- Introduction -

Welcome to the Game Design portfolio of Danny Johnson. You can browse through the various posts for projects in the Post summary to the right. Some of the work uses existing properties for a basis, but I have then created a unique design in the spirit of that game. All work has been created by me unless otherwise noted. You can also visit my game design blog or view my resume.

5.30.2009

The Level Design of Tomb Raider: Underworld

I was very fortunate to be able to work as a designer on a storied franchise such as Tomb Raider. While the game I worked on was only the Nintendo DS version, I learned a great deal about game development in the process. Thankfully, I have been given permission to share the original design concepts for the levels I created. The design document for the console version of Tomb Raider: Underworld was used to understand the basic structure of the game, but all level designs were created uniquely for the DS version. All designs were created by me with feedback and assistance from the Creative Director- Alex Neuse. I also apologize that I will not be completely in-depth with the design process to safeguard any confidential information that is the property of Santa Cruz Games, Crystal Dynamics or Eidos.

Please note that the terminology for the project referred to each playable area as a "scene" and a set of scenes is a "level."


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Level 1 flow
These diagrams were created for each level to help visualize the size and movement through the scene, as well as to define the type of scene.


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Level 0, Scene 1 (Prologue)
The intent of this scenes is to teach the player the basic techniques while offering enough gameplay so that it does not feel like it is all a tutorial. The fire engulfing the scene is supposed to give a sense of danger and urgency even though the player is safe most of the time.


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Level 1, Scene 1 (Discovery)
I tried to make this scene somewhat wide open without giving too much room for the player to get lost. There is not much room to either side, but the player will then see that there is much room below. The enemies were meant to be rather easy to fight, but could also be passed since the aim of this scene was not focused on combat. The annotations in the red boxes were created by Alex to determine the combat scenarios we would have in each scene with any kind of fighting.


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Level 1, Scene 2 and 3 (Entrance and Approach)
This section was split into two scenes for various reason, but the idea was that the player had entered a large cavernous space. I tried to make the scene feel like it could have been traversed in the past, but had since become dilapidated so the player would have to take an alternate path. After the scene was split, I then added a traversal portion at the beginning of Scene 3 so that it felt like the length of a full scene.


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Level 1, Scene 4 (Encounter)
This is the first scene that offers a puzzle that the player has to solve by navigating the rest of the scene. I wanted the player to see the non-working contraption first so that they had a sense of purpose going through the rest of the level. I like the simple complexity to this level and wish I made more like it.


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Level 1, Scene 5 (Lair)
This scene is meant to be the first "boss" battle, but is solved through navigation and not fighting. I aspect I liked about these vertical scenes was that the further the player progressed, the higher and therefore more dangerous their position. This was somewhat diminished by the fact that you could not look down like in the console version.


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Level 1, Scene 6 (Artifact)
There is no concept for this scene because we did not expect to have an entire area dedicated to it, but because the moment is so important that it deserves to be separate. I liked this scene because it is one of the few examples where I was able to rotate the camera all of the way around the character, which hopefully made the scene notable even if it is short.


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Level 1, Scene 7 (Stolen)
The scene is vertically aligned to indicate that the character is climbing up and out of the tomb. I tried making a split in the path during this scene but because of the linearity of the past scenes but the players seemed to be confused by it. There were various reasons why we couldn't do more branching paths, so instead we focused on making the scenes have a flowing momentum to them so that the player did not get caught up too long at one spot.


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Level 1, Scene 8 (Surface)
As you can see the original design for the scene turned out to be different than what appeared in the game. The initial ideas was that explosive barrels would drop and the player would have to dodge them on their way to the surface, but this concept didn't play very well and had other difficulties. The change was to then make the scene more straightforward and continue the feeling of climbing upwards out of the tomb.


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Level 1, Scene 9 (Combat)
This scene also was not in the original design but I pushed for its addition after learning that players often had a hard time getting used to the combat at first. The problem was that the players were not aware of all of the abilities at their disposal, so having each one explained seemed to improve the situation.


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Level 1, Scene 10 (Battle)
Again, we conceptualized how to best set up the fights so that the player could use abilities they just learned.


