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Deathmatch Map Design: The Architecture of Flow
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Deathmatch Map Design: The Architecture of Flow

June 26, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Call of Duty's multiplayer modes dial up the tension as players try to stay alive to protect their "killstreaks," chains of consecutive kills that see players rewarded with powerful ordnance that can ultimately swing the outcome of a match. Smith describes how maps tend to be built around tactical locations such as "a high mountain cliff that looks over lower fields," or "a building that overlooks a main communications or travel artery."

"Early on in development I look to see if these locations are being used," says Smith. "If so, is it too strong a position? Can the other team clear the enemy out of the location? Is it too easy to take and no one survives there for very long? You can control the flow of the map this way."

Describing Skyline, which, like Monolith, is a map from the Majestic DLC, Clopper echoes the importance of balancing strongholds. "Skyline has this fantastic center structure, but also out to the wings are these two bases that can also offer a very similar kind of thing. What you'll see is fights moving from the center, flowing around the space, then coming back to the center."

"What we're trying to do is sort of facilitate flow between these strongpoints and counter-strongpoints," he adds. "We want to make sure there are multiple areas and multiple strategies to facilitate flow around the map. We don't want people arriving at one strongpoint, camping out there, and then winning the game just sitting in one spot."

The bases at each end of a symmetric map are perhaps the definitive strongholds. In a capture the flag game, it's imperative that these can be breached. "The common practice is to make sure that there's three entrances to any one area that you could defend so that though you might be able to cover one, and potentially two at the same time," Pearson explains. "That always leaves an alternative route for people."

Guaranteed to interrupt a player's Zen is respawning mid-battle only to be lost or disoriented due to a lack of distinct features in the player's field of vision. This goes double during a capture the flag battle on a symmetric map. If the opposing team is halfway home having made off with your flag, the last thing you want is to blunder guns blazing into your own empty base, mistaking it for the enemy's. It's with good reason that map designers keep their art teams on side, as a map's decoration provides the visual cues players need to orient themselves.

Though not strictly a symmetric map, Blood Gulch in the original Halo featured base structures at either end of a valley, each differentiated by decals on the bases' ramparts, colored red or blue, but not all that obvious from a distance. As FPS games have become more sophisticated, so have the graphical flourishes that allow players to quickly orient themselves. Halo 4's Ragnarok, a map which has inherited much of Blood Gulch's DNA, does away with such decals in favor of a sheer mountain cliff face behind one base and a shoreline behind the other.

Skyline is named for the dramatic urban vista visible at one end of the map. It's a stunning piece of skybox work, but also fundamental to the map's usability. Players can generally at a glance tell which way they need to go.

Recognizable details can also let a player know precisely where they are. "I joke with coworkers, saying that it's like designing a mall," says Respawn's Smith. "You have your end stores like Macy's and Bloomingdale's with the food court and some open crossroad in the middle. These locations help shoppers navigate the mall. I'm dating myself now, but before everyone had cell phones, your parents would tell you they would meet you at the food court at noon. You only had a watch and the layout of the mall to help you find your way back."

Ensuring each building in an urban map is visually unique will help greatly, but even smaller cues are useful. In the Modern Warfare 2 map Estate, spawning with something as simple as a watermelon in your field of vision lets you know you've spawned in the kitchen of the hilltop mansion, triggering instinctive, split-second strategies (in my case this involves hauling derriere upstairs to find an unmanned vantage point, booby trapping the landing en route.)

Great multiplayer maps are not conceived whole, then. They emerge. The iterative process of tweaking and testing refines the geography into something both fun and distinct.

Do the designers have favorite maps? Smith recalls his days as a "broke artist" playing GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, and Turok. "It was only when I got into Counter-Strike that I started noticing levels and the guys that made them," he recalls. "This was maybe 1.5 or 1.6 and guys like 3D-Mike were making pretty awesome stuff. I have always loved Narby's maps for how clean and easy to navigate they were. This is when I started really studying map layouts. So really no single map in particular influenced me but the whole CS mapping scene did."

Of his own maps, Smith cites Modern Warfare's Crash and Modern Warfare 2's Storm. Crash features a downed helicopter in a Middle East town, surrounded by numerous bunkers and sniping nests. "It was roughed out very early on, and it just had a ton of playtesting time. So I got to noodle the heck out of the gameplay."

Storm is a larger map set in an industrial estate. "It was a DLC map and I don't think it was very popular," Smith says. "I tried to change the way the game itself played by playing round with the layout of the level. At the time -- Modern Warfare 2 -- had perks [selectable abilities] that were letting players get around the maps very fast and it was breaking the front lines of firefights. As soon as you started having a shootout, an enemy would sprint around and flank your position in seconds and his team would spawn near him so the frontline would change very quickly. To counter this I made the paths really long with almost no exits once you started down them."

Pearson laughs when asked for a favorite of his own designs. "That's like asking to pick a child."

Smith's advice to budding level designers is that they should know their tools. "My suggestion would be to find a photo of some building facade you like and try to build it as precisely as you can," he advises. "Go as far as learning how to make the textures for it and lighting it the same way as in the photo. That one picture can give you a ton of things to learn and that's just making something that looks good. You still need to figure out how to make levels that are fun. You need to figure out what a game is doing that allows you to enjoy it. I did this for such a long time, once I got into the industry and, more importantly, once I got over the feeling that somebody in a suit was going to call my bluff and ask me to leave the building."

He is enthused by the possibilities that the Steam Workshop offers, and hopes this will swell a resurgence in community map-making.

"Other than that it's just plain old hard work," Smith concludes. Creating flow, it turns out, is more difficult than it looks.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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