View Full Version : Organic Level Design

01 January 2010, 10:03 PM
My current project is a large tree that is intended to be a "level" of a simple game. Your character is mouse sized, and the goal is to collect various shiny berries what not on the way to the top of the tree. One issue I'm facing is how to design a tree in such a way that you can get to the top by walking along various branches and vines. That's the fun part, and while I'd appreciate advice I'm relatively certain I can work it out on my own.

The other issue I'm facing, which I think I CAN address but not necessarily in the most efficient manner, is how to design game assets for a very organic world. Most of the tutorials and examples I've seen focused on developing a bunch of architectural assets, or at least blocky rocks and stuff, to build a level out of. Whereas with a tree a lot of things need to naturally flow into each other in a variety of non-standard ways. (Branches seem fairly doable since they at least can be simplified into individual branch assets that plug into each other, but vines need to stretch on continuously in random directions without any obvious breaking points.)

I'm also a little unsure how to approach UVs, since the scale is so big. Seems like the best approach is have the bark texture tile across the main trunk and larger branches, and then the UVS gradually shrink as the bark would naturally be getting smaller near the top.

My current rough (rough) blockOut is here. The little guy on the left branch is the approximate size of the player.

I'd like to note that I'm trying to design the scope of the project so that it has useful milestones I can reach and consider "done" if necessary, since the full grandiose vision in my head is likely more ambitious than I can realistically accomplish in the near future. However, I'd be equally happy whether my short term goal was to produce a tree that looks good from a distance, a low-poly but complete level that plays well, or a few leaves and branches that look really good up close.

01 January 2010, 02:38 AM
Nice work Raemon.

Let me know if you are interested on working on a project.

01 January 2010, 06:44 PM
I'm definitely interested in learning more, at least.

Since this original post I've went through a few iterations of how to approach the level. Eventually I realized a major stumbling block was figuring out how the player could get from the ground level to the upper branches. So for now I've decided to focus on the upper branches themselves, making them an interesting area to navigate without worrying about being able to climb back up if you fall.

An issue I anticipate is getting confused as to which direction you're facing because a lot of branches look the same, so I'm thinking about interesting landmarks that can help keep the player oriented.

01 January 2010, 09:01 PM
How about adding miniature branches that could serve as makeshift stairs to the tree?

01 January 2010, 10:31 PM
This isn't an easy task. And i am not sure if you are interested in the gameplay or the visuals here. I say they always go hand in hand and for something like this, where you want it to be fun yet still with a realistic tree-structure, it can be tricky.

For the sake of fun, make sure you have the gameplay done first. Basically make sure it is fun and without any major gameplay-bugs. Like you wrote; what if the player falls down? Backtracking is rarely fun. Basically just grey-box the path for the player. And while you are designing this you have to keep in mind what all the pieces of grey boxes should represent in "real-life". The branches in this case. Is it realistic to have them goin the way you laid out the path? What could there be instead if you wanna use something else as makeshift walkway? And also like you wrote - landmarks - always good with landmarks. It could be something useful like a kite stuck in the tree with a string to swing from one branch to another (if the gameplay lets you do that) or it could just be a ball or something sort stuck out of reach in the branches.

When the grey-boxing part is done you can start replacing everything with more detailed models. And I would do this with as few as possible smaller versatile pieces. This is also part of the fun i think. It is like tetris, where you have a set number of pieces and you have to use them to fill the space as neatly and as economic as possible.

01 January 2010, 02:00 AM
Right now I'm more focused on the visuals. Originally there was a loose gameplay concept of "get to the top of the tree, possibly collecting shiny fruit as you do." I realize that having a more concrete game concept would radically change the way I'd approach this, and am a little torn about that. But I just spent a few months working on a more complete game idea, until I finally realized that after all that time I had neither a game nor graphics that were polished enough to be worth showing off.

So now I'm trying to divide my time into 1-3 week chunks during which I attempt to produce something interesting that will hopefully be worth looking at and learning from. When I first posted this (about a week ago) I had just started experimenting and figured I should get some feedback before going too far in one particular direction.

What I've done since then is create about 10 branch/lump assets and start sticking them together and getting a feel for how moving around them feels as well as how they look. (Similar to what vonSkellington suggested. I'm skipping the "block it out with boxes" part because I was more interested in how the branches looked/worked than how the level played at this point, and I don't think it was any harder to block out the level that way).

The immediate goal I've settled on is to create a small level that is: 1. Fairly interesting to run around with and fairly easy to not fall down off, and 2. looks good.

