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    Beck reacted to General Vivi for an article, Designing Highly Replayable Stealth Levels for Payday 2   
    The Making of Murky Station: Payday 2
    Payday 2 is a four player cooperative first-person shooter with RPG elements that centers around robbing banks and stealing rare loot. It was released on August 13, 2013 and has since shipped over 50 DLC packs and counting. With a thriving subreddit, it has consistently been in the top ten games played on steam. Today, I wanted to talk about my adventures designing stealth levels for Payday 2 before leaving Starbreeze in January 2018. While parts of this article are specific problems and solutions for Payday level design, I made sure to discuss them in a broader sense. The skill level of this article is for junior to mid-tier level designers, if you are a senior designer some of this article may sound familiar to you.
    I'll start off by saying that Payday's stealth mechanics are not perfect and can be flawed in some areas, but I wanted to focus on the decisions behind the map design, specifically for the heist Murky Station. I'll also break down how we consider using RNG (randomization), and the ways we apply it to objectives and mechanics to keep the level fresh and replayable. This map took 6 weeks to make between 2 people. My partner took the role of Level Builder / Environment Artist and I took the role of Designer / Scripter. Between the two of us, we figured out the scale of the project based on the needs of our studio. The idea was to create a small heist that took around 10-15 minutes to finish with high replayability. There's a lot to go over, so let’s get started!
     

     
    Let's start from the beginning
    Before we start drawing or building layouts, we make the call if we are going to create a Loud level (combat only), Stealth level (avoid combat), or Mixed style map. For the short period of time given to us, we decided to stick to stealth only. Making this decision early on helped us create better movement options for the player and focus our efforts towards balancing patrols and objective placement. We decided that the theme of the level was a small train depot run by a group of mercenaries shipping large weapons. The main objective was to infiltrate the depot and steal an EMP bomb. Keeping the objective simple and intuitive is important in multiplayer games where players can drop in and out of the experience at any point in time.
    We decided to shoot for 10 - 15 minutes of gameplay. Breaking down our main objective into smaller sub-goals that could take about 2 minutes each (this is based on our extensive knowledge of payday 2). It should be noted that this time assessment will change once the player has completed the level a few times. These numbers tend to get cut by a third, or in some cases, by half. With our main objective in mind, we can construct a simple flow diagram for the heist and start to think about possible dynamic and RNG elements that can be used to create a re-playable experience.

    (This is a scripting example from our editor, each entity has it's own function)
    Testing your ideas before scripting them? Wait... What?
    Since 90% of Payday levels are hand scripted, it's important we don't waste time building the wrong things. Testing your objectives and complicated RNG elements has to be fast and efficient. The last thing you want to do is build an entire system and find out it sucks. Most of the time you don't even need animations or even a model to properly test your ideas. At such an early stage some floating debug text will do just fine. You might be asking, what if I don't have debug text or the ability to script? When playtesting levels for Payday 2, a lot of the time we'll get a simple block-out done and then ... here it comes ... pretend we're doing the objectives.
    It might sound crazy (and not everyone can get through it without laughing) but we'll have one of the designers act out the role of Bain, our mission giver, and just spout objectives at us. We'll move through the space and pretend to see guards or hack laptops and delay time based on things we expect to happen. You can basically break down how your systems might work and try out a few possibilities. For example, knowing that you might have two escapes at either side of the map gives you enough knowledge to make pretend decisions. Telling your fellow devs the van is arriving up top and pointing out where to secure loot can help you find out if a location is interesting for the escape or not.
    Even though the artists might giggle, or people from the other teams walking by stop and wonder why they can't see that hoard of enemies. It really works, and can often steer the level in the right direction and prevent us from investing too much time on the wrong objectives. Now, I know this approach won't work for all studios or situations, but all I gotta say is... don't knock it till you try it...  
       
     
    Constructing our Sandbox Layout
    Now that we've pretended to run through our objectives and have gotten used to our basic block-out, let's talk about the layout we built for Murky Station. We went for what i'd like to call "the onion approach", which is pretty much what it sounds like. You'll have multi-layered rings that give you the sense of progression towards the center (or a goal). Essentially, we use the outer layer as the player start and each sub-objective is based inside a different layer until the player reaches the main objective (at the figurative center). This approach is very useful when working with sandbox type levels, especially when the player can virtually go anywhere they want.

    Side Note: We also layer our music track each time a sub objective is finished, creating more suspense and a sense of agency.

    You can see that the outer onion layer is the player spawn (colored green) on the overpass which gives them a full view of the trainyard. From here they can study patrol routes, train-car positions, and possibly objective locations. The overpass can also be used by a player with a sniper rifle to mark guards in the different lanes, helping provide accurate information on guard positions for the players on the ground floor.

    The next layer is breaking into the train yard through a fence around the perimeter. The fence is here to guide the player and give them a visual boundary for the "safe zone" (where no guards patrol). The next layer is searching the train cars to discover where the main goal is hiding, followed by breaking through the vault doors inside of the trains themselves. These onion layers have to be carefully managed to give the proper impression to the player. Too many layers and you might confuse the player or make them forget what they're doing, too few and you might leave them feeling unchallenged or unaccomplished.
     
