© 2015 Ethan Mullett, shout out to Wix.com

Midnight Ultra

In the American Southwest, a lone witch hunter travels across the desert, seeking to wipe out cultists of all sorts. Fight a variety of goons and ghouls, through small towns to dimension-spanning motels. Inspired by DOOM, Quake, and action games of yore, blast your way through a neon-dripped, pixelated nightmare in this high-speed, high-thrills FPS.

My Role in this project was primarily that of level designer, while I also designed the full encounter for the Final Boss and created several art assets used in the final game. Below, I outline some of my overall thoughts and processes for my sections, but you can click on the level titles for  more in depth breakdowns of each. While the default color pallet is the "Midnight Ultra" pink and yellow, I will be using the purple and orange "Halloween" pallet for the sake of visual clarity.

If you want to learn more about the game in general, information can be found at the following links

Sections:
 

Overview

The levels I took on are the final two, which take place in a hotel that links players to the Witches' true domain. I started by defining the difference between the two sections: Hotel sections would have humanoid enemies and be set up more akin to a traditional hotel, while witch sections would have Witches in each area and quickly warp into an impossible world. 

The Witches's Realm, or the Palms Beyond, were originally conceived for a different, unreleased game, but the main ideas for them were carried over. The Palms Beyond are a different dimension, but it is unclear if it spawned the Witches or the Witches spawned it. The more the Witches interact with our physical world, the more their dimension begins to try and replicate it, to varying degrees of success. Hallways go on for eternities, stones float in mid air, but some sections resemble the real world more, as the Witches have had more time in these sections. 

There were several ways I decided to go about this. Other than the obvious floating platforms and duplicated assets, I used squashed textures and long drops to simulate warp portals and one sided walls to block paths, especially in the maze sections. These were simple tricks that, combined with the color filters, worked as effective illusions. 

On a more personal note, I always find working to music to be the most effective method to stay on task and create better work. For this project, I looked for music with heavy beats, layered guitars, or experimental albums. The most played albums during this were Surgeryhead's Lords of the Video Wasteland,. Dance with the Dead's The Shape, and Pink Guy's Pink Season: The Prophecy. If you're interested in hearing what was going through my head during production, here is a playlist I put together that contains the more influential tracks and albums. 

 

3-1

The first level served primarily to introduce the concept of the Palms Beyond. The players have just teleported to the Palms Beyond Motel via a portal in the previous level, and has caught the enemies within off guard, so there are less in the area. The player moves through the lobby and lounge room, fighting against a few basic enemies. One change that is quickly noticed is that the player is slightly limited in terms of vertical height during this section. This is a change that was discussed early on, and was implemented to show a greater difference between the Motel and Palms Beyond sections. To emphasize this, all sections that lead out of the Motel tighten and lower the ceiling before reopening to the wide open Palms Beyond areas, 

This effect is shown in the next room, as the player finds themselves in the Palms Beyond. In contrast to previous levels, this "outdoor" space appears to be built upside down, with trees growing from the sky and oversized .

The area beyond this does appear to be the familiar hallways the player has seen before, but the familiarity is soon lost as the halls stretch on for what seems to be forever. Within this maze of halls are multiple health and ammo rewards, but there are also false walls and enemies waiting to ambush the player should they walk too closely to them. Once the player navigates their way through, they will drop through a passage (shown in the gif earlier) and find themselves deep within the Palms Beyond. 

The remainder of the level is dedicated to the Witches' backgrounds.  After passing through a short platforming section, the player will find themselves at a church, where some type of ritual is being conducted. The church's interior features an overlook above the flat bottom level, with witches protecting health and ammo pick ups. The centerpiece of the room is the sacrificial altar, where a dead Scumbag awaits his final fate. This section has very little cover, encouraging the player to move between the two floors to keep their distance.

Once the player exits the church, there is another short platforming section before the final arena, a graveyard. The graveyard features a Mausoleum in the center, where a group of witches await, and a pair of dirt mounds, that allow Revolver enemies a vantage point and the player an elevated escape route. Once all enemies are cleared out, the Cemetery gate will open and allow the player to proceed to the next level. 

 

3-2

The second level started with a message from me to our Lead, Daniel: "I just want to see how on the nose I can go with this thing, so I'm going to just make it a pentagram" And make it a pentagram I did. 

In this screenshot, you can see the player's path through the level, with the orange X and path being the lower section, and the blue X being the higher section and exit. The base concept was that the outer lines would serve primarily as connectors with minor platforming and scattered enemies, and the inner sections between the overlaps would be full on encounters, where players would be forced to fight through to proceed. Each overlap was also a jump between dimensions, starting in the Palms Beyond, and ending in Earth. 

The final line of the pentagram is disconnected, as it originally had the final boss' room, but this was later turned into it's own level as an anti-frustration feature since this game does not use checkpoints.

