The Level Design of Tacoma
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The Level Design of Tacoma
3 November, 2017
Interview

We’ve talked with Kate Craig from Fullbright Company about her work and the way she approaches level design of very narrative-heavy games.

Intro

I’m Kate Craig, and I’ve been with Fullbright since a few months into the development of Gone Home, so roughly six years now. I came onto the project when Steve, the writer and level designer, asked if I’d like to create assets for the game, but before that I was working on social and mobile games in Vancouver, BC. This was right when social games were everywhere, but at the time I was wrestling with the idea of working in that corner of the industry, so Steve’s invitation couldn’t have come at a better time.

As a level designer and environment artist at Fulbright, you’ve got probably one of the most interesting jobs in the industry. The company is really small, and I’m wondering how do you balance this level design and environment tasks?

I do have an interesting job! Technically I’m not a level designer at Fullbright – that’s the realm of Tynan and Nina, our LDs – but I do work very closely with them when it comes to figuring out the footprints and feelings of spaces. They’ll rough out their ideas for a level, I’ll do a walkthrough and see how it feels from an artistic perspective (is it balanced, does it feel cramped, too large, etc) and when both level design and environment art are happy with the space, I’ll use concept art or photos to start modeling the large pieces like walls and ceilings.

Like any development studio we have to pick our battles when it comes to our approach, and sometimes some objects or even entire rooms just don’t make it in (I really wanted to put a piano in the Gone Home house). We do what we can to focus on the elements that have the most narrative weight to them.

Can you tell us about your approach to level and environment production? I think it’s very different from the approach you have in your games. It all looks like a bigger enclosed rollercoaster, where everything is connected and seamless.

The house in Gone Home likely felt seamless because, if I remember correctly, it was all in one scene file, and not broken up into discrete pieces with different loads.

Tacoma was sliced up into quite a few more scene files, but I’m glad to hear you felt like it still felt cohesive.

It’s true both Fullbright games take place in enclosed structures – you’re not able to leave the mansion and the player can’t exit Tacoma station. When it comes to these types of games you need a certain density of object to really sell a space, so we work on developing a contained place with a strong identity that doesn’t require sprawling terrain and Steve and Karla start the story from there.

Can you discuss your workflow with us please? What do you start with? How do you do the general blockout? What tools do you use?

Mostly out of the box software, tool wise. We use Maya for modeling, Photoshop and Substance Designer for texturing, Zbrush for sculpting and Unity for our engine. I’d like to get further into Substance Painter – as someone who came into art as a career through painting it adds a level of intuitiveness that’s sometimes lacking in other suites.

Workflow wise, we start in Unity with probuilder and progrids, a pair of tools we bought from the asset store. They’re a great place to start if you’re doing anything remotely architectural, and make for quick greyblocking.

The script and story beats for the game evolve over time, and sometimes rooms come and go (there was originally a communications tower in Tacoma, for instance) but the rough first draft provides us with enough information to start blocking out the broad spaces.

Your games are one of the best examples of environment storytelling in the industry. I’m really interested in how do you approach blending the story inside the scene?

When everything comes together as it should, the props, character moments, architecture and lighting should all play off one another, so I don’t feel like it’s one thing or one person’s work in isolation.

You mentioned Myst, and I’m going to run with this because Myst was definitely one of the reasons I decided to move into environment modeling (and I wonder how true that is of a lot of environment artists my age).

I don’t know if I learned any particular game production lessons other than it was okay to make a gentle game, which felt rare at the time. They were games that didn’t force you to into a lot of confrontation or combat, and knew that beautiful, unique spaces were fun and interesting on their own merits. They felt accessible and even welcoming to girls and women at a time when a lot of games didn’t care to be, so I’m grateful to them for going out of their way to be beautiful and even feminine in places.

Can you discuss the process of placing all these assets in the level? With games like Tacoma you’ve probably got a ton of different models and little props.

For sure. In Gone Home I did none of the placement or set dec. I made most of the assets, with some help from wonderful volunteers, but when it came to placing them in-level that was Steve’s hard work.

With Tacoma if an object was static, like a column or a rug on the floor, I’d make the object in Maya, import it, and then place it myself. If the object was a ‘grabbable’ or a player could otherwise manipulate it, then I would import the object into Unity and let a level designer know it was available for them. Then they’d set up the scripting to make that asset interactive.

When it comes to organizing them, it’s pretty straightforward – I think under the main model folder there were subfolders for foliage, interior architecture, decals, props, and the exterior.

How do you make these environment exploration sims fun?

We’re kind of apples to oranges with the Uncharted games. The focus of the Uncharted games isn’t really as granular as we’re going for – there’s a flow to them that’s faster, almost a rhythm at times, especially when it comes to the platforming sections. They’re trying to evoke different feelings than we are.

That said, I think you could safely answer the question of ‘how do you make a game fun’ with the usual  answer of ‘playtesting’ and then, ‘more playtesting’.

I’d wager my hat few people marry all the elements successfully in the first prototype of their game, and every game I’ve worked on had a number of major revisions before it congealed into something with an identity, something enjoyable to play, and something that makes a player mull things over without becoming frustrated.

You are working outside of the office, and I’ve read in one of your interviews about your daily routine, which is absolutely amazing. You do gardening. You work on some models, do talks. It sounds really peaceful and nice. Not like your average game studio. Is this always like that?

Some days are a little hectic, especially when we’re approaching a deadline and someone needs a model or piece of art to continue their own work, or if it’s a travel day (I sometimes visit the Portland office) but for the most part it’s pretty low key over here.

It’s always bound to be a little quieter if you’re working from home, and because in my case home is in a small house in a town (and no longer downtown Vancouver) it sort of naturally takes on a quiet atmosphere without me doing much to cultivate that.

Game development seems very tied into city life in a lot of ways – the major studios and meetups are always there – but if your internet connection is stable enough, you can do it from just about anywhere.

Could you give some advice to users, who want to make better more valuable and interesting game environments?

I’m always hesitant to give advice because all games are such different creatures, but on the spot, I’d say put an object into your environment that you wouldn’t expect from a video game. Assuming your game could thematically support it, add something intimate, or that shows a sense of vulnerability to a character or place. It doesn’t have to be big – we’ve put tampons, sex toys, mouth guards, hair elastics. Imply something that isn’t touched upon by the main story that adds nothing but humanity.

Kate Craig, Environment artist – Fullbright

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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