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Anatomy of a Combat Zone

July 15, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this detailed design article, Blue Castle (Dead Rising 2) level design director Josh Bridge examines how you design memorable, tactical combat areas for first/third-person shooter games.] 


The following is an attempt to identify, name and describe the key ingredients to necessary for typical cover-based video game shooter. Usually in a shooter, the core gameplay revolves around living long enough to kill what is threatening you or impeding your progress.

The challenge is to present this small amount of gameplay in new and exciting ways so that the player is compelled to sit through and play all the way to the end... and hopefully want to play the sequel.

It should also be noted that the following is focused solely on the areas of combat within a level, and should not to be misinterpreted as the sole ingredient needed for an entire level's design.

The Combat Zone

The Combat Zone is a reference to the area of gameplay within a level designated for battle. This is a broad term and doesn't necessarily imply explicit, physical boundaries... though in some cases it can. In either case, the LD creates areas of expected battle with various gameplay support; enemies, cover objects, destructibles, impassable points, flanking positions, etc. The layout and placement carries the expectation that the player will have to battle through the area -- in essence, the presentation of the core gameplay.

The Kill Zone

Defined as the area in which the player and/or AI is without cover and can be fired directly upon, and potentially killed. This area can be visible (landmines on the ground) or virtual (tracer fire). The effectiveness of the design here determines the difficulty of the firefight. Without an effective Kill Zone, the player doesn't need cover, and eliminates one of the key ingredients intended for gameplay.

Defensive Cover

The required companion to a Kill Zone. There should be areas in which the player and/or AI is protected from direct fire. Without this, the experience boils down to shoot or be shot. Cover has a huge impact on play styles and difficulty, which I will go into a bit further on.

Player Paths

Play Your Way

Players should be able to play the way THEY want to. Why? It allows for a more creative experience, something that players will likely want to come back to again. Limiting the player to one path and play style over and over again gets tiresome; variety is key to keeping the player engaged.

Everyone has a preferred play style in shooters:

  • Run and Gun - guns blazing, shooting everything on sight as they usually stick to the most obvious play path.
  • Ninja - climbing up and jumping across everything or sneaking around through small passages that are discovered; they usually avoid the most obvious play path.
  • Camper - loves to hang back in safe spot and snipe from as far away as possible before moving in.

In the above level mock-up are examples of multiple play paths that accommodate these styles:

  • The Run and Gunner will likely shoot their way across the trench, taking cover only when necessary.
  • The Ninja will likely climb up and jump across all the cover objects, making their way across the playfield.
  • The Camper will likely look for a safe spot atop the catwalk to snipe the enemies from afar.

Focusing on accommodating each one of these play styles in each Combat Zone isn't easy and based on experience really should be planned from the beginning. However, this element is critical to getting out of the linear/scripted old school way of designing levels.

When you think you are about done with your napkin sketch, ask yourself:

  • Is there way to circle the enemy undetected?
  • Can the player climb under and over enemies?
  • Can the player have a variety of cover options?
  • Does the player have to crouch?
  • Can the player navigate the space by jumping from object to object?

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Glenn Storm
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This is a very tidy breakdown of the basic elements and implementation of combat design. I think you've succeeded at defining the terms and posing some good guidelines. Nice article, Josh!

Kevin Maloney
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"Is it possible to design a Combat Zone that starts off as freeform, and then becomes defined -- and vice versa? The switch could be an exciting component and make for a memorable battle."

This is why TF2 Payload maps are so compelling. Over a round the combat will shift from free form to defined.

Maurício Gomes
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TF2 Payload indeed is awesome... It is a huge combat zone with cover all around it, and the moving objective itself was cover (or you don't ever saw someone pushing the bomb and crounching at its side?)

Daniel Windfeld
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Great article - really great breakdown of core ingredience! Good list to run through after an initial design. Good point in predictable combat zones *cough*GoW2*cough* - it's an immersion killer. The ability to 'hide' your battlefields can't be stressed enough.

Keep it up :)


Brad Kavanagh
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"Can everything fit through the doorways?"

