Fnugz reacted to Radu for an article, 2018: Mapcore's Year in Review
Keeping with tradition, I'd say it's about time we took a look at what our community has achieved throughout the year. If last time I was saying how 2017 was a year of immense growth, then 2018 was surely one of significant change. And it hasn't been without its troubles and anxious moments. No change ever is, but I believe it to be for the best. We've seen some of our friends become parents, change work fields or get their first job in the industry. We've even seen a few pursue their dream projects. And for that, we have to applaud them. It takes courage to keep moving forward and to realise when it's time for something new. In the meantime, I hope this article inspires you and I wish everyone
2018: Mapcore's Year in Review
SteamVR - Gulping Goat Space Farm
by @Steve, @marnamai, @The Horse Strangler, @Sersch and others at Scraggy Rascal Studios
produced in collaboration with Valve
"Scraggy Rascal has been working with Valve to create all new SteamVR content, we've been given a lot of liberty to create these locations. Our goal was to create interesting and fun locations for the player to explore. These projects, over the last couple months, have been a crash course in Source 2,VR, project management, delivering within deadlines, working together as a team and personal growth. It has been an invaluable experience and great opportunity ... and we're just getting started!" - marnamai
Darksiders III - Art
by @The Horse Strangler and others at Gunfire Games
"Probably one of the biggest challenges the artists and designers faced on Darksiders 3 was working with both a platforming and fully connected streamed world. This meant that everything exists all the time. While we streamed levels in and out, areas couldn't intersect and we couldn't do the classic "Small exterior, big interior" swap. This was especially challenging because of how much verticality our design must support. We had a few "vistas", but for the most part every aspect of the level was accessible. If you can see it, you will likely be able to get there, jump on it, fight around it, etc. Fury, the main playable character can double jump, swing, float, glide and even rocket jump over 10 meters high. Personally for me it completely changed how I looked at art filling up a space. Every single mesh we placed impacted design. Art was design, and design was art." - The Horse Strangler
"Europa is a relaxing narrative experience. The goal with this game is to offer just enough challenge that its rewarding to get from one area to the other for more than just the visuals by using environmental hazards, platforming sequences and light puzzles that you can beat by exploring.The game is split into linear sections and wider areas, that's at the core of the game and as you play, you keep improving your characters moving ability, which will further exploration and give you the ability to solve newer light puzzles. There's none of the typical character upgrading systems, rather, the levels will offer the incremental challenges and the sense of progression. Europa's main focus lies in environmental storytelling and immersing the player in it's universe with passive storytelling, evoking awe and bliss with colorful watercolor-like art and music." - Helder Pinto
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Turnpike
"For a while the "Highway Restaurant" theme has been sitting in my little Concepts.txt file. When the Wingman Contest was announced, it felt like the perfect opportunity to turn this idea into a map, as its relatively small size would be fitting for the Wingman gamemode. The casual nature of Wingman made me add some elements that I would not normally add to, let's say, a Defusal map, like the TF2-esque team color coding (albeit subtle), the moving vehicles and the silly bomb target. Additionally, since the playable space is (almost) completely indoors, making it nighttime felt right, as it both emphasizes the interiors and makes for an atmospheric blorange background." - Squad
Dying Light - A New Hope
"A full-fledged custom single player campaign that ties in to the original story of the main game. It will see the main protagonist, Kyle Crane,leaving the City for the countryside to search for a specific elusive medicinal herb and bring it back to Dr. Camden who believes it could be the cure to the Harran Virus. This campaign is a one man show as I’m doing everything myself: level design, environment art/detailing, story creation, scripting/quest creation, custom dialog, custom audio, custom materials/textures, custom foliage systems, custom brushes for terrain painting/sculpting, lighting, manual nav mesh tuning, scripted NPCs…" - will2k
by @General Vivi and Michael Voeller
"Prodeus is the first person shooter of old, re-imagined using modern rendering techniques. Oh, and tons of blood, gore, and secrets. Creating Prodeus has meant a lot to us over the last year. It feels great to finally be doing something for ourselves. It can be pretty ambitious at times since there are just two of us, but I’m confident we can pull it off. Keep an eye out for the end of February for a big announcement." - General Vivi
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Ruby
"When I was on vacation in Portugal years ago I was so impressed by the city Lisbon that I really wanted to build a map that has the same vibe. At the time I was already working on different projects so I decided whenever I got enough time to work on a map this size I would go back. So early 2017 the moment was finally there, I went back to Lisbon to shoot (~2000) reference photos then made a list of things that are iconic for Lisbon and started working on Ruby. Adding a lot of height differation, warm colors, tile patterns and ofcourse trams was essentiental to get the Lisbon vibe." - catfood
by @dux, @PogoP and others at Unknown Worlds Entertainment
"A mix of Survival, story, mystery, resource gathering, base building with some accidental horror and plenty of deep, deep water. We had not long finished up with Natural Selection 2 and were hungry to develop a different kind of game. During development we were (and still are) a small team but the game kept getting bigger and grew into something far larger in scope than originally planned. So we soon realised that what we had could be turned into something really unique if we put our heads down and just cranked on it." - dux
Unreal Tournament 4 - Chamber
"I used Halo and Warframe artstyle as a reference. The goal of this project was to make fun and cool looking map with 100% custom art that is 100 mb in file size. To achieve that I used several advanced techniques such as custom vertex normals, deferred mesh decals, no bake, tiling base materials and masks. There are basically 5 or so texture maps used in the entire map, most of the filesize space was taken by lightmaps. I learned a lot doing this project in terms of composition, art direction and optimization. Hope you enjoy this map as much as I do!" - Ubuska
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Pitstop
by @Quotingmc and Quadratic
"It is not often that CS: GO receives a new game-mode, especially one as competitively focused as Wingman. I was understandably pleased at the announcement of the 2018 CSMapMakers contest for the mode. Pitstop was my entry where I set out to create a thematically bold centre piece for my portfolio. With the help of my teammate Quadratic and support from multiple Mapcore members, I learnt a lot about taking a level from a simple blockout to completion; I can say for certain I’m thrilled with the end result!" - Quoting
Black Mesa - Xen
by @JeanPaul, Adam Engels and others at Crowbar Collective
"While building Xen we had to design, iterate, and iterate (then iterate some more). We took what we thought we knew, and put it to the test. We learned how design and scope work together, and how to build momentum as a team. We are extremely proud of what we have accomplished over the year(s)! Despite the long and occasionally frustrating timeline, it has been a real testament to the commitment that this team and this community have for Half-Life." - Adam Engels
Unreal Engine 4 scene
"So I decided I would step out of my comfort zone and create a small environment in an engine I've never used before, UE4. Although I think I did a fairly decent job at the time there were ultimately many nuances I could have done better, but that is the artist dilemma. This project taught me the value of properly blocking out your environment, gathering as many references as you can and to have patience and not rush through assets, when breaking any of these rules I was punished for it. Stay tuned for my next project which will be a giant mech, coming soon Valve time TM." - Vorontsov
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Opal
"My goal with this project was to make a fun and compact defuse map, with a simple level flow, ample verticality, and an overlapped layout! I wanted to have interior and exterior, and break the grid a lot, to avoid having that "90 degrees grid" feel in the layout. I needed to have a vista on one side of the map to help with orientation, so I decided to make it a coastal town, inspired by those found on the island of Skopelos, Greece. Expect more updates in the near future, as I'm not yet satisfied with it. Since this is my only CSGO map, I want to put all my time and effort into it, and focus on quality instead of quantity. Thank you everybody for your support and feedback! <3" - MikeGon
Insurgency: Sandstorm - Precinct
by @Xanthi, @Squad, @Jonny Phive, @LATTEH, @Steppenwolf and others at New World Interactive
