Apex is a tactical first person runner, where the players have to build their own paths by using a set of building blocks to reach the finish line. In Apex you play as Rhea, a young woman who’s earned her fame and glory in the infamous Apex-challenge. But after a terrible “accident” she loses her legs and of course with that the ability to run. But now a few years later she’s back, with new legs and a new purpose: to get revenge on those who did her wrong. So will you survive the Apex-challenge? We’ll see.
GENRE: Tactical First Person Runner
ENGINE: Unity 5
PRODUCTION TIME: 7 weeks
TEAM SIZE: 8
When in comes to level design, Apex was a challenge. Compared to my other projects and even other games, Apex didn’t have any straightforward level design. In many games level design is about showing the player the way, as well as creating a world which is enjoyable to be in and explore. Levels are usually static, the player plays through them and the level is what it is. The player rarely change the path of the level. But in Apex the core mechanic is that the player does just that, they have to build their own path. So this game was a tricky, I had to create a challenge for the player in a game where they are responsible for creating that challenge. But now, let’s get to it.
The first part of the tutorial is all about the movement in the game, in what we call “the running phase”. Here I focused on combining all of the moves the player will have to do in each level: running, jumping and wall-jumping. In the rest of the game the player will build their own path from start to finish, but since that part is it’s own thing I wanted to leave that out. So I built a prebuilt path the player had to follow, this was to make sure that the player gets to do everything they will need to know. I can also mention that the game is aimed for a already experienced player, so the tutorial is built from that mindset.
What the player will do most of the time is running, so naturally the first thing the player has to do is to run. I give the player some space to move around in to get comfortable with the controls, but since the game handles like a normal FPS there isn’t much more to this mechanic.
Then we go over to the jumping, here the player has to jump over a small gap, which is fairly easy and literary straightforward. If the player fails they actually die. It may seem unorthodox to kill the player in the tutorial, I know, but Apex is that type of game. Players will die a lot, but they will be up and running equally as fast again. It’s a game about trial and error, so I wanted to show that to the player right from the start.
Then we move on to the wall-jump. Here the player doesn’t risk dying, that is because I wanted to focus on showing the player the possibility to get from a lower platform to an elevated one with the help of wall-jumps. Another reason is that compared to jumping, wall-jumping a bit more complicated. Every game that has a wall-jump mechanic does it differently so I wanted the players to try it out with ease.
After the first wall-jump we have another one. This one will show the player that they can help you get over larger gaps by functioning like an extra jump in mid air. But this wall-jump is risky. The rest of the tutorial will have the classic approach of showing the player a mechanic in a safe environment and then let the player do the same thing but with a higher difficulty or at least higher risk.
Double Wall-Jumping 1
Next up we have a double wall-jump, where the player has to jump from one wall to the other. Jumping on one wall can sometimes be hard, and now the player has to do two in a row. So once again the player doesn’t risk dying, I want the player do feel like they can (like I mentioned earlier) test the double wall-jump with ease.
Double Wall-Jumping 2
Like with the single wall-jumps we now repeat but this time with some danger to it. If you fail, you die!
Lastly we wrap things up with combining all the moves the player has gone through. First of a jump and then ending everything with a final double wall-jump. Here I wanted to give the player a euphoric feeling, to pull of these moves one after the other feels pretty nice. And since the tutorial is pretty unforgiving it feels extra nice if you failed some times along the way, it’s a nice reward. Now the player is ready for the next part!
In the second part of the tutorial the player is introduced to the “building phase” where they have to build their own path from start to finish with a set of building blocks (can bee seen in the upper left corner). The level is designed so that the player has to use every type of platform available which are the normal straight platforms (for running) and the walls (for wall-jumping). Already placed on the map we can see two different cubes, two red and a couple of blue ones.
The red cubes are what we call “blockers”, and they do exactly what it sounds like: they block. It’s impossible to place pieces on these blockers and it’s not possible traverse them in any way. For the level design these blockers were used to create paths for the player but never force the player to take any specific path. The goal was to create open levels where the player could find their ultimate route, not make something linear. Although more linear levels do appear later on in the game.
The blue cubes function as blockers as well, in that the player can’t place pieces on them. But compared to the red ones the player can traverse these with the help of a wall-jump. So when the red blockers stop the player’s path completely, these have the goal of slowing down the player. My goal was to make the player think whether it would be faster to go on top, find a way around or if they should spare one placeable piece since the blue blocker essentially is a free piece.
When it comes to the pieces which can be used I decided to give the player plenty. I wanted to encourage the player to use the pieces so that they really get a feeling of how the building phase functions, with no limitation. Normally though, the player would have a much more limited amount, but more on that down below.
So in Apex I made a total of 15 levels, all with different structure and challenges, some more similar than others. Don’t be afraid, I will not talk about all 15 of them; but here is a gallery if you just want to look through them all. What I will talk about is the general design thought for making the levels. Before we dig in though, I’d like to mention the player’s two goals for each level: getting to the finish line as fast as possible while using as few pieces as possible. So keep this in mind.
Creating a path
We already know that the player has to find and build their own path, there is nothing telling them how to get to the goal. However, I didn’t mind creating a visible path for the player by using the blockers and sometimes the pieces. The pieces can show the player the possibilities and limitations in each level. Some levels, for example, have mostly wall-jumps which makes the level play in a certain way. When it comes to the blockers some levels have only one path, based on the blocker placement. In the end it’s the combination of blockers and pieces which defines the level design for each level.
As I have mentioned, every level has a limited amount of pieces at the player’s disposal, but what does this mean for the level design? We have gone through that one of the goals in the game is to use as few pieces as possible, but there is no point in placing a small amount of pieces if there are already few of them. Therefore my goal was to always give the player just enough pieces to take the longest route to the finish line. The goal was never to create a puzzle game by making it hard to reach the finish line. Making a game about running where the player has to sit and think doesn’t match well. But I wanted the player to feel smart when using as few pieces as possible, almost giving them a feel of cheating the game. This would not have been possible if the limitations were too high.
When development began we decided that this was a game where the payer could really fast go from level to level and have a high amount of replayability for each one. Then my goal became to make a lot of levels, but that required variation. So for 12 of the 15 levels I decided to make symmetric levels which proved to be interesting. One could imagine that this would lead to uninspired levels, you could just use the same pieces at the end of the level as in the beginning. By controlling what pieces the player could use I easily avoided this problem dough. Then towards the end of the project I decided to try something else. In the beginning of the project I tried to make more linear levels with a selection of clear paths. At that time it didn’t feel right but after making all the symmetric ones I wanted to try it again. It ended up being only three of them but it gave some variation both in structure and in gameplay.
The name says it all, they are traps and they are dangerous. The purpose of the traps where to give the player some challenge in certain levels and to make the player think about how they build their path. So the traps can always be traversed either like the blue blockers or normal platforms but are always placed on the fastest path. So what the player should think is: is it worth risking it? How much will I gain by taking the dangerous path? These paths are also the best ones to take if the player wants to cut down on their piece usage.