kinggambit reacted to FrieChamp for an article, Finding your own path as a professional Level Designer
The following article contains quotes from interviews with Todd Papy, Design Director at Cloud Imperium Games, Geoffrey Smith, Lead Game Designer at Respawn Entertainment, Paul Haynes, Lead Level Designer at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios and Sten Huebler, Senior Level Designer at The Coalition. A big heartfelt 'thank you' goes out to these guys who took the time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions!
On the MapCore.org forums many amateur level designers ask for feedback on their portfolios or for advice on how to break into the games industry. But once you have signed your first contract and you have your foot in the door you will realize that this step marks merely the beginning of your journey. It is a winding path with many diverging branches and without much information available on the road ahead. This is the reason why I decided to interview professional designers in Senior, Lead or Director positions to share their personal experiences and advice with others trying to navigate this field. It is worth mentioning that the questions were not selected and phrased with the goal in mind to compile a ‘how to get promoted fast’ guide. Instead I wanted to give level designers insights into the careers of others - who have stood at the same crossroads before - in hopes that they get the information to pick the path that is right for them.
Hands-On VS Management
At the beginning of his career, Todd Papy started out as a “designer/environment artist” – a job title that dates back to times when team sizes were much smaller and one person could wear both hats at the same time. As the project complexity and team size grew, he specialized in level design at SONY Santa Monica and worked on the God of War titles. During his time there he moved up the ranks to Lead Level Designer, Design Director and eventually Game Director. From level design to directing a game - a career thanks to careful long-term planning and preparation? “It wasn’t even on my radar” says Todd. “I just wanted to build a game with the team and soak up as much information from the people around me as possible.”
So how do level designers feel who step into positions where the majority of their daily work suddenly consists of managing people and processes? Do they regret not doing enough hands-on-work anymore? Todd says he misses building and crafting something with his hands, but instead of going back to his roots, he decided to look at the issue from a fresh perspective: “As a Lead or Director, your personal daily and weekly satisfaction changes from pride in what you accomplished to pride in what the team has accomplished.“ Today Todd is designing the universe of 'Star Citizen' as Design Director at Cloud Imperium Games.
Geoffrey Smith - who created some of the most popular multiplayer maps in the Call of Duty and Titanfall series and who is now Lead of the ‘Multiplayer Geometry’ team at Respawn Entertainment - says his output of levels remains unchanged thus far, but he can “easily see how being so tied up with managing would cut into someone's hands-on work”. Geoffrey calls for companies to provide the necessary training to employees new to management positions: “Managing people and projects is hard work and is normally a vastly different skill set than most of us in games have. Maybe that is why our industry has such problems with meeting deadlines and shipping bug-free games. A lot of guys work for a long time in their respective disciplines and after many years they get moved into a lead position. They certainly know their craft well enough to teach new guys but managing those guys and scheduling would be something brand new to them. Companies need to understand this and get them the training they need to be successful.” At Respawn Entertainment, the studio provides its department leads with training seminars, which helps the staff immensely, according to Geoffrey.
Sten Huebler, currently working as a Senior Level Designer at Microsoft-owned The Coalition, in Vancouver, says he definitely missed the hands-on work when he worked in a Lead capacity on 'Crysis' and 'Crysis 2': “I was longing for a more direct creative outlet again. That is why coming to The Coalition and working on Gears of War 4, I really wanted to be hands on again.” To Sten it was the right move because he enjoyed working directly on many of the levels in the game’s campaign and could then experience his fruit of labour with others close to him: "After Gears 4 shipped, playing through the campaign, through my levels with my brother in co-op was a blast and a highlight of my career. He actually still lives in Germany. Being able to reconnect with him, on the other side of globe, playing a game together I worked on...So cool!"
'Gears of War 4' developed by The Coaliation and published by Microsoft Studios
Paul Haynes, Lead Level Designer at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios, encourages designers to negotiate the amount of organizational tasks and hands-on work before being promoted into a position that makes you unhappy: “I always told myself that I wouldn’t take a Lead position unless it could be agreed that I retain some hands-on, creative responsibility, after all that’s where I consider my strongest attributes to lie. I agreed to both Lead positions (Cinematic/Level Design) under that principle - I never understood the concept of promoting someone who is good at a certain thing into a position where they potentially don’t get to do that thing anymore, as they spend all their time organising others to do it. So far I’ve managed to maintain that creativity to some degree, though I would imagine it’s never going to be quite the same as it used to be, as I do have a team to manage now. On the flip side though, being able to control and co-ordinate the level design vision for a project and having a team to support in fulfilling that is quite an exciting new experience for me, so not all the organisation and planning is unenjoyable.”
