The Art of Design: Building a Better Map Pack Part 2

Last week I posted the first in what is now going to be a small series of articles on map design. The reason? A lot of games, especially FPS games have found a steady market for small packs of after market content. Downloads bringing new maps, new weapons, and new features have become so prevalent, its almost expected of any developer to produce new content at some point after release. Of course sometimes some of these add-ons can feel a little...lacking. Its not uncommon to see map packs go up for sale after a game comes out. Its also not uncommon to hear people complain about the lack of value some of these maps present.

So for the next little bit on Beyond The Controller, we're going to be taking a look at what makes maps tick. What makes a good map instead of a bad map? Last time, we looked at Layout and Mechanics. This time, we're looking at Scenery and Equipment.

Most first time player write off scenery as needless fluff. Most first time designers do as well. They tend to see it as shiny parts of the game that don't add a lot to the game itself and usually don't get looked at after the first few minutes. If you're a designer, this is the worst thing you can think.

This is because scenery adds more then just graphical fluff. Correctly used scenery objects can be one of the most important parts of your maps layout. Lets use a common map that everyone remembers from Halo to demonstrate: Blood Gulch. Now, I'm just going to come out and say it: Blood Gulch is a crappy map.

Image from Halo Nation
Here's why. Look at this aerial view on the right. How much scenery is there? Two trees, and six rocks. It's a barren wasteland, and it turned every game into an open shooting gallery. There was almost never anything to use. Last time we talked about options. Part of an option is the use of scenery objects. Blood Gulch's gameplay is so dull partially because there was never really many options. You could run forward, jump, or circle. There were no rocks, no trees, and nothing you could interact with.

Image from Halo Nation
Bungie learned however, take a look at the Halo 3 iteration of Blood Gulch, called Valhalla. See the trees, the rocks, the stream running through the low point of the map? All of these are scenery elements, but they add to the multitude of options the player has available to them. Simply by adding more trees, rocks and bushes, Valhalla became an infinitely more playable version of Blood Gulch.

Image from Gears of War Wiki
Scenery has other uses as well. Lets take a look at a very clever use of scenery from Epic Game's Gears of War 2. The picture at right is a map known as Avalanche. Note the planter boxes and small trees scattered around the level? While they do look nice, they serve a greater purpose, that of obscuring the players view and making for key hiding places. The plant in the center obscures the players view of the corners of the map, which happen to be a spawn exit. A player can still shoot through this foliage, but they can't actually see if they are hitting a target. The planters on both sides of the buildings serve a similar purpose. They're wide enough that players can hide behind them and fire down on the center area without players below being able to draw a direct bead on them (sans watching his firing angle or switching position). So while to a new player the plants are strictly aesthetic, a more experienced player will make use of them to gain an advantage or sneak around the map.

Sadly, too many designers make the mistake of first time players. They assume that scenery is a needless exercise in pointless art, rather then what it really is, a complementary feature of level design. At it's core, Blood Gulch was a good layout. But modifying the layout and adding in some much needed scenery gave rise to Valhalla, which was a much more enjoyable map. Or some designers swing too far in the other direction, putting far too much scenery on the map and cluttering it (although more and more this is a rarity). Scenery is a key portion of map design, and not giving it the due it deserves can be the difference between a great map, and one that's merely passable.

Now lets turn back to the basic level layout we put together last time, Invader. Now, it's not the best map. But it'll do for our purposes. We'll assume that this is a map for our new first-person-shooter. Its a sci-fi game with futuristic weapons and soldiers. So...how do we want to give that equipment to the players?

What most people take for granted is actually a very difficult decision in the design process for a level. Figuring out how to grant players weapons and equipment is an integral part of balance. On our map to the right for example, what would be the result of placing the grenade spawn location in the diamond room on the left? It would grant access to grenades to whatever team took the diamond room and could hold it, which would lead both teams to make an effort to secure that room. If I replace the grenades with an ammo point, the room is still valuable, but probably less so as other ammo points are available.

Lets look at another location. If I place two miniguns in the right hand room, it encourages players to secure their end of the room, as well as gives them a good offense location against the enemy.

One last thing that bears mentioning. Some games have opted out of on-level weapon placement altogether, instead letting the players choose from weapon classes or load-outs, seemingly thinking that this will keep them from worrying about the placement problem.

It doesn't. In fact, designers that do this need to pay even closer attention to their level and game design, because once you let the players pick their own armaments for levels, the players almost always will find a way to abuse it. This is what happens when you find perfectly good maps ruined by players using nothing but shotguns, sniper rifles or whatever weapon happens to give them an overwhelmingly unfair advantage on that map.

Overall, once a map is playable designers need to put down the keyboards and mice and pick up the controllers. Put grenades on the map. Take them away. Tweak and change every little placement, every little detail. Put scenery around the map and make it do something for the player. Move bushes and trees where they'll do something good. And if you're a player, think twice about that box near the corner, there may be more to it then just looking nice.

Until next time!

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