Part 15: Designing a Region

By Paul O’Connor, Senior Game Designer

This month, we take a look at the origins of a single gameplay region of our upcoming game, Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee.

Before we start slamming geometry together inside our 3D editor, we like to have a paper plan for what we hope to accomplish. These plans come in three forms: the movie script, the game flow diagram, and individual treatments.

The movie script outlines the major plot points in the game’s story, from Munch’s introduction as a hapless lab animal, through his escape from Vykker’s Labs, to the eventual realization of his destiny. The movie script provides a spine for the game by specifying that certain areas must appear in the design. For example, because of the movie script, we know that the game both begins and ends in Vykker’s Labs.

The game flow diagram breaks down gameplay into a series of regions, and it shows how the regions connect with one another. Anticipated game movies are embedded within the flow diagram to ensure that our gameplay regions dovetail with the movie events that follow or precede them. Thus, if Munch has succumbed to the Gorman Disenza virus in the movie preceding a region, we know that the region needs to open with Munch unconscious and the player in control of Abe.

The next level of detail is the region treatment. A treatment defines, in broad strokes, the events and challenges of a section of gameplay. My assignment last week was to create a treatment for Region #11, The Flubco Fat Fuels Facility. About all I knew going in was:

1. This region occurs more or less in the middle of the game.

2. The Flubco Fat Fuels Facility refines aviation fuel by sucking it out of unfortunate inhabitants called mudflubs.

3. This is a ‘Lulu quest’—​that is to say, in this region the player will spend part of his or her time controlling an incompetent Glukkon named Lulu, with an eye toward getting Lulu promoted (Abe and Munch want Lulu to climb the Glukkon corporate ladder so they can use him as a secret weapon against the Magog Cartel).

OK. Where to start?

The first thing I did was to conjure up the image of a fuel refinery in my mind. I saw catwalks, gantries, and storage tanks. I also envisioned a big, flat, muddy pen where the doomed mudflubs were corralled prior to being sucked dry of their fat. How did the mudflubs get into the pen? Because I didn’t want to mess with dump trucks or trains at this facility, I decided there would be a big tube that would open like an iris every now and then, shooting a handful of howling mudflubs into the pen. This was both pathetic and kind of funny—​which is the Oddworld trademark, after all—​so I knew I was on to something.

Now, how do we harvest fat from a mudflub? A recycler, of course—​a big one, attached to the Flubco Fat Fuels Facility and sticking out into the pen. How do we get the mudflubs into the recycler? A crane! And if there’s a crane, then that means Munch can jack in and possess the thing… and what kind of mischief could that produce?

What if Munch could use the crane to pick up the mudflubs, and instead of putting them in the recycler, he drops them safely in a river just outside the pen? So far, so good, but that seems too easy. What if the river is polluted, and the player has to clean it up before releasing the mudflubs? Of course! The river is polluted because the facility is flushing all its fuel straight into the river. That explains why the facility isn’t making any moolah, which is why Lulu’s been assigned to turn the place around. Now a mission sequence emerges. Sneak through the mudflub pens, break into the facility, and find Lulu. Take control of Lulu and use him to reorganize the facility’s workforce, diverting the fuel flow from the river to… where, exactly? The storage tanks! Great… and when the tanks are full, Lulu gets promoted, which is the player’s goal in this region, after all. And with the flow of fuel to the river turned off, Munch can go back to the crane and release the mudflubs.

But it seems wrong to have our heroes putting money in the Magog Cartel’s pocket by kicking their facility into shape, no matter what the strategic long‐term plan may be. Lulu gets promoted as soon as the storage tanks fill up. At that point, we don’t care about the facility’s efficiency. So… what if we put all that fuel in the storage tanks to good use. Like, an explosive use? Hmm… set some timed charges at the base of the tanks (watching out for Slig guards, of course), trip the timers, then run like heck for the exit portal before they blow. Sounds like a fitting climax for the region.

The written treatment is then submitted to the design department for review. After incorporating any notes, it goes in the queue for transformation into an actual game level. When we begin work on Region #11, the designer will refer to the treatment to determine what geometry he needs to create. The treatment doesn’t work out all the details—​(How do our heroes break into the facility? What does Lulu need to do to redirect the fuel flow? Where do Abe and Munch find the explosive charges, and where to they have to be set?)—​but it does give the designer a place to start, and in level design, that’s half the battle.