Zone 1: Surface


Surface Mood Board Development

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Surface Development Concept

The concept map below shows the rough layout for Europas surface, our intent is to create the entire surface as one large medium quality model. Once the main geographic features are complete we will import this single model into ten connected Dreams (Black and Yellow lines show the core divisions), then cull the geography either not featuring or out of the players field of view to reclaim memory resources.  These resources can then be reinvested into each dream for additional visual fidelity.  

This technique provides a few key benefits:
1) Visually Consistent: Key geographic features remain visually constant across multiple dreams.
2) Modular Design: Because the entire gamespace is produced with only medium quality on first pass we can begin play-testing early to adjust overall scale and gather feedback. With the surface divided into three unique dreams we can then have multiple environmental artists working concurrently adding additional detail passes.

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1) Player Start - Crashed escape pod.
2) Lander - Top module.
3) Lander - Bottom module + Boring device*
*Entrance into 2nd chapter of this project - Side scrolling sub gameplay

Blue: A > K - Points of interest.
Sample: Blue G - Lander debris containing power module and data log (voice) can be used to access another terminal on the Lander top module.

Red: A > G - Major environmental hazard.
Sample: Red B - Field of cryo guises, players will needs to time their run through here or face instant death.

Yellow: A > B - Subsurface entrance and exit.
Sample: Falling ice can cause the player to get knocked off the cliff edge onto a ledge below, this expands into a cave network - happy accidents.
Note: There will be more of these however I'm leaving them off maps (easter eggs)

Green: Data log. (Text and voice recordings)

Yellow+Black Line: Dream divider*
*Initial concept allows for 3 Dreams on the surface, this may increase depending on level complexity and engine capability.

Surface Concept Art

2) Lander - Top Module

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3) Lander - Bottom Module

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3) Surface Debris

These objects contain limited duration player power-ups (30 seconds) - boost to player run-speed / jump / damage resistance / strength etc - providing a mechanic to unlock new map routes (normally within 20 seconds movement from source location)  The debris can also provide a source of game narrative - datalogs / recordings.

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10 Principles of Good Level Design

Level design has evolved greatly over the past 20 years, the following contains a list of 10 Core Principles and Learnings that MAD-GFX will endeavour to adhere to with Europa Descents Surface, Subsurface and Alien level design.

Good Level Design ...



Create a clear visual language (+ throw in chaos)

  • Traversing a level presents the player with many different gameplay vectors: Observational - The act of surveying your surroundings. Strategic - The act of processing your observations to a plan. Navigational - The act of traversing the level yourself.

  • For a smooth and enjoyable experience the player should always know exactly where to go, which is why its important to develop a consistent visual language that clearly guides the player through the critical paths. (through the use of light, geometry, colour and animation)

  • Play with Intuitive to navigate and Fun to navigate, encourage freestyle exploration (This helps to create depth and replayability)

  • Introducing confusion can provide tension.


Use implicit and emergent narrative rather than explicit

  • Use Mise-En-Scene/Environmental Narrative - The art of telling the story through the environment.

  • Experiment with ’The Broken Circle’ paradigm - using the three types of narrative present in level design:

  • Explicit - Information that is called out to the player through cutscenes, text, spoken dialog (Circle)

  • Implicit - Information that the player figures out themselves by looking at the environment (Gap in the Circle)

  • Emergent - Information that the player constructs in their own head (Gap in the Circle). Enable emergent narrative by providing player choice (freedom of mechanic use)


Use clearly communicated objectives that players can complete in any way or in any order they want

  • The player should be in no doubt as to what they need to do when they go through the level, provide clear objectives (waypoints/other navigational aids)

  • Experiment with Nebulous Objectives and provide the player with multiple techniques and mechanics to complete. Encourage improvisation.

  • Players should be presented with Concurrent Objectives that they player can complete in any order, further more on completion of one of those objectives player should receive a reward which either makes the other objectives easier or modifies them in some way.