    Player Mobility is key!
    Mobility is key to providing players opportunities to express themselves and make better decisions while traversing a level. I felt that it was pretty important for Murky Station to allow for different play styles ranging from slow and methodical to fast and dirty. The last thing I wanted was to force players to play a certain way or for the routes to become predictable and linear. In order to do this, I spent the first week of development prototyping and testing out different layout ideas that would maximize paths and choices for the player.
    (Here is a simplified top-down of the routes in the train yard area)


    It became obvious that we would need to allow players to traverse through and under the trains as they cover most of the real estate in the train-yard. Unfortunately the older train assets were not built to go underneath, but lucky for us, the nighttime setting of the level would cover up this fact. There being only 2 of us on this project, I took a crash course in Maya and cleaned up the bottom half of the trains by removing collisions and remodeling them for readability purposes.


     
    The next challenge was to teach the player they could hide under trains and be safe. Payday players haven't been under the trains in any other heist up until this point, so we needed to call attention to that but also show them it was a safe place. Making these spaces dark and in the shadows helped create an illusion of safety but also made it harder for players to find them.
    To help solve this issue we added yellow caution tape as a trim and a dim red light under the wheels to catch the players eye. These combined elements would then be used as visual vocabulary in other parts of the level to teach players something should be explored.


    One of the other ways we added more routes to the level was to build a ventilation system in the lower tunnels. Leveraging the fact that this was a stealth level to create these smaller spaces, especially since they didn't have to accommodate 40+ police officers. The vents allowed players to safely view guard patrols, search for objectives, and move loot. To prototype this, I built a modular vent system using basic mock-up units that allowed for rapid construction and testing. Funnily enough, the first iteration of the vents was too small and caused players’ bodies to clip through the floor. I was able to rework my mock-up units and we settled on standing height instead of a crouching one. Once again we used yellow caution tape as our visual vocabulary to highlight the vent entrance on the wall.
    Modifying the trains and vents is one of the factors that contributed to the map’s success and gave new players more confidence to explore the trainyard and lower claustrophobic tunnels. So now that we've explored the different possibilities for movement and giving the player more choices, it's time to buckle down and get our randomization system built.
     


    Randomizing Objectives to Maximize Replayability
    RNG is one of the core pillars of Payday, so every decision we make is looked at through a lense of RNG. We strongly believe randomization should be meaningful to gameplay and not just added for the sake of it. It’s important to ask questions like: was it worth changing all the cups in your level? Did you gain anything from swapping out all of your cars and buildings? Was creating a third entrance valuable to the level? Maybe one day we'll completely randomize every object in a building down to the smallest cups, but in a game like Payday I personally feel these types of things have diminishing returns and can often ruin a planned design.
    When working with RNG it's important that you ask yourself as many questions as possible to start with a strong foundation, especially if you plan on finishing on time. Something I often see junior to mid-tier level designers forget is to build for scope and set priorities on their objectives. It might sound trivial, but forgetting your priorities can send you down a black-hole that eats away all of your time.
    So how did we go about adding RNG into Murky Station? Breaking down our objectives, we can start to consider what RNG options are available and doable within our one month time frame. I've also labeled them with my personal priorities (low - high).
    Break into the train yard randomize breach locations (low) Locate the Bomb Train randomize train configurations (high) Hack into the train randomize panel to flip sides (low - medium) Open the Vault 4 different vault door / key types (high) Find the Vault keys The map supported up to 40 hiding locations (med - high) Secure the EMP bomb parts 2 escape locations, 1 chosen per playthrough (medium) I focused most of my efforts on randomizing the train configurations, vault doors and key placement. These objectives were critical in influencing how the player would move through the main space and how they could tackle the same area in different ways through multiple playthroughs. In order to accomplish this, I broke down my sub-goals into digestible points of interest and isolated them into their own prefabs (shown below). Doing so allowed me to script one prefab and teleport it to as many locations as I wanted. This approach made the randomization more manageable to script and cut down the amount of bugs that might have formed if I built everything by hand each time.

    Side note: We gave each one of our key / vault prefabs its own unique visual and audio so that players could identify them from a distance or listen if they were close by. Providing them with this level of feedback is critical in helping them make proper decisions while traversing the level.



     
    Now that we have our vault doors and keys figured out, I can begin the planning process of placing them throughout the level. When placing them, each location must meet certain conditions before being finalized. The main goal is to provide the player with a challenge and also encourage them to be creative in tackling the surrounding area. Having designed the layout to have many interesting choke points and traversals, it was fairly straightforward where I could place them. Collecting the keys is one of the more RNG based objectives in Murky Station, sometimes all of the keys are in different corners of the map and other times they are all next to each other. Eventually there was a script clean up to prevent overpowered locations or terrible RNG possibilities, but overall it was a huge success for the level.
    We generally kept the key locations central to the layout and tried not to place them too close to the player’s safe zones. Placing several keys along the outskirts was a nice change of pace from the main lanes, providing a different type of challenge due to the openness of the layout.
    This is what the upper train yard looks like and how the keys are distributed. The lower tunnels have the same amount of keys placed.


