Multiplayer Level Design In-Depth, Part 2: The Rules of Map Design

By Pascal Luban

In the first part of my series devoted to the design of multiplayer levels, I offered a detailed view of typical design constraints in multiplayer compared to that of a single player level. I would now like to give some suggestions to remedy these problems with intelligent map design.

A good level design for a multiplayer map should respond to three challenges:

Challenge 1: Durable Maps

Let’s begin by the durability of the map. What are the level design rules that I recommend to respond to this challenge?

1.) My first recommendation, and probably the most important, is to put the third dimension to good use. Use and exploit the vertical dimension in your maps and give the players reasons to use the volume of the map and not only its two-dimensional layout.

The example below is taken from the Museum map, available in both Splinter Cell – Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory. This medium sized room perfectly illustrates how a very rich gameplay, based on movement and dissimulation, can be created by applying this rule. Players have several partially overlapping circulation levels at their disposal. They can move vertically by using the stairs, climbing the beams or simply by jumping. Finally, the room includes enough objects to enable players to hide, but also to use these surfaces to make their grenades bounce.


One of the rooms where the third dimension is well used in the Museum map (Splinter Cell – Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory)

This rule may well be applied to exterior settings, too, such as in Battlefield maps, where the players can climb roofs, cranes or towers and can also take flying vehicles.

2.) My second recommendation is to build open maps to enable the creation of an infinite number of paths. The warehouse, plant or building site themes suit this kind of map perfectly.

Take for instance the Deftech map, published in the multiplayer version of Splinter Cell – Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory. The inner courtyard, although a very simple design, provides a practically infinite number of movement possibilities. It contains three main levels of movement – the yard, the footbridge and the roof of the containers – as well as two secondary levels: a network of underground tunnels and overhead cables. By combining these different levels of movement, a significant variety of movements -- and therefore of tactical possibilities -- is obtained. It’s not by luck that Deftech yard is one of the most appreciated maps by deathmatch fans.


The yard of the Deftech map (Splinter Cell – Pandora Tomorrow) illustrates how vertical movement is created in an exterior setting

3.) Increase the number of events in the map, especially those that make the players change their tactics. The Aquarius map, available in Splinter Cell – Chaos Theory, is a good example of the use of events. In my previous article, I explained how certain ill-considered actions of the defenders open new possibilities of infiltration to the attackers in this map. But Aquarius also provides other map events that have a direct impact on players’ tactics.

Each time the attackers take over one of the five mission objectives of the map, they trigger an event in the map that handicaps the defenders: smoke release, unlocking of doors, lights turning off etc. All Splinter Cell – Chaos Theory maps, as well as the two maps available for download for Pandora Tomorrow, are full of interactions like these. Experience shows that gamers really appreciate this extra dimension of gameplay.

The game design itself must contribute to the map durability, by producing features that acquire their importance according to specific elements of level design. In the Assault mode of the multiplayer version of Far Cry, engineers can build fortifications or turrets in predetermined locations. This game design feature makes sense when the level design provides locations where these buildings offer a real tactical interest. Thus, a turret may cover an access path or a wall may block an entry to allow the defenders to concentrate on other entries.


A room in the Aquarius map (Splinter Cell – Chaos Theory) in its normal state. It is well-lit and provides few hiding places for the attackers. It is a “safe” room for the defenders..

Here is how the same room looks when the attackers reached one of their mission objectives. The darkness of the smoke makes the room very dangerous for the defenders.

Challenge 2: Maps Where Navigation Is Clear

The second challenge a multiplayer map designer should respond to is accessibility. It’s a major problem for players who discover a new map, and especially for beginners. Designers should keep in mind that the stress and the game rhythm decrease the player’s capacity to properly analyze the setting.

The objective of the level designer is to design the map in such a way that the player can always answer three basic questions, regardless of his location:

- Where am I?
- Where should I go?
- How do I get there?


Where Am I?

By looking at the environment, the player should be able to determine his current position and locate it on the map. In Pandora Tomorrow, the Krauser Labs map contains three rooms that shelter the mission objectives. Each of these areas is characterized by a different colour. It is therefore easy for the player to determine his current position and to guess where the passage leads him, thanks to the color light that filters through the entries to the areas in question.

In an exterior map, it is still simple to enable the player to determine where he is, by adding setting elements that are visible from a distance, as is the case in this multiplayer map of Halo 2.

A second technique consists in building asymmetrical maps or areas. Long Run, a map designed by one of the level designers of my team with the free level editor of Pandora Tomorrow, is built on an inclined plane, like a gigantic staircase. Simply by noticing his position in relation to the other levels of the map, the player can immediately locate himself.


The tower is visible from all points in this Halo 2 map and makes it easy for the players to get their bearing.


Long Run, a complex yet easily navigable map thanks to its asymmetrical design.

A third technique consists in proving the map with a simple block plan, as shown below.


Where Should I Go?

We have just seen a few techniques meant to assist the player in determining his position in the map. Let’s see now how we can help him understand where he should head to achieve his mission objectives.

Many multiplayer games ask the player to reach such objectives as to capture a flag, plant a bomb or hack a computer terminal. The player should be capable of identifying and especially guessing their target’s location simply by analyzing the map layout.

Two rules should be applied:

- The mission objectives, or a related setting element, should be visible from far away
- The mission objective itself should be clearly distinguished from the surrounding environment.

The flag poles in Battlefield perfectly apply these two rules. If the game imposes more discrete mission objectives, such as planting a bomb, it is possible to associate a large object such a radio aerial to the objective itself.


The location of game objectives cannot be made easier than in Battlefield.

