Working as part of Dungeon Defenders Community Development Team (CDT) gave me the opportunity to bring some of my own work into the full game. Tomb of Etheria was developed for a contest several years ago and is highly popular and well rated on the Dungeon Defenders’ Steam workshop, so this was an obvious candidate. However, rather than simply bringing it into the main game I opted to redesign and build on it. I was keen to keep the core of the map the same, but I hoped to modernise and improve on the original. We named it internally as Tomb of Etheria: Redux.
Core Design Pillars
Pillar 1 – Constant Evolution
One of the original core design pillars for Tomb of Etheria was constant evolution. Rather than have the map stay static (common with maps at the time) and only the waves change, I opted to have the map layout change over time. We achieved this by introducing the player to a smaller space at the start and then slowly opening different sections of the tomb up with each wave. This kept players on their toes as they would need to adapt their tower builds as the level opened up. I continued this concept with ToE: Redux by introducing an outside section to the tomb, which is explained below and changes to the existing waves.
Pillar 2 – Narrative Context
In the original map the players simply start in the tomb with no explanation as to how they got there. I wanted to give them some narrative context as for what they’re doing in the tomb. So, for the new version, players would start outside of the tomb, and they would need to overcome three progressively evolving waves before they would gain entry to the tomb. This was inspired by gaining entry to the Vault of Glass in Destiny. To give more narrative context and meaning to the level, Anubis was introduced as the keeper of the treasure in the tomb. The players were therefore tasked with retrieving the treasure by beating Abubis’ three trials to enter the tomb, a further three trials once in the tomb and finishing with a final boss fight.
Pillar 3 – Visible Progression
With the level now being three waves longer (a total of 11 waves), I wanted to give players more visible progression through the level. Firstly, this was achieved by breaking the map into the outside section and the inside section, giving the player two clear stages to the level. The second way this was a achieved was through Anubis visibly driving the changes. As we didn’t have an animator on the project, this was achieved through particle beams. Anubis would activate or charge up various sections of the level with particle beams from the eyes of the model that were directed at the area that was changing. The idea was to draw the attention of the player as well as better integrating Anubis into the level. This was improved further with directed cutscenes, which ensured players couldn’t miss key changes in the level.
Finally, I introduced progressive icons into the level. The original plan was to use Egyptian iconography, such as the symbols of Horus, Osiris and Sekhmet. However, I didn’t want to tie the level too closely to Egypt and also felt these didn’t clearly show progression. Instead icons of the Sun, Moon and Stars were used as these were more generic and gave a more logical progression (“you are My Sun, My Moon and all of My Stars” – E. E. Cummings).
As the player works through each trial and the level progresses, the icons are lit across the map. As the first wave is beaten, the Sun icon above the Wave 1 spawners, central monument and on the tomb door are all lit. This continues with each wave outside. When all three are lit the tomb is open and the players may enter. Whilst inside, the cycle repeats with completing Wave 4 opening the left atrium (Sun icon), beating Wave 6 opening the right atrium (Moon icon) and finishing Wave 8 opening the secret area and ceiling spawners (Stars icon). Whilst not all players will notice the icon cycle, keen eyed players should catch the cycle and can use it to predict how the level may change.
Design and Iteration
When designing a level from scratch I tend to follow a set process that works for me (see Camp Hope and Bio Lab for examples of the process). Whilst most of the level was already designed, I opted to continue with my process for the new outside section and for the changes to the existing parts of the map. I like to start any layout design with 2D digital layouts as I find this is a quick way to play around with spaces and iterate quickly. There are obvious issues with this, such as for levels with lots of verticality and layers, but I still feel it is useful as starting point.
The above digital layout was created to give me a starting point for the blockout. The general idea stayed throughout development, but some areas were tweaked. For example, as Anubis became a more integral part of the narrative and level, the statue was moved to a more central area. This made more sense from an architectural point of view and also meant the beams would be more central and obvious to the player. Originally the map was to be cut into the rock, however, to save time for the level artist (who kindly volunteered their time), this was changed to sand dunes, modular rock formations and temple style buildings. The level went through a lot of internal play testing and iteration. The iteration is visible below:
Early on I wanted to make the outside section unique not only to ToE but also to other maps. I decided to restrict players from building any towers outside and made it DPS only. Players responded well to this, but felt the difficulty wasn’t there. To improve this, we added in miniature versions of bosses from elsewhere in the game for each wave. This meant every wave had a unique challenge to beat.
Whilst the majority of the original map was kept, certain changes were made to improve and modernise the inside of the map. The original map was released early on in Dungeon Defenders lifetime, since then many new enemies were introduced. Flying mobs were also omitted from the original due to space constraints. The inside ceiling was highered in order to include flying spawners on the ceiling. The back wall was changed to accommodate Anubis inside and some more visual flair was added.
It was also decided that the new map and rewards would be balanced for end game players. This was mostly down to the fact that the game has been out for sometime and remaining players are mostly experienced and wanting new content. I worked with members of the CDT more experienced with the end game to add in more recent enemy additions and to balance for more recent builds and meta.
I had a lot of fun revising Tomb of Etheria and building on an already successful map. It was an interesting challenge trying to keep what made the original map popular, whilst adding new content and improving existing content. It was great working with Antony again as the level artist and also with other CDT members helping to improve the level.
There were also a lot of challenges that had to be overcome due to dealing with a networked game. There were some limitations with Kismet and specific nodes/events only running on the server and not the client causing effects or events not to synchronise between clients. Such as the beams only displaying on the host and not the other clients. These were overcome, but meant there were some changes made to get around these limitations.
The end result is a level that still has the heart of the original Tomb of Etheria, but has been improved with more narrative context, level evolution and visible progression. The map can now be played as part of The Lost Quests maps in the latest version of Dungeon Defenders.