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Engaging Level Design for Combat - Pt 3

by Max Pears on 12/18/19 02:02:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Hey everyone, it has been too long and I am sorry about that, I meant to finish up this final section of the topic last month but got distracted. Regardless, I am here now to give you my final article of the year, and thank all of you for reading my articles and wishing you all a Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays. 

Now what could be more Jolly and Christmasy than that of how best to defeat your enemies in ranged combat.

If you have not read my previous entries in the series I do recommend that you check Part 1 and Part 2 out before continuing with the finale. 

Recap

In previous entries, we spoke about how important it is that you understand your metrics for the weapons, cover, avatar and much more. We next discussed the importance of 2d maps and research. With all of that in motion, I can now go forward and show you my blockout. 

To give some context as well, as I mentioned in the previous articles the layout we will be looking at today was from my time on the CGMA Course I took part in earlier this year. This challenge was to create a combat layout of a certain size (30m x 30m). There was no theme, no story, etc, just pure focus on making a great combat layout. We were given a set of LD Kits that we could use as well for these blockouts.

Now with this in mind lets see the magic.

Level

This was the 2d map of the level, a 30x30 map:​

Here is a top down shot of the blockout:

I wanted to share these just because I have seen people talk online about not doing a 2d plan or google sketch up before starting a level as they “do not want to constrain themselves”. I am writing to say that is not true, they are tools to help you plan your level. When you look at the two images you can see that there are differences, as I needed to make some to help the level improve. 

Just showing you how planning does not restrict you, these planning tools are there to help you, then you can go to adjust accordingly. A 2d map helps you create a footprint of your level, it can not and will not represent how it will feel with the overall camera, mechanics etc. 

Changes

With me mentioning how it is important for you to make changes from your plan to your blockout, let us talk about some of my changes. The biggest one for sure is my mix up with the height. 

I have raised the back section of the level. In the previous article I mentioned that I wanted to section off my level, and I divided it into quarters like so: 

With having some combat take place within interiors and other combat areas take place out in exterior areas. Yet when I was running through my level I noticed that although you can feel differences in sections they do not feel so different, so by raising up parts of the level you would feel a difference, a transition. Not only this but it would help divide the space up even more, one half would be raised while the other would be lowered, one half is in an interior space while another would be exterior, again helping the space feel memorable and helping players build a mental map.  This was not the only reason I wanted to raise up the space, it was to put players at a disadvantage, to increase the challenge. 

Something to memorize “It is easier to shoot down, than up” so by dividing the space and having players start on the lower section, it would make them feel as if they were charging into enemy territory.

The second biggest change you can see between the map and the top-down shot was that of the cover placement. That one for sure is always going to change, as you can plan but for sure that is always subject to change, as until you understand how the enemies will move, which archetype of enemy you will use, etc., these are always ideas at best. 

I did not get functioning enemies in this level working, but I did place down placeholders and routes for the enemies to still help me shape the encounter. 

From this, I was able to help picture the cover and plan the combat fronts for my level. 

Now, these are some of the changes, I do not wish to go into too much detail here as there is still so much to talk about and we are almost 1000 words into this blog. As mentioned previously it is okay to make changes, as iteration is how we as level designers make better levels. We do not accomplish it in the planning stage. We do not ace it in our first blockout. We make it slowly with each iteration

Walkthrough

After discussing these changes, let’s break down the level step by step to show you my design choices and why I made them. 

First up, is the players starting position:

As you can see in the blue circle, the player starts in the bottom right corner, in almost a corridor-like space. So there are a few things to break down in why I chose this starting position:

  1. I did not want the player to start exactly in the corner so later on the level can open up and feel bigger, so by manipulating the space and eating it up I can make it feel larger as the player progresses
  2. The starting position is a safe space for the player, allowing them to gather their bearings without feeling threatened.  
  3. From this position I can slowly feed information to the player, when they turn left they can see another section of the level and a challenge, making sure players do not get overwhelmed with everything going on. 
     

