I was going to create this on the fangaming section, but then I remembered the 3D scene is also starting to grow big in hacks since Dario made such good tools for people to use and Generations offered an extremely complete engine in a silver plater, so I went with more of an arbitrary decision since it is not only a "guide" to 3D level design but also a breakdown. I apologize if this all may seem obvious and basic for a few, but I'm sure it can be helpful to others. As I had been struggling for the last few months trying to learn 3D level design, I have found myself wanting some sort of guide on it each day more, as Spark's amazing thread is great for 2D Level Design, it ain't much help for 3D stuff. But you know what they say, if you want something done, do it yourself. This thread is in no way a “how to do it” neither is it a real “guide”. It is a collection of things that I've learned with my studies and observing other people's work for the last few years. I'd also really like to see your inputs to this thread in order we can create a better study to help out new mods and fan games that are exploring the third dimension. How the third dimension affects level design? Orientation is the biggest change in here. In 2D the player can navigate in 2 directions: Left and right. While he can go up and down with gameplay elements like jumping, breakable ground blocks or gimmicks what really marks progression is going left or right. In 3D, things change. While the movement it is still the same thing (Going forward and backwards), it all depends on the player's perspective, for example, imagine Sonic is in a big field following the red path: From the player's perspective, the red path is the front, blue and green are the sides and purple is the back. But what if the player changes his orientation in 45º to the left? Well, now his front is the green arrow, the blue is his back, and red and purple are his back. Not only that but if we amplify the scale of the ground, the slightest change of the player direction can create an entire new route: This is the beauty and the scariest thing of level design. The fact of how many routes you can have is limited only by your imagination, but at the same time, you have to find a way to tell the player which direction he has to go in order to get to the goal ring. How do you do such a thing? Well, for starters, it is a good idea not to throw the player in a large empty field. So why would anyone go 3D? I mean, the shaders, textures and beautiful models are a thing but why not just create a 3D sidescroller like Sonic 4 Episode 2? Well, because the fact you're allowing the player to explore more than 2 directions create a whole new type of level design that is just amazing when done correctly. Dealing with the Z axis Sonic 3 & Knuckles is probably the first Sonic game to introduce exploration to the formula. Sonic CD did a bit of it but it was just a matter of going to the past, exploring, destroying the machine and hitting the goal. But Sonic 3 & Knuckles really wanted to add the exploration factor to the mixture with special stages in the stage instead of being at the end of it and with Tails and Knuckles abilities been put to good use. Everywhere you went there was something to aid you, from ring monitors to help raise your score and transform you into Super/Hyper Sonic to elemental shields to help you out on those lava floors, jumping and underwater sections. In fact, for the original trilogy, if you ignore the first stage of both Sonic 1 and 2, almost no other level could be translated to 3D. While in Sonic 3 & Knuckles almost all stages not only can be translated but also have tons of fake 3D in it, from the falling spiral buildings in Sky Sanctuary to those rotating grid things in Flying Battery. You could even say that S3&K wanted to be 3D and that is why the environment were so large in contrary to those claustrophobic and crumbled together ones that were in Sonic 1 and 2. But the time that exploration has really been put to good use was in Sonic Adventure. They really wanted to introduce the players to the Z axis, creating large places to explore but without letting the player feeling lost at any time in the stage (except for that extern Egg Carrier part, but that was pretty much what I've said earlier of making large empty fields. And this is where the 3D shines. But at the same time it ruined classic elements that made Sonic so good in the earlier years. I mean, why the hell would I go through a loop when I'm speedrunning if I could just walk towards the center and ignore It completely? (I don't know what fangame is this screenshot from, I've found the image on Google) Not to mention corkscrews that were pretty much useless due their unnatural movement. That problem was fixed with the use of splines* which were used in a few places in both Adventure 1 and 2, but got really common in Sonic Heroes and Sonic 06. This problem could also be avoided with more linear gameplay like seen in Sonic Adventure 2, where the paths were more narrow and at the sides you had death pits