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Educational Feature: A History and Analysis of Level Design in 3D Computer Games - Pt. 2
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Educational Feature: A History and Analysis of Level Design in 3D Computer Games - Pt. 2

April 29, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

While Volition was adding three dimensions to its world and characters, Apogee and its sister company, 3D Realms, would continue their more humorous take on the First-Person Shooter genre with their next title, the January 29th, 1996 release of Duke Nukem 3D or Duke3D for short. Based on the Duke Nukem side scrollers produced by Apogee in the early 90’s, Duke Nukem 3D was the first commercial implementation of a new engine known as BUILD, developed by Ken Silverman. A self-taught programmer, Silverman became a contract programmer for 3D Realms during his freshman year of college. His BUILD engine matched and, in several cases, surpassed the Doom engine in technical achievements. Set in a near-future science fiction world, Duke Nukem 3D places the player into the boots of world-renowned hero and tough guy Duke Nukem. Duke is essentially a caricature of the stereotypical macho action hero, spouting one-liners throughout the game and generally fulfilling the stereotype. The game was a huge hit, not merely because of the never-before-seen attitude that Duke displayed but because Duke 3D and BUILD had solid technical and gameplay advantages over the games that had come before.

BUILD featured an editor that had a real-time What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) interface, meaning that level designers could lay out a level in two dimensions, then immediately switch into a 3D mode to see what the level would look like. Previous editors and engines required the map to be compiled and then run in the game engine in order for level designers to see the progress of their work. This innovation significantly reduced the turn around time for level design, and also made the process much more intuitive.

Besides making level design easier, BUILD allowed Duke3D to have an unprecedented amount of interaction with the world. The game had the ability to give the illusion of dynamically altering portions of the level, allowing effects such as buildings exploding and collapsing, ground cracking in earthquakes, and certain walls that players could destroy with rocket launchers or explosive barrels. Most of these effects were accomplished with technical slight-of-hand in the engine and in the level design program, and didn’t mean that the engine was actually capable of changing level geometry. Duke 3D and BUILD allowed level designers to add in, for lack of a better term, special effects that gave the player the illusion that they were dramatically effecting or altering the game space, when in reality they were merely triggering the special effects that the level designers had pre-placed. This is in contrast to later games such as Volition’s 2001 release of Red Faction, a title in which the player could use explosives and other weapons to dynamically alter and destroy many walls and other surfaces in the game.

In addition to the influence players could have on the geometry of the level, Duke 3D also added in the ability to destroy or interact with a large number of in-game objects. Fire hydrants could be smashed, urinals interacted with, coke cans exploded, and so on. Practically any decorative object could be destroyed, resulting in a shower of debris, adding realism to the firefights. Glass also made one of its first appearances in Duke 3D, though another sprite-based version had also appeared in Apogee’s earlier Rise of the Triad. In addition to glass, Duke featured mirrors that reflected the architecture around them, as well as Duke. The glass and mirrors could usually be broken, adding yet another small touch to the worlds.


Duke3D used early scripting techniques and a WYSIWG level
editor to make levels more immersive and interactive.



Duke 3D, for all of its technical innovations, was not a fully three dimensional world. Enemies were still sprite-based, as were all of the in-game objects, and the BUILD engine, much like that of Doom still did not support rooms-over-rooms. This made effects such as multi-story buildings or sewers running under a building impossible to do traditionally. Instead, Duke 3D leveraged an effect first seen in Doom: the teleporter. In Doom, teleporters were spaces, usually denoted by pentagrams, that when stepped on would immediately transport a player to another part of the level. The effect in Doom was primarily used to transport players from point to point or to teleport monsters into an area to attack the player. The effect of having monsters appear in this manner was referred to as “spawning”, a term still widely used in level design to refer to the appearance of enemies or objects in the game world.