I wanted to slowly give information to players. You can see this slowly happen so that players can tackle certain challenges one at a time, and it is also a way to encourage exploration. With the fact that players do not know the whole space, nor can they see it, they will want to go and explore.

The space opens up more and more, so the player can start to see more and take in more information. 

Something to remember is “How we interact with the world, comes from how we see it” If you want players to plan and stick to more of one area, show more of the level, if however you want players to go and explore, then slowly feed them information.

4. Presenting the player with knowledge and options.

From this position the first thing players can see are windows, this informs the player that there is an interior space in front of them. This is crucial for a later choice, as it is foreshadowing how the space is divided. (These windows would be blocked by glass as well, hinting to my second point)

Next is the opening on the left, by having that negative space as well as the cover there as well it peaks the players curiosity, and with the fact that in the west we read left to right it is the first thing players can possibly help pull players in that direction. 

As players turn the corner, we move on to their next view: 

(Before we break this next step down, I just want a huge shout out to a truly amazing Dev Miriam Bellard, Miriam has such a phenomenal mind for design. In her superb talk Environmental Design in Spacial Cinematography Miriam talks about how each view of the level should contain vital info for the player. I really enjoyed that and tried to think of it as I blocked out this level, anyway side note over, do check out Miriam’s talk and follow her on twitter if you have it)

In this shot I wanted players to have a decision point, this space allows players to See the Challenge and then allows them to Plan for said Challenge. In this shot we would be able to see one enemy:

From here players can decide if they should engage in combat, or move closer. To help pull in the player I have done a few things. 

Number one is having the enemy have a patrol path, so the enemy won’t be static so the lineup for the perfect shot is there, but only for a limited window. 

Number two is through cover placement, if we look at the cover it is a stepped position to help players move through the space.

By staggering the cover like this it still allows the player to feel safe as they move through. giving them an advantage. Now I do this because this is the first enemy encounter, so I want players to feel safe and still decide as they move through the space. 

Another choice that will be noticed from earlier is that there are more windows hinting to the player that there is still an interior space to be explored. As the player gets closer they see an option to enter the building.

Now, this entrance not only works because it is an extra option for the player so that the player can strategize, but also it helps to add loops to the combat.  

(With combat loops, the aim is to make sure that players or enemies do not run into dead-ends, or out of choices (oversimplified explanation))

From this position players can possibly see the other enemy as well, alerting them that they are outnumbered. 

If players chose to enter the interior space, one of things is that I wanted it to feel different than the exterior space. I did this in two ways.

First is with the ceiling, it instantly feels a lot more claustrophobic as well as feels limiting in where to shoot, as now players will only aim on the X & Y axis vs that of when outside where they have more freedom to aim higher. 

Secondly is through lack of cover, compared to where we were, there was a lot more cover close by, while here there is a lot less. Most of the cover comes from the architecture itself. 

Once the player has picked their path they can then start to engage the enemies in combat. In order to make sure that space helps players know best how to tackle this encounter is by making sure that the Fronts are clear to the player. 

(Fronts - mean a clear line of combat, knowing where your cover is and knowing where the enemy's line is. We all see those games where we are walking around and suddenly see a lot of crates in an area, we as players know that combat will take place here)

EF = Enemy’s Front
PF = Player’s Front

In this space there are actually two Fronts of combat, in the picture above we will be engaging in combat from this direction to start as we take on our two starting enemies, however there are two enemies up the stairs that the player is not aware of. 

For pacing, the encounter would go along the line where players would engage with the first two enemies, after one has died then an enemy from uptop the stairs would start attacking the player so the Combat Fronts would change. 

A reason for doing this, is to keep the encounter engaging and challenging. By moving the fronts, it means players will have to move as well, making it so they do not camp at certain spots. Creating movement in the fronts allows players to see more of the space and master it. 

Gears of War were great at this, as they would have sections of the level where players had to fight their way up to take down an enemy using a turret, only for the enemy waves to attack the player while the player had the turret, making re-use of the level as well as allowing the player to see the level from a different angle.