Keep the player engaged by continuously introducing or subverting new mechanics

  • ‘The Theory of Fun’ - Raph Koster: “The human mind enjoys processing patterns for storage and retrieval later” / embrace this pattern analysis - Prolong this through good level design. Each level should introduce, showcase or subvert a key mechanic (Use holistic design to control pacing throughout the entire game)

  • Bethesda Mantra: Learn -> Play -> Challenge -> Surprise. Teach the mechanics explicitly, provide a safe area for the player to experiment with the new mechanics, introduce a threat or compelling objective to challenge the players mastery of that mechanic, when the player feels comfortable with the mechanic surprise them in some way.


Don’t be afraid to take risks with the pacing, aesthetics or any other elements

  • Keep things fresh by not falling into routines, don’t rely on rollercoaster pacing method as this becomes predictable.

  • Fun is created through uncertainty, flip the player in and out of their comfort zone. Experiment with being subversive - take an existing game design paradigm and flip it (e.g. inverse/disrupt pacing).

  • Take Risks - Grey-box and test ideas (early in development) for feedback.


Video games are escapism, let the player feel the impact of his actions

  • Deliver the fantasy (Players want to be badasses), avoid dull menial tasks.

  • Design levels to show the players influence on the world illustrating the consequences of choices.


Use Risk/Reward so that the player can set the difficulty dynamically

  • Design multiple pathways through levels. ‘Basic path’ - easy/medium challenge, clearly called out ‘High risk’ paths with an obvious reward.

  • Use a layered approach (increases replayability) with rewards in clear view that provide navigational risks. Provide alternate paths for flanking or bypassing tough challenges (perhaps with a puzzle for cerebral skill Vs tough conflict)

  • Experiment with clear objectives with hidden paths and secret areas that are called out with a visual cues


Design for modularity, bi-directionality and nonlinearity

  • Be aware of constraints: Technical limitations of hardware (Thermometer) Real world constraints (Production schedule, number of people on your team etc)

  • Use Modular Design - Create a series of mechanic driven encounters that you can string together to make multiple levels. This is useful for players as they have a series of identifiable events to master mechanics. Create modifiers and variables that can break up repetition (increase challenge / surprise)

  • Use bi-directionality to reuse artwork (avoid backtracking unless mechanics/experience changes with each pass)

  • Experiment with nonlinearity, provide implicit objectives that require intuition and exploration to complete (Collectables can take advantage of this) Do not use this method unless your clearly call out these systems/rewards in advance (if possible tie these into the main narrative thread).


It begins at the end with the desired emotional response and works backwards to select the appropriate mechanics to elicit that response.

  • Use architecture and spatial empathy to induce an emotional response. For example: tight corners to reduce view, verticality both up and down, twisting/labyrinthian paths to create confusion, large spaces for isolation and epic scale, the transition between small and large to force the player to view a specific vista.

  • Use AI to assist, e.g. an NPC that hunts the player for the feeling of persecution.

  • Modify core mechanics and goals to increase tension, objectives in difficult to reach areas that then provide vistas and other rewards (new paths).


Above all it showcases the games mechanics through the medium of the level to reinforce the uniquely interactive nature of video games

  • “Books let you IMAGINE extraordinary things, Movies let you SEE extraordinary things but Video Games let you actually DO extraordinary things” (source unknown) Great level design is driven by interaction of game mechanics, game levels do not just provide the content or the setting for mechanics they provide the very reality in which they exist.

  • A games level is the metaphysical medium through which the gameplay is delivered. Levels should be a gameplay delivery system who’s primary function is to leverage your mechanics to create a great experience.

  • Find creative ways to re-use and modify mechanics through level design variance (new abilities unlocking previous content/paths)


Shown below are sample props to be created early on in the in-game development cycle.  Small props models will be designed to have multiple uses depending on orientation, scale and position.  Large props serve two purposes, primarily used in the background to provide scale and a foreground canvas for smaller props to be placed on.  



We have created reference sheets by compiling 100's of Pinterest images, mixing photographic and illustrations for key design areas (environmental, creature, character, props etc) These collections provide stylistic guidance and allow us to present a unified theme to any new team members joining the project.