In this article Frits talks about the creative process of designing an environment for the Project FoM prototype.
One Giant Crystal
The Crystal Station scene started as a simple hallway attached to a big room. Nothing really exciting, except for a giant obelisk-like crystal in the middle of the big room - reminiscent of a spiritual alter. Working intuitively we had to figure out why anyone would want or need a giant crystal in a big empty room. Maybe it could work like a battery or a light reflector to light up the mine underneath? Maybe the player could use other crystals to channel a beam of light through the cave? So adding an apparently random aesthetic detail sparked our own curiosity and forced us to think outside the box in order to explain our very own design decision.
In the Middle of a Desert
The entrance to the Crystal Station was originally alongside a mountain in a generic temperate environment. We wanted something more dramatic - a setting that showcased the extreme climates of the game. So we placed the whole location in the middle of a desert; and instead of having the cave inside a mountain (yawn...) we put it deep beneath the sand-dunes (awesome!). Basically the protagonists escape from a giant walking robot in the middle of the desert not far from Zenit, one of the worst places to be on our planet. The sun is boiling hot and Amon and his companion hogbunny must find a place to hide. They find the entrance to the Crystal Station and that's where the prototype starts.
Room with a Purpose
Because the Crystal Station interior now had some back-story and functionality, I could start refining its design. To make the crystal the centerpiece I placed it in the center of an oval room and disconnected the room visually from the entrance area. The crystal works as a reflector that spreads the light coming through the narrow opening in the ceiling to the whole room. Because of this subterranean greenhouse system, thick vegetation grows along the surrounding walls creating an almost tropical atmosphere.
The Puzzle Machine
To improve pacing we decided to separate the Crystal Station room into two areas. The first one focuses on the greenhouse concept with plants growing out of the rubble while in the second room we designed a simple environmental puzzle that involves a crystal device in the center channeling light into a controllable beam. To make the puzzle more visually obvious I connected the crystal to an apparatus with a control panel and a rotatable container. In this scene I added some rusty industrial elements to show the humidity and age of the machinery. The puzzle unlocks an elevator which descends into the crystal cave below. This creates a neat passage between the muggy tight chamber of the Crystal Station to the crisp open landscape of the Crystal Mines.
The desert location allows us to explore the atmospheric transition between the dry, warm surface and the dank cold cave below. From the ruin entrance to the final scene deep inside the Crystal Cave the temperature, lighting, colors and humidity/wetness will gradually change the deeper you travel. Each type of "climate" will feature a limited color scheme based on the original concepts. Finding a balance between dynamic (lighting, shaders) and static (diffuse, baked lighting) elements will be a challenge, though the fixed path camera gives us a lot more control of what the player will see in each scene.
Finding this lush underground oasis hidden below the desert, should excite the player. It's a place of relief before continuing on to the dark and dreaded Crystal Mines.
Designing an intricate environment like the Crystal Station is quite the process but make sure not to rush it! Treat it like a character, give it personality and depth, and integrate it into the history of the world. Presenting a bunch of cliches will rarely impress anyone and will definitely not stick to the player's memory. For inspiration I use a mix of careful research (movies, travels, books) and creative intuition (just start drawing something, follow your "guts").
The Crystal Station started off as a vague vision of an abandoned chapel-like structure with checkered tiles, bookshelves and a transition from light and lush to dark and dull. I then started looking up references for organic architecture and then made some silhouettes inspired by dCept's designs of the Frog King castle. The project became a creative domino effect where one unique idea led to another and we ended up with the luxury of making cuts rather than twisting our brains trying to make our generic dungeon stick out.
A quick tip...
If you're struggling with creativity, try combining two unrelated elements into something completely new! Like this Crimson Chirby enemy design.