Project Shipyard

Joshua Ellis

Elevator pitch: Project Shipyard is a modular sci-fi interiors kit, that uses a recreation of Halo CE's "The Pillar of Autumn" as one of the success criteria. The pack and level are being implemented within Arma Reforger as a public mod.

Motivation: Arma Reforger has recently released, with a suite of modding and level design tools. I'm also trying to break into a level design role, so it's the perfect opportunity to develop my skills and be one of the first to create sci-fi assets for the new platform.

This project breakdown can be viewed as a few distinct sections:

  1. An analysis of the original level, its encounters and pacing. (complete)
  2. A quick overview of the modular assets and my workflow. (mostly complete)
  3. The small multiplayer map I am building as an asset/gameplay test. (WIP)
  4. The level re-imagining and redesigns that address specific critiques identified in my breakdown of the source material. (WIP)

Original level

Joshua Ellis

But first; A bold claim

Many claim that Halo CE is the reason console FPS games are the success they are today, due to its innovative gameplay formula and focus on cooperative support. I believe it was its first level; The Pillar of Autumn; that was the key to claiming this crown as it is still one of the best FPS tutorial missions ever made.

What makes it so impressive is just how much is crammed into it's relatively short runtime, all masterfully woven together in such a way that's subtle and somehow not too repetitive despite it's linearity. It's a shinning example of (and one of the games that pioneered) the tried and true "introduce, practice, test" structure for rapid skill acquisition in games.

Other singleplayer games, such as those made by Valve, also nailed this technique, but Halo was historically significant, introducing hundreds of thousands of players to FPS games on console, and helped push the new (at the time) XBox into the spotlight.

It was this level's accessibility that helped younger me get into FPS games, and what an introduction it was! It's no wonder it is still one of my favorite levels to this day, and why I have returned to it professionally all these years later. This and it's sister level "The Maw" aren't without their issues, but at the time this was, and in many ways still is, a masterclass in FPS level design, which is why I'm breaking it down, recreating it, and also fixing my biggest gripes along the way.

Event flow keys

Joshua Ellis

To break down the level and illustrate just how the pacing and tutorials are designed, I have made a full diagram breakdown of the event order.

Act 1: New to the genre?

Joshua Ellis

Cryo-bay B

When the level begins, we watch a cutscene of a ship under attack, and the crew coming to life moving vehicles and getting combat ready. Unfortunately, my only major critique for this level is that immediately after, the pacing built by said cutscene stops dead for the opening tutorial room.

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By today's standards this section is excruciatingly slow, but it's also important to put things into context:

At the time, relatively few people played games, let alone console FPS games. To compound this issue, Halo was still ahead of it's time in some respects, featuring a separate shield and health bar, dual weapon slots and twin-stick shooter mechanics that had to be combined into a cohesive control scheme for a relatively new console.

It's why this room is the only section where you are locked in, and now relatively common features are introduced in order. That's not to say that these introductions aren't made somewhat organic, as everything is kept thematically coherent, with things such as the health-bar not being too in your face.

To the bridge!

Following this tutorial room, the pacing gets right back on track, allowing the player to practice their newfound movement skills by running through an action ridden ship. This linear section forces the player through a few light obstacles so they're equipped for the rest of the game.

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A great design choice here, is not immediately giving the player a weapon, both allowing them to fully take in the surroundings of a ship in chaos, and providing a sense of natural urgency to get to the next objective.

Act 2: Combat training

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Shooting gallery

One thing I love about the combat practice for this mission is just how organic it feels. Nothing is on rails, although the enemy/ally placement and the order in which things are presented is most definitely deliberate in preparing the player for the rest of the campaign.

You start of being given a pistol by the capitan of the ship, imbuing the simple weapon with a sense of importance. This is immediately after being provided the directive of getting both yourself and the shipboard AI off of the ship via escape pod. Now equipped with both the means and the motive, the player launches straight into combat, shooting three of the easiest enemies in the game.

Then you are provided Halo's staple weapon, the Assault Riffle, progressing into this levels equivalent of a shooting gallery. The canteen is full of tables and pillars, providing great cover while forcing player movement, and you are provided plenty of allies to draw fire as you practice your shots.

You are provided two combat encounters, with enemies deliberately laid out in one direction at a time, minimizing the fine motor skills required for both thumb-sticks. This is a great introduction to the core combat mechanics, immediately after which you are let loose into the rest of the ship.

"Introduce, practice, test"

One thing you don't fully notice unless you break this level down is the predictable structure of its teachable moments. Almost every section can be described as the player being shown an object or skill and them immediately getting a small combat scenario with which to practice it.

In the mid section of this "act", the player presumably has been shown the majority of the required skills they need, so are provided a momentary buff in the form of a shield upgrade, and sent forward into the longest un-broken linear combat section of the entire level. This practice is perfect preparation for the final "test" of the act, which is a unique combat encounter.

In this case, the testing scenario is fighting up a staircase within a octagonal room, with doors opening one by one on each side. Unlike the canteen, the stair room forces the player to move and look in all directions, which either assumes the player has practiced the twin-stick formula, or still needs that little extra push in mastering it.

What's nice about this space is it's self balancing in the sense that there is still plenty of cover in the form of pillars and the stairs themselves, and some ally units to once again draw some fire if the player is struggling. There's also no artificial push to progress up the staircase until the player is ready, allowing them to pivot around the stairs on the lower level and pick targets off at their own pace, all while still practicing the aforementioned movement skills.

