The Lower Vela Overworld map was created using the Quest for Valor project, which is an action adventure game framework created by one of the instructors at VFS in the Unreal Engine 4. This level serves as the predecessor area to my other Quest for Valor level, the Royal Castle Dungeon (which can be found here). Overall, the project took around 6 weeks to be finished after many iterations. My goal with it was to provide a fun area that prepared players, both narrative and gameplay wise, to the dungeon that follows, while offering a variety of unique environments, storytelling and challenges. This also served as an opportunity to practice and improve my skills with the Unreal Engine 4 and its Blueprint system, both as a Level Designer and Mission Designer.
This level features the following:
In my Royal Castle Dungeon map, the main theme is that the Skeleton King kidnapped villagers and it is up to the player to rescue them and beat him at the end. The idea for this overworld came from the simple question of "Where were these villagers before?" That, together with the fact that I wanted to challenge myself into working more with the Landscape tool and Blueprints, gave birth to Lower Vela as an Overworld.
After some initial sketches in my notebook, I jumped into the actual Layout Plan. While I was working on it, I played with the engine a bit to see how far I could and wanted to go with the events and geometry in the level(given the time I had). This part of the process was rather easy, as I have previous experience with both the engine and the project. As such, after a couple of iterations, I had a solid plan to work with.
Needless to say -in an effort to keep my documentation always updated- iteration on the layout plan didn't really stop until I was out of the Whiteboxing stage, with the geometry locked. As I built the level and playtested it, many changes were necessary in order to achieve the level of fun I was looking for, be it by removing elements that simply weren't working or adding new areas.
The most notable example of this happened in the Graveyard section. In the early stages of development, the area was smaller and had the Mayor in plain sight in a hill for the player to see. However, this didn't encourage the exploration I was hoping for and made the combat encounters too close together. My solution was the addition of a small area called The Tomb of Beric, reachable by crossing a bridge.
After the player has commited to walk through the bridge to reach the Mayor, they are surprised with a Grunt that slowly starts to make his way towards them. Here I offered two choices for the player: They could either fight the enemy in the small circular island, or they could use the nearby pressure plate to lower the bridge when the enemy is on top of it, ending the conflict with minimal "blood" spilled.
The Whiteboxing Process
I honestly love working with BSPs/Geometry in UE4. It's very straightforward process that allows for quick iterations inside the editor. For this level, I decided to start my Whiteboxing with only the playable space in mind, adhering to the previously established metrics to get a good idea of playtime, intensity and difficulty.
Later I added the landscape, replacing some sections with the proper terrain. You can see the difference in the pictures below.
Given that fact that I was working with pre-made assets, I had to ensure my scale would be adequate with the assets I had at my disposal and vice-versa. Because of that, I added some meshes during this phase, adjusting them and my environment in order to get something harmoneous and consistent with my design. This is the end result as seen from inside the editor:
While shaping my landscape I also started to take into consideration elements outside of the playable area that would compose the vistas. I wanted to have something interesting to see in every empty space in order to give it meaning (though never detracting from landmark structures in the critical path), and if I couldn't the space would just be removed. A good example is the huge drop and the waterfall that can be seen in the Mountain Path section.
I am quite happy with how this level turned out and I believe I accomplished my goal of improving my skills with the Unreal Engine 4 in the scope I set to myself. There is definitely room for improvement, however and some things I would change include making the narrative-in moment more dynamic using cinematic tools, better use of terrain for combat situations and having the world react to the player more in order to make it feel more alive.