"Precinct, was a fun and challenging map to work on. We decided early on to melt District and Contact two of our very nostalgic maps together into a single large-scale urban environment. The goal was to preserve the nostalgic feeling and at the same time create something unique and fresh not just a 1:1 copy. In the block-out stage we started playing with different terrain heights, which eventually was the key to accomplish our goal. Terrain height was a bit of a trial and error process; I remember driving up a hill and not having enough torque, oops!!" -Xanthi
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Killhouse
"Killhouse showcases brutal duels, player reaction times, and close-quarters combat. A highly vertical layout ensures the sort of unpredictability and replayability ideal for CS:GO’s 2vs.2 "Wingman" game-mode." - FMPONE
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Station
by @Roald and @untor
"All experiences contribute to where I am at this point. I am just a hobbiest but I think I learned alot about level design just by doing it and enjoying it. Overal my goal is to improve myself on level design, but also enviorment art. I think I archieved a goal on level design and it's now time to continue on enviorment art. This is where untor morozov comes in. I have met untor a while ago. He made this map 'Waterfall' which was pretty populair. I liked his designs and added him as a friend. When I had this wingman map going on with positive feedback I just contacted him again to work on it with me and since this moment we have had a incredible teamwork. I am gameplay orientated and he is art orientated so we were a great couple. We just enjoyed work on this project and respected eachother and had alot of fun." - Roald
by @Yanzl and Sara Lukanc
"The Gap is a sci-fi thriller first person narrative exploration video game. You play as Joshua Hayes, a neuroscientist trying to figure out what happened, barely remembering anything about his past. It started as a project for our BA thesis and has now grown into a standalone game. It's also my first "real" indie game project, helping me learn a lot about Unreal Engine 4 and game development in general." - Yanzl
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Alexandra remake
"My first successful map was born 10 years ago for CS1.6. It was done in just 4 days. Since then it has been ported/improved several times on CS:S then finally on CS:GO. It always had a "dust" theme. Initially i wanted to remake it with an "inferno" style but when the new dust2 came i switched the plan to use the new assets. The map was and is frequently played on public servers especially in Eastern Europe so i had plenty of feedback to improve it. For some it's just another "dust" map, but for me it's my dust2." - Serialmapper
Far Cry 5 - Wetland Turmoil
"I wanted to try working with location design in an (imaginary) open world game for the first time, so I made this backwater cabin neighborhood. At the time I also wanted to see what the limits were in Farcry Arcade and how far I could push it. The level has fixed spawns (a limitation of the editor), but I toyed with the idea of making it work regardless from which direction the player would have approached it. The pathing and player guidance is more or less shaped like the number eight, with the church acting as an outlook. Your task is to eliminate all the bad guys. In the end I wanted to do so much more, but couldn't due to technical limitations. All in all it was a fun experience to make it." - grapen
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Trailerpark
by @OrnateBaboon and @Skybex
"We wanted to make a map for CSGO, using a theme that had not been seen in any previous version of Counter-Strike.The map had to incorporate everyday plausibility, provide for enough variety so that things remained visually interesting, but also be flexible enough to allow for the use of low geometry for easy grenade strategies. Being able to immediately recognize a theme in a map is always important, so with all this criteria in mind, A trailer park fitted the bill perfectly. There is still some way to go before a full release, but 2018 was a great year for progress on this project." - OrnateBaboon
Unreal Engine 4 scene
"I was inspired by games like stalker and the last of us. The goal was to make something photoreal with a lot of foliage. It took a couple of iterations but I think I achieved the goal in the end. While making this project I've had to learn a lot about Speedtree to make all the foliage, it was a really cool experience. Right now I'm in the army so unfortunately I can't make any more scenes right now, but after I'll come back I'll try to make more scenes like that." - Corvus
Overwatch - Busan
by @Minos, @[HP], @PhilipK, @IxenonI, Phil Wang, Lucas Annunziata and others at Blizzard Entertainment
"Busan was a challenging map to make. Due to the game having 12 different heroes on screen we have a somewhat limited memory budget for maps, that includes all models, textures, effects, collision data, lighting information, etc... Fitting three radically different areas (Downtown, Sanctuary and MEKA Base) into one single map budget required us to find new ways to optimize our work. In the end, we were even squeezing kilobytes out of collision data to make it all fit, no kidding! But the result speaks for itself, the map was fun to work on and we are very proud of what we accomplished!" - Minos
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Highlands
by @ElectroSheep, @El Moroes and @'RZL
"We wanted to make a map in Scotland because, thanks to dishonored 2, we were browsing a lot of references froms this area and we really loved it. I also went myself here in holliday after that. We asked one of our close friends to make some special props, like the police van, the taxi, the phonebox and some others. Unfortunatly the hard development of Dishonored 2 put us in a difficult state where we weren't able to work on the map. So we lost motivation. Then RZL contacted us because he didn't want the project to die so we gave him the keys. And RZL became busy too ^^. Life sometime say NO I guess, hehe. Now Highlands Is my only advanced project I still didn't finished and I'm ready to give it a try, I hope." - ElectroSheep
"Highlands...is this map is a joke? Certainly no but we can say that the development is quite longer than what we expected. Perhaps we learn well how the famous "Valve time" works? :p No seriously I think we can explain that with the motivation. Of course we were motivated to create something cool with this map but with the time and, I think, with what we live in our life we never took the time to do it correctly...I mean we never had a constant rythm on the map. This (and other personal things) led to the current statut of the map; a still "work in progress" map started in 2014. But ElectroSheep came back and his goal is to finish it, and because he's right, I'll come back too to help him. Just, be patient (again) ;)" - El Moroes
Battlefield V - Fjell
by @Puddy, @Pampers and others at DICE
"Fjell was an explosive experiment which paired a new Battlefield dynamic, planes and infantry only, with an epic gosh darn mountain top. Tackling this design combination was like dealing with a bear after you've kicked it in the balls. It was a fun challenge and even though its extreme gameplay is quite polarizing when compared to more middle-of-the-road maps, I am happy that we went there!" - Puddy
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Iris
by @BubkeZ and @Oliver
"Iris was born out of a shared interest in the TV-show "Seinfeld", funnily enough. One day BubkeZ noticed I had changed my Steam profile picture to a photo of "George Costanza" and just like that the wheels were in motion! In the beginning, BubkeZ had the vision of an old city environment with lots of dirty alleyways and brick architecture. We didn't want to fall in the trap of making the map look too bleak, so we came up with the idea of making a mid-century town set in autumn. While the map certainly have visual elements from the 50's, I would say the overall theme of Iris is american auto-industry. Making the old cars was definitely my favorite part of making this map!" - Oliver
Unreal Engine 4 scene
"I have always been a fan of retro and vintage, so this was like a dream to me. After watching the first season of True Detective, I immediately fell in love with the office set and the way the series was shot. I have definitely learned a lot from this project, mostly lighting techniques that can fill your scene with a story. The goal was to recreate their environment in my own style, and I'm pretty satisfied with how it turned out. I definitely wasn't expecting this much of positive feedback and I'm really thankful for this community. I want to do something with the environments, not just as a portfolio piece, but make a short film or make a small adventure game out of them." - Brightness
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Insertion 2
"Being the follow up to the first Insertion it will have the same overall concept with the spawning and open-world like layout. However this time it will be a more urban setting and overall higher quality art assets. I always love to make environments that feels real. And that are familiar. Its all made up. But the details and various elements in Insertion 2 is from my childhood basically. Friends that grew up in the same place I have recognizes it aswell." - Oskmos
The Door Challenge
Designing Highly Replayable Stealth Levels for Payday 2
Level Design in Max Payne: Roscoe Street Station
Effect and Cause - Titanfall 2 Level Breakdown
2017: Mapcore's Year in Review
Hurg smiles upon you all!