Act 3: Wayfinding

Joshua Ellis

The cool-down

Now that the player has (hopefully) gotten to grips with the core mechanics of the game, there's a cool-down period of sorts, allowing them a brief reprieve and for the level to have a tonal shift. It's during this section that you see allies escaping in pods, but just before you can reach them, the pods launch and are destroyed as they leave.

I believe it's here that the level uses a moment of mixed emotion (panic, relief and loneliness), to snap you out of the previous action packed pacing, and transition the players mindset into something more thoughtful.

It's a great subtle shift, and allows the introduction of mechanics such as stealth at a time when the player is most receptive to it. Stealth is made thematically consistent with a sense of loneliness on the dying ship, but there is not forced failure state for detection. If the player instead feels anger or just wants to maintain momentum, and they want to go in all guns blazing, they can do so, allowing them to express themselves in a way that feels natural. If the emotional moment is missed entirely, or doesn't land or resonate, then their is no disconnect for the player and the pacing never breaks.

The escape

At the start of the second half of this act there is a nice moment of "closure" for the player, where they find themselves in the observation room above the cryo-bay. You're looking down on your training room, which is now surrounded by enemies, as if to say "look! This is where it all began, and look how far my skills have come...". As a tutorial mission it seems incredibly fitting to remind the player of their progress in a way that isn't ham-fisted.

I think it's also a great way to fill the player with a small amount of hope and confidence as they root for an exit through the chared remains of the ship's interior. What I like about this section is there is a hidden lesson for crouch jumping that's slightly off the beaten path, although I'm not certain if it's a deliberate one. Given the great teaching in the rest of the level however, I would be inclined to believe it is, as it is placed to the side of the main route and allows only the most practiced of players to use this very niche, and otherwise unessential skill.

Finally, after searching and fighting, the player encounters the final lesson. This one is remarkably simple and fun, providing a piece of cover and a big stack of grenades, allowing for an explosive clearing of the way out and a subsequently quick escape.

Leaving the grenade introduction right to the last minute is a great way to prevent less experienced players form blowing themselves up in the narrow corridors, and makes the final scene much more memorable as you begin your journey onto the mysterious Halo.

Modular asset system

I have designed my modular kit on two levels:

- Components; are individual models exported to the level editor, which are modular in design and share materials.

- Compositions; are collections of components, such as a corridor or room variant. These are also modular in design and should snap together for fast level prototyping, and can be saved in engine for easy re-use.

In the Enfusion engine you can "break" a composition in the scene and change its components, allowing me to add variation to the otherwise repetitive layouts. I generally try to save these unique variants for re-use, if not for me then for mod users when the pack is eventually released.

Component specification:

Components (left), composition (right)

Components

Decoration

Select assets don't conform to any sense of modularity as they aren't part of the architecture. These usually have a gameplay purpose such as being the right hight for climbing or shooting over.

decoration

Multiplayer map

Layout design

The multiplayer map is designed as a interim milestone and early test-bed for the modular asset list. To save time later on I wanted to take and adjust a specific area of the campaign layout so that it can be later reused.

I identified an iconic area of the original level that was roughly the right size and had some existing symmetry. This was a combination of the canteen (C), armory (A) and surrounding corridors, located close to the bridge (B).

Ariel view of original level section:

Joshua Ellis

My initial design is driven by the following thought-processes:

  1. There was an obvious foot-traffic "loop" I could exploit by filling gaps in the outer large corridors.
  2. The top smaller corridor "loop" would make an ideal spawn area, but it should be centralized, made bigger, and could be mirrored horizontally.
  3. Power weapons should exist in the furthest extents of the map to encourage travel. Single power weapon should exist in the center to drive competition.
  4. The main corridor should have plenty of sight-line blocking and non-blocking cover to tighten up gameplay and encourage movement.
  5. I wanted to incorporate the smaller maintenance corridors from the original level, so have included a cut-through in the middle. This needs to be tested and may be removed or repositioned.

First draft:

Multiplayer draft

3D Recreation

After much work modelling missing components and then combining those into compositions for later use, I arrived at the following test layout. This helped me get a sense of scale in-game.

Multiplayer v1

Once in game, the outer loop felt too large and devoid of detail. Part of this is of course due to a lack of lighting, vfx and props, but I trusted my gut and cut some of the dead space. This helped with the gameplay feel massively, and resulted in smaller more deliberate feeling central rooms.

Multiplayer cut content

Parts missing from the 3D mockup were the left and right weapon locations as well as the new maintenance route. Due to the scale feeling too big originally, the aforementioned corridors didn't feel necessary, but the maintenance assets did. I also included a connection between the armory and canteen, as the time to traverse between the rooms felt frustratingly slow despite their adjacency.

Multiplayer maintenance

The last detail for the core layout was to make something more of the far right corridor as it had very little purpose. Taking inspiration from the original level, I added sheltered seating areas into two alcoves to add a kind of mid-range dueling space next to the canteen. As with everywhere else, this still needs detailing and cover to add more flow and pacing to the combat.

Multiplayer maintenance

Recreation

Breakdown coming soon

Singleplayer Singleplayer Singleplayer Singleplayer Singleplayer