     
    We also used the same method for spawning the train interiors and vault doors. By creating one prefab and scripting it four times inside the level (one per vault door type) we were able to randomize the location of the players’ main goal with little effort. The engine also allows us to rotate our prefabs, giving us the option to flip the train interiors.  This added a whole new layer to their configurations, since some of the interior layouts were asymmetrical.
    We ended up with roughly 600 train configurations, 2000 vault door combinations, and 256 sub objective configurations. With 1 of 2 exits being chosen randomly each playthrough, this really changed what types of decisions got made by the players. It also influenced how they would flow through the level and took advantage of their diverse set of movement options.
    On top of that we use non-linear objectives, which basically means you can do multiple objectives at the same time or in some cases, different orders. In Murky Station, players can simultaneously be looking for keys, searching through trains, marking guards from the overpass, and securing extra loot they find. This allows 4 players to comfortably split up to cover more ground and work off each other. A well coordinated team might have two players hacking into the trains to find the EMP bomb, while the others are looking for the vault keys. I find it very important to provide all players an opportunity to contribute towards the main goal.
    Side note: With all of this randomization, you might be wondering how QA can test it all. The short answer: they don’t. We need to build efficiently to insure 90% of the level is solid, and then catch as many edge cases as possible. On the Payday team, the frontline of defense for QA is the designer making the level, It’s our job to test our own work thoroughly! The way the systems above were built would only required 1 prefab to be maintained for each example. This provides us the freedom to go nutty with the customization in the level, knowing it has a low chance at affecting our prefabs. So, as long as we build smart we can cut down the amount things QA needs to test and help speed up production.

    With the objectives off to a good start, let's take a look at how RNG might affect our guard patrols and cameras in the level.
     

     
    Guard Patrols and RNG
    Randomization can have a large effect on how smooth or frustrating a level turns out to be. One of the things we have to keep an eye on when designing stealth levels is frustrating the player through poor patrol placement, amount of guards, and how long they pause at each location. The goal is to create a fun puzzle-like challenge, not a terrible waiting game. Bad RNG might have you sitting in a corner for one minute waiting for the guard to leave, only to have another guard take his place when that minute is up. It's our job as the level designer to help prevent such situations from happening by adjusting our timings, reworking the layout, or possibly the level’s mechanics. This is why it's so important to create a solid base for player movement options from the beginning.
    Since we don't want our guard patrol RNG to get out of hand, we need to be careful about how they flow through a space. Doing this requires it's own personal attention and multiple iterations. Tilt too far in one direction and you'll end up with bare areas that have no guards, tilt too far in the other direction and you'll have too many guards stacked on each other with no wiggle room. The last thing you want is the possibility of a death chain reaction. This is caused when you kill 1 guard, only to have another guard 10 meters away spot that body... forcing you to kill that guard, who eventually gets spotted by the next, ect. In Payday 2, players have a limit of 4 guards they can kill before the alarm goes off (on all difficulties). In our levels, we have to actively manage the amount of crossover between paths and how often guards might meet.
    In the first test pass for Murky Station I ended up with a good amount of coverage for my level, but the downside was that some sections could randomly get 8 guards piled up.  After a bit of playtesting and redesign, I decided to break up my patrols into smaller loops and add more points. This increased the amount of coverage and kept the patrols more consistent. It also lowered the maximum guard stacking to around 4 and drastically reduced the amount of death chain reactions that could happen.

    First pass patrol locations

    Second pass patrol locations

    (the new paths provide the same amount of level coverage with a less chance of guard over-stacking) 
    A fresh take on an old mechanic
    In most of our stealth levels we use random static security cameras to challenge the players’ skill at avoidance or sabotage. The players have multiple mechanics in order to deal with them in a variety of ways, but we hit a brick wall when discussing options for Murky Station. Due to the hallway nature of the layout and the surrounding structures, we were left with very few options when it came to camera placement. With so few options, the cameras would be no longer modifying the level in a positive way. We also found them at odds with the design of the level, since you were supposed to be searching for a specific train car. If we had cameras pointing at it, you would be able to identify it too quickly and negate the challenge of finding it.

     
    So how did we fix these issues? Getting rid of the cameras was not really an option, so we began brainstorming and looking for assets that might be of use. It's important the core camera functionality remain intact and also continue to meet our core pillar of randomization. We discovered an old drone asset for one of the previous levels and began prototyping a few ideas. The design we ended up going with provided us the coverage we needed, while also creating a new challenge for the players to overcome.


