Alice: OTM. A less grumpy post mortem thingy, a playthrough, and some overpaints!

Before I get into the nitty gritty details of my team’s Off The Map work, I spent a few hours fiddling with Adobe Premier (with the greatly appreciated help of Jonah!), and now you can see a playthrough of our level! Enjoy! Hopefully now you’ll have a better idea of what I’m talking about in this post, and all my past ones too.

So, I’ve done some paintovers, and I’d like to share these with you, along with some more specific examples of how different aspects of my team’s OTM project went well or badly. I’m going to go into a bit more detail about assets, problems we encountered, and what I could do differently. All that good stuff. I’ve already talked about some aspects of the project in my previous post, so I’ll skirt around those and talk about some new things.

When the OTM project was first introduced on February 3rd, I jumped in at the deep end and produced a fair few concepts for the project. As time wore on, it became increasingly apparent that my concepts were merely a starting point for a level that was in a constant state of development and change. It’s been really interesting to see where my team have taken my concepts (and other team member’s!), and how they have improved them over the 3 or so months of the project.

First, I’ll come to one of our stronger areas; the woodland path. I’d say this area developed to be one of the strongest areas, from concepts that were otherwise lacking. Perhaps the lack of concepts lent itself well to more creative progression when it came to the level.

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My assets; Elm tree, dirt floor texture, grass (which is broken and ugly), and the tulips and oversized pansies.

This section of the game is one of my favourites, however it was also the hardest on our frame-rate (which we did actually manage to get up from 9fps with lots of optimisation!). It’s also pretty much the only area that wasn’t subject to a ridiculous amount of fiddling and alterations, apart from mass deleting trees to improve the framerate. I think the woodland has a really nice tranquil feel to it, with birds chirping and leaves falling. It’s a nice open area with a good sense of direction because of the lighter colour of the ground. Overall I really like how it turned out. Trying to set up the collision volumes along the wooded path was a bit of a faff however, because it involved deviating from the more wild feel of the wood and laying down a wall of fences, trees, bushes etc. to stop players breaking out of the playable area. In an ideal world I’d like to have kept it more wild, with fewer barriers. Unfortunately gamers suck and just like to try and break things.

Despite this being one of my favourite bits, there is still a lot that I would like to improve, as always. Something that has bothered me about UE4 all year round is the seemingly inescapable black shadows that always make a game too dark and weird to look at. No matter what we did to the lighting and post processing, it always seemed too contrasty or too dark. In my paintover I fixed this a little with a few levels changes in Photoshop, and then I made some more dramatic changes to the lighting and colours. I’d really like it if the forest had a sort-of luminescence about it, particularly where the sun comes through the trees. It’d do wonders for the fantastical feel of the game. Maybe some very subtle floaty particles? The level seems much warmer in my paintover, and the later time of day is accentuated due to all the oranges and warm greens. It’s maybe a little bright for evening, but to me it’s easier on the eye that way.

Another change I would have loved to make, had we the time, would have been to how we populated and designed the area. Forests/meadows obviously aren’t as bare as our level is. We’re missing all the low foliage such as ferns, and instead have replaced it with tulips and pansies that don’t actually grow in that kind of environment. I’d like to have ferns, rocks, and various other meadow flowers what would suit this kind of environment, for instance bluebells, to really sell the setting. It would just stop it feeling so… bare. Further additions to the foliage would include more species and shapes of trees, maybe with more canopy colour variations like you see in autumn. Maybe a greater variety of flowers and trees would make the area come more alive with colour, which is something I am especially fond of trying to achieve. I’d also have the path sunken lower, to increase the feel of this dense foliage growing up and around you.

Now on to the stream and Mad Hatter’s house, an asset I made but was never very pleased with;

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My assets; Mad Hatter House, bulrushes, lily flowers, rocks, elm tree.

This part of the level ended up being a happy accident of sorts, and is actually very under-used in the game, as it is hidden behind a water fountain and some trees. It came about because I decided on the spur of the moment to give the house a balcony overhanging the water in an attempt to bring the two elements of the environment together. I feel like it has quite a lot of potential, because the lighting is nice and it has quite an enclosed an intimate feel to it. In my overpaint, I worked on the points I made above by adding rocks and more varied foliage. Climbing plants coming down from the balcony gives the house an unkempt look, and I think a weeping willow here (the green blobby thing on the left) would work well for both variation and general prettiness. The flowers in the climbing plant are also a much-needed shot of vibrant colour in an otherwise green/orange/brown setting.

In a blog post a while back, I mentioned how I didn’t like my Mad Hatter’s house, and felt that it would work better if the wall texture was white plaster, breaking away over the bricks underneath. I decided to act on this in my paintover, and I definitely think it works better because there’s less texture madness to focus on. That’s something to bear in mind next time I make a building; I need to make sure I get as much texture variation as possible so it doesn’t look weird and the tiling so obvious.

Again with this paintover, I played about with the shadows and colours, such as the purpley haze and rocks, and the more blue water. Though it obviously isn’t realistic, I think being creative with colours is not a bad thing at all. I went a bit full-on with the rich orange lighting to contrast the blue/purple, and I like the direction it’s going in. It’s quite difficult to achieve in engine without making use of light functions, however. Also God rays. Lots of God rays. We had some in our level, but I think we sort of forgot in our deadline-induced panic to distribute them around. Reflections in the water is something I would like too, but UE4’s limitations currently inhibit that.

