Producing quality maps for first-person shooter multiplayer games is a tricky business. Players demand variety, but also want consistency, and when map packs can run fifteen dollars apiece, players want to make sure they’re getting value for their money.
We were curious as to whether the experts in multiplayer FPS map design held any “rules” in common for how to design the best maps, so we spoke with a group of experts in the field:
- Jim Brown, Lead Level Designer at Epic Games (whose work includes the Unreal series);
- Phillip Tasker, Lead Level Designer at Treyarch (the studio responsible for Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty: Black Ops)
- Adam Crist, Design Lead at Certain Affinity (World at War, Black Ops, Halo Reach and Halo: Anniversary)
- Inge Jøran Holberg and Niklas Åstrand from DICE (Battlefield series).
Overall design philosophy
Our first question to our devs was what their big-picture design philosophies were for building multiplayer FPS maps.
Jim Brown from Epic cited balance as the key. “Size is important, flow is important, visuals are important, but if a map is imbalanced, no one will want to play it.”
Phillip Tasker said that Treyarch begins with finding a powerful gameplay concept, like fighting under a rocket while it’s taking off (a concept realized in Black Ops). Then it’s a matter of tending to the nitty-gritty. “Moving on from high concept, define the dominant engagement range of the map, carve out the main paths to force players into head-to-head battles, establish ‘destinations’ where players want to fight for dominance, and build out a cadenced flow with careful attention to cover placement and angles of attack,” Tasker said. “Always remember that the most memorable maps break these rules, just not all at the same time.”
Adam Crist said that Certain Affinity focuses on flow and ease of navigation so that players can easily find the action from the very first time they step into the level. “By the second and third time, players should start to have a strong understanding of all the major locations and pathways throughout the level,” Crist told us, “so that by their fourth and fifth time they’re executing their own strategies and not struggling with trying to figure out where they are.”
Inge Jøran Holberg and Niklas Åstrand from DICE have to think about the nature of combined-arms combat first and foremost. A good map in Battlefield “should be a dynamic playground where there are no ‘silver bullets’ and where the focus shifts constantly between infantry and vehicle combat,” they said. “For us, a good multiplayer map takes the experience of a constantly shifting battlefield and builds upon that.”
First person shooter players love to complain about whether maps are balanced are not, but what is “balance” on a multiplayer FPS map, anyway? “This is the million dollar question! Team balance, weapon balance, map flow, player skill levels, latency to the server, the core gameplay loop and more can all be balanced in different ways,” said Epic’s Jim Brown. “I prefer to think of it in terms of two evenly skilled players (or teams) having equal chances of doing well when matched against each other in ideal conditions.”
“Balance in a multiplayer map means symmetry in opportunities to win (not necessarily symmetry in map layout),” said Treyarch’s Phillip Tasker. “Map advantages for one team, such as an elevated position, should be offset by similar advantages or opportunities for counter-tactics. Localized “imbalances” can create great tension and encourage players to alter tactics to defeat the other team. The key is to ensure appropriate counter tactics are available and that imbalances are not unevenly distributed in the rest of the map.”
Adam Crist from Certain Affinity agreed that fair competition was the definition of balance, which can be a challenge during asymmetrical map design. “We try to ensure that every strong position on the map has a counter to it. If we have a strong sniper location, we either create another sniper location that has line of sight to the first, and/or create a back path that is protected from the sniper so players with mid-range and close-range weapons can outflank the sniper,” Crist said. “In addition to creating counters to strong locations on a level, we also ensure that each team has equal access to these locations. This of course also extends to weapon locations when working on games where designers can control the weapon palette and spawn locations.”
Inge Jøran Holberg and Niklas Åstrand from DICE use the challenge of balanced asymmetrical design as a vehicle for telling stories with their maps. “Rush mode often pits attackers with vehicles against defenders that can dig in at their defensive positions. The attackers need to be on the move towards their objectives, while defenders can keep falling back until there’s a desperate last stand at the final M-COM stations,” they told us. “This setup might not look balanced on paper, but both sides have a fair chance to win the game, just using different tactics and gameplay to secure the win.”
