Playing With Art

Art vs. Level Design

 
Another column, another missed deadline. About a week late I think. We finally closed Rayman Legends this week, meaning that now I’m in project limbo, waiting to see what I get the privilege of working on next.

No wonder I have time to write again.

Rayman Legends, if you haven’t already noticed, is a very artistic game. While the style might not always appeal to everyone – considering its distinct character designs and French sense of humor – I don’t think many people can argue the fact that the artistic direction of the game is impressive.

The mission statement was simple: We want to play inside the concept art. Our team in Montpellier found it unfortunate that beautiful concept art only ever amounted to just that – concepts. With the creation of the UbiArt framework, we were able to realize our ambitions. The result was Rayman Origins.

The follow-up, Rayman Legends, isn’t much different.

Art vs. Level Design

Depth of Field


 
Creating a game that mirrors its concept art is no simple task, even for the design team. For designers, there are books and publications full of rules and good design practices, but when the team wants to prioritize the artistic vision of a game over anything else, sometimes those rules can fall by the wayside. As the designers, our job was to pick up the fragments of what qualifies as “good design practice,” and make them fit unobtrusively into this concept art world. This is obviously an exaggeration, but sometimes it can feel that way when the weight of big graphical constraints is holding you down.

Let me first give you an example of a typical level designer’s paradise: Tile-based games. Everything fits cleanly onto a grid, allowing for very precise measurements for jump heights and distances. Everything is clear and readable for the player. In many 2D tile based games, the background is very unobtrusive. It is typically a very large distance from the game plane, meaning that there is no ambiguity as to whether or not something is part of the background or the playground. All of this amounts to a very clear level. However, when looked at from an aesthetic point of view, there can be a disconnect between the playground and everything behind it. The background could almost not exist and it wouldn’t change anything. There is a lack of the sense of the depth needed to create a believable environment, which ultimately makes it obvious that the player is present on a flat plane in front of one or two other flat planes.

Now, maybe you’re saying, But Chris, maybe Rayman’s textures are just more detailed than those in a lot of tile-based games? Or maybe it’s the minimalistic nature of the style? Take a look at these lovely images by pixel artist JinnDEvil which have been recently circulating the internet:

Art vs. Level Design

As you can see, the design constraints of a tile-based system have been 100% respected, even in this artistic interpretation of the game. The game is still made of tiles, and the topology is still very metric, and the background is still noticeably far away from the game plane. What you get is a fresh coat of paint, but more or less the same feeling.

Back to Rayman.

To counteract the separate plane feeling I’ve been talking about, the artists on Rayman Legends have made use of a large number of HD sprites in varying levels of depth from the game plane. Some bushes will be almost glued to the game plane, but a few meters behind them will be a tree, and behind that, something else. Far behind will be the clouds and sky, and even the clouds have different depth levels. A cave area will have a wall close to the game plane, but with small holes that reveal the depth of the world behind it. There are sometimes even graphical elements made to visually extend the game plane forward or backward in the game space, even though the gameplay is still 100% two-dimensional. What you end up with is a coherent and solid environment that maybe loses a bit of the “this is obviously a game” feeling, and treads into “what a nice painting” territory – right where Rayman Legends wants to be.

Art vs. Level Design

In the screenshot from Rayman Legends above, the bridge between the game plane and the background is very clearly seen when looking at the water to the left. The water plane extends slightly forward from the game plane to add some depth in the foreground, but it extends very far back into the distance, being intersected by trees and other plants along the way. Seeing it all in motion makes the solidity of the world almost tangible.

Organic Design


 
Making a coherent playable game world like this does have its disadvantages, however, and can sometimes make it difficult to balance the artistic realization with the design intentions. For a level that appears in Rayman’s Jungle environment, for example, the topology has to be highly organic, because in real life, natural landscapes are organic. If the gameplay geometry is completely square or contains too many right-angles, the immersion and believability of the world can be easily lost, as everything suddenly becomes artificial.

Art vs. Level Design

Art vs. Level Design

What is gained in aesthetic quality is somewhat lost in clarity of metrics in the example above, however. The image on top is a bad example of Rayman topology, whereas the lower image is a better example of what could be expected from a Rayman level. The gameplay is exactly the same in both; the distances are the same, but the smoothness of the jumping-off point makes it far less clear where the player needs to initiate their jump to land cleanly on the platform. The compromise is that the peak of the hill is where the player is supposed to jump – providing some visual cue – but it is no longer completely obvious to the player.

Not only the topology and level design was impacted by this artistic influence on the production. The following is an excerpt from a post-mortem of Rayman Origins I wrote last year:

“Many of the gameplay elements that can be seen throughout the game were built backward, where form defined function. Rather than asking, We need a platform for this world, so what can we make it look like that will clearly signify its function as a platform? the team ended up with something more along the lines of So in this concept we have these silly-looking birds. I suppose because their beaks are flat they could be platforms, right?

This doesn’t sound so bad at first, but in this example, birds were used as platforms, enemies and spiky traps. By using birds for platforms, the team was giving the player the initial impression that they were actually enemies or traps to be avoided. Unsurprisingly, the player’s first instinct was to attack the platform rather than to jump onto it, which is something we witnessed during nearly every playtest. Ultimately the birds remained birds, but their original red coloring (which was foolishly the exact same color the enemy birds were sporting) was changed to green to match the green color of the platforms in the previous world.

Art vs. Level Design

Rayman Legends’ gameplay element design – while still highly artistic – started to be guided by good design practices. Signs and feedback are crucial for player understanding and a strong silhouette helps readability in a detailed environment. I ended up designing a handful of gameplay elements myself, and collaborated with the animators to make sure that the visual representation was clear and understandable.

The design process of Rayman has been highly impacted by artistic constraints, but they aren’t inherently a bad thing. Constraints don’t hold you back from making the perfect idea come to life; instead they force the perfect idea out of you. Without enough constraints you can easily lose direction. The challenge is adapting to them even if they go against your style of working. Through the creation of two Rayman games, I personally learned to not force my vision into the world of Rayman, but rather to force the vision of the world into my thought process. That way, I filter my ideas so only the ones that will truly fit into the universe and style of gameplay will make it into the level.

Once I understood and accepted the constraints, they didn’t feel all that constraining anymore.

The Author

Chris McEntee is a Level Designer based out of Ubisoft’s Montpellier studio in the south of France. His most recent titles include Rayman Origins, Rayman Jungle Run and Rayman Legends. He has been published in Game Developer magazine as well as on Gamasutra.com, and writes the On The Level column for the UbiBlog, chronicling his life as a game and level designer. Prior to working at Ubisoft, he studied game development in the Netherlands where, during his training as an artist, he found a strong passion for design and never looked back. Follow him on Twitter: @chrismcentee