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The UnmakingAmazon Game Studios | 2014

Overview

The Unmaking is an action game where you defend a castle against “waves” of massive enemy hordes. With touch-based controls, you command various mounted weapons, dragging your finger to aim your shots out from the castle wall.The game utilizes Amazon’s AppStream service to render PC quality graphics in the cloud and stream to a tablet.

Platform   Kindle Fire

Tools   Unity/C# Maya, Photoshop

Skills   Level Design, Scripting, Prototyping, Enemy Design, UX Design

My Role

My primary responsibilities were as the team’s level designer, building all of the layouts, scripting, and configuring play. I also did early enemy prototyping and collaborated with UX on controls and player feedback systems.

 

Challenges

  • Cloud rendered gameplay created limitation on controls and gameplay feedback. The technology performs best when camera remains fixed. Additionally, the control input is done locally and sent to the server so control feedback (like projected UI about where a shot might land) proved difficult.
  • High volumes (hundreds) of enemies onscreen meant having very basic and fragile AI calculations which could be completely rerouted by even the smallest level design change. (moving a single unit of terrain could change and entire battle)
  • Balancing cognitive load and combat pacing would prove difficult due to high volumes of enemies
  • An aggressive schedule didn’t allow for very much iteration or bake time.

Level Design

Designing for a stationary player can be quite challenging. It was helpful to think of the experience as if the level was coming toward you and apply some of the same FPS concepts. How do we prioritize threats and make meaningful choices? What kinds of expositions can we leverage to bring enemies into play? What types of cues can we use to grab the player’s attention or lead their eye?

 

Creating an Experience

While day and night cycles and weather FX kept the levels visually interesting, heavily scripted scenarios were required to keep play interesting and exciting over time. Some techniques included: dynamically changing sight lines, destructible environments that crush enemies and alter the flow of play, shooting exploding objects launched onto the battlefield, and balancing periods of uneasy silence with ambushes and coordinated enemy attacks. Combat was kept fresh by using clever combinations of enemies and leveraging each level’s unique design to full effect.

Making Level One

As is common with designing the “first level” of any game, this level went through more design iterations than any other level in the game. Below is a brief overview of how the first level evolved over time.

Level One – Layout

As the first level, its primary function is to introduce the game’s mechanics in an exciting and engaging way, without overwhelming or frustrating the player. The layout presented above was designed to give the player plenty of time to see enemies coming before they were actually a threat.

Level One – Flow Control

Playtesting revealed that the level was too overwhelming as large numbers of enemies poured into battle from multiple locations. Even though enemies were of a weaker type, the perceived threat was significant. Combined with learning the controls, this proved frustrating for most play testers.

To address these issues, I closed off some wall segments, forcing enemies to take a longer path and funneling them into fewer areas. This gave the player more time to think and target enemies with confidence. I also worked with an AI developer on enemy-only breakable geometry. Areas marked “Blaze” can be broken by larger enemies; shortening the AI pathing to the player. (Larger enemies were removed from the early game and would return in later play, after the player had learned to use their weapon.)

Level One – Experiential Density

Playtesting showed significant improvement in cognitive load after flow control adjustments made in the previous pass. Now, we were in a position to start increasing the difficulty over time, and bring more interactive elements into play. The following changes would occur over several passes, each with more testing and adjusting.

  • Add destructible environmental elements (pillars, arches) that the player can target to take out groups of enemies
  • Add more waves to combat, each with increasingly difficult enemies, in larger numbers – test to find a maximum cognitive load for new players
  • Add exploding barrel launcher. Exploding barrels launched into the scene can be targeted by the player, helping them deal with larger enemies while testing their ability to aim

Level One – Art Pass and Final Stretch

Once the difficulty progression and dynamic environmental elements passed through testing. We were ready to hand the level to the art team. Artists have been involved throughout the entire design process and we all understand how the level is intended to play. This was an important point in case the geometry was accidentally moved during development.

Following an art pass, the level was ready for decorative scripted events, such as large enemy projectiles smashing down your outer walls to reveal the on coming enemies. (these were non-blocking assets) This process continued until the art was finalized and the level was retested.

 

Future versions

After the release of the 1.0 product, UX Designer, Colin Riley, and I were tasked with developing a design, plan, and schedule for the next release. Our primary goals revolved around increasing PENS (Player Experience of Need Satisfaction) scores, specifically autonomy and competence, while reusing and extending as much of the current assets as possible. Additionally, repetition was often one of our weakest points in usability studies. One of the strengths of the product was the quality of both the characters and environment but the restrictions of both the streaming tech and current design limited the view of the battlefield to one angle.

Our plan emphasized a simple and flexible mission system to both move you around the battefield and experience new gameplay dynamics. We drafted a straight-forward narrative arc to tie missions together and introduced missions where you play as an archer to simplify the FTUE (First Time User Experience) as well as increase relatedness.

Below is a gallery of mission mockups

Greater Immersion

Experience the level design up close, for a greater dramatic impact and more variety in play. The Pylon level was made to introduce players to their new role as an archer and familiarize them with the new mission.

Light The Pylons – 00:00

Level One Missions – 00:36

Prototype footage lacks proper camera transitions and is condensed to show multiple concepts in a short time.

Moment to Moment

Our design sessions produced a rough play sequence which was used to assemble the first archer mission prototype. Moving forward, we would continue iterating on timing and adding interactions until we felt really good about the overall experience.

APPENDIX

Grey Boxing

Level Designs tend to evolve over time and some layouts never make it into the game. Below are some early grey box versions of levels that went into testing. In some cases, extreme changes were necessary to deliver on the design intent.

Early Prototypes

Before I could jump into level design, we needed to have some ideas how combat would work. The design team kicked off the project with 2 major prototypes. I was responsible for generating a number of enemy ideas while another designer worked on weapons. Following a week of prototyping, we would gather feedback and combine the most promising ideas into a playable prototype.

Enemies were designed to bee seen clearly in their approach and with their attacks patterns. The health indicators were an exploration in detecting damage to the player, as well as the health of distant towers (descending flag concept) that you may be defending. These would be the first of many prototypes that would be built throughout the project.

Writing Code – Unity / C#

State Machines: The first prototype involved setting up some basic state machines and spawn patterns for instancing enemies and their attacks.

HUD  /Damage: I also wrote additional code for HUD and in-game damage indicators so we could tell which enemies were doing the most damage.

Much of this prototype code would be reused and extended throughout the project.

 

 

Prototype – Vomitous

One of the challenges with The Unmaking was achieving the element of surprise. Enemy exposition was generally limited to spawning out of sight or at great distances. We could “magically” spawn enemies closer to the player, but it often felt “cheap” or unfair to do so. Enter the “Vomitous”…

Testing an idea for a large, physical enemy creature that “vomits” other creatures onto the battlefield. Its initial appearance was meant to provide a very memorable and intense moment while potentially giving some back story as to where these creatures were coming from. Initially, a Vomitous could be shot and forced to retreat. Once the player became stronger they could be taken down much sooner, enforcing the sense of player progress.