If you're a fan of multiplayer gaming, especially shooters, chances are you can recite the layout of a few classic maps flawlessly. Whether you've played Halo, Counter-Strike, Call of Duty 4 or anything else, there's probably one or two maps in those games that stand out for you as being particularly fun, replayable, or, for lack of a better term, memorable. But what sets some maps apart from others? How do we get "fun" out of one layout, even when it might be similar to another one?
In this article I'll be turning my attention to what I think are the core components of an interesting, fun, replayable multiplayer map, and how these differentiate a good level from a great level. For the sake of simplicity, this article is primarily concerned with competitive multilayer shooters, but I hope some of these ideas can be applied to other types of games as well.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's concept of psychological flow is something that has been oft-studied by game designers in order to help create games that are more consistently engaging for players. The basic idea of flow (forgive the over-simplification) is that it is a mental state individuals become immersed in, wherein all their attention, emotions, and physical activity are concentrated on a single task; unlike "typical" work, where we might find ourselves following lists in order to complete tasks, flow allows for one task to move naturally to the next, to the point where we don't even stop to consider that it is even happening at all.
In the field of level design, flow can be expressed as a state players will find themselves in wherein they move naturally from one task, point of conflict, or objective to the next, in a smooth and resistance-free way. If you've ever played on a particular multiplayer level and found that you end up moving from one place to the next along with all other players, and find that flashpoints of conflict and contention arise without you necessarily "working" to bring them about. Consider too, how many "bad" multiplayer maps are also ones where sometimes it's not intuitively clear where to go, or what to do, and the action often seems to pass you by.
A good level design will be able to create this state in players nearly all of the time. Generally, this is accomplished by using cyclical layouts - that is, levels which direct players in loops which circle back in on themselves and where the natural movement of players leads them to constantly run into objectives, opposition, etc. The easiest way to demonstrate this is to show it directly:
de_dust is a classic map, and for good reason: it offers just enough options to feel different each round, but also familiar and predictable in the right sorts of ways.
Here's a map that almost any shooter fan should be familiar with: Counter-Strike's de_dust (or just "Dust"). Above, the red lines and "T" mark represent the routes and starting position of Terrorist team players, while the blue lines and "C" mark represent the same for the Counter-Terrorist team. If you examine the level, it becomes clear that the routes it presents to players converge, roughly concurrently, at several key conflict zones throughout the level, denoted with yellow "X" marks.
There are a lot of nuances to this simple but effective layout, visible simply by following the routes above. For instance, if the Counter-Terrorist team decides to slow down and play defensively, this will naturally draw the Terrorist team to the bomb site on the east side of the level and the center area. If Counter-Terrorist players rush the Terrorists all-out, the conflict zones will transition to the tunnels in the center of the map, where three separate routes meet each other. If the Counter-Terrorists decide to take the west underpass route, and no Terrorist players decided to go that way, they will eventually loop back around on the Terrorist players, giving both a flanking opportunity to the Counter-Terrorists and a chance for the Terrorists to take the objectives at either the east or south sides of the level, as well as to prepare for the inevitable assault.
It's important to note that the amount of time it takes for each team to traverse a given portion of the level is almost exactly the same as what it takes the other team to traverse their own. This means that players, even if they run aimlessly around the level, will almost always encounter an enemy eventually, usually within 30-odd seconds. When the players have been killed off on both teams and a 1v1 situation as arisen, the need for the remaining Terrorist to plant the bomb at one of the bomb sites means that the Counter-Terrorist now has an ultimatum to finish the round, but can also immediately know that the Terrorist is hiding out at one of two locations.
Despite the fact that Dust is a fairly simple map by some standards, it has endured because the lack of distractions, redundant routes and other level design "clutter" allows players to more easily achieve a flow state, and when they have gone beyond that first 30 seconds of gameplay each round, the design of the map ensures that players will cycle around it naturally until the end.
If there's something in common with just about every great multiplayer map I've played, it's that they all have some sort of vertical component to gameplay - that is, the level does not provide one flat plane to run around upon, but has two or three different ones which intersect with each other in interesting ways, or provide new gameplay opportunities.