Core player skills
First person shooters vary in style these days. The open maps of Battlefield require different player skills than the tight corridors of a Call of Duty killfest. We still wanted to know if there were any core skills that a multiplayer map should test first and foremost.
We had to chuckle at the blunt answer from Phillip Tasker of Treyarch. “Yes…the ability to shoot other players,” he said. “Nothing should come between you and your ability to have a head-on fight with the enemy. Every map will make this experience a little different and provide layers of complexity for tactical gameplay and variety, but at the end of the day, all maps should encourage players to go head-to-head in engagements that test a player’s ability to shoot the other guy first.”
Holberg and Åstrand challenge Battlefield players to constantly switch up their skillsets through requiring different kits at different times during a battle. “Sometimes we challenge you to change your class and kit to adapt to a new environment,” they told us. “The best multiplayer maps have varying environments that will reward creative teamwork. When every player has an important role to fulfill for his squad to be effective, that’s when we have succeeded in creating a great map.”
Jim Brown from Epic cut straight to the heart of the matter: What skills you test will vary depending on the situation. “I think that depends very largely on the game itself, and not as much on the map,” he said. “Some games might rely on movement and flow, or on cover and sniping, or maybe even light, gravity, or some other game mechanic that has nothing to do with the map itself. The best advice I can give is that if you’re going to make a map for a game (or be successful in playing one), make sure you really intimately know the game itself and all of its subtlety so that you can position that knowledge.”
Adam Crist told us that Certain Affinity holds to a similar philosophy. “Good multiplayer maps should always be testing a player’s ability to master the game’s core mechanics,” he said. “In the end it comes down to highlighting the core mechanics of the game that separates its experience from that of another game.”
Multiplayer first person shooter matches can sometimes get bogged down in choke points that demand only close quarters battle tactics, or snipers can frustratingly dominate maps. We wanted to know if there was a relationship between viability of variable tactics and map quality. The style of play that a game demanded was the crux of this question for our developers.
“This varies from level to level and game to game. In games where the designer can control which weapons are available on the level, we’ll first define which styles of play we want to support up front and then design the level around that experience,” Adam Crist from Certain Affinity told us. Call of Duty maps, on the other hand, allow players to choose their weapon loadouts, so supporting variety become more important. The other Call of Duty map designer we spoke with reinforced Crist’s point. “Players will always have to adapt their tactics a bit depending on the map, but every player should be able to find some success using their favorite load outs across all maps,” said Phillip Tasker from Treyarch. “For example, if a map is designed primarily as a long range map, there should still be a way for players to traverse the map using shorter range weapons. “
Battlefield players also choose their own loadouts, so DICE has similar concerns. “A level where only snipers are effective, for example, will easily become less dynamic and provide less depth in gameplay than a level that offers a role for each class,” said Holberg and Åstrand. “We need to provide the maps to ensure that you can play with your favorite class.” Jim Brown agreed with all the others’ sentiments. “That’s hard to say without knowing the core gameplay loop of the game in question,” he said, “but as a stock answer I would say ‘if it helps balance the gameplay, then yes.’”
In order to make sure first person shooter players have plenty of variety for their multiplayer gaming, maps need to be able to support multiple game modes. This can be a tricky task for map designers. “Objective-based game modes often rely on symmetrical maps, but asymmetrical maps are often best for straight deathmatch, so the trick is finding a good balance between the two,” said Jim Brown. “Maybe the paths are the same but the visuals on each side are different, maybe the paths are different but the overall placement of weapons or pickups is balanced. Really, what you need to do is test it over and over in all game modes until you find the right mix that satisfies each mode’s needs.”