     
    Each train can spawn up to two drones, which will then fly around the perimeter of the train and scan for players and bodies. Randomly throughout the level, three to four drones will be activated to begin their scan. The loop takes about 30 seconds before they return to their trains and deactivate. The cycle continues like this every few minutes until the level is finished.
    On harder difficulties, more drones will spawn and they will become indestructible.
    What's great about the drones from a design perspective, is that we can dynamically modify how the level gets played and prevent players from getting comfortable in using the same routes each play-through. Some players will avoid lanes with drones, more skilled players will dodge them using their movement options, and some players might even get trapped and need to think of a new routes. Let's take a look at the patrols and drones in action.
    (This clip is sped up about 8x and set to the hardest difficulty to help illustrate pathing and drone movement)
    Closing thoughts
    Murky Station was such an enjoyable experience to work on that I still play it to this day. When you break down the objectives and how they influence one another in a co-op space, you can begin to see the bigger picture and how a well-planned level with controlled RNG elements can stay fresh and replayable. Experimenting with different types of RNG is something I find very interesting, especially when you combine it with level design. I hope my article gave you some more insight into how we build with RNG and why we consider it one of our core design pillars. If you found this article helpful, let us know in the comment section!
    Thanks for reading, here is my Info :
    Twitter: @generalvivi 
    Email: generalvivi [at] gmail . com
    Website: www.generalvivi.com
    Before you go!
    If you enjoyed this article and would like to hear how we used RNG in other ways, check out Patrick Murphy's article on the Payday 2 level "Hoxton Breakout".
    I also have a  speedrun (1min) of the level for you to check out and a playthrough on the hardest difficulty (10 mins) by one of the pros from the community.  
    Fastest time 2018 (warning to lower volume)
     
    10 min gameplay video showing off a lot of variety in the heist. 
     
  2. Like
    Beck reacted to Radu for an article, 2017: Mapcore's Year in Review   
    (New logo by Yanzl)
    I'm sure that by now most of us have our sleeves rolled up and are ready to tackle yet another year, but before we move forward let's take a moment to look back at what 2017 meant for our community. It was a time of immense growth for both professionals and amateurs alike. A time when everyone seemed to have surpassed their former selves. And without slowing down, some have even managed to land their first job in the industry. I don't know what this new year holds, what challenges to overcome will arise, but I know for certain that I'm excited to see everyone become even greater!
     
    2017: Mapcore's Year in Review
     

    Overwatch - Oasis
    by Phillip K, Bram Eulaers, Helder Pinto and others
     

    Dishonored 2: Death of the Outsider - Curator level
    by electrosheep, kikette and others
     

    Payday 2 - Brooklyn Bank level
    by General Vivi
     

    Sniper Elite 4 - Regilino Viaduct
    by Beck Shaw and others
     

    Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Offtime
    by Squad
     

    Team Fortress 2 - Shoreleave
    Art pass, props and sound by Freyja
     

    Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus - Farmhouse
    Modeled, textured and composed by BJA
     

    Half-Life 2: Downfall
    by marnamai
     

    Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Studio
    by ZelZStorm, TanookiSuit3 and Hollandje
     

    Portal 2 - Refraction
    by Stract
     

    Counter Strike: Global Offensive - Breach
    by Yanzl and Puddy
     

    Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Berth
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    Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Kaizen
    by Andre Valera and Jakuza
     

    Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Asylum
    by Libertines
     

    Half-Life 2: Episode 2 - FusionVille: The Shadow over Ravensmouth
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    Unreal Engine 4 scene
    by Dario Pinto
     

    Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Grind
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    Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Aurelia remake
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    Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Tangerine
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    Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Apollo
    by Vaya, CrTech, Vorontsov, JSadones
     

