With level design, were the routes all design, or did you do it through playtesting?
PW: I think you always start with a plan that covers most of the things that you need because the level designers are so experienced at what they do. I mean, the guys that we have on the project, like Dave Johnston, who we hired was well-known.
He did de_dust, which you might have heard of with Counter-Strike -- one of the most famous third-party maps in the world. Jamie [Manson], one of our recent level designers, joined us a year or two ago and was a very well-known TF2 community mapper, and most of us come from Quake III Fortress's mod makers, anyway. So we generally have a good eye for people who know good level design.
We're obsessed with spawn times and routes and distances and times; we test those and test those and test those, and a hell of a lot of thought goes into how long it takes you to travel on foot from one spawn to another location compared to the other team.
We're lucky because of the way that we have this spawn wave system that we've inherited really from the Return to Castle Wolfenstein days; we have the same mechanic for asymmetrical maps, which is very helpful.
Then, what we do though in the process is we'll do a block-out, like a low-polygon version of the map, which is scale-wise represented in a kind of silhouette form of what you'd like to see. The level designers will get that to the point where it's really good fun before we commit to it artistically.
Then the concept artist will paint over concepts; that will then be blocked out in a higher level of detail by our level designers because sometimes there's context that will have subtle changes to routes.
If you take Security Tower, for example, the front entrance to that area -- this is kind of a transit route for workers going in and out twice a day; it's really demeaning, the whole process. So the concept artist felt like it needed to feel like a cattle grid formation, not just all queuing and going straight in. It's not a rock concert; it needs to feel like people are not trusted.
Obviously, this had a gameplay impact, so what the level designers do in those situations is they then do a higher-polygon block-out of the concept-art version, play-test it again excessively -- we always get the multiplayer up before we've got...
Is that you guys testing it at work -- just the developers?
PW: Yeah, well we have our own, at Splash Damage -- we have a production testing team of about nine guys, as well, who have been full-time with us pretty much since the beginning. We've had an eight-man production team since the day we started. Then, once we're confident that's looking pretty good, the concept artist makes some tweaks to the concept art, and then it will go to an environment team that will now model in high-poly but still gray assets -- the scale version of everything that's being made.
We'll test that for gameplay, and if it's still really good fun -- because, you know, an artist might argue that, you know, there really should be a staircase; but it doesn't go anywhere, and it gives us a route we didn't want. Sometimes for artistic integrity, you have to make these kinds of sacrifices. You have to test. Can you still shoot? Do you still have visibility on a choke point?
Ultimately, it comes down to movement, concealment, cover, and fortification, the key things you really have to give a lot of thought to. So basically we go through that process; then, having now finally got a scale, high-poly version of the entire environment in black and white, we start doing the real modeling, the texturing, the lighting, the atmosphere, special effects, environment audio, and everything else.
How long does it take to take a map from start to finish?
PW: The maps that are in the game today... All of them existed in some form more than two years ago, so they all exist for a good couple of years. I think that's what tends to lead to really well-balanced maps. When you get to playtesting for not months, but at least a year or two, that's when you start to see problems.
Our fan base is going to play them for years. Wolfenstein Enemy Territory was released seven or eight years ago, but is still in the top three multiplayer shooters. It's the same six maps we did in 2003, and they've completed 15 million downloads and half a billion matches played online.
If you create a game that has great depth and good mod-making and community support -- which Wolfenstein Enemy Territory has really benefited from, particularly with tournament rules put together by the community -- the maps are only going to survive if they are also very solid and, particularly with our style of gameplay, with asymmetrical maps where the attacking team has completely different lengths and routes and distances than the defending team, that's quite a challenge.
Now, of course, with Brink we have persistent character advancement, so potentially we have a level 20 character playing against a level 1 character, and that still has to work, as well. It ends up being heuristics as much as logic; just flat-out denial and argument and passion and fights and everything.
It is interesting that you felt confident to bring on someone from Killzone, which is much in the mode of the cinematic games you talked about earlier.
PW: Oh! Our creative director is the lead game designer from Fable II! Our art director did Rainbow Six: Vegas and Prince of Persia. Our lead character artist is the guy who did Shepard and the aliens in Mass Effect. There's just this real broad range of people.
I think what Brink has is... I don't think anybody playing it would confuse it with a non-high-quality blockbuster type game because, in terms of the quality of the cinematics, the special effects, the audio, the soundtrack, and everything else, it has that feel. It just is simultaneously is also something that you can play for hundreds of hours -- and that, I think, is quite a rare combination. I think the things that are most interactive, that offer the most emergent gameplay, can often be quite low-fi because of the nature of the depth of their execution.