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  • leplubodeslapin
    After the announcement of the Reddit + Mapcore mapping contest, the website has welcomed many newcomers. A proof that, even if it is a twelve year old game engine, Source engine attracts map makers, and there are lots of reasons for that. It is common knowledge that technology has moved forward since 2003, and many new game engines have found various techniques and methods to improve their renderings, making the Source Engine older and older. Nevertheless, it still has its very specific visual aspect that makes it appealing. The lighting system in Source is most definitely one of the key aspects to that, and at the end of this article you will know why.
     
    About the reality...
    Light in the real world is still a subject with a lot of pending questions, we do not know exactly what it is, but we have a good idea of how it behaves. The most common physic model of light element is the photon, symbolized as a single-point particle moving in space. The more photons there are, the more powerful light is. But light is in the same time a wave, depending on the wavelengths light can have all kind of color properties (monochrome or combined colors). Light travels through space without especially needing matter to travel (the space is the best example; even without matter the sun can still light the earth). And when it encounters matter, different kind of things can happen:
    Light can bounce and continue its travel to another direction Light can be absorbed by the matter (and the energy can be transformed to heat) Light can go through the matter, for example with air or water, some properties might change but it goes through it And all these things can be combined or happen individually. If you can see any object outside, it is only because a massive amount of photons traveled into space, through the earth’s atmosphere, bounced on all the surfaces of the object you are looking at, and finally came into your eyes.
    How can such a complex physical behavior from nature be simulated and integrated into virtual 3D renderings?
    One of the oldest method is still used today because of its accuracy: the ray-tracing method. Just to be clear, it is NOT used in game engines because it is incredibly expensive, but I believe it is important to know how and why it has been made the way it is, since it probably influenced the way lighting is handled in Source and most videogame engines. Instead of simulating enormous amount of photons traveling from the lights to the eye/camera, it does the exact opposite. If you want a picture with a 1000x1000 resolution, you will only need to simulate the travel of 1 000 000 photons (or “rays”), 1 for each pixel. Each ray is calculated individually until it reaches the light origins, and at the end the result is 1 pixel color integrated in the full picture. 
    By using the laws of physics we discovered centuries ago, we can obtain a physically-accurate rendering that looks incredibly realistic. This method is used almost everywhere, from architectural renderings to movies. As an example, you can watch The Third & The Seventh by Alex Roman, one of the most famous CGI videos of all time. And because it is an efficient way to render 3D virtual elements with great lighting, it will influence other methods, such as the lightmap baking method.
     
    Lightmap baking
    OKAY LET’S FINALLY TALK ABOUT THE SOURCE ENGINE, ALRIGHT!
    A “lightmap” is a grid that is added on every single brush face you have on your map. The squares defined by the grid are called Luxels (they are kind of “lighting pixels”). Each luxel get its 2 own properties: a color and a brightness. You can see the lightmap grids in hammer by switching your 3D preview to 3D lightmap grid mode.

    You can also see them in-game with the console command mat_luxels 1 (without and with).
    During the compilation process, a program named VRAD.exe is used. Its role is to find the color and brightness to apply for every single luxel in your map. Light starts from the light entities and from the sky (from the tools/toolsskybox texture actually, using the parameter values that has been filled in the light_environment entity), travels through space and when it meets a brush face:
    It is partially absorbed in the lightmap grid A less bright ray bounces from the face Here is an animated picture to show how a lightmap grid can be filled with a single light entity:

    When you compile your map, at first the lightmaps are all full black, but progressively VRAD will compute the lightmaps with all the light entities (one by one) and combine them all at the end. Finally, the lightmaps obtained are applied to the corresponding brush faces, as an additive layer to the texture used on that face. Let us take a look at a wall texture for example.

    On the left, you have the texture as you can see it in hammer. When you compile your map, it generates the lightmaps and at the end you obtain the result on the right in-game. Unfortunately, luxels are much rougher, with a lower resolution, more like this.

    On the left you have a lightmap grid with the default luxel size of 16 units generated my VRAD, a blur filter is applied and you obtain something close to the result on the right in the game.
    In case you did not know, you can change the lightmap grid scale with the “Lightmap Scale” value with the texture tool. It is better to use values that are squares of 2, such as 16, 8, 4 or even 2. Do not go below 2, it might cause issues (with decals for example). Only use lower values than the default 16 if you think it's really useful, because you will drastically increase your map file size and compilation time with precise lightmap grids. Of course, you can also use greater values in order to optimize your map, with values such as 32, 64 or even 128 on very flat areas or surfaces that are far away from the playable areas. You can get more infos about lightmaps on Valve’s Wiki page.

    But as we said before, light also bounces from the surface until it meets another brush, using radiosity algorithms. Because of that, even if a room does not have any light entity in it, rays can bounce on the floor and light the walls/ceiling, therefore it is not full black. 
    Here’s an example:

    The maximum amount of bounces can be fixed with the VRAD command -bounce X (with X being the maximum amount of bounces allowed). The 100 default value should be more than enough.
    Another thing taken into account by VRAD is the normal direction of each luxel: if the light comes directly against the luxel or brushes against it, it will not behave in the same way. This is what we call the angle of incidence of light.

    Let us take the example of a light_spot lighting a cylinder, the light will bright gradually the surface - from fully bright at the bottom to slightly visible at the top.

    In-hammer view on the left, in-game view on the right
     
    Light Falloff laws
    One of the things that made the Source Engine lighting much more realistic than any others in 2004 is the light falloff system. Alright, we saw that light can travel through space until it meets something, but how does it travel through space? At the same brightness, whatever the distance is between the light origin and destination? Maybe sometimes yes… but most of the time no.

     
    Imagine a simple situation of a room with 1 single point light inside. The light is turned on, it produces photons that are going in all the directions around it. As you might imagine, photons are all going in their own direction and have absolutely no reason to deviate from their trajectory.
     
     
     
    At one time, let’s picture billions of photons going in all the directions possible around the light, the moment after, they are all a bit further in their own trajectory, and all the photons are still there, in this “wave”. But, as each photon follows its own trajectory, they will all spread apart, making the photon density lower and lower.
    As we said before, the more photons there are, the more powerful light is. And the highest the density, the more intense light is. Intensity of light can be expressed like this:

     
    You have to keep in mind that all of this happens in 3D, therefore the “waves” of photons aren’t circles but spheres. And the area of a sphere is its surface, expressed like this:

    (R is the radius of the sphere)
     
    If we integrate that surface area in the previous equation:

    With ♥ being a constant number. We can see the Intensity is therefore proportional to the reverse of the square of the distance between the photons and their light origin. 
    So, the further light travels, the lower is its intensity. And the falloff is proportional to the inverse of the square of the distance.
    Consequently, the corners of our room will get darker, because they are farther away from the light (plus they don’t directly face the light, the angle of incidence is lower than the walls/floor/ceiling).

    This is what we call the Inverse-Square law, it’s a very well-known behavior of the light in the field of photography and cinema. People have to deal with it to make sure to get the best exposure they can get.
    This law is true when light spreads in all possible directions, but you can also focus light in one direction and reduce the spread, with lenses for example. This is why, when Valve decided to integrate a lighting falloff law in their engine, they decided to use a method not only following the inverse-square law but also giving to mapmakers the opportunity to alter the law for each light entity.
     
    Constant, Linear, Quadratic... Wait, what?
    In math, there is a very frequent type of functions, named polynomial functions. The concept is simple, it’s a sum of several terms, like this:

    Every time, there is a constant factor (the “a” thing, a0 being the first one, a1 the second one, a2 the third one...), multiplied with the variable x at a certain degree:
    x^0 = 1 : degree 0 x^1 = x : degree 1 x^2 : degree 2 x^3 : degree 3 ... And
    a0 is the constant named “constant coefficient” (associated to degree 0) a1 is the constant named “linear coefficient” (associated to degree 1) a2 is the constant named “quadratic coefficient” (associated to degree 2) Usually, the function has an end, and we call it by the highest degree of x it uses. For example, a “polynomial of the second degree” is written:

    Then, if we take the expression from the inverse-square law, which was:

    With a2 = 1 and D being the variable of distance from the light origin.
    In Source, the constant ♥ is actually the brightness (the value you configure here).
    It is simply an inverse polynomial of the second degree, with a0 and a1 equal to zero. And we could write it like this:

    Or...

    And here you have it! This is approximately the equation used by VRAD to determine the intensity of light for each luxel during the compilation. And you can alter it by changing the values of the 3 variables constant, linear and quadratic, for any of your light / light_spot entity in your level.
    Actually you set proportions of each variable against the other two, and only a percentage for each variable is saved. For example:

    Another example:

    By default, constant and linear are set to 0 and quadratic to 1, which means a 100%quadratic lighting attenuation. Therefore, by default lights in Source Engine follows the classic Inverse-Square law.
    If you look at the page dedicated to the constant-linear-quadratic falloff system on Valve’s Wiki, it’s explained that the intensity of light is boosted by 100 for the linear part of equation and 10 000 for the quadratic part of equation. This is due to the fact that inverse formulas in equations always drop drastically at the beginning, and therefore a light with a brightness of 200 would only be efficient in a distance of 5 units and therefore completely pointless.

    You would have to boost your brightness a lot in hammer to make the light visible, that's what Valve decided to make automatically.
    The following equation is a personal guess of what could be the one used by VRAD:

    With constant, linear and quadratic being percentage values. The blue part is here to determine the brightness to apply, allowing to boost the value set in hammer if it is as least partially using linear or quadratic falloff. The orange part is the falloff part of equation, making the brightness attenuation depending of the distance the point studied is from the light origin. 
    The best way to see how this equation works is to visualize it in a 2D graph: 
    https://www.desmos.com/calculator/1oboly7cl0
    This website provides a great way to see 2D graphics associated to functions. On the left, you can find all the elements needed with at first the inputs (in a folder named “INPUTS”), which are:
    a0 is the Constant coefficient that you enter in hammer  a1 is the Linear coefficient a2 is the Quadratic coefficient B is the Brightness coefficient In another folder are the 3 coefficients constant, linear and quadratic, automatically transformed into a percentage form. And finally, the function I(D) is the Intensity function depending on the distance D. The drawing of the function is visible in the rest of the webpage. 
    Try to interact with it!
    This concludes the first part, the second part will come in about two weeks. We will see some examples of application of this Constant-Linear-Quadratic Falloff system, and a simpler alternative. We will also see how lighting works on models and dynamic lighting systems integrated in source games.Thank you for reading!
     
    Part Two : link

  • What is Agency?
    Just in case you have never heard of Counter Strike: Global Offensive, it's a hugely popular online FPS, successor to Counter Strike: Source and the original Counter Strike. The original came out in 1999 and the core gameplay has remained almost unchanged. Players are split into two teams and challenge each other in various game modes such as Bomb Defusal (one team has to plant and detonate the bomb while the other tries to stop them) and Hostage Rescue (one team must rescue the hostages whilst the other attempts to prevent that). The Bomb Defusal mode is by far the most popular, with maps designed with such detail that players can predict down to the second when another player is due to arrive in a certain area of the level. It's also the only mode played in competitive events and for huge prize money.
    This leaves the poor Hostage Rescue mode sitting on the sidelines twiddling it's thumbs and feeling a little rejected. In part this is because the Hostage Rescue mode is far more of a roleplaying experience, often with very poor odds of success for the team tasked with doing the rescuing. Often the levels are designed in such a way that the defending team has a large positional advantage, where simply staying-put will give them a good chance of winning.
    That's where we can start talking about Agency. Agency is a Hostage Rescue level, created as a collaboration between level designer Patrick Murphy, and myself doing the art. The basic idea being that Hostage Rescue could be just as precise and exciting as Bomb Defusal. It's been included in three official releases from the games creator, Valve, as part of their community level packs: Operation Bravo, Operation Phoenix and Operation Bloodhound. Phoenix being a community-voted choice, which was especially great to see that players enjoyed the style of gameplay and visuals that Agency brought with it.
    In this article I will go over the process of creating the art, from props to set dressing, texture creation and lighting, while maintaining a visually pleasing aesthetic and serving to enhance the gameplay. This isn't a postmortem but rather a walk-through of the various stages, hopefully to give some ideas to others, with lessons learned both positive and negative.

    Iteration from Whitebox to Final
    Starting out you should always have an idea of what you're going to create, even if it is quite vague, as it'll point you in the right direction for both creating architectural spaces and letting your imagination fill in the blanks as you build the basic shapes of the level. We knew we were going to build an office space, but style was leaning towards an older government building with red bricks and musty wood. As I started to put in some basic textures we decided it felt too bland, and similar to other levels in the game. In order to stand out and create something really interesting and intriguing that would entice players to want to explore the level we decided to modernize the space and use white as the primary colour - this would help players see each other more easily and provide a striking visual setting it apart from other levels.
    "Modern Office" is not exactly a style that has a single look, if you search for images you'll get back a lot of contrasting designs and ideas, trying to put every single one of those into a level would create a visual mess with no consistency. It's important to choose the right references for what you are building, something that looks cool in a single image or from a specific location might not fit into the theme of the level, and in a worst-case-scenario it might actually start to detract from the level as a whole. Trying to cram in as much content as possible simply makes your level feel less unified and jarring.
    Unfortunately when you are presented with so many fantastic designs and ideas it can be hard to pick out what is important. After settling on the location: a modern advertising agency's office, I broke down the needs of the level into a few different categories:
    Area Specific General Use Overall Theme The Area Specific content is "hero assets" for each location in the level. These are the things that help the player tell different areas apart from each other, a reception desk, a kitchen, a bathroom, etc. Assets that won't be used anywhere else except in their specific location.
     

    Examples of Area Specific Content

    The General Use content is the backbone of the building, it's wall sockets, ventilation tubes, sprinklers, desks and chairs. The things that could be used anywhere and would blend in to the background and not stand out unless you were specifically looking for them.
     

    Examples of General Use Content

    The Overall Theme content is what sells the theme of the level to players, advertising boards, company logos, large art installations and so on. These can be used everywhere but sparingly and should only be used as a subtle reminder to the player of where they are thematically. They shouldn't detract from the Area Specific content but should stand out more than the General Use content. This came in the form of abstract paintings, corporate logos, rotating advertisement panels and so on - things that would subtly tie the level together.
    Once these categories were laid out, searching through reference images became much simpler as you know what you need and only have to find an interesting design or detail that enhances a specific category.
    This isn't to say that everything was completely planned out or that development was flawless. Sticking to a plan only works until you open the editor, and if you try to force something you'll end up frustrated when it consistently fails to work. As an example we originally had the level set on the ground floor of a tall skyscraper. I spent a few weeks working on content for the ground but never really getting it to feel right within the theme of the level: the contrast between a dirty exterior street section and a spotless interior didn't feel right for the level, and felt a little too similar to another Counter Strike level. Patrick played around with some ideas and tried something I was afraid of: simply deleting everything I had done on the outside and adding an epic city vista. Instantly it felt right. The important thing to take away from this is that just because you have worked on something doesn't mean it's the right thing to be working on, and that getting input from other people with different ideas can vastly improve what you are working on.
     

    The first mockup of Agency's rooftop exterior
     

    The same space after an art pass

    Another incredibly important thing I realised is making use of modular assets. If you are going to duplicate something in your particular modelling software you should ask yourself: is this efficient? Chances are you're just making things harder to change later and locking yourself into a particular shape; eg: a walkway has a railing around it, you model the entire railing as a single object. Now if you need to change that walkway a month later you're going to have to go back and change your railing model. It's better to create a smaller tiling mesh that can be used multiple times, as often you'll find you can use that model in other areas and in different ways than you had initially intended. You're simply applying the concept of tiling textures to models, and in the process saving yourself a lot of time.

    A Believable Clean Art Style
    Creating a clean environment can often be more difficult and time consuming than a very dirty and cluttered one, simply because any mistakes are magnified by the lack of other objects to disguise them. A room with a single chair in the middle is going to end up with the focus being on that chair, if you fill that room with a hundred chairs you're going to be less concerned with the details of the chair and more worried about why someone would fill a room with a hundred chairs.
    In the modern office setting of Agency it would have made little sense to fill it with props and clutter, but a large empty space would just feel unfinished. A delicate balance of larger architectural shapes and smaller objects was needed. I like to think of this as functional art: it serves a purpose in the lore of the game world. Window and door frames, electrical sockets, thermostats and card swipes along with the maintenance apparatus of ventilation systems. These are the general use objects mentioned earlier, they fill out space and prevent an empty wall or ceiling from actually looking empty and at the same time they contribute to the believability of the level. It's important to think of the infrastructure of the building when placing these assets - if a wall has an air vent on it then the wall needs to be thick enough to support the ventilation pipes that feed it, Card swiping mechanisms need to be placed near doors at the correct height, electrical sockets should be placed logically in areas where they would be of use to the fictional inhabitants of the level and so on.
     