That made me think of Resistance; play the first level and look at the massive crates inside the houses... that a) don't make any sense being there in the first place and b) have no way of getting inside!

I might be the minority that notices these sort of things, but I think it subliminally effects oblivious players as they are working through the game.

If I had to think of one example, I'd say Drake's Fortune had extremely obvious combat zones. You'd turn a corner, look at a clearing with waist-high walls everywhere, and just know something was going to happen. That, and the exploding barrels everywhere...

Daniel, I totally agree; hide your gameplay!

Rob Storm
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Day of Defeat has probably the best level design I have seen in terms of a competitive game. It fulfills this article's core steps and then some. I could go on for hours about that game's level design. If you haven't played it please please do.

Philipp Horwath
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Great Article, i liked it very much. Time to start own thoughts about it.

Josh Bridge
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Thanks for the feedback. Some great points raised with some comments below:

@Kevin and Hélder

Payload is great! I would love to see that concept in a single player scenario as well.


I have seen the biggest wins with hiding gameplay when environment artists are brought into the grey block process early. The ability to develop believable level architecture is a different skill than developing a fun Combat Zone. Some level designers are great at it, while others tend to create fun spaces that make an artist's head explode when they think of how will they make the abstract space believable. More recently, the role of Level Architect is becoming more commonly accepted; a hybrid role that mixes an eye for gameplay as well as world modeling.

Obviously if it is a more realistic setting, photo reference or on sight research is critical for sparking ideas on how to leverage the existing environment for gameplay. Hopefully the level isn't based in a crate factory though;)


Sometimes the 'functional design' of areas simply slips through the cracks. Level designers and world artists are on the hook for ensuring the space is believable. This is ultimately overcome with strong reference/research and planning up front. Since most Level Designers likely have not built an actual military base, nor would they be contracted to do so for their government, we need to learn from what these real world experts have already built. Though, since lots of games are based in a fantasy world, developing how a space factory functions isn't easy. Using real world reference is still critical to start with before moving into how it fits within the fiction for the game.


Thanks for the head's up on DoD. Been looking at it more closely, and it seems really well though out. I will give it a whirl some more...hadn't had a chance to really sit down with it.

Erik Moser
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As a small note, your level diagram immediately reminded me of the Warehouse map in the original Counter-Strike mod. With terrorists defending a primary large warehouse, there were three entrances: a large open doorway with clear lanes of fire inside and outside, a small ground-level door immediately facing a large wall, and a rooftop entrance through penetrable vents into a second-story office.

Whether by luck of design, the map fits well into your criteria; though it is a case where the Combat Zone is pretty much the entire level, and it's a little more excusable to have crates around when you're in a warehouse.

Interesting article.

Dragos Inoan
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If you're talking about CS_Assault , that was the single most imbalanced map in Counterstrike history, where 1 person on the Terrorist team could hold it against a team of 5 with a high degree of success.

This is a great article for level designers and has a lot of healthy principles that should be taken into account. However, multiplayer level design has a few extra quirks of its own.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Erik Moser

That map is CS_Assault, good description. Plus, CS isn't a really cover based game, the in the killzone can easy kill the player in covers, specially in that map, you can shoot through most obstacles, crates and walls.

Erik Moser
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For the life of me, I couldn't remember the name of the map. Thank you. You're right that CS isn't cover-based by definition, but I think the playing dynamic of having finite health is similar to a cover-based shooter. Even though the objects are penetrable, they do offer protection; and with limited health and aim penalties for movement, you would still stick and move (if not pop and shot). Sorry for mixing catchphrases.

John Mawhorter
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While I think this article is pretty basic, it does a good job summing up what is needed in encounter design for singleplayer FPS/TPS. With multiplayer levels you have to worry about all sorts of things like timing and balance that are trickier to handle. I would also recommend Day of Defeat (original especially) as a game with really good level design that gives a lot of different tactical routes to each of the different classes.

Ronildson Palermo
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Blew. My. Mind. And helped me greatly!

Very insightful and very well exemplified work, thanks for the excellent read.