Specialization VS Broadening Skillsets
For the level designers who aren’t afraid of management-related tasks and who are willing to give up hands-on work for bigger creative control, what would the interviewees recommend: specialize and strengthen abilities as an expert in level design further or broaden one’s skillset (e.g. getting into system design, writing etc.)? Paul believes it doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other: “I think it’s possible to do both (strengthening abilities and broadening skillsets) simultaneously, it would really depend on the individual involved. I would say that a good approach would be to start with the specialisation in your chosen field and then once you feel more comfortable with your day to day work under that specialisation, take on work that utilises different skillsets and experiment to see if you find anything else you enjoy.” He started out as a pure level designer but subsequently held roles that involved game and cinematic design at Codemasters, Crytek and Dambuster Studios. “I’ll always consider myself a level designer at heart”, says Paul, “though it’s been incredibly beneficial for me to gain an understanding of multiple other disciplines, as not only has it widened my personal skillset but it has enabled me to understand what those disciplines have to consider during their day to day job roles, and it has helped me to strengthen the bond with those departments and my level design department as a result.” This advice is echoed by Todd who encourages level designers to learn about the different disciplines as “that knowledge will help solve issues that arise when creating a level.”
'Homefront: The Revolution' developed by Dambuster Studios and published by Deep Silver
Sten also gained experience in related disciplines but ultimately decided to return to his passion and do level design. He explains: “It’s a good question and I feel I have been wondering about this myself regularly in my career. I think those priorities might change depending on your current situation, your age, your family situation, but also depending on the experience you gain in your particular field. (…) In my career, I was fortunate enough to try out different positions. For example, I was a Level Designer on Far Cry (PC), Lead Level Designer on Crysis 1 and Lead Game Designer on Crysis 2. Each position had different requirements and responsibilities. As a Lead Level Designer I was more exposed to the overall campaign planning and narrative for it, while on Crysis 2 I was more involved in the system design. However, my true passion is really on the level design side. I love creating places and spaces, taking the player on a cool adventure in a setting I am crafting. My skills and talents also seem to be best aligned on the level design side. I love the combination of art, design, scripting and storytelling that all come together when making levels for 1st or 3rd person games.”
Picking The Right Studio
As you can certainly tell by now, all of the interviewees have already made stops at different studios throughout their career. So each one of them has been in the situation of contemplating whether to pass on an offer or put down their signature on the dotted line. This brings up the question what makes them choose one development studio over the other? To Geoffrey it depends on what stage of your career you are in. “If you're trying to just get into the industry for the first time, then cast your net wide and apply to a lot of places. However, ideally, someone should pick a studio that makes the types of games they love to play. Being happy and motivated to work every day is a powerful thing.”
This is a sentiment that is shared by all interviewees: the project and team are important aspects, but as they have advanced in their career other external factors have come into play: “It’s not just about me anymore, so the location, the city we are going to live in are equally important.” Sten says.
Paul is also cautious of moving across the globe for a new gig. “The type of games that the company produces and the potential quality of them is obviously quite important – as is the team that I’d be working with and their pedigree. More and more over the years though it’s become equally important to me to find that balance between work and life outside of it. Working on games and translating your hobby into a career is awesome, but it’s all for nothing if you can’t live the life you want around it.”
And it is not just about enjoying your leisure time with family and friends, but it will also reflect in your work according to Todd: “If my family is happy and enjoys where we live, it makes it a lot easier for me to concentrate on work.” He also makes another important point to consider if you are inclined to join a different studio solely based on the current project they are working on: “The culture of the studio is extremely important. I consider how the team and management work together, the vibe when walking around the studio, and the desk where I will sit. Projects will come and go, but the culture of the studio will be something that you deal with every day.”
'Star Citizen' developed and published by Cloud Imperium Games; screenshot by Petri Levälahti
But it goes the other way around, too: When it comes to staffing up a team of level designers, these are the things that Todd looks for in a candidate: “First and foremost, I look for level designers that can take a level through all of the different stages of development: idea generation, 2D layouts, 3D layouts, idea prototyping, scripting, tuning, and final hardening of the level. People that can think quickly about different ideas and their possible positive and negative impacts. They shouldn’t get too married to one idea, but if they feel strongly enough about that specific idea they will fight for it. People that approach problems differently than I do. I want people that think differently to help round out possible weaknesses that the team might have. People who will look for the simplest and clearest solution vs. trying to always add more and more complexity.“
For lead positions, it goes to show yet again how important a designer's professional network is, as Todd for example only considers people that he already knows: “I try to promote designers to leads who are already on the team and have proven themselves. When I am building a new team, I hire people who I have had a personal working relationship before. Hiring people I have never worked with for such positions is simply too risky.”
Ups & Downs
While the career paths of the designers I interviewed seem pretty straightforward in retrospect, it is important to note that their journeys had their ups and downs as well. For instance Geoffrey recalls a very nerve-wracking time during his career when he decided to leave Infinity Ward: “We had worked so hard to make Call of Duty a household name but every day more and more of our friends were leaving. At a certain point it just wasn't the same company because the bulk of the people had left. The choice to leave or stay was even giving me heart palpitations. (…) After I left Infinity Ward, I started working at Respawn Entertainment and by work I mean - sitting in a big circle of chairs with not a stick of other furniture in the office - trying to figure out what to do as a company.” But he also remembers many joyful memories throughout his career: Little things like opening up the map file of multiplayer classic ‘mp_carentan’ for the first time or strangers on the street expressing their love in a game he had worked on. To him, shipping a game is a very joyful experience by itself and the recently released Titanfall 2 takes a special place for him. “The first Titanfall was a great game but we had so many issues going on behind the scenes it felt like we weren't able to make the best game we were capable of. (…) After all the trials and tribulations of starting a new game company, Titanfall 2 is a game I am very proud to have worked on.”