Fnugz reacted to General Vivi for an article, Designing Highly Replayable Stealth Levels for Payday 2
The Making of Murky Station: Payday 2
Payday 2 is a four player cooperative first-person shooter with RPG elements that centers around robbing banks and stealing rare loot. It was released on August 13, 2013 and has since shipped over 50 DLC packs and counting. With a thriving subreddit, it has consistently been in the top ten games played on steam. Today, I wanted to talk about my adventures designing stealth levels for Payday 2 before leaving Starbreeze in January 2018. While parts of this article are specific problems and solutions for Payday level design, I made sure to discuss them in a broader sense. The skill level of this article is for junior to mid-tier level designers, if you are a senior designer some of this article may sound familiar to you.
I'll start off by saying that Payday's stealth mechanics are not perfect and can be flawed in some areas, but I wanted to focus on the decisions behind the map design, specifically for the heist Murky Station. I'll also break down how we consider using RNG (randomization), and the ways we apply it to objectives and mechanics to keep the level fresh and replayable. This map took 6 weeks to make between 2 people. My partner took the role of Level Builder / Environment Artist and I took the role of Designer / Scripter. Between the two of us, we figured out the scale of the project based on the needs of our studio. The idea was to create a small heist that took around 10-15 minutes to finish with high replayability. There's a lot to go over, so let’s get started!
Let's start from the beginning
Before we start drawing or building layouts, we make the call if we are going to create a Loud level (combat only), Stealth level (avoid combat), or Mixed style map. For the short period of time given to us, we decided to stick to stealth only. Making this decision early on helped us create better movement options for the player and focus our efforts towards balancing patrols and objective placement. We decided that the theme of the level was a small train depot run by a group of mercenaries shipping large weapons. The main objective was to infiltrate the depot and steal an EMP bomb. Keeping the objective simple and intuitive is important in multiplayer games where players can drop in and out of the experience at any point in time.
We decided to shoot for 10 - 15 minutes of gameplay. Breaking down our main objective into smaller sub-goals that could take about 2 minutes each (this is based on our extensive knowledge of payday 2). It should be noted that this time assessment will change once the player has completed the level a few times. These numbers tend to get cut by a third, or in some cases, by half. With our main objective in mind, we can construct a simple flow diagram for the heist and start to think about possible dynamic and RNG elements that can be used to create a re-playable experience.
(This is a scripting example from our editor, each entity has it's own function)
Testing your ideas before scripting them? Wait... What?
Since 90% of Payday levels are hand scripted, it's important we don't waste time building the wrong things. Testing your objectives and complicated RNG elements has to be fast and efficient. The last thing you want to do is build an entire system and find out it sucks. Most of the time you don't even need animations or even a model to properly test your ideas. At such an early stage some floating debug text will do just fine. You might be asking, what if I don't have debug text or the ability to script? When playtesting levels for Payday 2, a lot of the time we'll get a simple block-out done and then ... here it comes ... pretend we're doing the objectives.
It might sound crazy (and not everyone can get through it without laughing) but we'll have one of the designers act out the role of Bain, our mission giver, and just spout objectives at us. We'll move through the space and pretend to see guards or hack laptops and delay time based on things we expect to happen. You can basically break down how your systems might work and try out a few possibilities. For example, knowing that you might have two escapes at either side of the map gives you enough knowledge to make pretend decisions. Telling your fellow devs the van is arriving up top and pointing out where to secure loot can help you find out if a location is interesting for the escape or not.
Even though the artists might giggle, or people from the other teams walking by stop and wonder why they can't see that hoard of enemies. It really works, and can often steer the level in the right direction and prevent us from investing too much time on the wrong objectives. Now, I know this approach won't work for all studios or situations, but all I gotta say is... don't knock it till you try it...
Constructing our Sandbox Layout
Now that we've pretended to run through our objectives and have gotten used to our basic block-out, let's talk about the layout we built for Murky Station. We went for what i'd like to call "the onion approach", which is pretty much what it sounds like. You'll have multi-layered rings that give you the sense of progression towards the center (or a goal). Essentially, we use the outer layer as the player start and each sub-objective is based inside a different layer until the player reaches the main objective (at the figurative center). This approach is very useful when working with sandbox type levels, especially when the player can virtually go anywhere they want.
Side Note: We also layer our music track each time a sub objective is finished, creating more suspense and a sense of agency.
You can see that the outer onion layer is the player spawn (colored green) on the overpass which gives them a full view of the trainyard. From here they can study patrol routes, train-car positions, and possibly objective locations. The overpass can also be used by a player with a sniper rifle to mark guards in the different lanes, helping provide accurate information on guard positions for the players on the ground floor.
The next layer is breaking into the train yard through a fence around the perimeter. The fence is here to guide the player and give them a visual boundary for the "safe zone" (where no guards patrol). The next layer is searching the train cars to discover where the main goal is hiding, followed by breaking through the vault doors inside of the trains themselves. These onion layers have to be carefully managed to give the proper impression to the player. Too many layers and you might confuse the player or make them forget what they're doing, too few and you might leave them feeling unchallenged or unaccomplished.
Player Mobility is key!
Mobility is key to providing players opportunities to express themselves and make better decisions while traversing a level. I felt that it was pretty important for Murky Station to allow for different play styles ranging from slow and methodical to fast and dirty. The last thing I wanted was to force players to play a certain way or for the routes to become predictable and linear. In order to do this, I spent the first week of development prototyping and testing out different layout ideas that would maximize paths and choices for the player.
(Here is a simplified top-down of the routes in the train yard area)
It became obvious that we would need to allow players to traverse through and under the trains as they cover most of the real estate in the train-yard. Unfortunately the older train assets were not built to go underneath, but lucky for us, the nighttime setting of the level would cover up this fact. There being only 2 of us on this project, I took a crash course in Maya and cleaned up the bottom half of the trains by removing collisions and remodeling them for readability purposes.