We have seen that it is pretty simple for outdoor game objectives. However, it is more complicated for indoors objectives because the players can’t see though the walls. The solution is to create an obvious link between the map layout and the objectives. Thus a map designed around three areas will contain one objective per area. As soon as the player understands that there is one objective per area, it will be easier to guide him to the objective, as soon as he gets to the right area. The second rule, which consists of mission objectives that are slightly different from the surrounding environment, will direct the player toward his target.

These rules were successfully applied in the Deftech map of Pandora Tomorrow. The mission objectives are distributed in three separate buildings. They are all located on the first floor. Although the map is huge, very few navigation problems were encountered during the playtests. While I was supervising the playtests, I noticed how quickly the players were learning to navigate.

I will finish with a comment on using overlay icons as an aid to navigation. We widely used them in Splinter Cell - Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, but their efficiency is questionable. In fact, when indoors, they often tell players to go straight through the walls, as they indicate the shortest route. These icons may be useful, but do not represent a miraculous solution to the navigation problems and could disturb the player by overloading the screen.

How Do I Get There?

There is still a challenge in terms of ease of navigation: to help the player understand what paths he can take to reach his mission objectives. The best solution is to show him both the objectives AND the means to get there at the same time. One way to do this is to design maps with average-size areas and give the attackers the possibility to have a panoramic view. In the example below taken from the River Mall map, a very popular map available for download for the Xbox version of Pandora Tomorrow, the attackers start their infiltration through the top of the first area. That way, they can see mission objectives, marked by overlay icons, and all the paths that lead to them: staircases, footbridges etc.


In River Mall (Splinter Cell – Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory), the attackers can see both their game objectives and the means to reach them.

Challenge 3: Fun Maps

The biggest challenge for us is to create a fun map. If the rules described in the previous parts are applied, all maps would resemble each other, but all gamers like to be surprised and challenged. From the gamer’s point of view, having a large number of maps that all look alike is less satisfying than a smaller number of varied maps.

My first suggestion is to use diversity as much as possible. In Chaos Theory, we made it a key point to search for original graphic themes: the Aquarius map represents an oceanographic museum, Orphanage takes place in an old abandoned school in the middle of a forest, the theme of the Missile Strike is an old bunker complex, etc.

But diversifying the graphic theme is not enough. It is also necessary to differentiate the gameplay offered by each map. Thanks to the wealth in game design, we were able to bring diversity that is unusual for multiplayer maps. Each map forces the players to adapt their tactics in function. The table below summarizes the main features of the Chaos Theory maps from the gameplay perspective.


Orphanage: a map of Splinter Cell – Chaos Theory

Missile Strike: a map of Splinter Cell – Chaos Theory

Aquarius: a map of Splinter Cell – Chaos Theory

Aquarius

Open map. Various types of mission objectives are available. The taking over of one of them affects the defending of the map.

Clubhouse

Open map. Many destructible background elements.

Factory

Open map. Certain mission objectives are only available thanks to the concerted action of the two attackers.

Missile Strike

Linear map. Various types of mission objectives are available.

Orphanage

Linear map that provides a large outdoor area.

Station

Linear map that begins with an assault area.

A year after the release of the multiplayer version of Splinter Cell – Chaos Theory, all its maps are still being played.


My second suggestion is to provide the maps with secrets or actions that require complete mastery of the game. Such aspects of the maps are very rewarding for experienced gamers, who make up your target audience.

In this way, certain Far Cry maps include ideal places for snipers, whose positions are camouflaged by vegetation. In Chaos Theory, we included specifically designed locations for the spies to use when undertaking their most spectacular but also their most dangerous attacks: to catch a mercenary who crosses over a footbridge and knock him off into space. The Factory map contains mission objectives that are only reachable if the two attackers carry out an action in cooperation, a dangerous action, in the Versus multiplayer mode.

My third suggestion is to plan a number of map events such as moving elements or destructible background sections. These events must respond to a gameplay objective and multiply the tactical opportunities; otherwise they will only have a superficial contribution to enriching the map. I have already mentioned map events that modify the gameplay in the Aquarius map, here are a few more:


Attacker getting ready to grab a defender and throw him over the guardrail in Club House, one of the multiplayer maps provided in Splinter Cell – Chaos Theory.

In Factory, the attackers can turn on a digger and break down a wall to clear a path to a new mission objective (see the screenshots below). Besides being spectacular, this type of event is very interesting from the gameplay perspective. By hacking the digger, the attacker shows his presence and exposes himself to the defenders’ firing, but if his action succeeds, he enlarges the perimeter to defend and therefore makes his team’s job easier.

In Club House, the attackers can make new paths by destroying suspended ceilings or raised floors, but by doing so, they also give the defenders their position and enable them to throw grenades. In Bank, the attackers can hack consoles and cause lighting breakdowns or a jamming that disadvantages the defenders in the room that shelters the mission objectives. Because these operations can only be triggered away from the main room, the defenders must make a difficult choice: to defend these secondary objectives and weaken the defense of the mission objectives, or to concentrate the defense on the latter and bear the consequences of the hacking undertaken by the opponents.


In Factory, one of the multiplayer maps of the Splinter Cell – Chaos Theory Versus mode, two mission objectives are not reachable at the beginning of the game. They are located behind a wall. To destroy it, the attackers must hack the digger.

 


As soon as the digger is activated, the wall breaks down, giving access to two new mission objectives and increasing the space to be defended by 30%.

Practically all Chaos Theory maps, as well as those available for download contain this type of event. Highly appreciated by gamers, they are a tribute to the talent of the Ubisoft Annecy studio where the “versus” multiplayer modes of Splinter Cell - Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory were developed.

In my next article, I will tackle the problems of map setting and game system, the design around the technical constraints and the design of a multiplayer game that is more accessible to a wider public.

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