cashed reacted to Puddy for an article, Dynamic levels - in Payday 2 and beyond
Payday 2 is a cooperative first person shooter where players band together to commit various crimes in the endless pursuit of wealth, infamy and cool masks to cover their criminal faces with. The game recently celebrated it’s third birthday, yet it still retains a steady player base. How then has the game kept players engaged throughout the years? The many and regular content updates are surely a big part of it. Another draw must be the fleshed out progression systems that offer tons of customization. I would argue that the lifeblood of the game is its dynamic level design; it is what keeps the game replayable and fun. In this article I will discuss what dynamic level design is and how it was used to build “Hoxton Breakout”, one of the game’s most popular missions.
Payday 2, Left 4 Dead 2 and even XCOM2 all use some form of dynamic level design.
What is dynamic level design?
Dynamic level design is all about creating levels that are as replayable as possible; it is about retaining the challenge and keeping players on their toes. This is achieved by introducing elements that change between playthroughs, things that make the level a bit different each time you play. Dynamic levels are still designed and built by hand, so to speak, which makes them different from procedural levels which are created from automated algorithms.
Dynamic levels are useful in games where the developer wants the levels to provide more gameplay than a single playthrough would. This approach has the added benefit of allowing different players to come together and enjoy the same level, irrespective of whether they have played it many times before or not at all. This can make dynamic level design ideal for co-op games and it can be essential for retaining players over longer periods of time, just like Payday 2 has done.
Building a dynamic level
The process of building a dynamic level certainly differs from more traditional single player level design. Instead of crafting a linear experience in meticulous detail, a designer must seek to create a broader structure of what will happen in the level and then design dynamic elements, things that change between playthroughs, within that structure. These dynamic elements need to be designed with care, so that the level actually changes in meaningful ways between playthroughs. The process of making a dynamic level will vary from game to game; it all depends on the game's mechanics, setting and other details. By sharing the design of a Payday 2 level I hope to illustrate what a dynamic level can look like and also showcase the overall possibilities of dynamic level design.
Hoxton in all his glory, featured here in this promotional art. Shortly after his breakout, he leads a daring break-in at the FBI to uncover who ratted him out.
In the Payday 2 mission “Hoxton Breakout” players are tasked with breaking their old heisting comrade Hoxton out of custody. During the breakout Hoxton shares his suspicion that his capture was caused by an unknown snitch. To uncover the truth, the PAYDAY gang set their sights on the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Intervention (not to be confused with any real life organization...). This sets the stage for the mission’s second level and the one I will be discussing here.
In this level, the players will enter the FBI headquarters together with Hoxton (an NPC). They will fight their way to the “Operations Room”; the place where the FBI servers are kept and where the Payday gang is hoping to find the information which reveals the identity of the snitch. Hoxton will search through the servers and when he has found what they need, the gang will escape. No matter how many times you play the level, the overall structure will stay the same. Instead, it’s the dynamic elements within this structure that change and make it replayable. What are those, you ask? Let’s take a look!
Clockwise from top right: The FBI HQ lobby, a central area in the level. The FBI director hides behind his desk. Hoxton and the Payday gang enter the lobby.
The Operations Room
Players will spend a lot of time in the FBI Operations Room. Hoxton will be hard at work searching through the servers, leaving players to defend him from relentless police assaults. The combat space will change in a number of ways between playthroughs.
Entrances - Most of the entrances to the Operations room are selected dynamically in various combinations, which changes which choke points the player must defend.
Windows - The ‘Operations’ room is two floors in height and the second-floor windows overlooking the room are placed in different positions. Players must watch them for enemy fire.
Fuse box - The fuse box, which enemies use to cut the power to the servers and pause your progress, can be placed in a few different positions. Players must defend it.
Ceiling breaches - SWAT troops can breach the ceiling of the ‘Operations’ room and rappel down right into the thick of it! There are a few places where this can happen (it doesn't always).
These dynamic elements will vary and change independently. This can be very desirable, as it will give you a large set of different combinations and improve the replayability of the level. For example, even if the fuse box is in the same location in two separate playthroughs, the positioning of the entrances and windows will change how the players approach the situation, which will help reduce level fatigue.
The Operations Room. The Servers are kept in the room under the illuminated FBI logo.
There are four servers Hoxton must search through in the Operations Room. Between the searching of each server, Hoxton will need the player's assistance and send them on a “quest”. There are five different quests, though only three are selected and used in each playthrough. They can be selected in any order and combination. Each quest and its gameplay have been designed to have a slightly different flavor.
Security Office - The next server happens to be heavily encrypted. You need to break into the Security Office, download the encryption keys and get them back to Hoxton.
