Brass Tactics: Level Design Theory Part 1
A Look into RTS Level Design in VR
By Clancy Powell, Senior Designer at Hidden Path Entertainment
By now most of you reading this likely have some experience at the war table. Your stories of glorious victories and educational defeats are what we cherish. The artillery push raining fire from the high ground on poor little Archers. The Tank bust to destroy the Artillery lines. The Wasp harass that makes your opponent flip the table (virtually). And the cheeky Scout openings for those with an economics degree to save jewels for early elite units. How you play the game matters, and that’s ultimately what drives level design!
But before you are gamers, you are people. You are people that happen to be wearing a headset and using controllers to do amazing things in a virtual world. How you experience Brass Tactics as a human in VR in addition to how the game plays makes or breaks your enjoyment.
When designing maps for Brass Tactics, we had to consider the human experience in addition to game mechanics as much as we could. These fell into the realm of VR considerations, game mechanics, removing the fog of war, and different modes for different experiences.
Hardware and input devices play a large factor for game development as a whole. Brass Tactics utilizes the Oculus Rift and Touch controllers, so this made us think about user experience in VR. For map design, this emphasizes three things: comfort, perf, and looking good.
Keep it Comfortable
Being a human in a virtual world has something in common with real life: being a human! Crafting levels to accommodate your humanness is critical. Unless you’re willing to opt-in to an experience that pushes your comfort level, chances are you’d expect something comfortable by default. In Brass Tactics, most of this falls under ergonomics and level geometry.
When building maps, we wanted to make sure that regions felt large enough to accommodate you being in them. It’s totally possible to make a region just large enough to accommodate squads moving around and fighting, but they could still be so small that you would feel cramped. This claustrophobic feeling isn’t what Brass Tactics is about, so we try to avoid it.
Using geometry for line-of-sight blocking creates good gameplay, providing players with sneaky routes in a game without fog of war. However, it must be handled with care. Geometry that comes up too high on your sides can create a claustrophobic feeling that makes you feel anxious and want to leave your session earlier. If the geometry comes up too high in front of you, looking down at the squads on the other side can cause neck strain and the “double chin” feeling, which is not desirable. Maps have to strike a balance with geometry so that the war table was both readable and comfortable while providing gameplay opportunities.
Lastly, players stand or sit at a computer and the Touch controllers use sensors. This is the primarily reason why the Brass Tactics maps are longer than they are wide, and why the extents of the play space from your castle are within your field of view. This is so you never have to turn your body a full 90 degrees and risk breaking your controller’s connection to the sensors. Combined with the how the locomotion controls work, you have access to all the play spaces in a map while keeping your feet firmly planted or seated in a chair.
Keep it Performant… But Also Keep it Beautiful
As gamers, we love our performance. Buttery smooth frame rate helps make the experience look good, feel awesome, and be responsive when a lot of action is happening on screen at once. In VR, good frame rate also helps keep you from getting nauseous. Having high frame rate is a win-win in this regard.
As humans, we like pretty things to look at. VR empowers you to get up close and look at things like you would in reality. The attention to detail put into models, animations, VFX, and audio get noticed in a much different but awesome way than normal PC and console games as though you’re actually there. Building play spaces should take advantage of this and play up that aspect as much as possible. Else, we’re not really utilizing the strength of the medium.
When push comes to shove, does perf or beauty get priority? Well, both actually. Games can be performant while looking good. And levels can be designed with both tech and art goals in mind while maintaining design integrity! The important thing developers need to do is communicate with each other so we can solve problems without sacrificing user experience.
Join us for Part 2 of the series coming 3/7