Game Design Theory: Multiplayer Level Design
Are you interested in the theory behind game design? In this game design theory article we take a closer look at FPS multiplayer map design.
Game Design Theory
For budding game designers it often comes as a shock that there is more to designing games than coming up with a few ideas. The basic idea for a game is merely a seed that has to be developed to include detailed game mechanics and a complete schematic for how the game will actually work. You can learn a great deal about game design theory by playing the top games and considering the decisions the developers made about key aspects of how the game would play. There are plenty of books on the subject; there are even game design courses but the best way to learn about, and develop your game design knowledge, is to dive in and start making games.
This article will be the first in a series on game design theory and we’re going to start off with multiplayer map design for the first-person shooter genre. The FPS genre is extremely well supported by the modding community. And, it has a lively and demanding base of online players addicted to the kind of depth you can only enjoy by playing games with other real people. All of the top FPS series which support a large online community conform, to a large extent, to a particular set of rules about how to lay out FPS multiplayer maps.
In this article we’ll lay out and discuss some of those multiplayer map rules and provide a few examples to illustrate. There is an awful lot to game design theory and you’ll find many different opinions in the games development community. This article only scratches the surface and is intended as a general overview. Since so many modders start off by designing multiplayer maps for their favourite games this seems like an ideal beginning.
All multiplayer maps need spawn points but there are many different ways of dealing with player respawn. Early problems with multiplayer maps included frequent spawn kills where players learned spawn points and camped nearby to kill off opponents before they could get going. There are few things more off putting than being killed before you’ve moved from your starting spot.
For team based games like Counter Strike players are often spawned at opposing ends of a map in a kind of safe zone. This works perfectly for Counter Strike because you never respawn, once you’re dead you are out of the round. The Call of Duty series developed a respawn system so it would spawn you close to your team mates but away from enemies and this works better in most game modes.
The map designer has to specify the location of the potential spawn points and where possible these should be in areas where the player spawning in has some cover. They also need to allow the player to instantly reorient themselves to the map so they shouldn’t spawn in facing a wall for example.
While the Counter Strike system can be used for multiplayer games where the players respawn after death, if the map is big this can involve a long and frustrating journey for the player to get back into the action. The best system is for the designer to place multiple spawn points and then the game code needs to check for enemy players and only spawn when there are none covering the spawn point. In team based games you want to spawn the player as close as possible to his team mates without placing him directly in the line of fire.
All good multiplayer maps have a number of choke or collision points in them. These are bottleneck areas where encounters are likely to occur. In a team based game like Counter Strike it is vital that both teams are spawned an equal distance from objectives and choke points play a huge part in that particular title. Every game of Counter Strike I’ve ever played starts with both teams rushing to a choke point and throwing flash bangs before wading into a fire fight.
It is a good idea to provide multiple routes in FPS multiplayer maps and open areas, especially with a vertical aspect, are always fun, but choke points are essential to focus the gameplay and ensure plenty of dangerous encounters.
The simplest layout you can use for a fun multiplayer map is a figure of eight. This gives you two loops with a major choke point in the middle. Unreal Tournament 2003 actually had a map like this called Training Day. The result was a ridiculously fast paced and chaotic map. It suited the gameplay, but the lack of breathing space soon got tiresome.
Every multiplayer map should include alternate routes to create a bit of interest and encourage people to loop around. You don’t want the player getting too comfortable in any one place so multiple vantage spots onto each area are very effective. If the player can’t sit and cover all positions without constantly moving their view then you are actively discouraging camping (although there are other ways).
Long runs to dead ends are generally a bad idea and if you place something very valuable such as a map mechanism or pick up at the end: you’ll find gameplay focussed there very heavily. Map designers often create terrific areas in their maps, but because of the flow or the choke points the gameplay ends up being focussed in a corridor. If you want your impressive three storey room to be the focus, then think about making it the hub for routes in and out.
A multiplayer map does not have to make architectural sense and it does not have to be laid out like a real building, although conforming to some architectural rules will help players understand your map and navigate it intuitively. The trick is to make individual component parts in your map look like the real deal architecturally, but you can put them together in a way that would be highly unlikely in a real building. The gameplay is always more important than the sense of reality. For example if your chosen environment would have incredibly narrow corridors or low ceilings, that does not mean you should build it that way for multiplayer gamers.
