Inside Game Design at Cryptic Studios

An Exclusive Look at the Cryptic Environment Design Toolset

By Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle

July 10th, 2007 - Tools of the trade. Whether you're remodeling your kitchen or designing a game, the right tools are the difference between a clean, efficient job that leaves plenty of time (and resources) for added creativity and an endless quagmire of mistakes, blame, and lost potential. This is hardly a new idea, but I've talked to a number of interviewees where a developer gets a wistful look on his face as we discuss a nifty, brand-differentiating feature that would open up a brand new avenue of gameplay, only to see that hopeful look curdle as they remonstrate about a lack of tools.

Despite the min-spec friendliness of its flagship titles City of Heroes and City of Villains,  Cryptic Studios has long been on the knife's edge of technological innovation of MMO gaming. Long before the Unreal engine introduced "freeform" flight to MMORPGs in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes (as opposed to the scripted pathing used in flight with pre-Burning Crusade World of Warcraft and EverQuest 2), heroes and villains were flying under their own power high above Paragon City. The free multi-game expansion "Issue 7" marked the first time PhysX was integrated into an MMOG (with the destructible objects prone to Newtonian action-reaction physics in the expansion's "mayhem missions"). "Dynamic environments," the Cryptic Studios catchphrase for allowing players actions to influence the look of an entire zone for all to see, was also instituted in "Issue 7", which went live in October 2005. Unless I'm mistaken, this was certainly the first time anything of this scale was attempted successfully on a server-automated basis (that is, apart from a live event).

Neither has Cryptic been restive since Issue 7. Cryptic recently furthered their tech offerings by announcing the Cryptic AR (Animation Rig) at OGDC in May of this year. Free for anyone to download and create projects with under the GNU license, this simple and powerful tool allows the most amateur of animators to perform any number of moves with a humanoid model.

Thomas Foss (crystal skull), Serdar Copur (minion of Arachnos), and Nick Dugid (fez) of Cryptic Studios

With that kind of technical pedigree, it came as no shock that Cryptic had some serious power underneath the hood when it comes to level design. At a recent site tour, I had the treat of speaking with several members of the Cryptic team who were working upgrading the in-house toolset used to design the City of… games in preparation for work on an as-of-yet unannounced MMORPG. Environment Artist Nick Duguid manned the computer as Thomas Foss, Senior Staff Designer and Level Team Lead, walked us through an intriguing demo of Cryptic's environment design toolset. Serdar Copur, Producer of said unnamed project, joined us as well.

Almost literally before I knew what I was seeing, Nick had generated some basic terrain and was terraforming it with tools to those that you might find in games like SimCity 4 or (in a nineties flashback) Populous: The Beginning. Thomas explained that differences in terrain heights and edges could be softened using the flowing "hydro" tool or the more dramatic "thermal" edging tool. Flat space for content could be carved out quickly, and at any point, a character model could easily be dropped in (i.e. literally within a second or two) to check for proper collision responses and occlusion. Yup, designers, these arcane calculations are built into the terrain and objects. Nick demonstrated by having a character run along a small rise in terrain, switching back to edit mode to grade the slope until it was passable for the character.

Once a workable terrain mapping was achieved, Thomas explained that the tool was fully integrated with SpeedTree, a visually impactful tree and plant solution already used in games like Lord of the Rings Online. Nick took the cue to create a lush forest with a few clicks, and then used the Cryptic design tool to carve a path through it and up the incline. The randomized foliage re-oriented itself around the new path. In less than a few minutes, Nick had created a zone that could be the basic backdrop for any of today's MMOs.

Then the Cryptic crew demonstrated how to place objects within the environment. Nick dropped a ziggurat (that almost sounds vulgar, my apologies) into the jungle, and connected a rope bridge from the top edge of a cliff face to the flat of the ziggurat's summit (or "temple" for you budding archaeologists out there). Again the occlusion is built-in, and Nick put an severe curve into the highly detailed rope bridge (not just a wireframe) to demonstrate both that the design tool reticulated splines in real time (which is fun to say, but roughly means it can map out everything it takes to make a flexible object curve) and to show us that the curve was so severe that characters couldn't use the bridge – they'd be "pinched" between the rope guides so severely that the character model couldn't pivot. He then adjusted the bridge's curve until it could conduct a character from the ridge to the ziggurat. Again, it's worth noting that the entire trial and error process took less than a minute.

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Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016

About The Author

Jeff joined the Ten Ton Hammer team in 2004 covering EverQuest II, and he's had his hands on just about every PC online and multiplayer game he could since.