VFS Game Design Summer Intensive : Level, Story, Art

UDK First-Person Shooter

The VFS Game Design Summer Intensive covered a lot of ground over days two and three, delving into Level DesignStorytelling/Interactive Narrative and Game Art.

Day 2 introduced the students to the core of game design: constructing the environment and scripting the events of the play. Game Design Instructor and 3D Environment Artist, Victor Kam, introduced students to the Unreal Development Kit (UDK), which uses the Unreal Engine (a game engine developed by Epic Games, first used in the 1998 first-person shooter game Unreal). UDK is a free download available to the general public (for non-commercial games, although, games built using the free kit can be sold according to certain relatively minor stipulations outlined in Unreal Technology’s Licensing Terms).

Some things to consider are: Pacing; Placement of items; Enemy Encounters; Cinematic; Variation; and Player Path. Victor emphasized the importance of creating environments that hold the players interest, sustaining their desire to explore and master the things the developer creates for them to do. He compared the experience to walking through a good haunted house, where the reason it scares you is because the events are unpredictable.

Game development requires good documentation for each stage in order to communicate effectively to the team, and to ensure a coherent structure. One of the important aspects of this documentation is a charting the player path and different kinds of events. Looking at a developed flow chart for a game can communicate quite succinctly the sort of experience the player is going to have. As an example a comparison was made between flow charts for two different games: Batman: Arkham City and  X-Men Origins: Wolverine (an article about pacing and gameplay analysis containing these charts may be consulted here). One look at a well crafted flowchart can tell you what sort of dynamic range of engagements is available in the game.

Later in the afternoon, VFS Game Design Instructor Calder Archinuk with help from Teaching Assistant Mario Granillo continued the day’s focus on Level Design with a tutorial in Kismet, the visual language for defining game events in UDK. The intuitive interface allows you to control program flow by dragging connections between objects.

Unreal Kismet Main Sequence

Under the guidance of the instructors the students started building the basics of their level environment.

Paul Jensen started day 3 with a great lecture on how story works in Games and the critical importance of thinking in terms of Interactive Narrative.

Paul charted out some traditional narrative structures useful in any medium, such as The Hero’s Journey, illustrated some game story conventions, highlighting the importance of using Structural Twists (e.g., Sudden Revelations, Innocent People at Risk, Character Changes Sides, Falling Into A Trap, Hostage Being Taken, Being Forced To Submit to the Enemy’s Agenda), and charted out a typical Hero Journey Pattern:

  1. Starts off in an ordinary world
  2. Is called to an adventure
  3. Refuses the call (at first)
  4. Meets a mentor (who awakens a power)
  5. Crosses the first threshold (from home into the fray)
  6. Confronts tests, allies and enemies
  7. Approaches the inner cave (the inner journey)
  8. Experiences an ordeal (crisis)
  9. Gains a reward from the ordeal
  10. Takes the road back (Return to the fight)
  11. Experiences a rebirth or resurrection
  12. Returns home with “the elixir” (the prize, enlightenment, etc.)

He then used three classic movies exemplary of this journey (Star Wars Ep. 6, The Matrix, and Avatar) working with the class to have them identity each of these steps, which was quite fun.

Some great examples of how the cinematic introduction in a game can set up the world and communicate the kind of game play involved, pulling the player in, were given and viewed (e.g., the phenomenal Dead Island). He asked, what questions does the cinematic raise for the player? How does it help to pull the player in, creating intrigue? This connected up to considering the role of the writer in game design as a matter of managing expectations and results. Once you pull the player in, it’s important to know how to keep the player playing — to maintain the intrigue.

There also was an important caution made — while Folk Tales, Mythologies, Jungian Archetypes and etc. provide a rich resource for story ideas and character development, it is important to be aware of the possibility of Bankrupt Imagery (i.e., an image or icon so overused that it’s meaning is exhausted and no longer affective).

Later in the day, Game Design Instructor Roger Mitchell guided students through a Maya tutorial — showing them how to construct a 3D model, articulate its limbs, animate it, and map a texture onto it! That’s a lot for an afternoon, but the students were eager to learn.

Students working on Game Art

Roger Mitchell Maya Sample

The Game Design Summer Intensive, is certainly intense, but the instructors are guiding them carefully through the material while at the same time demonstrating the incredible depth and potential of the full program, and then further, they’re exposing them from the outset to conditions representative of the Game Industry. The students have been utterly engaged. Stay tuned to find out how they did with their levels and their Flash mini-games.