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  3. Like
    Beck reacted to FMPONE for an article, Climbing DOOM's Argent Tower   
    This article may contain slight spoilers   DOOM's Argent Tower is a superb Single-Player level. The Argent Tower motivates players with an obvious goal, expands in scope (almost unbelievably), and masterfully controls pacing. A playground for new a ability and a giant environmental puzzle, the Argent Tower is the best level in this excellent reboot of the franchise.   Now, let's explore the reasons why this level feels so memorable!   OBJECTIVE   Players will know their goal from the outset: climbing the Argent Tower. In addition to verbal instructions, the level's construction and composition never fails to aim you upward. Warm lighting moves up vertically, so that players' eyes are always drawn upwards.     Even the item you acquire in the level's prelude is a double-jump upgrade, which the level then associates with an oft-repeated green light motif. Players will be doing a LOT of double-jumping in the Tower, so the game articulates a method to guide them.     While players may or may not consciously respond to this green-light motif, the designers clearly believe it works as a navigational aid: it is repeated with brutal consistency throughout the level.   SCOPE   When players reach the Tower's inner core, the vast power of DOOM's engine is indisputable. Great music kicks in, monsters spawn all around the player, and the game "gates" engagements without muddying players' central, long-term gameplay goal.     The symmetrical, circular design of the Tower's core proves extremely useful in several respects. Because players can only progress upwards, they get to experience fun combat engagements and jumping puzzles before they are neatly stuffed into small corridors adjoining the main core.   This contrast between the core's verticality and its cramped side passages makes for easily controlled progression through the level and amplifies the awe of returning to the core. In one side area of the Argent Tower, players experience a "monster closet" ambush, a classic DOOM design trope in which a demon emerges from a closet adjacent to a corridor. Here, the designers chose an exploding demon for extra "oomph"!     There's just something timeless about monster closets. That the game dives down to its most granular level (the monster closet) additionally provides contrast to the heights of the massive core.      PACING   DOOM carefully reminds players of their progress ascending the Tower. In one cramped side-area, players are faced with the seemingly trivial task of shooting canisters that underpin an elevator blocking their path. After destroying the canisters, the elevator falls down its shaft.      Half-Life 2 used similar imagery to convey the scale (and ongoing destruction) of The Citadel:     An additional point of this elevator diversion was to slow players down, to keep them away from the showpiece core a little while longer.    New players will take a minute to identify the canisters overhead and discern that they need to be destroyed, because this is a novel task and because FPS players notoriously fail to look upward. Later in the game, the designers repeat the canister mechanic before providing players the BFG, the defining weapon of the series. Without the subtle change in momentum the canisters provide, gaining access to the Tower's rooftop or the BFG would feel too straightforward and simplistic.    Having artificially lengthened the break players take from the core, the designers have guaranteed that environmental contrast will enhance perception of the Tower's scale AND that player intelligence and momentum has been challenged by a new problem. (...but because this is DOOM, problem solving is still ultimately about destroying shit.)     Players complete more than six different jumping tasks including riding a flying drone to climb the Argent Tower and enter a portal into Hell.      Such a variety of jumping puzzles and hazards makes the level memorable and is another technique enlarging perception of the Tower. To be clear, jumping puzzles are universally terrible in every FPS game, but their annoyance here is dulled by the focused grandiosity of the level and the ability to grapple onto ledges. The designers ultimately cared a lot more about giving players a memorable locale than sparing them falling deaths.   CONCLUSION   After reaching the top of the Argent Tower, players are greeted by a giant, climactic battle which ends with a wonderful fade to white.   Only now are players ready to enter Hell confident that they've truly gotten to experience Mars.      It's important to remember that, fundamentally, the Argent Tower is about going from point A (the foot of the tower) to point B (the top). Faced with a similar Tower-landmark, some designers might path this route with nothing more than a simple elevator cinematic or miss countless opportunities to do something special. DOOM's designers, however, missed nothing: they recognized the need to offer players dense and varied challenges, careful pacing, and spatial design rich with contrast.   Later, when players return to Mars, the destroyed husk of the Tower provides an instantly recognizable landmark re-orienting players on their adventure and a tantalizing hint that things are different now.   The Argent Tower goes to show that great levels are not about the destination, but the journey -- and all the controlled chaos along the way!     Thanks for reading!    
  4. Like
    Beck reacted to Alf-Life for an article, Creative Airlocking: streaming in action games   
    Creative Airlocking: streaming in action games
    This article will discuss the loading and unloading of areas in linear single-player action titles, and look at contemporary examples of how the best games mask these so they appear seamless.
    Background
    When designing levels, Level Designers and Environment Artists must consider that their assets all have to fit within memory at once. While older action games like Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom would load the entire level with a Loading Screen at the start of each map, games like Half-Life started a trend of loading smaller sections gradually so they could squeeze in more detail and also provide a more seamless experience for players, making the game feel like one long adventure.
    At the time, going from one space to the next in Half-Life resulted in a seconds-long hitch with the word “Loading” on screen. There was no warning that it was going to happen, although Valve’s Level Designers oftenplaced these level transitions in smart places; usually down-time between combat and in a natural chokepoint. In later years, with faster computers, these load times decreased and are now almost seamless.

    Half-Life displays a small loading message when transitioning between levels.
    Currently, blockbuster series like Gears of War and Uncharted provide truly seamless transitions. After one long initial load for a new chapter with a completely new location (with new art) – sometimes masked behind a pre-rendered movie – “buffer” Streaming Sections are used, in which the previous area is unloaded, and the next loaded, on the fly. Since a lot of the globally-used entities are already loaded, and the environment is usually the same, assets can be shared, which can reduce these transition load times to much less than the initial level load.
    Essentially, these games take the smaller loading bar/screen of a more continuously-laid-out game like Half-Life, Portal 2 or Fallout 4 and make the player spend that time in the game world. If done creatively, players won’t even notice it. They might even enjoy the down-time if it’s well-paced, like The Last of Us where it can be spent on a thought-provoking puzzle or with the characters discussing something interesting.
    Overview
    Most action games budget out large areas, and then connect those with these smaller Streaming Sections.
     

    Section (A) is a huge space with lots of combat, Section (C) is another. Players in Streaming Section (B) can’t see into both (A) and (C) at once. Section (B) is where Section (A) is dropped from memory and (C) starts to load in. Section (A) being dropped shouldn’t happen in view of the player, and unless the game supports backtracking it is wise to place a back-gate to stop players returning, for maximum efficiency. As soon as Section (A) has been dropped, Section (C) can start loading in. It must have been loaded by the time the player exits Section (B), so it is also wise to front-gate players in case they rush through.
    The best way to think of a Streaming Section is as an airlock; the “door” behind the player is locked, the next area is loaded, and the “door” ahead opens. Ideally, these sections aren’t literal airlocks but instead nicely-disguised puzzles or narrative spaces between the action.
    Back-gating, and Unloading
    Back-gating, as the term suggests, is when the player is prevented from returning to a previous area. The ‘gate’ behind them is closed, in a lot of cases locked. This doesn’t have to be a literal gate or door, though. A ceiling can collapse causing debris to block the path behind the player, the player can fall through the floor and not be able to climb back up, they can pass through a one-way portal and not get back.
    Back-gating after entering the Streaming Section is usually done around a corner where the player can’t see Section (A) being unloaded.
    One-way animations are the main manifestation of these in modern action titles. Think of how many doorways your player character has held open, only to have it collapse behind them. The level section behind that door is now being unloaded, to make space in memory for the next large section. In co-op games, these animated interactions are a great way to bring players back together so that Player 2 isn’t left behind, only to fall through the world, in the section that is just about to be unloaded!