    Several examples of functional art details

    One of the most important things to do right when creating clean environments is to get the most out of the materials. It's not possible to cover every surface in dirt or decals, so the surfaces themselves become your way of showing detail.
    For Agency this was achieved by making liberal use of the phong shading techniques in the Source engine for models, and cubemaps for world textures. Almost all models in the level have some amount of phong shading, and although it doesn't produce a completely physically accurate result it can be used to create materials and surfaces that look relatively accurate. Simply by increasing or decreasing the intensity of the phong amount allowed for a vast majority of the levels surfaces to be rendered accurately. As I didn't need to have a lot of noisy detail in the materials due to the clean style I simply used a small phong texture as a mask for 75% of the models and let the lighting and general shapes of the models do the rest of the work.
     

    Simple phong shading to mimic real world materials

    As most of the surfaces had a single layer of material, ie paint or coloured metal, the phong shading could be completely even without breaking the illusion; however some of the dirtier surfaces such ventilation tubes and water pipes had several layers: a painted metal surface with area peeled away to reveal with metal underneath or a layer of dust. These had specific masks that would enhance the different materials, and showing wear and tear in the background assets added an extra layer of depth without compromising the clean style.
    Most of these textures were created with dDo, an excellent tool for quickly creating textures. I generally started with quite a dirty texture preset and toned down the details and noise until they were barely perceptible surface imperfections.
    Agency features probably close to 95% custom art, and that's a lot of work for a single person. Using dDo allowed me to make a lot of content relatively quickly, and kept it all visually consistent.
    The process of creating the assets with dDo was quite simple: first I modeled the basic ingame asset, then did a very quick and dirty placement of edge loops that allowed me to smooth the mesh and get a workable high poly. A very rough normal map was baked (along with a more solid ambient occlusion map), this rough normal map would never make it into the game, it was used purely for texturing with dDo. This rough-and-dirty technique was mostly used on the more general purpose assets that nobody would spend a lot of time looking at. For the objects that were in high traffic areas or that required finer detail a more robust normal map was created.
    Tiling textures used throughout the world were photo-sourced and tiled in Photoshop. A few examples worth pointing out are the plaster wall textures and the marble floors:
     


    The image above shows the ingame result, the diffuse texture, and the normal map of the standard plaster that is used throughout the level. The normal map was authored at 1024x1024 compared to the diffuse texture which was 512x512. I created several colour variations of the diffuse texture and for a very plain surface using a 1024x1024 diffuse didn't make much sense. The final touch was to add a subtle cubemap effect to bring out the normal map and add interesting coloured reflections in various areas.
     


    Another example is a marble floor used throughout the level. The normal map is unrealistic in that it portrays an uneven bumpy surface when in fact it is more likely to be uniformly flat. However to break up the reflections and add some visual interest to such a large and empty area I added a subtle bumpy normal map which warps the reflections, but is subtle enough that it doesn't get picked up by the lighting and actually appear like a lumpy mess.
    Good shading only gets you part of the way there, however. A poorly scaled model can break immersion instantly, especially when you are trying to create a believable real-world environment. There are tried-and-true metrics for Counter Strike so having a base to work from helped immensely, but these only give you a good starting point or a bounding box for your object. It's important to study real world reference and make sure your object is proportional to the world around it and also to itself. A unit in Hammer is an inch, so having wood that's 2 units thick, or a doorway that is 1.5m wide quickly makes things look wrong.

    Working with Designer Blockouts, and not Destroying Gameplay
    Agency was a collaboration, with Patrick doing the design work and me doing the visuals, this meant there was a lot of potential for overlap and working on the same areas, the potential for breaking things was huge.
    Often when you create things as an individual you don't have to worry about version control or stepping on someone else's toes, however when you work with other people either for pleasure or business you, as an artist, need to change your mindset. You are not creating a portfolio piece but rather something functional that has to withstand hundreds of hours of real people playing it.
    Your first role is to support the designer, and this benefits you as well. By creating the basic structures of the level: doorways, window frames, stairs, railings, cover objects etc, you are allowing them to work with the final assets and tweak gameplay according to those assets. Nothing needs to be finalized instantly, it's better to provide a rough mockup of the intended asset so the designer can play around with it and give feedback on the shape, size and silhouette. Once you are both confident it's going to work they can populate the level with these assets which saves you time in the long run, and once you finalize the model and textures they are going to be updated across the entire level without having to manually replace assets.
    It can be difficult to determine exactly when you should start an art pass, especially when a level is constantly evolving. Rather than sitting idly by whilst Patrick was ironing out the design of the level I started on the creation of a few visual test levels to explore materials, lighting and modular assets. Once the first iterations of Agency were created, with rough shapes for important cover and controlling lines-of-sight. I went in and created an art pass and altered many of these original gameplay ideas, simply experimenting with different shapes and designs for the rooms. We had a constant dialogue and never considered something finalized just because it was finished. Playtests would determine whether an idea was valid or not in a way that speculation can only hope for. The most important lesson learned during this process of constant iteration was that work is very rarely wasted, and it is far more important to stay true to a gameplay ideal than to have an area that looks interesting in a screenshot but utterly fails when players get their hands on it. A box is a box is a box, it is down to you as an artist to imagine how that box can be interpreted within the context of the environment.
     

    Initial art pass ideas for the central area (above) versus the end result (below)
     

    Initial art pass ideas for the reception (above) versus the end result (below)
     

    Initial art pass ideas for a hostage (above) versus the end result (below)

    Lighting
    An important part of any environment is the lighting. Too contrasted and moody and it becomes hard to identify players, too bright and monotone and it becomes boring and a strain on the eyes. For Agency I used a series of instanced lighting setups: a model to visualise the light source, a spot light to direct the light, and a sprite or light cone to add a visual effect around the light. Each light setup was unique to the type of model used for the actual light source, ie: all spotlights were identical, all fluorescent lights were identical etc. This meant I could change a single light and have the others update automatically, and always get an accurate result.
    Then it was just a case of placing these different types of lights where they logically made sense in the environment, and if an area was too dark an appropriate light source was added, and if an area was too bright lights could be moved around or removed entirely. This made it quite easy to light as everything was guided by reality, which has plenty of reference material, and had the side effect of helping to make the environment more believable. By using various colours on the floor and walls I could direct lights towards them and take advantage of the Source engine's excellent radiosity and spread interesting colours to nearby surfaces.
    In many areas the ceiling was opened up to reveal the sky and to let natural sunlight into the interior spaces, this was done to provide contrast to the electrical lights and to get extra radiosity bounces into the environment. Some areas had lights removed or toned down to allow other more important gameplay areas to stand out, for example the image below shows how the corridor here was darkened both by using darker textures and by using restrained lighting to make the room in the distance appear brighter as this is an area that enemy players will appear from.
     


    This could have been taken even further by possibly using emergency exit signs to add hints of colour to important gameplay areas and chokepoints. A consistent lighting language would have helped guide players during the first few times playing the level. There are some large open spaces that would have benefited from some coloured screens or lighting panels, or possibly making some of the larger glass surfaces tinted, to add a little extra colour and prevent such a monotone look whilst not being over-bearing or detracting from the realistic style of lighting I was aiming for.

    Final thoughts
    During the course of developing Agency I had a chance to learn a few things and come out the other end a, hopefully, better artist.
    So, what went well?
    The iteration process never had any hiccups, by using modular content and being prepared to discard ideas and art styles that weren't working we ended up with a better level. If we had tried to force the original idea of a ground-level government office we would have ended up with a completely different level, complete with underground parking lots and elevator shafts. Exciting stuff!
    The power of iteration cannot be understated, and understanding that a mockup or a blockout of a level is simply a temporary phase that doesn't represent the end result. Areas changed drastically between versions, sometimes due to design requirements, and sometimes of shifts in art style; but each version was better than the last, more refined and polished.
    What went less well?
    In direct contrast to the statement above, sometimes the iteration interfered with more important tasks. I got stuck on areas trying to get them to work instead of letting them sit for a while and returning to them later. I tried to force an idea for the exterior part of the level and it never felt right and consumed way too much time, when all it took was getting some outside perspective. Luckily during the process I learnt to trust designers when it comes to art, just because they might not build high poly meshes doesn't mean they aren't artistic.
    Another problem was building too much content completely unique for an area which meant when we inevitably changed things it became time consuming to shift assets around, and makes it less easy for others to re-use that content without creating an almost replica of the area it was designed for. These unique assets helped sell the realism of the level but made them harder to work with.
    Hopefully this has been interesting and insightful!

  • (Art by Thurnip)
     

    /r/GlobalOffensive and Mapcore are teaming up to grow Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s mapping community!  

    Check out the reddit thread for this contest »

     
     
    The Big Reveal
     
    We’re hosting a map-making contest for original, competitive 5v5 bomb defusal maps AND competitively-minded hostage maps, open exclusively to mappers who have not yet had their work featured in a Valve Operation! 
     
    Older projects are fair game: now’s the perfect time to polish up that map you’ve been working on but never got around to finishing. Experienced Mapcore judges and prominent members of the Counter-Strike community such as Sadokist, Moses, DDK, James Bardolph, and Anders Blume will be weighing in – but only one map can win it all.
     
     
    Helpful Playtesting
     
    Every week for the length of the contest, eligible maps will be playtested during /r/GlobalOffensive community nights according to a sign-up schedule. Slots on this schedule will be filled on a first-come, first-serve basis following an approval process, but we will try our best to accommodate everyone at least once. However, because it’s impossible to guarantee that all contest entries will have the chance to be playtested, /r/GlobalOffensive playtesting is a supplemental, helpful tool which will have no bearing whatsoever on contest judging.
     
    You can register for a playtesting slot here. Remember -- playtesting registration is first-come, first-serve!
     
     
    Enter Your Level
     
    To officially enter your level into this contest, post a WIP thread with a link to your level’s Steam Workshop page in Mapcore’s official event forum.
     
    Posting a WIP thread with a link to your level’s Steam workshop page constitutes your official entry into the contest, however you don’t need to do both at the same time. In other words, you can post your WIP thread and then update it later with your workshop link if you’re not ready to go right away. You can also feel free to continue updating your workshop level after you’ve posted your workshop link – contest entries will not be judged until after the submission deadline.
     
     
    The Deadline
     
     
    Your level must be submitted to Mapcore by August 31st, 2015 at midnight Pacific Standard Time (PST).
     

    Our panel of judges will then select four finalist levels based on the following criteria:
    Fun factor Visual/thematic presentation (graphics) Overall polish
    Grand Prize Deadline
    After the top four maps have been announced, /r/GlobalOffensive users will put them to the test!
    Once all four finalist maps have been tested, mappers will have two weeks to revise their work based on community feedback. After those two weeks, an official Grand Prize Winning Map will be chosen!
     
     
     
    Contest Calendar
     
     
     
    Our Goal
     
    The goal of this event is to raise awareness about Mapcore's incredible level design community and the incredibly useful playtesting capabilities of /r/GlobalOffensive. Both Mapcore and /r/GlobalOffensive are free resources available to all mappers. To date, Mapcore users are responsible for creating more than 70% of Valve Operation levels. Mapcore’s staff are unpaid volunteers, and do not personally profit in any way from additional traffic to the site.

    Prizes
     
    Of course, it wouldn’t be a contest without a reward… In addition to the helpful feedback and free publicity that CS:GO mappers will receive by participating in this event, each finalist will also receive:
    Eternal Bragging Rights™ and a showcase on Mapcore (where their level will be highly visible to industry-veteran game developers and the rest of the community) A monetary prize ($1000 + Mapcore swag for first place; $400 for second place; $200 for third place; $100 and Mapcore swag for fourth place) The top-finishing map will also be played in a competitive show-match casted and streamed by goRGNtv, for all to watch and enjoy! *NEW* CEVO has generously agreed to host the winning map in their PUG rotations for one month! *NEW* Added $1,000 to prize pool thanks to Gamebanana.com and EGO DEATH (gun skin creator) *NEW* Valve prizes!  
                       Top 4 will receive
    1. Signed CS:GO poster
    2. CS:GO Lanyard
    3. CS:GO Vinyl Sticker
     
             First place will receive a CS:GO prize pack:
    1. Signed CS:GO poster
    2. CS:GO Lanyard
    3. CS:GO Vinyl Sticker
    4. CS:GO SteelSeries Kana Mouse
     
     
    This is your big chance -- get to it!
    Good luck, mappers!
     
    Additional Rules
    Remakes of older maps are NOT allowed. All works must be original to you and their layouts must not have appeared in any prior versions of Counter-Strike. Custom artwork is allowed and encouraged, but must meet workshop guidelines. Collaborations are allowed and encouraged. Any contest winnings arising from a collaboration will be split in accordance with the collaborators' mutual agreement.  
     
    Judging Procedure
    Mapcore staff will rate their top four maps of the contest, results will be tallied and all votes given equal weight. Some time later, the judges and guest judges will rate the top four finalist maps and results will be tallied, with all votes given equal weight. Guest judges will be asked to act as tie-breakers in the event of any ties in the voting.  
    Mapcore Judges
    Jason “General Vivi” Mojica -- Creator of "Rose Iron" Skin (Overkill Software)
    Patrick "Puddy" Murphy -- Creator of CS_AGENCY (Overkill Software)
    RZL (Independent) -- Creator of DE_RESORT
    Shawn “FMPONE” Snelling (Independent)
    Johnny “Sprony” van Spronsen (Journalist)
     
    Guest Judges
    Matt "Sadokist" Trivett -- @Sadokist
    Jason “Moses” O’Toole -- @JmosesOT
    Daniel "DDK" Kapadia -- @followddk
    James Bardolph -- @jamesbardolph
    Anders Blume -- @OnFireAnders
     
    ---
    Our Thanks to 
    EGO DEATH (Steam Workshop author)


     
     
     

  • Now that you've had a month to digest part one of Sentura's dive into the lovely world of Unreal Engine 4, it's time to get your teeth into the second part. This time, discover the wonders of debugging, comparisons, and casts. Also, feel free to use the comments to ask further questions about this tutorial or Unreal Engine 4 in general.
    Picking up where we left off, let’s take a look at debugging, comparisons and casts.
     
    Debugging
    There were some issues with our door example in Part One, which I glossed over for the sake of simplicity. Now, however, our door should serve as a useful example of how to debug blueprints.
    The problem was that our door didn’t really open properly, as seen in this image:
     
      Let’s figure out what’s wrong with some debugging.
    There are many methods of debugging blueprints, of which Breakpoints are the most common. Setting a breakpoint stops execution of your game momentarily, allowing you to inspect the nodes of a blueprint graph. This is tremendously useful for squashing any troublesome bugs.
     
      Breakpoint debug steps:
    Add a breakpoint. Play and execute the event (the game pauses and focuses on your breakpoint). Use the step button to go through the execution step by step. After a few steps in our door example, we see that both of our events are being triggered repeatedly. We can also hover over any variables and parameters to examine their specific values at the time of the break.
    Another method of debugging is to split your screen (or simply use two monitors), separating the blueprint window from the game window. This helps track what’s going on in the graph as you walk through your door. This way, we can see the exact point the execution reaches while we play the game, although we aren’t provided with any additional information.
    Notice that the drop down menu next to the play button in the blueprint graph window needs to be set to our specific door in order for it to display any information about the door.
     

     
    Both of these debugging methods help us trace the root problem with our door example: events are registering repeatedly, causing the door to behave erratically. One guess as to why this may be occurring, is that some native player character components are interfering with the door blueprint by forcing it to register more than one actor.
     
    Comparisons
    How can we single out an object or actor to ensure that it’s the correct target of a sequence? How can we ensure that any given object or actor is actually the intended type, in order to avoid problematic misidentifications? These are questions which can be answered using comparisons.
    Comparisons are, just as the name implies, a way for us to compare objects in order to determine whether or not they are alike. UE4 determines the result of this comparison with a boolean value – either the objects are the same (a boolean true value) or they are different (a boolean false value), and we can then use this boolean as an indication of what to do with our door. In UE4, conditions are done through the branch node.
    The node used for comparisons is called “Equals”. Note that there are several versions of the “Equals” node, as it can be used for almost all possible variable types.
     
      Now that we have our Equals nodes, we want to make sure that they are configured correctly. Each event needs an equals node, taking the ‘other actor’ parameter and comparing it with the player controlled pawn – our First Person Character actor. While you can link the First Person Character actor through other ways, doing it this way ensures that even if we change the player actor to something else, the door condition will still hold true.
     

     
    This solution wraps up nicely and leaves no room for error. But it is also somewhat limited: What if we also want to make potential enemies pass through the door?
     
    Casts
    Casting is a term originating from the computer science concept of polymorphism. In short, polymorphism is about class relationships, and how some classes may have a more generic version of themselves stored to use for implementing a variety of classes within the same skeleton. The generic class is called a superclass, whereas the class inheriting data from the superclass is called a subclass.
    The classic example of this is that a Car subclass would have a more generic Vehicle superclass. In games, this idea is even more widespread: we could have a Weapon superclass able to shoot and reload, but what happens when the weapon shoots and reloads would be up to the subclass. An RPG subclass would naturally have a different implementation than a SMG subclass, although it would share attributes like ammo and functions such as shoot or reload. Subclasses still have their own independent functions alongside inherited functions.
     
