Tomb of Etheria was a map created by myself and Antony O’Sullivan for the Dungeon Defenders mapping contest using the Dungeon Defenders Development Kit (a custom version of UDK). The brief was to create a map that supports up to 6 players for the standard game type. We spent about a month working on the map and after judging from the community and developers we were awarded 3rd place out of 16 entrants. We received some great reviews from the community members and also the developers. We also had a few criticisms which we took on board and changed in the updated version. The map consists of almost all custom content and also delivered some unique features not previously seen in other maps. The map has now been overhauled and released as part of the CDT – Update 7.

I worked as the level designer on the project. I was in charge of:

  • Designing the layout of the map.
  • Creating the block out.
  • Play testing.
  • Scripting the game play elements in Kismet.
  • Texturing the non-static meshes.
  • Lighting
  • Optimisation
  • Creating and balancing the enemy wave system.
  • Making changes based on play test feedback.

Level Design Document

LDD - Tomb of Etheria

The Level Design

One of the main aims with the design was to introduce more verticality to Dungeon Defenders. Adding verticality to the level not only makes it interesting from a visual stand point, but it also changes the game play. In Dungeon Defenders, verticality forces the player to think more about where the enemies might come from or where they’re going to go, it also keeps players on their toes as both crystals are not in view of each other so awareness of what’s going on in the level is a must for survival. It also adds more interesting geometry and increases the possibility space for movement and navigation around the map.

Another aim of the design was to ensure that at the core it felt like a dungeon defenders map that would fit in with the campaign. To keep the core dungeon defenders feel we made sure pathways and doorways used similar units and scales to Trendy’s maps and the lighting and visual style were in keeping with the game.

As I previously mentioned verticality was one of the features we pushed for in our map, but we also introduced another unique feature. We split the map into 4 sections, the main area with the crystals, two side atriums and a secret area. We sealed off the side atriums and secret areas with doors at the start of the game, this leads the players to believe that the map is actually quite small and easy to defend. After wave 3 we activate a short cut-scene that reveals one of the side atriums opening up. This instantly changes the battlefield and the player is forced to change tactics in order to survive. We did this again at wave 4 for the secret area, which reveals an extra chest for mana and a quicker route across the map and also at wave 5 for the final atrium. Although this unique feature sounds simple it actually took a lot of players by surprise and was one of the reasons a lot of players really enjoyed playing the map. Simple but effective.

The level was also created to be horizontally symmetrical for several reasons. The first was to keep the learning curve for the map to a minimum, once the player has learnt one side of the map and one side atrium they’ll be able to easily navigate the other side. It was also done to allow us to create reusable content that would work on both sides of the map due to the limited time frame we had to complete the map. We made sure to give players visual differences between each side so they would be able to quickly orientate themselves and not get each side mixed up, although with more time we’d liked to have made more visual changes to further emphasise this.

The Iterative Process

I believe one of the reasons for the success of the map was through lots of iteration and play testing. As with most finished maps, the level does still resemble the initial drawings and digital plans. But there are also many changes that came about through testing and simply iterating on the design during development.

One of the biggest changes was the inclusion of the secret area (as seen below). This area opens up at wave 4 and allows players to quickly navigate to the other side of the map, it also reveals an extra mana chest. We found during play testing that once the second atrium opened, it took too much time to move around to the other atrium to help fight enemies. The secret area alleviates this issue by giving the players a quick route across between the main area and the atriums.

Secret Areas
Secret areas added to improve movement around the map.

Another change came with the inclusion of the player only stepping pads that take the player from the top crystal platform to the balcony. This change again came about through testing as we found that the balcony wasn’t being used during game play. We realised that by adding the stepping pads the player could access the balcony and attack enemies from the rear, a tactic used a lot in future play tests. There were also other short cuts added, scales of areas and path ways changed and even an elevator added to help with the travel time between crystals.

Skill based shortcuts added to improve level flow during combat and build stages.

One of the most important reasons for the play tests was to help balance the wave sizes and difficulties. Myself and Antony spent a lot of time testing the wave setup to make sure it wasn’t too easy or too hard and that there weren’t too few or two many enemies, come the final waves. It was very time consuming to do, but the play tests definitely helped ensure we had a balanced wave set up.

One of the biggest difficulties I encountered was when setting up the enemy wave system, this was due to the complexity and amount of options and variables available with little to no explanation of what they did. This required a lot of trial and error to find out exactly what a vaguely named variable did. The time spent on this paid off in the end as we ended up with quite a well balanced wave set up and a lot more knowledge of how to set them up in the future.

Another issue encountered that took up a lot of development time was the lighting. I had to tweak the lighting a lot to find the sweet spot between the map being too dark, or too light and ensuring the colour wasn’t too orange or not orange enough based on the amount of torches in the level. It was time consuming mostly because after a tweak was made the lighting needed to be recompiled, which near the end of development took around 20-30 minutes to do each time. The lighting changed constantly throughout development of the map and eventually I got it to a point that I felt struck the right balance between it being light enough to navigate and dark enough to emphasise the tomb setting.

The final difficulty was with the amount of time we had to complete the map. We had just under a month from the initial designs until the contest dead line, we were also in our final year at university so had final assignments to complete and exams. This meant a lot of development on the map was completed when we had spare time and mostly late at night. It was tough to complete in the short amount of time, but I really enjoyed the late nights spent developing.

Since the contest we have updated the level to version 1.2. The changes were based on feedback from the contest and also workshop comments. You can download and play the latest version on the Dungeon Defenders Steam Workshop:

Download from Steam Workshop (83MB)

The new Tomb of Etheria: Redux, an overhauled version of the map can now be accessed and played in game as part of the CDT – Update 7.