By also switching the front as well, I am now changing the difficulty of the encounter. During the first Front players and enemies are both on the same level of height, while when it changes the enemy is now higher than the player. 

In order for players to get on the same height as the enemy, it means that they have to cover more ground and expose themselves before they can get up the stairs. What I have done to help the player, but also another way to help encourage movement within this combat space, is by mixing up the cover height. 


In these pictures you can see that some cover are 1m Low cover and while high covers are 2m tall. Now we could go into how the different sizes of cover impacts players, but we are already pushing the word limit here, so I will say that by having some High Cover it blocks Line of Sight so players will have to move around in order to line up the shot that they want. By using Low Cover as well, it may not always be the safest option for the player, again forcing them to move. This will also help players strategize as they chose which cover to move to. 

We could continue you on with the level, as this so far is only just one-quarter of the level. However, during the time of writing this, it is getting closer to Xmas, so I am going to cut things short around here. Also, go enjoy your time as well with the ones that you love.

Learning Points

Although I have only showed you a section of my level, let us talk about what you should take away from this article and apply to your own combat encounters: 

  1. Starting Point - When choosing how or where to start the player, think about a safe space in which players can get their bearings first (unless it is an ambush situation) 
  2. Revealing Information - Depending on the situation will dictate how much you will want to show your player. Just remember that the amount you show will impact how players move, as well to make sure you do not overload your player too much. 
  3. Provide choices for the player - this can just be as simple as which cover to use, but by providing a choice it helps players feel that they are in control. 
  4. Provide Combat Loops -  It is simple but will help reduce frustration for players, by making sure that they do not end up in dead ends, it helps keep the flow of combat engaging. 
  5. Establish your Fronts - Make it clear where the fight will take place so players can best prepare themselves 
  6. Change the Fronts -  It is great to have your fronts, but by changing it part way through combat, it encourages movement and allows the player to see and understand more of your space
  7. Mix Up Cover Height - Mixing up cover height is great for variety, as well as having players interact with the space differently
  8. Height Level Changes - Are a great way to break up line of sight, change up the difficulty as well as a nice way to break up the traversal and process of aiming. You can do it by making your space two floors, but also just by raising an area by 1m.

 

Every game, combat encounter, and level is different so these are not hard rules, more of suggestions. It is about knowing when to apply them as well. I do hope they help you when you create your future levels. 

Improvements

This small encounter space may be something I am proud of considering the time constraints I made it in. Yet that does not mean it is a perfect space, I know that there are some things I need to adjust and change in order to make this a more memorable level. I am going to mention a few of them here, so you can make even better levels than myself. 

  1. Help make each section more memorable -  I spoke about how I tried to divide this level into quarters, which I think I did okay, but I should have experimented with local and global landmarks so players would instantly recognize the sections a little better. I tried with the architecture of the space, however, I should have looked at more propage ideas as well. 
  2. Less Cover - Now that is not a sweeping statement for the overall level, just in certain sections, I should have reduced the amount of cover, that way it would encourage more long range combat forcing the players to hold their ground in certain sections. 
  3. Tweaked metric guideline - For this space, it may not seem like a huge deal but my cover buffer was 2m, I think I should have pushed it for 3m to have more space and not have certain areas feel as tight as they did in the level.  
  4. Have actual enemies - Now these red boxes helped me for sure, but nothing is better than having actual AI inside your level, as that would give me far better feedback for my level. 
     

For sure there is more than this, but these are the bigger issues at hand when I go through this level. As I said before, we do not get everything right the first time we do it. Our levels get better with each iteration. 

With that said, if you have enjoyed this article and level, then maybe you want to see another level I did this year, which has objectives, a theme, and a location to show you how I applied these rules to a new space. Check it out here:

 

Please Support

If you want more Level Design tips then please follow me on twitter. If you want more quality LD content and want to imagine how my silky voice sounds, then please come check out my podcast.

iTunes: https://apple.co/2CwAkqD
Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/03OTDRAPsAiocSLCTEiXBn
YouTube: https://bit.ly/2XUXcLf
SoundCloud: https://bit.ly/2XYIo9K


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