or walls. I'm not particularly found of this option, but it is an option none the less. But there is still a problem with the whole third perspective and loops, it is what the player sees when he is going through a loop: (Sonic Blitz Advanced) that HUD is awfully big. Not only it is disorienting, but it is also ugly to look at if you ask me. Thankfully this problem is easily fixed with custom cameras: Same loop, but a whole different experience. So splines allowed for classic elements that only worked in 2D before to work in 3D now including corkscrews, which are trickier but doable. Now you may be thinking, “If I'm going to use splines to limit the player movement, then I might as well make my game in 2D”. And that is the biggest problem with 3D level design for Sonic games: “how much is it ok to limit the player?”, I mean, Sonic was aways a symbol of freedom in videogames, where platformers back then usually limited you to “blocks” and the highest you could get depended on your jump. Sonic had momentum, he could go even where there was no camera to follow if he had enough speed to launch him upwards. In my experience with both game design and as a player I've found out that the only moments where It is ok to restrain the player from his freedom of movement are in sections like the loops or corkscrews. As long, of course, he could still jump out of them at any time and needed enough momentum to get to its ending. Even cinematic parts like the whale in Sonic Adventure or the GUN truck in Adventure 2 should have the player in full control of the situation. The harsh truth is that loops and corkscrews aren't really interesting or important. They were cool back then because they made the level less boring, instead of having a straight path, you placed a loop there and done, you broke the flow. They are still in the series because they are part of what made Sonic being what it is. It's like the Goombas in Super Mario, they're the least interesting and unimportant characters in the whole franchise, but they're the only enemies that keep reappearing in Mario games because they're part of what made the franchise whole and kept the levels back then from being uninteresting. So yeah, it is ok to limit the player control at loops and corkscrews, because they don't matter at all and are there just as a formality, as long you allow the player to fall from them. * For those of you who don't know what splines really are they're fixed “paths” to make the player run in a straight line or a small path, much like those loops in Sonic '06, Secret Rings and Black Knight. Recently the splines have been used in a different form in Sonic games where they're there to snap the player in a line in case he is running in a fast speed, so he doesn't run straight the walls or bump all around. Once the speed is lowered, the player once again regain full control of his movement. WHERE DO I GO? One of the things that I keep seeing in 3D Sonic fangames is that it is too extreme. It Is either way too linear or way too open. But I want to talk about those “way too open” types. We'll focus on linearity in a little bit. So… Look at this mess: (Green Hill Paradise – Sonic GDK) It is cool an all, and one can say that is made focusing on exploration. Ok, a neat experiment, but let's say this wasn't its focus and it was just a normal stage in a fangame. Your thought would be: “Where do I fucking go?”. Sonic games, much like almost any other type of action/adventure games must come with an beginning and end, point A to point B. It should always be obvious to the player where does he have to go. Let's look at an example: The player just came to this little section and he can go either left or right. It is obvious where the player from the beginning where the main path is at, not only there are rings to show him where it is, but also the shape of the path is leading him that way. Brotip: Rings are a great way of telling the player where he must go In case he is not trying to do a great time and have room for exploration, he can go right to the green path and collect his reward on top of the platform. It is also a great idea to not let this little “extra path” being way too far from the main path, this way the player feel compelled to explore a bit and can easily go back on track. But that doesn't mean that the player should only have one path to get to point B and extra paths for hidden goodies. Overall, the main Sonic rule to level design applies here: Having at least 3 paths: The obvious and normal difficulty one, a faster and challenging one and a slower but not too punitive one. Unlike classic Sonic stages, they don't necessarily need to be a “top, mid, lower”, as long as they intersect sometimes. The normal one should be the most obvious one. That one that is right at your face and says “HEY, YOU SHOULD RUN ON ME”. He is there most of the times and it is way too obvious. The fast one is for those who want a challenge and have good reflexes. There are more enemies, traps and pits in this route but there are less bullshit. It is like the path