The next challenge was to teach the player they could hide under trains and be safe. Payday players haven't been under the trains in any other heist up until this point, so we needed to call attention to that but also show them it was a safe place. Making these spaces dark and in the shadows helped create an illusion of safety but also made it harder for players to find them.
To help solve this issue we added yellow caution tape as a trim and a dim red light under the wheels to catch the players eye. These combined elements would then be used as visual vocabulary in other parts of the level to teach players something should be explored.
One of the other ways we added more routes to the level was to build a ventilation system in the lower tunnels. Leveraging the fact that this was a stealth level to create these smaller spaces, especially since they didn't have to accommodate 40+ police officers. The vents allowed players to safely view guard patrols, search for objectives, and move loot. To prototype this, I built a modular vent system using basic mock-up units that allowed for rapid construction and testing. Funnily enough, the first iteration of the vents was too small and caused players’ bodies to clip through the floor. I was able to rework my mock-up units and we settled on standing height instead of a crouching one. Once again we used yellow caution tape as our visual vocabulary to highlight the vent entrance on the wall.
Modifying the trains and vents is one of the factors that contributed to the map’s success and gave new players more confidence to explore the trainyard and lower claustrophobic tunnels. So now that we've explored the different possibilities for movement and giving the player more choices, it's time to buckle down and get our randomization system built.
Randomizing Objectives to Maximize Replayability
RNG is one of the core pillars of Payday, so every decision we make is looked at through a lense of RNG. We strongly believe randomization should be meaningful to gameplay and not just added for the sake of it. It’s important to ask questions like: was it worth changing all the cups in your level? Did you gain anything from swapping out all of your cars and buildings? Was creating a third entrance valuable to the level? Maybe one day we'll completely randomize every object in a building down to the smallest cups, but in a game like Payday I personally feel these types of things have diminishing returns and can often ruin a planned design.
When working with RNG it's important that you ask yourself as many questions as possible to start with a strong foundation, especially if you plan on finishing on time. Something I often see junior to mid-tier level designers forget is to build for scope and set priorities on their objectives. It might sound trivial, but forgetting your priorities can send you down a black-hole that eats away all of your time.
So how did we go about adding RNG into Murky Station? Breaking down our objectives, we can start to consider what RNG options are available and doable within our one month time frame. I've also labeled them with my personal priorities (low - high).
Break into the train yard randomize breach locations (low) Locate the Bomb Train randomize train configurations (high) Hack into the train randomize panel to flip sides (low - medium) Open the Vault 4 different vault door / key types (high) Find the Vault keys The map supported up to 40 hiding locations (med - high) Secure the EMP bomb parts 2 escape locations, 1 chosen per playthrough (medium) I focused most of my efforts on randomizing the train configurations, vault doors and key placement. These objectives were critical in influencing how the player would move through the main space and how they could tackle the same area in different ways through multiple playthroughs. In order to accomplish this, I broke down my sub-goals into digestible points of interest and isolated them into their own prefabs (shown below). Doing so allowed me to script one prefab and teleport it to as many locations as I wanted. This approach made the randomization more manageable to script and cut down the amount of bugs that might have formed if I built everything by hand each time.
Side note: We gave each one of our key / vault prefabs its own unique visual and audio so that players could identify them from a distance or listen if they were close by. Providing them with this level of feedback is critical in helping them make proper decisions while traversing the level.
Now that we have our vault doors and keys figured out, I can begin the planning process of placing them throughout the level. When placing them, each location must meet certain conditions before being finalized. The main goal is to provide the player with a challenge and also encourage them to be creative in tackling the surrounding area. Having designed the layout to have many interesting choke points and traversals, it was fairly straightforward where I could place them. Collecting the keys is one of the more RNG based objectives in Murky Station, sometimes all of the keys are in different corners of the map and other times they are all next to each other. Eventually there was a script clean up to prevent overpowered locations or terrible RNG possibilities, but overall it was a huge success for the level.
We generally kept the key locations central to the layout and tried not to place them too close to the player’s safe zones. Placing several keys along the outskirts was a nice change of pace from the main lanes, providing a different type of challenge due to the openness of the layout.
This is what the upper train yard looks like and how the keys are distributed. The lower tunnels have the same amount of keys placed.
We also used the same method for spawning the train interiors and vault doors. By creating one prefab and scripting it four times inside the level (one per vault door type) we were able to randomize the location of the players’ main goal with little effort. The engine also allows us to rotate our prefabs, giving us the option to flip the train interiors. This added a whole new layer to their configurations, since some of the interior layouts were asymmetrical.
We ended up with roughly 600 train configurations, 2000 vault door combinations, and 256 sub objective configurations. With 1 of 2 exits being chosen randomly each playthrough, this really changed what types of decisions got made by the players. It also influenced how they would flow through the level and took advantage of their diverse set of movement options.
On top of that we use non-linear objectives, which basically means you can do multiple objectives at the same time or in some cases, different orders. In Murky Station, players can simultaneously be looking for keys, searching through trains, marking guards from the overpass, and securing extra loot they find. This allows 4 players to comfortably split up to cover more ground and work off each other. A well coordinated team might have two players hacking into the trains to find the EMP bomb, while the others are looking for the vault keys. I find it very important to provide all players an opportunity to contribute towards the main goal.
Side note: With all of this randomization, you might be wondering how QA can test it all. The short answer: they don’t. We need to build efficiently to insure 90% of the level is solid, and then catch as many edge cases as possible. On the Payday team, the frontline of defense for QA is the designer making the level, It’s our job to test our own work thoroughly! The way the systems above were built would only required 1 prefab to be maintained for each example. This provides us the freedom to go nutty with the customization in the level, knowing it has a low chance at affecting our prefabs. So, as long as we build smart we can cut down the amount things QA needs to test and help speed up production.
With the objectives off to a good start, let's take a look at how RNG might affect our guard patrols and cameras in the level.
Guard Patrols and RNG
Randomization can have a large effect on how smooth or frustrating a level turns out to be. One of the things we have to keep an eye on when designing stealth levels is frustrating the player through poor patrol placement, amount of guards, and how long they pause at each location. The goal is to create a fun puzzle-like challenge, not a terrible waiting game. Bad RNG might have you sitting in a corner for one minute waiting for the guard to leave, only to have another guard take his place when that minute is up. It's our job as the level designer to help prevent such situations from happening by adjusting our timings, reworking the layout, or possibly the level’s mechanics. This is why it's so important to create a solid base for player movement options from the beginning.
Since we don't want our guard patrol RNG to get out of hand, we need to be careful about how they flow through a space. Doing this requires it's own personal attention and multiple iterations. Tilt too far in one direction and you'll end up with bare areas that have no guards, tilt too far in the other direction and you'll have too many guards stacked on each other with no wiggle room. The last thing you want is the possibility of a death chain reaction. This is caused when you kill 1 guard, only to have another guard 10 meters away spot that body... forcing you to kill that guard, who eventually gets spotted by the next, ect. In Payday 2, players have a limit of 4 guards they can kill before the alarm goes off (on all difficulties). In our levels, we have to actively manage the amount of crossover between paths and how often guards might meet.
