This month brings an interesting Dev Diary to the table. We're going to peek behind the curtain and explore the creation of level backgrounds, which is one of the more interesting design processes in Restitched (and game development in general)!
Throughout this Dev Diary we'll explore how a background is made, who it's created by, and the design process from start to finish. We'll also throw in interviews and insight from the 3D modelers behind our level backgrounds and, of course, exclusive behind-the-scenes development media!
"The Rolling Acres" Farm Background
A beautifully crafted background, with each asset hand-placed and revised over many months. The farm background was designed to bring a sense of nature and greenery to users' levels, and it's a huge asset to use for a theme in our planned story mode.
The level backgrounds in Restitched are very, very large for a 2.5D platformer game's standards (in our opinion). The level is very spacious in both height and length and features high graphical detail even in the background elements.
The design process starts with a blockout of the background. We use a basic blockout to place geometry and make sure everything is visually balanced. Once we've locked in a general layout for the background elements, we will proceed to fully model the props, then texture them. This is the stage when a scene really comes to life.
In the photo below you'll notice some notes drawn over an early version of the farm background. These are the type of notes we sometimes make to communicate our ideas to others on the team online, and they also help us to remember what we want to see going forward with the scene. We knew from this screenshot that it didn't seem quite finished yet, and so the modeler made notes to add a shovel propped against the fence, flowers in the grass to bring out more colors and nature, and to add foreground foliage for depth to the scenery.
The farm background will adapt itself when changed between day and night, by changing some elements in the scene such as fog, sun position, dynamic lights, ambient noises, and other visual effects like the sky, sun/moon, and insects swarming near light sources.
Each background comes with a lightmap profile, which makes every environment look gorgeous and well-lit, and includes nice reflections on certain materials, textures, props, etc. You can see in the example image below how drastically good lighting changes a scene! The shadows inside the barn become much darker and realistic, and light appears to be bouncing around naturally to illuminate all the right spots.
The barn scene shown above was the result of a lot of trial and error. The modeler originally had it flipped horizontally, but after a quick test to see how it looks when rotated, the background really came together so much nicer!
The barn interior needed a lot of detail to be used for level backgrounds on its own, so one of the team's talented concept artists began to conceptualize what sort of things you may see inside the barn, as well as how it can be lit despite being somewhat closed up.
The farm background has a large outdoor area showcasing beautiful foliage, fields, and closeup details such as the pasture fencing, grass blades, gravel path, and stray rocks. A lot of collaborative discussions went into making the scene feel just right while still staying optimized and true to the scenery's reference (American South).
The other side of the farm background (toward the right end of the level boundaries) contains a large barn filled with intricate details. The barn has the appearance of being cut open in what we call a "dollhouse view". This decision was made so that levels can be created in front of it (within the playable layer space) and still use the barn's interior as a fitting background.
It was important to make Stuffy feel like a real teddy bear in a larger world, while also not sacrificing a good scale level with player-made levels. Stuffy should feel small, but not so small that it takes 5 minutes to run past a large prop in the level background. This ultimately came down to tweaking Stuffy's speed, animations, and the scale for backgrounds.
We used a human character silhouette prop as a temporary way to measure the scale of objects in a scene. Some things may be less realistically-scaled the further away you get from the playable area, but that's sometimes a necessary illusion to make 2.5D game backgrounds look correct.
Creating Background Props
Background props are the individually-modeled pieces that are creatively and strategically placed to build the environment. Wheelbarrows, hay bales, rocks, fencing, tools, workbenches, sacks, tractors, etc. are the types of props you'd expect to see in a farm-based environment.
Our modelers began to build the props by blocking them out just like we do for the environment itself. The tractor was one of the first props to go into the farm theme. It was modeled based on reference images of real tractor design blueprints.
Once the tractor blockout was placed into the barebones scene, we started to see the farmland take shape some more. Of course, in the image above, a lot was left to be done. The terrain was too flat, trees too cluttered, and the scale was inconsistent.
The background was being set up and modeled by its main 3D modeler, while the tractor was passed onto another modeler who had more time to build a detailed prop given how large and close to the player it appears in the scene.
In the image above you can see the tractor and the farm theme in its later stages, nearly finished. The tractor was changed from green to red to help it stand out amongst the greenery of the world around it and to compliment the barn and hay sheds throughout the scene (which are also red).
Another great example of a prominent background prop is the fence you see spanning the outdoor area of the farm. This model was created based on a reference image (as most are!).
Once the texturing was finished, the work-in-progress images were shared with the team. The devs collaboratively discussed changes to make, like having the nails align over the vertical fence posts to make more practical sense.
Once the nails and texturing were adjusted, the fence was added to the engine and tiles throughout the background scene. You can see Stuffy below to test the scale of the world in its early stages.
Fast forward later into development, and you can see below that the finished farm background is basically finished and the fencing was further adjusted to tile better and be more optimized.
Other notable props throughout the farm scene are shown below! Thanks to our super talented artists and modelers who all work together to create one cohesive vision.
Level Background Template
Each background is made within a template for our layer system. We must make sure that the level looks practical while still being functional. We want to avoid clipping with player-created elements, but we still want the background to have an influence on the levels and scenes players create so that their levels feel immersive and grounded in the location they set the background to.
Things like shadows from background elements can be seen as an influence in the levels themselves. If you build your level behind a tree and set the sun/shadow angle just right, you could see the shadow cast over your creation, thus grounding your scene with realism and detail.