'Titanfall 2' developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts
As a response to the question of what some of the bigger surprises (good or bad) in his career have been thus far, Paul talks about the unexpected benefits of walking through fire during a project’s development and the lessons he learnt from that: “It surprised me how positively I ended up viewing the outcome of the last project I worked on (Homefront: The Revolution). I’d always thought I would aim to work on big, successful titles only, but I guess you don’t really know what’s going to be a success until it’s released. Obviously it was a disappointing process to be part of, and a lot of hard work and effort went into making it, despite the team always knowing that there were some deep lying flaws in the game that weren’t going to be ironed out. We managed to ride the storm of the Crytek financial issues in 2014, coming out on the other side with a mostly new team in place and yet we carried on regardless and managed to actually ship something at the end of it, which is an achievement in itself. I see the positives in the experience as being the lessons I learnt about what can go wrong in games production which stands me in good stead should I decide to take a more authoritative role somewhere down the line. Sometimes the best way to learn is through failure, and I don’t believe I’d be as well rounded as a developer without having experienced what I did on that project.”
Last Words Of Advice
At the end I asked the veterans if they had any pieces of advice they would like to share with less experienced designers. To finish this article I will quote these in unabbreviated form below:
Geoffrey: “I guess the biggest thing for guys coming from community mapping is figuring out if you want to be an Environment Artist or a Geo-based Designer and if you want to work on Single-Player or Multiplayer. Each has its own skills to learn. I think a lot of guys get into mapping for the visual side of things but some companies have the environment artists handle the bulk of that work. So figuring out if making the level look great is more enjoyable to you or thinking it up and laying it out is, will help determine which career you should follow. Other than that, just work hard and always look to improve!”
Todd: “BUILD, BUILD, BUILD. Have people play it, find out what they liked about it and what they didn’t. Build up a thick skin; people will not always like your ideas or levels. Try out new ideas constantly. What you think looks good on paper doesn’t always translate to 3D. Analyse other games, movies, books, art, etc. Discover what makes an idea or piece of art appeal to you and how you can use that in your craft.”
Paul: “The games industry is not your regular nine to five job, and everyone is different so it’s difficult to lay down precise markers for success. Different specialisations have different requirements and you can find your choices leading to different routes than your fellow team members. You need to make sure you carve your own path and try everything you can to achieve whatever your personal goals are within the role; success will come naturally as a result of that. You need to be honest with yourself and others, open to criticism and willing to accept change. I’ve seen potential in people over the years hindered by stubbornness, succeeding in the games industry is all about learning and constantly adapting. Also it’s important to keep seeing your work as an extension of a hobby, rather than a job. The moment it starts to feel like a means to an end, you need to change things up to get that passion back.”
Sten: “I always feel people should follow their passion. I firmly believe that people will always be the best, the most successful at something they love. Of course, it is a job and it pays your bills, but it’s also going to be something you are going to do for gazillions hours in your life, so better pick something you like doing.”
Written by Friedrich Bode for mapcore.org
What are your personal experiences? Do you agree with the statements made by the interviewees? Any advice you would like to share with fellow level designers or game developers in general? Let us know in the comments!
kinggambit 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?
kinggambit reacted to FMPONE for an article, 2015: Mapcore's Year in Review
(Art by Thurnip)
This overview proves how talented our community is. We share, give feedback and learn from one another. Lots of our members have made it into the game industry and continue to make their mark working for high-profile studios. Our articles were shared around the world and our collaborative CS:GO contest was a huge success. We can only conclude that 2015 was again a stellar year for the Core and we are looking forward to an even better 2016!
2015: Mapcore's Year in Review
It was a banner year. Here’s a taste of what our community created:
Temple of Utu by Minos
Corridor by JonnyPhive
Rails by Deh0lise
Cold Fusion by Rusk
Half-Life 2 Scene by Psy
Resort by 'RZL and Yanzl
Zoo by Squad and Yanzl
Santorini by FMPONE and Dimsane
Corridor by RaVaGe
Seat by penE
Half-Life 2 UE4 Corridor by PogoP
Tulip by catfood
Volcano by 2d-chris
Chilly UE4 Scene by TheOnlyDoubleF
High-quality original content:
Grand Prize Winner Announced
Hurg Smiles Upon You All!
kinggambit 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..."
kinggambit reacted to FMPONE for an article, Reddit + Mapcore CS:GO Mapping Contest Finalists Announced!
(Art by Thurnip)
Contest finalists have been chosen!
Before announcing our finalists, we want to thank everyone for participating and giving your feedback: with over 150 entries, this event has thus far exceeded expectations in every way.
We strongly considered adding an “honorable mentions” addendum to this announcement, but realized there were simply too many maps which came extremely close to becoming finalists, lacking only one of our “big three” judging criteria components.