      How is any of this relevant to Blueprint? In short, a subclass inherited from a superclass may be targeted through its superclass. If you cast to a Weapon superclass, then any of Weapon’s subclasses can pass through as well.
    Let’s tie all of this together: using the superclass of First Person Character Character, we could ensure that all classes inheriting from Character are able to use a door as well – including our currently nonexistent enemy characters.
     
      There is a caveat: casts are performed during runtime. This means objects or actors which cast incorrectly could crash or otherwise break your game. For a more technical understanding of why casts should be used carefully, I recommend this article: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/4167304/why-should-casting-be-avoided
    So far, we have only briefly touched upon the concept of polymorphism, but it is one of the most important concepts within an object oriented programming paradigm such as Blueprint, and a great tool for creating system architecture (including system design).
    There is no article for polymorphism in UE4, and I’m tempted to write a comprehensive guide. In the meantime, you could take a look at this short video explaining the concept more thoroughly:
    Video no longer available on youtube
    In the third and final article in this series, we’ll implement a grenade weapon (using some polymorphy) and a grenade throwing mechanic using Bezier curves.
    See you then!

  • Levels Nova Exchange
    By Erik-Silver Toomere (ESToomere)
    “After taking a wrong turn on the way to Lighthouse Point… Gordon stumbles on a Combine secret”. Takes place between the chapters Sandtraps and Entanglement, replacing Nova Prospekt.
    Delayed
    By Justin Carlto (SneakySpeckMan)
    The strider at the end of Half Life 2 Episode 1 destroys the escape train, leaving Gordon and Alyx stuck in City 17 as the Citadel goes critical.
    Blast Pit
    By Dan Jordan (The_Rabbit42)
    A re-imagining of the classic scene from Half-Life.

    Mod Details Title: RaiseTheBarVille
    File Name: hl2-ep2-sp-mc-raisethebarville.7z
    Size: 47.10MB
    Author(s): Erik-Silver Toomere aka ESToomere, Justin Carlton aka SneakySpeckMan & Dan Jordan aka The_Rabbit42
    Date Released: 09 May 2015
    MapTap Users Download directly into MapTap [47.10MB]
    You must have MapTap installed before using this link.
    Direct Download Download to your HDD [47.10MB]
    You can still use it with MapTap once you have downloaded it.
    Manual Installation Instructions 1. Copy the RaiseTheBarVille folder into your …SteamSteamAppscommonsourcemods folder.2. Restart or start Steam.
    3. RaiseTheBarVille should now be listed in your Library tab.
    4. If you require more help, please visit RunThinkShootLive's Technical Help page.
    Judges There were 3 judges for this challenge: Phillip (RunThinkShootLive), Ryan 'Thrik' Williams (MapCore), and Don aka Unq (who very kindly supplied the RaiseTheBarVille first Prize).
    Winners Winner: Blast Pit
    All judges felt this was the perfect combination of using the theme in a clever way and making a map that was fun to play.
    Almost-Winner: Nova Exchange
    This was a very detailed and thoughtful entry that all the judges enjoyed playing but felt it lacked player guidance too often.
    Third Place: Delayed
    While short and light on compelling gameplay, it delivers exciting set-pieces and great visuals.
    The judges' more detailed reviews can be found in the comments of this article and/or RunThinkShootLive's equivalent article. Feel free to leave your own — in fact, please do!
    Prizes For the winner
    A lightly used hardback copy of Valve's rare Half-Life 2 development book, Raising the Bar, kindly donated by Don aka Unq. This book is a must-read for any fan of the game, and particularly those interested in its development process. In addition to being a collectable in its own right, this particular edition is signed by Valve staff, arranged by a friend of Phillip's who works there.
    For the almost-winner
    Don't feel bad, you nearly made it. Have a plush companion cube plus a MapCore mug or t-shirt, and know that we love you.
    ...and for everyone else
    All entries, except the winner and almost-winner, will be entered into a random draw to win Sniper Elite 3. As this was one person in the end, this has now become the third-place prize.
    Screenshots A selection of 3840x2160 screenshots is available on Dropbox. They haven't been included directly in this article because they potentially spoil set-pieces within the levels.
    Video The playthrough/walkthrough below is provided by PlanetPhillip. See more of his playthroughs at VP: PlanetPhillip.
    Steam Grid View Images Three grid view icons are included in this file. To use the included grid view icon, select “Gridview” in Steam (top right corner). Right click on “RaiseTheBarVille” and select “Set Custom Image”. Then browse to the SourceMods folder and then to RaiseTheBarVille/steam-gridview-icons folder and select the image you prefer. Then click “Set Image” and that’s it. Of course, you can create your own custom image if you prefer.
    Other Bits and Pieces There are a few additional things that you might want to check out over in the RunThinkLiveShoot equivalent of this article, such as a poll that lets you vote for your favourite, additional screenshots, and download statistics.

  • On the other hand, UE4 has also been somewhat stripped of “default” content in order to emphasize the user-generated content located on Epic’s new marketplace. This tutorial series is designed to bring you up to speed on UE4 level-design by showing you how blueprints work and how you can create your very own blueprint building-blocks.

    Understanding Blueprints The Blueprint system is a visual scripting language central to all game interaction in UE4.
    Blueprints come in two flavors: Level blueprints and Class blueprints. Level blueprints are attached to your level, whereas Class blueprints are self-contained templates for a single type of object in your level (a “class”) only. Anything you do in a Level blueprint can also be done in a Class blueprint, but Level blueprints additionally enable you to set up communication between multiple Class blueprints.
    Let’s take a look at what actually goes on inside these blueprints.

    Inside Blueprints Let’s start with the two basic blueprint nodes: Functions and Variables. Variables can be explained as containers of object data, while functions essentially perform game logic upon variables.
    The next section will cover these nodes in more detail.
     
    A Player variable with a Jump function. As illustrated, executing the function (f) causes the player to jump

    Object Data (Actors and Variables)
    Although they are very versatile, variables are most commonly used to control actors, objects that exist inside the game world. Characters, weapons, doors, switches are all examples of actors. Additionally, every actor’s variables can potentially be manipulated by functions, for example the health of a character stored as an integer value.
     
    A actor variable (player) with health and position stored as an integer variable (green) and a 3D-vector variable (yellow), respectively

    Actors can also contain components: other actors incorporated inside the main actor. This enables static meshes to have component collision boxes, or to be paired with component particle effects, among other things.
     
    The components of this door object are two meshes (a door and a doorframe) and a collision box that helps control the door’s physics behavior

    Functions
    Functions are nodes of logic which can be executed (called) to perform a certain task. If something needs to take place in-game, such as a player picking up a weapon, functions can enable as well as add additional consequences to that action.
     
    A function execution string (the white line)

    Functions present and modify variable information. For example, a function which acts upon information gathered by a variable could teleport players to specific game-world coordinates. A ‘getter’ or ‘pure’ function, on the other hand, merely relays information for use elsewhere, such as reporting a player’s current coordinates in the game world.
     
    A ‘pure’ function (green). Notice that ‘pure’ functions do not have independent execution, only when linked with a regular function (blue) does this particular function have effect

    So, we’ve covered Variables and Functions. But how does the Blueprint system know how and when to react to incidents inside the game world?

    Events
    Events allow different actors to communicate with each other. For instance, an event controls when an actor collides with another actor, or what an actor should do if a collision actually occurs. More examples of an event are a door opening as a character nears it, a switch being thrown, or a barrel exploding after it has taken sufficient damage. An example of an event could even be as fundamental as a player using controls to move their character model. Customized events can be called much in the same way a function would be.
     
    Event (red) called if an actor is hit. The event triggers a function linked to taking damage. This example is intended for learning purposes, not for practical use

    Quick aside: In general, as a good practice, variables, functions and events should be named for their exact purpose. This helps both you and others read what’s going on in your blueprints. An actor named “player”, or an integer named “health” is easier to understand than one named “asdhjkashdj”!
    For more information on variables, functions and events, please refer to Epic Games’ own documentation, which provides encyclopedic knowledge about the topic.

    Case study Now that we understand the building blocks of UE4’s Blueprint system, let’s look at a practical example: the Class blueprint of a sliding door (If you want to create your own sliding door, I recommend taking a close look at Epic’s in-depth guide.
    Our door:
     

    When a player gets close to it, the door opens. When a player leaves the door’s vicinity, it closes. Let’s examine the door’s blueprinting:
     
    You can see that the door actor is composed of several components: a frame object, a door object and a triggering box



    In this image, we can clearly see the nodes used to trigger the door’s opening and closing. For example, the event OnComponentBeginOverlap triggers once a player steps into the Box component actor listed. That triggered event starts executing anything along the execution logic path, such as the Timeline function and the Set Relative Location function.
    The Timeline function changes an integer with decimals - the Driver float variable – between 0.0 and 1.0 over time, and sends execution updates every time the float changes. The float variable is called Driver in this case, because it drives the door to either open or close. The Lerp function’s Alpha parameter then uses this float value to determine the exact position of the door between being open (float value of 1.0) and closed (float value of 0.0). The Vector variables Door Closed Position and Door Open Position are end points for Alpha to blend between. This is to ensure that the door opens and closes smoothly over time rather than instantly.
    Set Relative Location then executes the data received from the Lerp at intervals put forward by the Timeline’s update execution for the door that we use. The result is a door which slides opens when players are nearby.
    Lastly, our OnEndComponentOverlap event triggers the closing of the door by reversing its operation when players leave the triggering box.
    Here you can see our moving door in action:
     

    To be fair, this case study is a bit over-simplified in order to provide an example that can be easily understood. The real version of this door (which will be shown in the next part of this series) is a bit more advanced, but its core principles are exactly the same.

    Wrap-Up
    So far, we’ve covered the structure of variables, functions, events, as well as a common gameplay element like a sliding door. In the part two of this tutorial series, we’ll learn some more advanced blueprint features, such as class recognition, level blueprints and blueprint communication.
    Thanks for reading!

  • Your objective We'd like you to re-imagine a scene of your choosing from any of the Half-Life games. To be clear, we're not looking for remakes of scenes — we want you to completely reinterpret a scene, approaching it from a fresh perspective. You can, however, use assets from Black Mesa.
    Here are some examples of ideas you could develop:
    The Tram ride at the beginning of Half-Life. What if somebody else pushed the cart? Gordon was late, so they got somebody else and the resonance cascade happens when Gordon is still on the tram. It crashed to the ground but leads him to a previously unseen section of Black Mesa. Black Mesa. What if Half-Life's infamous research facility were hidden underneath a city or town rather than out in the desert? Surface Tension. This particular event occurs on the side of a Citadel. Yes, it doesn't fit the story, but that's not important. This is about high cliffs and long falls. Opposing Force. What if Black Mesa were devastated by this game's nuclear bomb quite early on during the story, leaving Adrian Shepherd to navigate a version of the research facility resembling a post-apocalyptic nightmare? Point Insertion. Instead of arriving at a city train station, Gordon finds himself in a deserted and derelict village station, perhaps near enough to Ravenholm, to feel the threat. Being seen by Civil Protection may be the least of his worries. City 17. What if the Combine had chosen the United States, France, or London to be their primary city? The only limitation is your imagination, which we want to see run wild — create the most wonderful interpretation of Half-Life's universe that you can conceive. Whether your project is big or small, you should strive to create something that will delight Half-Life fans.
    How to share your progress Because this is a joint challenge, there are two places for this:

    Where you may discuss the challenge and share progress of your work, which we hope that you will! RunThinkShootLive challenge article
    Where you can do the same. Both will be compiled together for judging and articles after the challenge ends, so you don't need to post in both places (although it's not a problem if you do).
     

    Prizes Prizes are being donated by both MapCore and RunThinkShootLive, in addition to your work being immortalised in our archives for others to enjoy.
    For the winner
    A lightly used hardback copy of Valve's rare Half-Life 2 development book, Raising the Bar, kindly donated by Don aka Unq. This book is a must-read for any fan of the game, and particularly those interested in its development process. In addition to being a collectable in its own right, this particular edition is signed by Valve staff, arranged by a friend of Phillip's who works there.
    For the almost-winner
    Don't feel bad, you nearly made it. Have a plush companion cube plus a MapCore mug or t-shirt, and know that we love you.
    ...and for everyone else
    All entries, except the winner and almost-winner, will be entered into a random draw to win Sniper Elite 3.
    Challenge dates Begins: Thursday, 19th March, 2015 at 11am GMT
    Ends: Tuesday, 28th April, 2015 at 11am GMT
    Rules You can't have a challenge without rules, right? Here are the requirements:
    Maximum one map per mapper per entry. The map must have at least one enemy and one weapon; i.e. playable. The map must be original and not have been released publicly before. The map must run in a system with only Half-Life 2: Episode 2 installed By entering the competition you grant RunThinkShootLive.Com and MapCore.org the right to release the map as part of the RaiseTheBarVille Mod. Maps must not appear for download before the release and for one month after the release of the mod. No assets from retail games other than Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode 1 or Half-Life 2: Episode 2 are allowed. Other assets are allowed with written permission from their original authors, which must be included in the entry. The organizers' decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into about it. The map must have a proper name. The map must have a proper filename: MapName_rtbv.bsp Each entry should be accompanied by a correctly formatted (vtf) background and chapter image. The name is not important, as it will have to be changed. All entries must be sent to: [email protected] no later than the deadline. Frequently Asked Questions There have been a few questions asked about this challenge, so hopefully this will help you. However, if your question is not here and you have doubts, please don’t hesitate to ask, no matter how small your query.
    Can I use assets from Black Mesa Source?
    Yes, by all means, but you must pack them into your BSP. Yes, we know that may mean redundancy, but the map MUST run in a system that ONLY has Episode Two installed. We don’t want to force players to download BM.
    Can an entry be a joint entry?
    Yes, but there I still only one prize. You’ll have to fight to the death to decide who gets it.
    Which games can I re-imagine?
    Half-Life, Opposing Force, Blue Shift, Half-Life 2, Lost Coast, Episode One, or Episode Two.
    Can I use assets from Lost Coast?
    Yes, pack them into your BSP.
    What about recreating a scene that was say… cut from one of the main games? Technically a re-imagining of a re-imagining.
    No, but you could use the cut area as inspiration for something that was released in one of the games. What we don’t want people to do is remake a cut section from a game.
    Can simply change a location?
    Well, yes, but again, there should be some element of “What if…?” in the map. Simply changing a town for a city is only part of what we are looking for. You map should really be the result f some change, however minor, in the story.
    How do you define a scene?
    In the context of this challenge a “Scene” is a part of the game that has some effect on the following game. So, changing one location for another is not really enough. What we are looking for is something that takes the game in a different direction.
    Can we submit mini-mods instead of a map?
    Sorry, no. Your entry must be a self contained map.
    Can I submit something artsy?
    Sure, but it must have at least one enemy, one weapon and a player spawn.
    Can we decompile or remake specific locations from Valve maps?
    We think it’s best if we disallow this. Mainly to avoid any potential problems. Please start your map from something new. However, we will allow a very small section if this is just used to “fit into the story”. For example, in Episode One, at the beginning when Alyx and Gordon are thrown into the Citadel. If you map started at the bottom but then things went very differnt from the game, that would be okay.
    How should I start my map?
    We suggest a little text at the beginning to set the scene. Something like…”What if Gordon were late and somebody else push the cart? Let’s find out“. It’s not compulsory but it might help.
    What’s the limit of changes we can make?
    Wow, that’s a tough question. Your changes MUST NOT affect maps that may be after yours in the final mod.
    My question is not here, what should I do?
    Ask in the RTSL post or MapCore thread. Somebody will respond quickly.
    Closing words We really hope that you have fun with this. MapCore has a very long history of facilitating development of levels for Half-Life and its mods, in fact we were founded around that very concept. As such, we're hopeful that the community still has that passion for one of gaming's finest classics, and is keen to apply modern-day skills and technologies to bringing Half-Life's universe to life — because Valve sure isn't doing it any time soon!

  • Overview of 2014's articles We published a ton of high-quality, original content in 2014. Take a look — you might spot something you missed!
     