IT Department - The next server is missing and the log states it was taken to the IT Department for maintenance. You must locate the IT Department, find the missing server and bring it back to Hoxton.
Archives - Hoxton finds a reference to some physical files kept in the archives. You need to go down to the basement, search through the archives and bring the paper files to Hoxton.
Forensics - Hoxton learns that the FBI has evidence related to the traitor. Players need to break into the evidence locker, find the right piece of evidence and then scan it in the nearby laboratory for clues before returning to Hoxton.
Director’s Office - Hoxton encounters some files on the next server that can only be accessed by gaining direct approval from the FBI Director. You must head to the director’s office and use his computer to approve all of Hoxton’s security clearance requests.
What this means is that players won’t know exactly which “quests” they will tackle each time they play the mission, or in which order they will face them. As the difficulty slowly ramps up during the mission and the players’ supplies generally are lower towards the end, completing the same quest as either your first or last one can become quite a different experience, even though the quest itself doesn’t change that much. Allowing the quests to be arranged in any order and combination simply gives the mission a slightly different flow each time.
The five quests, clockwise from top right: IT Department, Security Office, Archives, Forensics. Center: Director's Office
The Combat Now, it’s about time we talked about the combat. It is essential for the replayability of a level that the combat isn’t static and that encounters vary between playthroughs. To solve this, Payday 2 has a spawning system that serves up dynamic enemy encounters. The system unburdens individual level designers and creates a consistent and tweakable way for the game to spawn enemies in all levels. For those of you who have played the Left 4 Dead games this may sound very familiar. The system isn’t completely automated and the level designer can control a few variables.
Difficulty - The player selects the overall difficulty of a level before starting, but a designer can tweak the difficulty to a factor between 0 and 1. This can be adjusted at any point during the mission and can be tied to certain events.
Spawn locations - A designer designates spawn locations manually. The designer can toggle spawn locations on and off, change how often they can be used to spawn enemies and which kind of enemies are allowed to spawn from them.
Enemy Wave Mode - Police assaults occur regularly and this is generally handled by the system, but a designer can force a police assault or a complete break from them.
Snipers/Harassers - The placement of snipers and so called harassers, regular SWAT troops who harass players from vantage points, is done manually. It is up to the designer to place them in challenging, but fair, positions and script logic which decides when and if they appear.
What this all means is that while the spawning system does the heavy lifting and creates varied combat encounters, a designer can fine-tune the experience and still direct the combat somewhat. For example, in Hoxton Breakout the difficulty is slowly ramped up after each completed server, the spawn locations are continuously tweaked throughout the mission to make fights fair and when it is time to escape an endless police assault is forcefully triggered to increase the stakes!
A dynamically spawned enemy squad moves towards the Payday gang.
The keycard economy
In Payday 2, keycards are single-use items that are occasionally used to open certain doors. In order to add depth and strategy to the level, I added something to this level which I like to call “the keycard economy”. In every playthrough, players can find 3-4 keycards which can be used, i.e. “spent”, on a variety of options like overriding doors to seal them off from enemies, unlocking rooms that contain precious resources or opening doors that lead to objectives. The value of the different options can change between playthroughs, depending on dynamic variables and which loadouts the players have. Since players can’t have all the options, they must choose wisely. This allows players to refine their strategy over the course of multiple playthroughs, adding to the level’s replayability.
The little things We’ve discussed all the major dynamic elements of the level at this point, but it is worth mentioning that replayability also arises from smaller dynamic elements too. These smaller surprises can throw players off and force them to adapt accordingly. A good example can be found in the Security Office, where the police sometimes pumps in tear gas when players are trying to complete the objective inside. This forces players to leave the relative safety of the room and charge head first into the police forces which are surely waiting outside. Part of making a dynamic level should be to identify and implement these little game changers!
Clockwise from top right: The Security Room fills with gas. A keycard has been used to seal a security door. An innocent keycard. A SWAT team rushing to thwart the payday gang.
To summarize, the level we’ve looked at is about defending a location and completing short “quests”, with both activities changing in different ways between playthroughs. In addition to this variety, enemies are dynamically spawned, occasional surprises appear and players are able to learn and master the keycard economy over the course of multiple playthroughs. These dynamic elements, this variety between playthroughs, is what turns the level into a dynamic one.