tries at all costs send you over to the normal or slower path. The slower path should be for those players who aren't very good or very attentive. This path is mostly smaller than the other two and it is there to punish the lack of attention of failures of the player. They don't are hard at all, but they are slow as hell for a normal Sonic player. Not slow to the point where the player will ask himself if he is playing a Sonic game, but to a point where is clear that he is being punished. Here is a very simple example of the three: Did in 2D because it is easier to explain, but it ain't a hard scenario to imagine in 3D. This is probably the most basic it can get, but let's explain it: The green path is the faster and dangerous one. It requires the player do do a total of two jumps (not including the ones he had to do to get there) but the count of screw-ups (yellow arrows) is bigger in that path, where he could run off of the platforms or miss the jump since they're so far apart from each other. It also require some speed to reach the other end. The red arrow is the main path. Is obvious where you should go and where you should get, you have to make three jumps in total to finish it, but the platforms are so close to each other and so big that is impossible to screw-up at the jumping, but it is possible to screw-up if you try to hush things up. And finally there is the blue path, where punishes you into having to go back to the beginning to try again in some of the other paths. This path goes pretty well with water that also slows you down and since it is so low in the map, it also takes a while to get to it and go back up. You could have more paths than those three or less than three, but you should always have at least two, not necessarily all the time, but at least from section to section. The best way to design an 3D stage in my opinion is imagining them as one of those maps or office labs that we see in videogames where you have corridors that lead you to the next area of the map, like so: Where the red is the main path, green is the faster and harder path, usually hidden or difficult to get for less skilled players, and the blue one the slower one. It is also nice to mention that the slower one not always need to be a path that makes the player go back to the beginning as long as it is a slower and less rewarding (less rings in it, perhaps) path. So why think about it in a “office” fashion? Well, it is simple. We have “corridors” or “hallways”, which are the paths. And “rooms”, which are segments. In the “corridors” are the paths, they're not always narrow but they're straight forward, and in the “rooms” are where you can get to another paths or explore the scenario. You can always get from the red or green “corridors” to the blue one, but most of the times you can't get from the red corridor to the green one. That is the simplest way to make 3D level design there is. And it is best having more rooms than having long corridors, especially in a Sonic game. Go check out Sonic Adventure Generations, Dude made an amazing job at its level design and you can easily see the rooms/corridors analogy in action, specially in Mystic Ruins. Linearity Most of 3D and 2D games are linear with every-so-often a little place off the main path to explore, but Sonic games aren't and they shouldn't be. It is ok to have a linear path for Sonic to run so the player get the “g2g fast” feeling, much like the beginning of City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2 or the first section of Dragon Road in Sonic Unleashed which is a long and narrow path without much else to do but go forward. You don't have to focus on exploration, that is ok, it isn't everyone's cup of tea but you should never create linear stages. You should always give the player the option to get from point A to B through as many paths as possible or at the very least create “extra paths” for hidden goodies and rewards to players that take their time to look out for extra things to do instead of getting to the main goal. There isn't much to discuss on this matter that I haven't said previously or that you can't imagine but just keep it in mind that the least linear = the more fun. And fun should always be the your main focus on developing a game. Graphics and realism “Wait what? What does graphics have to do with level design?” Well, a lot, actually. I'm one of those guys who think that Sonic should've never traded its surreal style for the more realistic approach but that is beside the point. Here is the thing: The real world is dirty, not in a disgusting way, but in the way that it has a lot of noise in it. Not the sound type of noise, but the Photoshop filter type: In normal and slower games it is ok to have a realistic approach because the textures don't fly by like in Sonic games that you're running at fast speeds. But in Sonic games tt looks ugly and messy and it is hard to notice where you are going because the textures have so much detail in them. There is a reason why even Sonic '06, which had a more realistic approach, always tried