    By KNJ
     
    Interview with Mateusz 'seir' Piaskiewicz, Techland Senior Level Artist
    4,100+ reads
    Interview with Rosin 'kikette' Geoffrey, Arkane Studios Environment Artist
    6,700+ reads
    Deus Ex: Human Revolution scene interview with KNJ
    6,800+ reads
    Virtual Reality: The Final Platform
    5,300+ reads
    Interview with Francois 'Furyo' Roughol, BioShock Infinite Level Designer
    6,200+ reads
    Interview with Thibault 'dkm' Courbet, Wolfenstein: The New Order Level Designer
    6,600+ reads
    Interview with Lenz 'penE' Monath, Environment and Lighting/VFX Artist
    3,900+ reads
    Interview with Thiago 'Minos' Klafke, Blizzard Environment Artist
    7,600+ reads
    Interview with Paul 'PaulH' Haynes, Homefront: The Revolution Senior Level Designer
    5,000+ reads
    Korath: The Witcher Saga scene interview? with Krzysztof 'Tepcio' Teper
    3,700+ reads
    Level Design in The Last of Us: Part One, Part Two, Part Three
    13,500+ reads (all parts)
      Contests and challenges Even better, MapCore continues to thrive as a close-knit community. We collaborated, playtested one another's work, and inspired eachother. Thanks to RZL for his great work organizing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive playtests. SpronyvanJohnson also did a great job organizing MapCore contests, where users pushed themselves to improve their skill set.
    We had a fantastic contest and two thrilling challenges, all of which received unprecedented levels of support and engagement. You can relive the action here:
    Quake 3 15th Anniversary Contest
    CS:GO Sticks Mini Texturing Challenge
    By Min0s
    New logo and branding For the first time since the forums were established in 2003, 2014 saw the introduction of professional-grade branding, which was brought to life by our very own Arthur de Padua (AKA Thurnip), including a wonderful new logo! We also set up a small store for those wishing to spread the wonder of MapCore throughout the world, complete with Arthur's beautiful new designs, and we'll be updating the store with even more new products based on your feedback very soon!
     
    New logo and branding by Thurnip
     
    Babies! MapCore kids were also born in 2014! ...God help us all. A huge congratulations to Skjalg and SpronyvanJohnson for their ultimate creative projects: bringing new life into the world. If we missed anyone, let us know in the comments so we can add you!
     
    By 2-D Chris
     
    Employment As a community, MapCore has always been a mixture of veteran game developers, aspiring amateurs, and plain ol' gamers. One of the best parts about that mixture of experience-levels is when one of our members gets an awesome new job within the industry. In 2014, we got a LOT of great news on that front.
     
    Martin "Sentura" Colith - Level Designer at IO Interactive (Copenhagen, Denmark)
    Al "Intelect0" Anselmo - QA Tester at Top Free Games (Sao Paulo, Brazil)
    Lenz "penE" Monath - Environment Artist at Yager (Berlin, Germany)
    Oskmos - FX Artist at DICE (Stockholm, Sweden)
    Morten "Mazy"Hedegren - Game Designer at Brain+ (Copenhagen, Denmark)
    Skjalg "Skjalg" Sturlasson Maehre - Programmer at Megapop Games (Drammen, Norway)
    mr.P - Senior World Designer at Avalanche Studios (NYC, NY, USA)
    Pete_H - Game Designer at Gameloft (Barcelona, Spain)
    Jobye-Kyle "deceiver" Karmaker - Level Artist at Ubisoft Toronto (Canada)
    Alex "AlexM" McGilvray - Build/Tools Engineer at United Front Games (Vancouver, Canada)
    Alexander "Taylor" Taylor - Game Designer at Space Ape (London, England)
    Kacper "knj" Niepokólczycki - Environment Artist at CD Projekt Red (Krakow, Poland)
    John "Ginger Lord" Crewe - Senior Technical Designer at Cloud Imperium Games (Manchester, England)
    Paul "PaulH" Haynes - Senior Level Designer at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios (Nottingham, England)
    Toni "SotaPoika" Seppänen - Junior Level designer at Next Games (Helsinki, Finland)
    Austin "Setin" House - Designer at Escalation Studios (Dallas, Tx, USA)
    Richard "KoKo5oVaR" Malinar - Environment Artist at Krysalide (Lyon, France)
    Mateusz "seir" Piaskiewicz - Designer at Treyarch (Santa Monica, California, USA)
    Jason "General Vivi" Mojica - Senior Level Designer at Overkill Software (Stockholm, Sweden)
    Will "Vilham" Josephy - Senior Level Designer at Cloud Imperium Games/Foundry 42 (Manchester, England)
    Chris "2d-chris" Kay - Senior Level Designer at Epic Games (Cary, NC, USA)
    Liam "PogoP" Tart - Environment Artist at The Creative Assembly (Horsham, England)
    Matthew "bawwwcas" Barcas - Level Designer at Pure F.P.S. (Los Angeles, California, USA)
    Francois "Furyo" Roughol - Senior Mission Designer at Sucker Punch Productions (Bellevue, Wa, USA
    Friedrich "FrieChamp" Bode - Level Designer at Goodgame Studios (Hamburg, Germany)
     
    Our members' success rate at having their content (gun skins, maps) added into Counter-Strike: Global Offensive also continued to be astronomical.
     
    By Furyo
     
    Wrap-up At the end of the day though, MapCore has always been about one thing: sharing work in progress, receiving feedback, and learning from one another. In 2014, MapCore's WIP threads buzzed with life and activity, and our 2D and 3D forums were a goldmine of beautiful work, interesting ideas and fun experimentation.
    Our community is working better than ever, and 2015 should mark even further progress in the growth of this awesome forum.
     
    By Kikette
     
    SpronyvanJohnson's map given feedback in the form of an overpaint by Seir
     
    By penE

  • This is the third article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three
    Combat tutorial The entire space for this first combat against humans is built to be an action tutorial. With no elevation changes in the space, and the single red tone of textures, this is the simplest arena one could design, which foreshadows a quick and easy fight. Notice the number of crates and cover objects on the ground, and their geometrical position. Clear “camps” are established on either side. Both NPCs are scripted only to move left and right, never to flank Joel, which leaves players with plenty of time to assess the situation. This space is built to encourage players to flank these NPCS to the left (Tess crouches to the right of the player). Another visual cue used to great effect here are the electricity lines, that circle over the space. They make the space feel tighter, and add a loop that mirrors the path down below.
    One also finds all three distinctive signs of a fight being over in action games: Tess stands and starts walking again (her AI state changes from InCombat to Normal), she starts a conversation with Joel and the combat music ends. In terms of scripting, these three signs are tested against the state of all spawned enemies (in this case, whether they’re alive).
      At the end of the passage under the arch, another instance of the “boost and pull” move, once again the only gate short of an actual door that can be used in this game. Right after this, a typical example of an “S” shaped corridor. Historically found everywhere in FPS games a decade ago, they’re still used in today’s non open-world games as occluders and loading corridors between two heavy areas. And what occludes one way works in multiplayer too, you’ll find them in many MP FPS levels (Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, etc.) to break lines of sight and separate large areas to obtain the highest frames per second.
    As a side note, and something you may have noticed all along these levels, the environment artist broke up the monotony of this flat wall by making an entrance to a courtyard, to the left of this corridor. You could for instance find this same addition of depth inside the transition building in part 2 where players first learn how to heal themselves.
    As a side note, one of very few bugs in The Last of Us can be seen here, as the shader for the gameplay helpers is rendered through walls (normal behavior) but also over Joel's head.
          After dropping through the hole in the fence – another typical Naughty Dog gating mechanism - a new cinematic starts as players enter the combat arena. Enemies are now scripted much more freely, with their back to the player to enforce a stealth approach. The shape of the combat space itself is built to allow NPCs to move in long straight ways. The left hand side’s purpose is actually solely for this NPC to go there and allow for more movement in stealth (added difficulty) over the initial takedown against the infected in part 2. Tess continues to help kill two of the four enemies, as long as players play by the rules of this tutorial. Both signs above the doors to the building are once again not placed here by chance; the green one indicating the ideal path inside, and the red one a sure way to get spotted. And with both signs having these warm colors, the rest of the building wears a very cold blue to make the signs much more noticeable.
      This second combat also introduces dialogues between characters. Beyond their initial role as threat identification and background information, these conversations also serve as cues that NPCs are likely to change their patrol path once done. It’s therefore important to design these dialogues so they are not ambiguous when they stop.
       As with the gate to the previous occluding corridor, this space also features a strong light to indicate the exit. We’ll see the same light used in all four of these combat tutorials each time to direct the player to the exit of the arena. While this doesn’t seem too necessary in these instances, players’ orientation is often confused when leaving nonlinear spaces in which they were dedicating their attention to the action rather than the environment. These help players getting their bearings again. And now that doors are used in combat spaces - wide open not to collide with players or NPCs fighting - , they’re also textured in strong warm colors to be seen better. Doors in exploration spaces in this game never bear these colors.
      For this third and final tutorial combat (once again, magical game design number 3 shows up), Tess stops helping in any way other than shooting if the combat gets to that but a new mechanic is presented that offsets Tess. Joel can now pick up objects to create a diversion, essentially what Tess was doing before although she can’t be seen by NPCs. That’s a great way to progressively increase difficulty while not changing enemy type (all humans). The distance between the safe area players start in and the first threat is made longer to increase difficulty too and the same background info is given by NPCs to locate them with the help of the conveniently placed window. The orientation of the starting piece of cover also indicates the sense of direction of the upcoming fight, and where the exit will be located.
    A sign of a space specifically designed for a fight is to open up multiple entry points to each zone. Here this staircase lost its railings to allow players to go over to the second floor. A simpler exploration area would most likely not have this, and in some cases would have been worse for it if it did as player exposition requires certain camera shots. Here the game moves away from being purely about exploration and makes players evolve on a two-floor loop, gated to a coop move with Tess. Many fights in this game are optional, but this isn’t one of them and the space reflects it.
    As a final reward to completing all combat tutorials, Joel is rewarded with finding his very first shiv, while still inside the combat space. The shiv, much like the first aid kit tutorial (see part 2) is forced to the player as its effect is as straightforward as its game mechanics are complex (upgrades, use). Here the elevation, on top of increasing the difficulty of the fight, also serves to create side exploration spaces. Notice the color of the handrails that add a lot of depth to this scene and help players focus on one of the purposes of this tutorial: elevation.
          The final combat is the fourth human encounter, second unassisted combat, and first active choice on the part of the player between “stealth” and “action”. This choice is actually shown on screen and justified by Tess’s dialogue. This fight is simply a summary, taken to the next scale, of every theme explored in combat tutorials seen this far: navigation, object interaction, enemies visibility cone, player noise and elevation (or lack thereof in this case). The choice of color palette reinforces these options, with the cold colors used on the left for a stealthier approach, and the warm yellow tones used with the sun on the right hand side to show danger and action. The right hand side approach also contains more immediate rewards (weapons) for having been bolder.
          Robert being another human, there was no reason to turn him into a boss. But as Naughty Dog also needed to carry the scenario forward, it made sense to turn this fight into a chase sequence. For the same reason as Joel and Sarah move away from Joel’s office in the prologue, here the chase sequence allows to introduce Marlene much more dynamically and not have her simply appear in the middle of the previous combat space. That latter solution can usually be seen with less important characters, usually from the same faction, as waves of reinforcement.
    The calm before the storm This marks the end of the tutorial section of the intro levels. A few more mechanics will be introduced all along the game (enemies, weapons, upgrades) but the vast majority of the systems has already been presented by now. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the spoils: right after the cinematic ends, Joel is presented with both bandings and blades – the resources needed to create shivs - in two distinct locations separated by the first vista in the game, itself to be considered a narrative reward for having completed the first chapter, as well as an introduction of the destination ahead.
        As Joel progresses through to Ellie, and the tutorials are now all gone, combat spaces become larger, with much longer lines of sight, introducing the many challenges ahead and giving the game its true scale. The next "co-op" take down between Joel and Marlene pushes this type of gameplay another step further by hiding one of the two enemies to kill inside the building, which shows that the gameplay itself will also take place over longer distances, not just the locations.
        Another sign of the hands free design for the rest of the game, the first puzzle players encounter shows no hints at all. After another dialogue corridor designed to present Joel and Ellie’s early relationship, Tess joins them again and the adventure starts. Have fun with the rest of the game!
          Thank you for reading this detailed level design analysis of the intro section of The Last of Us. For any additional question, or to discuss this further, feel free to contact me through LinkedIn.
    This is the third article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three