This level was made for Payday 2 and, as mentioned, dynamic levels will look a bit different depending on the game and its needs. The Left 4 Dead games have less emphasis on objectives and focus more on linear progression through a level, with dynamic enemies, items and minor path changes along the way. The Killing Floor games have arena levels that suit the game’s wave-based horde mode and these levels feature fairly simple dynamic elements: enemy and item spawning as well as the location of the weapon and item shop. The revived XCOM franchise uses levels which have designated areas or “slots” where different buildings and structures can fit in and shift the layout accordingly. The XCOM games also allow different missions to be played on the same level, enabling levels to provide even more gameplay mileage.
The dynamic level design approach may fit these games, and others like them, but it is not suitable for all kinds of games and it definitely comes at a price. Since dynamic levels are designed to be replayable, heavily scripted story moments and set pieces may have to be deemphasized or removed outright. Playing through such sections may be thrilling once or twice, but they generally lose their appeal very quickly. Furthermore, some degree of polish is generally lost in the process of making dynamic levels. The fact that you are making an experience that can’t just happen “in one way” means you can’t necessarily polish, and control, every moment of gameplay to an insane standard, like you would expect in an Uncharted game for example. Additionally, an incredibly strong core gameplay loop is almost a requirement for a game with dynamic level design. Since the levels can’t be overly scripted, directed and set-piece heavy, the levels can’t compensate and “lift up” a slightly weaker core gameplay. Finally, one must also consider that creating dynamic elements in a level takes time, time which could be spent polishing or making more non-dynamic levels.
These drawbacks must be weighed against the potential benefits. After all, the value of replayability should not be underestimated. As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, dynamic levels seem to be almost ideal for co-op games. Playing games together definitely adds something to the experience and this can help to compensate for some of the potential drawbacks like the lack of set-pieces. Adversarial multiplayer games, i.e. player vs player, don’t necessarily stand much to gain with the dynamic level design approach as the element of human unpredictability and challenge is usually enough to keep players engaged and entertained. By looking at XCOM, we can see that dynamic levels can be used to great effect in a game that isn't a shooter nor a cooperative one. And if we compare them to procedural levels, dynamic levels requires less sophisticated technology to create, but more human labor, and can offer something that feels a bit more handcrafted and unique. Ultimately, game makers need to look at the dynamic level design approach, its pros and cons, and ask themselves: is it the right approach for us?
cashed reacted to Mapcore for an article, Day of Infamy Mapping Contest
Participants have from the 15th of September 2016 until Midnight (GMT) on the 22nd of December 2016 to create, test and upload an original or Day of Defeat inspired map for Day of Infamy (www.dayofinfamy.com)
Map included officially in game
Void Surround Sound Headphones
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
(*All prizes are subject to participant eligibility. No cash value. The contest Organizers and Sponsors reserve the right to change or remove the prize structure at any point with or without reason.)
In addition to the prizes stated above, GameBanana will also be offering a sub-prize for the best development blog, work in progress or tutorial created throughout the process.
This is an entirely optional part of the contest and is open to members of all communities.
To enter simply create either a development blog / work in progress page OR a level design tutorial / guide for Day of Infamy on either GameBanana, MapCore or the Insurgency Forums.
Entries must be uploaded on or before Midnight (GMT) on the 22nd of December 2016, and include “[DoI Contest]” in the title. Entries will be judged by members of the GameBanana team, as they appeared at the deadline.. No changes or updates are permitted during the judging phase.
Rules and Frequently asks Questions
The submission must be a playable map for the PC version of Day of Infamy.
Remakes of existing maps are not allowed, however maps inspired by classic DoD maps are encouraged.
Entries must be submitted to the Day of Infamy mapping contest section of BOTH GameBanana.com and the Steam Workshop before the deadline.
Multiple entries are permitted, however submissions will be judged on individual quality rather than quantity.
Team based entries are permitted, however the entrants will have to agree how to split any prizes awarded, prior to prize claim and dispatch.
It is essential to thoroughly test your submission before the deadline as entries cannot be modified during the judging phase.
Exceptions: Changes to the submission profile are permitted after the deadline, provided they are purely aesthetic and that the map file does not change. (E.g. Editing the description / screenshots)
Maps that were under creation prior to the announcement of this contest can be entered, provided a completed version has not been released for public Download.
All custom textures, models or code must be contained within the download file or embedded into the .bsp.
Authors are free to share their content on any other websites or services they wish, however the file must remain free to download and play, without requiring membership or payment.
If the submission is distributed on an external website or service, it must clearly state that the submission was created for the "GameBanana / MapCore Day of Infamy Mapping Contest 2016”.
Authors must be able to accept cash payments via paypal and will be required to fill in a prize claim form prior to payment. Winners of hardware and physical products will also be required to provide a valid shipping address.
Judges and individuals associated with organising this contest cannot enter or assist entrants.
Entries must clearly state which game mode the level is designed for.
