Storytelling Level Design Challenge #1 winner has been decided by a public WoLD Forum Vote.
The winner of the challenge also provided some insight and tips on how the challenge was approached.
The following is written by ZapWizard on the WoLD Forums post.
Its not readily visible in the static screenshots, but at one point I had the idea to make a time-lapse video showing the scene over a few hours (dusk to dawn). So I needed some animated clouds, I generated a semi-transparent cloud texture in photoshop then animated the VMT so they moved across the sky. Took three different time of day screenshots as a test, and the result was good, the clouds looked like they were moving even though the main skybox was static. But I ditched the idea as I couldn't use the same skybox for the whole time lapse. But the cloud overlay stayed and did help to enhance the regular skybox to make the clouds a bit darker. Since this forum is about educating everyone here are some secrets to the scene:
Since this was a screenshot challenge, I didn't spend any time at all on anything that wasn't in the "scene" that is if you virtually turn around you will see nothing but the skybox, you walk too far down the street, again you will notice that the rail road tracks don't reach too far.
The lightmap scales were pushed very high. Most of the scene near the screenshot uses a lightmap scale of 8, areas hit with direct sunlight were set at 4. These were combined with texture and polygon shadows to boost the detail.
I used highly detailed displacements for the roof, sidewalks and road. Each displacement had enough noise added to them to help prevent them from looking perfectly flat. The road has a realistic curve (it is about 8 units higher in the middle then the edges). By using a displacement I was able to break up the perfectly straight lines in the road and collapse the roof of the building.
Blended textures. The road is a blend of the normal stock road texture, and a asphalt texture. Along with a very high displacement detail this allowed me to paint in little patches. The roof and beams use a blended black texture such that the roof looked burned. The sidewalks uses a stock valve blended texture that has both broken and clean concrete. Extra overlays then enhance all of this.
Being subtle is the key. Everyone notices different details that others miss. Once you have enough little details people start to form their own story in their mind and apply their own imagination to a scene. I am a very firm believer in making "mini-scenes" Places in a map that players come across and can apply their own story to. There is a baby doll spilled out from a shopping cart, how did it get there? There is a truck half-parked in a garage with a cinder block under the tire, how long has it been there?
Depth is an illusion. One big key to modern game maps is trying to make a world feel larger without actually making the game world larger. Crysis 2 or COD4 and Left4Dead2 are good examples of this. The maps are still very linear, and in realty not much different then the linked hallways of Quake. The only difference is that since you think there is more to a map because you can see down alleyways, or distant buildings, the map feels larger even if it actually was still just a larger hallway.
Reality is a must. Curbs aren't square. Roads don't end meet at curbs, there is a gutter in-between. The world isn't clean, its full of junk and dirt. Symmetry is a good basis for design, but very little in the world is perfectly symmetrical, so break up perfectly symmetrical objects with a change or two.
Lighting can be 50% of your scene. No light in the real world is "white". Each has their own color temperature. Sunlight varies, but is orange at dusk, mercury streetlights are greenish. Fluorescent lights are bluish, incandescent lights are yellowish. Ambient light is often a grayish blue. Never leave a light perfectly white.
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