Once I've solved the issue of connecting branches together without them looking fake, I'll decide if it makes sense to continue the project as a genuine game. The basic gameplay I had in mind (to allow me to focus more on the graphics than extensive programming) was simply to run around collecting fruit/berries/some-random-shiny-thing in a limited timeframe. I can think of ways to make it more interesting than that but not without having to spend more time programming than actually modeling, and my primary concern is to develop things for my portfolio.

01 January 2010, 04:05 AM
Another thing if you plan on having the tree be big enough for a player to walk up then the way you made the branches would cause very noticeable seams. In this case you would either have to hide them with maybe some architecture or make it one solid mesh.

01 January 2010, 04:31 AM
Yeah, that's one of my main concerns right now.

The link below is a webplayer for the current blockout. (It requires you to download the Unity player, but it's a quick and painless process. It currently doesn't work in Google Chrome though). It should demonstrate approximately what I'm going for and hopefully someone here will have some more specific advice.

Moving around is standard WASD movement plus mouselook.

Sample screenshot:

Psionic Design
01 January 2010, 08:43 AM
Thats is really quite cool, with some more textures a skydome/skybox and some lighting that is gonna be cool. Look forward to seeing more progress on this!!

01 January 2010, 12:09 AM
One thing I'm a little concerned about: I know it's usually a good idea to break up your level so that the player can't look at that many things at once, so the engine doesn't have to render as much. I can't think of many ways to effectively limit that here, since all the "walls" are probably going to be leaves or branches that wouldn't occlude all that much. Any thoughts there?

01 January 2010, 12:57 AM
One thing I'm a little concerned about: I know it's usually a good idea to break up your level so that the player can't look at that many things at once, so the engine doesn't have to render as much. I can't think of many ways to effectively limit that here, since all the "walls" are probably going to be leaves or branches that wouldn't occlude all that much. Any thoughts there?

Maybe just add some cool looking fog effects :) I also tried your game haha it was actually almost addicting even without a point yet i think it will be fun when finished

01 January 2010, 08:22 PM
Current progress:

Over the past few days I got some more concrete ideas on how an actual "game" (as opposed to just a navigable environment) might work. It's still intended to be very simple - you capture little glowing Will O' Wisps, and then use them to power magical abilities that help you progress through the level. (I went with Wisps instead of berries because they give me a lot more leeway on where to place them in the level. Making them mobile also increases the challenge of catching them).

Each level you can find a rune inscribed somewhere on the tree that shows you how to use a particular color of Wisp to do a particular spell, and then you'll have to use that spell to open up the next section of the game. For the first level (all I'm really concerned about getting done for now) the spell you learn is a simple light that you'll need to explore the inside of the tree.

I'm still focusing on more on developing the graphics than the actual game, but this does give me a better framework on how to design the environment. Some various technical things I learned/changed:

1. Used a much simpler leaf shape, with transparency around the edges, as was suggested.

2. Last week I was assuming I would want several different trunks with crisscrossing branches to maximize the player's ability to move. What I realized yesterday is that because the environment lends itself to a lot of clutter (and few big walls to occlude areas, hiding unused geometry), I should use one big central trunk that blocks about half the map at any time. I'm trying to make the explorable branches in a radial fashion that encourages the player to focus on smaller areas at a time. Right now the average polycount seems to be 30-50k, jumping up to 70k when you can see the whole tree, and works fine on my computer, but I haven't added everything I intend you yet. (Then again I also haven't implemented any way to reduce geometry at a distance either)

3. I'm still concerned about disorienting the player. The environment fog helps distinguish between near and far branches, but I still sometimes get confused about where things are (and I built the level, so I can only imagine what a new player would go through). I think a wider variety of textures on the branches will also help. In the meantime any other suggestions would be appreciated.

The current webplayer is below (again, does not work with Google Chrome yet. Sorry)

Unity Web Player - TreeWeb (

01 January 2010, 04:42 PM
Made some significant improvements to graphics. My plan is to continue to polish a few of the assets for the time being, but I'd appreciate comments on the level layout so that when I return to that I'll have a better idea of what works and what doesn't. Are the branches big enough? (I'm at a point where I can easily navigate without falling down, so I have a hard time knowing what'd be like for someone just starting). One person commented that walking on the leaves felt really weird and counterintuitive because they look too fragile. I'm not sure how to address that - without the leaves I'd be hard pressed to make the idea work at all, and there's only so big you can make them before you really lose sense of scale.

Web Player is still available at:

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