Almost a year ago (on my birthday in fact) I packed up my disorganised, toy-strewn desk and moved across the road from the main Lionhead Studios building to a little office tucked away next to the lake, occupied by the Fable Heroes team. At the time the team had only just entered production, myself and Level Designer / mad skills gamer Lewis Brundish moved across to get to work on designing the regions for the game.
Fable Heroes is based on a heavily modified Fable 3 engine and it makes use of the same tools and some of the same systems that are already familiar to me and Lewis (having both worked as Level Designers on the AAA title). However, the process for designing and constructing a Heroes level is very different to a typical Fable 3 level. So, how do we actually begin designing a Heroes level?
…it helps keep the levels in Heroes feel like they belonged to Fable
Well, every level starts with an idea. In the case of Heroes, we first come up with environs in which the levels are set, such as “Caves” or “Desert” and then we try to make them as distinct from each other as possible. From these single words we now start to collect images for inspiration. For the Desert level (later renamed Aurora), on top of the invaluable environmental concept art we have from Fable 3’s Aurora, inspiration is also taken from all over the world (Canyonlands National Park in Utah, the Ubari lakes in Libya and particularly for a ruined tomb section near the end of the level, the ruins of Palmyra in Syria). Whilst having a lot of photographic reference isn’t nearly as important when you’re making a game that’s as stylised as Heroes is, it’s really useful to use as structural reference (i.e. what do sandbanks look like piled against red rock cliffs? How do trees and plants form around an oasis?), as well as to provide inspiration for sections of the level. Above all else though, it helps keep the levels in Heroes feel like they belonged to Fable.
From these photos and other thoughts we draw up a list of gameplay scenarios and vistas (views the player will see within the level) we think are going to work. I will literally collage a Visio document with short descriptive sentences about environmental elements, trying to generate as many ideas as possible. In the case of the Aurora level, there are sections called “bright and cheery Auroran village with bustling market” and “sweeping dunes, huge skeletons (elephant graveyard)”. Once these are all written, I’d then pick my favourites – those that are unique, distinct and offered something different to the gameplay were favoured. Those sections will then need to be arranged logically to form a visual story, a journey that would stretch across the level: the player begins the level in an Auroran village, ventures out into the desert, comes across an oasis etc. I always find it’s important to try and make the various areas within a level feel as different to each other as possible, because as a player runs through it they are going to get a better sense of progressing as they notice the level change around them. If you’re always running through a cookie cutter level, even with a series of visible landmarks to navigate by, you’re not going to feel like you’re actually going anywhere. With the flow completed I add in photographs and concepts that I think give a good indication of what I’m after visually for each section – it helps give everyone else a sense of what you’re imagining the level to look like.
At this point we know visually how the level will unfold and we know how many arenas or gameplay segments our level breaks down into. Once everyone’s given their ok, the work can begin on actually piecing it together. We work out our pacing during the prototyping of the first level – how often enemies should be encountered, how long a level should be and when to introduce other gameplay elements. So with these guides in mind, we get a working block-out of the level running – a very simple, ugly, no frills path with only main gameplay elements in there (creatures, stuff to smash) and some key assets in the vistas (in Aurora, these are things like a house and bridge for the village and some red rock cliffs for the craggy section). This now allows us to crack on with the pacing and balancing for the level and make any structural changes whilst the artists got to work on the assets (all the rocks, trees, ruins etc.) we need. With assets ready, the level builds up layer by layer, adding finer detail and finalising the lighting.
One particularly interesting aspect – and a whole lot of fun to do! – was Dark Albion. We knew we wanted to get more use out of our levels and have something harder for players who had completed the game. However, we didn’t like the idea of just running through the same level with harder enemies – they needed to stand out and feel special.
Aurora was a really tricky one when it came to Dark Albion though. We’d had ideas for a number of other levels and we were running with this “let’s make it the opposite of what it is” theme. The problem was – what’s the opposite of a desert? A Snow level? Well, we already had a Snow level in Light Albion and I didn’t think we’d get a second Snow level feeling unique enough. Then Mike Morton, a Senior Artist on the project nailed it – “Deserts are dry, so make it wet – set it in the rainforest”. Once we started exploring the implications of re-theming the Aurora level like this, it all fit into place. The cheery Auroran village at the start became a vine covered ruin with huge trees growing through the stonework, collapsed walls swallowed up by the surrounding jungle and birds fluttering through the canopy above. The sweeping dunes became claustrophobic pathways through dense forest, with foregotten statues and ruins poking out from beneath a thick carpet of undergrowth. Sure, the gameplay, the harder enemies and the change of pace is what is most important for players in the level – but it’s all the more sweeter when it feels like you’re in a completely new level.
Well, a year has passed since I first joined the Heroes team and it’s come so, so far from that first demo the guys knocked together for Creative Day. It is really good fun on Heroes, to work with a team so amazingly passionate and caring about the Fable universe and the game we’re making! And above all else avid about making a game that’s fun, light hearted and makes you smile (which sounds pretty Fable to me).
It is really good fun on Heroes, to work with a team so amazingly passionate and caring about the Fable universe and the game we’re making!
My birthday’s coming up again soon and this time round I’ll be spending it in Boston with Ted Timmins, showing Fable Heroes off at PAX East (Best. Birthday. EVER!!). If you’re in the area come along and check it out – we’ll be running Heroes Happy Hour from 1pm-2pm from 6 – 8 April. Beating me or Ted’s score will net you a t-shirt and the highest score of the Expo will win a custom Fable Heroes console!