The Making of The Surge 2: How to Build a City

The marriage of concept art, level design, and real-world architecture.

After the release of The Surge, players expressed their wish for more open exploration to balance the narrow mazes of the title’s world. This feedback became a central pillar for The Surge 2, and we aimed to expand the game world not only horizontally, but also vertically. The Surge already started to take a few, shy looks into that direction, and we were able to build upon those learnings when we set off to work on the sequel.

The Challenge
Both the story and the locations were required to convey the sense of growing chaos – what was once a press of a button in The Surge, now became an increasingly global threat. It was a logical step to show this expansion by also showing its influence on an expanded game world. A city as the central element was the perfect link between all the open ends we wanted to tie together – exploration, affected people and areas, verticality, variety and atmosphere. On top of it all, the setting required a near-future look to mesh with The Surge’s worldbuilding, and our internal “catalogue of questions” grew fairly big.

Condensed overview over “city-beautiful” architecture in North America: Even only basic knowledge of its characteristics helps immensely in building a believable abstraction of a contemporary city that underwent a transformation into a near-future urban area.

The Plan
Since we never built a city as complex as this one before, we had to jot down its characteristics first. The most important corner points were:
– Gameplay (paths, shortcuts, obstacles, exploration and combat areas)
– Environmental storytelling
– General architecture
– Stylization and details

After many workshops and meetings, we decided on the cornerstones for the game’s setting. They include:
– The game takes place a few weeks after the events of The Surge, somewhere in a North American city.
– Typical North American urban architecture needs to provide a believable base for the near-future stylization of the series’ first instalment. Both classical and modern architecture should mesh together without bleeding into each other or fighting for the player’s attention.
– Other levels should take this approach and use it as a baseline for their respective designs, for example, parks, harbours, and universities.

First Steps
The concept art department closely collaborated with the level design department in order to set a good base for the first three bullet points, with details being pushed to the polishing phase. While level design was busy building their very first iterations, concept art explored the major arguments of North American urban architecture. We condensed the results of our research into several mind-maps, which in turn helped other artists to grasp the underlying basics quickly. Level design then provided very early blockings through which we played together in order to assess the “feel” of the raw game.

Screenshot of an early blocking: The coloured paths indicate different accessible gameplay areas. Grey blocks are not required to be buildings; they’re more akin to visible bounding boxes which are to be filled with context-sensitive objects.

Building Jericho City
While the first baby steps into the direction of building a city were strictly in the hands of level design, concept art was now required to work along. The most pressing issue we saw in this first iteration was the feeling of scale. A city needs to feel like a city, but at the same time, technical and time-wise limitations favour smaller and more efficient concepts.

The screenshot of an early blocking was chosen to become the key shot and central testing stage for the level “T1”, the centre of so-called Jericho City. Very first explorations consisted of quick photo-bashes based on Google Maps images of typical, generic North American architecture.

The shown examples helped us to sort out the most pressing questions regarding scale. Based on the answers we found, we worked on a first overpaint to tidy the image and emphasize the areas of interest. They are:

– Size of streets and number of lanes.
– Width of walkways.
– Height and basic shapes of buildings.
– Stylistic approach to “classical vs modern architecture”.

Player’s View
While concept art was busy shaping the overall city, level design experimented further and successfully tested our ideas in player perspective. We ping-ponged again and put a layer of life over their layout,
putting the image even further together.

How big or how small can objects, houses and streets be before they stop meeting our criteria? Photo-bashing over our basic blockings helped to clear this question before any time-consuming changes in the 3D version were made.

Fleshing Out Jericho City
After we successfully tested the interworking of our “Jericho City toolbox”, we expanded it to other playable areas within the T1 level. For that, we went back to the doodling board and brought up several rough sketches, all based on the respective blockings level design provided us with.

As we found our process to yield good results, we expanded it to more remote corners of Jericho City. The amount of detail we put into each image depended on the requirements – where level design needed more “meat” to work with, we provided an image with more intricately set elements. The transition area between Jericho City and its harbour is a good example for a very fleshed-out concept image – but one which also had its humble roots in a quick preliminary sketch that was based on a simple blocking.

Another central element of The Surge 2 is the giant wall, shielding the outside world from Jericho City. While its location and function were clear from the beginning, its design took a little longer to fully form. We went through different iterations, and this time also, a 3D blocking provided a good base to work from.

The Final Result
All in all, Jericho City was a major learning experience for us. Making this maze work in every way was a combined effort of all departments, with concept art and level design working as closely together as  possible. Final steps included placing decals, augmented-reality advertisement displays, environmental storytelling, and visual effects.

Subtle Player Guidance
Especially the bullet point “classical vs modern architecture” was a major stylistic cornerstone for us. We wanted the player to feel eerily at home when he takes a look
at the neoclassical facades of the buildings, but when he looks a bit further up, he recognizes – quite literally – that the future waits right on top of those familiar sights.

We agreed on the above image, and we used it to run a first test of the main light’s direction. We wanted the natural light to direct the player, with brightness pointing to the easier way, while the darker route foreshadows a more challenging path.

In the course of development, the planning changed slightly, and the light direction was adjusted to fit the revised game design. In the meantime, worldbuilding and lore also caught up, and their findings were implemented in the image. There’s now a lot going on – an aid organization set up tents on the main crossing, some streets are sealed off, and they seemed to have built their very own, secondary network of pathways.

The image continued to be a testing ground for many more key arguments we needed to build Jericho City’s baseline, and we went even further than originally planned and also implemented details that helped to shape the city’s overall atmosphere. Traffic jams in front of the blockades, still-running advertisement panels, the bright illumination of the shopping street and a more refined approach to the “old vs new”-guideline are all part of it.

Janine Bertet
Senior Concept Artist of Deck13 Interactive

Concept art was always Janine’s natural way to create. After graduating with a degree in Design and Scientific Illustration, she joined Deck13 in 2011. At the company, Janine slowly specialized in Environment Art with the occasional task in texture work, promo art, storyboarding, and prepress.

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