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Level 1, Scene 11 (Sinking)
The original design called for three parts to this scene with the ship at different stages of sinking. Two of these parts were scrapped but we still retained the swimming section with the ship turning upside down. I wanted to create a bit of unease when swimming underwater by making it cluttered in this section, but really the path is quite easy. This idea of perceived danger with little actual danger present was something I tried to add to a number of the scenes, but worked to varying degrees in the end.


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Level 2 flow
As you can see there was meant to be a swimming scene used at the beginning and end but it ended up being cut. We tried to ensure we kept the general flow of the scenes even when one was cut which was one of the challenges faced when removing parts of the game.


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Level 2, Deleted Scene
This was another swimming scene that was originally planned, but ended up being cut. One interesting aspect of the scene was that it showed the exit to tomb seen in Scene 9, but the player would not understand what it was until the then.


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Level 2, Scene 1 (Cliffs)
Another scene that is meant to be treacherous because the player is climbing so high up. I tried to accentuate the danger by making some sections hang out above the void.


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Level 2, Scene 2 (Jungle)
I tried to keep in mind the art for the scenes when I was making them so that the ledges and ropes would make sense. I tried not to concern myself too much with rationalizing the layout, as the artists would remind me that is their job, so that I could come up with a good level design whether it makes sense or not.


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Level 2, Scene 3 (Ruins)
There was combat originally planned to take place in this scene but was moved to Scene 2 because of certain complications. The scene still retained enough navigation that it still worked well. There are little touches throughout the game, such as the retracting pole section in this scene, that I added as one time events to provide a unique experiences during the course of the game.


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Level 2, Scene 4 (Shiva)
This scene was designed by Alex, but I ended up implementing it and adding a few small parts. The interesting part of this scene was preventing the player from skipping ahead by falling down during the first section. It was small challenges such as these that popped up and required creative solutions so that the original design could be kept intact. This room was also unique because it is the only puzzle that occurred over multiple scenes, which also required some clever tricks to make work.


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Level 2, Scene 5 (Moon Room)
Another scene designed by Alex, this scene was meant to be fairly easy to traverse forward but would be more difficult on the way out because of the darkness and the time limit.


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Level 2, Scene 6 (Eye Room)
In this scene the player is able to breeze through to get the tablet but then must quickly fight to get back out. This scene provided an interesting question for me because I had to decide if I should allow the player time to fight the Naga, or if I should put the door on a short timer so that they had to avoid them. I ended up making the timer long so that it accommodated players who stuck around to fight but could be exited if they decided to run.


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Level 2, Scene 7 (Sun Room)
Another scene that seems straightforward, but after the tablet is taken it becomes much more complicated. There is also a treasure chest that the player has to go out of their way to get which makes it even more frantic, but can be quite rewarding if done correctly.


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Level 2, Scene 8 (RJC)
Similar to Level 1, Scene 6, this scene was separated so that it would have more impact when the player got to this point. I didn't bother doing a concept because I knew it would just be a straight line.


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Level 2, Scene 9 (Strength)
This is the first full scene using Thor's gauntlet and I made the blocks quite large to give the sense that these were magical and could not possibly be moved by Lara normally. These blocks were also a new way to change up the navigation since they provided a changing element.


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Level 3 flow
As you will see the size of the scenes does not always match with what was planned in this flow. We removed what was initially the first scene for this level and I think I compensated by making the next scene much longer. Flexibility is one of the keys of game development since the final design will often deviate greatly from what was originally conceived.


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Level 3, Scene 1 (Caverns)
This is one of the larger scenes, but there needed to be enough room to fit the grapple sections. Opposite of Level 1, Scene 4, this scene contains a puzzle where the player encounters the working contraption, but then figures out later how to use it. The problem with this type of puzzle is if the player thinks they can solve it before moving on, but we made sure to convey that it cannot be solved yet.


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Level 3, Scene 2 (Power Up)
Again, I liked these kinds of levels because I thought they fit into the Tomb Raider style. The player can go to any part of the scene but they must perform several actions in order before they can actually exit. All of the actions fit logically together and the player hopefully feels a sense of accomplishment for connecting the dots.


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Level 3, Scene 3 (Fire)
The player finally returns to where they were in the tutorial so most of the level should be familiar, but I wanted to provide a little extra so that they feel that it is not just a rehash.


