The Art of Design: Building a Better Map Pack Part 3

First we looked at layouts and mechanics, then we looked at scenery and equipment, today we take our third and final look at what goes into building a good map as we look at spawn points and players.

Before I hop into this completely though, just a quick refresher for those out there who need it. Today in the gaming industry we have what is known as DLC (short for downloadable content).Paid for or free, DLC is the more modern version of an expansion pack, although it tends to be smaller and have less content (and not necessarily with a price tag to match). The most popular form of DLC out there is a map pack, usually for shooters or other games with multiplayer battle bouts. The problem is that some of these new maps don't really make good maps. So we're looking at what makes a good map good.

Spawn Points
Image from Halo Wiki
Please, for the love of gaming, if you ever find yourself working on a map and it comes time to place the spawn points, do not place them where ever seems convenient. Too many map designers these days seem to make this mistake, spreading spawn points across the map either at random, or in some terrible asymmetrical mockery of design. Lets take another look at the classic Blood Gulch map from Halo. If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm not using this map so often because its a good map, quite the opposite. Blood Gulch is a terrible map.

One of the reasons that the map is so poor is due to some very poor spawn placement choices. Those large bases on both ends of the map? It is possible to spawn inside of them from time to time. But most of the time, you'll end up spawning well outside of them...and well look at how open this map is. Suffice to say, a lot of the Halo maps (especially in the first two games) turned the act of spawn-camping (a very unfavored style of play in which you set your sights on a new players spawn to kill them before they can do anything) into an art form. Especially for the original Blood Gulch here, which lacks any real cover and is just short enough that a good sniper can see every spawn point and switch to any of them in moments. Combine that with the auto-aim and well...controllers get broken.

Spawn Points are a really critical factor in map design because they can be so easily taken advantage of. Most games these days (sadly, this is still most) have a series of spawn points with hard coded rules to spawn a player away from nearby enemies. Of course, this then needs a definition of nearby, and a subset for how far...it gets complicated. What works best is to simply pick good spawn locations from the start. To do that, you'll need to examine several different things.
  • Cover: As Halo clearly teaches, big open spaced spawns in a game with lots of auto-aiming long range weaponry is a terrible idea. In fact, putting spawn locations out in the open at all is generally a poor idea.
  • Enclosed spaces: On the flipside to Cover is the problem of a tightly enclosed space. If players spawn in small rooms for example, giving them the ability to plant mines can lead to some explosive spawn killing.
  • Accessibility: Why not make the spawn points inaccessible to the opposing team? This does however open the challenge of how the player gets out or back in if they need to run.
  • Options: Much like I discussed a few days ago, the player needs to have options. Simply hiding the spawn and giving newly respawned players a single exit is not going to work because players will be funneled in a single direction. The more options for exit your player has upon spawning, the better he'll be able to survive.
  • Nearby Game Items: Admit it, how many times have you died in a First Person Shooter because you've spawned miles from any decent weapon? Since most games these days simply let you pick and choose your gun it's not as much of a problem as it used to be, but a lot of designers will place spawn points in locations that are actually pretty sound, save that they offer you nothing to defend yourself with against the other team without a defenseless hike to the nearest weapon drop.
If you can get most of these guidelines if not all of them in the same map, odds are that unless you have some crazy gimmick that makes your game beyond the normal scheme of things (like Section 8), you'll have a pretty solid map, at least insofar as keeping your freshly spawned players alive and happy.

One of the last considerations that you'll need to make when you put the finishing touches on your map is one that will effect it before anyone even plays it, which is to say how many people will you be putting on it. Lets face it, as fun as some maps are, there is no way some of them will be fun (for more then a few minutes anyway) with 16 to 32 people running around on them. Too many players or too few can be the kiss of death for many maps, so before you ship yours out the door, give it some last minute playtesting with some varying numbers. How does it play with ten people? An odd number? large numbers? Small numbers?

While your at it, test it for various gametypes and see how it fairs as well. Some maps just aren't meant for capture-the-flag, and others aren't meant for team play. Some aren't meant for free-for-all games and quite often you can't tell some of the small details unless you test it out for yourself.

There's also the consideration of play style. Anyone who has ever tried to play a slow paced game online has been faced with the hordes of impatient speed rusher players, whose only real tactic is to run to the end as quickly as possible with no other objectives, skill or consideration to how the game is actually played. Is your map going to encourage that style of play? Or will it encourage slower players to make careful steps? Will the two players mix well on your map? This is something to know, not particularly to change. Its up to you as a designer to figure that out for yourself.

That's the real message here. What I've given are guidelines and rules for map design, but all of them can be broken for one reason or another, although it should be a good one. But whether you're buying maps or making them, considering what we've talked about with these past few posts (layout, scenery, mechanics, options, equipment, spawns, etc) is a good way to keep that next map pack from being an out an out dud.

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