One of the most important things to consider is helping the players not get lost. Landmarks are a fantastic way of doing this. A solitary statue which appears nowhere else in the map or a red house in a village of white ones can be enough to allow the player to figure out where they are quickly and easily. If you use a large landmark where it is visible to the player from multiple spots in the map, then they can always use it to navigate.
Although it may be attractive as an idea, symmetry in maps is usually horrible and can often lead to confusion amongst players. It can work well for Capture the Flag games and you can always colour code the two halves, but for the most part it is better to avoid making your map symmetrical.
This issue of identical areas in maps is a big problem for games set in real buildings because they tend to be several floors of rooms laid out in exactly the same pattern. This is something that Left 4 Dead 2 has handled nicely by blocking routes and adding in the odd landmark so you can quickly identify where you are and in which direction you should be going. Of course, adding a feature that allows you to see your team mates through walls makes this a non-issue, and the game is much more accessible as a result.
Any multiplayer game with an objective also has to make sure to highlight that objective clearly so players can see it. The most obvious way is to resort to using a mini-map on the HUD which can be used to highlight a location. However, it is also worth adding visual clues into the actual map. A tall flag pole, rising smoke, or a tall aerial mast are all visible from a distance, and all can be used to orient players.
It is good to provide more than one route to each location. Players should be able to see their objective and navigate there without having to think about it too much. This is another reason dead ends are bad: if the player goes towards a landmark which takes them in the right direction and the route turns out to be blocked they will become frustrated at having to double back. Players will always naturally take the route that looks the most direct. Once they become more comfortable with the map they might start to use the lesser travelled alternate routes which can be harder to find and less intuitive.
There is a reason that you see so many crates in first-person shooters. They are ideal as cover and are often used as makeshift staircases as well. You can make the cover in your map something more interesting than a crate, but if you don’t provide some hiding spots then the gameplay will be immediate, shoot on sight and probably not very satisfying. Cover prolongs fire fights and allows people vital time to perform actions such as reloading, switching weapons or boosting health.
In the old classic multiplayer deathmatch games pick ups were the key draw around the map and in some games they still are. Players would end up focussed on an antechamber, camped out waiting for the BFG to spawn in. I’m not a big fan of this but it is a very effective way of focussing gameplay in an area. Unfortunately it reinforces camping and it makes it easier for the more experienced players to gain even more advantage over newcomers.
There is another way to reward experienced players and to give your maps an extra replay draw and a surprise factor. Secret areas are great; players love to discover a hidden area. It doesn’t even have to have much in it because it is the sense of exploration and secret knowledge that makes secret areas in FPS maps so satisfying.
You can use secret areas as shortcut routes and even allow them as new vantage points on a familiar area of map. The simplest thing to do is to put a fairly low value pick up in there. This ensures the experienced players feel like they have an extra level of knowledge but doesn’t over reward them, unbalancing the game further.
That brings us not so neatly to the final issue which is balance. There are so many different types of multiplayer game that balance can be achieved in a myriad of different ways. It is, however, extremely tough to find a genuinely fair balance in any multiplayer FPS map. There are always advantageous starting spots, areas of the map which are easier to attack or defend, and areas or features in a map that just get ignored because they are not part of the winning strategy.
Experienced multiplayer gamers will figure out the winning strategy very quickly and everyone will copy it. Whether it involves using a specific weapon, using an exploit in the map, or being first to command an area of the map, you can be sure the winning strategy will be quickly disseminated and adopted. Since players spend hours and hours on multiplayer maps they will find all possible ways of achieving their goal and this will often include exploiting bugs or dodgy level design.
The only real way to balance a map is to play on it and make tweaks. You have to play test multiplayer maps for a long time before you can be certain they work and then you need a beta test with experienced gamers. Even after that when you release someone will inevitably find an exploit. Thanks to patching or automatic updates these maps can be fixed after release nowadays; in the past they would have been consigned to the scrap heap.
A great way of understanding what makes a great multiplayer map is quite simply to check out some of the most popular maps out there. Have a look at the most played Team Fortress 2 maps for example and you’ll see the use of landmarks, color coded areas, asymmetry, respawn safe rooms and architectural structure which looks believable but is stuck together quite unnaturally.
It is also worth remembering the basic rules don’t apply to every type of multiplayer game, maps have to be tailored for the specific game and they have be designed with a specific number of players in mind. If you have any questions or comments please post.
References and Images
- Counter Strike, http://img443.imageshack.us/i/counterstrike16.jpg/
- Unreal Tournament 2003, DM Training Day, screenshot by author.
- Left 4 Dead 2, screenshot by author.