Now, without futher ado…
(in no particular order)
By Andre Valera
By Ornate Baboon
These exciting levels exhibit competitive potential, excellent visual presentation, AND a satisfying level of polish, making them truly strong representatives for our talented community. As finalists competing for the grand prize, the authors of these levels will be able to update their work based on your feedback, including fine-tuning their competitive layouts using public playtesting over on Reddit. Let's support them on their journey!
To check out the excellent prizes awaiting our finalists (including money prizes + official Valve merchandise), click here.
...but who will be the Grand Prize Winner? Find out September 30th.
P.S. – To all our wonderful participants: don't despair. Level design is an art to be pursued for its own sake, and brilliant work should always be celebrated and studied. Additionally, Valve has consistently supported CS:GO community mapping, and Valve Operations remain a lucrative and thrilling opportunity for community mappers such as yourself. Valve’s criteria for Operations can be found here.
"Never give up." - Hurg
kinggambit reacted to leplubodeslapin for an article, Source Lighting Technical Analysis: Part Two
This is the second part of a technical analysis about Source Lighting, if you haven’t read the first part yet, you can find it here.
Last time, we studied the lightmaps, how they are baked and how VRAD handles the light travel through space. We ended the part 1 with an explanation of what the Constant-Linear-Quadratic Falloff system is, with a website that allows you to play with these variables and see how lighting falloff reacts to them. We will now continue with basic examples of things you can do with these variables.
Examples of application
The simplest type of falloff is the 100% constant one. Whatever the distance is, the lighting has theoretically the same intensity. This is the kind of (non-)falloff used for the sun lighting, it is so far away from the map area, that light rays are supposed to be parallel and light keep its intensity. Constant falloff is also useful for fake lights, lights with a very low brightness but that are here to brighten up the area.
Another type of falloff is the 100% linear one. With this configuration, light seems to be a bit artificial: it loses its intensity but goes way further than the 100% quadratic falloff. It can be very useful on spots, the lighting is smooth and powerful. Here is an example:
This is the default configuration for any light entity in Hammer, following as we said before the classic Inverse-Square law (100% Quadratic Falloff). It is considered to be the most natural and realistic falloff configuration. The biggest issue is that it boosts the brightness so much on short distances, that you can easily obtain a big white spot. Here is an example, with a light distant of 16 units from a grey wall:
This can also happen with linear falloff but it is worse with quadratic. Simple solutions exist for that, the most common is not to use a light entity but a light_spot entity that is oriented to the opposite direction from the wall/ceiling the light is fixed to. You can make the opening angle of your light_spot wider, with the inner and outer angle parameters (by default the outer one is 45°, increase that to a value of 85° for example). If needed, you can also add a light with low brightness to light the ceiling/wall a bit.
50% & 0% FallOff
A second light falloff system exists, overriding the constant-linear-quadratic system if used. The concept is much simpler, you have to configure only 2 distances:
50 percent falloff distance: Distance at which light should fall off to 50% from its original intensity 0 percent fall off distance: Distance at which light should end. Well ... almost, it actually fall off to 1/256% from its original intensity, which is negligible. The good thing with this falloff system is that you can see the 2 spheres according to the 2 distances you have configured in Hammer. Just make sure to have this option activated:
An appropriate section for models lighting is needed, because it differs from brush lighting (but the falloff stays the same). In any current game engine, lightmaps can be used on models, a specific UV unwrap is even made specifically for lightmaps. But on Source Engine 1 (except for Team Fortress 2) you cannot use lightmaps on models.
The standard lighting method for models is named Per-Vertex Lighting. This time, light won’t be lighting faces but vertices, all of the model’s vertices. For each one of them, VRAD will compute a color and brightness to apply. Finally, Source Engine will make a gradient between the vertices, for each triangle. For example:
If we take a simple example of a sphere mesh with 2 different light entities next to it, we can see it working.
With this lighting method, models will therefore be integrated in the environment with an appropriate lighting. The good thing is that, if a part of the model is in a dark area, and another part is in a bright area, the situation will be handled properly. The only requirement for this is that the mesh must have a sufficient level of detail in it; if there is a big plane area without additional vertices on it, the lighting details could be insufficient.
Here is an example of a simple square mesh with few triangles on the left and a lot on the right. With the complex mesh, the lighting is better, but more expensive.
If you need a complex mesh for your lighting, you don’t want your model to be too expensive, you have to find a balance.
Two VRAD commands are needed to make the Per-Vertex Lighting work:
StaticPropLighting StaticPropPolys You have to add them here. You can find more information here.
Another system exists, that is much cheaper and simpler. Instead of focusing on the lighting of all the vertices, the engine will only deal with the model’s origin. The result obtained in-game will be displayed on the whole model, using only what has been computed at the model’s origin location. This can be an issue if the model is big or supposed to be present in an area with lots of contrast in lighting. The best example for that is at the beginning of Half-Life 2 with trains entering and exiting tunnels. We can see the issue: the model is illuminated at the beginning, but when it enters the tunnel it suddenly turns dark. And this moment is when the train’s origin gets in the shadow.
