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.
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
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
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.
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.
The Climb brings alive the exhilaration and intensity of free solo rock climbing. However, the process of creating the game is a real team effort.
With that in mind, today sees the launch of the first video in our new developer diary series, in which some of the people leading our expedition into VR with The Climb share their insights into the project.
You'll hear about how real rock climbing helped to inspire the game, and why even the earliest prototypes of The Climb had everyone convinced we were on to a winner. The team discuss those moments that really set their hearts racing, and you'll learn about the new mindset required for creating a game in VR.
Check out the video and find out why the team behind The Climb are calling it an “intense" experience which ensures that “if you want to know what it's like to climb a cliff face, you're actually going to get that feeling."
We decided to build one master level from beginning to end, and then extrapolate from there. All teams had to start at the same time and work in parallel so we could quickly iterate on both art and level design to figure out what we required for each level.
Our Environment Art Team began by splitting the work into foreground art for the climbable rock surface and the surrounding vista. Simultaneously, the Level Design Team blocked out the actual climbing path and the Concept Art Team composed target concept images for us to aim towards.
The climbable surfaces are very close to the player, so they have to look natural and detailed. In VR, to maintain the presence required to keep players in the world, you have to deliver what the user expects to see. That means a lot of resources have to go into what is immediately in front of them, as anything that doesn't look as detailed as it should be can break the immersion quickly. Even so, the level of detail required for VR was a real learning process for many of us. You would design an object, place it into the engine and you would think, “Wow, I expected this to be so much more detailed." Then you realize that you need a
ton more detail.
Take a hook that we might use at save points, for instance. In VR, you can look around an object and inspect it in close-up detail, so you need to be able to see every single groove, every single scratch. You really have to push the detail much further than you would expect for objects that are in your immediate view. And of course, you must constantly test in VR because elements might look more or less impressive than you would imagine. The hook example was one where we were like, “OK, we've got to get to work on this." But then you can be pleasantly surprised too – a two-meter boulder you might create and place in the scene is just a small rock in our level. Up close in VR, however, it can feel and look just like a two-meter boulder that weighs 20 tons. We placed a lot of emphasis on constantly checking the art we created in the VR environment to make sure we were achieving the look, feel and quality we wanted.
The demand for detail meant that the rock faces, and especially the grips you use to climb, had to look very natural. We decided that the best way to make them look and feel realistic was to sculpt the grips into larger rock-chunks by hand – grip by grip. But the grips were still being placed by level design in parallel, so the position of individual grips was often not final. It became a very delicate matter to when exactly we would quite literally set a grip in (virtual) stone. On top of that, the decorative dressing with vegetation and other assets needed to happen as well, without interfering with level design.
The Background Team had a little more freedom, but creating an entire world that runs at a smooth 90fps while looking like a perfect postcard is no simple task. The vista was created first as a rough photo-based white box of the level that represented the intended art direction and captured the feeling of the world. Next all the required assets like mountains, the water surface, and huts could be created and placed in the level. Around the same time, Cinematic Art joined in, to bring in details like birds, boats and fish, adding more life to the scene.
One of the interesting challenges we found when it came to creating the wider world was achieving scale. In VR, scale is immediate, but its effect really depends on where objects are in your field of view. With close up objects in the near field, you have to stay to absolute measurements. It needs to be accurate, as your brain expects. Those objects then become real to your brain – if you reach that accuracy, in both size and detail, that's what makes VR so immersive and impressive. However, in the distance we chose to exaggerate reality and make the already big, absolutely huge, making our views even more arresting.
There were also some interesting techniques we used with scale for our vistas. Flocks of birds, for instance, don't just give a sense of presence and place, but also scale. They make you realize that the mountain they are flying past is large, because they are tiny in comparison. We also had to pay attention to the speed at which they flew too. If they move slowly across a larger object, you realize that they must be far away. These things take on much more importance in VR because your vision works the same way it does in real life – you need points of reference to understand scale at distance.
Once the level was nearing completion, the Lighting Team did a final lighting pass over the rudimentary light that was set initially by the Environment Art Team. Here the final sun position, the look of the atmosphere and sky, plus the individual lighting of each rock surface is decided so we could get the right feel.
Lastly, every department joined forces to optimize the level for target performance while maintaining the desired art look. Thanks to the experience of the team, the way the level was built, and the close collaboration of all departments, we achieved 90fps without any reduction in visual quality. Our Asian setting was the first of our locations in the game and a learning process for us, but we're pleased with the visual quality we've been able to achieve in our hyper-realistic, Asia-themed postcard. We hope you'll enjoy it.