  • This is the second article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three
    First Level The intro cinematic here serves two purposes: Introducing Tess and her relationship with Joel, and giving players a goal for the upcoming level. With that done, it’s not necessary to give players other intermediate goals along the way.
    Follow Mission Following an NPC is an excellent, tried and true means to expose players to a completely new world to discover. Tess plays the role of a learning tool, and it’s precisely once players have learned enough about survival in the game that she dies and leaves room for the new relationship between Ellie and Joel to grow. This is an absolute classic process - death aside - used in a great many third person games from Uncharted to Prince of Persia, Enslaved and many others. FPS games also use this technique, but to a lesser degree as following an NPC in first person is often a much more arduous task. Half-Life 2 famously used Alix Vance that way, mostly in non-combat spaces. More recently, BioShock Infinite also followed the same model but made the entire game about that NPC.
    Once outside, players are immediately presented with a good combination of narrative and level design. Tess mentions the curfew that will hit in a few hours, while in the same frame, players can see once again in yellow, the sign that mentions the curfew hours. Attention to small details like that is what will make an entire world more believable. The use of red and white bricks for these buildings adds contrast and depth to this scene, and with Tess going around the corner, helps imagining the path forward.
      Messages painted across walls is as fundamental a narrative design technique as any, but great games will make use of them sparingly, and at the very least won’t reuse the same message more than once per section, so as not to destroy the immersion they’re designed to create. It’s the same thing for talking NPCs, designed for very specific situations, so their speech doesn’t get repeated.
      During this entire level Tess keeps waiting for the player by staying idle on a few of the nodes on her scripted path. This is of course so she can keep being the player’s guide. Notice here however that the implementation of that system is just the bare minimum expected in today’s games. In reality, follow missions are few and far between in this game, as NPCs usually trail behind the player in non-scripted ways. In a game where the NPC is as essential as BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth would have stopped her scripted movement, retraced back her steps to the player (or been teleported behind him) only to resume her script from there. This is a good example of the limitations borne from early creative decisions that dictate the systems developed for the game. It’s entirely normal, but something to be conscious of when creating levels.
    Following on to the main street, where a scripted camera takes over and introduces the new playable zone. This sort of introduction is a dead giveaway of a Naughty Dog game, and is most useful in locking the player in place while the army vehicle passes left, preventing the player from reaching the far end gate and exiting the playable area. With the camera locked in this way, the vehicle may very well simply disappear once passed.
    Arriving in a large area is often a good occasion to introduce more exposition scenes, and in this case two well-constructed ones. Right in front of the player as he arrives, the first scene presents survivors waiting for their weekly ration in a line, behind fences. The fences here work great with the theme of a post-apocalyptic world, but the wall they form is absolutely necessary in scenes like this to limit player interaction and bugs. We find the exact same use of containment barriers in the scene that follows, with the extra touch of the military personnel pushing then killing Joel if players venture too far. Inside closed spaces, most games generally use windows, which we’ll see in The Last of Us later.
        The arrival at the checkpoint is a textbook example of how to center player attention with a dynamic element. On this crossroad, the first semi open area in the game, players may very well be tempted to go either way, but the arrival of the armored vehicle against the player’s direction, the closure of the gates, Tess's placement near the checkpoint and the yellow sign above all point the player effortlessly to the left instead. Naughty Dog manages to seemingly open the game much wider, while remaining in a narrow exposition corridor.
    Another textbook example, and a difficult one to achieve, the quick return tutorial. The narrative scene that introduces it is meaningful as it introduces the Fireflies for the first time in the game, but it also pits the player right against a fence in a position of danger. Just like in the combat tutorial, the necessity to move away from this fight makes it ok to block player controls and require a specific command. Players rarely question this.
    As a side note, some of you will have noticed that the main street had not been gated yet in the game, and Naughty Dog made sure it was by adding this little scene of police blocking the street.
        When addressing player accessibility and teaching, it's important to make the distinction between the two learning models players can be separated in. The first type, Explorative Exposition, describes players who learn by doing; while the second type Experimentation Exposition describes players who by fear of failing expect to have a maximum amount of information given to them before they try. Designing tutorials for these two types of players is very hard, since their learning methods are diametrically opposed.
    Naughty Dog chose here to address both types by designing tutorials for either type and alternate between them. The more complex tutorials, those that either require a huge amount of information given, like weapons for instance (see The Shiv in part 3) or would demand a very expensive and convoluted setting (like this health kit) are designed for the second type of players, stopping the game and giving them everything they need to know before experimenting. The intention of showing the time it takes to heal is well convened here. And to make sure the player actually sees this most important item, Tess gives it away instead of having it placed on a nearby table. Perfect introduction of the mechanic and it reinforces their relationship as no one else would ever have given this for free to Joel.
    As much as accessibility is often separated in three stages (exposition as seen above, validation and challenge), players often find these cobbled together. The second stage for instance is largely unnecessary when designing for a core audience that is already very used to these game mechanics and gamepad controls.
    Follow a few textbook examples of light placement inside this exposition corridor, with inviting diffused lighting that propel Joel forward. At the end of this sequence, we find the first of many trademark moves by Naughty Dog when Joel jumps down a hole. This kind of transition keeps showing up in Naughty Dog almost invariably to transition into a cinematic mid jump (we’ll see that later in the second combat) or to be used as a loading screen to the next level. It also helps segmenting big levels into smaller pieces where NPCs won’t travel large distances back and forth, limiting bugs.
        On the other end of that tunnel comes the first introduction of the “vault over” move, which will be reintroduced at a later point as well. All move tutorials in Naughty Dog games are introduced a number of times in slightly different combinations so players learn by doing more than once. It’s rare enough in games to notice how good they got at it; in reality this entire level is a mixed sequence of tutorials.
        Immediately after this “vault over” move, Joel is presented with his first “safe zone” to pick up his weapons. In the rest of the game, this workbench will allow him to upgrade his weapons. The more interesting part is the left hand side “boost and pull” move, which uses very strong warm colors. Once again the use of the yellow signifies interactivity/where to go. All third person games like Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Prince of Persia, etc. use specific colors on their palette to orient the player, particularly at the start of a platforming sequence. The move itself is gated to players having picked Joel’s backpack on the workbench, and the combination of both tutorials in the same room is not by chance, it’s the only move in Joel’s arsenal that can be disabled given it uses a prop and an NPC.
    We’ve already seen “jumping in a black hole” as a gate, and lifting this door here is just another example of subtle gating mechanisms used to unload the previous part of a level and load the rest dynamically, so as not to require loading screens, or the strict minimum. It’s now so standard that we’ll soon forget it’s a rather recent addition to the arsenal of level designers, created when dynamic loading became possible with PCs and consoles becoming more powerful.
    This leads us into the first puzzle space in the game. Notice the multiple ways to leave this interior space, including the first crouch position to the right. We’ll see the move introduced on the critical path afterwards, but it’s not unusual for Naughty Dog to include such moves before their tutorials are introduced. A few hints give us the direction the player should head in. First the busted up ground is a good tool to shape the ground in the general direction of the gameplay, and make the space visually more interesting (less flat) and more interactive with the player needing to repeat the “vault over” move to get out. Another tool is the direction the crows fly in when leaving the hood of the car. Finally, the red bricks and vines uniformly applied everywhere is a giveaway that the exit is not necessarily straight forward.
    Notice the rug over the destroyed wall, accenting the solution to this first puzzle. This tutorial is a great example of puzzle design, where the problem needs to be presented front and center, so that the discovery of the solution leads to a minimal amount of attempts once found. Portal is the most recent game to have perfectly followed that credo. Of course, this is here simplified to its core essence, but the same principle follows in the rest of the "ladder-based" puzzles. A sign that you have a great game mechanic on your hands is the ability to design variants of the same puzzle throughout the entire game. It means it's a deep enough mechanic, and not a gimmick.
    After picking up the ladder, Joel enters the very first exploration space where he will be able to pick up game resources. Seen as this type of loot is what the entire game economy is based on, it makes sense to present them exactly in the opposite way to the narrative elements of the rest of the intro. Meaning shrouded in darkness when important narrative beats were placed in brightly lit areas. The lighting in this area is worked so the cabinets are mysterious, so that adventurous players learn this classic challenge-reward combination.
    After reaching there and turning around, players can then notice glimmering the very first Firefly Pendant located in the room beyond, with a nice Firefly symbol placed on the wall as a final hint. The placement of that desk in this room is studied to allow that to happen. You can safely assume that this is the easiest of all Firefly Pendants. Having presented the first resources and the first collectible separately is a good move to make sure players understand their different role.
        Jumping down (once again, a gate), Joel enters the first spore-infected area in the game. Tess is once again used as justification, by stopping Joel and putting her mask on. Players immediately understand the nature of the threat and that they won’t ever have to put the mask on themselves. The change in lighting and visibility also preface the incoming danger, immediately shown in a safe situation moments after hitting the spores. The relationship between the spores and dead body are made perfectly clear, and this example of narrative design through environment art is perfectly paced.
        Just like the doors to Joel’s office in the prologue, here is a great example of using interactive objects to place the character in a specific situation and justify the camera transition to a cinematic. The plank, with its forced interaction, is only here to make players notice you can go through the door by squeezing through. In fact, even the dialogue is designed with that n mind. Once in this position, the camera is entirely scripted. One should always expect a narrative element on the other side of that type of sequence, particularly when entering a brand new space. Using this type of contrived cinematic moves has become a main fixture in Sony titles, noticeably in God of War and Uncharted, and in competing titles such as Tomb Raider. BioShock actually was one of the early titles that always tried to justify camera placements. These sequences also sometimes serve to limit the speed of movement of the player, particularly to help loading times in and out of expensive areas. But there are sometimes ways to include these delays in gameplay itself. For instance some of Elizabeth’s lockpick animations were gated to the loading of the area beyond the gate she had to open. In these cases, conversations between her and Booker would also be timed to the necessary delay.
      Once clearing this filing cabinet, a perfect camera takeover to introduce the shooting tutorial. A conveniently placed hurt human (still target) offers the chance for a quick headshot if camera is left untouched. Nearby the ammunition pickup ends this gameplay loop and makes most players come out on top ammo wise. It also offers the game’s first active choice, as are all combats in this game (choice of resources and sometimes tactics). Notice right after this encounter the use of dialogue to justify the next camera takeover and introduce the first combat against infected. The piece of wood falls down just as Tess speaks up, while Joel indicates the need to remain silent. It’s as dynamic an introduction as one can make it and flows superbly.
      Please notice the placement of these infected. Them being tutorials, it’s only logical that they are as scripted as they are. The first one plays to the stealth nature of the combat, reinforced by the action and placement of the two other infected. As you can see above on the first floor, they actually are a landmark for players to orient themselves. Most landmarks are used as large objects in the background of a scene, for instance Half-Life 2’s citadel in City 17’s skyline, and in the case of The Last of Us, the hospital Joel and Ellie reach towards the end of the game plays exactly that role, but in tight corridors and encounters, level designers can reverse engineer an NPC as the landmark, and plan their geometry around. In this case carving up the floor just so the infected can be seen below. Near this location, on the bottom floor and the top floor, two exploration spaces that make good use of this gameplay loop (challenge-reward) offering loot just after clearing the combat.
    Once again outside, this seemingly uninteresting transition area between the combat tutorial and the upcoming puzzle is made interesting by the basketball hoop that provides a clear sense of direction to the immediate space, and the busted up concrete perpendicular to the court adds a layer of depth to an otherwise flat surface. Notice once again the color yellow used in Mel’s Home Hardware store sign, and its placement over the exit.
    Next up is the second "ladder-based" puzzle space that follows the basic rules of great puzzle design. First the exit is presented to the player in the same frame as the problem, and the solution once found (“aha! moment”) only takes one try to complete. Notice how the blue tarp provides a good visual clue in this tutorial as to where the solution is, just like the rug in the first case.
    Leaving the puzzle area that shows that the best game mechanics can be used in multiple variations, the same yellow color is brought by lighting through the window. Around the corner, a little reminder about exploration, with a health pickup dropped on the far end of the ladder.
      Down yet another gate and Joel now follows Tess through a back alley. This otherwise uneventful place sees the addition of yet another reminder of the “vault over” tutorial, as another way to require a button press from the player and keep him/her engaged. This however no longer requires the UI indication on screen.
    Just around the corner lies the second Firefly Pendant. “Hidden in plain sight” is a good way to introduce a second collectible, after having given the first one essentially for free. This one perched in the trees, and the puzzle before it tease the elevation changes of gameplay taught in the subsequent combats. You’ll notice the LD work that went in creating the blockage under which Joel must crawl, which reveals through its branches the glimmering Firefly Pendant.
    Forcing the player to continue through a building serves multiple purposes. The first, and smallest is it helps justify the placement of gun ammo on the table, as opposed to having it just lying there on the streets. The second, the door that Joel closes behind him, is yet another gate for the upcoming NPC – heavy survivors camp, which can even be loaded during the third and final purpose, introducing a small child in a narrative sequence with Tess. These windows here give just the right amount of light in and allow the heavy contrast between the two areas to have the animation read a lot better. This room could have been there simply for optimization purposes, but Naughty Dog managed to turn it into a whole lot more.
       The survivors’ camp is another gameplay loop closing in on itself. After the initial exploration and learning came the tension of the spores and the challenges of the first fight and puzzle, the camp is a narrative reward for having made it this far, and a chance to pick up another two collectibles. However as it’s not the end goal of the level, tension should still be a constant theme, hence the more and more violent scenes one after the other, that also introduce the upcoming fight with humans. Notice the little girl playing with her stuffed bear in the far corner. She and the little boy earlier are nice ways to feature children in action games where rules dictate that no human child should ever be killed on screen. Emphasis on human; children that do get hurt are often already dead, possessed or otherwise sick (School bus in Prey, Little Sisters in BioShock, etc.)
            This is the second article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three

  • This is the first article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three
    Intro Level 1st scene In typical movie fashion, the game starts with an exposition scene which establishes the bond between Joel and his daughter Sarah. Here the watch plays a type of backward MacGuffin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin), which movie fans will be familiar with. A term made popular by Alfred Hitchcock, this initial narrative element will keep showing up in multiple scenes in the game to move the scenario forward and link back to the initial bond Joel had with his daughter. Many other items in this game, which we’ll see exposed in Sarah’s room play the same role. It’s important to note that this game doesn’t use forward MacGuffins, instead relying on the early experience players have with Joel in the intro levels to help them relate to Joel in the later parts of the game, when he faces adversity from the other main characters in the game. This type of catalyst is sometimes linked to gameplay in some games, but not here. For instance, in a quest, looking to get somewhere or obtain something but never managing to. In BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth keeps trying to go to Paris, but never quite goes there in the main game.
    Gameplay Sarah goes to bed, only to be woken up by her Uncle Tommy’s phone call. The initial frame of Sarah getting up is a textbook example of player exposition. Using the mirror on the wall, Naughty Dog adds depth to the room, and presents Sarah as a playable character from both front and back. The color of the lamp shade also leaves nothing to chance. Using a warm color near her beloved items reinforces the comfort of her nest (bed) and contrasts heavily with the cold blue of the night in the mirror. These items on the wall, much like the watch earlier, play a narrative role in the rest of the game as tools to drive the scenario forward between Ellie and Joel.
    Sound wise, Naughty Dog made a classic choice not to add any music and simply build tension with environment sounds in the background. It plays great and helps focus the attention on the initial reveals. In the room, the placement of the birthday card ties the opening scene with this scene the following morning and introduces the “triangle” button as the “hand interaction” one in the game (pick up item, open door, etc).
    At this point in the game, the player still does not quite know what to do, despite having played for a few minutes already. This guidance is given very clearly in a single word, right outside Sarah’s bedroom, as she yells “Dad?”. Perfect example of narrative design coupled with level design, that tells the player his/her immediate goal, and invites him/her to check out every single door, increasing the chances for maximum exposition of every theme in this intro level.
    With the goal now firmly established, the placement of the door straight ahead, too obvious, makes that room a natural space for continued exploration of the game’s themes, as opposed to a significant room. It comes as no surprise to find inside that room just one piece of content. The placement of the only light source in this room, obvious as it is, reminds us that lighting is one of the most straightforward tools to guide players.
    Joel’s bedroom After leaving this bathroom, players are naturally directed towards Joel’s bedroom thanks to the window, extra light placed in front of it, and the barely open bedroom door. The sound of the TV is an ideal guidance tool, suggested instead of shown. This bedroom also offers the chance to see the gameplay loop closed for the first time. The Last of Us’ gameplay loop is always a variant on four themes: Exploration, Tension, Challenge, Reward, Return to Exploration. With the initial exploration started in Sarah’s room and the tension of having to find her dad, this room introduces the simplest of challenges – opening the door and following the gameplay instructions (L3) – which ends with an immediate reward of seeing the explosion in the distance. Finally, Sarah’s “Daaad?” closes the loop and makes players return to their exploration phase. Gameplay loops can express themselves over varying lengths. Second to second, minute to minute, hour to hour.
      Returning to the hallway, a few classic LD rules can be seen in the same frame. The placement of the door allows players to face the staircase in the right direction, and the placement of the lamp at the bottom automatically invites players to go down. Notice its actual placement. While most times placing a light source away from a player’s immediate field of view increases its attraction, this one is placed to the right in plain sight of the player.
    Once at the bottom of the stairs, the window introduces a new narrative element, in the form of police cars. Notice that the cars are driving in the same direction as the player needs to move. This is yet another good tool to guide players subconsciously. If the lamp at the bottom of the stairs had been placed to the left, and away from the player, he/she would have likely turned the camera towards it and away from the windows, negating the introduction of the police cars. That’s why this light source was better left in the player’s field of view.
    Players naturally progress and now face this door to the garden, this time with a light source hidden beyond the playable space which naturally increases the mystery and tension in the scene. Just like upstairs in Joel’s bedroom with the TV, the dog barking here increases tension and attracts players forward.
    Once players reach the window, Naughty Dog doesn’t fall for the cliché of having an infected appear in the garden, and plays with players expectations instead interrupting the sequence with Joel’s phone. Doing so, “L3” is introduced again this time on the player’s critical path to make sure this mechanic is understood by all players.
    The placement of the phone to the right of the door is also no accident. It makes players move further away and to the other side of the living room from the office, where players are now supposed to go. This forces players to go by the garden window a second time and the use of the phone has forced the player’s immediate attention of the window to be erased. This perfect set up was necessary to create an element of surprise for the second traversal of the living room.
    Narrative scene and transition A sign of truly great narrative games is the justification of every single camera takeover by placing the played character in a situation that allows for a smooth transition. Here, that’s the only reason this half open door is placed here. Since it’s already half open, like Joel’s bedroom door, there is no “triangle” interaction required. The goal of this door is to justify the exact position of Sarah in her animated entrance into the room, therefore the position of the camera, to allow for a smooth take over for the rest of the cinematic and the entrance and reveal of Joel, the very first in the game.
    While the entire scene could have played out inside Joel’s office, Naughty Dog chose to have Sarah and Joel leave the office half way through, so as to cut back the length of the walk to the exit door and outside to the car. This allowed them to shave off a few seconds of otherwise boring content and make the action denser. Uncle Tommy’s introduction is pretty hectic with the rapid movements and a lot of information handed to the player, so to reinforce his presentation, Naughty Dog chose to have him turn towards the player once inside the car.
    The Last of Us, as many narrative games, presents choices to the player. They come in two types, active and inactive. Active choices are generally self-explanatory and are not even presented as such in games. For instance, play style (stealth or action) influences the outcome of fights, but they can also come in the form of a single button press, which usually destroys immersion in a world, and breaks the fourth wall. Inactive choices on the other hand play with morals and psychology between players and the characters they play. Here we see the first glimpse of the troublesome relationship to come between Joel and Ellie, in the eyes of her daughter Sarah who wishes that the car had stopped to help the stranded survivors. This makes players ask themselves where they would stand, and take sides with the future protagonists.
    The accident serves here as a transition and justifies leaving the car behind. The timing of that sequence is probably not purely by chance. First Naughty Dog had illustrated all the themes they could from inside the car, and second the attention span of test players was probably waning beyond that point. Notice however the subtle and progressive introduction of infected in the world. The first one, inside Joel’s office comes in when they may yet be taken for humans, and as an element of a cinematic, it offers no challenge to the player. The second, in this car sequence, attacked other survivors and when posing an immediate threat to Sarah, was stopped by Tommy driving away. The third, much closer view comes in as a direct consequence of the car crash. These three progressive introductions of the game’s main antagonist are a textbook example of exposition that allows players to fully grasp the concept of the infected before having to deal with them. Many games fail to present enemies that way, instead relying on one-shot cinematics with poorly explained antics and backstory. The fact these enemies can’t talk and explain themselves pushed Naughty Dog to work them this way into the game, to great effect.
    Combat Tutorial First introduction of the « Square » button for combat. As a rule, tutorials are better introduced when players attention span can be solely directed at the mechanic in question. Here, the tension resulting from the car accident and the sight of the infected nearby focuses the player’s attention on the tutorial for maximum effectiveness. Instead of breaking the immersion of the scene, this tutorial actually flows inside it, and players never question it. Naughty Dog’s choice for minimal UI invasion on the screen really pays off here.
    Chase sequence Introducing Joel for the first time as a playable character (and the main protagonist) in the middle of a stressful situation could have been a risky proposal, which Naughty Dog managed to make work by taking away all combat (automatic death if caught by infected and gun given away to Tommy). Sarah, who would have trailed behind and become a center of attention for players is reunited with her dad after getting hurt in the accident. All of these moves act as perfect justification to have players only ever care about their own character. The only action required of the player is to dodge pedestrians, which is exactly the best activity to learn to control a brand new character. The use of a car that crashes into the gas station is a bit of a cliché by now, but remains a very strong justification for sending the player to the right, and have a couple invisible walls across the other streets. It remains better than a simple static object across the street and infinitely better than nothing at all.
    The firemen truck across the street serves both as justification for the fire raging in the building next door, and as a way to direct the player to the car crash about to block the street off. This second instance however occurs much closer to the player, increasing tension further, and culminating with stopping in front of the theater beyond. This “three strikes” approach to game design is rampant through most games these days, and certainly The Last of Us, for instance during the combat tutorial (three square button presses to leave the car) and is a sort of golden number first generalized by Nintendo.
    The use of audio after the third street blockage is mandatory given the exit is not readily apparent within a 45 degree field of view on either side of the theater. In third person games, presenting exits within this 90 degree angle is generally considered a safe choice to have players flow, on consoles at least where the FOV is usually limited more than on PC games. For instance, this was the rule we followed when designing Prince of Persia in 2008.
    In the alley and through to the other side, great use if not subtle of lighting to direct players to the left, and first use of the yellow color on all directional and interactive hints, which we’ll see later in the first level. We’ll find the same use for the ambulance down below, which strong red lights contrast easily with the night, and even the wind indicating the sense of direction. The headlights serve as guidance too of course, much like the hurt survivor on the ground.
        This is the first article in a three-part series. Part One / Part Two / Part Three

  • DM-Helium by Chris '2d-chris' Kay

    Congratulations! While no prizes were planned, Chris will receive a special winner's T-shirt for his efforts. It's truly a gorgeous map, although it's in good company as all entries were of a high standard. The community has some great maps to play on right here, and I've no doubt that we'll be seeing more of them in playtests and on servers.

