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.