Gears of War :: The Basic Encounter

So I’ve been away from level design for a while now, it’s what I enjoy doing most but I’ve had to focus on a lot of programming and game design for a few of my classes lately and I’ve wanted to get back into making levels for my portfolio.

So, what should I work on? Well, I wanted to work on a single player experience, it’s something I haven’t done quite as much as the multiplayer arenas and it would also allow me to focus in on a few objectives I have for this portfolio piece.

I’ve worked a lot with UDK recently but in the end I choose to work with Gears of War as it offers a lot more potential for single player experiences. I still ended up having small AI issues and things that I had to work around but that’s what good kismet creativity is for!

You can check out my first pass below:

Creating Level Instances

So, the first and most important thing I wanted to do with this level was to keep it as a small isolated instance. I’ve been told by a number of designers that some great portfolio pieces are the small ones that focus on showing off only a few things at a time. This can be as simple as a basic puzzle, to a chase scene, or even a final stand with waves of enemies attacking a fortified position. Whatever you want to do, its better to make it into a small polished version rather than a big over scoped level trying to show off too much.

Here I focus on how to setup a basic combat encounter with a small space. Many games use something similar these stages (stages shown below) to create interesting combat spaces and encounters. Using it, we as designers can more easily put ourselves into the player’s shoes to help create the game space and interactions, as well as allowing us to break up ideas into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Basic Combat Stages

The basic combat stages are really just how the player deals with a basic combat encounter. It was something that I learned from the “Level Design in a Day” talk at GDC 2010 and it pretty much states what the player thinks about during combat and how to use this to setup enemies, weapons, cover positions and more.

For the most part, all players go through the following stages when they are confronted by enemies in a basic shooter.

1. Planning – When a player is faced with enemies, they begin by looking around the area and developing a plan to succeed in the coming fight.

Player’s see the environment, cover, flanking positions, obstacles, enemies and more. With all this data, they quickly develop a plan, even without thinking about it. To better facilitate this stage in my small level, I focused on setting up the AI so they don’t initially see the player but instead patrol the surrounding area unaware. In fact, if players are careful, they can even move around and into a good flanking position without being noticed.

Unfortunately, the GoW AI is pretty much always aware or not. There is no gradient in which they slowly recognize the player, but instead all enemies are instantly aware if they notice or hear you.

Although this makes stealth difficult it does allow us time to setup and think about what to do. Once the player shows himself or is noticed they have to quickly put their plan into action or think of a new one.

2. Execute – Players use all the available data and put their initial plan into action.

Much of the time this plan doesn’t go exactly as they thought it would, although when it does work out perfectly players feel pretty awesome! Most of the time, players have to change their plans at least a little bit and move onto the improvising stage before their initial idea is completed.

Many player’s plans won’t even get past the single idea stage, such as “shoot that explosive barrel”. Much of the time, this is because there isn’t too much for them to do without more data. Player’s only can guess where the enemies will go once the battle begins so much of the time, improvising happens quickly after they fire the first bullet.

3. Improvise – Either the player’s plan doesn’t quite work out,  he/she runs out of actions planned, or we as the designers throw a kink into the plan by introducing something new and interesting. Whatever the case, players must now create a new plan on the fly to deal with how the battle unfolds.

We can do a number of interesting things mid battle to accomplish this, like sending an AI to flank the player’s safe cover or using a car to smash into the player’s position, but the point is to keep the players from finding a safe zone for too long.

When a player finds an area that is completely safe they can quickly become bored, gameplay becomes too easy or stale. Allowing player’s to be safe momentarily is the best best way to keep them alive, but still on their toes. A good thing to avoid is the small choke point that players can easily exploit by funneling enemies through one by one and ripping them to shreds.

In my current level I use reinforcement wretches to force the player to move out of their safe high ground position and into a more dangerous place. This happens on a random timer after they have killed 2/3 initial enemies or once all 3 original baddies are dead.

4. Recover – After the battle is completed, players need a breather where they can safely look around, reload their weapons and search for ammunition and health packs.

This stage can be anywhere from minutes long to seconds long, but right now we want to allow players to get back on their feet, check out the area, take a breath in and get ready for the next encounter.

In my quick combat encounter, I allow players to reload and grab supplies after the initial encounter by introducing the elevator button. Players call the elevator by pressing the button and have to defend the position until it arrives. Enemies won’t come until they start this event, so during the down time, players are free to explore and feel safe.

This also helps with pacing and mission structure among a number of other little design aspects. Many levels will litter this recover time with small puzzles or navigation challenges. Doing so keeps the player interested and moving. We also have time to add in dialog, story elements and focus on things player’s wouldn’t have time for when under heavy fire from enemies.

Work in Progress

Right now, all this is still in its early stages, I’ve only worked on it for about 2 days on and off, so everything is pretty early. In the end I’m looking to put some more vibrant color into the Gear’s color pallet and keeping things more green and white.

Most things are missing basic elements like sounds, particles and just a basic polish pass, but the major structure is there so I can test and iterate on the basic feeling and pacing.

So far, it’s a good start to getting back into this level design. I’ll keep updates coming as I find time to work on it some more as well as some basic tutorials as I’ve found some things out about how the Gears editor and kismet nodes work I’d like to pass on for others.

Categories: Game Design

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