Heroes of Might and Magic IV: Perspective from an Artist Focused Level Designer

Working on level design for Heroes of Might and Magic was possibly the most exciting creative experience of my life.  Looking back it was an honour – I am thankful I was able to work on the Haven/Life campaign.  Haven is the first campaign users play through – and the art assets are vibrant and beautiful for creating game worlds with.  On top of that, the designer used one of my screen shots as a press screen for PC Gamer – so I was proud of my work at the time.  That screen shot is below.

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In this blog post, I will explain my thought process in creating levels and maps for HOMM4.

First, I am a very geometric person.  That may sound weird – but whenever I doodled as a child, I had strange symmetrical “OCD” design, that paralleled and reflected imagery off itself.  The art assets and feel for Haven were perfect for me due to the regal nature of the art and vision of the story.

Similarly, you’ll notice on this scenario focused on Academy art, I attempted to have the architecture and nature almost “wrap” around the building assets. Even though the buildings are by and large power ups – I wanted it to look like more of a themed city or village area.  I wanted each area to have unique focal points to break up redundancy in the levels that is bound to occur.

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Even more, on the screen above, I used a majestic purple brick texture in a way that definitely wasn’t intended.  By placing on the ground, making it appears as though it was an open courtyard that had been covered in sand over the years, it gave the scene an ancient and weathered feel.  I don’t think that texture was even meant for land use, but I had the idea to try something different and it paid off.

I blended the painted textures to follow a general isometric type of shape, all the while following my mountains and paths. The goal was to create a more interesting angle to the maps, and give it a better flowing energy by taking cues from the angles present in the art assets.  Especially, large and focal assets, such as castles.  This was opposed to haphazardly placing assets from top to bottom in a “2D plane”, or left to right.

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On the note of blending, I tried to create depth by combining a few similar painted ground textures, and layering textural art assets over them to provide sharper contrasted angles and perceived height.  The above image shows how I raised the height of a hill (we couldn’t raise land geography very high), then layered sand dunes (which were not meant to be layered on top of a raised terrain, but I found a way to make it look cool), finally with a dual blend of painted sand texture to finish the side of the hill, giving depth and “shadow”.

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Spatial order was incredibly important to me as an “artist” level designer.  There are excellent pieces of beautiful art in the game. However, if the pieces aren’t placed with a delicate hand, it won’t look pristine and “natural”.  A great example of this is the screen below which shows how I laid pieces of an iceberg together.  Note how I artfully layered the mountain piece in the water to give it the look of a large glacier.  If you look at the mini-map you can see how it “broke off from the land”, which at least was my intended result.

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The image below was a pleasing one because I was able to place the waterfall so elegantly “above” the river-run, and layer plant assets in the river bed to give a sense of realism and depth.  As I recall, the bridge was difficult to make look cool, because if you layered water (river) textures at the wrong angle, and didn’t lay the bridge asset down in the same angle (it had a fixed angle), it would look un-natural.

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Finally, the screen below shows another challenge for level design on HOMM4.  As great as the art assets were in HOMM4, it was more difficult to blend two ground terrain types than it looked. Blending one painted terrain with another was something not everyone tried.  With all due respect, when utilizing maps with multi-terrain types, the aesthetic results were often mixed.  Play the game and you will notice this.  It’s because the paint brush auto -corrected itself and made the brush strokes kind of look awkward, splotchy, and difficult fix versus the two contrasting terrain types.  This was especially the case with roads, which didn’t blend incredibly well with the grass and dirt textures.  So, I had to guess-and check until everything fell into place and looked great.

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I worked diligently to make sure the grass and snow blended together.  Using large, snowy rocks to layer on the outer edges of grass – near areas that grass and snow texture blended, gave a more natural blend.  Also, quite frankly it sometimes would cover the direct line (un-natural line) or when the paint tool auto-corrected and made a splotchy patch on the ground.  Trees with and without snow were also crucial to give more depth to the blending I was trying to accomplish in these areas of the map.

Hope you Enjoy the Insight – I hope to post a few more level design treats this week.

<3,

-The Vidja Gamer

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RED 3030: the origins

Instead of posting “new screen shots” without any context to base them, I wanted to set the record straight on what the hell I’m up to. Basically, I’m working to get back into the video game business.  Remember that context intertwined throughout this manic blog will help you understand where I’m coming from.  And I am working to get back into the game biz by creating a few (yea er.. few) new IP’s.  Yeah, I said IP and I know that’s maybe an unnecessarily unnecessary legal type of word.  But the reason I say that is the characters and story are cool enough that I think they are multi-genre type of properties. So, even though they are in my computer at the moment, and may not go beyond my demo reel – they are new IPs.  Thank you.

So, the first is a title called “RED 3030“.  This title is a tower defense game that I am hoping will be skewed towards a “strategy game”.  The scope of the game changed quite a lot since its inception – but you have to remember I only revitalized my gaming biz career aspirations in December 2013, and came up with the type of game (Tower Defense aka TD) I wanted to make in January when I started learning Unity 3D.

Here’s a recent screen shot of Map 1 with our protagonist “RNGR” killing an alien “Runner”, cause I generally enjoy pictures of Mechs blasting aliens to bits more than words describing Mechs blasting aliens to bits :

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Watching all the Unity  3D tutorials and reading every single Gamasutra feature on “How to Design a Video Game by Thinking About Designing a Video Game, Wayyyy Too Much”, I thought to myself,  “People are saying your first game will suck! People say your first game will suck!  And everyone seems to be making some crappy endless runner!! SWEEEET.  I wanna make one of thos….. wait. Hell no I don’t”

I know I’m not the first to say it, but I don’t WANT my first game to suck.  In fact, it won’t suck. But just in case, I’m starting 3 games.

