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  • Writer's pictureTiago Massochin

The Power of Agency: The Level Design Process for "El Arte Degenerado"

Updated: Apr 9

In this developer diary entry, I delve into the design process for 'El Arte Degenerado' for Ubisoft’s Next 2024 Level Design Challenge. The announcement of the challenge spurred me to action immediately. As I mentioned in my other post about the Ubisoft Next game design challenge, my choice to set this level within Far Cry 6 was informed by the success of past winners who featured recent Ubisoft titles, which seemed to contribute to their winning strategies. However, my decision was also a personal one. Far Cry 6’s Caribbean Island setting, rich with Latin American architectural influences, perfectly aligned with my Brazilian heritage. My familiarity with this architectural style, bolstered by my background and experience in similar environments, enabled me to create a level that not only fits seamlessly into the game’s world but also remains authentic to its cultural roots.


Embracing the Open-World Essence

In line with Far Cry 6's vast open-world environment, I initiated my design with a 360-degree approach to open-world mission design, inspired by the methods discussed by Philippe Bergeron in his GDC talk[1]. This strategy was crucial for developing a level that was welcoming from all directions, ensuring that players could engage with the space whether they came from the north, south, east, or west. My aim was that no matter how players chose to enter the level, they would find a path that led them naturally to their objectives. I made sure to plan for different types of entries, including on foot, by boat along water routes, or from above, using planes, parachutes, or wingsuits. The core of this design philosophy was to maintain openness and variety in gameplay interactions, making for a cohesive and immersive experience that fits Far Cry 6's open-world identity.



Sculpting the Terrain

With a clear design direction in mind, I began to outline my level's layout, aiming to achieve a harmony between scale and authentic architecture. The idea of placing a lighthouse on a mountaintop quickly became central to my plan. Positioned at a peak in the corner of the map, this lighthouse was intended to act as a steady point of reference, visible from anywhere on the map. It was designed to be more than a mere architectural build; it was crafted to serve as a landmark, visible across the entire map, giving players a persistent sense of place and direction.


First draft sketched in a scrap paper
First draft sketched in a scrap paper

Staying true to my commitment to multiple approach strategies, particularly the inclusion of aquatic vehicles, I was captivated by the idea of a level set high on a coastal cliff. This setting naturally included an optional entrance through an underground cave at sea level, creating a cinematic passage for players to ascend from the depths to the level's heights. Reflecting Far Cry 6’s environmental style, the central structure had to be a colonial mansion, which was also expected to feature a majestic front garden, reminiscent of the grand gardens common to 19th-century Latin American colonial mansions. The choice to place a mansion at the level’s heart was a strategic decision to efficiently draw the player's attention to where the main objectives would unfold, aiming to capture interest and enhance the environment’s visual appeal.



Draft of the first bubble diagram with defined connections and shapes for different sections
Draft of the first bubble diagram with defined connections and shapes for different sections

To make these structures stand out, I was inspired by museum visits, which led me to differentiate the buildings by distinct shapes—round, square, half-circle, etc. This made each area of the level immediately identifiable to players by its unique silhouette from any viewpoint. This approach was about more than just visual distinction; it was aimed at designing a level with intuitive navigation and layout. Players could easily recognize and orient themselves in relation to these variably shaped buildings, enhancing their immersion in the level instead of worrying about getting lost, thereby deepening their interaction with the game environment.


Integrating Design Principles

After setting the basic shapes and layouts of my level, I focused on honing its design, drawing from Christopher W. Totten's "An Architectural Approach to Level Design."[2] My refinement process was anchored in three key principles: Behavior Adjustment, Meaning Transmission, and Space Augmentation. Each principle played a vital role in elevating the gaming experience.



The principle of Behaviour Adjustment led me to design varied and well-thought paths that intuitively guide players towards their goals naturally. This was achieved by subtly directing players with environmental hints like unique flooring designs, different colour schemes, and the placement of assets to guide players through specific paths organically. These cues subtly move players in the right direction without them being fully aware of it. This strategy simplifies navigation and enhances the exploration aspect of the game.


With the Transmission of Meaning principle in mind, I used architectural elements to fill the space with narrative depth. For example, the grandeur of the main hall was highlighted by its expansiveness and towering height, creating a sense of awe and underscoring the level's inherent narrative. This approach to spatial design was intended to create an environment that was not just immersive but also rich with untold stories ready to be uncovered by players.


Diagram demonstrating the different paths for different approaches
Diagram demonstrating the different paths for different approaches

The principle of Augmentation of Space was crucial in accommodating varied player approaches and styles. Recognizing the diversity in gameplay preferences, I integrated distinct level segments like a dense forest leading to a hidden cave, offering stealthy players a route for covert infiltration. On the other hand, for players inclined towards direct confrontation, I established a route leading to an FND tank, supporting assault-style gameplay. This diversity in environmental design ensured that regardless of players' preferred tactics—stealth, assault, or exploration—the level adapted seamlessly to their playstyle, offering unique experiences, emotional engagements, and memories that resonate with each player's journey through the game.