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Level 3, Scene 4 (Winston)
One thing of note in this scene is the scripted event of the rubble that falls shortly after starting. This was the first script ever written for the game, and is actually one of the few scripts that I did not write.


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Level 3, Scene 5 (Zip)
I conceptualized this scene with Lara shooting the chandelier to knock down the flaming bookcase and someone questioned if that made any sense. I thought it was quite fitting that Lara would do something so dramatic, and then the idea was raised to have her riding the chandelier as it fell which was even more outrageously appropriate for this video game heroine.


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Level 4 flow
There were two scenes planned near the end of this level that ended up being too complicated and were later changed. Although these ideas were cut I am sure to remember them in case they fit into any future projects.


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Level 4, Scene 1 (Forest)
This scene was completely redesigned after we decided to use it at the beginning and end of the level. I had to make sure it is traversable in both directions but I also wanted to make sure there were unique experiences in each so that it did not just feel like the same scene recycled. This scene also introduces the wall jump, which was a feature we did not plan on having in the game but ended up adding part way through the project to be similar to the console version.


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Level 4, Scene 2 (Calendar)
This scene had a big portion cut out of it, but since the important part was the calendar puzzle it retained the design. This was meant to be a scene where there was not a lot of traversal, and instead I tried to convey the vastness of the scene especially when running across the bottom section.


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Level 4, Scene 3 (Razor House)
The first of the "Houses," these rooms were inspired by actual myths. The stories of these trap rooms were too perfect to pass up so we tried to figure out ways to make each scene fit. In the Razor House I took the existing spikes and tried to use them in all sorts of ways that hadn't been done up to this point.


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Level 4, Scene 4 (Dark House)
This was originally planned as part of the Razor House but was split up to separate each "House," even though I thought it was somewhat small after being divided. The artists though this was actually the ideal sized scene because it was small and could have a lot of detail while requiring the player to re-traverse sections so they saw parts more than once. We never butted heads over these kinds of issues, but it is interesting that as a designer I often wanted the most gameplay but the artists wanted small concentrated scenes.


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Level 4, Scene 5 (Jaguar House)
Another example of a high perceived danger is the goo pit spanning the entire scene. The player would only have to jump over it in several sections, but the sense of being surrounded by this toxic ooze was a feeling I wanted to convey.


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Level 4, Scene 6 (Megingjord)
Once again, this is a small yet important scene because of the new story and ability introduced. I added the rising goo to add just a bit of gameplay so that the player could not get their reward too easily.


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Level 4, Scene 7 (Fire House)
People around the office liked this scene because it encapsulated many of Tomb Raider elements in a single scene. There are traps, movable objects, pressure plates and puzzle you have to solve. Had I more time to design all the scenes I probably would have made every one like this, but alas there are limitations and deadlines that must be heeded.


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Level 4, Scene 8 (Cold House)
Another scene that people quite liked, but it originally started off being much simpler. It is a unique concept, that there is a built-in time limit, so I decided that it deserved a more complex layout. I also threw in switches so that the player had to stop for a moment, but then made sure the player did not lose life during these parts or it would seem unfair.


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Level 4, Scene 9 and 10 (Bat House and Depart)
Like I mentioned in Scene 1, I redesigned this scene so that it would work backwards and still be interesting. We split off the Bat House part for the same reason we broke apart the Razor and Dark House, but the touch screen puzzles made the scene memorable even though it was short.


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Level 5 flow
As you can see there were some parts we were unclear on because Crystal Dynamics had not decided on how it would work in their version. It was no fault of their, they were just working on a much bigger game that took longer to develop than our version. Still, we were able to learn what they planned on doing so that we could match it appropriately.


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Level 5, Scene 1 (Descent)
This is perhaps my favorite scene because it has the most traversal and has some inventive parts. If this scene seems fairly hard compared to the previous scenes, it is because we swapped this with Level 7, Scene 1 for story reasons. Also, the player gets their first glimpse of a rotating scene, which will be used again later to purposefully greater effect.


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Level 5, Scene 2 (Within)
I wanted to create two somewhat mirrored scenes with the first conveying that the player is delving down into a hidden area, and then later climbing back out to the surface. This planning ahead allowed me to hint at a puzzle that wouldn't be used until the player was making their way out.


