Alps – How we created Crytek’s largest environment in CRYENGINE

By Finn Meinert Matthiesen, Principal 3D Artist for The Climb

To work on our Alps setting was a great challenge and a great experience. The Alps is an area of outstanding natural beauty, a geographic wonder and the largest mountain range in Europe – so it was an obvious choice to provide the inspiration for our second location in The Climb. It contrasts nicely with our South-East Asia-themed bay setting, Bay, giving us a totally different visual appearance and composition. It also gave us plenty of scope to explore new gameplay elements, and we used the larger scale of the environment to increase the play space around the player.

For our art direction, we took the same approach as Bay in order to create a varied mix of different geographic and regional elements. Our Alps setting is not an accurate recreation of a real location, but a combination of various areas from Switzerland, southern Bavaria and the Austrian Alps. This approach allowed us to fully focus on creative level design and to come up with flexible environment art solutions without the need to always stick to or be constrained by reality.

Alps is the largest single environment we've created in CRYENGINE so far, with assets spread over 100km in our virtual space. We really wanted to capture the feeling of being in the real-world Alps, to create the illusion of being absolutely present in a huge, rugged, natural environment. That brought challenges, of course. For instance, traditional billboard background techniques that artists would usually use to efficiently get that sense of a large landscape are way more noticeable as fake in VR, and this can break your immersion. We had to really work at how we composed our scenes and we used more real geometry in the distance instead of using billboard assets only. This in turn demands more performance. VR is already quite resource hungry, so we had to optimize hard and make some improvements to the engine, particularly when it came to lighting and performance, to achieve the effect we wanted.

To take advantage of the scale of the environment, and give you a sense of feeling quite small in comparison to these huge rock faces, we start all of our routes high up on the mountains to maximize the impact of our vistas. You'll see mountain top after mountain top stretching out into the distance, huge glassy lakes beneath you, sprawling thick forests, and powerful waterfalls. Whenever you look around, or down, we want you to get a sense of the overwhelming size and power of nature. And as you explore and ascend the routes ahead of you, you get visual feedback on your progress and achievement as you scale the mountain – especially when you reach a checkpoint and you look down at where you've come from.

The Alps, in reality, are of course inherently impressive. But creating such a vast (and often desolate) landscape in replica detail can make the environment actually feel a little empty for the player when in VR. That's why we chose to take inspiration from our favorite parts of the Alps, and bring them together in ways that looked the most impressive while still making sense. Beyond our geographic elements like the woods, snowy hills and rivers which were all blended together, we also brought in fairy-tale castles(inspired especially by the famous Neuschwanstein Castle ), mountain trains, a Bavarian church, and the kind of alpine villages people might expect to find in a romantic and idealized interpretation of the Alps. In the real world, you might find more modern buildings serving tourists up on the slopes or, down in the valleys, industrial units, but we preferred to stick with the traditional timber-frame buildings that you might find on a postcard from the area.

We also fill our levels with plenty of life – from wing suit jumpers, who'll swoop past you as you climb up the rock faces, to eagles soaring across the sky, butterflies, bats, and more. You might even spot a deer or two. Our hot air balloons, which float serenely across the sky, are a nice visual feature. We take some liberties here again – for example, at night, people would only see the balloons when their burners are activated. But we liked the way they light up the sky in general, so we chose give each balloon a permanent glow.

It's been really great seeing how the team has come together to realize our largest environment yet. Constant testing is extremely important for us, and we spend a large amount of time in the VR environment to iterate on it and improve our perception of the virtual space. As we've progressed through development, it's been exciting to see how our own sense of presence when we're “in" the game has become incrementally stronger as we've added more elements and features to build up the game world. It's been a challenge – creating large vistas with immersive detail that run at 90FPS+ per eye has required a lot of effort, hard work and rethinking some of the processes of our craft. Hopefully the team's effort makes the difference when you get the chance to play The Climb yourself.

March 29, 2016

The Climb Dev Diary 2: Ascent is live

In our second dev diary, key members of the team behind The Climb talk about some of the challenges of creating a beautiful game in VR and how they overcame them.

Hitting 90fps, and the intense level of close-up detail required for a believable VR experience are all covered, alongside some absolutely delicious gameplay footage.

Creating a AAA quality game in VR comes with its own unique set of demands – check out the video and find out the new techniques and processes the team had to adopt to achieve their vision.

The Climb Team

March 22, 2016

The Climb 360°: Bay Ascent

A climber's reward is the journey – and the view from the peak. In our new interactive, 360-degree video, you can preview the ascent in The Climb's Asian-themed Bay level and check out the jaw-dropping view. You'll have to try it on Oculus Rift to get the full experience, but by clicking on the arrows in the video's upper left hand corner or dragging the cursor across the screen, you can get a look at all 360-degrees of the Bay panorama.

Join the flocks of birds soaring leisurely above the pristine azure water as the camera takes you past some of our climbing routes and checkpoints, lush vegetation, and intricate buildings. Hundreds of feet below, the colorful island buildings appear as crumbs scattered at the feet of the towering limestone giants on the horizon. You can even look down – if you dare.

March 02, 2016

Moving level design up in The Climb

By Matthias Otto, Senior Level Designer

The Climb is the first free solo rock climbing game, and it gives you a sensation of really climbing that could only be achieved in VR. But as much as we want you to explore and enjoy the view, at its heart, The Climb is a racing game. You're scored on a few things, including your climbing “flow," but the most important metric is your time and how quickly you can ascend each of our stages. You'll be competing against the rock face, against yourself, against your friends, and ultimately against players around the world as you attempt to get the quickest time possible.