Concept_6

I think we kind of missed the mark when it came to matching the concept of the stream, but I think a lot of this comes down to a lack of foliage asset variations and such. Lots of little waterfalls would have been ideal as a natural barrier against the player escaping. Nicer grass, more trees, and some better logs would also have worked well to perhaps compliment a bit more terrain variation. It’s extremely flat, both texture and height-wise.

This leads me on to my weakest overpaint, for the start area of our level;

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The first thing I think we did wrong with this area is the lack of any height, like at all. It made the area seem quite cobbled together, because in an effort to stop the player from escaping the area, we just populated it with a load of assets to make a wall, when really we could have played with height and other features such as water to create natural walls. Initially, this area was really dark and confusing to the eye. It still is weird looking, but it’s better than it was. The big change that I made to improve the lighting was to move the big tree from it’s initial position to the right of it’s current place, and move it so that a strip of light fell across the clearing and on to the tree. I had to delete quite a lot of trees to make the light fall across the clearing, but it ended up working really nicely because when you started play, the first thing you see is the palace. So, then you know from the very start where you need to go.

If I could re-do this area, which I definitely would because I think it’s very weak, I’d probably start from scratch. The terrain would be the first port of call, which I would make much more varied than it is now, with more interesting textures and height. I’d also lay down some of those classic black and white checkered paving slabs, but break the pattern with green ivy crawling it’s way across to show abandonment. Making the big tree an area of concentrated colour by default makes it an area of importance, ie. where Alice appears in the first cutscene. There needs to be something that really draws your eye to her. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to create a forest that doesn’t have to have so many billboards as well, because they look strange. They really break any immersion.

On to my final overpaint. This is of one of the walled gardens, which really did go wrong. Though I think the flowers and flowerbeds work really nicely, they need to be in a setting that does them justice. The whole problem of flat and boring terrain comes back here, and this is the main area that it really brings down the look of the game. I tried to make the area much more interesting in my overpaint, adding more assets that we wouldn’t have had time to create because our project was way way WAY too ambitious. Next time, a much smaller and more concentrated level will be essential to me not losing my mind.

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My assets; that Elm tree, gravel texture, stone flowerbed edges, flowerbeds (not textured), larkspur flowers.

The bareness of the gardens definitely had to be acted on. For this overpaint I created height with tiered flowerbeds, stairs, and walls, and I also created a point of interest with a statue of Alice. The archways in the wall lead to areas hidden from view, and so draw the player in to what is inside. I’ve tried to make the area feel much more concentrated and personal, which we really failed at in our level. This overpaint makes the garden feel more… well… like a garden, rather than some assets haphazardly dumped in a massive area. I think, in hindsight, we should have gone for a more magical feel than we did. Our gardens were created to be semi-realistic, with any mystical atmosphere considered as an afterthought. A cosy maze of arches, tiny courtyards, and concentrated areas of colour and beauty would have been much more magical and wonderous. And fun. I’m pleased with this overpaint, but didn’t have chance to finish it. 🙂

For future projects, I’d do a lot differently to this one. I feel this project has been a sort-of, “what not to do in a group project” kind of experience. However, I strongly feel that if I had been working on my own or in a smaller group, a few of the problems and mistakes in this project would not have happened. A little part of me feels that Alice: OTM has really scrambled my good track record with projects, so I need to come back round and make an awesome personal piece over summer. I don’t think the problems regarding style and time constraints etc. would have occurred if I had been either on my own or more in charge, because I am so overly paranoid of a lot of nuances that can bring a project down. Definitely my time management is very good, but the team’s time management wasn’t great and I could tell from the start it was going to be an issue down the line. It didn’t help with this project that I took a bit of a back-seat role. I could just see everything going dis-satisfyingly for me from the start, and I felt so so listless about the project.

Particularly with regards to our struggle to get everything done in time, pestering everyone to come in and do their work when they didn’t want to became a bit tiring on occasion. It wasn’t a huge problem, but it was taxing to deal with. This was not factored into our time because I didn’t expect people to flat out not turn up to university. The huge size of our level was also a problem for both time constraints and the quality of the level. However, at the start of the project when I warned we were being a touch ambitious, I feel that I was brushed off. Had I been working on my own, I would have focused on time management and quality over quantity, but it was the opposite in this group project and something I felt very frustrated about.

Though I do know a lot of frustrating and pointless mistakes were made, there were some unexpected ones that I have really learned from, and I will definitely be taking them forwards with me into my current personal and third year projects. For example, foliage should be created with as few large alphas as possible, as opposed to many small ones, in order to tax UE4 as little as possible. And I should check my meshes thoroughly before putting them in engine to save myself re-importing them a billion times before they’re correct.

Overall I have been very unhappy with the whole direction of the project, and have felt powerless to do anything about it. Trying to initiate changes in a such a big group project is always met by resistance. It was resistance that I felt totally uninterested in facing for the whole project, which is unusual for me. Usually I am extremely strong-willed and good at communicating my opinions with a team. However, though I have not liked where this project went, I have learned now that I need to be very meticulous in planning a project to prevent this happening again. I definitely think I’ll be better in future group project situations.

I just really hope that this project hasn’t brought my mark for the year down enough to affect my grade. I genuinely don’t know what I’m heading for at the moment, though many scoff and say I’m ‘obviously’ down for a first. I don’t know… Whatever grade I get for the year, I just need to try and get my positivity back on the up and not dwell on this project too much. It’s definitely not helped with my plan to be a more positive individual, as you may have guessed from my more recent posts. I’m hoping my summer will be a balm to my mind and body, and I will come back for third year fully recharged and enjoying game art again!

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