February has come to an end!
My month of modding has matured to a marvelous… measure? Merit?
Alliterations aside, the month has been fruitful. I have learned a fair amount of Bethesda’s Creation Kit and even got to put it all to use in making a level for their Skyrim game. It may be a simple level, but it is well rounded and complete!
Sorry for the long blog, but I figured since I was simply grinding away at Bethesda’s tutorials, intermittent blog posts seemed like overkill. So, instead I have it all at once!
Project as a Whole
Here is what I set out to do:
“[T]his month I am going to learn the Skyrim mod tools and make a mod of some sorts. This will allow me to focus on level design for a whole month.”
The mission statement was left vague purposefully. Most of the month was learning the new tools in depth, and I figured dangerous to set misinformed goals.
After a few weeks of watching tutorials tutorials, going over the tutorials again, and practicing the tutorials, I was ready to create a map from scratch. Here is an overview of the steps I took just in case you have never made a Skyrim mod and are curious about the process.
The first step is to setup the layout of your dungeon. This is means laying out the basic rooms (walls, floors, and corners) and connecting hallways. Things can get more complicated if you are going for a more natural cave formation. The tileset becomes slightly more complex and specific and you’ll often have to work off the grid to get things feeling just right.
2. Room Definitions
After you have the rooms set up, you need to make them stand out. Utilizing the basic tilesets for each room is not enough. They would just blur together which may disorient the player. Each room needs a unique definition. This could come in the form of a different tileset, a more complex shape, lighting, a unique prompt, and anything else that makes it stand out.
3. Clutter and Knickknacks
Next you need to give the player things to look at and pick through from room to room. Not every room should be a combative bloodbath. Players like to scavenge to get stronger. This means filling your level with pieces of gold, weapons, potions, spells, and anything they can sell. You also need clutter that isn’t scavengable to make the rooms seem more believable and to differentiate them further. Add crates, furniture, chests, boulders, candles, burned books, skeletons, and anything else that stands out.
After your rooms’ aesthetics are in place, it is time to give the enemy AI some pathfinding. In so simple of words, this is placing a grid of points over all areas you want AI to be able to walk on. The grid doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be clean. Even if you have the Creation Kit generate the grid, you still need to clean it up and even make parts by hand. This may seem daunting, but at it’s core, this is a straightforward task.
Next you place the enemies, traps, and ambushes in the dungeon. This could come in the form of dart traps, sarcophagi bursting open and a zombie attacking, or patrolling warlocks overseeing their domain. You set up triggers, spawn points, patrol points, and trap orientations to make the player fear for their life. At the same time, you need a fine balance between a constant swarm of enemies and an empty dungeon. Pacing is the subtle art of level design.
Some house cleaning comes next in the form of rooms and portals. In short, you must box together rooms in chunks so the engine knows what to render when the player is in each area. The engine cannot render all objects at all times, or else the game will begin to chug. In addition to the boxing, you must add portals between adjoining rooms so that the engine knows that if a player can see through a portal, the adjacent room must be rendered.
7. Lighting and Effects
Finally, you ups the ambiance of the level. Lighting, fog, and eerie wind blowing sound effects all set the scene can make the difference between a bright and cheery market square in the daylight, or a grey, deathly crypt at night.
What Went Right
Several things went right with this month’s project. To start, instead of breezing through the tutorials to merely understand them, I practiced them in depth to gain a workflow. Though it took a long time, when I finally set out to make my own level, I had a deeper understanding of what was involved. This allowed me to scope appropriately and develop a good workflow instead of getting lost and overwhelmed. Additionally, I worked faster because I merely needed the wiki for reference rather than a guiding hand.
What I hope went right is that I had an idea for my dungeon and I feel that I followed through. It’s a simple concept. A mad frankenstein-like warlock broke into a small ancient crypt to set up shop where he/she can cut up the bodies to make new monsters. As he/she settled in, he set up traps for the main tomb where the undead kept rising to attack him, made a bedroom surrounded by specimens in a smaller crypt, and discovered an icy cave area where he/she can work and keep all the body parts cool and fresh. Additionally, this concept would easily be translated into a quest. One of the necromancer’s abominations escapes and you are hired to stop the horrors in the cave.
What Went Wrong
You can never have enough detail in these maps. As I would place clutter and come back every day, I would think of new things to add or notice empty spaces in my dungeon. This is a dangerous cycle that could never end. On top of that, the clutter, by far, took the longest, mainly because I do not know what is available. I got so caught up in the general clutter, I feel that the loot is lacking in the level. Piles of gold and simple potions could really add to the player experience. At the end of the day, it is simply a matter of knowing what is available. I spent hours during the tutorials learning the naming conventions and looking at different tilesets or items. Despite that, I still I have a very basic knowledge of what is there. Overcoming this problem is mainly a matter of experience. The more I work with the tool, the less this becomes an issue.
Finally, I don’t think I hit as high of a note on the ambiance. On the last night, the editor started bugging out and would not display the effects of the lights I was adding. They would not lighten up the scene or cast shadows in the editor. I had to go into the game to test them. I would like to spend some time to either straighten out the bugs or develop a workflow so I can properly implement the lighting.
What Else I Would Do
In addition to polishing up the map, I’d like to, of course, create more spectacular maps. A whole month creating a map instead of learning the toolset sounds appealing.
I do plan on tidying up some loose ends, recording a run through of the map, and posting it to the Steam workshop sometime this week/month.
For March, due to some vacation time and some personal interests, I want to switch gears a bit and create a board/card game. Recently my friends and I have been getting into a more involved tier of board game beyond Munchkin and Settlers of Catan. More specifically, we have been excited by the prospect of co-op board games, championed by the recent game Eldritch Horror which is a FANTASTIC game.
I am personally drawn into the immersive Dungeon and Dragon like experience these games can offer in a contained package that can last an evening instead of months. Also, no one person has to prepare and DM. Everyone can simply sit down and play. At the same time, due to the complex mechanics and nerdy settings, these games lack a broader appeal.
This month, my goal is to attempt to make a game that can bridge that gap between immersion and off putting complexity so that I can share games, in general, with those I know who are not well versed in similar game mechanics. I do not know if it is possible, but I will explore my theory and approach in next week’s blog post.
I hope enjoy my mod and my write up.
On to the next one!