A DLC sized expansion mod for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Featuring 3 new major questlines, over 50 new dungeons and 60+ hours of gameplay.
”The drums of war are beating inside the Druadach Valley. After two hundred years of isolation the valley has restored its severed connections to the provinces of Skyrim and High Rock, exposing its withered remains to the rest of Tamriel. Chief Gorek of Garshakur refuses to surrender his mountain fortress to the Imperial Legion, denying them control of the highly-valued trade route between the cities of Jehanna and Solitude.
The Dragonborn enters the valley as these events are unfolding, his/her decisions will dictate the fate of the valley. Unfolding the many mysteries of the valley on their path.”
-Created 11 complete dungeons for main and sidequests
-Over 2200 hours in the Creation Kit Editor for Skyrim
-Polished over 25 interiors to shippable quality
-Implemented multiple combat and puzzle encounters
-Layout creation in the Creation Kit
-Research & proof of concept development
-Theme creation and development
-Iterate proof of concept to first playable
-Design & implement encounters: combat, loot, puzzle & exploration
-Lighting design and set up
-Look and feel development
-Scripting custom events & AI
-Perform playtests on quests, levels and technical implementations
-Lead playtesting on my content
-Pace and structure analysis and iteration
Level design pillars:
Level design process:
1. Research the game & finding the fun
Before starting the design process I do research into the game I’m designing for, breaking down the pacing, different dynamics and where the fun is to be had. This dictates the direction of concept and action bubbles for the levels.
[Picture] In this breakdown I looked at the different encounters a typical Skyrim dungeon contained and how that affected the difficulty curve and pacing. Furthermore, I addressed how its ‘valuable’ loot was distributed per room.
2. Brief, concept and design goals
When I receive the brief, I make a rough plan of the type of gameplay and aesthetics according to constraints and gameplay pillars. Using these basics I’ll create a set of drafts for the dungeon; each either explaining my gameplay concepts, theme, or encounter types. It’s here that I also start thinking about the onboarding process for the player for any new mechanics that they might have to interact with.
[Picture] This image shows the kind of gameplay spaces I wanted to create for the Wet Wind Hollows, using this to create an overview of initial concepts for each room in the dungeon.
3. 3D Layout & first gameplay pass
After receiving approval from the lead I make a playable greybox of the level with rough enemy locations, geometry, lighting and auto generated navmesh. Prioritizing the creation of landmarks for navigation, building the main and side routes and setting up the ‘memorable moments’
[Picture] In this example of Ysgramor’s folly, I translated the first part of the 2D designed map into 3D. During this process I set up bare bones version of the map and was testing the pacing and navigation because the dungeon had to be playable from 2 sides (start <> end).
4. Playtesting, major changes and adjusting pace
After receiving feedback from the first few playtests, I make layout changes that impact the pacing/flow and the difficulty curve the most. Furthermore, taking this chance to add/remove sections and check with the players whether they’re having fun with this bare bone version.
[Picture] These changes in layout were made after the first few runs through the Wet Wind Hollows. The main feedback was to make the ‘breather’ sections more linear while keeping the big open section explorable in approach. With this in mind, I re positioned the boss room and looped the main path through the huge open room to make that room more memorable, while creating a breather and reducing the amount of time spent on set dressing.
5. Fleshing out combat interactions, set dressing & lighting design
Afterwards I flesh out the gameplay elements more, making sure that they comply with the level design pillars. Furthermore, set dressing the entire dungeon and setting the theme by tweaking the global lighting, camera FX and the dungeons audio.
[Picture] This simple encounter shows how the design pillars affected the design process. Being approachable for multiple roles the encounter can be played in several different ways: When the player enters the room on the left (white arrow) they walk up to a Draugr with their back turned (green):
-The Draugr with his back turned (green) allows sneak players an early kill.
-Ranged players can use the Lamps (blue) to kill the Draugr below using the oil pools (red).
-Mages will likely be able to hit some of the lamps (blue) while casting spells or set the oil alight with a flame spell (red).
-Melee players can use the tables’ figure of 8 shape to kite the Draugr.
6. Testing & iterations
When I’m around 80% done with the dungeon, I continue playtesting more avidly while making quick iterations. These are fully focused on player feedback and making quality of life improvements. Putting emphasis on the elements that the player is having fun with and catching design/technical bugs in the process.
[Picture] In the image I logged 2 known bugs from a playtesting session on the Wet Wind Hollows. It features known exploits of the map, being able to skip parts of it. Here I weighed the pros and cons of each solution against each other.
7. Optimization & manual navmeshing
When all of the content and changes have been made, I look into optimizing the dungeon and updating the navmesh. This requires putting roombounds and portals down to reduce the rendered objects. Furthermore setting up occlusion planes, reducing the amount of shadow lights and objects with a different texture pack until the benchmark FPS is reached and stabilized throughout the dungeon.