While still not a completely three dimensional engine, Duke 3D found many innovative uses for sprites, allowing certain decorative sprites to be applied directly to wall surfaces. These sprites were commonly used for items such as signs, boards and calendars, though they were also used for blood spatter on walls, cracks, scorch marks and bullet holes. Such sprite based effects were first used in Rise of the Triad, but Duke Nukem 3D greatly expanded their use, and did so in highly creative ways. Minor effects such as blood from enemies splattering against a wall behind them helped to make characters seem more a part of the world.

In Duke Nukem 3D, developers took the idea of teleporting and used it to cover up the weaknesses of the engine, giving the impression of it being capable of more than it really was. An excellent example of this can be found in the Red Light District map, the second map of the first episode. After obtaining a keycard and destroying a building, one can find a manhole cover in the wreckage. If the player destroys the manhole cover with explosives, they can drop into the sewers. Looking more closely, though, one will note that the manhole pipe is actually a dead end; if you look down into the vertical drop, the bottom can be seen. By dropping into the hole, however, an invisible teleporter is triggered that moves the player to a different area of the level that looked like a sewer. The sewer was supposed to be immediately below the destroyed building, but since the BUILD engine couldn’t do rooms-over-rooms the level designer, Alan Blum III, chose to use an invisible teleport to move the player to a location not immediately underneath another room. Such techniques are used throughout Duke Nukem 3D to accomplish a number of effects, including any water in which the player can actually submerge themselves and swim in. Because of careful forethought and good map design, these effects are almost completely transparent unless you know what to look for.

These effects were a crude predecessor of the scripting languages now used to control many of the variables and effects in FPS titles. By altering values in the editor, known as “hi tags” and “lo tags”, level editors could assign certain actions to certain objects, as well as link a number of objects together to function as a single entity. These tags and links made extremely complex actions possible.

Unlike Doom and RotT, the levels in Duke 3D were usually built around a central theme, as well as sharing a thematic link via episode. For instance, many of the maps in episode one, L.A. Meltdown, and in episode three, Shrapnel City, are centered on recognizable city buildings such as a movie theater, sushi house, prison, and so forth. The second episode consists of more fanciful, but still recognizable, space-based structures. Again, all of these maps, while not linear in the way levels in Half-Life are connected, are still linked, giving the player the impression of a larger world. The fact that the game world was both easily recognizable and more interactive than ever before made Duke Nukem 3D an extremely popular title.

While Duke Nukem 3D was gaining fans with its tongue in cheek attitude to the game world and its technical innovations, id software, fathers of the PC First Person Shooter revolution, were not resting on their laurels. On October 10th, 1994 id released Doom II: Hell On Earth, the sequel to their smash hit. The game was a huge seller, but offered no major technical advancements over Doom. Indeed, the engine was exactly the same, featuring no improvement to graphics or to the gameplay, though there were several new enemies and a new weapon, the double-barreled shotgun. The game, while wildly successful, offered little more than its predecessor, but the gameplay of the original Doom and Doom II was so compellingthat it did not matter. Still, id’s John Carmack had a vision for the future, and that vision was a fully three-dimensional world (Kushner, 178-179).


With Quake, id Software brought polygonal geometry and entities
to the masses…but little improvement in interactivity.



Quake would be that next id title, and the realization of Carmack’s technical vision. Everything, from the environment architecture to the enemies and powerups would be polygon based, another first in the industry. Singleplayer gameplay and world detail, however, would suffer a severe decrease during the transition to full 3D, since the computing power needed to render the world meant that the pace of the game would be much slower than Doom. Worse still, since everything was polygon based, that meant that adding detail to an object meant adding polygons, and more polygons meant less speed (Kushner 216-217).

Released on July 22, 1996, seven months after Duke Nukem 3D, Quake featured next to no story, but like Doom chose to focus primarily on action. The game featured dynamic lighting, similar to that implemented in Descent, and a variety of enemies that ranged from towering lightning-shooting behemoths to twisted knights to zombies that would throw hunks of their own bloody entrails at the player. The game was extremely popular, and was a major software engineering achievement, but featured single-player gameplay that was almost exactly identical to that of Doom.