Some of the lighting can prove difficult, as the layer system itself uses a custom-made lighting solution that is contained only within the five playable layer space. This lighting solution handles things like shadows from materials interacting with each other, props placed and their influence on the playable area, and custom light sources. Everything outside of this playable space is handled more by the engine's native lighting system. This may also allow for backgrounds to look extra detailed and realistic.
Default Construction Mode Background
The default level background for Restitched is inspired by a construction site, which is based on the name of the level editor, known as "Construction Mode".
The default background is basic and yet still very beautiful! It features a plywood aesthetic around the level borders, and a blank background to use for a sky or plain color. It's the perfect creative space for a sandbox with friends, or for creating full levels and custom creations.
Retro Synthwave Background
How exciting! A background we haven't revealed yet!
This background was created as an optional extra background for creators. It's not currently planned to be part of the story mode, but it's still a very interesting visual!
The background is inspired by the retro arcade synthwave aesthetic, but with its own flair as well. It has romanesque architectural columns, fuzzy checkered carpet, and digital wireframe hills with a river right down the middle being centered by a retro-lined sun graphic.
- From the backgrounds being made, which is your favorite, and why?
Carter: "The Farm background is great, but the Default Level Background is my personal favorite, because I was mostly responsible for it, and I have a bias."
DeRose: "At the moment I feel a bias towards the farm just since the background objects can add a good bit to the scene. But I like the lighting of the default more, I'm sure in the future my thoughts will change on that though."
Kyran: "My favourite background so far is [redacted]. It's so warm and has such an inviting feeling to go and create in there. Ever since I saw the concept for it I wanted to get involved and bring it to life."
- How long does a background usually take you to make?
DeRose: "First background took around 6 months to make since I wasn't sure how I should go about the process. I think afterwards, a month or two would be all I need if I did another background on the scale of the farm and had plenty of free time."
Kyran: "The development time depends entire on the complexity of the task but I think it would take a good 2 or 3 months if we're working on it like a 9 - 5 job. But since we're all doing this in our free time then it take around 5 months in reality."
- If you could make any background that isn't already planned/made, what would it be?
Carter: "Candy world. I'm a sucker for candy and food themes."
DeRose: "A background I personally would love to do would be something like a very foliage heavy front or backyard made to resemble a jungle."
Kyran: "Something really dark, fantastical and moody, like a necromancers crypt or mad inventors basement. I'm a sucker for dark environments."
- How important do you think backgrounds are to set a mood for levels?
Carter: "I think they're very important, unless you're a wizard at using geometry and decoration to make something just as atmosphere setting as a background. Level themes would be less 'immersive' if they were just in the middle of a coloured void. ...Unless you want that, of course."
DeRose: "Backgrounds easily set a mood for a level as they're the thing people see when it's not apart of the constructed level itself, as such I think they're very important due to the impacts to the lighting and the other things such as ambience."
Kyran: "When you think of backgrounds as a sort of canvas, they're incredibly important. They give you the foundation to create upon, mood and atmosphere is what breathes life into a creation."
- What is your favorite stage of a background's development?
DeRose: "My favorite stage is blocking out the background and texturing it. Blockouts have you see the shape, but the textures actually give the shapes more substance."
Kyran: "It's difficult to pick a favourite stage of development, although I will say the final stage of set dressing and lighting is extremely satisfying; watching it all come together gives you an immense feeling of pride."
- What do you think is the most important aspect of a level background?
DeRose: "The most important aspect of a background to me is having it unique in many areas, to give a background more uses in different types of levels."
Kyran: "For me personally I think lighting is one of the most important aspects of any game art as its the most effective tool to convey mood and atmosphere. You can take a scene from feeling cozy and warm to cold and sinister by changing the lighting alone."
- How do 2.5D game backgrounds differ from traditional 3D game environments?
Carter: "Well, with 3D games, you can view most environments from any angle. With 2.5D, you're viewing it from only one, meaning it's a lot easier to pull off things such as optical illusions for depth, and giving a "dollhouse" feeling to interior environments."
DeRose: "2.5D game backgrounds differ in the sense they aren't as traversable and are purely for visuals, almost like a sorta puppet show feeling to it, makes the area feel bigger and feels imaginative in my opinion."
Kyran: "2.5D allows you to get away with a lot more and typically has a shorter/easier development cycle. Since they can't be interacted with, traversed or extensively viewed by the player then you don't have to be as meticulous in its development."
- How much optimization does a level background usually need, and what does that process look like for Restitched?
DeRose: "Optimization in a level background generally is needed in every aspect, from poly count, to texture resolution, to lighting. The process generally is keeping performance in mind but making it look pretty, so textures may need to be combined, be downscaled, use less effects, and lots of testing to see the changes to performance, in my book being able to play a game matters more than it looking the best."
Kyran: "Optimisation can be described as a single question; 'What can I get away with?' If some parts of models aren't going to be seen then get rid of them. If something is curved, how many sides can I get rid of before it starts looking boxy? Does this thing really need a high-res texture?.. and so on. It's about being conservative without jeopardising quality."
Thank you guys for reading through this Dev Diary post! It's been a hefty one, and we're always happy to show our hard work through its many development phases. There are a lot of experimental things that don't make the cut, so being able to show changes and the reasoning behind them can be refreshing for developers and fans alike.
What are your thoughts on the creation of level backgrounds? Do you have any questions or feedback? Let us know in the comments!