to balance its realism with very saturated colors or glow-y things and that's because you can orientate yourself better at fast speeds when you have colorful things to indicate you where to go. That is also, why racing games usually have those arrows to tell you the direction to go in very bright colors. Let's make a comparison: On the left there is a texture from google that would be used in a realistic game. On top of that, in a HD game for Xbox360/PS3/PC or Wii U, those textures would also receive a normal map on top of it which would make it's darkest parts even darker to create the illusion of depth and a specular map to make this depth effect pop-out even more. Now, on the right we have Sky Sanctuary's grass texture from Sonic Generations. You may be thinking “well, that doesn't prove your point since it is darker than the ‘realistic’ one” but it is way more closer to a flat color isn't it? I mean, the brights and darks aren't that dark nor that bright, it mostly looks like a flat color, so that wouldn't produce as much noise in motion than the left one. I'm not saying that you can't have a realistic setting in a 3D sonic game, all I'm saying is that your textures should be more colorful and have less variation from dark to bright and less details in them. In other words, instead of having this: Try having this: It may not look as good and “real” (even though is a photograph) as the first one, but in motion, you will thank me. Not saying that you can't have more complex textures, what I'm saying is that, not only should they be more “clean” but also a touch more colorful to create better contrast than different shades of grey or brown. It will also help with, you know, an oversized blue hedgehog with red colorful sneakers to not look too out of place. Textures matter the same way that good tiles or a good background with colors that make the foreground pop out matters in 2D Sonic game. They're also 80% of what makes your stage look beautiful, since good models still look terrible with bad textures. Take your time with your textures, they do mater, don't just go to google, search for “grass texture” and place the first on in your stage. Take your time, edit your textures, make it beautiful. Still on the realism, but not as much as graphics, here is a small tip: Avoid making bumpy ground (I know you guys love the terrain tool in UDK, but don't), it is cool when used for background stuff, but when Sonic is running in them, in 3D, they're not so cool, they create an ugly motion. 2D Sonic games had bumpy ground and could pull if off because the camera didn't followed Sonic himself but the area around him, so the camera wouldn't go up and down like Sonic, having a smooth movement. Avoid realistic terrain as much as you can. You can try pull it off here and there and sometimes it can look good, but most of the times it won't. Stop being lazy and go model shit up. Giving life to your stage One of the most common problems with 3D Sonic fangames and hacks, besides the linearity are the lack of interesting things to look at. It isn't good enough to just make a cool stage if it is placed in a simple background with just maybe an ocean beneath it. You gotta add life to it, add places where the player can't go. Like, imagine you're designing a beach stage. In the background, you should add some islands where the player can't go. Take a look at this picture: Look at how many life it has. Now imagine how boring the stage would look if it was like this: It may not look that bad, but sure it looks uninteresting as shit. Use your Z space, add stuff, you don't even have to model new things just for the background you can still reutilized some of the stage's assets to do so. Also, add details to your scene. Flowers, trees, rocks, insects, waterfalls, fences and stuff like that. Not only is important to make your backgrounds interesting but your paths as well. Lighting also plays an important role in your stage, so take time with your lights. Don't just use the default one that comes with UDK. Change the settings, play with the strength, with the godrays, the color of the shadows, etc. 3D or 2.5D? The Sonic Rush series introduced (if you ignore the special stages in previous games) the idea of changing the player's view from side scroller to third person during certain in-game sections. Later on Sonic Unleashed came up with the idea of introducing 2D sections in the 3D game. The idea was praised and loved by almost every fan who lived during the 90s and grew up playing Sonic games. It was a shout-out to the classic era, as we had all wanted for quite a while. Soon the 2.5D/3D became a gimmick that, to this date, almost five years later, is being used at every chance. And that clearly goes to fangames and recently to hacks. Many consider Sonic Colors being the best Sonic game since the original ones, due many aspects. But there are a few people that dislike the game due the fact it is almost in its entirety an 2D Sonic Game. The 2.5D mechanic is being so over-used that it is starting to annoy people the same way that