[Picture] The image depicts the Wet Wind Hollows after the navmesh & optimization pass. Being one of the most difficult dungeons to optimize due to having large rooms with long sight lines I had to cleverly place the roombounds & portals. Furthermore I had to reduce lights in total throughout the dungeon, redo the navmesh and remove the occlusion planes due the type of FPS drop.
[GIF] In Ysgramor’s Folly I set up a skeleton encounter where the player get swarmed by a group of ghosts upon picking up a scroll. To add more juice to this encounter I created a system where the skeletons broke apart before the ghosts spawn. Furthermore adding VFX, audio and camera shake to the scene and well as setting up different skeleton poses.
Look and feel process1. Collecting reference & idea creation
After receiving the brief, I begin collecting different references that can fit the first paper design of the level. This is to inspire the aesthetic and feel of the dungeon as well as giving ideas for lighting, color and shape language.
[Picture] This mood board was used to inspire the large shanty hideout in the Wet Wind Hollows. Primarily taking away it’s vertical design, scrap wood look and lighting design.
2. Create an asset library (tool assessment)
Next I take a look at my tools; identify the limitations of my engine, find compatible programs and study the building processes. When I’m confident with the engine I’ll create a small asset library of helpful assets to my current level and plan out the programs/building blocks I’m going to use.
[Picture] This picture is showing the asset library that I created when I made my first ancient Nordic dungeon. Understanding what kind of assets I had available, allowed me to experiment earlier with more layouts & combinations.
3. 3D blockout with landmarks, early lighting setup & minor set dressing
When setting up the early blockout of the level, I’ll consider where to put the main landmarks to guide the player with and what type of composition I’m pursuing. Furthermore implementing rough colored lighting and using some fitting models/textures to set the theme for the level.
[Picture] This screenshot was taken in the middle of blocking out the Wet Wind Hollows. Using wooden boards, ship pieces and a combination of orange and light blue lighting I began to set the theme for the shanty hideout.
4. Set dress & FX & audio
After most design elements are implemented I’ll start set dressing the entire dungeon. Cluttering the environment, placing VFX & implementing the camera FX to convey the aesthetic and atmosphere of the environment. During this process I also put a lot of effort into environmental storytelling, adding details with which players can create stories.
[Picture] The comparison below show the change that the Putrid cove went through during the set dressing phase. The concept for this room was a Spriggan oasis that got tainted by a Dwemer oil leak, destroying the plants and mutating the wildlife around it.
After the dungeon is content complete and has been properly tested, I’ll go over the dungeon and polish all the ‘memorable’ set pieces by tweaking lights, adding FX, changing camera settings or making the environment more dynamic.
[Picture] In this example I went back to the wolf pit to add ambient light beams and a more dynamic color range to the cage at the top. Furthermore, I placed skeletons inside the cages and allocated more location specific animations to the NPC’s. Lastly, I changed the light on the cage to a shadowlight to cast a shadow on the ground.
Creation Kit Scripting
To polish some encounters and add more unique content to my dungeons I learned a little bit about the Creation Kit’s scripting set-up. Which I used to create some of the examples below:
Skeleton crumble effect
For Ysgramor’s Folly I set up a skeleton ambush encounter (Level design: 8. Polish). To make this work I had to set up a string of scripts in the Creation Kit that would make it look like the skeletons were crumbling down; linking it to the camera shake effect and spawning the smoke particles to hide the skeleton bones disappearing.
-The GIF on the right shows the effect in the final version
-The GIF on the left shows the performance test I did before implementing the effect in the final version.
To slow down the pacing of the dungeon I set up a ‘puzzle’ encounter in which the player gets trapped in the crypts of the dungeon. To escape he/she has to find all 3 switches hidden in the crypt. As feedback for the player I set up a board with skeleton heads whose eyes light up when one of the switches is found.
During the dungeon building process I created some unique weapons to be found in secret locations. These weapons all have new effects that are custom made for them. Made by mixing and matching various different existing effects with new effects.
-The GIF on the right shows a summoning staff which spawns ancient nordic ghosts depending on your level
-The GIF on the left shows the 2 twin weapons; blood & plunder. The axe (plunder) has a chance to stagger enemies while the scimitar (blood) makes them bleed and steals HP
Custom AI behavior
For most dungeons I had to alter the behavior of the AI to ensure that the combat/stealth encounters play out correctly. This mostly included combining the AI packages of different NPC’s and changing base values like equipment, textures, altering factions etc.
-The GIF on the right shows a altered ‘Ravenheart’ package. I combined the ambush logic with a berserker template and removed bows from it’s possible equipment slots. Thus ensuring that the ‘Ravenheart’ would charge through the gate when the player enters the location