strategy that ended up helping was placing important objects in alcoves framed by an arch. Not only did this physically isolate the items in question, but lights placed within these recesses tend to get cut off by sharp lines in the surrounding geometry, providing clear shadowed boundaries.
Another helpful tool was color. The more fantastic visual style of Underworld Ascendant played with a lot of different tones, so assigning different colors for lights helped further push distinction between puzzle elements. I was mindful of pairing these with light sources in order to keep these spaces grounded, such as using purple grass billboards for violet point lights, and using blue point lights to draw attention to pressure plates.