    The challenge was fascinating to watch, with the filled with shots of the in-development maps and — perhaps more importantly — members helping one another to create some sweet Unreal Engine 4 levels. In fact, this part of the challenge was so interesting to follow as a non-participant that we're going to try and make the in-development phase of future challenges more prominent by following the progress with articles taking a look at how things are going.

    The official Unreal Tournament site picked up on our challenge by talking about it for a few minutes at the beginning of the challenge, and while they briefly acknowledged the end of the challenge in a more recent stream they're apparently still checking out all the maps and will be featuring them more shortly — so stay tuned for that!

    I'd like to thank everyone for their involvement, and I sincerely hope that everyone had a good time experimenting with an engine iteration that's still new to most people. Be sure to head over to the to check out and download all of the levels!

    We don't mess around at MapCore and want to get one more event in before the year ends, so we're going to be kicking off a Quake 3 contest very soon — this time with substantial prizes, just to spice things up a bit! Hang tight for details about that.

  • Oilá! You recently released your very impressive “Sampa” scene for UE4. What gave you this idea? Hello! I already had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to work on as a new personal project: a near-future city with architectural influences from the cities of Sao Paulo and Tokyo (among other sources).
    I didn't settle for a specific city or country in order to have total creative freedom though.
     
        You made everything from scratch. It would be very interesting to go through your entire process for creating “Sampa”. Could you walk us through it? Of course! But before we start, I want to add that this is by no means a how to guide on how to make environments but more of a general breakdown of my process and the many lessons I learned during this production.
    Blockout
    The very first thing I did was to blockout the entire space in 3ds max. I didn't want to spend too much time on this, so I avoided thinking too much about how I would build this and instead just focused on making cool shapes. By importing everything as one single file into the engine, I could quickly check out how the map looked ingame.
     

     
    As game artists, we tend to get too technical so modeling blockouts is a great exercise to let creative juices flow freely and focus on art and gameplay. This blockout also enabled me to get the correct scale from the start which is very important when working on urban environments. I always work with a scale model from the ingame character inside my modeling program, this way I can quickly check how high a door handle or a handrail should be for example. The blockout level took me about 3 days to complete and even though the final scene looks nothing like it several ideas did make it into the final level, including geometry pieces.
     

     
    Production
    The initial production phase for this environment was in fact the hardest part that I went through. I started to seriously question if I would be able to realize the full blockout in a timely manner. Learning how to work with PBR materials also took a bit longer than I had anticipated.
    I initially explored making every building uniquely on top of my blockout, but after working for days on a single building I decided to go for a mix of unique geometry and modular "lego pieces". I made sure all my unique pieces fit the same grid as my modular pieces so I could mix and match different pieces to get more variation easily.
     

     
    Mood
    One of the things that was very clear in my mind when I started this environment was that I wanted it to take place early in the evening and leverage indirect lighting and ambient occlusion more than harsh shadows. With this in mind, the basic mood was one of the first things I set up in Unreal. Some people like to do this at the end of a project and while it might be more time consuming to do it as you go (since you will probably be noodling quite a lot more!), this enabled me to learn Unreal's post processing system much better and in the end I managed to get the exact mood I was looking for.
     
    Some of the lighting iterations
    At this point I was pretty much certain on what style to go for and how to build this level so I spent the next weeks building modular pieces and small test scenes.
     
    Materials & Textures
    This scene makes heavy use of tiling textures, one big generic trim sheet and a few unique textures. I struggled a bit with PBR materials at the beginning (as was expected) but eventually got the hang of it, and while my materials were not looking stellar they did the job for a while…
     

    Some material examples
     
    Normal maps were created for each asset as I saw fit. Some of them were baked from high poly models from 3ds max, some were sculpted in Zbrush and some were made entirely with nDo. Normal maps are even more important these days than they used to be, since PBR relies heavily on good normal mapping for lighting. Gone are the days where details had to be faked in the diffuse and specular maps.
     

    Sidewalk sculpt
     
    At one point I finally decided that my materials were lacking definition and fine detail and started experimenting with the new Quixel Suite tools. I fell in love with dDo immediately because it gave me exactly what I wanted: Great material bases. I could just add my flavor on top of them.
    My process with dDo usually goes like this: I create an ID map to define all the different materials in the texture. I then apply a few basic presets (which give you perfectly calibrated Roughness/Metalness/Albedo values) and once I'm happy with the base I add my own hand-painted details. This proved to be a win-win situation, as it made my materials look much more believable and I was also able to reuse 100% of all the hand-painted layers I had done on the old textures.
     

     
    A comparison of the original sidewalk texture (made by hand) vs the dDo version
    Tip: You can get much sharper looking textures in Unreal by changing the “Mip Gen Settings” to Sharpen under the textures’ Level Of Detail settings (double-click a texture map to access this).
    Working with PBR can be pretty daunting, especially when it comes to metals, so I definitely recommend exploring dDo or some other automatization tool for texture production, even if you have to tweak them heavily to match your style.
     
    Material Instances
    One of the best features of the Unreal Engine is that you can create Material Instances very easily from regular materials. These instances are much easier to work with and save you a lot of time setting up new materials since you don’t have to build a node network everytime you need a new material. One extra benefit of using Instances, is that you can also fine tune your materials much faster because changing instanced parameters don't force a shader reload, whereas saving a regular material does.
     

    A simple material with Albedo, Roughness/Metallic/AO and Normal map support. Original material on the left vs material instance on the right.
     
    I didn't want to create one big material to fit all my needs (not very performance friendly), so every time I created a new material type I also made sure that it could be used for instances.
     
    Some of the material bases I created
    Architecture_Parallax_3Layers: A material with parallax mapping support, mostly used for windows.

     
    The actual Parallax node network is pretty simple:

     
    Asphalt: This special material uses World Space mapping with a "stain" texture multiplied on top for large scale details. This material was later reused on a "Wet" version (described below) for the roads.

     
    Architecture_Wet_Dirty: This material uses vertex colors to blend the base material with two other materials: A "dirty" version of the albedo map and a flat 100% reflective material (to simulate water puddles). Explaining what each individual node does is beyond the scope of this article so I'll just leave the shader network here:

     
    The wet material in action:

     
    Creating Variation With Symmetry
    You can create lots of variations quickly using symmetry. The AC kit consists of two base pieces and several variations created with the Symmetry modifier in 3ds Max:

     
    I also used this trick to make more variations out of this Storefront:

     
    Lighting & Post-Processing
    To light this map I used standard lightmaps. While making fully dynamically lit environments in Unreal 4 is a possibility I found that the performance loss is not worth the time saved by not baking lightmaps.
    I kept the lighting simple, contrasting small "gold" light sources with the ambient blue color. Instead of lighting the level as a whole, I created several "small" scenes. This makes the level look less "art directed" and more like a real city would. I also placed some strategic light sources to highlight the wet look in some areas. While I imagine this kind of "wet" look will be abused until everyone hates it in the near future I kept it very simple and restricted to where it made sense and would look good.
     

    Carefully placed water puddles close to strong light sources
     
    When it comes to Post-Processing, I like to keep image adjustments outside the engine to a minimum. I really took the time to tweak the exposure values to get a good range of details in shadows and also to avoiding bright areas being way too bright. This can be accomplished by a combination of tweaking exposure and Tint/Contrast settings under a Global Post Process volume.
    One of the last steps to finalizing this scene was to bring a few screenshots into Photoshop, tweak the levels and saturation values until they were exactly what I wanted, and then create a lookup table for the color correction. However, for some reason I was getting horrible banding with the color correction enabled, so in the end I just placed my screenshots from Photoshop next to the viewport and tweaked the post-process values until both of them looked exactly the same.
     
    Wrapping Up
    This is the 10% part of the process that makes everything look 200% better. During this phase, I created small interest areas and dressed them with props, particles and decals. I also scavenged several pieces from unfinished scenes and from my initial blockout. One of the examples is the News Stand which I just polished the geometry from the blockout and applied final materials on it:
     

    Again, never discard any ideas/assets, you never know when they might come in handy!
     

    The light glows are simple particle emitters consisting of two emitters: A regular "round" glow and a horizontally scaled one to simulate anamorphic flares.
     
    Example of decal usage:

     
    Some of the pieces used in the level:

     
    Now that was a very detailed break down. I’m sure people will really benefit from the information you just shared. Thank you for that! In the beginning of this interview you said that you learned a lot of lessons during the production of this scene. Could you share those as well? Yes, I learned quite a few lessons with this project. Namely:
    Modeling a blockout level without thinking too much about clean geometry or precise dimensions enabled me to focus purely on art and architecture instead of processes and tools. Never underestimate how much time consuming it is to make current gen art. My initial blockout turned out to be way too ambitious for the amount of time and resources I had for this piece. Never discard any ideas! Several pieces I made for the blockout level were actually polished later on to be used in the final level. Don't try to find a one rule that fits all when it comes to asset production. As long as you work with reasonable dimensions that adhere to the grid you can mix unique and modular pieces easily. The same applies for using Unique or Tiling textures, find a balance to use either where it makes sense. Don't think twice about pausing work on something when you feel you are noodling too much or if it isn't going anywhere. It's usually better to trust your instincts than trying to make up for the "wasted" time by forcing yourself to finish it. Don't be a dinosaur and embrace progress! My initial reason for not using dDo at first was because I thought that all my textures would look the same but this is not the case if you use it wisely. A texture artist needs to be versed in several different tools to get good materials. Don't stick to just one, explore all options to find the one that’s best suited for each specific situation. There's no such thing as wasted time or wasted work. Even if imperceptible at first, every time you work on something you are making progress towards being a better, more experienced artist. Most of the time this means working on "failed" projects. But if you really think about it they are not failures at all as we learn both from mistakes and from the things we get right. Several ideas that I spent hours and hours on didn't make it to the final level but that's fine. In the end, they gave me a broader perspective at environment creation which enabled me to make the right choices towards the end of the project. Fun fact: I've been trying to make this environment for over a year now, exploring several ideas before. I'd say this is the third iteration of this idea and the good thing is that in the end, with a bit of polish, I managed to use most of the stuff I made for the previous iterations. This is a bit cliché but very important: Don't be afraid of making stuff. Work on a lot of crap and only show what's worthy showing (usually a small percentage of what you make). That's the only way to find your own style and gain confidence in your abilities.  
    Very motivational and inspiring Minos. I’m sure it will be appreciated. Before we wrap this up I have to ask about something terrible that happened. Something unforgivable (even though the above makes up for it but just a bit). There’s an Polycount logo in scene but Hurg is missing. What blasphemy is this? Haha! Yeah my mistake… While polishing the assets for the final version I removed the Mapcore sign from the building I was using it on (so that not every instance in the map had the sign) and completely forgot to add it back while rushing to finish the scene. I only noticed that when I was publishing the video.
     
    It’s really a shame because that logo looked awesome in the level!
    Just kidding Minos. I think everybody will agree that the time you took to write this down will be appreciated by and helpful to all (aspiring) designers. So in short, thank you again. Thanks for the opportunity Sprony and I hope you guys learned a thing or two with this!
    Fly-through of the scene on YouTube Minos' portfolio  




  • Designed by professional designer Arthur de Padua (AKA Thurnip), the new logo was developed over a period of many months and incorporates some of the successful themes that came up during the logo design contest we had some time ago. Unlike the existing logo which only existed as a low-resolution render, this one is perfectly crisp and comes in numerous formats suitable for print — allowing us to finally offer high-quality merchandise.

    So, head over to the MapCore store if you want to show your MapCorian allegiance in public! All items come as a 'Regular Edition' (no profit for MapCore) and 'Donation Edition' (£5 profit that goes towards MapCore hosting/development costs).

    We're currently offering a small but carefully designed selection of products. Once we make sure everything's running OK and we don't need to change vendor for whatever reason, more products will be added. We'll also soon be adding a way for you to donate while receiving a small token of appreciation (e.g. a sticker that can be bought for £5, £10, or £20) for those who want to support us but don't necessarily need or want a T-shirt, etc.

    If you buy anything, be sure to post some photos for us to look at! I have some orders on the way, so will create a thread for such snaps if nobody else beats me to it. If you'd love to buy something but the item you want isn't available, don't hesitate to leave a comment or get in touch with me — I'm happy to build up the products based upon what people want.

  • The first map-pack for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) was launched by Valve in the Spring of 2013. It was called Operation: Payback, and consisted exclusively of community-created maps. I'm often asked about my experience as a map-maker whose work was featured in the promotion. And just recently the sequel to Operation: Payback was launched — Operation: Bravo.
    What's the objective of these "Operations"? I would describe them as Valve’s way of supporting custom mappers. If you've ever purchased a map-pack DLC for games like Call of Duty, you sort of know the drill... but the crucial difference between a typical commercial DLC and what Valve is doing, is monetary proceeds from each Operation go to community members. And community members are making some serious coin: well over $180,000 dollars was raised throughout Operation: Payback’s five-month season. That's a HUGE reward for mappers, which is having a real impact on our lives. Any fan of gaming and game development done the right way should not miss their chance to support Operation: Bravo.
     

     
    But what if you don’t play CS:GO?
    First, I would suggest you give the game a shot, since that’s the only way you’ll get a chance to check out my newest maps, which (full disclosure!) were included in Bravo. CS:GO is typical Counter-Strike: it's really addicting... in a good way! Secondly, Operation: Bravo means more than just eight brand-new maps for people to play. Historically, Valve has always tried to provide a financial incentive for artists and designers to make custom content for their games (we saw this in Team Fortress 2 for instance, where some folks were taking home as much as $100,000 yearly just from making hats). At this point, it’s clear that you can earn money by making stuff for Valve titles. What might not be obvious is how bold Operation: Bravo actually is, even compared to what we've seen before.
    Bravo is intimately connected to the case-drop system recently unveiled for CS:GO. What that means is that by buying a Bravo pass, you increase your likelihood of obtaining cases which can be opened to obtain rare items, or simply sold on the marketplace for a profit. At initial launch, Bravo cases were going for as much as thirty dollars. It sounds ridiculous, but it seems likely that for most players, Bravo will tend to pay for itself. Welcome to Steam-land!
     

     
    Valve's unprecedented support for custom content is a big reason why I wanted to get heavily involved with mapping for the new Counter-Strike, even before I knew much about the game. I was confident that big things were on the way. But Valve — and the community — delivered beyond my expectations. So, why should you join thousands of others in supporting Operation: Bravo? I think there are three key reasons:
     
    1) As graphics get exponentially better, custom content becomes that much more challenging to create. More knowledge, experience, and personal sacrifices are required of designers and artists.
     
    2) In the past, innovators have created some of your favorite maps and games.
     
    3) Valve is paying close attention. Send them the unambiguous signal that you will support their newest effort to reward content creators.
     
    As for myself, I'm in law school. At my school, students should budget for a debt load in the area of $60,000. So far, thanks to Valve and the community’s generosity, I have received almost $18,000, putting a serious dent in my debt. By the end of this year, thanks to Bravo, that figure is likely to grow substantially...
    From a designer's point of view, from the moment that my map was included in Operation: Payback back in April, it instantly attained a higher public profile than ever before and received more play than ever before (including substantial play from CS:GO's developers -- which is pretty special). It's difficult to describe the stress, fascination, and thrill you experience watching a crowd of gamers running around a level you created. Basically, it made me prouder than ever to do what I do.
    I was also incredibly grateful that Operation: Payback enabled me to reward the artists (3Dnj and penE) that I had collaborated with. Because of the well-known Counter-Strike brand name, as well as the money I earned, I was also able to include my friends and family in my creative endeavors more than ever before. All the kindness shown by Valve, the community, and folks sending me Steam messages of congratulations and enthusiasm (and yes, questions about how much I earned) was both touching and invigorating. Now I'm dreaming about levels more than even I'm accustomed to.
     