This cheap lighting method will replace the per-vertex lighting for 3 types of models:
For prop_dynamic or any kind of dynamic models used in the game (NPCs, weapon models in hand, any animated models...) For prop_physics For ANY MODEL USING A NORMAL MAP (vertex lighting causes issues with normal maps apparently), EVEN IF USED AS A PROP_STATIC
The big problem with these models is their integration in the map, they won’t show any shadow and their lighting will be very flat and boring (because it’s the same used for the whole model). But hopefully there are 2 good things with this cheap lighting method.
First, the orientation from which comes light is taken into account, if blue light comes from one direction, therefore all the faces oriented toward this direction will be colored in blue. And if you have different lighting colorations/intensities coming from different sides of your model, they should appear in game.
Here is an example of a train model using a normal map with 2 lights on both side. If you look closely, you’ll see some blue lighting on the left, on faces that are supposed to be in the shadow of the blue light but are oriented toward the blue light.
The second good thing is that there is still some kind of dynamic per-vertex lighting, but much simpler: it only works with light and light_spot entities (NOT with light_environment), and it just adds some light to the prop, it cannot cast any shadow (it only takes into account dynamically the distance between the light and the vertex). If we use again the high-poly plane mesh we had before as a prop_dynamic, being parented to a func_rotating that ... rotates. Light is dynamically lighting the vertices of the props. There is a limit of 3 dynamic lights per prop, it can’t handle more at the same time.
And if you add a normal-map in your model’s texture, this cheap dynamic lighting works on it:
Projected texture and Cascaded Shadows
Few words to finish the study with dynamic lighting. Projected textures is a technology that appeared with Half-Life 2: Episode Two in 2007, it consists of a point-entity projecting a texture in the chosen direction, with a chosen opening angle (fov). The texture is projected with emissive properties (it can only increase the brightness, not lowering it) and it can generate shadows or not. The great thing with this technology is that it’s fully dynamic, the env_projectedtexture can move and/or aim at moving targets. This technology is used for example on flashlights in Source games. But as usual, there is also a drawback: most of the time you can only use only 1 projected texture at a time, modders can change this value quite easily but on Valve games it is always locked on 1.
The cascaded shadows system is only used on CS:GO. The concept is quite similar from a projected texture but it doesn’t increase the brightness, it only adds finer shadows. It is used for environment lighting, using much smaller luxels than for the lightmaps and it is fully dynamic. It starts from the tools/toolsskybox textures of the map and cast shadows if it meets any obstacle. Shadows from the lightmap are most of the time low resolution and the transition between a bright and a dark area is blurry and wide. Therefore, the cascaded shadow will be able to draw a clear shadow around the one from the lightmaps.
When an object is too small to get a shadow in the lightmap, it will be visible thanks to the cascaded shadows. There are 3 levels of detail for cascaded shadows on Counter-Strike, you can configure the max distance at which the cascaded shadows will work in the env_cascade_light entity at the parameter Max Shadow Distance (by default it’s 400 units). The levels of detail will be distributed within this range, for example:
Since cascaded shadows and projected textures share some technology, you can’t use them both at the same time.
I really hope you have found this article interesting and learned at least few things from it. I believe most of these informations are not the easiest to find and it’s always good to know how your tools work, to understand their behavior. Source Engine 1 is old and its technologies might not be used anymore in the future, more powerful and credible technologies are released frequently but it’s always good to know your classics, right?
I would like to thank Thrik and ’RZL for supporting me to write this article, and long live the Core!
// Written by Sylvain "Leplubodeslapin" Menguy
Additional commands for fun
Mat_luxels 1 // Allows you to see the lightmaps grids Mat_fullbright 1 // Disables all the lighting (= fullbright). On CS:GO, cascaded shadows stay and you should delete them as well (cf next command) Ent_fire env_cascade_light kill // KILL WITH FIRE the cascade shadows entity Mat_drawgray 1 // Replace all the textures with a monochrome grey texture, useful to work on your lighting Mat_fullbright 2 // Alternative to Mat_drawgray 1 Bonus:
Mat_showlowresimage 1 // Minecraft mode
kinggambit reacted to leplubodeslapin for an article, Source Lighting Technical Analysis: Part One
After the announcement of the Reddit + Mapcore mapping contest, the website has welcomed many newcomers. A proof that, even if it is a twelve year old game engine, Source engine attracts map makers, and there are lots of reasons for that. It is common knowledge that technology has moved forward since 2003, and many new game engines have found various techniques and methods to improve their renderings, making the Source Engine older and older. Nevertheless, it still has its very specific visual aspect that makes it appealing. The lighting system in Source is most definitely one of the key aspects to that, and at the end of this article you will know why.
About the reality...
Light in the real world is still a subject with a lot of pending questions, we do not know exactly what it is, but we have a good idea of how it behaves. The most common physic model of light element is the photon, symbolized as a single-point particle moving in space. The more photons there are, the more powerful light is. But light is in the same time a wave, depending on the wavelengths light can have all kind of color properties (monochrome or combined colors). Light travels through space without especially needing matter to travel (the space is the best example; even without matter the sun can still light the earth). And when it encounters matter, different kind of things can happen:
Light can bounce and continue its travel to another direction Light can be absorbed by the matter (and the energy can be transformed to heat) Light can go through the matter, for example with air or water, some properties might change but it goes through it And all these things can be combined or happen individually. If you can see any object outside, it is only because a massive amount of photons traveled into space, through the earth’s atmosphere, bounced on all the surfaces of the object you are looking at, and finally came into your eyes.