For Treyarch, this is a pivotal question to answer before the coders even start programming. “Since Call of Duty multiplayer maps are not designed around just one game mode, sanity checks happen early in the paper design to make sure we have viable battle spaces for objectives built in,” said Phillip Tasker. “Some considerations are access from main pathways, locations for re-spawns that are not too close to the objective, and good spots for players to attack and defend them from. If we look at a paper layout that looks fun but find ourselves saying ‘where the heck are the Domination flags going to go?’ then we know we have more work to do.”
The Battlefield 3 team sometimes builds a map with either Rush or Conquest mode in mind specifically, but the basic mechanics of their game that require supporting varied kits and play styles make adapting maps to other game modes a little easier. “Since we were already making sure that each multiplayer map has varying environments from the start, adapting them from a wide-open game mode to a tighter and more focused one wasn’t really all that difficult,” Holberg and Åstrand said.
Certain Affinity takes a different tack on the question. “When approaching the design for a level for a game that supports multiple game modes, we tend to pick one ‘primary’ game mode and 1-2 ‘secondary’ modes to focus on,” said Crist. “With these priorities set we can make better decisions regarding layout and weapon placement. We then playtest the primary and secondary modes daily for weeks and then layer in the rest of the game modes once the initial modes are a blast to play.”
Player map experience
Multiplayer FPS map design theory is a dense subject to say the least, but there was one more question we wanted to get out of our bevy of designers. Being the new guy in an FPS and getting dominated on account of not knowing the maps can be extremely frustrating for shooter players. How much of an advantage should the best FPS multiplayer maps lend to players who really know them?
“While that depends largely on the complexity of the map and game systems, there is always going to be some advantage to knowing your way around,” said Epic’s Jim Brown “Layout familiarity helps players formulate strategies, plan for contingencies and take advantage of opportunities that less familiar players may not even realize exist.”
Treyarch’s Phillip Tasker expressed a similar sentiment, but with a different focus. “I’ll answer this question in terms of what I believe should give players an advantage and what shouldn’t,” he said. “Good map design should reward players who have learned the tendencies and patterns of player behavior as it relates to timing and predicting engagements. We prefer not to create overly complex maps that reward players just because they know every nook and cranny where they can hide.”
Adam Crist from Certain Affinity never wants map knowledge to be too much of a determining factor in player success. “We want all players, from those that have been playing for months to first timers, to have a fun and fair experience,” he told us. “Obviously those that have been playing for some time will have a slight advantage due to knowing where the best defensible areas are, sniping locations, weapon spawns, etc., but when our design and art teams do their jobs well, new players are able to quickly learn the layout of the map and find the counters to those strong locations. At the end of the day, we want the outcome of a fight to come down to player skill and team tactics, not the layout of the level.”
Inge Jøran Holberg and Niklas Åstrand from DICE, on the other hand, were unabashed in admitting how much advantage a Battlefield player who really knows the maps inside and out will wield during a multiplayer game. “A lot,” they said. “A player that knows where the good hiding spots or strategic routes are will ultimately be more effective on a map. Typically, this is often why a map will grow on a player over time, if it fits their preferred play style. At first they will feel like strangers on a new map, coming from playing a map they maybe know everything about. Suddenly they have to start from scratch. It will take some time until they get optimal efficiency due to the sheer size of the Battlefield maps.”
Taking stock of our answers, these are the conclusions we reached through our informal study: The best multiplayer FPS maps allow players to get into the action quickly; always provide avenues for countering the enemy’s positioning; are designed around the unique core mechanics of a particular game; allow for variable tactics to lead to success; support multiple modes of play; and lend an advantage to players who know the maps well, but not such a crushing advantage that new players can’t compete.
All of that might sound obvious, but as with all things the devil’s in the details. The next time you find yourself on a really tight map in a multiplayer FPS match, take a moment afterwards to recognize how all these factors came together simultaneously to provide you with that experience. We’d like to thank all the developers who contributed to this feature both for their time, and their continuing efforts to provide us with kick-ass maps upon which to virtually shoot one another.