In the first test pass for Murky Station I ended up with a good amount of coverage for my level, but the downside was that some sections could randomly get 8 guards piled up. After a bit of playtesting and redesign, I decided to break up my patrols into smaller loops and add more points. This increased the amount of coverage and kept the patrols more consistent. It also lowered the maximum guard stacking to around 4 and drastically reduced the amount of death chain reactions that could happen.
First pass patrol locations
Second pass patrol locations
(the new paths provide the same amount of level coverage with a less chance of guard over-stacking)
A fresh take on an old mechanic
In most of our stealth levels we use random static security cameras to challenge the players’ skill at avoidance or sabotage. The players have multiple mechanics in order to deal with them in a variety of ways, but we hit a brick wall when discussing options for Murky Station. Due to the hallway nature of the layout and the surrounding structures, we were left with very few options when it came to camera placement. With so few options, the cameras would be no longer modifying the level in a positive way. We also found them at odds with the design of the level, since you were supposed to be searching for a specific train car. If we had cameras pointing at it, you would be able to identify it too quickly and negate the challenge of finding it.
So how did we fix these issues? Getting rid of the cameras was not really an option, so we began brainstorming and looking for assets that might be of use. It's important the core camera functionality remain intact and also continue to meet our core pillar of randomization. We discovered an old drone asset for one of the previous levels and began prototyping a few ideas. The design we ended up going with provided us the coverage we needed, while also creating a new challenge for the players to overcome.
Each train can spawn up to two drones, which will then fly around the perimeter of the train and scan for players and bodies. Randomly throughout the level, three to four drones will be activated to begin their scan. The loop takes about 30 seconds before they return to their trains and deactivate. The cycle continues like this every few minutes until the level is finished.
On harder difficulties, more drones will spawn and they will become indestructible.
What's great about the drones from a design perspective, is that we can dynamically modify how the level gets played and prevent players from getting comfortable in using the same routes each play-through. Some players will avoid lanes with drones, more skilled players will dodge them using their movement options, and some players might even get trapped and need to think of a new routes. Let's take a look at the patrols and drones in action.
(This clip is sped up about 8x and set to the hardest difficulty to help illustrate pathing and drone movement)
Murky Station was such an enjoyable experience to work on that I still play it to this day. When you break down the objectives and how they influence one another in a co-op space, you can begin to see the bigger picture and how a well-planned level with controlled RNG elements can stay fresh and replayable. Experimenting with different types of RNG is something I find very interesting, especially when you combine it with level design. I hope my article gave you some more insight into how we build with RNG and why we consider it one of our core design pillars. If you found this article helpful, let us know in the comment section!
Thanks for reading, here is my Info :
Email: generalvivi [at] gmail . com
Before you go!
If you enjoyed this article and would like to hear how we used RNG in other ways, check out Patrick Murphy's article on the Payday 2 level "Hoxton Breakout".
I also have a speedrun (1min) of the level for you to check out and a playthrough on the hardest difficulty (10 mins) by one of the pros from the community.
Fastest time 2018 (warning to lower volume)
10 min gameplay video showing off a lot of variety in the heist.
Fnugz reacted to Radu for an article, 2017: Mapcore's Year in Review
(New logo by Yanzl)
I'm sure that by now most of us have our sleeves rolled up and are ready to tackle yet another year, but before we move forward let's take a moment to look back at what 2017 meant for our community. It was a time of immense growth for both professionals and amateurs alike. A time when everyone seemed to have surpassed their former selves. And without slowing down, some have even managed to land their first job in the industry. I don't know what this new year holds, what challenges to overcome will arise, but I know for certain that I'm excited to see everyone become even greater!
2017: Mapcore's Year in Review
Overwatch - Oasis
by Phillip K, Bram Eulaers, Helder Pinto and others
Dishonored 2: Death of the Outsider - Curator level
by electrosheep, kikette and others
Payday 2 - Brooklyn Bank level
by General Vivi
Sniper Elite 4 - Regilino Viaduct
by Beck Shaw and others
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Offtime
Team Fortress 2 - Shoreleave
Art pass, props and sound by Freyja
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus - Farmhouse
Modeled, textured and composed by BJA
Half-Life 2: Downfall
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Studio
by ZelZStorm, TanookiSuit3 and Hollandje
Portal 2 - Refraction
Counter Strike: Global Offensive - Breach
by Yanzl and Puddy
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Berth
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Kaizen
by Andre Valera and Jakuza
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Asylum
Half-Life 2: Episode 2 - FusionVille: The Shadow over Ravensmouth
Unreal Engine 4 scene
by Dario Pinto
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Grind
by The Horse Strangler, `RZL and MaanMan
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Aurelia remake
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Tangerine
by Harry Poster
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Abbey
by Lizard and TheWhaleMan
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Apollo
by Vaya, CrTech, Vorontsov, JSadones
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Sirius
by El Exodus
Unreal Engine 4 scene
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Subzero
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Biome
Fnugz 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?
Fnugz reacted to will2k for an article, Optimizing An Open Map in Source Engine
An open map?
Source engine, which is funnily a Quake engine on steroids (a bit of exaggeration but still), inherited the same limitations of its parents in terms of visibility calculations: BSP and PVS. This fact makes Source, as was Quake engine before, more suitable to rooms and hallways separated by portals where the BSP shines in all its glory.
Inheritably, Source does not like large open maps where the PVS is of considerable size and the over-rendering is a real issue.
If you work with Source engine, then you already know the importance of optimization in a large, detailed map. Optimization becomes even more imperative when the said map is open.
What’s an open map? Good question. The word “open” is an umbrella term to denote any map that does not have traditional hallways and corridors that connect indoors to outdoors. The map is mostly large, outdoors with an unbroken skyline; in other words, the same stuff that source engine nightmares are made of in terms of PVS and BSP.
In a traditional “hallway’d” map with twisted corridors leading to open areas followed by other hallways, and even if you “forgot” to place hints and areaportals, the geometry itself allows the engine to cut visleaves and limit visibility; granted the visleaves’ cuts will be subpar and messy and the PVS will be in excess, but still, the visibility and fps will be relatively under control. A twisted hallway is a remedy to long sight lines after all.
In an open map, and without hallways and enough geometry to help the engine, the PVS risks to be huge and the whole map could be rendered at once from any point (over-rendering). We are talking here about a severe fps killer and a potential slideshow on a medium to low range computer. Source does not like over-rendering; I repeat, Source does not like over-rendering.
I believe a screenshot should be welcome at this stage to illustrate an open map. I’ve chosen a nice medium-size map from CSGO to showcase the issue: de_stmarc.
The shot is taken in Hammer obviously, and you can immediately see that the skybox is one big unbroken body from one edge of the map to the opposite one. This is the classic definition of open map.
Let’s see this map in 2D view from the side.
I have highlighted the skybox in blue so you could see the continuous sky body all over the map. Please note that an open map can have varying skybox shapes but I’ve chosen the simple and classic one to showcase my point where it is easier to see and visualize the concept of open map.
In contrast, a “traditional” map will have several skyboxes, often not connected directly but rather through a system of indoor rooms or hallways, varying in size and shape.