From Intel Gathering to Artistic Rebellion

As some of you might have noticed, I haven't yet discussed the mission aspect of my level. Until now, I hadn't defined a mission. My approach was to establish the layout first and then incorporate the mission into this framework to ensure the level maintained a realistic architectural focus without being constrained by mission objectives. However, after finalizing the layout, it was time to define a mission that would bring this carefully crafted space to life. Initially, I considered a mission with a high-tech theme, influenced by the work I had done for the Game Design Challenge. The idea was for players to sneak into the main palace, repurposed as an FND intel center, to hack computers for crucial information. But during a recent playthrough of Far Cry 6, I realized that missions involving infiltration and data extraction were too common, which could diminish the uniqueness of my concept.


Realizing my initial mission concept relied on an overused mechanic, I decided to shift gears and explore the less common elements in Far Cry 6, particularly the game's painting mechanic. This mechanic, rarely used in the main narrative, caught my attention as a prime space for innovation. To elevate its minimal application, I looked for inspiration in the standout mission from Far Cry 3, where players use a flamethrower to burn a weed farm. By combining these two ideas, I saw an opportunity to blend environmental interaction with painting, aiming to enhance player agency and deepen immersion.


Imagining a mission imbued with colour and personal flair, I designed a scenario where players wield a paint ink gun, marking their path of rebellion throughout the palace with vibrant colours. This approach enables players to interact creatively with their surroundings and make their mark on the game world, elevating their sense of belonging in the game's resistance. This concept is underscored by insights from Jolie Menzel's GDC speech[3], where she spoke about the strength of a level when well integrated with the narrative.



To integrate this creative mission seamlessly into Far Cry 6’s story, I chose Maria Marquessa as the antagonist. The guerrilla group, Maximas Matanzas, calls players to action, and I decided to locate the mission on Cruz Del Salvador's west coast for better narrative coherence. Aligning the mission with the game’s characters and storyline added significant relevance and depth.


Additionally, recognizing Far Cry 6's dedication to supporting various playstyles, I added an option for players who prefer a more direct approach. Instead of just defacing art with ink, players have the choice to physically demolish these artworks, providing two separate methods to accomplish the mission. This decision guarantees that players can tackle the mission in a way that suits their style, underlining the game’s adaptability and the importance of player choice.


Mission location on the Far Cry 6 map
Mission location on the Far Cry 6 map

Navigating Constraints

After my initial concept received the judges' approval, I moved on to the second part of my submission: building a level prototype with Unreal Engine 5. Early in this development stage, I faced a major hurdle with the level’s previously undisclosed spatial limitations. The space I had to work with in the prototype was much smaller than I had originally planned, leading to a critical rearrangement of the level’s overall size. This issue was particularly challenging since the focal point of my design was a colonial palace, known for its expansive grandeur. I was intent on maintaining this aspect, as reducing its size threatened to diminish its impressive impact and the distinctiveness of my level's central piece.


Faced with these spatial challenges, I strategically chose to reduce the size of the features around the palace—such as the gardens, mountainous terrain, the cave entrance, secondary rooms of the palace, and the water body at the back—focusing on keeping the palace's grand appearance as the priority. This method enabled me to preserve both the visual and thematic significance of the palace, making sure its majesty was unaltered.


I faced another obstacle when I discovered the prototype platform didn't support some of Far Cry 6's essential movement mechanics. This limitation made parts of my design, originally developed with those mechanics in mind, feel out of place, empty, or unnecessary. For example, the palace's rooftop, intended as a tactical entry point for players using parachutes or wingsuits, became irrelevant without the mechanics to support such approaches. In response, I adjusted the level design by relocating objectives, items, and adversaries to these now underused areas, infusing them with new significance. This flexible approach was crucial, allowing me to rethink and repurpose key sections of the level, ensuring each area served a distinct and meaningful role in the gameplay experience.


Encouraging Exploration

After adjusting my level’s layout, I moved on to a vital phase: sharing early prototype versions with friends for playtesting. It was critical for me to see how players moved through the level, especially how they found objectives and interacted with the environment. Early responses showed that players often followed a single route to objectives, missing out on the extensive exploration and discovery opportunities I had integrated into the level. This behavior highlighted the importance of encouraging players to fully explore the level’s interactive features.


To tackle this issue, I strategically scattered notes across the level, each containing a piece of the story that aimed to pique players' curiosity. These notes weren't merely informational; they subtly nudged players by hinting at hidden paths or potential interactions within the level. For example, a note captured a conversation between guards about their dread of an abandoned cave hidden in the mountains, acting as a subtle prompt for players to explore outside their standard paths to find this cave.