Another thing, let’s be clear – I am not technical. I am not analytical (when it comes to music and video games).  For example, I don’t use a midi synthesizer to compute a melodic rhapsody using integers with the square root of blah blah.  I understand that people work in different ways and I’m smart enough to know a team of all us weirdos make the world go round, but I’m usually the one spinning the globe.  I’m much more into feeling the game story, utilizing kernels of inspiration, imagining the experience in my skull, and directing it into existence.  Quickly.  This is one of my great strengths as a music producer.

Naturally, I wanted to make my TD game a “2D” game – cause what better way to make a game in Unity 3D??  In all seriousness, most people familiar with Unity know they now have a robust toolset for 2D as well.  But originally my idea for what’s now known as RED 3030 wasn’t specced due to technological limitations (which there were many.. like.. my brain.. the fact I didn’t know C#, Unity, 3D Studio Max… yeah THAT kind of stuff), but its scope was based on my desire to re-create a sci-fi version of Square’s TD game, Crystal Defenders.

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I loved Crystal Defenders- reading player reviews for the game shows that some younger folks hate the dated old school RPG graphics.  But it wasn’t about that for me.  This game is all about beating your high score and finding new ways to conquer the maps.  I truly feel the game is incredibly addictive even after you beat it – in that old timey, puzzle, OCD kind of way.  To me, that kind of game play transcends the wrinkles on my butt.  So, the idea was to recreate the game in the same manner – creating pixel art on my own.  This was more than possible.  I tested some out and was having success.  But that seemed like a lot of work for a one-man-team such as myself.

So, pretty much right after I wrote my BEAUTIFUL 32 page game doc, I changed my mind and thought I should render out various angles of 3D models for each attack “animation”.   This was of course after I created an excel database (cough cough, pivot table) with ALL the data from Crystal Defenders, which they provide for each Tower and Creep throughout the game.  As someone who isn’t analytical in that way, I figured this might be a good way to help provide balance and quicker testing.  Cute idea, right?

It didn’t matter though – I think I made the final decision to go 3D during one particularly grueling crap, whilst playing Sentinel 3, which is a sci-fi TD game.  I thought the game was cool – and it ran fast on mobile devices.  I wondered, “Is this 3D?  It looks 2D! Could 3D run so smooth though?”  So I emailed the developers.  And sure enough it was 3D models that had been rendered in 2D via multiple animation PNG shots to give a nice “animated” feel, but again with those rather rad models the basis for the art.

I’m not going to go too in depth about how I started messing with some 3D models and A* system in Unity 3D.  But, the bottom line is after consulting with Andrew Claussen, who is helping with some C# for the game, I decided finally on 3D with a “nearly top down view” camera view.  This would enable quicker art (Not having to render each Tower, Creep, etc) and having the camera and animations do the dirty work.

I bet you thought this Word Press blog was all game screenshots. No way. I plan to bore you lots.  So, I’m going to continue next time with more about what has been going on since January.  I have learned a lot during this time – and have some advice to hand down on everything from 3D Studio Max, to Video Game Degrees, all the way to my favorite places to get donuts in the Twin Cities.  Cause I love doughnuts. So, I’m sure you’ll come back to read more about my exciting trials and tribulations in video game development and donut eating.

Good Night,

-The Vidja Gamer

New Screen Shot: The Sand Dunes 1

Hey I just wanted to post a screenshot of a new map I started called “The Sand Dunes 1”, which will be one of the worlds I am exploring in my upcoming Tower Defense game, “RED 3030″.  I hope you like it.  I’ll be posting more about the game soon but I have been working on this one the past 2 days and wanted to get it out on my blog.

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Thanks,

-The Vidja Gamer

New Blog from Nyteowl: THE VIDJA GAMER !!

Greetings, I’m Jeremiah and you may know me as Nyteowl in the world of electronic music. I released a few albums over the past few years, including a nice triple vinyl release on Juno Records (UK) sub-label “Love Interest Records”. Well, I’m not only a fan and producer of electronic music, but I’m a game designer and avid game player. As I have gotten older and also been doing music professionally, my gaming habits have changed to be ultra- obsessive on a handful of tittles. There’s only a few hours left in my average day after all. So, the past few years this has been hundreds and hundreds of hours of Borderlands I, Borderlands II, Fallout, X-Com Enemy unknown, Mindless Tower Defense Games, and FIFA (12, 14). Yes there have been others, but these are my main squeezes.
Generally speaking my favorite game genre is Strategy RPG or Tactical RPG games. The best of the best in my eyes is Final Fantasy Tactics. Duh. Recently, I have also taken an interest in indie games via Steam. More on this in a future post.

In terms of game experience – I have worked in the biz in a few ways, mostly 10-13 years ago. First, I was a jack of all trades at Activision in Minneapolis, MN. I dealt with Licensing, Game Design, Production, and managed the art team for a while. Next, I worked as a Level Designer at New World Computing in sunny California.
New World was the best job I ever had – full of imagination, creative input, and personal fulfillment. I worked on a game that I was actually a huge fan of beforehand (Heroe’s of Might and Magic 4: Haven Campaign) and had a blast every single day. After 3DO went bankrupt, I did freelance game writing for a while, at places like Tom’s Hardware. That was my last paid game job.

So, what on earth has inspired this insipid blog? Well, long story short I am making games again and becoming an active member in the gaming community. So, if you are reading this get to know me.
Next blog post I want to tell you what I have been up to. I have been quite busy the past few months and not only want to share because it’s interesting and fun stuff, but also I learned a lot during this time and would like to share that knowledge as well.

Cheers,

-The Vidja Gamer