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Hello again adventurers! It’s Patrick Poage, Staff Environment Artist for Neverwinter, here to talk to you about the creation of our latest dungeon, The Tomb of the Nine Gods. The Tomb is an awesome catacomb of traps and deadly corridors, but I’m not just going to give you a tour of what you’ll see on its release. I’d like to show you some of the tricks that artists use behind the scenes to give players a memorable experience.
The first concept I’d like to share with you is the illusion of choice. This phrase can mean a lot of different things in different context, but I’m going to use it to describe making sections of a level that can’t be explored look like they could be. Here are a few examples.
When players descend the Grand Staircase, I want them to understand that the Tomb of the Nine Gods is no simple dungeon. It is an immense area that they might never be able to fully explore. There are three staircases you can descend, but we added several more that seem to lead to other parts of the dungeon.
The extra balconies and stairs are purely aesthetic but they help show how immense the Tomb of the Nine Gods is supposed to feel. Green is where the players can go, red is just really just for show.
In a few of the winding corridors in the dungeon, you’ll see hallways full of collapsed rubble, blocking your passage into who-knows-where.
I know where! Directly off the map, into nothing!
I remember some advice I gleaned from the 3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide. I just tried skimming through its pages, but I can’t find the exact line. In essence, the book encouraged you to add elements to a dungeon that could hint at future interaction, a hallway leading into darkness, a collapsed passageway that might lead to future treasure. If the players try to go there now, they’re blocked, maybe by a too-powerful enemy, or the terrain itself, but it provides future hooks if you ever want to come back to the adventure. That’s good advice for environment art as well.
The second idea I’d like to talk about is letting players fill in the gaps. What I mean is that in any medium you can usually depend on the audience filling in some holes in your work by themselves. This is probably best shown in one of the cutscenes that starts when players trigger a trap. This one was crafted by Charles Gray, the content designer who worked on Neverwinter’s Tomb of the Nine Gods.
At first glance, that’s pretty clearly a cutscene that shows a player walking into a room and then barely getting out of the way in time as the ceiling collapses in a shower of rubble and debris. If you watch again, and pay attention, you might see that there are really only about five pieces of rubble that move. You also don’t actually see the character dive out of the way. They just fall down and get up again. In the first part of the cutscene, Charles uses some fx, a camera shake, and a nervous character animation to set-up the idea that something big is about to happen. In the second scene, a few rocks bouncing out of a large dust cloud hides the collapsed version of the room that’s already there and the player stands up out of the cloud, looking like they barely escaped. The cutscene ends and players now have to deal with this new obstacle in their path.
It seems simple, but it takes forethought to make something like that work. It’s all about putting your focus in the right places. If we had spent all of our time making this trap look totally kick-ass in real time, we might not have gotten to make any sweet fx for the boss fights, or for the huge Tyrannosaur you get to fight in the Soshenstar River zone. Using the right amount of fx and cutscenes to hide major changes to the environment lets us create a more dynamic experience for players with a relatively small development team.
The final piece of advice I’ll give you is this: All that matters is the players’ experience. It’s something that I have to remind myself frequently. I think the best example of this in our dungeon happens during the final fight when Acererak magically projects himself near the floating platform players are fighting on. He slams down on the platform, making the whole arena tilt and sliding players towards their doom in the abyss below.
Doug “Asterdahl” Miller is the systems designer that has worked with me on the last three dungeons we’ve released on Neverwinter. I really enjoy working with Doug because he shares my desire to make something new and exciting for players. We like to add features to our dungeons that haven’t been seen in Neverwinter before and that means some extra challenges during production. One of the main problems we faced was getting the tilt to work. You see, the Cryptic Engine can’t handle moving collision very well. If we tried to actually tilt the floating platform that players were on, they’d just fall through the collision as it righted itself. Instead, we resorted to shenanigans.
Did you catch it? Yeah. We decided that it would be easier to just tilt the entire world around the players and have a power push players towards the edge as if they were sliding. Seeing it from an angle outside the arena, it looks absurd, but that doesn’t matter. From a players perspective it will feel like the platform they are on is tilting.
While that might be the most spectacular example of how all that matters is what players see, it extends to all areas of game development. It means that an environment artist needs to put high detail assets near where players will be, but can have less detail in vista objects. A content designer who needs the wind to push players off a dangerous ledge will probably just put a push power on an invisible critter. We don’t actually need a whole wind force vector system to accomplish that goal. We might make games because we love the work, but our goal is always to put something in front of players that they can enjoy.
I learned a lot working on the Tomb of the Nine Gods and I enjoyed it every step of the way, though I’ll be honest, if you caught me here working late before the Beta deadline I might not have looked like it ;) I hope that you enjoyed an insight into some of the environment art philosophies I adhere to. Giving players the illusion of choice makes for a more immersive game world. Doing the right amount of work, allowing players to fill in the gaps subconsciously, lets you get by with less effort to tell the same story. And always remember, in the end, it’s the player’s experience that matters. I hope that your experience in the Tomb of the Nine Gods is memorable, and may all your rolls be natural 20s.
Acererak only uses the best zombie painters…