The level begins on the other side of the graveyard from the previous level. They have to proceed through a cavern below them, and there is large ammo box hidden behind them to help with the first fight. The first arena is a simple layout with a cross platform and openings in each of the branches that the player can navigate through. Once the player leaves this area they pass through some trees and find themselves back within the confines of the motel, a distinction that will repeat as they progress. The motel proceeds up a flight of stairs and through an open courtyard for the second arena fight. The courtyard is set up in a way that would draw the player straight out into it, and straight back out once they finish the fight, but searching the surrounding area will reveal multiple crates of ammo and health to reward exploration.  

The crown jewel of this level is the final arena, a grand multilevel hall. It is based on the Ahwanhee Hotel's Grand Hall, more commonly recognized as the hotel hall from Kubrick's The Shining. While not a 1-1 replica, it was designed to be as close as possible while accounting for the space needed for gameplay purposes. The player is subjected to a hail of fire from higher positions and rushed on the ground by Slavedrivers, forcing quick and reactive movements. To aid the player, the side paths are left very open, and the chandeliers are usable platforms that allow traversal over the center of the room. 

Once the player clears out the opposition, the rest of the path opens for them, allowing them to escape through a portal and arrive at their final destination:

 

Final Boss

Last but not least, the Final Boss' encounter. In universe, he was one of the Witches' top enforcers, and the player has been hunting him down since before the game started. In game, he is a powerful mounted enemy who switches between ranged and close quarters combat as he runs down the player.

In-game Model

As far as design goes, the Biker is set up to chase down the player with his motorcycle and attack with one of two options. His first, and most common attack is a motorcycle charge ending in a sword slash, which deals 18 damage. This number was chosen as it would deal significant damage to the player, but allow them to survive a fifth hit. The Biker is also allowed to swing in any direction he finds the player in, even if the player gets directly above or behind them, as jumping over him before he could swing was an overly reliable tactic during playtesting.

The second attack the Biker uses is a Scrap Toss. This attack was added to give the Biker a ranged option when the player managed to stay off the ground and out of his range. The gravestones were, in several cases, too wide or tall for the biker to hit, and as such, the player could simply jump out of range and spam fire him to death. In order to counter this, the biker will check if the player has been in contact with the ground in the past two seconds and if not, throw a scrap hunk at the player's current location. This attack, which is the same speed as a Revolver enemy, deals 20 damage per hit, which allows him to kill a player in five hits vs the sword's six. 

 

While not an attack in and of itself, the Biker has one additional trick in his exhaust cloud. After passing the player, the smoke cloud will obscure his exact location, which can throw a player's aim and make it more difficult to engage him at a longer distance. 

During this phase, the player is shown that the most effective method is keeping distance and jumping sideways, as opposed to many of the enemies up until this point, where jumping over the enemies at close range was ideal. 

Once the player deals enough damage, the Biker will begin to switch up his tactics as he attempts to keep up. His first change, at 59% HP, is to increase his melee attack speed and damage. This change also increases his movement speed, which works both for and against him, as missing will cause him to slide farther from the player, giving them a moment to lay into him or escape to find more pick ups. 

The final change occurs once the Biker dips below 25% HP. Rather than the Scrap Toss, he will pull out a shotgun, and begin to fire upon the player when they attempt to dodge. The shotgun blast is five pellets in a cross shape that moves at a speed equal to the Rifle enemy, and deals 9 damage per pellet (or 45 at point blank range). 

The environment around him was decided to be an ocean side graveyard for a couple of different reasons. Thematically, a graveyard was fitting for the final encounter between the characters, as it represents an end. The beach was chosen for similar reasons. After all this time of the player pushing forward towards the Biker, there is now only ocean beyond him, showing that his journey is finally at an end and what follows is an expanse of unknown. 

The Graveyard itself consists of four sections of tombstones and sarcophagi, separated by walkways and arches. Each sections has health and ammo pickups scattered through out. Each section has a different arrangement of platforms, with some more open and allowing for ground dodges, and others with taller structures that let the player vault above the Biker. They all serve the same purpose, but allow for a few more options in approach. 

 

Closing Thoughts

In the end, the development cycle for Midnight Ultra went by at a breakneck pace, as we went from prealpha to final product in the span of a month and a half. While we probably could have benefited from extra time, I feel like the crunch helped not only to cut out any gold plating that may have occurred, but also forced a lot more dedication to the schedule and ensured that deadlines were being hit as needed. Additionally, having to balance production and a day job taught me quite a bit about proper time management and scheduling. 

There is currently one planned expansion for the game, and moving forward, I plan to have levels that are more open, as large sections of these were arenas that required killing all enemies to proceed. Additional verticality is another goal, as with one exception, levels created by both myself and Daniel were fairly flat. 

Overall though, I feel as if my experiences with Midnight Ultra were positive, and seeing a game I helped create make it's Steam debut made all the time invested absolutely worthwhile. I have high hopes for the expansion and whatever other pursuits our team works on, but until then:

An exit appears