As any avid online gamer will tell you, the success or failure of any multiplayer shooter is, in large part, down to the strength of its map design. Lay down wide open spaces and it will result in a messy and uncoordinated free-for-all. Overcomplicate the environment and you’ll end up with filthy campers picking people off repeatedly from impenetrable hidey-holes.
It’s no different for EVE: Valkyrie, despite taking place in the vacuum of space. Simply chucking a few rocks into the void will not cut it, which is why we need people like Emily Knox (AKA CCP Starbug), Level Designer at CCP Newcastle. We dragged her back down to earth to ask her a bit about her craft and what it takes to make space an exciting place to visit.
Hi Emily. Let's start with you. Designing facilities in outer space in a distant galaxy is not a regular job. How did you get here?
I joined CCP in 2014 after going through a redundancy in my previous job, where I was building and designing race tracks for driving games. I had some prior experience working on smaller titles on Steam, some iPhone games and prototypes, but most of my expertise was in the racing genre so I expected to continue down that path. There were opportunities in racing, but CCP posed new challenges: level design in space, and level design in VR. It’s been (and still is) a huge learning experience because so many traditional conventions don’t apply, and we’re still discovering them as we go along.
Given the lack of a previous road map, as it were, what's the first step in creating a level? Does it start with a thought? Some sort of real-world inspiration?
We’ve tried to rough out some guidelines for the process but it remains dynamic and changeable, and I’m lucky to work with artists who have great level design expertise, so we have a few different approaches. My favoured method, at the moment, is mostly scouring the EVE Online universe for structures, ships or locations that I find interesting. As we’re set in this universe, we can take a new perspective of a first-person pilot in a tiny one-man ship, as opposed to EVE’s third person approach, viewing vast distances and piloting massive ships. It’s a relatively quick process to take assets into Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) and fly around, trying to evaluate if and how structures could work in Valkyrie. Our ships are so tiny compared to the geometry of EVE, so the level of detail and shapes we require is very different. We often have a lot of demands placed on art and code to work out what is possible. There are also other approaches, like creating moodboards to begin with and finding a theme first, but my main interest is to find a unique layout that feels different to fly through compared to our current maps.
How do you approach visualising a map? Do you sketch it out in 2D, or get stuck in and start modelling? What are your software tools (proprietary or third party)?
I used to scribble down a lot for level designs, but because our levels typically can’t be summed up from a top-down or side-on view, I’m finding that some simplified 3D representations are much easier to read. I used 3DS Max and also like to get stuck in with the editor as quickly as I can, because something that looks or sounds cool in concept can feel very different once you’re up close.
Once you've come up with a map, what processes are involved in fleshing it out? What's the process in-house by which you turn your idea and design into a working model for the other development teams?
Once we have something playable and easy for people to ‘read’ (some texture and light), our philosophy is to try and share a new map with the studio as soon as we can to gather feedback. As a multiplayer game it’s critical we can test a map full of people and flying a range of ships, which is easier said than done in a relatively small studio.
Do your level designs tend to work out pretty well straight out of the gate? How do you go back and make adjustments to the setup?
This has been a different experience with every map. Necropolis is probably one map that has changed the most radically from the beginning, as we originally wanted a titan to be the centrepiece. Our ships require a good mix of cover and open spaces in each map so they can be utilised well, and it seemed like we were destroying what a Titan was in order to meet our needs within a map (by this I mean smashing it up into small enough pieces), so they became more of a background piece placed around the outskirts of Necropolis rather than directly in it.
Thanks Emily. Fascinating stuff.
Fun though Valkyrie’s existing maps are, the team are never happy to rest on their laurels and the game is constantly evolving and expanding. While we can’t reveal any details right now, we would urge you to check back here regularly as there are always exciting developments to talk about for the not-too-distant future.
If you want to know more about the creation of EVE: Valkyrie and its recent implementation on HTC Vive, take a look at our interview with Lead Game Designer Andy Willans.
Have fun out there, pilots!