I’m not a seasoned mapper – these are only some things I learned making my fist map Dying Sun. The layout took a few months and reached 97 alpha iterations before entering beta. Thanks to Joel, a veteran competitive duel player who got me thinking about the finer points of gameplay and level design and helped playtest in-between those iterations.
Mapping is as much art as science, because there are so many tightly codependent variables at play. Much of it is intuition garnered from playing a game.
Start at the Top (the design process)
It’s easier to create according to a vision. A design process with no masterplan has no completion criteria. I was stuck in such a process when another player said Dying Sun could possibly solve a problem: Duel maps were often too easy to control. From that point on it got a lot more focussed.
You probably already know what gametype you are designing for, and it’s good to stick to it. Making compromises for other game types will only dilute the fun. Dying Sun for example was made for duel. A lot of duel maps work for multiplayer deathmatch, but this is incidental.
What’s The Hook?
Create a unique value proposition for your map. Even if you’re just mapping for the joy of it, it’s good to ask what makes it different and worth playing? Or you might be testing an idea – something you would like to experience but doesn’t exist in other maps. Identifying the hook isn’t really about advertising your map, it’s more about defining your purpose early in the design process.
What is “flow” in level design? It’s an esoteric term, but the flow is how your map supports the hook in the most basic possible way. Dying Sun had terrible flow a until we realised the hook.
Along that flow, certain areas and ‘situations’ will separate themselves from the rest of the flow. I find it good tease these out as much as possible. Dying Sun was vertical from the beginning, the two levels connected by two lifts. At a point it was obvious that they were key. Once identified, the map was designed around the situations created by the lifts.
The trickiest situations to do well are armour situations, because the payoffs are the largest. They have to be interesting, but controlled. At first you might just decide where the armours will be, but not exactly how a player will get them. At some point as the flow takes shape, you will know what to do based on the surrounding level. Armour situations that demand careful setup and timing are the best, like the 150 on Solo. You don’t want to encourage thoughtless engagement on top of the armours.
The Dying Sun 150a situation was the last thing to do on the map. I had tried a number of placements and situations but nothing felt right. In the end, what worked was quite simple.
Sometimes it’s handy to define the setting of your map early. It will become a creative constraint that will lead to further inspiration. Creative constraints, despite technically being limiting factors, often serve to enhance creativity and focus. This was definitely the case with 1v1-Shaft, my second duel map.
Breaking Down the Flow
As the flow develops it becomes detailed and encompasses not just basic navigation and major armors, but every item placement on the map. It all feeds back into your hook.
Players should have limited route options, because this creates predictability which promotes reasonable player engagement. Having too many routes will enable players to evade each other too easily, and conversely if the options are too few it will be hard to avoid head on engagements. Limit options along each route, so that once players lose sight of each other, they can guess where they’re going. Of course some route options might have larger payoffs, but be more predictable.
Line of Sight
Feeding into the risk idea is line of sight or LOS, which needs to be considered and controlled. Excessive LOS is considered by many to be map breaking – but providing opportunities for prediction shots and visual tracking information keeps players fully engaged. ASDF is a great example of a map with a good LOS balance. Any time a player is exposed by line of sight they are vulnerable and taking a risk.
Timing and Distance
A large part of the flow is the travel distance between destinations. They should be comparable and responsible and relative to the payoffs. The risks involved in travelling should also be factored in – a shorter travel time with higher risk might be the equivalent of a longer travel time with lower risk. So perhaps if a particular distance can’t be made longer, perhaps make it harder. For example, any time a player is airborne they are vulnerable and predictable.
Combine airtime, predictablility and LOS vulnerability with caution. Make sure your risks are always relative to rewards.
The major armours (100 and 150) should be opposite each other with more than half the map’s distance (in travel time, not literal distance) between them. This is because if a player can easily collect both, it becomes too easy to control the map with a monopoly, which everyone is trying to do.
