The Art of Design: Building a Better Map Pack Part 1

Image from Halo Reach's Noble Map Pack by Bungie
For those of you who play First-Person-Shooters, you are likely familiar with the gaming industries latest pocket change tactic of releasing DLC map packs. It's inevitable that, at some point in the life of the game you bought (very possibly before it even ships) that an extra set of maps will become available. More likely several sets of maps. Now, before I go any further, let me say this up front: this is not a bad thing. Its nice to be able to expand my collection of maps and find some new challenges or scenery to shred with bullets.

What I want to talk about over the next few days is some basic points of map design. Because while it is a good thing to get new maps, this only applies if these maps are good maps.Before we can touch that issue however, we need to look at what separates a good map from a bad map. Today we'll be looking at Level Layout and Options/Mechanics. So hit the jump and get ready to dive right in.

Level Layout:
The most critical part of the map is it's layout, or its overall shape and structure. A correct layout is key. If your layout is done well the combat on the map will naturally flow into areas that are most suited for combat, and out of areas that are unsuited for it. This part of the design is not an easy process, because based on what weapons, equipment, and options you plan on giving the player, the level layout can largely change. Something as little as the angle of an incline or the width of a hallway can have a vast effect on how the level is played out.

Lets start with a basic level design (for simplicities sake, we'll assume team deathmatch) A single, cubelike room with no cover. Combat is going to be frantic in a single room, especially with a lot of players. Now add a second room, and connect these two rooms by a single narrow hallway. Now we've got one room for each team. The logical flow of combat is that both teams are going to pour a lot of concentrated fire down the single hallway until one team or the other can break through. Still, that's not that fun of a game. So lets add a third room off to one side that's lower then the other two and connect it to the main rooms by a series of right-angle ramps. Now we've got a viable alternate combat route with some cover areas and corners to bounce grenades off of. And we'll need to put something worth having (maybe a long range power weapon) in that little room so both teams are always sending people down into it.

But our main hallway is still too good a proposition for straight combat. Why don't we stick a circular room in the middle and a cylinder inside that so both rooms can't shoot straight in on one another. Blocking the view here. And for a little bit more flexibility, we'll add a "back" room to each main room that can't be gotten into from the main room, only from another room on the side accessed by the main hallway.

So here's the map we've just put together. Its asymmetrical (not always bad, not always good), and probably has plenty of kinks to work out in testing, but overall we've just built a basic map. Even this early you can see where the combat is naturally going to flow. Much of the kills will come from the smaller room on the left and the ramped hallways connecting them, while another large portion of kills will come from the center circle. There will be smaller numbers of kills on the right hand side and in the main rooms themselves. Congratulations. We've just built a map! We shall call it...Invader.

Anyway, to get an idea of how important combat flow is, take a look at Bungie's Heatmaps for their Halo games sometime. These heatmaps track and display every kill made in the game for each map and average them into a color map that identifies the flow of combat, and you can see a clear design in each map. They're a useful tool to look at.

Player options and gameplay mechanics are two very important areas to consider when designing a map, and I've grouped them together because of how easily they intermingle. First, lets define what each is. Options are the choices that you give to the player, either intentionally or unintentionally. For example in the Invader map above, I gave the left side right angled downward ramps to give the defenders the option of using grenades to push back assaults. I also left the large open rectangular room on the right so that players could defend the back access to their base in a much easier if they wanted to fight their way up there. These are options, and the effect everything from the large scale of the battle to individual firefights.

Should I put chest high walls in the diamond room so that players can take cover behind them? What about some overhead scaffolding for ambush purposes? Each little choice like this is an overall design choice, but it's also a contest of giving the player options. The more ways their are to react to combat in any given location, the more longevity the room and therefore the map will have with the player. A room with only a few basic combat options gets boring quickly because it boils down to the same basic events repeated ad infinite. The more options you give the player to do something new and creative, the more chances you give them to reward their creative thinking, the more fun a map will be.

These options are closely integrated with the mechanics of the game. Do the players have a sprint option? Is it limited or endless? Does the game involve a limited cover system? A precise aiming system with un-aimed shots having severe accuracy nerfs? Crud, what if all the players have jetpacks? Suddenly this back room I've grafted onto each main room needs to be a lot taller to keep player from getting into it from the main room, which also makes it harder for players to shoot whoever is in it. It needs to be narrower, or perhaps not exist at all because it's become an entrenched sniping position over one teams "home base." If I keep the room at a lower height, anyone with a jetpack can leap in.

Image courtesy Halowiki.net
Whatever your mechanics are, with design you'll need to take care that they compliment and enhance the players options. I'll give you an example from a Halo 3 map, Rat's Nest. Rat's Nest had a "central area" that was divided into three smaller combat zones that could overlap: an upper level, the center level, and the outside (accessed by a large door). One of the options that the center level gave was a set of walkways that players could get up onto by use of stairs from a nearby room. The games mechanics on the other hand offered a "grav lift" device, a one shot lift that could be thrown down and used to boost jumps in that location for a short period. With both, it was possible for a player to throw down the grav lift and use it's power to leap to the overhead walkways. It was both a great offensive and defensive option, and allowed a player to reach the upper walkway without going around.

It gave other players options too. If you were chasing a player and he used the grav lift to jump for the walkways, you could follow him up (dangerous given that he would know exactly where you were coming from), go around (he might go the other way), shoot him from below (bullets right?), or my favorite, throw a grenade into the left to follow him up, and then go around.

Team Fortress 2's Goldrush is all about clever mechanic and option use
My point is that each situation gave both combatants a variety of options to follow during combat, and each players choice, whether map based or mechanics based changed the flow of the game and kept it fresh. The more of these options you give to the player (while carefully making sure one isn't always a better choice then the other) the more longevity your map will provide. The more the options interact with the mechanics of the game, the more innovation and creativity your map will engender, creating a richer and more valued experience for your player.

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