    The Last of Us has a huge variety of bespoke, painstakingly-animated back-gates.
    A cut-scene can also serve as a good back-gate, as long as it makes sense in the context and/or story so as to not feel tacked on, and is within development budget!
    One-way drop-downs are also a great and less flow-breaking back-gate. If the L-shaped area just before the drop-down can be kept in memory, as soon as the player drops down a ledge they can never climb back up, the previous area can be unloaded. The only down-sides to this softer back-gate are that they can feel contrived unless the game’s art and world can support it (terrain and collapsed structures are great for this), and that co-op players may have to be teleported to the dropping player so that they don’t fall through the world when Section (A) is unloaded.
    Slowing the player down, and Loading
    As Streaming Sections are usually connectors between two larger areas, they naturally make for slower-paced breaks in the action. Since Section (C) is being loaded in, slowing the player down in (B) – either literally as with Gears of War’s infamous forced walks or cerebrally with light puzzle gameplay – can be more efficient and interesting than just making a large footprint which has to cater for a player, say, sprinting for 30 seconds.

    Even when rushed, this plank puzzle in The Last of Us takes time and offers a nice respite.
    “Popcorn” encounters with just 1-2 enemies can be a good trick to allow loading to finish and slow players down and prevent them from simply rushing through a short Streaming Section. They also keep players on their toes and vary the flow from, for example, combat to puzzle to combat.
    Interactive Objects such as the slow-turning valves in Killzone 2 and the Gears of War games can also buy some loading time, as can environmental obstacles such as jumps or mantles or animations where the player’s buddy looks around for, and then finds, a ladder to kick down for the player to climb (also a good front-gate).

    Interactions like the valve in Gears of War slows players down and can also act as a front-gate.
    These approaches can also be combined in ways that fit the feel of the game, such as a Grub locking the player in a room and flooding it with frightening enemies in the first Gears of War game.
    Batman Arkham Asylum does a great job with additional ‘softer’ methods of slowing players down by playing a captivating well-acted taunt on a monitor from The Joker, or by encouraging exploration with The Riddler’s location-specific riddles or any number of collectibles.
    Front-gating, and Loaded
    As with Back-gates, front-gates are quite self-explanatory – the exit to the area the player is currently in is locked until certain conditions, such as all the enemies in the room being dead or the next area having loaded in, are met. Again, this doesn’t have to be a literal gate or door, just an obstacle in the world that can change its state from closed and locked to open.
    A lot of games from the Call of Duty series to Killzone 2 to The Last of Us extensively use friendly characters to unblock a front-gate; chain-link fences are cut through, doors are kicked open, wooden beams are lifted. New waves of enemies can also open a front-gate for the player and offer the bonus in that noisy, gun-firing AI attract players, like carrots on a stick, to the newly-opened exit. Many action games have excellent examples of enemies blow-torching open a door to get in or a huge monster bursting in through a wall; not only are these cool enemy entrances, but oftentimes their new unorthodox entrance-ways become cool exits, sign-posted by their un-gating event.

    Previously-locked doors in Halo often flash and make noise when opened by new enemies.
    Not all games front-gate the exits of their Streaming Sections because the time needed to load a Section (C) can usually be accurately gauged, and the acceptable fallback is a slight hitch. However, front-gates do provide that extra failsafe to ensure the next area is loaded before leaving a Streaming Section – in this case, a player with a scratched disk or corrupted file could see out of the world, at best, or get stuck or fall out of the world, at worst (though it could be argued someone with a scratch or corrupted files might see worse issues regardless).
    The biggest issue here is that front-gates need to fit the game or the level art – neat doorways or bottlenecks aren’t always possible. The other big issue is repetition; if a specific door interaction animation is always used, the game needs to provide a lot of variety in that animation!
    One trick that can be used to alleviate repetition, however, is if the front-gate is out of sight near the end of the Streaming Section (A). A check can be done to see if Section (C) has loaded, and if it has, the door can potentially be pre-opened saving the player another potentially-repetitive interaction but also holding as a true front-gate if a player does rush through.
    Batman Arkham Asylum had an interesting front-gate in the penitentiary sections; a security camera scanned Batman once before opening the door. Given the backtracking-heavy structure of the game, when racing through at full pelt, if the next area had not finished loading, the camera would loop the camera’s scanning animation. This is a great compromise because the camera scan completely fits the fiction of the world, and an extra scan animation would probably go unnoticed by many players.