How can such a complex physical behavior from nature be simulated and integrated into virtual 3D renderings?
One of the oldest method is still used today because of its accuracy: the ray-tracing method. Just to be clear, it is NOT used in game engines because it is incredibly expensive, but I believe it is important to know how and why it has been made the way it is, since it probably influenced the way lighting is handled in Source and most videogame engines. Instead of simulating enormous amount of photons traveling from the lights to the eye/camera, it does the exact opposite. If you want a picture with a 1000x1000 resolution, you will only need to simulate the travel of 1 000 000 photons (or “rays”), 1 for each pixel. Each ray is calculated individually until it reaches the light origins, and at the end the result is 1 pixel color integrated in the full picture.
By using the laws of physics we discovered centuries ago, we can obtain a physically-accurate rendering that looks incredibly realistic. This method is used almost everywhere, from architectural renderings to movies. As an example, you can watch The Third & The Seventh by Alex Roman, one of the most famous CGI videos of all time. And because it is an efficient way to render 3D virtual elements with great lighting, it will influence other methods, such as the lightmap baking method.
OKAY LET’S FINALLY TALK ABOUT THE SOURCE ENGINE, ALRIGHT!
A “lightmap” is a grid that is added on every single brush face you have on your map. The squares defined by the grid are called Luxels (they are kind of “lighting pixels”). Each luxel get its 2 own properties: a color and a brightness. You can see the lightmap grids in hammer by switching your 3D preview to 3D lightmap grid mode.
You can also see them in-game with the console command mat_luxels 1 (without and with).
During the compilation process, a program named VRAD.exe is used. Its role is to find the color and brightness to apply for every single luxel in your map. Light starts from the light entities and from the sky (from the tools/toolsskybox texture actually, using the parameter values that has been filled in the light_environment entity), travels through space and when it meets a brush face:
It is partially absorbed in the lightmap grid A less bright ray bounces from the face Here is an animated picture to show how a lightmap grid can be filled with a single light entity:
When you compile your map, at first the lightmaps are all full black, but progressively VRAD will compute the lightmaps with all the light entities (one by one) and combine them all at the end. Finally, the lightmaps obtained are applied to the corresponding brush faces, as an additive layer to the texture used on that face. Let us take a look at a wall texture for example.
On the left, you have the texture as you can see it in hammer. When you compile your map, it generates the lightmaps and at the end you obtain the result on the right in-game. Unfortunately, luxels are much rougher, with a lower resolution, more like this.
On the left you have a lightmap grid with the default luxel size of 16 units generated my VRAD, a blur filter is applied and you obtain something close to the result on the right in the game.
In case you did not know, you can change the lightmap grid scale with the “Lightmap Scale” value with the texture tool. It is better to use values that are squares of 2, such as 16, 8, 4 or even 2. Do not go below 2, it might cause issues (with decals for example). Only use lower values than the default 16 if you think it's really useful, because you will drastically increase your map file size and compilation time with precise lightmap grids. Of course, you can also use greater values in order to optimize your map, with values such as 32, 64 or even 128 on very flat areas or surfaces that are far away from the playable areas. You can get more infos about lightmaps on Valve’s Wiki page.
But as we said before, light also bounces from the surface until it meets another brush, using radiosity algorithms. Because of that, even if a room does not have any light entity in it, rays can bounce on the floor and light the walls/ceiling, therefore it is not full black.
Here’s an example:
The maximum amount of bounces can be fixed with the VRAD command -bounce X (with X being the maximum amount of bounces allowed). The 100 default value should be more than enough.
Another thing taken into account by VRAD is the normal direction of each luxel: if the light comes directly against the luxel or brushes against it, it will not behave in the same way. This is what we call the angle of incidence of light.
Let us take the example of a light_spot lighting a cylinder, the light will bright gradually the surface - from fully bright at the bottom to slightly visible at the top.
In-hammer view on the left, in-game view on the right
Light Falloff laws
One of the things that made the Source Engine lighting much more realistic than any others in 2004 is the light falloff system. Alright, we saw that light can travel through space until it meets something, but how does it travel through space? At the same brightness, whatever the distance is between the light origin and destination? Maybe sometimes yes… but most of the time no.
Imagine a simple situation of a room with 1 single point light inside. The light is turned on, it produces photons that are going in all the directions around it. As you might imagine, photons are all going in their own direction and have absolutely no reason to deviate from their trajectory.
At one time, let’s picture billions of photons going in all the directions possible around the light, the moment after, they are all a bit further in their own trajectory, and all the photons are still there, in this “wave”. But, as each photon follows its own trajectory, they will all spread apart, making the photon density lower and lower.
As we said before, the more photons there are, the more powerful light is. And the highest the density, the more intense light is. Intensity of light can be expressed like this:
You have to keep in mind that all of this happens in 3D, therefore the “waves” of photons aren’t circles but spheres. And the area of a sphere is its surface, expressed like this:
(R is the radius of the sphere)
If we integrate that surface area in the previous equation:
With ♥ being a constant number. We can see the Intensity is therefore proportional to the reverse of the square of the distance between the photons and their light origin.