I will have my map de_forlorn as example here.
I have also highlighted the skybox in blue and you can easily notice several skyboxes for CT spawn, T spawn, and Mid/bombsites. These skyboxes are not directly connected to each other but the areas related to them are linked on the lower levels through various indoor locations, some vast (like garage, tunnels…) and some small (like lab hallway…).
If you are not that comfortable with source optimization or feel that certain terms are alien to you, then please read my previous optimization papers and articles before proceeding further in this article (Previous papers can be found here Source Engine Optimization roadmap).
The necessary tools
I’m not revealing a secret when I tell you that the same tools used to optimize any map in Source are exactly the same ones used for optimizing an open map. If you were expecting some magical additional tools, I’m sorry to bust your bubble.
Since the tools are the same (nodraw, func_detail, props, hints, areaportals, occluders…), it is more about how to use them in open maps that makes all the difference.
So, how to properly optimize an open map? Well, you could always pay me to do so for you (joking…not…maybe…I dunno!!)
If the above option is off the table, then read on the rest of this article .
While in a traditional map one might get away without using horizontal hints, it is virtually impossible to skip them (pun intended) in an open map unless you want to witness single digit fps burning your eyes on the screen. They are of utmost importance to negate the "tall visleaves across the map" issue.
In a traditional map, even if you bypass adding horizontal hints, the damage in fps will mostly be local since the skyboxes are not connected and areas are mostly autonomous in terms of PVS. In case of my map “Forlorn” and referring to the 2D diagram above, if I remove horizontal hints from CT spawn, then only this area will suffer from tall visleaves and over-rendering. Obviously, this is not cool in terms of optimization, but at least the effect will be somehow restricted to this area only.
In the case of “Stmarc”, you can certainly see that not including horizontal hints will have tall visleaves seen from across the map as the skybox is one unit. The PVS will grow exponentially and the over-rendering will take its toll on the engine.
Let’s move on to some screenshots and diagrams, shall we.
This is our glorious open map in side view. The blue lines denote the skybox, the dark grey one is the ground, and the green rectangles represent solid regular world brushes such as building bases for example. The red starfish little-man-with-arms-wide-open is the player. The orange hollow rectangles denote the various visleaves that the engine would probably create in the map (most go from ground level to skybox level and this is what I refer to as “tall visleaf”).
If you know your optimization, then you certainly remember that BSP relies on “visibility from a region” approach (for a refresher, please consult my papers Demystifying Source Engine Visleaves and Source Engine PVS - A Closer Look. This simply translates to the following: the player is in visleaf A and visleaf A has direct line of sight to visleaves B, C, D, E, F, and G. The PVS for A in this case would be stored as BCDEFG. Once the engine recognizes that the player is in A, and regardless of the exact position in A, it will proceed to render the whole PVS content. Everything in visleaves BCDEFG will be rendered even though the player is at the extreme end of A and has no line of sight to most of this content.
You can immediately notice the extent of damage you will inflict on your open map if you neglect adding horizontal hints: excess PVS with additional useless content to be rendered at all times.
Now that we established the importance of these horizontal hints in open maps, the question remains: where shall I put these hints?
In the diagram above, the most logical places would be on top of the 3 green rectangles.
We added 3 horizontal hints (H1, H2, H3) on top of the 3 regular brushes in our map (the hint face neatly resting on the top of the regular brush while other faces are textured with “skip”). This will create more visleaves as can be clearly seen in the above diagram, and vvis will take more time to calculate visibility due to the increased number of leaves and portals but this is done for the greater good of humanity your map’s fps.
Now the player is in visleaf A1 and the PVS is reduced to (sit tight in your chair) A2, A3, A4, B1, B2, C3, C4, D1, E4, F3. On top of the nice result of a greatly reduced PVS (and therefore content to render), keep in mind that leaves A4, B2, C4, D1, E4, and F3 are mostly empty since they are way up touching the skybox.
Some folks will start complaining and whining: what the hell dude, I don’t have 3 green rectangles in my map; where would I put my hints?? My answer would be: deal with it!!
Joking aside, open maps will greatly differ in size, shape, geometry, and layout. What you need to do is choose 1 to 5 common height locations in your map where you would implement these hints. Medium maps with mostly uniform building heights can get away with 1 horizontal hint, while complex, large maps with various building heights can do with 4-5 hints.
If your map has a hill made of displacements that separates 2 parts of the map, then it is also a candidate for horizontal hints. You just need to insert a nodraw regular world brush inside the displacement to be used as support for the horizontal hint (the same technique can be used if you have a big non-enterable hollow building made mostly of func_detail/props/displacements).
These might not come into play as much as their horizontal siblings, however they could see a growing potential use depending on the map’s layout, geometry tightness versus openness.
I cannot go through all combinations of open maps obviously to show you how to lay vertical and corner hints; what I will do is choose one diagram representing a typical open map scenario with some scattered houses, streets, and surrounding fields. Once you see how I proceed with these hints, it will become a lot easier for you to implement them in your own map regardless of the differing geometry and layout.
Here’s our typical map viewed from top with grey lines being map borders, green rectangles being houses (solid world brushes), and our tiny red player at the rightmost part of the map. The map has a main street that goes in the middle between houses but the player is not restricted to this path only.
The diagram below shows how I would proceed with my hints for such setup.
This is basically what you get when you give a 5-year-old some crayons.
Seriously though, I just gave each hint a different color so you could discern them on the spot, otherwise it would be hard to tell where each one starts and ends.
Most of these hints go from one side of the map to the other while going from ground level to skybox top; don’t be afraid of having big hints that cross your entire map.
Notice that we have both straight vertical hints (shown from above in the diagram obviously) and corner hints; what I did is that I compartmentalized the map so wherever the player is, chances are they will have the least amount of leaves to render in the PVS (this is just a basic hint system and more fine tuning and additions could be done but you get the gist of it).
To get more details on hint placement, please refer to my paper Hints about Hints - Practical guide on hint brushes placement
If your map has enterable buildings, then it is imperative to separate indoors from outdoors using areaportals; this is top priority.
Make sure to slap an areaportal on each door, doorway, cellar door, window, roof opening, chimney, etc. that leads inside the house in question.
What about outdoor areaportals? Good call. In an open map without much regular world brushes to maneuver, it could get very tricky to set up an outdoor areaportal system to separate areas. However, you should always strive to have one, even if it is one or two areaportals across the map. The reason is very simple: the view frustum culling effect, which, coupled with hints, will yield the best results in cutting visibility around the map.
Continuing with our previous diagram, a simple outdoor areaportal system setup could be as follows (top view).
This setup will make sure that the map is split into 4 areas and whenever you are in one of them as player, the view frustum culling effect will kick in to cull as much detail as possible from the other areas.
Let me show you the setup from a side view to make it easier to visualize.
This is the same areaportal that was closest to the player in the top down view diagram but this time viewed from the side. Unlike hints where it’s fine to have one big hint going across the map, for areaportals, it is best to have several smaller ones that tightly follow the contour of the geometry eventually forming one big areaportal system.