     
    So, that's my perspective... but keep in mind I'm just one of the people this promotion uplifted. I hope you agree that Operation: Bravo empowers the community and provides serious income (not to mention resume pedigree) for map-makers. In closing, please consider supporting Operation: Bravo!

  • Making a Map: CS_Museum

    By FMPONE, in Development,

    The creation of a map begins with an idea.
    In the case of my most recent project, CS_MUSEUM, I needed a basic look which would resonate with players immediately. The thought of making a Museum worked… it was a simple one, it had been done before (although this wouldn't be a re-make of the classic DE_MUSEUM by Theropod-X). Players would understand a Museum environment, and it fit in the Counter-Strike world.
    Forming a map’s final look is complicated, though, and requires thought about what kind of architecture, colors, and lighting you – an artist or level designer – will pursue.
    I’d been playing a lot of the classic map CS_OFFICE, which requires players to storm into close quarters for indoor combat. That kind of game-play is fast and unforgiving, I dig the kind of matches it creates. CS_ASSAULT, I shouldn't forget to mention, is another great map that defines the "siege a building and rescue the hostages" genre. Actually, most of my favorite CS_ maps including Militia also foster similarly dynamic games that challenge you to be sneaky but also use brute force to accomplish your objectives.
    So, I set out to make a hostage rescue map like Office and its kin. Studying prior maps is a good way to establish what works well, and avoid what doesn't.
    One other map that influenced my thinking: CS_CABARET by Alex Roycewicz.
    Cabaret is a great map — it got Alex a job at Infinity Ward long prior to that illustrious studio being kicked in the nuts super hard by mega-publisher-that-will-remain-unnamed.
    It was from Cabaret that I basically ripped off the front of Museum... with a few changes.
    In truth, though, I had some bones to pick with Cabaret.
    Unforgivably, there was no sense of vertical space on the outside of the strip club. Also, while the building exterior is convincingly rendered, the overall space is too geometric: everything seems to face the viewer on an imaginary grid, which is no coincidence, that’s how the Hammer editor encourages people to make maps.
    Cabaret on the grid:
    Museum screws the grid:
    If this analysis is starting to sound harsh, it’s worth noting that Cabaret was one of the best custom maps of its time, so this is more of a modern critique of older game art.
    As is often the case with older game art, most of the limitations or flaws obvious to modern eyes were not the creator’s fault: Hammer around the era of Counter-Strike: Source (for which Cabaret was made) did not have all the technology I made use of for Museum. One example is “instances” (the pale green elements in the overview above) which are brushwork more akin to models than typical brushwork, because they can be rotated “off the grid” and not cause compilation problems normally associated with brushwork which is off the grid. Thanks to instances, I was able to rotate buildings to achieve a more natural, organic look — such as this bridge:
    In order to actually create the specific buildings in the map, concept art and photographic references were key.
    Here's an explanation of the Museum front.
    End product:
    First iteration:
    Reference photograph:
    The most pertinent point to make here is the difficulty of knowing when a photographic reference is valuable, and what makes it valuable. To explain this in extreme detail might be delving into an area of “talent”... or it might be worth the subsequent explanation I’ll now provide. In any case, this should explain my process.
    The best photographic references share one crucial element: readability. Complex buildings such as the one above, if they are to be useful for our purposes, must be able to be broken down into clean, clear shapes. I was confident using the logic explored in the line-work above (I did this part in my head), that the building could be broken down and translated successfully.
    The building begins to take shape, with the red lines becoming props. When using Hammer, what becomes a prop and what remains brushwork largely comes down to the default assets you have to work with.
    Talented 3D modelers have their choice of creating new content, but their time is precious and each art asset is an investment, so even then it’s best to think about default materials and their role in your work.
    This lovely picture inspired the placement of the obelisks, and secondarily the pond on the right of the Museum.
    Using concept art and photos in conjunction with my imagination, I had derived a basic visual identity for the map:
    Obvious reference: the Brooklyn bridge; non-obvious reference, this lovely piece from Deviant Art:
    Making a map is about looking at the world around you and seeing something inspiring enough to create a desire within you to render it and mold it for your own purposes.
    By this point in time you may be shouting IT’S A MAP – TALK ABOUT THE GAME-PLAY, TALK ABOUT THE GREY-BOXING YOU FOOL! …and, while the playability of Museum ended up better than I could have imagined, there is no glory in my process for that particular aspect of the map. Uh oh, he’s gonna say he didn’t grey-box it, isn’t he…
    First, the excuses: previously, I'd recreated the Natural Selection 1 map NS_VEIL for NS2, based solely upon my own literal eyeballing of the geometry, without any scale-guide, in a different editor and a different unit system. To put all that gibberish into other words, I’d done nothing for two months other than study the rigid grey-boxery of another mapper, then spent another 10 months making that geometry fit into the context of a new game and engine. I’d worked with fastidiously organized layers, done everything by the book, guv, I swear.
    While important for a commercial product, that experience had temporarily tired me somewhat of the (smarter) formalistic approach. As a result, no substantial grey-boxing would take place for Museum. Manic energy took the place of “rules” and “common sense”:
      Basically, I was creating stuff I thought looked cool, not getting terribly fussed about what direction it would all head. This is the way newbie mappers work, or idiots, or both… but it can be done if you’re smart about it.
    Certain things can’t be bullshitted around, though: your map must be in proper proportion to the players, and it must maintain sensible sight-lines considering the game type. You need to know the game you’re making the map for, and know it well.
    So working free-form has its advantages, creating a whimsical sense of liberation in the budding mapper. It comes at big costs to him, though, in other aspects. This open doorway, and the entire route it signified, never made it into the final product. People have noticed its conspicuous absence, however, to the point that it may make it's return soon enough.
    Working toward a result, with certain restraints in mind, but willing to cut: my method for Museum.
    Mistakes were made. Certain areas violated basic good-practice principles, such as this one:
    I call this piece of modern art “Abstract Red Light Number 48.” So… this elevator shaft was painful for a few reasons: too noisy inside, not clear enough about what it was meant to be, and the idea of it having a purpose seemed impossible given the amount of crap stuffed into the scene.
    I believe I settled on a better, cleaner result:
    Which was based off of this reference:
    This shipping area was another idea that got cut (considering that it was over-dark, this was not too sad):
    Based on:
    Everything else seemed to go swimmingly, however:
          My biggest advantage when working with these references is my ability — and perhaps your ability as well — to discern from them what elements are most relevant and work best geometrically. These judgements influence what makes it into the map. While you may be able to follow a similar protocol by examining the pictures, you would be doing so in hindsight; it was quite necessary during this project for me to be able to sift through literally thousands of images in order to find those which, at first glance, provided the requisite inspiration.
    References must be clean, they must convey a certain tone, and the architecture they illustrate must be plausible among the rest of the map geometry. This process of looking through seemingly endless references is a task which must be begun anew with every new map.
    Back on topic: a month or two after starting out on the map, I recruited a talented 2D artist named penE who had a style congruent with mine. With his help, rooms like this began to form their own identity:
    The map began to develop a sense of humor. We based the name of the museum on HURG — Hero of MapCore! (Don't ask.)
    PenE brought his full enthusiasm to the project, getting almost all of his work done in a month or so, a rapid pace which would be a major motivator for me while I was working with (read: waging war against) the Hammer editor.
    Here is a sample of penE's work for the map:
      Nevertheless, the map did seem to require more art…
    I had envisioned a T-Rex in the above room, and had designed the room around that eventuality. I was concerned that such a 3D model might not fit well (it’s a relatively cramped room), or might not be appropriate looking, but I put out a call for a talented 3D artist.
    3Dnj answered that call with a stunning T-Rex model based on square-shaped geometric restraints. I basically stacked a bunch of cubes on top of one another and said, “OK now make me a T-Rex that fits inside the squares.” Seems hopeless, right? Thankfully, Valentin, as 3Dnj is known, e-mailed me this bad boy:
        Owns right? Imagine waking up and seeing that first image of the T-Rex with that brilliant sheen, I was ecstatic.
    At that point I realized I’d found a true collaborator and not just a “prop guy”. Valentin would go on to help me optimize the map, and reform a lot of my map geometry into more sensible models. Here’s how crazy things had gotten:
    Hammer is unlike a modeling program in that it is “brush-based”, and things that are not literally six-sided cubes give the editor trouble. Trying to create an interesting shape out of a single brush? Take a hike.
    So it’s obvious why a more extensive collaboration was needed: it was never going to be realistic to proceed in such a manner and expect an optimized result which would (ugh) compile. Hence, the logic of making a map which looks the way Cabaret does, unfortunately all the same limitations applied more or less in 2012, with just a few exceptions like instances.
    So there were technical challenges, but four months on, most of the major lessons of the map were learned and my vision for the map was realized almost exactly as it existed in my brain.
    My workflow can be best summarized as: find a fitting photographic reference, get a basic interpretation of the geometry into the game, and then polish with aesthetics and navigation in mind (lead players with lights and colors).
    Phase 1:
    Phase 2:
    Phase 3:
    Rather than attempt to convince you I pursued the traditional level-design approach of iterating a grey-box, I hope this document serves to explain the approach I actually took: a risky and improvisational one that I know I’m lucky was successful. It’s good to state how lucky: a layout that emerged without argument, finding two brilliant collaborators with a lot of faith in the project, etc. Hopefully anyone looking to duplicate my exact method will be given pause, but at the end of the day there will always be logic in working hard and having a well-formed mental image of your goal.
    As for Museum, I can promise you one thing: if you load up the map, and I hope you will, I think you will enjoy it. (If only for the giant, motherfucking Tyrannosaurus Rex.)
    Thanks for reading.

  • The following breakdown is based on my own guesses and how I understand the game from the textures and meshes I have watched. I can't tell you exactly if I'm right or wrong since I'm not a developer of the game. However, I believe I'm rational enough to think that most of what I say is close to what the developers have done. The purpose of this breakdown is educational and the work presented here belongs to its respective authors.
     
    Anvil engine The Anvil Engine is a proprietary game engine used by Ubisoft's game projects for a few years now (the first game using it came out in 2007). We can call the Anvil Engine a next-gen engine since games for the previous console generation (like the Playstation 2) were using the Jade Engine at Ubisoft. The first project using this engine was the first Assassin's Creed game. Its initial engine name was Scimitar (before the release of the first game). Today, eight games are using this engine.
    The engine has since been updated with Assassin's creed III under the name 'AnvilNext'. Mostly to support the new game challenges and configurations that we have today and probably to be ready with the future game consoles coming along.
     
    Atlas and batching As with every open world and/or huge city, you have to deal with a very high number of resources. Mostly to keep the player in a fresh world and avoid repetitions. Games over the years have used various techniques to get past this problem. One of them is to reuse any resources that you have created. Creating a texture for only one object in this type of environment can be a problem in term of memory footprint. So reusing a texture will allow you to keep you memory low in size. Pretty obvious, however it's a hard balance that you have to deal with: diversity versus quantity.
     

     
    The size of the memory is not the only problem that you will meet; the number of drawcalls is also very important. As a reminder, a drawcall is a call to the API (the functions of the GPU to draw a set of primitives). For each frame that you render, you have a certain number of drawcalls. Each time you call the API to draw something it takes a given time, regardless of what you want to draw. So you want to be sure to reduce these calls to avoid any loss of performance (taking too much time to draw a frame will reduce your number of frames per second).
    Each time you change a mesh for a new one you will create a new drawcall, because for the engine it's not the same geometry. This rule applies for the shaders too. If you change the shader, you don't render the same thing, so you have to change the way you render it. This means a new API call.
     

     
    A common solution to this is to batch your calls. 'Batching' means to group some meshes together before calling the API to draw them. This is why it takes less time to render a big mesh than multiple small meshes. How to batch these meshes if chosen by the engine, there is no best rule for this and it depends a lot of what you want to draw. In the case of the Anvil engine, you are focused on drawing large and open spaces. The best way to improve the performance in this case is probably to batch per shader. So each geometry using the same shader will be sent together to be rendered. This way, reusing textures will allow you to batch a lot of things and gain a lot of time.
     
      So using atlas textures (multiple textures merged as one) will be a great benefit: you will reduce your memory footprint and you will use only one shader for multiple objects showing different things. Assassin's Creed II uses this system a lot for the environment and the characters.   Since we evolve in cities, some houses are often similar, it is logical to find the same design multiple times. Which means that reusing a texture would not shock the player. It will even help for the visual consistency of the level. However, I believe that the engine was not perfect and due to some performance problems (maybe because of the dynamic lighting) they limited the number of textures. In Venice for example, you have an average of 1500/2000 textures in memory (including everything: sky, water, normal maps, shadows, characters and so on).
     
     
    Texture design
    What do the textures look like exactly? In this game, textures for the walls are often around 512 x 512 pixels. Details, ornaments, water use 256 x 256 pixels most of the time. For example, the roof texture is only 256 x 256, but the tilling is so well made that it doesn't gene at all.
    However, these textures being very tiny, the developers used vertex painting to blend details and break the repetition. Since there are almost no specular reflections in the game (probably to strengthen the feeling of the walls are made of bricks and dirt) the vertex painting masks are stored in the alpha channel of the diffuse texture. As you can see in the second screenshot below, the alpha mask uses very defined greyscales, probably because they separate each level of grey as a separate filter.
     

    The textures are very bright, and we feel that in-game: the overall lighting is itself very luminous.

     
    Levels of details Dealing with an open world means dealing with a very long view distance. Therefore, the farther you see, the more you need to draw. Unfortunately you are limited by the hardware (especially on consoles) and you will have to use some LODs (level of detail). The developers have chosen to let the LODs 'pop'; this means no blending transitions between them, which is visually ugly since you notice the change.
     
     
    The environment collisions are dissociated from the visuals mesh. Probably because you can more quickly hide/disable the collisions of the environment since they are not visually displayed on the screen. This explains why forcing the LODs of the environment allows you to... climb the void!
     
        On the PC version, you can increase the minimum distance for when the environment starts to blend (which is something like 40/50 meters if you blend at the furthest possible distance). It's also interesting to note that some props like barrels, crates and other little things are independent of the global LOD distance. It seems that some props are linked to the LOD of the building mostly because they are at the roof level, while props in the street have their own blend distance.
     


     
    Characters Pedestrians in Assassin's Creed are based on modular characters. The developers use a set of heads which are combined with hands and different clothes. While the hand and heads have their own details and colours, the clothes are just a totally grey shared texture (except for the letter) and coloured in the shader to add variety in the game. They also add a detail texture to break the linearity of the clothes and bring up some fine details. Characters have also their own LODs.
     
      During a presentation at GDC 2008 about the first Assassin's Creed, Francois Levesque (a technical director on the game) explained their pipeline to produce a lot of different characters without losing too much time. They used a base head which blends to fit to the high-res character. This way they automatically get the LOD mesh at the same time since the meshes always shared the same topology. The only update to do was for the position of the bones on the top of the vertex to keep their skin deformation.
    Since meshes and UVs are similar, it's easier to manage and create a crowd dynamically. So there are maybe 5–10 different clothes and then the game dynamically creates a character to add it in the game scene. In the first Assassin's Creed, characters had 2 LODs, which meant 3 meshes per character. In Assassin's Creed II it's the same thing. However it seems that the clothes and the head don't blend at the same time. Probably because they don't have the same space occupied on the screen. So the heads go to their first LOD mesh sooner.
    You can see some examples on zBrushCentral with the base mesh topology and also the topology of some bodies used by the game.
     
        Lighting The Anvil engine is an engine developed to mostly show open environments. With the development on this second opus, they wanted to add a day-and-night cycle. To achieve this they naturally chose the cascaded shadow maps technique (more exactly, Parallel-Split Shadow Maps as described in a GameDev.net forum thread) which even today is the best way to draw a unified shadow on such big environments.
     

     
    There is no Global illumination at all, it's mostly only a main directional light (the Sun) combined with an ambient colour which evolves during the day. Some interiors like the tombs present localised point lights; there are also some point lights which are enabled during the night.
     

      However, regarding the performance, they were obliged to use a very low resolution and a blend distance. This explains why you see a lot of blurred pixels on the ground/walls for the shadow. This is also why you so clearly see the blending of the shadow from one level to another.
     

     
    Some shaders use the Fresnel term to enhance the looking of the character clothes a bit, but most of the time they simply use direct lighting without complex shaders (again, because it was very expensive). There is no fake sub-surface scattering (SSS) for the characters, even during the cinematics. The SSS only comes in with Assassin's Creed: Revelations and will be improved for Assassin's Creed III.
     
          Conclusion Assassin's Creed II was a really good improvement compared to the first game, however it looks like the engine faced a lot of new constraints which were not totally well handled. The way the LODs appear and the nice but still limited quality of the lighting are good examples of that. Even on modern computers today the game gets some slow-down in certain places.
    The engine was improved for the next game iterations and increased the amount of details and the quality of its lighting to finally show beautiful cities as we can see in Assassin's Creed III today.