So, the further light travels, the lower is its intensity. And the falloff is proportional to the inverse of the square of the distance.
Consequently, the corners of our room will get darker, because they are farther away from the light (plus they don’t directly face the light, the angle of incidence is lower than the walls/floor/ceiling).
This is what we call the Inverse-Square law, it’s a very well-known behavior of the light in the field of photography and cinema. People have to deal with it to make sure to get the best exposure they can get.
This law is true when light spreads in all possible directions, but you can also focus light in one direction and reduce the spread, with lenses for example. This is why, when Valve decided to integrate a lighting falloff law in their engine, they decided to use a method not only following the inverse-square law but also giving to mapmakers the opportunity to alter the law for each light entity.
Constant, Linear, Quadratic... Wait, what?
In math, there is a very frequent type of functions, named polynomial functions. The concept is simple, it’s a sum of several terms, like this:
Every time, there is a constant factor (the “a” thing, a0 being the first one, a1 the second one, a2 the third one...), multiplied with the variable x at a certain degree:
x^0 = 1 : degree 0 x^1 = x : degree 1 x^2 : degree 2 x^3 : degree 3 ... And
a0 is the constant named “constant coefficient” (associated to degree 0) a1 is the constant named “linear coefficient” (associated to degree 1) a2 is the constant named “quadratic coefficient” (associated to degree 2) Usually, the function has an end, and we call it by the highest degree of x it uses. For example, a “polynomial of the second degree” is written:
Then, if we take the expression from the inverse-square law, which was:
With a2 = 1 and D being the variable of distance from the light origin.
In Source, the constant ♥ is actually the brightness (the value you configure here).
It is simply an inverse polynomial of the second degree, with a0 and a1 equal to zero. And we could write it like this:
And here you have it! This is approximately the equation used by VRAD to determine the intensity of light for each luxel during the compilation. And you can alter it by changing the values of the 3 variables constant, linear and quadratic, for any of your light / light_spot entity in your level.
Actually you set proportions of each variable against the other two, and only a percentage for each variable is saved. For example:
By default, constant and linear are set to 0 and quadratic to 1, which means a 100%quadratic lighting attenuation. Therefore, by default lights in Source Engine follows the classic Inverse-Square law.
If you look at the page dedicated to the constant-linear-quadratic falloff system on Valve’s Wiki, it’s explained that the intensity of light is boosted by 100 for the linear part of equation and 10 000 for the quadratic part of equation. This is due to the fact that inverse formulas in equations always drop drastically at the beginning, and therefore a light with a brightness of 200 would only be efficient in a distance of 5 units and therefore completely pointless.
You would have to boost your brightness a lot in hammer to make the light visible, that's what Valve decided to make automatically.
The following equation is a personal guess of what could be the one used by VRAD:
With constant, linear and quadratic being percentage values. The blue part is here to determine the brightness to apply, allowing to boost the value set in hammer if it is as least partially using linear or quadratic falloff. The orange part is the falloff part of equation, making the brightness attenuation depending of the distance the point studied is from the light origin.
The best way to see how this equation works is to visualize it in a 2D graph:
This website provides a great way to see 2D graphics associated to functions. On the left, you can find all the elements needed with at first the inputs (in a folder named “INPUTS”), which are:
a0 is the Constant coefficient that you enter in hammer a1 is the Linear coefficient a2 is the Quadratic coefficient B is the Brightness coefficient In another folder are the 3 coefficients constant, linear and quadratic, automatically transformed into a percentage form. And finally, the function I(D) is the Intensity function depending on the distance D. The drawing of the function is visible in the rest of the webpage.
Try to interact with it!
This concludes the first part, the second part will come in about two weeks. We will see some examples of application of this Constant-Linear-Quadratic Falloff system, and a simpler alternative. We will also see how lighting works on models and dynamic lighting systems integrated in source games.Thank you for reading!
Part Two : link
kinggambit 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!
kinggambit reacted to FMPONE for an article, Reddit + Mapcore CS:GO Mapping Contest!
(Art by Thurnip)
/r/GlobalOffensive and Mapcore are teaming up to grow Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s mapping community!
Check out the reddit thread for this contest »
The Big Reveal
We’re hosting a map-making contest for original, competitive 5v5 bomb defusal maps AND competitively-minded hostage maps, open exclusively to mappers who have not yet had their work featured in a Valve Operation!
Older projects are fair game: now’s the perfect time to polish up that map you’ve been working on but never got around to finishing. Experienced Mapcore judges and prominent members of the Counter-Strike community such as Sadokist, Moses, DDK, James Bardolph, and Anders Blume will be weighing in – but only one map can win it all.
Every week for the length of the contest, eligible maps will be playtested during /r/GlobalOffensive community nights according to a sign-up schedule. Slots on this schedule will be filled on a first-come, first-serve basis following an approval process, but we will try our best to accommodate everyone at least once. However, because it’s impossible to guarantee that all contest entries will have the chance to be playtested, /r/GlobalOffensive playtesting is a supplemental, helpful tool which will have no bearing whatsoever on contest judging.