The levels in Quake were a mixture of the work of a number of level designers, all working on different themes. This led to an uneven tone in the level designs that id attempted to reconcile by making teleportation and inter-dimensional travel a core theme of the game. Nevertheless, compared to many other titles, particularly Duke Nukem 3D, the world had a very static feel. Combined with the dark color palette, Quake provided a singleplayer experience that, beyond the technical achievements of the engine, offered little new gameplay.

Like Doom, Quake was designed with modification in mind. This time, instead of simply relying on WAD files, Carmack developed a scripting language called QuakeC that allowed members of the mod community to drastically alter the game. Adding new weapons and enhancing player function became a relatively simple affair, and a number of popular modifications such as TeamFortress and ThreeWave Capture the Flag were a direct result of the power of the modding tools. These user-created modifications would help fuel the popularity of Quake as well as a growth in the popularity of modding games.
Multiplayer proved to be Quake’s strong suit, with the game featuring support for the TCP/IP networking protocol, allowing multiplayer games to now take place over the burgeoning internet. A later update to the game would add in a system known as QuakeWorld, which added client-side prediction to the game, greatly improving network performance on slow dial-up connections.

Curiously, the greatest achievement of Quake may not lie in its gameplay or its ease of modification, but in its use as a test bed in the evolution of 3D accelerator cards. Carmack used a modification of Quake known as GLQuake to allow the game to use the new consumer technology of graphics accelerators to add both new features to Quake, as well as improve its rendering of the world as it existed. In addition to increasing the speed of the game, allowing gameplay speed closer to that of Doom, GLQuake added graphical enhancements such as making water transparent, adding reflections and also adding shadows. Until GLQuake, water in Quake and most other titles had been essentially opaque, with no way to see what was in the water without jumping in. GLQuake made it possible to look right into the water, which not only allowed players to butcher their swimming opponents, but added another small touch of realism to the now fully three-dimensional world. The added shadows served an important function, giving game characters and items a greater appearance of being grounded into the game world. Use of 3D graphics acceleration is now common in the industry, and its adoption has shifted much of the graphics strain from the processor onto specialized graphics chips, allowing the computers main processor to devote it’s time to other tasks, such as artificial intelligence for non-player characters and physics calculations for game objects.

Id would follow up Quake with two official mission packs, the first being Scourge of Armagon, released on February 278th, 1997 and created by Ritual Entertainment. The second mission pack was Dissolution of Eternity, released on March 31, 1997 by the now-defunct Rogue Entertainment. While Scourge of Armagon received considerable praise for its excellent level design and inventive use of traps, as well as a cohesive series of levels with an overarching story, Dissolution of Eternity was somewhat less popular. The fact that Richard “Levelord” Grey, one of the founders of Ritual, had been intimately involved in the level design for some of the most memorable Duke Nukem 3D levels likely played a part in the inventive design of the Scourge of Armagon maps. In addition to new levels, both expansions added new weapons and new monsters.

Quake and it’s sequels Quake II and Quake 3 Arena would continue to push the boundaries of rendering technology, but would do little to advance the art of level design and storytelling. While Quake II’s release on November 30th, 1997 would be a significant cash cow for the company, its much-vaunted single player storyline would once again place the player in the shoes of a lone space marine against impossible odds. Technically, the game would add improved graphics and the ability to render colored lighting, allowing for much more dramatic graphic effects. Quake III Arena would enhance the engine technology by allowing rounded surfaces in games, meaning that more organic shapes could be constructed. Previously, almost all levels were constricted to more angular shapes. As Quake II Arena was essentially a multiplayer only title, little use was made of this technology, and even if it had been properly seized upon it is unlikely that players involved in intense multiplayer deathmatches would stop to admire the architecture.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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