Blocktober is a level design challenge run over October, the idea is to develop a map or set of maps in grey-box or prototyping stage. This challenge has been run over the past few years. This year I decided to join the challenge and build my own level blockout in Unreal Tournament 4 Beta which utilizes the Unreal Engine. This article will go through the design process that I took to develop the map, some of the positives and negatives of the map, and how I could take it beyond the blockout.
Planning and research
The first steps with any mapping project is to have an initial plan, in some cases, you will see people sketch the map onto graph paper, or utilize Lego to create a floor plan, or use a tool like SketchUp to essentially do a fast 3d sketch. This can be useful in some cases, however, as I was going to be blocking out anyway, I didn’t spend much focus on this. The next area of planning is to understand the theme or the architecture that will feature in the level. I had been watching some retrospective on Goldeneye and Perfect Dark which led me to research underground bunkers. It was easy enough to choose a few suitable search terms and use Google image search to pull back some images to help me create a mood board.
Tools of the trade
Now I have some researched ideas I want to move on to the actual blockout in UT4. The key to a blockout is that we want to create the basic geometry as quickly as possible and let the artists make it look visually stunning. The original Unreal Tournament had wonderful BSP tools for quickly generating level geometry and was used in the final level in most cases. BSP was extremely optimised for the creation of geometry in older games, hence why the tools had to be awesome. In the more modern versions of Unreal Engine, this need went away, so while BSP does exist the tools are a shadow of their former self. Knowing this, I decided to use a prototyping tool from the UE4 Marketplace. This tool is called SuperGrid Starter Pack by ZeOrb and although is designed for stock UE4 can be ported easily to the UT4 implementation. Although most of the pack is mostly some base modular meshes, it also has a few blueprints to speed up development. In a couple of places, I also used 3ds Max to build some custom 3d objects such as the curved tunnel. This was blocked out in SuperGrid and then exported before the modifications were made.
As you will see in the initial research, I picked out some tunnels with either a rail system or an aqueduct running through it. I wanted this to be the main feature of my map, so I focused on this as my first steps in the development of the level. I worked with the geometry from SuperGrid to shape the tunnel and create the first-pass. Although as I mentioned above, I took some of this into 3ds Max to add the distinctive curve to the tunnel. I then looked at some of the other research I found and went about creating a cylindrical room with some sort of central point that could be used for cover, and a visual waypoint for the player.
Extending the scene
It was at this point that I went back to my original thoughts on having a secret lair for a Bond-esque type villain. I thought about the locale for this map to live in as it’s always nice to have a good backdrop to reinforce your level to make it feel grounded. I went about looking for some window assets in the UE4 content browser and some additional details such as the sea material and birds. I also threw in some basic geometry to represent that there would be some other buildings or islands in the distance. I also felt there was no diversity to the heights the scene was at, so I thought about adding more connecting tunnels and stairwells that lead to a large basement room. I wanted this to be a larger space than the others, and I had an initial thought that this could house a hydro generator to power the base to further the narrative.
Connectivity and details
I always knew I would need to have the rooms be interconnected to complete the flow for the players as with any deathmatch map. This would have been an area which the paper phase planning could have been useful; as I had to change some areas that I had blocked out previously to work with my layout as it stood. However, most of these changes were minor and I feel that it mostly turned out well with a few exceptions. I tended to add some basic weapon locations as I build the map to get a feeling for what weapon is suitable for the area. I will then tweak these positions when the map geometry is nearing completion. In some cases, I added additional pickups and/or weapons after some play-testing and the map feeling not to deliver enough weapon viability to the player.
Evaluation and the future
I feel that for something that was developed in a short timescale and effectively in my own time with no extra support, or feedback that it turned out well enough. I clearly see the high point being the corridor sections, adding the needed verticality and some sort of visual grounding to the map. I really like that the main tunnel has a very readable theme. I feel it’s a good excuse to have the sniper rifle in this area as it offers a reason to use it, and the ability for a combatant to duck out the way rather than get shot. I was less sold on the hydro-generator room, while I love the space, there is no clear definition to it. I would have loved to add an easier to read focal point to the room, but time got the best of me.
I did have some issues with the corridors, particularly the one with the damage amplifier and bio rifle. This was due to it feeling too long before terminating or heading off in a different direction. In mapping, it’s always worth looking and thinking about real architecture and if you feel this would really exist. I did try to reduce this effect by making sure I added some arch doorways and cover points, and then brought in the length of the corridor slightly. I would see the next steps as potentially looking back at some of the weaker areas and restructuring them. I would also look at making the map look more visually stunning if this means using existing UT4 assets, or creation of custom assets to fit the themes. Overall, the blocktober challenge offers a good way to hone your skills, and a deadline to try to work to. I would advise it to anyone who is a level designer or is studying this field, and I hope that you picked up some tips from this article.