Another possibility for outdoor areaportal system is to have a combination of vertical and horizontal (yes horizontal) areaportals.
If your map is a village for example with a highly detailed central square where most of the action takes place, a potential system could be made of several vertical areaportals that sit in every entrance to the square from adjacent streets, and a horizontal areaportal that “seals” the area and works as a “roof”.
For a practical guide on areaportals placement, please check out my article Practical guide on areaportals placement
Props fade distance
This is a really, really important tool when optimizing large open maps. In case you got distracted while I was making the announcement, I’ll go again: props fading is definitely vital when tackling open maps optimization.
What you need to do is to set an aggressive fade distance for all trivial props that do not contribute to gameplay. Players will look closely at how detailed your map is when they check it out solo on the first run; however, when the action starts and the round is underway, adrenaline, focus, and tunnel vision kick in, and all the details become a blur.
During an intense firefight, players will not notice small props and details up close, let alone at a distance. We need to use this to our advantage to fade props thus releasing engine overhead; a faded prop is not rendered anymore and engine resources will be freed and allocated elsewhere.
Your map geometry will dictate the proper fade distances, but as a rough guideline, small props could have a fade distance anywhere from 800 to 1200 units (flower pot on a window sill, small bucket at the back door, a bottle on the sidewalk…), while medium props could do with 1400-1800 range (a shrub, a power box on the wall, an antenna on the roof, wood plank, gutter pipe, fire hydrant…).
Be very careful though not to prematurely fade critical props used for cover or game tactics (car in the middle of the street, sandbags, stack of crates, dumpster on the sidewalk…).
Many people forget about this technique which is more than needed when it comes to open maps that tend to have larger average PVS than traditional maps.
I showcased in a previous article of mine the fps cost of cheap and expensive assets (Source FPS Cost of Cheap and Expensive Assets).
Get in the habit of using the low-poly model version as well as the cheap texture version in the distant non-playable areas and the high unreachable areas where players won’t have much of close contact with the environment. Potential candidates could include a distant field, the unreachable opposite bank of a river, a garden behind hedges/walls, high rooftops, the 3D sky…).
Fog/Far-z clip plane
This technique, when correctly used, can provide a big boost to your frame rate as parts of the world beyond the opaque fog won’t be rendered at all.
For this technique to work properly, your map should have a foggy/rainy/stormy/dusty/hazy/night setting (use as applicable) where a fully opaque fog won’t appear out of place. Obviously, if your map takes place in a sunny and clear day, this technique won’t work much and it will look inappropriate.
Using this is simple: For example, if your map is set in a rainy and foggy day, you just need to set the fog end distance while having its density set to 1. You will then set the far-z clip plane to something slightly higher than the maximum fog distance (if the fog end distance is 8000 units for example, the far-z could be set to 8200).
This is another good technique to reduce engine overhead and the cost of rendering.
It is true that the 3D sky is used to expand the limits of your level and decorate its surrounding, however, since it is built at 1/16 scale (and expanded in-game), it is also a nice way to decrease rendering costs. Use this to your own advantage and relocate assets in the non-playable areas with limited player interaction to the 3D sky.
One thing to keep in mind though, the 3D sky’s visleaf is rendered at all times on top of the PVS in the playable area. Do not go overboard and make an extra complex, highly expensive 3D sky or you would be defeating the purpose of this optimization technique.
You thought I forgot about occluders? Not a chance as these are the big guns when it comes to large open maps with little world brushes to use for other optimization techniques.
Let’s clear one thing first; if your map is made mostly of brushwork and displacements with little to no props, then there is absolutely no need to resort to occluders as they’d be totally useless in this case. Only when the map is loaded with models and props in an open setup with little regular world brushes that occluders come to play in force.
To place occluders, you would search for areas where these occluders could make the most impact (low fps, high traffic, props abundance) since they run in real time and are expensive, otherwise their cost would outweigh their benefit in terms of frame rate variation.
Remember that occluders rely on the player’s position and field of view relative to the occluder to calculate what gets culled. You need to place them in a way to maximize the number of props to be culled behind them when the player stands in front of these occluders.
Let’s see some examples.
We go back to our famous top down diagram; the occluder is dark blue placed on the left wall of the large house while the little black stars represent various props and models. The 2 diagonal black lines denote the player’s FOV relative to the occluder. Anything behind the occluder and within the view frustum will be culled.
That’s nice; we are able to cull 4 props but is it enough? It is not optimal as we can still do better. What if we move the occluder to the right wall of the house?
Much better if you ask me. 5 additional props were added to the culling process meaning less overhead and fewer resources to render for the engine. That is why I said earlier it is all about maximizing the impact of the occluder by placing it in a way relative to the player’s position that maximizes the number of culled models.
Here’s another example (still top down view).
The player has moved to the middle of the central street, and beyond that L-shaped house is an open field with a lot of props scattered around. One way to implement occluders is as showcased in the above diagram. Notice how I arranged 2 perpendicular occluders along the walls for the maximum occlusion effect as all of these props in the field are not rendered from that player location.
Another way to arrange occluders in this case would be diagonally across the L-shaped house (split into 2 or 3 occluders if needed to accommodate the nearby geometry; they can be floating without the need to seal an area).
If you’re feeling brave enough (you should be after reaching this far in this article), you could also add an extra occluder along the wall of the house to the left of the L-shaped house to further enhance the view frustum occlusion effect and cover more props in the field.
The most common places to add occluders in open maps include a displacement hill that separates parts of the map, a hedge that stands between a street and a field full of props, a floating wall between a house garden and the street, the walls of a large house, the walls of a tall building, a ceiling when it separates multiple levels…
To read more about occluders placement and cost, please consult my article Practical guide on occluders placement
The foundation of optimization in Source engine will be the same whether it is a traditional map or an open one. You will heavily rely on func_detail, nodraw, displacement, props… to achieve your goals but it is the way you use these tools in an open map that makes all the difference.
One might get away with being a bit sloppy with optimization in a traditional map, however, make no mistake that an open map won’t be any forgiving if you decide to skip a beat in your optimization system.
Talking about different open maps and formulating varying optimization systems for them could fill articles; I hope this article has shed enough light on the open maps optimization approach to let you easily design a system for your own map.
Fnugz reacted to MapCore for an article, Day of Infamy Mapping Contest
Participants have from the 15th of September 2016 until Midnight (GMT) on the 22nd of December 2016 to create, test and upload an original or Day of Defeat inspired map for Day of Infamy (www.dayofinfamy.com)
Map included officially in game
Void Surround Sound Headphones
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
M330 Mouse Pad
All Wall Worm Source Modelling Tools
(*All prizes are subject to participant eligibility. No cash value. The contest Organizers and Sponsors reserve the right to change or remove the prize structure at any point with or without reason.)
In addition to the prizes stated above, GameBanana will also be offering a sub-prize for the best development blog, work in progress or tutorial created throughout the process.
This is an entirely optional part of the contest and is open to members of all communities.
To enter simply create either a development blog / work in progress page OR a level design tutorial / guide for Day of Infamy on either GameBanana, MapCore or the Insurgency Forums.