they've downgraded Tails from sidekick to secondary character and I get what these people are pissed about. You see, back when Unleashed did it, it was just a shout-out. Most of the game would still be in 3D, but there would be a few times where the camera would switch. That was a nice little homage without any affect in the game itself. But Colors pushed this homage even further, starting to look less like Sonic Unleashed and more like Sonic Rush, where the 3D sections where the shout-out to the older days. Sonic Generations reduced the amount of 2D sections and made the 3D sections actually interesting instead of being just short sections that lead you to the next 2D area. But still in that game the feature was overused because, not only at least a good half of the modern time stages was in 2D, but also 50% of the game itself was viewed in a side-scroller camera (Classic Sonic). So where do we draw the line? For the sake of answering this question, we have to think on a few solutions to these problems: 1- When should 2D be used? 2- How official games do it wrong? Two little questions that hold the key to the answer. Let's start with the first one: When should 2D be used? This can easily be answered if we decide what the game's focus is. If it is an exploration type of game, the 2D perspective will probably be decent enough but cannot be as expensive and emerging as the 3D perspective can. For example, let's ignore this is a Sonic thread and imagine we're talking about a game like Zelda. You get into a room that contains an important item for your quest, in a 3D perspective a chest with this item can be placed anywhere in this room, but when we think on 2D, there are only a few places where you can do it: the beginning, middle or end of the room. Ok, the better choice for that is obviously the 3D perspective, but Sonic isn't about exploration, it is about speed. So let's imagine we're in a Robotnik base that is about to explode and you have to get out of there fast. In 3D, you obviously have a way better sense of atmosphere and action, but there is only so much you can do with it. You see, making a maze in 3D is a terrible idea because the ending can be anywhere in the Z space like we've talked previously, but with 2D things change, because there are only 4 places where the end of the maze can be: left, right, up or down. So you can stack up layers and more layers of content without making the player ever feel lost. He came from the top left, so he knows he shouldn't move to that direction unless there are no other options. But that is not speed, that is a platforming. So once again, 3D won to deliver the sense of speed and can fulfil the action the situation needs way better than 2D, even if more superficially and less interesting in terms of what to do and where to go. But Sonic is a platformer none-the-less. Speed is just a gameplay feature. So in that case the 2D perspective is acceptable. In other words, this is dumb: Even though further down the path leads to a few platforms and a Drill wisp. The camera should only change to 2D again once he went to the section where the Drill Wisp is because he will need the 2D visibility to see what is beneath him. The motion would be disorienting in this scenario because of the level design, so this example may be excusable for Sweet Mountain Act 1, but it ain't for you. The only thing that 2D changes from 3D is the visibility and precision, in other words, gameplay-wise, the only time to change to 2D would be if the game requires to tell the player that there is something up or down that he should check out. Also it is a good idea to do so in situations like this: Let's try to imagine this scene in 3D: The player would've come up facing the wall, he would then have to turn 180º and jump on something that he can't see what is on top of it, may be a few rings, may be some spikes that will hurt you if you're past the middle point of the platform. But even then, he would jump and come up facing a wall. He would need to once again rotate 180º, look up, and have a “jump of faith” in the next platform. But that's not the end of it as he would AGAIN be facing a wall and having to turn 180º to see the ending of this platforming nightmare. Jesus, what a ton of work for just three little platforms, right? On top of that, if you haven't played this game let me just point out that those platforms are one of those that fall after a short amount of time. Add that to the mixture; one small mistake when turning the camera or making your jump and done, you are set for a world of frustration. So yeah, short answer for the question is: 2D perspective should only be used when you should progress up and down in a stage (when “progressing down” doesn't means falling, in that case, free-falling in 3D is way more interesting) and when the game requires precise platforming. Those two, only those two. If you have a long running section, it should be in 3D. Not only it is better to see what is ahead of you but also gives the notion of speed way better. Same goes for exploration. But when