Sublimination is an Old School Arena Shooter in which 2 players duel at the best of 5 rounds.
The game was made in a Custom Engine by a team of 6 students (5 programmers and me as a solo designer) over the span of 8 months. My focus areas on this project were UX design, UI design, Level Design and System Design.
The game was initially supposed to focus on Strafe-Jumping (an iconic exploit-turned-mechanic of the Quake series) supporting up to 4 players, but given the adverse circumstances that the global pandemic brought and the technical difficulties that came with it, the team decided to pivot and switch to 2 players.
When a door closes, another one opens, and so the design of the product shifted its focus on double downing on such small player count for an arena shooter, moving towards the direction of a Duel theme, finding inspiration in Fighting Games such as Tekken and Street Fighter, something that is not usually associated with Arena Shooters.
This became our fortune as it allowed our product to obtain much more personality than its previous iteration, and gave its defining feature that prevented it from being just another “generic FPS arena” game.
Having no artists and no other designer on the team, I was the sole responsible for the design and asset creation for the user interface.
Given the aforementioned design idea of taking inspiration from the Fighting Games, it was a no brainer that I had to find I way to include iconic UI element of the aforementioned genre.
So the gameplay HUD was split into 2 different section, the bottom one, which features more tradional elements of the Shooter Genre, such as Weapons & Ammunitions, while the upper one features elements that belong to the Fighting Genre, such as Healthbars & Round Counters.
Representing and reinforcing the Strafe-Jumping mechanic in the UI was a bit more complicated: testing showed that both of the previous attempts to tackle this problem did not yield the results expected.
Having a numerical display of the speed value was often mistaken with player health, while the attempts to include a vertical fillbar ended up confusing the user.
The solution to this problem was found by looking at one of the most common and iconic the way speed is displayed not just in videogames, but in day-to-day life too: The Speedometer.
The following testing phase confirmed what I thought: the easily recognizable visuals of a speedometer achieved clarity of purpose of the UI element without having to resort to numbers or bars.
Another area that I worked on was the main menu. The previously centered main menu had to be scrapped, as it was bulky and graceless. Instead, I produced a high fidelity wireframe of a sleeker asymmetric main menu design, with two thirds of the screen free from any form of clutter, so the panning backgrounds, fashioned after CCTV recording areas of the arena, could be displayed in a more elegant way.
Following the base principles of good UX design in games, every interaction in the game had at least one visual feedback and one sound feedback. Such feedback were delivered either by changing shape and color to UI elements, camera screenshake, vignette effects, particle systems, animations and VFX.
One of the best examples can be the feedback the player gets when they pick up speed:
1) The dynamic soundtrack increases or decreases the number of audio layers according to player speed.
2) The intensity of the chromatic aberration visual effect increases or decreases according to player speed.
3) The aforementioned speedometer changes the hand position according to the player speed.
Due to the technically challenging nature of the custom engine project, I was not able to work on particle effects directly In-Engine. The workaround I found was to prototype them in Unity first, a game engine I’m already proficient in, then pass the to the particle programmer and work in tandem with them to reproduce them as accurately as possible in the custom engine.
The muzzle flash was composed by four different layers, the muzzle flash itself, the sparks, the smoke and the point light corresponding to the same color of the muzzle flash.
The explosion was composed by six different layers, the blastwave, the sparks, the debris falling out, the smoke going up, the core explosion itself and a point light reflecting the color of the explosion.
I also designed the player death, the player spawn, the round loss and the round won transition sequences, adding text animations and designing sounds to be played at specific times.
Unfortunately, not everything went according to plan, and a considerable amount of the UX designs that I have made during the duration of the project had to be cut or scaled down due to technical limitations of the engine.
As previously mentioned, we had to make the hard choice of reducing the number of players from 4 to 2 due to technical reasons, and the system design of the game was one of the areas that got affected the most: given the absence of possible combat interceptions provided by a third or fourth player, the expected combat duration got much shorter, and, on the contrary, the time to combat got much longer.
Both of these factors resulted on more than double the amount of downtime than its previous iteration.
A source of inspiration was provided by the aforementioned Fighting Games theme: to provide pacing to the game and extend the playtime, we introduced the concept of rounds, initially to the best of 3, it was further increased to the best 5 five after receiving user feedback during the testing phase.
Another correction was to triple the player health, sacrificing fast paced combat in favor of a prolonged combat duration that rewarded good tactics and skills, delivering more tension elements to the system and allowing for pushes and retreats, making healthpacks useful again.
Give how far the new design of Sublimination was inspired by fighting games, I decided to include a “block/dodge” action that further rewarded skill and extend combat duration time.
I tackled this task by introducing “The Glitch” (after all, Sublimination is set in a deprecated simulation).
Activated by pressing its designated key binding, “The Glitch” has a cooldown of 10 seconds, and a duration time of 1 second during which they can’t shoot, but can’t be shot either as the projectiles with simply pass through them without dealing any damage, giving the player a brief time window to retreat if they find themselves outmaneuvered, or to close in the distance between them and the enemy and engage combat with the short range but more powerful weapons such as the Katana or the Shotgun.
After I joined the development team, the existing map was refactored both in structure and style.
First off, it was my priority to make sure that the refactored map had symmetrical geometry: given the competitiveness of our game, a balanced asymmetric map was not a viable option given the development time that I had available.
Then, the level paths were arranged in a system of overlapping and nested figure 8s, increasing the fluidity of movement within the map and making players more likely to engage in combat in different areas of the map.
As mentioned in the previous sections, jump-strafing is a core mechanic of the game, which that was not openly encouraged by the previous iteration of the map. After gathering qualitative data on the level, I was able to attribute it to one factor: potential shooting openings; players generally prioritized cover over movement speed.
This issue was tackled by significantly reducing the number of openings the player can shoot from, and by strategically placing healthpacks in two specific areas: conflict points to encourage combat, and in the backline to incentivize more defensive strategies.
I also decided to give a sub-theme to each level section and pair it with color-coding in order to ease the player’s cognitive load of navigating the level and add more personality to it.