Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cliffs = more usable space

In my continuing look at level design and texturing, I've got two more screenshots to demonstrate how to improve area layout. When designing an area, the usable space is something that is very important. This is the area that is able to be used by the player or other characters for movement, or for other interactive objects. In general, you want to maximise the usable area within a level.

In exterior levels, hills and mounds serve multiple purposes. Firstly, they limit the player's movement, forcing them along the set paths that you the level designer want them to travel upon. Making the player travel through a level in a particular path allows you to deliver information in a set sequence, which is highly useful for plot development. They also serve to reduce visibility. Yes, this is a good thing, because it prevents the player from seeing too far ahead, (never underestimate the power of the reveal) and it also reduces the polygon count on screen, thereby improving performance.

However, looking at the above picture, there is a distinct problem (aside from the muddy texturing). The problem is that the amount of usable space is a very low percentage of the available space because of the rocky hill/mound in the main part of the shot. It segregates the walkable areas nicely, and does a good job of blocking of the players view, but it occupies an awful lot of room. It also looks a little funny from a landscape point of view, such mounds aren't really all that common, at least not quite so thin and evenly peaked. The solution is to simply turn it into a cliff, like so...

Even ignoring the obvious texturing improvements, the area is now a lot more visually appealing and significantly more practical in terms of usability. The open space provides a good vantage point from the top, while still maintaining a somewhat claustrophobic feel in the tight canyon at the foot of the cliff. The amount of space has increased dramatically, allowing this to be a reasonable area for a fight or a cutscene. There's also increased room for vegetation, which is a very important part of the overall appearance of a level.

The only drawback is the extra effort required to make the cliffs look organic, as lots of straight lines do not exist in nature, and tessellation is required on the cliff faces to increase the vertex density so it is possible to introduce more variance into its shape. In this case, the payoff was more than worth the additional work required.

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