So when it comes to level design in The Climb, we want to give the player plenty of different routes and a variety of challenges, which can all drive that competition. Each stage has multiple routes – whether it's upward, downward, left, or right – and there are plenty of hidden routes too. After all, if you only had one path it would be like playing a racing game without shortcuts.

The first level we created was Bay – our Asia-themed setting. At first we looked at a lot of reference material to find unique geographical features to climb around, so we'd have caves and cracks that were recognizable features you could talk to your friends about. But to start actually laying out the level, we just entered VR and put ourselves in the game. From a starting point, what would look cool? When I looked up at the rock, what kind of challenges would I like to face, what would be the most exciting and the most interesting? We continued that kind of testing as we progressed through each level – constant testing is way more important in a VR project than in a traditional development.

Our rock faces are very detailed and natural looking to maintain immersion in VR, but we were conscious that we needed players to easily understand where they could climb. To help you choose your paths, one of the things we do is leave chalk marks on some of the grips ahead, so you can recognize routes. That said, some of our secret routes are very well hidden and not signposted in any way, so the more you explore and look around, the more routes you'll discover.

Our routes also include a lot of jumps for real risk-versus-reward gameplay that the quickest climbers will take advantage of. Whether that's leaping from one grip to another or, if you're climbing down, letting go of one grip and then dropping to a grip below, these jumps and drops create really fun and intense moments that you'll want to master. You might be able to take a safer route, going from grip to grip, but if you want the quickest times, exploiting jumps and drops will really give you the advantage.

Another interesting feature when it came to designing the levels was the crossing of hands. As you climb, if you cross your hands, as in real life, your reach isn't as long as it could be if you don't. If you want to climb quickly and smoothly, you'll want to keep that in mind. We guide you with some layouts of grips early on where you'll want to have a specific hand free at the end. That's a skill that builds over time. You get to a point where you'll start to see a range of grips ahead, and you'll choose your path instinctively. For instance, if there's a jump that you can see ahead of you, you make moves that mean you end up with the right hand on the right grip at the end, putting you in the best possible position to make the leap. It becomes quite natural over time.

“By providing combinations of grips, multiple routes, jumps, drops, and features to negotiate you really have a lot of variety in gameplay. That variety leads to intense competition, as we discovered during playtesting. For instance, you might think you've done a great run, and then someone will use a different route you hadn't considered or just use better technique to record a much faster time. Then of course, you've just got to beat them."

Designing our layouts has been really exciting. In a way, it's like learning a new language to create a timed version of a sport that doesn't really have this kind of competition in real life. Across our locations we have a wide variety of challenges, and as you build up your skills in the game you'll be climbing smoother and quicker as you pursue your best time – but we always hope you'll be able to enjoy the view too.

February 15, 2016

Putting routes on rocks

By Matthias Otto, Senior Level Designer

I love climbing and every week we go indoor climbing in Frankfurt. I started to think about the way I climb – I look ahead at the surface, look where the grips are, and then I go from there. It came to mind that it would be a fun thing to try out in VR, and that it would be something we could quickly put together in CRYENGINE. So I discussed it at work and spent a couple of days putting together an initial concept. The team later came together to improve and polish it massively, but the concept just worked. That core thing where you just grip with your left hand, grip with your right hand, and look around with your head – three simple things to get up a surface – felt immediately great in VR. And that simple mechanic remains largely the same today as it was in that first prototype.

Of course, we've come a long, long way since then. My role is Senior Level Designer on The Climb, and it's been great to be part of a team that is creating a full VR game with real depth and challenge. At first, the focus was more on system design than level design. In VR, it's not easy to get movement right. For instance, using regular inputs like an analog stick which accelerates the player in a given direction can make people feel nauseous. We had to be careful and constantly test to address motion sickness. An idea you're exploring might seem sound in theory, but when you implement it, it could turn out to be uncomfortable.

Even when you try something, and it doesn't quite work, it's still useful; it guides you and sparks new ideas. Once we had established what kind of movements would give a great experience and, crucially, would not give the player any kind of sickness, it helped steer us when it came to laying out routes on rocks.

For example, we found that while players can “fall" in the game, the sensation of players falling onto a surface – most obviously, the ground – was unsttling. So that fed into the level design. We now build the levels high up so that when you fall the screen fades to black before you ever “hit" a surface. You still get the feeling of falling, and it's tense, and exciting. You get that rush of the drop, and you hear the sounds too, but if we just dropped you right onto a surface, it could make you feel quite sick. Our levels always begin high up and you never have a short drop beneath you, even if you're climbing through a cave or a crack in the rock.

Another consideration was physiological stress. Although you are in control of the camera and can look anywhere, we find that you naturally look in the direction you're climbing most of the time. If you were to only climb upward over an extended period, that could cause some discomfort. To prevent neck stress, our routes are designed with plenty of variety - you will climb upward, left, right, and even downward too. In addition to maintaining physical comfort, this also allows us to be more creative when it comes to designing our rock-surface layouts. We'll talk more about designing our routes in the next blog.

It's cool to be part of a team developing one of the first VR games people will play. The Climb has a simple game mechanic, competitive elements, looks beautiful, and it's an experience no one has really had in VR before. Of course, I still climb indoors every week. It's great to have a bit of competition with my friends, and it's always fun to reach the top. I have to admit, I am still a little bit afraid of heights in real life, but in The Climb you can do things you would never attempt, even though you get that realistic sense of vertigo. It's really satisfying to see how we're harnessing some of those mechanics and feelings of real-life climbing and taking players to new places with it.

February 10, 2016

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