Apex Arena Devlog: Making a Stage

Whenever we demo Apex Arena we purposely demo a single level, partly because we don’t have the time to get more ready but also to put them through their paces. After all conventions have proven to be a great source of players that just love to break things, not on purpose but it stands to reason that with so many players jumping around and smashing into walls you’re bound to find a few holes in your colliders!

We’re going to take a look at how we design a stage, from conception to finished product.

An assortment of sketches for four different stages

We start with a concept. We have a vague idea of what we want, for example Rohan has a stage in the Mountains and Daku has a stage in a Desert, but for those of us without an imagination concept art helps, literally, paint a picture.

There’s a lot of sketches, a small handful displayed below, covering stage layout and general look and feel for a stage. We’ll iterate until we’ve got something that we feel is a good target for the game, art direction wise. The flow of a map can be touched on but generally we think in broad terms about choke points and areas that would be fun to navigate, nothing is set in stone at this point.

More polished concepts for four different stages

Once we’ve roughly got an idea set, like say a town set in the desert nestled between cliffs, we’ll move onto creating a more polished piece. Something we can look at as a reference while creating the 3D or laying out the stage.

Whitebox for Desert Valley

It’s around this point that we might start white boxing. We’ve got the core of our game movement mechanics in place so testing an idea is important for feel. A cliff that arches over the arena might look good but in practice prove frustrating, especially for a game that encourages jumping and vertical movement in general.

We’ll normally start with one of the top down layouts we sketched out, quickly realise that our internalised idea of distance or scale doesn’t translate correctly from 2D to 3D and start rejigging. The goal at this point is to end up with a layout that’s faithful to the concepts that we’ve created. Important to note that we treat concepts as a guide and not a goal. We believe going off track is okay, as evidenced by the fact that our Desert Valley stage ultimately looks quite different to the concept created but wouldn’t have ended up looking the way it does without it.

Sketches for different building shapes

While the whitebox is being put through it’s paces we’ll simultaneously design the props. The polished concept art is great for a broad view of a stage but if we want a closer look at individual objects nothing beats quickly sketching a handful of them.

These too are used as guides; we work on the white box, bringing its shape slowly closer to that of the different buildings sketched but only a handful will make the cut. Specifically buildings that look interesting and don’t interfere with the gameplay, the last thing we want is a great looking level that’s impossible to navigate without getting stuck.

A single house and water tower

Once we’re happy with the whitebox it’s time to star modelling. With a level like Desert Valley we knew it was going to be filled with buildings and so attempted a more modular approach; separate roofs, pipes and planks that we could use to construct a stage from within Unity.

A small section of Desert Valley being worked on

Buildings are the largest structure in our level and so are the first to be modelled. We’ll replace parts of the white box one at a time, in the example below we had added a few props to get a feel for what we were doing and to check that our models look good together. We overlook lighting at this point; the real time shadows are more of a guide until later on in the process where we’ll adjust the lighting, for maximum cool looking shadow angles, and then bake them for performance reasons.

Desert Valley as it is currently

Repeat this process a until complete! Model and place props, bake your lighting, differentiate your materials a tad and voilà! You’ve got one freshly served Desert Valley.

In recap our process goes a little something like this:

  • Concept Art
  • Whitebox
  • Prop Design
  • Model
  • Whitebox Replacement
  • Bake Lighting

There’s a fair amount that’s been missed out, like our particular set of custom materials and reduced collision/shadow meshes, which we’re planning to elaborate on in future devlogs.

We’re Vertical Reach, a games company based in Portugal where we’re currently working on Apex Arena. If you found what you’ve read interesting then perhaps you would like to head on over to our website, check out our other games and maybe even subscribe to our newsletter!

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