This method added a layer of storytelling to the level and fostered a more profound interaction with the environment. By leaving these narrative breadcrumbs, my goal was to expand players' exploration, making sure they discovered all the varied and interactive parts of the level, thereby enhancing the level's believability and immersion.


Implementing Unique Mechanics for Enhanced Gameplay

After several playtests and adjustments to guarantee a seamless and compelling prototype level, it was time to incorporate the two critical mechanics I had envisioned, aiming to dramatically transform the gameplay experience. The inclusion of the tank and ink gun mechanics was essential for boosting player agency and enhancing the narrative depth of my level.


Ink Gun Mechanic
Ink Gun Mechanic

The creation of the ink gun mechanic was surprisingly simple. I modified the prototype's standard bullet to turn it into an automatic weapon, with bullets that have a quick projectile drop-off, somewhat mimicking an ink jet. Finally, I ensured that each impact on any surface would result in a blue decal appearing at the point of impact, with a bit of randomness in its size. This ensured that each shot left a bright blue mark, creating a visually satisfying effect. This effect created precisely the sense of “painting the environment” that I was initially looking for, aligning perfectly with the mission's thematic objectives.


However, integrating the tank turned out to be an unexpectedly complex challenge. It necessitated a thorough revision of the player's control scheme to accommodate the tank's movement and turret functions, ensuring alignment with realistic tank mechanics appropriate for the game's setting. This task was detailed and exhaustive, requiring significant changes to the control system to enable the tank to move and its turret to operate independently, reflecting gameplay mechanics found in other games. This was deemed necessary to ensure that the gameplay would feel natural and intuitive for players. However, the most challenging aspect turned out to be adjusting the tank's physics. Finding a balance where the tank moved and interacted with the environment in a believable manner was complicated. Despite my efforts, the tank sometimes struggled with terrain navigation, getting stuck on small obstacles or being unable to climb surfaces it was designed to easily overcome. This part of the tank's integration fell short of my initial expectations and remained a constant challenge.


Despite these challenges, the tank executed its core role without any issues. It enabled players to interact destructively with statues spread across the level, matching one of the mission's alternate objectives seamlessly. This provided players with a choice between painting with the ink gun or demolishing with the tank, delivering diverse gameplay experiences suited to various playstyles.


Mechanics That Resonate

After incorporating the two main mechanics into my level, it was time for the last playtest, a process that was both exciting and validating. Seeing players engage with these mechanics served as proof of the level’s effective design and its ability to entertain and captivate. The tank’s introduction, enabling players to destroy statues and tackle enemies with overwhelming force, added a real element of power and devastation to the gameplay. Yet, it was the ink gun that really captured the players' imagination.


The ink gun became a highlight, significantly enriching the gameplay for everyone. Players delighted in the creative liberty it provided, using it to artistically alter their surroundings. From drawing on walls to writing their names on the floor, or just joyfully splashing paint everywhere, the pleasure it offered was clear. The ink gun went beyond a simple gameplay element, becoming a way for players to make a lasting impression on the game world, in both a literal and figurative sense.


The enthusiastic reception of the ink gun confirmed the triumph of its foundational design principle: to equip players with tools for self-expression within the game environment. This conclusive playtest didn't just affirm the ink gun as an outstanding design decision; it also emphasized the significant effect that including interactive components in gameplay can have, fulfilling the primary aim of boosting player involvement and pleasure through impactful, expressive interactions.


Before I go

Looking back at the process of creating my level for the Ubisoft Next Challenge and securing 3rd place fills me with both humbleness and excitement. This endeavor was a test of creativity, technical prowess, and a profound love for design, resulting in a level that showcased both architectural elegance and immersive gameplay mechanics. Incorporating the ink gun and tank wasn't merely about introducing new features; it aimed to amplify player control, foster creative output, and guarantee lively interaction within the game environment. The warm reception of these elements affirmed my design approach, which married effortless navigation with intriguing spots for discovery and engagement. Achieving this recognition in the challenge represents a significant milestone in my career as a designer and lays a solid groundwork for my future projects, highlighting the value of innovation, focusing on the player experience, and the continuous effort to craft unforgettable gaming moments.


over and out,

Zizo Mass

 

References

[1] Ubisoft Montreal. (2016, March 16). 360 Approach for Open World Mission Design in Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed [Video]. YouTube


[2] Totten, C. W. (2019). An Architectural Approach to Level Design (2nd ed.). A K Peters/CRC Press


[3] GDC. (2017, March 2). Level Design Workshop: A Narrative Approach to Level Design [Video]. YouTube

Files

Ubisoft Next 2024 - Level Design - Phase I – Mission Design Document
.pdf
Download PDF • 143.50MB

El Arte Degenerado - Change list
.pdf
Download PDF • 7.58MB

El Arte Degenerado - Final Build
.
Download • 476.33MB

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