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Level 5, Scene 3 (Valgrind)
This scenes was meant to ramp up the combat so that they player would have a tough time fighting each enemy because we then have a role reversal when the player returns here. I was also the one who put together the yeti fight at the end even though it was not planned. I thought that introducing a new enemy should be an important event rather than getting lost amongst the other fights.


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Level 5, Scene 4 (Mjolnir)
I couldn't seem to find the original design for this scene but was quite similar to what was envisioned. Similar to the trap rooms in Level 2, I liked the idea of traversing the scene in relative safety but then being forced to take a dangerous path on the way back out.


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Level 5, Scene 5 (Armed)
Like I mentioned in Scene 3, this scene was meant to provide the player with a feeling of power now that they had the hammer. The weapon is by far the most powerful but we also tried to make sure it was not a cakewalk using it against the enemies, so we made it fairly slow to swing.


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Level 5, Scene 6 (Ascent)
I thought the puzzle at the beginning was appropriate to the Tomb Raider series because it fit in the environment and did not feel like an obvious puzzle. Also, if the artifacts hidden throughout the game seem to be a little easy to find, it is because we added that feature to the game after all of the levels had been created. These are just the punches game development throws that you have to learn to take.


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Level 6 flow
Not much to the flow, and we even shortened the level from what was planned. This level was not meant to be as significant as the other levels, but we still wanted enough gameplay so that it felt worthwhile.


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Level 6, Scene 1 (Infiltrate)
This scene was redesigned later on so that it could be traversed forward and backwards. This is actually one of the few scenes that I did not really concept before making and tried to see how it turned out by creating it on-the-fly. I thought it turned out well because I had the experience of making all of the other level so I knew what worked, otherwise it probably would have been less interesting if I tried to do this earlier.


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Level 6, Scene 2 (Natla)
I probably did not need to concept this scene, but it was probably more for the artists to see the intended size. Originally the scene just had two tough enemies that I had named Bigs and Wedge in the code, just to be a nerd.


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Level 6, Scene 3 (Escape)
The first path through this scene did not include any fighting, so I wanted to mix it up by making this scene all fighting and little traversal. Now that the player has the hammer I tried to find ways to make the combat not too easy by putting the positional advantage in the enemy's favor.


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Level 7 flow
Level 7 probably had a flow at some point but it changed so much that I don't think we kept it. We toyed around with lots of ways to make this last level seem epic, and I think our final result is pretty good.


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Level 7, Scene 1 (Sea Floor)
As I said before, this scene was originally in Level 5, but was moved for story reasons. Since the scene is so big I made sure to point out the orbs that the player needed to find so that they were not aimlessly searching.


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Level 7, Scene 2 (Emerge)
The situational adrenaline moment at the beginning of the scene was not in the original design but I wanted to add this feature to more points in the game. I like this one because the player may not realize they are in danger at first but then sees what is about to happen and jumps out of the way.


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Level 7, Scene 3 (Runes)
I wanted to make the puzzle to end all puzzles in this scene, but ended up scaling it back because I did not want to prevent people from reaching the end of the game if they came this far. I liked how just getting to the pieces to move them was a challenge in itself, so that if the player knew what they had to do they still needed to exert effort to perform it successfully.


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Level 7, Scene 4 and 5 (Deeper and Falls)
This level was split because we thought having the big reveal happen in its own scene would be appropriate. The first part of Scene 4 was another example where I tried to mix up the traversal by expanding upon one mechanic. The event that occurs in Scene 5 was not planned by us or the original development team, but I thought it important to make such a moment be interactive rather than just play out in a cinematic.


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Level 7, Scene 6 (Serpent)
This scene went through several iterations because we did not feel that the designs were epic enough to end the game with. The engineers conceptualized the rotating scene and we ended up going with that idea. Some people may not think it is a big deal to have this kind of 3D environment in a game because of all the fully 3D games out there, but this was significant because we added it to a game that was meant to be played on a 2D plane. The fight may not be that difficult, but I think the combination of the touch screen puzzles and the rising goo is enough to give a sense of epic-ness. I also liked the final jump, I think more games could have this kind of moment to punctuate the very end of actual gameplay.

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