you need to slow things down or stack a few sections on top of each other, 2D is the safest bet. 2D also works nicely when you need the player to run up a wall, but is not required as long as there is nowhere he can go but forward. How official games do it wrong? I know this sounds pretentious to think that I know more about developing Sonic games than their developers, but bear with me on this, this is a study after all and people who develop Sonic games are allowed to make mistakes. The biggest mistake is the fact that even Sonic Colors that was mostly 2D, had a 3D gameplay. When in 2D, Sonic gameplay should be focused on momentum, in 3D that sort of gameplay doesn't matter much since you don't really have to go up and down very often or deal with heavy platforming like we mentioned earlier and the focus is exploration and speed. But in my experience, it is better to have 2D gameplay in a 3D world than having the contrary. If they fear that the player will break the game using momentum, just place some invisible walls (We'll talk on invisible walls later on as well) so he doesn't. But when he is in 2D, is pretty terrible that doesn't really matter how fast you're going, when you hit a ramp you're going just as high as the game wants you to go. Doesn't matter if you're going down you won't accelerate nor having a hard time going upwards. I mean, ok, we don't have Sonic curling into a ball anymore, so if he was running and also getting acceleration, he would just eventually break his legs or fall down (not the fastest thing alive after all) but what about his sliding ability? I mean, if we can suspend our disbelief when he can slide even going up walls or get some small amount of speed by simply laying down and pushing forward, why can't he accelerate while sliding? I know he does in Sonic Generations, but that doesn't affect the gameplay at all, he just, get some speed, goes through a ramp and get as much high as he would if running. The only thing that affects how high he goes is his boosting, which is also not dynamic is just a matter of: “If Sonic is boosting he goes X high, if he is not, he goes Y”. Not only that but just imagine how amazing could momentum make the 3D sections. I mean, picture this scene: Let's suppose you know nothing about it whatsoever (and that I didn't poorly edited it in MSPaint). You, as a skilled player, hit a ramp with tons of speed and got into mid-air high enough to reach that alternative path, that little hole (B) on the wall in the far end of this green field. Now, most of new players with average skills would not know how to handle this momentum well enough to pull this manoeuver and would hit the ground flat, having to go through A. Or even if you were a smart player with good enough skills you could try to climb over A since it is is pretty much a slope and try once again to hit B using your speed. This is smart level design and a good use for momentum based gameplay, it is fun and doesn't harm. So, why not do it? Now for mods I found hard to put this idea in good use since Generations doesn't have this kind of momentum physics, but fangamers should really think about these sorts of things, especially if you're using Sonic GDK which has a great physics engine. Things you should avoid One spring to launch you up is enough, the same goes for those red rigs that lauch you in some direction. One is good enough, these things makes the gameplay automatic and boring. Just use one, even if Sonic games love to do shit like that. The world thanks you. Also, in Sonic GDK at least, all the springs and red rings have their values tweakable, so there is no excuse to adding more than one. Some Blitz Sonic video Narrow paths are an abomination, you should never do it, it is very easy to lose control at fast speeds, there narrow paths are a ticket to a cheap death. If you still have to make them, at least create some rails on the sides to hold Sonic in place. Nothing wrong with Homming Attack sections in 3D, honestly. They're a nice feature as long as you don't over use it. But you should avoid making them over a bottomless pit, mostly because, well, one mistake and you have a cheap death and that is annoying. Specifically when it comes to enemies that shoot projectiles. This one is more my personal opinion than a “fact”, but what's with you guys and recreating original stages? I mean, if I wanted to play Adabat, I'd play Sonic Unleashed or the port for Generations, not some Blitz Sonic remake. I mean, it is cool to use a stage as inspiration and even use a few textures from it if you'd like or are not very good at creating your own, but try to come up with something original. I have made some “remakes” in my young years but nowadays I can see how dumb that is. And that is all I can think for now. I sure would like to see other people's inputs and observations and also opinions on these things I mentioned and things that I probably forgot. I will try to update this thread as discussion goes or as I come up with more things from my studies. - Update 1: Added the "3D or 2.5D?" section.