    Batman Arkham Asylum’s Penitentiary’s doors only open when loading is complete.
    Conclusion
    In most linear action games, keeping the player immersed in the world is preferable to seeing a loading screen. If developers can create interesting activities, take advantage of slower pacing through narrative, or just make smart use of assets and an interesting space to traverse, Streaming Sections can be part of the world and not feel like generic winding corridors that stand out even to uninitiated players as padding.
    Copyright © Martin 'Alf-Life' Badowsky 2016
  5. Like
    Beck 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)
     
     
     

     
    Prize Structure
     
    1st place
     
    $3,000 cash
    Map included officially in game
    Corsair Hardware
    Void Surround Sound Headphones
    Strafe Keyboard
    Katar Mouse
    M330 Mouse Pad
    All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
     
     
     
    2nd place
     
    $1,500 cash
    Corsair Hardware
    Strafe Keyboard
    Katar Mouse
    M330 Mouse Pad
    All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
     
    3rd place
     
    $1,000 cash
    Corsair Hardware
    Katar Mouse
    M330 Mouse Pad
    All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
     
    4th place
     
    $500 cash
    Corsair Hardware
    Katar Mouse
    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.)
     
     
     

     
    Sub-Prizes
    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.

     
    Eligibility
     
    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
    Contest.
    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).
     
     
    Submitting
     
    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.
     
    http://gamebanana.com/maps/cats/8989
     
    The second version must be uploaded to the Day of Infamy Steam Workshop
     
    http://steamcommunity.com/app/447820/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.
     
     
     

     
    Judging Criteria
     
    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)
  6. Like
    Beck reacted to PeteEllis for an article, Creating a Single-Player Combat Space   
    This article is the first installment in a three-part article that looks at the considerations for creating a single-player combat space, using a walkthrough of the first battle in ‘Killzone Mercenary’ as a working example.
    Creating a Single-Player Combat Space Part 1
    This article will explain how to create a combat space for a single-player campaign, using my work on ‘Killzone Mercenary’ (hereon referred to as KZM) as an example.  There is already a fair amount of literature on the different methods you can use for creating a combat encounter, but I felt that none of it really discussed how to arrange the layout in closer detail, nor did they discuss where the different elements were appropriate.  In my early work I tried to jam in all the concepts for encounter design without fully understanding how they affected the player’s experience.  As strange as it sounds, I discovered there were times when it was better to restrict the number of elements being used to provide a much more focused and coherent experience; sometimes less is more. I will take you through an example to explain what I mean and how this can be the case.
    I will use the very first combat arena in KZM as it’s a small encounter where I can explain in depth what goes into even the most basic combat space. This encounter is a fight against assault troopers who are trying to stop the player from escaping the building and reaching the objective building; the ‘Halls of Justice’. I designed bigger encounters that featured many flanking opportunities and complex circular navigability but focusing on a simple encounter allows me to explain certain techniques in detail and where I purposely removed some elements to balance the difficulty and give the player different experiences.
    First of all I will explain two important aspects that must be considered for combat creation; AI metrics and weapon choice. I will then take you through a step by step walkthrough of this first encounter explaining in detail the reasons how it was designed and constructed for optimum player experience.
    Metrics
    The design mantra ‘form follows function’ should be the basis when creating an arena layout; that is that the arrangement of geometry should derive from its purpose. The arrangement should support the function not only of the style of experience you want to create (is it a tight corridor section with close quarters combat or an open space with multiple routes and options, for example) but it should also support the main element that makes up the combat encounter; the enemy AI.
    When considering the layout for the AI or non-player characters (NPCs) that will populate your environment you have to consider their metrics. These are the numerical values for how the NPCs move around and use the environment and the differences between various NPC enemy classes. This isn’t something people tend to talk about and so it can be easily forgotten or missed, yet it directly affects how your enemies will move and react.
    For example, in KZM the standard enemy NPC class were the Assault Troopers. These soldiers could be given patrols and animations to perform whilst they were in an ‘unalerted’ state, just like every other enemy class.  However, when they were in an alerted state their behavior changed so that they used cover points to move around the combat space. The maximum distance between cover points that an assault trooper would move was 10 meters. This meant that any cover point that was further away would not be considered, so we needed to make sure when creating combat spaces which used assault troopers that there were enough cover islands so they could move around. If there weren’t, the assault troopers would just stay in the same spot and could risk looking less intelligent.
    The assault troopers also tried to maintain a distance of 15m whilst they were trading shots with the player. The behavior was that if the player got closer than this range, but not so close that they were in melee combat distance (5m), the assault troopers would retreat to this mid-range distance of 15m. They would also never choose a cover position that was closer than 15m to the player, so when we created combat spaces we had to make sure that there was enough variety of cover positions in the >15m range.
    For the production of KZM we used the ‘Killzone 3’ engine and modified it for the PS Vita. In ‘Killzone 3’ the assault troopers picked their cover within a range that was further than 25m from the player, but we discovered that this was too great a distance for the enemy to still be clear and readable on the PS Vita screen. In our modified version of the KZ engine we had to reduce the combat distance to 15m, which meant that the original combat spaces we had created using the ‘Killzone 3’ metrics also needed adjusting in order for the NPCs to still work. It is an unfortunate truth that the game metrics, be it for the AI or otherwise, can change within a game’s development, which means that your combat arenas will also need to be adjusted.
    Weapon Consideration
    The metrics for both the player and enemy weapons were also considered. As this is the start of the game we can be more certain that the player is using the default starting weapons, at least on their first playthrough, before they have earned enough credits to buy a new arsenal. Therefore, the combat distances of enemy placement were considered to be comfortably within range for the player’s assault rifle.
    The enemy assault trooper archetype used assault rifles that were balanced to have a short range of <10m, and a long range of >20m. This meant that their behavior was to try and keep the player within these ranges and would thus move around the environment to try and maintain this. This was important to consider when building the environment so we could determine the amount of movement the troopers were likely to perform. This is important for balancing difficulty as a moving target is harder to hit.
    Foreshadowing
    As this was the opening of the game, we wanted to make it compelling in order to grasp and hold the player’s attention; we wanted to start with a bang. If the first lot of encounters in the game only included assault troopers with nothing else to differentiate them it may not have been so compelling. Therefore, we decided to include a significant Killzone enemy vehicle; the Helghast Dropship.  Of course it would have been far too difficult to fight a Dropship at this point in the game, so instead it was used as an impressive introduction of enemies into the arena using the rappel ropes from the ship itself.
    Using the Dropship at the end of the encounter, it was important to foreshadow its existence prior to its introduction. The level’s opening cut scene introduces the buddy character, Ivanov, and the narrative that he and the player are infiltrating the building whilst trying to avoid the searching eye of the Dropship.

