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); and level designers 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.”
(Check back tomorrow; we'll be featuring Part 2 of "How To Build The Best Multiplayer FPS Maps," where our panel of top map developers discuss choke-points, tactics, over-powered strategies, testing and more in our quest to define the perfect first-person shooter map.)
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance video game journalist from Boston, MA. His weekly video game column, First Person, appears on The Escapist. Reach him through his blog Punching Snakes, or follow him on Twitter: