Sphear: Guiding Through Rotation
Hello! My name is Nathan Kellman. I am a passionate game designer specializing in level design.
This post is about my level design process on my game development capstone project called Sphear, a 3D puzzle platformer where players have to rotate the level around them to navigate through the world. We were mentored by employees of High Moon Studios, a AAA game studio located in California. At the beginning of the project, our team wanted to create a game that was fun to play but also challenged us in our respective fields. Once we decided on the main mechanic to be rotation, the biggest question was “How do we make sure the player knows where to go ?” I will go into detail about how the levels were designed and the takeaways that made me a better level designer.
A huge inspiration for guiding the player throughout the levels was looking at the divine beasts from Zelda: Breath of the Wild since those dungeons use rotation and do a great job of guiding the player around. A big feature with the divine beast was the small 3D map of the level the player could pull up and decide which part to rotate. We created a similar mechanic like this because we did not want the player to get turned around.
I also researched Naughty Dog’s games such as Uncharted, The Last of Us and watched GDC talks they gave about level design. They discussed using visual cues such as shapes and colors to guide the player through their levels. I knew this would be essential to our game, so players would not get lost in rotation and feel like they were making progress throughout the game.
Link to the GDC talk is here
The narrative is that players are a space government official named Geoff Albert Stilson, who is investigating a vacant space station and tries to figure out why the crew is missing. During his search, he discovers an alien-like substance called the Moss. It gradually takes over the ship, going from clean mechanic structures to organic like objects that consume the area and convey a sense of dread.
We got this idea from Dead Space because we felt that this gave the perfect vibe for how we wanted our players to feel like as they move deeper inside the station.
Concepting and Block Out
Usually, when planning out levels, I grab a sketchbook and start drawing as much as possible. With Sphear, it was challenging to draw out levels since it was dealing with rotating objects in a 3d space. After a couple of hours of frustration, I decided to use Maya to sketch my ideas. This was an excellent way for me to use simple cubes to do quick iterations with shapes and the overall flow of where the player to go.
Once satisfied with a Maya sketch, I would proceed to build-out and changing the level in Unity using Pro-builder. I would also playtest it to make sure the player can go from start to finish. In addition to designing for the Z-axis, We additionally had puzzles that rotated in the X and Y-axis. We thought it would be fun to have different puzzles that depended on many combinations of rotational directions.
During our first playtest, players broke my puzzles very easily. They would go to the end of the chamber, complete one rotation and skip the entire puzzle. Some would get turned around and not sure which way was the exact route to go. Additionally, they thought it wasn’t logical for such a vast chamber to rotate so rapidly, and it was disorienting.
For our other designer, his level was extremely complicated. People would get frustrated and give up because they did not know where to rotate next.
They enjoyed the narrow hallways because they were a simple introduction to the rotation and a good break between the larger puzzles.
The major issues after our playtest were:
- Puzzles were so simple that they were easy to break or too complex and people quit
- Players get turned around and not sure where to go
- The speed of the larger chamber caused motion sickness
For puzzle simplicity, we decided to design them to be more abstract but maintain a clear-cut path for the player to follow. We colored-coded interactables and doors red because those stood out from the environment. After assigning these colors, players were capable of distinguishing where they were supposed to go. We also focused rotating on the Z-axis because we wanted to have polished puzzles.
We decided to use yellow as a guiding color. Once assets like stairs and platforms were added in, we utilized yellow lights to direct the player a precise path. These added more context for the player; with the platforms signaling “You can stand here” and the stairs indicating “go up this way.” I learned that if I would have produced simplistic models of stairs and platforms instead of cubes for my block in, it would have helped tremendously.
We decided to take out the red and make all the interactables green. We switched because red was a very loud and distracting color. The green still stood out from the environment but it was a lot easier in the eyes.
Composition was a huge part of directing the player where the objective was. Framing and shape placement represented an excellent practice of informing the player which way to go and maintain a visible path for them to follow.
Another way to demonstrate progression was Moss. The deeper the player ventures into the station, the more the moss starts taking over with in the world. We wanted them to slowly feel overwhelmed and appalled by the moss props. With this method, many players reacted in that way which was the exact effect we desired.
We additionally use text that we called “Logs” that explained the narrative of the game. The logs are from people who lived on the station. They explain the origin of the moss and its growth throughout the station.
As we approached the end of development, it became visible that the game didn’t feel like a complete experience, so I pitched an idea to my team. We could create a small cutscene at the end of the game to help bring the narrative together, similar to a gameplay trailer for an expo like E3. For that, I used a Unity plug-in called Cinemachine that allowed me to integrate in-game animations into a cutscene. It was easy to set up the camera and have it follow the character but I was not achieving the results I wanted. I decided to screen record the game view where the scene was playing, then I added music and fade in-and-outs in Adobe Premiere. I added many Moss props in the chamber to have players feel like they arrived at the center of the infection.
The more context, the better: I learned that making simple models would have helped tremendously for the playtesting. Players would have received a better way to play through the block-in level and would have given better feedback on the flow and pace of the level because they would know where to go.
Challenge yourself!: We knew designing rotating levels was not going to be a trivial task, but we felt that since this was a capstone course that we should challenge ourselves. Witnessing people play a game like this and were able to finish while having fun brought an enormous smile to my face. I feel like if I can design levels around rotation then I can design any level!
Love the process!: Like all creative works, games are always constantly being reiterated upon. There will be times you get frustrated but if you keep pushing through, a breakthrough ultimately happens and everything comes together. We went through many irritations with the level design and puzzles. Once we discovered what worked for us, then it was just all about polishing the experience.
Feel free to play the game and other games I have worked on by going to my website here. Any comments you have for them, my contact information is on my website as well.