Participant eligibility: The “GameBanana / MapCore Day of Infamy Mapping Contest 2016” is open to any individual, or teams of individuals, provided they comply with the following:
Participants may not be an employee of the “Organiser” or “Sponsors”.
Participants may not have taken part in the preparation or announcement of this
Participants may not be a direct relative, spouse, direct employee, or long term
partner of any of the above definitions (a - c).
Legal Age: This contest is open to any individual who meet the above “participant eligibility” criteria. In the event of participant who has not reached the legal age in his/her state winning one or more prizes defined below, he/she must provide contact details for the legal guardian who will claim the prize(s).
TWO (2) copies of the map are required for this contest, and must be uploaded on or before the deadline. The primary version (used for judging) must be submitted to GameBanana.com and placed in the “Day of Infamy > Mapping Contest 2016” category.
The second version must be uploaded to the Day of Infamy Steam Workshop
No changes to the downloadable file can be made during the judging phase. Please remember to ensure that all relevant custom content is included, and that your map is thoroughly tested.
Maps will be judged by the developers at New World along with the staff at MapCore and GameBanana. Each map will be scored on the following categories, and given a total score out of 100.
Gameplay (40 marks)
Visuals (30 marks)
Originality (15 marks)
Performance / Optimization (15 marks)
cashed reacted to FMPONE for an article, Congratulations to our finalists and Grand Prize Winner, DE_EMPIRE!
(Art by Thurnip)
It’s finally time to declare a grand prize winner in our exciting Counter-Strike: Global Offensive mapping contest. You’ve playtested the maps on Reddit, you've waited months for the results... let's get down to business!!
GRAND PRIZE WINNER:
By Andre Valera
Sometimes it boils down to consistency: broad strength across several categories. No map in our contest better exemplifies this notion of consistent quality than Empire.
Empire features a stacked bomb-site layout similar to popular official maps like Nuke and Overpass. While this relatively unorthodox design presents level designers with additional challenges, Empire ably sticks its landing. Furthermore, the ambition of Empire’s design is tempered well by its no-nonsense visual presentation. We’re left with a digestible, fun, and very playable level.
Congratulations, Andre Valera!
Featured in a goRGNtv showmatch!
Featured in CEVO PUG rotation for one month!
$1000 and Mapcore swag!
CS:GO prize pack courtesy of Valve:
a signed CS:GO poster, lanyard, vinyl sticker
SteelSeries Kana Mouse!
A truly unique map. Some felt it was the strongest entry in the contest given its strong theme, abundant polish, and beautiful visuals; others, however, questioned the map's small scale. This was a tough map to judge.
CS:GO prize pack courtesy of Valve:
a signed CS:GO poster, lanyard, vinyl sticker
An attractively sleek map, there is plenty of room for Royal to blossom into something very special.
CS:GO prize pack courtesy of Valve:
a signed CS:GO poster, lanyard, vinyl sticker
By Ornate Baboon
A map that was under heavy construction for much of our contest, one gets the sense that Coast wasn't quite ready yet. With a little bit more time, who knows?
$100 + Mapcore swag!
CS:GO prize pack courtesy of Valve:
a signed CS:GO poster, lanyard, vinyl sticker
~~~We at Mapcore would like to thank the r/GlobalOffensive moderators for their assistance, our lovely guest judges, Valve, goRGNtv, CEVO, as well as Gamebanana.com and Steam workshop artist EGO DEATH for contributing to our prize pool.
Last but not least... THANK YOU, for making this 'Core event special and fun!
"May Hurg guide you..."
cashed reacted to Rick_D for an article, Making Agency, the popular CS:GO map
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)
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.
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!
cashed reacted to FMPONE for an article, 2014: MapCore's Year in Review
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!
Interview with Mateusz 'seir' Piaskiewicz, Techland Senior Level Artist
Interview with Rosin 'kikette' Geoffrey, Arkane Studios Environment Artist
Deus Ex: Human Revolution scene interview with KNJ
Virtual Reality: The Final Platform
Interview with Francois 'Furyo' Roughol, BioShock Infinite Level Designer
Interview with Thibault 'dkm' Courbet, Wolfenstein: The New Order Level Designer
Interview with Lenz 'penE' Monath, Environment and Lighting/VFX Artist
Interview with Thiago 'Minos' Klafke, Blizzard Environment Artist
Interview with Paul 'PaulH' Haynes, Homefront: The Revolution Senior Level Designer
Korath: The Witcher Saga scene interview? with Krzysztof 'Tepcio' Teper
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
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.
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.
SpronyvanJohnson's map given feedback in the form of an overpaint by Seir