(Sewers) Level Designer Lead Reflection

By: Matt Lopez (Level Design Lead)

        I’m Matthew Lopez, lead designer of the Underground level for The Shadow That Pervades Spring Quarter 2020. Despite all the adversity that arose this quarter, the 5-man team that made up the underground squad was able to complete a lot over these past 10 weeks. The difference between the level block-out I created at the end of last quarter to what it currently is, is night and day. Although the primary goal was our level, our team was able to assist the other squads as well in terms of helping create assets. Within this document, I will be going over the general process of the level’s development, Asset creation and the specific pipeline for the splines, the future of the level and reflection and tips on being a lead.

As I’ve stated earlier, this team did not start from scratch but rather the block-out I created last quarter. At the beginning, I walked them through the level and the vision that Allen wanted for the underground portion which was a confined, transition space between the cul-de-sac and the city levels (first and third level respectively). I also talked about my thought process which is located in the prior level document of the sewer last quarter. After we were all caught up to speed, we had to put all our efforts on asset polish and creation which was something most of us were unfamiliar with. We took the first week prior to the first official sprint to research and get reacquainted with Autodesk Maya and Substance Painter. Fortunately, it seemed we had a decent handle on it especially after some help form the Art Leads, Rob Moreno and Janani Hariharan. Although things were rough at first, we adapted to the workflow well which I will explain more in-depth later. From that week on, I made it a point with my Art Lead, Kris Misick, that we should take things slow, start with low numbers of tasks and assign more if they finish early and that worked out very well. We also made it clear to our team that if they have questions or concerns to reach out to us for help or guidance on how to do things. Kris and I worked closely with Janani and Rob during this early period to confirm the pipeline we wanted to follow for assets and how to uniformly assign things. Essentially a lot of logistics about how to organize, import and export between the software being utilized for the project. Once objects were in and finalized, we had the studio’s lighting artist run a few lighting passes to really seal the vibe of the level.

        We took inspiration, aesthetically and structurally, from Chicago’s sewers, foreign sewer systems and several video games such as Left 4 Dead and the Fallout series. We wanted to make sure the level was able to be completed quickly so we made sure that the tunnels connected and that we partially eliminated backtracking to force the player forward. However, we did not skimp on the narrative design, we added graffiti and wall writing to create narratives of those who were in the sewer prior to the player entering. Last quarter, I did heavy research into homeless communities underground and based the vibe on people trying to survive down there. We created a lot of trash and construction assets to populate the space to add to that lived-in/ abandoned feeling. The flow of the level has remained generally unchanged, but it’s aesthetic has received a complete overhaul.

Our squad, including us, was taught the pipeline so we could get to that point. The pipeline was to brainstorm assets we think we needed, assign tasks to people who’d we think could handle it well, convey and address the assignments and then have them work. The models were to be made in either Maya or Blender and textured with Substance Painter. From there, team members would have to run it past me or Kris and if it were approved, it would be put into the build. Once in the build, Kris and I would work together in populating the space. The focal points we had to watch out for were polycounts, UV issues and quality of the texture work. We also made sure to host a work session to show the correct export settings. We got into the flow of this very well and I am grateful for the organization.

        The level came together nicely but there were a couple of snags along the way. One of which was the issue of the spline. For those who do not know, splines are essentially models that can be repeated and contorted in any direction and look mostly natural through the usage of tangents and length measurements. I was able to get the spline construction script ready and work universally amongst different assets after tweaking a few facets of it. Prior to that, we were considering modeling a modular tunnel and accompanying pipe kit, but that would have eaten performance. The spline was able to create the flow of the level very quickly, however, I do feel that we sacrificed a bit if the confined feeling for realistic bending and easy population. Overall, it was worth it to invest time into a spline script as it was adapted by the other squads for other assets such as wiring, roads and sidewalks. The only thing assets for spline need are equidistant subdivisions within the model in order to work and compensate with the bending logic of Unreal’s splines. A minor issue was the initial lack of face to face meetings and work sessions due to COVID-19, however, Kris and I made it a routine to have biweekly meetings Tuesday and Thursdays to check in on progress and address any issues people were having.

        For the foreseeable future, I honestly do not know where this level will go from here. We put our best efforts into this level, but one has to realize that we are still early in the dev cycle. That means that this level cold be scrapped or archived and not seen beyond a demo build. That is the nature of game development, but that also allows greater work, hopefully to be put in its place. However, it should be said that the experience and knowledge gained from working on this level and learning new programs and processes on the fly was a great help. It expanded my skillset indefinitely and proved to me that individually and as a team we can adapt to compensate for the situation. Although I do not know where this level is headed, I hope it receives future polish and stays in the game. If not, I would like it to be used as an example of what a small team can accomplish in 10 weeks. Here are some side by sides for reference:

        As a lead, I learned a lot more about team work and sacrifice. By that I mean that you have to be willing to put in the time to do some of the heavier lifting as well as make time to help your fellow team mates. As cliché as it sounds, you are as strong as your weakest link so you have to be willing to not just lead, but assist. You may have to pick up the slack for someone who is struggling, and do it yourself as I have. Being able to prioritize the most important aspects for sprints is important as well in regards to the whole of the project rather than the isolated level. Constant communication was a huge part of this quarter especially because of quarantine. I was up late nights to answer questions and concerns about various things such as the pipeline or version control. It was an honor to be a lead my last quarter at DePaul, but it was also a lot of work as well. I feel that this has made me a better developer, designer and team member overall.

        To wrap up my final thoughts, this studio experience overall has been a blast. I got to create a solid level and meet some of the most passionate and creative individuals. I want to thank my team and the studio in general for their hard work and, since I know most of them are graduating, I wish them nothing but the best. To those who are entering the studio for the first time or returning, continue to work hard and keep on creating and innovating. This drive for learning something new and making something fun is what game development is all about.


        To anyone at DePaul’s Game Design program or in the studio now reading this and is thinking about being a lead at the studio: Do it, but know that you are supposed to be the anchor for the team you are attached to. Treat it like a job and respect your peers. Work with them, struggle with them and fail with them and you’ll come out of this course better than when you entered in.

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