Entries must be uploaded on or before Midnight (GMT) on the 22nd of December 2016, and include “[DoI Contest]” in the title. Entries will be judged by members of the GameBanana team, as they appeared at the deadline.. No changes or updates are permitted during the judging phase.
Rules and Frequently asks Questions
The submission must be a playable map for the PC version of Day of Infamy.
Remakes of existing maps are not allowed, however maps inspired by classic DoD maps are encouraged.
Entries must be submitted to the Day of Infamy mapping contest section of BOTH GameBanana.com and the Steam Workshop before the deadline.
Multiple entries are permitted, however submissions will be judged on individual quality rather than quantity.
Team based entries are permitted, however the entrants will have to agree how to split any prizes awarded, prior to prize claim and dispatch.
It is essential to thoroughly test your submission before the deadline as entries cannot be modified during the judging phase.
Exceptions: Changes to the submission profile are permitted after the deadline, provided they are purely aesthetic and that the map file does not change. (E.g. Editing the description / screenshots)
Maps that were under creation prior to the announcement of this contest can be entered, provided a completed version has not been released for public Download.
All custom textures, models or code must be contained within the download file or embedded into the .bsp.
Authors are free to share their content on any other websites or services they wish, however the file must remain free to download and play, without requiring membership or payment.
If the submission is distributed on an external website or service, it must clearly state that the submission was created for the "GameBanana / MapCore Day of Infamy Mapping Contest 2016”.
Authors must be able to accept cash payments via paypal and will be required to fill in a prize claim form prior to payment. Winners of hardware and physical products will also be required to provide a valid shipping address.
Judges and individuals associated with organising this contest cannot enter or assist entrants.
Entries must clearly state which game mode the level is designed for.
Participant eligibility: The “GameBanana / MapCore Day of Infamy Mapping Contest 2016” is open to any individual, or teams of individuals, provided they comply with the following:
Participants may not be an employee of the “Organiser” or “Sponsors”.
Participants may not have taken part in the preparation or announcement of this
Participants may not be a direct relative, spouse, direct employee, or long term
partner of any of the above definitions (a - c).
Legal Age: This contest is open to any individual who meet the above “participant eligibility” criteria. In the event of participant who has not reached the legal age in his/her state winning one or more prizes defined below, he/she must provide contact details for the legal guardian who will claim the prize(s).
TWO (2) copies of the map are required for this contest, and must be uploaded on or before the deadline. The primary version (used for judging) must be submitted to GameBanana.com and placed in the “Day of Infamy > Mapping Contest 2016” category.
The second version must be uploaded to the Day of Infamy Steam Workshop
No changes to the downloadable file can be made during the judging phase. Please remember to ensure that all relevant custom content is included, and that your map is thoroughly tested.
Maps will be judged by the developers at New World along with the staff at MapCore and GameBanana. Each map will be scored on the following categories, and given a total score out of 100.
Gameplay (40 marks)
Visuals (30 marks)
Originality (15 marks)
Performance / Optimization (15 marks)
Fnugz reacted to will2k for an article, Source FPS Cost of Cheap and Expensive Assets
A new question?
After successfully solving the eternal mystery of func_detail vs. displacement in my last article (here), I was contacted by the High Council of Source Engine Optimization. Apparently, there seems to be another enigma to be uncovered and a major question to be answered.
What is the fps cost of cheap and expensive assets in Source engine? Is there a significant difference between the two in terms of frame rate? (that’s 2 questions but I’ll let this one slide)
As with the last article, this one is also going to be a short but sweet article; fewer words, more numbers and screenshots. The systematic approach is also going to be very similar: 2 similar test maps where one contains expensive assets while the other has cheap versions of these assets. The assets will be the same and will be located in the same locations in both test maps.
The recent assets added with the new de_nuke update in CSGO will be the perfect candidates for our study as Valve made most of these in cheap and expensive versions. For props, the expensive version is high-poly models while the cheap one is low-poly. For textures, the expensive version gets a normal map (up to 2), specular map, advanced reflections, detail map, and Phong shading in some cases; the cheap version is basically the diffuse map with the occasional detail map.
I will record the localized fps in both versions and compare, then draw conclusions that will hopefully answer the High Council’s question(s).
The first map to test is the one made of cheap assets. It’s basically a simple map consisting of 4 walls and a floor on which are spread several props and textured blocks at predetermined locations. Textures are mostly concrete while props contain crates, cars, pipes, wires, doors, and vents.
The fps recorded is 330 fps. The expensive version is exactly the same but with props replaced with their high poly versions and textures swapped with their expensive versions.
The fps is now 286 fps; interesting. All right, let me call the High Council to relay the news.
Hold your horses right there. We are men of Science and you know that…yes, yes, I know, one map is not enough to draw conclusions.
I’m going to take this map and quadruple it, in area and in content, and test again (Nobel prize here I come). The new map will have 4 times the amount of props and textured brushes (the same ones of the initial map cloned into the new areas) as well as having its total area increased fourfold. We start with the cheap version that we will refer to as test map (4x).
The fps decreased to 279 (from the 330 in the simple cheap map) due to the extra content that the engine has to render. Our main point of concern would still be to compare this version against the expensive one.
You know the drill by now; we will also create the (4x) expensive version.
The fps is 229. The decrease in (4x) version is more or less in line with the one in the simple version. Let’s recap in a table for easier viewing.
As you can see, the fps dropped 44 fps in the simple version and 50 fps in the 4x version, between the cheap and expensive maps respectively.
We can draw 2 conclusions from the above table:
There is a significant drop between the cheap and expensive version (44/50fps), and there is also a substantial drop within the same version (51/57fps) when you add much more content that is all visible in the PVS.
These results can shed some light on the latest update of de_nuke where the overall fps is lower than the rest of the stock maps in CSGO. The high amount of props/details that can be seen/rendered from one location coupled with the expensive assets in the playable area contribute to further decrease in the overall fps in that map (in addition to the open skybox/layout). I have tackled a revised optimization system for de_nuke in a topic of mine last month that can be read here (https://www.mapcore.org/topic/19909-de_nuke-a-revised-optimization-system/)
As a bonus, I’ll throw in the compile times of the above maps so you can witness the effect of cheap vs. expensive, and the additional content in (4x) versions, on the compile time, especially on vrad since it will mostly be affected by the extra faces in the high poly models and the additional vmt switches in the expensive materials.
You can clearly see that vrad times increased considerably between the cheap and the expensive versions, as well as within the same version when we quadrupled the area/content.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I still have a phone call to make; the grand council woman cannot wait any longer.
The final cost
Expensive assets bring visual eye candy to the map in hand which is a necessity in today’s ever-growing and continuously pushed graphics boundaries. Relying on low poly models and cheap textures won’t fare well on the visual fidelity front. However, expensive assets come at a cost of taxing the rendering engine and decreasing the overall fps in the map.
These expensive assets are a requisite if you want your map to shine (pun intended) but one has to be careful not to overuse them. Use them wisely in the playable area and resort to cheap versions when decorating the non-playable areas of the map or any place that the player cannot see up close to discern the difference.
Fnugz 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!
Fnugz 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..."
Fnugz 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
Fnugz 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
Fnugz 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
Fnugz 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!