    The foreshadowing of the Helghast Dropship
    Once the player has control they make their way up a flight of stairs learning how the movement works and feels whilst being in a safe environment. Once at the top of the stairs they enter through a door where they are introduced to the new melee attack which utilizes the touch screen on the PS Vita.
    First Wave
    After a successful melee attack the player enters through the door to the first combat area. The composition shows the exit of the arena in the top left third of the frame.  Central to the player’s view is where the first pair of enemies enter from, ensuring that their arrival is not missed.

    The exit to the arena is in the top left section of the opening composition
    Starting on the level above, the two assault troopers vault down into the gameplay space, to give their presence a more dramatic opening than merely walking in through a door. Their animation and movement also ensures that they catch the player’s eye if they aren’t looking in the desired direction. These vault down animations were 4m high, the standard height for a room in KZM, which meant this was a metric we had for the balcony and floor above.

    Two assault troopers drop into the environment from the level above
    Once the assault troopers had landed in the arena they became a lot less mobile than their standard behavior so that they were easier to shoot because, as previously mentioned, a moving target is harder to hit.  As this is the very first section of combat the player encounters in the game it was important to ensure that it was easy to get to grips with.
    None of the enemies were waypoint/navmesh restricted to certain areas in order to limit their movement as this could potentially lead to NPCs not behaving correctly under differing circumstances. In fact, there were only a very select few instances where we waypoint/navmesh restricted any characters in the whole of KZM; we instead crafted the environments to support the behavior we wanted from the NPCs. This was important for consistency; if you restrict areas and zones for the AI then they won’t behave consistently with what the player has learnt. This would lead to the player not being able to predict their behavior and therefore won’t be able to plan how to attack effectively.
    Here, in this first section, the two assault troopers took cover at two upright pillars of high cover and an overturned sofa of low cover. They didn’t tend to venture further into the environment unless the player had for some reason retreated to the edges of the level. The reason they wouldn’t move and advance on, or flank the player was because the other cover options in front of them were within 15m of where the player was likely to be stood. This caused them to be more static and thus easier targets to allow the player to get to grips with the shooting mechanics.
    I also chose to mainly use higher cover here so that when the enemies lean out of cover their shooting positions allowed the player to shoot their full body, which was a bigger target than when they poked their heads over the top of the low cover positions.
    Low cover positions are great for seeing the enemies move around and change their positions, as the tops of their helmets are visible over the top of the cover. Enemies are much harder to track when they use high cover as it breaks line of sight to them, so this is usually the harder option. However, as they have restricted cover positions and weren’t moving around in this specific situation, it was the best option to use for less difficulty.
    First Combat Front
    A ‘front’ is the perceived line or boundary that faces the enemy and is the nearest position which combat should be engaged from. The ‘fronts’ used here create boundaries between the two sides; a front for the player and the buddy character and an opposing front for the two assault troopers. This was the simplest setup to start the player off with and it only required two sets of cover points as I didn’t want to encourage the enemy to flank the player at this stage. This section of the encounter only needed these few pieces of cover (in the image below) in order to work and the other pieces of cover were actually for further waves of combat.

    The two fronts and the cover setups providing it
    It’s also worth noting that the cover object which the buddy character crouches behind is positioned further forward than the arrangement of cover that the player is drawn to. This is so that the buddy character is in the player’s view so they always see the buddy’s actions and involvement. It wouldn’t be optimal to have a buddy NPC that the player rarely saw. The buddy is also kept near to the player in order to maintain a close relationship and the feeling of being a team. Empathy is directly related to proximity between characters, so if the buddy was further away from the player they would experience a much more detached feeling towards them.
    Continue to part 2 or go back to the homepage. 
    Index:
    Creating a Single-Player Combat Space Part 1
    Creating a Single-Player Combat Space Part 2
    Creating a Single-Player Combat Space Part 3
    Copyright ©Peter Ellis 2016. Killzone™ Mercenary is the property of Sony Computer Entertainment © 2013. Killzone is a trademark of Sony Entertainment Europe. Killzone: Mercenary is a trademark of Sony Computer Entertainment America LLC.
  7. Like
    Beck 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)

    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!
  8. Like
    Beck 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!
     

    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
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