For those bashing EA..... Any old-schooler will tell ya, EA is not some great company. Yeah, they've released some great games, but the bottom line is they're the fabled 'corporate giant' out to make money and eliminate competitors. Been that way since the early 80's. Another victim of EA you might have heard of, the Wing Commander series (Privateer as well). If they can't rush out better games than you, they'll buy you out and kill your franchise.
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Oh man Cara Ellison? She always shows up in the best places!
Jobye-Kyle Karmaker has worked in Ubisoft on a number of great games, including Far Cry 4 and Rainbow Six: Patriots. He actually started his work in Ubisoft Toronto as a Modeler for Splinter Cell: Blacklist. These skills proved to be extremely useful for him. As a modeler he was responsible for modeling and texturing of different props, which were used by the level artist. Working on these models specialists learned to focus on details & gameplay constraints, which is incredibly important for games.
Slowly he started to develop an eye for good level and environment design and figured out his main guiding prop design principles.
- Context – From a core question like: Where is this prop being used? You can extrapolate many other questions: How is a person using it (where are the hand and feet going)? What weather or natural elements are affecting it? Etc. All of those inform my decisions in both modeling and texturing and not to mention reference gathering. I never add any detail just for the sake of detail. Everything should have a purpose or a reason it’s there, however small the reasoning is.
- Imperfection – This is a tenant I’ve carried with me ever since our very first high-level Art Direction meeting with Scott Lee. One of the art pillars of Splinter Cell: Blacklist was Imperfection. That’s something that applies whether you’re making something for a war-torn map, an abandoned warehouse or a perfectly pristine government facility or private estate. Nothing in life is ever really perfect. There’s always some sort of imperfection whether it be in its placement, its shape, its material quality (this is where you get a lot of your imperfections for ‘clean’ environments), etc.
- Gameplay – Does this prop need to be gameplay friendly? Does the player need to take cover behind it? Can the player vault over it? Is it purely visual dressing and other props will stack near it to form cover instead? A lot of those questions can drastically change the design and approach of whatever you’re making, so it’s good to answer those questions early.
With full environments the situation is a bit different. Most of the times users won’t be able to notice detailed props (if these are not weapons or vehicles). What gamers are really interested in is the whole environment. Jobye-Kyle believes that environments evoke emotions, give chills and give an opportunity to dive deeper into the game world. The thing is that a lot of principles applied to props can actually apply to environment design, however there’s a little difference.
3 Guiding Principles of Environment Design from Jobye-Kyle Karmaker
- Context – What is the narrative of the world/location your level is set in? What is the gameplay or story beat that needs to be hit in this area? How is VFX & Lighting coming into play? How are all those factors affecting your environment? Etc. The more questions you ask yourself, the more you can ground your environment by directly answering those with your art’s layout.
- Imperfection – Again, same principle I’ve been carrying with me ever since Splinter Cell. Although, instead of applying it on the macro level on a prop, you’re blowing that up to the scale of a whole level. Imperfection can apply to the placement from anything small in the level (rocks, trash, etc.) all the way to the large (architecture, entire sections of level, etc.). Things are rarely ever perfectly straight or perfectly on-grid (which can cause a lot of back and forth with Level Design depending on how rigid your gameplay features are).
- Gameplay – Design and gameplay naturally plays an ever bigger role as you’re working on a full level. You have to be in total sync with your Level Designer to make sure you preserve (and even add to!) their gameplay intentions all while making everything look pretty. At the end of the day, we’re game artists, not just Artists. You could have the most beautiful level, but if the gameplay is s***, it’s a bad level and it won’t be memorable. Some things you naturally always have to think about: How is the player flowing through these spaces? How does it feel to flow through—Natural? Kind of awkward? Can we get a nice reveal here through layout?Where are his natural cover points? Where can he vault? What can he climb? All things you need to constantly worry about and feel out by constantly playing your level. Something I make a point to do almost everyday first thing in the morning if I’m working on a map.
It’s just a first post of Jobye-Kyle Karmaker in his official blog. We encourage you to check it out and bookmark. Hopefully he will publish other cool insights on environment design. He’s also got some very cool images in his portfolio. Incredible design.
Jobye-Kyle Karmaker, Senior Level Designer at Ubisoft