Verticality does two important things. From the perspective of the player, it makes combat more interesting and dynamic because enemies and friends can come not just from left and right, but from above and below as well. It taps into that 360-degree perspective players have of the world in most shooters, and creates more interesting tactical advantages. For example, something as simple as being able to use high ground to fire down on an enemy from cover, or the opposite, throwing a grenade from below into an upper window to flush an enemy out, can present opportunities for players which stray from the usual "aim -> shoot" flow of gameplay. What's more, these are often decisions that need to be made in a split second, as the risk/reward element inherent in them means that there are multiple choices presented to players beyond the most basic ones.
Second, verticality also allows for more interesting routes between levels. In the above example, I demonstrated 4 main routes that the two player teams each can take before meeting each other, but what is also apparent upon examining these routes is that they often overlap or intersect with one another. For instance, the route leading under the west overpass can be flanked from above if a player takes the tunnel route through the center of the level and heads west out on top of the overpass. The westernmost Counter-Terrorist route, meanwhile, leads them directly to a ledge overlooking the Terrorists' route under the overpass, allowing for a crafty player to set up a point defense against them.
Of course, de_dust isn't the only level out there featuring vertical gameplay. Another excellent example of this can be seen in the much more recent "modern classic" Call of Duty 4 map, Crash.
Yellow X marks denote buildings with multiple floors and windows.
Crash is not specifically designed as a vertically-oriented level. However, it has a few vertical elements which add up to make it much more interesting than it would be if it simply took place on a flat plane. Above, the buildings with yellow X marks overlook key parts of the map, in this case the center courtyard with a crashed helicopter, and some back alleys that serve as an entrance or escape route from the main courtyard. Almost every single major route, except for a few transitional routes between key areas, is covered by a two-story building with a window.
What this means is that players have to constantly be on the lookout for enemies on the ground level, but in buildings as well. The key conflict zone is, of course, the central courtyard, and it has no less than three buildings providing partial coverage of it from different angles. This three-way split means that no single vantage point has easy access or line of sight to all the others, creating a natural "rock, paper, scissors" back-and-forth relationship as players navigate the level. As all routes funnel into the courtyard, it is almost impossible to not end up in it eventually as players try to get from A to B, with the only alternative being to take the back alley route, which often breaks out in skirmishes as players try to flank each other inside the courtyard.
The tactical importance of these buildings hinges almost entirely on the fact that they provide cover and a more complete line of sight across the battlefield, not to mention potential sniper spots. However, defense of the buildings also becomes a crucial element in deciding the winning team, as suddenly, weapons like claymore mines become useful in stopping other players from storming a building and attacking its occupants from behind. They are important because of the vertical element they introduce to the level, and that importance carries with it many other secondary but equally critical elements. It all adds up to make for a very entertaining, replayable map which constantly evolves as players try to take key points from each other and move on to the next.
The third major component that goes into a memorable multiplayer map is a bit harder to pin down, but in my experience, it boils down to something I'll call strategic distinctiveness - certain opportunities that players can use and exploit on a level which make it very different to play on than anything else. Often these will be near-ritualistic behaviors players perform over and over every time the map begins, while other times they are simply little tricks that more experienced players can use to their advantage.
Below is a list of just a few examples of these, but almost every multiplayer map that keeps players coming back has at least a couple of these sorts of qualities:
This doesn't mean, of course, that every multiplayer map has to look, feel and play completely differently from all others. In fact, many multiplayer maps resemble each other, in terms of layout, very closely, and tend to only differ in the smaller details and, of course, visual style. However, just one or two room configurations, hiding places or other little elements that no other level out there has can really make one leave its mark on players.
Of course, the science of what makes a memorable multiplayer level is still subject to a lot of discussion and interpretation. Certainly, developers have created games in the past whose "breakout" maps have been ones they spent the least amount of time on, and there always be some maps which defy all academic notions of quality. In fact, some levels, such as Counter-Strike's fan-made and eternally popular fy_iceworld, are about as close to "bad" as you could possibly get by almost any level design standard, and are perhaps proof that to some degree, success in creating something players will remember for years to come is not something which can always be deliberately engineered.