Unconventional Design Tools for Robyn HUD

November 11, 2016

With the successful release of my latest game Sleuthhounds – The Halloween Deception (which you should really pick up if you haven’t already), my focus has shifted back to my other in development game, Robyn HUD. Robyn HUD will be a stealth strategy game with a strong narrative component. It’s also a more substantial game than what I’ve done before, with development scheduled to run throughout 2017. With such a lengthy development period in store, it’s important now, at the relative beginning, to do a little design work.

Experience has taught me that, with software, anything complex enough to require a design is also complex enough that it can’t be fully designed at the beginning. It’s only when you get into the actual implementation that you find all those little issues that need to be addressed that you couldn’t envision up front. That said, spending some time doing design is still useful. It gives you a framework to build upon through the rest of the project and also allows you to start scoping and estimating the project and how long it will take, at least at a high level.

Given that this game will have a strong story element to it, it made sense to start there from a design perspective. At this point, I have a basic story treatment for the game’s narrative that covers off the major events of the story and the characters and locations involved. With that in hand, much of the rest of the design is concerned with refining that high level treatment into more and more detailed versions that will be easier to translate into the actual game. The starting point I chose for that refinement was with the design of the levels.

The story treatment outlines, at a high level, the key locations players will visit when they play the game. These are simple descriptions like “a bank” or “a countryside manor”. At each of these locations certain key events occur and are mentioned in the treatment, but a concerted design effort is needed to fill in the details of these environments and what players will be doing in them.

I’m a big fan of the original Thief trilogy. Those games have been immensely inspirational in developing my own stealth game. One of the things I really liked about those games was that they provided multiple paths to reach your objectives. That was a feature of the level design that I wanted to incorporate into my own game. However, sketching out levels and then trying to add in additional paths later on is very difficult with pencil and paper.

Enter Chief Architect’s Home Designer software.

As the name suggests, the software is intended to allow you to design homes. It’s useful for drafting your existing home and then figuring out structural renovations you’d like to make. I picked up a copy of Home Designer 7 on sale several years ago for about thirty bucks. Given that most 3D modelling software seems to be in excess of $100 it was a really good deal.

Home Designer allows you to draw floor plans of a building in 2D. There’s an option to then view the constructed plan in 3D, although for my design purposes that wasn’t necessary. What I was really looking for was a piece of software where I could place walls, doors, some simple furnishings, and text labels and then be able to move them around quickly and easily. That’s exactly what I found with Home Designer.

[A rough level layout made with Home Designer.]
A rough level layout made in Home Designer.
Click to view larger.

In the span of two days, using Home Designer I’ve been able to layout most of the dozen levels that will make up the full game. I’ve been able to quickly build in alternate paths and additional locations of interest, expanding on the basic ideas from the story treatment. Compare that to the day and a half it took me to create the equally detailed, non-textured prototype level, which lacked the alternate routes I really wanted to have with an actual level building application (GTKRadiant, for those who are interested) and you can easily see the time saving that Home Designer affords.

Home Designer hasn’t been the only unconventional design tool I’ve used. One of the levels of the game involves evading the police in a high speed chase through the city. Software intended to design individual abodes does not lend itself very well to designing a city with all its streets, buildings, and terrain. However, I did have one application that was, in a sense, made for this purpose: SimCity.

Now, when I’m talking SimCity here, I’m talking the original SimCity game from back in the day. The one that’s since been redubbed SimCity Classic. For laying out my city streets I really like this as a design tool as opposed to any of the newer versions of SimCity because the maps it displays are all straight, top down maps, as opposed to any sort of isometric or full 3D view that would set the layout on an angle.

[A rough city map made with SimCity.]
A rough city map made with SimCity.
Click to view larger.

I’ve found SimCity useful because, for my design purposes, it’s essentially a structured, tile painting application. SimCity makes it very easy to designate where city blocks go and where roads and train tracks go. It has granular enough detail to give a reasonable amount of control over laying out such a larger area of land without taking forever to do so. And, of course, SimCity is still a lot of fun to just putter around in.

I haven’t checked any game design sites or forums; however, I feel safe in saying that neither Home Designer nor SimCity would be mentioned in their lists of design tools. And yet, for me and my purposes they’ve proven to be great tools for the job. They’re easy to use and allow for significant adjustments and changes to be made very quickly.

So the next time you need to do a little game design, take a look at all the software you have. You might be surprised at what you’ll find to help speed up the design process.