Icarus Studios began experimenting with SCRUM teams with the design of Hoover Dam in early 2008. I was the level designer assigned to the project following my submission of concept art for a new tutorial level to the art director at the end of the previous year. Also involved were writers, programmers, a lead QA tester, and a project leader.
With the story already written, the level was blocked out following the storyline and general visual guidelines outlined by the writers. We had many ambitious ideas for the tutorial level that after much attempts to implement were all scrapped:
1. When the player first grabs the axe in the long room, the camera would separate from the player view and zoom through one of the windows to show Hoover Dam’s exterior – a city of shanties built up against its weathered facade with lights twinkling in the evening light. We tried many ways to pull this off, but all proved to be way too much work or simply impossible with our tech to pull off well and look good.
2. In the warehouse, the camera would detach again from the player to show him Alex Masters being beaten to within an inch of his life. The fight and camera work proved impossible and was eventually removed, but not after weeks of attempts
3. In the turbine room, White Crow NPCs were originally going to be scripted chasing Vistas down on the ground floor as you entered. This was scaled back to a simple brawl in front of the stairs leading to the control room.
4. As the player neared the Motor Pool Room (where you encounter the Super Soldier now) he would happen upon an execution scene which would introduce the player to the nefarious character Casta Gaunt. The entire scene and camera work that went with it were all pulled. Casta’s character was moved to Kingman Prison where he is the leader of a group of thugs.
5. Finally, we really wanted to do some cool pyrotechnics with the end of the tutorial, such as scenes of the buggy leaving the dam with explosions in the background.
Various ideas were attempted, but after a year or so someone got the great idea that turned into the end cutscene you see now after the camera whites out. Three or four artists were commissioned to provide the art and, together with the sound team, the movie was created and fine-tuned before release.
Hoover Dam pushed our game engine to new limits. During early builds when it was still not fully complete size-wise, I began to have problems when running the level in our game. It soon became apparent the level was becoming too large, a fact that was confirmed by Chris Babcock. Upon doing some research he discovered that the GeForce 7x series of graphics cards had a serious limitation in maxtris, being capable of displaying only 1,048,575. As this video card series fit in the middle of our recommended specs and most of our workstations were using them, we had to make drastic changes to the level – it was decided to split the level into two parts.
Hoover Dam also exposed weaknesses in the physics engine. Both elevators proved problematic for the better part of a year. During this time, players would routinely fall through the elevator as it was going up and get stranded in the pit underneath the ground floor. Terry Byron designed the fix that ultimately made all elevators in our game fool proof.
Although we ran up against engine limits and constraints during the development of Hoover Dam and had to scale back our original goals for the level, we ignored the engine’s weaknesses and concentrated on leveraging its strengths. For every idea cut, a new one took its place. Scenes that were cut were replaced with new ways of teaching players more skills before releasing them into the outside world of Fallen Earth. Programming and art worked together to solve technical problems that benefited the rest of the game as well. By the time the game was released, we had a well-polished, technically-sound introductory level that led players by the hand in learning the most important skills they would need in the broad world of Fallen Earth.