  • When a developer creates something that they feel proud of, it usually involves a large amount of time, energy and emotional investment. It is not uncommon for people to pour their heart and soul into something creative and then feel overly sensitive afterwards when confronted with a stranger's opinion.
    Understanding what type of feedback is being offered can help you get past defensive feelings and realize that feedback is about helping to improve something, not hinder it.
     
    "Yeah your game is awesome!" Receiving compliments about something that you have worked on for a long period of time is great. Apart from the feel good factor, Candy feedback can also lead to other people being curious enough to want to try the game as well.
    The best type of Candy feedback is when it is specific about something in the game and that is usually a good indication that the game is going in the right direction.
     
    "Why does it work that way?" Questions are always good feedback because it is someone trying to understand why it works. This is the perfect opportunity for you to learn how to express your ideas in a way that others can easily understand. When someone initially asks a question they usually have further feedback, but they don't know how to express it yet and need more information.
    Always remember there is no stupid question and answer politely because it will often lead to feedback that has been thought about over a long period of time.
     

     
    "Your game sucks!" Nobody wants to hear negative comments and it can be really easy to take this the wrong way. Feedback posted in anger is about frustration and lack of understanding. You need to put on your detective cap and find out why, be polite and ask simple questions. Why? What? How?
    Remember to keep your replies free of emotions and to the point, if this is someone who genuinely does not understand it will often lead to good feedback because their problem was so frustrating that it drove them to comment!
     
    "Your game is good, but..." Usually starts with a good compliment to break the ice, quickly moves onto the feedback and then sometimes a solution to fix it! The perfect feedback is when someone has logically thought through a problem, able to explain themselves and give a possible solution.
    Thinker feedback is often referred to as constructive criticism and is the easiest type of feedback to understand because the thinker is direct and to the point, they want to improve the game.
     

     
    "No comment" There is nothing more frustrating than ‘no comment'; I would take a hundred angry people shouting feedback at me any day of the week than wondering why no one has made a comment.
    Besides access problems (lack of login id, restrictive websites and foreign language) the lack of comments often stems from social convention that if you got nothing positive to say, then say nothing. At least a negative comment can lead to change, ‘no comment' leads to nothing.
    If you are defensive and angry towards feedback eventually no one will comment and this is not where anyone wants to be. Try to engage people with questions, get people involved in the process of creation and most importantly accept all kinds of feedback without prejudice.
     

     
    "This game feature is so stupid!" Fanatically feedback is ultimately positive because it can highlight really obvious problems that should be fixed. Passionate fans of games get a bad deal when compared to sports fans because they are so vocal.
    Having someone engaged and wanting to be heard is the perfect starting point for a conversation and once all the feedback has been broken down into facts it can often highlight the most obvious problems that are overlooked because most developers don't think like new players.
     
    Conclusion Feedback is something that should be embraced because it can take a game in new directions and add features that were obvious to new players. Looking past the emotion of Internet feedback will stop you from getting upset when someone is not being subtle with their thoughts. Posting stuff on the internet is about asking for feedback and expecting only good comments all of the time is naive. The best kind of feedback is pointing out things that are wrong because then your game will improve rather than just be ‘no comment'.

  • 109.123.124.138:27080 | MapCore - The Home of Hurg

    We'll be enjoying de_icebourne (Psy) and cs_siege_go (3Dnj and moroes) tonight at 7pm GMT. Simply download the maps and turn up!

    If you'd like to have your map tested on the server, get in touch with Psy or reply in the We'll also be introducing a special playtest forum soon, where people can arrange playtests for CS:GO and of course any other game.

    There's a lot of interest in CS:GO mapping on MapCore, not too surprising considering that Counter-Strike mapping provided the foundation for the community in the first place. Why not get involved and enjoy having your maps playtested and criticised by MapCore's mighty crew?

    Update: cs_siege_go will also be playtested tonight, download link above has been updated.

  • Tell us a little about yourself. Where do you live, and what's your day job? Oh man. I unfortunately live in Rochester NY (no its not driving distance from NYC) and am currently unemployed. I graduated college with a degree in Photography and a minor in Philosophy in 2011 and worked for my step father's company until july of this last summer. So I currently spend all my time working on levels and photography, I honestly cannot complain right now.
     
    When and why did you decide you wanted to bring worlds to life in 3D? When I was 14 I had a passion — playing games. I loved it, it sparked something inside me and I had no idea what it was, but I liked it. My personality can be pretty analytical at times so naturally I tried to figure out how to make them. I love architecture, buildings and 3D space, so I just went for it. I spent hours and hours in every level editor I could find and I, admittedly, stuck with hammer because it was the easiest to pick up, had the largest support and the biggest community. I've been with it since. That's what, 9 years? 9 years of blue screens and move_rope causing crashes straight to the desktop — it's a love–hate relationship.
     

     
    How did you get involved with Black Mesa? This is funny considering the level of amateur crap I have made. I applied to Black Mesa back in 2004/2005 by sending a VMF to the founder of Black Mesa (Jon) of my recreation of the first Power Up level. It was a mess and ugly as sin. I had quite literally no idea what I was doing, but it was satisfying to create, so I kept with it. I clearly remember Jon's words: "It looks, eh, amateurish". So, I spent the next few weeks refining my work and I applied a few other times. I eventually got on the team and I started work from there. I remember a good friend of mine, Daniel Junek, was already on the team and when I loaded up the private developer forums and saw his orange map layout of the blast pit silo, immediately knew I was going to be on the team for a long ass time — I saw what COULD be Black Mesa and was instantly inspired.
    Funny story: I always considered Daniel's work (he did Blast Pit) to be godlike, it was just incredible, I had never seen anything of such quality and ridiculous planning and care. I have this habit of comparing anything I do to the current best work in the world so I know how to improve myself and I considered Daniel's work to be the best in the world. So, naturally, I compared my work to Daniel's and for years it never even compared, but I was slowly getting there. So, a few months ago I, slightly buzzed, messaged Daniel on steam and came to realize he did the same thing with my work this entire time.
    I joined the team and looked at what was available to work on and I, of course, had to pick Lambda Core. I had no idea what I was doing and some of the early parts of Lambda Core show that.
     

     
    What was it like getting to reimagine the world that kicked off many MapCore members' interest in level design? Oh wow I never thought of it this way. Want to hear something hilarious? Before getting on the Black Mesa team I had never played Half-Life before aside from one or two killbox matches on a friends computer. 
    But as for re-imagining a world that so many hold dear? Its a difficult process, at least for me. I wanted to strike people on an emotional level with my work, I wanted people to see certain things I made and say "Holy shit, this is amazing", and while I don't know if I have accomplished that or not, I do know that getting there was an intense process.
    I remember loading up a Lambda Core map and thinking to myself, "What makes this interesting? What makes this bad? What makes this fun? What makes this area instantly recognizable? How do I create something in the present that completely awed those in the past? It was honestly tough in certain parts and I can remember re-doing sooooo many parts of the game because I personally thought it didn't hold up to any creative scrutiny.
     
    Were you often tempted to take a whole new approach to parts of the game? How did you find the right balance of old and new? This is a good question and I bet some die hard Half-Life fans still think we screwed up parts of the game haha. For me it was mostly taking a look at the original and what it tried to accomplish and improving on that. Sometimes certain areas didn't even need improvement, it just needed refinement, an extra level of polish to really take home its intended goal. When there was a controversy over what should be done in the game, we would just look at the 'numbers'. Did a majority of Half-Life players like this certain area? If not just scrap it and try again but be sure to retain the original's emotional impact on the player.
     

     
    Did it ever feel like Black Mesa might never make it? Was your motivation affected? More than you can ever imagine. We worked on it for about 9 years remember! Honestly? It probably felt like we weren't going to make a release more than we were going to make a release. There were periods of inactivity on our developer forums for months at a time. We all have personal lives to attend to and sometimes it would be a perfect storm of events where no one would work on anything for extended periods of time. Then, out of nowhere, something would happen and everyone would get sparked and jump right back in and get loads of work done for months. Rinse and repeat.
    In the SUPER early stages of development there was a point where we didn't even have a coder for 2 years. You can only imagine how incentive was on the team at that point.
     
    There's still a significant portion of Black Mesa yet to be completed. Will it be purely new material when the remainder is released, or are you revisiting and/or expanding existing material? I will answer with a simple work-in-progress screenshot of something I am working on and nothing else:
     

     
    What do you think is a stand-out part of Black Mesa? I have actually never thought about this! But the FIRST thing that jumped into my head is when you first enter the turn-table room in Power Up. You witness an intense fight between a Gargantua and a few human grunts. It's incredible because of the collaborative effort that went into it without a single f**king hitch. It's like it was done by one person! Let me explain:
    You enter a beautifully themed section of the facility created by Daniel Junek You witness well crafted animation by Nate of the Garg getting blasted by a human grunt and consequently falling into and breaking the concrete wall near him. The Garg was made by Chris The surrounding textures are made by Mark The dead human grunt bodies turning into scorched corpses, the flame effects, and the Garg behavior was done by Paul and Mark All the sound was done by Joel Look at that! It's the personal work and vision of a team of people all together forming a unified and impressive quality of interactive work. It wouldn't even be possible to create something that well done by one person.
    Now you may say "Hey, thats how all games are made." But, its a little different when you are creating something of this size and scope and all you have to communicate with your co-workers is Skype and a forum. There were a lot of times when I would be making a gesture with my hand or something while trying to describe the way I want a prop or texture to look. That was frustrating.
     
    You do a lot of multiplayer level design in addition to your single-player work. Which do you prefer? Single player is telling a story and using the environment to make playing the story fun and visually interesting while guiding the player through a struggle. If you can hold a player's attention and feed them the facts then you are good to go. Multiplayer is about cohesive design and fun welding itself into one entity and that can be difficult at times. Honestly I probably prefer the multiplayer work because of repetition. You know players will be running around your environments thousands of times which will eventually lead to an appreciation for the map on tiers usually only seen by the actual level designer. That is a double edge sword though.
     

     
    Briefly, what's your general workflow for putting a level together? LAYOUT, LAYOUT, LAYOUT. I try to get simplistic layout for a map that is fun and cohesive before doing anything else. Why do you play a video game? Because it's fun, and as a level designer, that fun can be directly proportional to your quality of work. You are almost like a spokesperson of your entire team's work and I love it. I mean I could tell you about all my thought processes while I work but that isn't as fun. But, I usually tend to think of ideas in a 3D space, so I never really draw layouts, I usually just throw some brushes around to get my idea out of my head and see what can be made of it before I attempt any sort of real layout. A lot of my past ideas failed even before getting to the layout stage, so that is good (I think).
     
    Which bit of the process is your favourite? That part in a map's life right as you know everything is fun and you get to unleash your thematic ideas you had been planning in your head while working on the gameplay and layout.
     

     
    And your least favourite? Any sort of tedious mind numbing repetition is annoying. Or when you spend a long ass time solving a problem in your level only to have it come out like crap but its 5am and you have to go to sleep knowing what you just created is terrible. That's no fun for anyone.
     
    What's the hardest problem you've encountered while mapping? Writers block can apply to anything really. There were times where I would just stare blankly at a map for hours not knowing what to do. Recently though? I cant stop with my ideas, it's great. I'm trying to ride that wave for a little.
    Also, scrapping something you have put a massive amount of effort into can be disheartening but it has to happen sometimes. But what essentially is anything creative? It's the formation of an idea while hiding your influences. Sometimes these ideas need to go through an emotional struggle before work can continue.
     
    Which piece of level design are you most proud of? To date, my Black Mesa magnum opus is most definitely the final Lambda Core teleporter and its prior lower reactors. Fun fact I thought some designers might appreciate: the entire Lambda Core reactor and teleporter actually lines up like an actual facility if you copy all the maps into one file and place them correctly.
    More recently? It's my map cp_imbricatus for Team Fortress 2. I have a feeling that the map will fundamentally change the way a good three-control-point attack/defend map should play.
     

     
    In addition to level design, you're an accomplished photographer. How did that begin? Accomplished? Oh you. Thanks, you.
    Here is a story I have never really told anyone haha. I was an idiot in high school, I mean who wasn't? But when it came time to apply for colleges, I just straight up didn't make the cut. I applied to stupid high reach schools and nothing else, I think I even applied to the wrong program in a few schools. Needless to say, I didn't get in anywhere and I panicked. My mother had some connections at Rochester Institute of Technology and randomly one day called me while I was out and asked me a few questions:
    She said, "I got you into RIT and their photo program doesnt require a portfolio, which would you like to do? Fine art, photojournalism, advertising or biomedical photography?" I got lucky and I knew it. I wound up graduating with a bachelors of fine art in advertising photography. Crazy.
     
    A lot of your photos are taken in very challenging conditions, such as live music performances. What skills and equipment do you employ to get such great results? Simplicity is key. Both visually and philosophically.
    You must look at every situation like you are the one viewing the content with no prior context as to what is going on. Do you want to portray a story? Do you want to create something purely for its visual content? What's your end goal? I could honestly talk about this for hours.
    I currently only use a Canon 5D Mark 3 and the only lens you ever need — a prime 35mm f/1.4. A good photographer with a bad camera is going to make better pictures than a bad photographer with a good camera. I also adhere myself to a lot of personal restrictions (in level design as well). An example being I never crop any of my images, I always thought it was best to just leave it straight out of camera. I do Photoshop my images, but I don't crop them. (Note: if you are a client that hired me as a photographer, I will do anything you want to the images if you request it. These rules usually only apply to personal work.)
    Keep an eye out on my Tumblr for some new photography coming up soon.
     

     
    Do you find that your photography skills bleed into your level design? For example, when composing scenes? Absolutely! And it works both ways too, photography helps my level design and level design helps my photography. Lighting plays a more important role in both than most even think. I am just lucky to have experience in both.
    I don't want to toot my own horn here but look at the lighting in some of the reactor areas in Lambda Core. It got to the point where I set 50% and 100% falloff distances with a hard cut-off for the yellow lights surrounding the central cylinder so the centre reactor would ominously glow yellow without casting any mood changing light onto the surrounding geometry. Does that level of detail pay off in the end? I don't know but I hope so.
     
    What games would you say have inspired you the most? I have never thought about this before but here is a list of the first games I can think of to inspire me:
    Ocarina of Time: Video game perfection. Majora's Mask: I cannot even put into words the impact this had on me Wind Waker: How do they even make this stuff? It's like they converted crack cocaine into playable form. Half-Life: Was I obligated to say this? This game changed what a first person shooter could be with its incredibly inventive layouts and story telling. Painkiller: The basic first person shooter mechanics perfected and in gory glory too. Incredible environment art to boot as well. Banjo-Tooie: Incredible game design, just incredible. Battlefield 2: The amount of serotonin released in my brain by playing this game should be illegal. Super Mario 64: An amazing sandbox game before that term ruined a lot of modern day games. Far Cry: It materialised my emotions while playing a game by me actually muttering the word 'wow' while playing in certain spots. There are loads more but these are just what I could think of off the top of my head.
     

     
    If you could give a budding level designer a short piece of advice to help them succeed, what would it be? Your work is going to suck for a long time, get used to it. If someone is being a dick about your work, they probably have a good point. Listen to them without bias. This will push you beyond what you thought you were capable of. You made the level, no s**t its easy to understand by you — other people HAVE to play it before anything is considered good. Scale will make or break you. Do a lot of scaling tests in every game you want to develop for before attempting anything else.  
    MapCore would like to thank Jean-Paul for his time, and wish him the best of luck with his future projects. You can enjoy more of his work by visiting his portfolio and Tumblr. He's also looking for people to help out with testing his latest Team Fortress 2 map; simply download 'cp_imbricatus', take a peek at the
    and join in on the tf2maps.net server.

  • Almost exactly nine years after the MapCore forums opened on October 6th, 2003, they've been completely renovated for the first time. With new software and a focus on producing original content, an already wonderful community is going to become even better.

    The most striking thing you'll notice is that MapCore is now using completely different forum software. Not only does it come with lots of useful features including some ideas borrowed from social networking sites such as the ability to 'like' posts and an in-depth notification system, but it also makes it a lot easier for us staff to extend the features of the site and make it more than just a forum.
    With this in mind, a key focus going forward is going to be original content. With such a diverse and skilled range of members and staff, there's a huge amount of untapped potential for writing articles, interviews, reviews, and tutorials — and so all of those things can be expected over the coming months and beyond. There's not a lot to read right now, but work is currently underway to build a team of writers and also invite guests to contribute whatever they wish, and if it's suitable we'll be happy to feature it under your name.
    Over the coming days and weeks the forums will continue to be refined as inevitable bugs and oversights crop up. Also, some new features will be added such as the promised community feed (have your blog's RSS feed appear in the MapCore sidebar), more in the way of challenges and spotlighted work, and more. With such easy-to-extend software, features we've wanted to introduce for years can now be implemented.
    Be sure to leave a comment if you spot any bugs or quirks!

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