To counter the potential for a monopoly, it’s mostly advisable to put smaller armours and vials away from the major armours. This gives an out of control player a chance to get back in the game, by avoiding conflict for the major armours, and building a stack with smaller items. Antiqus, a map by Heresiarch has double healths very close to both major armours, which works to promote engagement over the items, as the risk for each player is lower. See the health section below.
In Dying Sun, a tight map, the out of control player is supported by keeping basically anything that is not a major armour on the second level (with the 50hp close to each) requiring some travel distance. An out of control player could get back on their feet even after a death, by spawning on the second level and quickly collecting some armour, health vials and weapons. For a small and fast map, this is essential to avoid runaway games.
Movement: Support all Levels of Players
Beginners and pros will need to be able to play your map. I like to keep all basic map navigation completely accessible – no special game knowledge should be needed to traverse the map. More interesting shortcuts are available too but not necessary, and they don’t break the navigational flow. Try to offer tricks, but not make them game-breaking. Or just a little bit.
Sound (and smaller item/ammo placement)
Assume your map will be played by duellers who know the map back the front, and can also recognise every sound in the game. A player picking up most items can be heard more or less across the map. This means that based on sound alone, a player can understand where the opponent player is, and make assumptions about where he/she is going (tracking).
Armour, jump pads, weapon pickups and health all give off good sound, but as these are core to flow, vials and ammo become very important important sound cues. Place these in areas where there would otherwise be no sound given by a player, to assist the players in tracking or tricking each other.
Vials are commonly found in groups of 3-5 and a map might have 10-15 overall. Having some near smaller armours helps support the out of control player and might lead to more balanced games.
The amount of ammo on a map isn’t as important as the number of vials. I like to bunch them in threes, creating a very hard-to-miss pickup sound.
Not everyone has surround sound, so giving clumps of vials and ammo different spacing helps players identify which clumps they are hearing. Eg, the small group of five vials on the top of ASDF, or the long string of three leading up to shock.
As mentioned healths near armours can work very well to keep games moving. Players will be more likely to engage over items if they think the risks are lower.
ASDF keeps health away from items which makes it play a little slower perhaps, which works for the size of the map.
As a “designer,” I tend to go overboard on this, but in general I believe that things should be refined to their essence. In Dying Sun the result of this was it became extremely tight. No platform is longer than it has to be.
If you have the most simple representation of an idea, you can then consciously build on it it in ways that support the hook, rather than being stuck with what you’ve got. In Dying Sun this meant I was able to add elbow room back into certain areas, and extend corridors where appropriate.
Process: Iteration and Feedback
All feedback is useful, even when you disagree. Hearing other people’s opinions sometimes strengthens your own idea and helps you refine your idea it in ways you might not have otherwise realised.
Playing the map yourself is great. Watching people play your map will be a revelation. If three people play a game, you have nearly an hour of play to analyse.
Sometimes you’re confident something will work and it flatly doesn’t – sometimes things you thought were easy, most people fail most times.
On “Alpha” and “Beta”
Alpha I consider everything before the gameplay is set. Beta, I consider finished but in a rough state, such as a shell map built with BSP. I’m pretty sure most of my maps will remain in Beta as this is all I basically want to achieve. This is why I also try to make my maps visually appealing, even though not being fully meshed. I give each iteration a suffix such as -a001 or -b01. Alpha maps are very much more WIP than beta.
Experienced and successful mappers can definitely teach you, but when they discourage you from trying new things, it’s time to tune out. Take good advice and leave the bad. Most mappers view things from their own particular perspective. It’s very dependant on what games and game modes they prefer. Smart people realise they don’t know that much.
As UT is all about the fun, and the game’s history is rooted in greatness that came from experimentation (UT99 was full of different, experimental maps), and as you make your money in your day job anyway, GO FOR IT. Be creative, but test your ideas.
- This video by the Halo team talks about play testing and some issues that involved.
- This video is the UT4 level design team talking about their process in a random kind of way.
- A thread on establishing a language of AFPS level design.