You can register for a playtesting slot here. Remember -- playtesting registration is first-come, first-serve!
Enter Your Level
To officially enter your level into this contest, post a WIP thread with a link to your level’s Steam Workshop page in Mapcore’s official event forum.
Posting a WIP thread with a link to your level’s Steam workshop page constitutes your official entry into the contest, however you don’t need to do both at the same time. In other words, you can post your WIP thread and then update it later with your workshop link if you’re not ready to go right away. You can also feel free to continue updating your workshop level after you’ve posted your workshop link – contest entries will not be judged until after the submission deadline.
Your level must be submitted to Mapcore by August 31st, 2015 at midnight Pacific Standard Time (PST).
Our panel of judges will then select four finalist levels based on the following criteria:
Fun factor Visual/thematic presentation (graphics) Overall polish
Grand Prize Deadline
After the top four maps have been announced, /r/GlobalOffensive users will put them to the test!
Once all four finalist maps have been tested, mappers will have two weeks to revise their work based on community feedback. After those two weeks, an official Grand Prize Winning Map will be chosen!
The goal of this event is to raise awareness about Mapcore's incredible level design community and the incredibly useful playtesting capabilities of /r/GlobalOffensive. Both Mapcore and /r/GlobalOffensive are free resources available to all mappers. To date, Mapcore users are responsible for creating more than 70% of Valve Operation levels. Mapcore’s staff are unpaid volunteers, and do not personally profit in any way from additional traffic to the site.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a contest without a reward… In addition to the helpful feedback and free publicity that CS:GO mappers will receive by participating in this event, each finalist will also receive:
Eternal Bragging Rights™ and a showcase on Mapcore (where their level will be highly visible to industry-veteran game developers and the rest of the community) A monetary prize ($1000 + Mapcore swag for first place; $400 for second place; $200 for third place; $100 and Mapcore swag for fourth place) The top-finishing map will also be played in a competitive show-match casted and streamed by goRGNtv, for all to watch and enjoy! *NEW* CEVO has generously agreed to host the winning map in their PUG rotations for one month! *NEW* Added $1,000 to prize pool thanks to Gamebanana.com and EGO DEATH (gun skin creator) *NEW* Valve prizes!
Top 4 will receive
1. Signed CS:GO poster
2. CS:GO Lanyard
3. CS:GO Vinyl Sticker
First place will receive a CS:GO prize pack:
1. Signed CS:GO poster
2. CS:GO Lanyard
3. CS:GO Vinyl Sticker
4. CS:GO SteelSeries Kana Mouse
This is your big chance -- get to it!
Good luck, mappers!
Remakes of older maps are NOT allowed. All works must be original to you and their layouts must not have appeared in any prior versions of Counter-Strike. Custom artwork is allowed and encouraged, but must meet workshop guidelines. Collaborations are allowed and encouraged. Any contest winnings arising from a collaboration will be split in accordance with the collaborators' mutual agreement.
Mapcore staff will rate their top four maps of the contest, results will be tallied and all votes given equal weight. Some time later, the judges and guest judges will rate the top four finalist maps and results will be tallied, with all votes given equal weight. Guest judges will be asked to act as tie-breakers in the event of any ties in the voting.
Jason “General Vivi” Mojica -- Creator of "Rose Iron" Skin (Overkill Software)
Patrick "Puddy" Murphy -- Creator of CS_AGENCY (Overkill Software)
RZL (Independent) -- Creator of DE_RESORT
Shawn “FMPONE” Snelling (Independent)
Johnny “Sprony” van Spronsen (Journalist)
Matt "Sadokist" Trivett -- @Sadokist
Jason “Moses” O’Toole -- @JmosesOT
Daniel "DDK" Kapadia -- @followddk
James Bardolph -- @jamesbardolph
Anders Blume -- @OnFireAnders
Our Thanks to
EGO DEATH (Steam Workshop author)
kinggambit 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
kinggambit reacted to Thrik for an article, Introducing MapCore's new logo and store
Designed by professional designer Arthur de Padua (AKA Thurnip), the new logo was developed over a period of many months and incorporates some of the successful themes that came up during the logo design contest we had some time ago. Unlike the existing logo which only existed as a low-resolution render, this one is perfectly crisp and comes in numerous formats suitable for print — allowing us to finally offer high-quality merchandise.
So, head over to the MapCore store if you want to show your MapCorian allegiance in public! All items come as a 'Regular Edition' (no profit for MapCore) and 'Donation Edition' (£5 profit that goes towards MapCore hosting/development costs).
We're currently offering a small but carefully designed selection of products. Once we make sure everything's running OK and we don't need to change vendor for whatever reason, more products will be added. We'll also soon be adding a way for you to donate while receiving a small token of appreciation (e.g. a sticker that can be bought for £5, £10, or £20) for those who want to support us but don't necessarily need or want a T-shirt, etc.
If you buy anything, be sure to post some photos for us to look at! I have some orders on the way, so will create a thread for such snaps if nobody else beats me to it. If you'd love to buy something but the item you want isn't available, don't hesitate to leave a comment or get in touch with me — I'm happy to build up the products based upon what people want.