Gaming’s level design illuminati on the evolution of modern online conflict…

By Will Porter


The Search for the Perfect BattlefieldThese places don’t make sense. No architect would put a door there. No room needs three entrances, oddly placed skylights and a bay window. Throughout history, in fact, no-one ever felt the need to place two gigantic symmetrical keeps directly opposite each other, with a causeway to link them and two opposing balconies from which knights could moon at each other while pinging arrows back and forth.

None of these facing worlds exist, yet their lines and gradients are traced indelibly in the minds of millions. The maps we live and die within online have become a common ground – a rare touchstone between yourself and strangers milling around you in the street and on public transport. You might not share a common tongue with some of the people you meet, but you both could have a favoured direction to lob a grenade when Nuketown boots up in Black Ops or a preferred route through de_dust.

As multiplayer shooting has evolved, though, how have these violent digital playgrounds changed? In an era that sees the military shooter stamp its dominance on gaming, what goes towards the creation of the perfect battlefield? It’s two decades since Romero and Carmack first directed a rocket launcher at each other’s Doomguys – and since then we’ve tread the length of the Longest Yard, buzzed over Blood Gulch and met a bloody end as soldiers in Lockout, Crash and Rust. So did we nail the template back in the past, only for level designers today to iterate former glories in ever shinier new clothes?


“Well, good level design really hasn’t changed as much as you’d think from BF1942 to BF3,” explains Lars Gustavsson, the Lead Multiplayer Designer on Battlefield 3, as he recalls past and current glories. “Our basic concept that’s been around from the start involves natural ‘honey pots’ spread over the world, and good cover in combination with room for vehicles to manoeuvre. It may sound like a simple recipe, but getting it just right is an art in itself.”

The Search for the Perfect BattlefieldFor the past making its presence felt in modern gaming you don’t have to look much farther than the sixth appearance of U-shaped island and firm fan-favourite Wake Island in BF3’s DLC pack Back to Karkand. To all intents of purpose it’s the self-same map we’ve played multiple times before – albeit bigger and under an ever gloomier sky. Sometimes the old tunes are the best tunes, but that doesn’t mean the developer mustn’t play around with their beat to suit modern tastes. In BF3’s case, any classic map that makes a return must be heavily tested to ensure that the Frostbite 2 engine’s destructive capabilities don’t change the intended flow of the map. With this in tow, however, familiar landscapes can become exponentially more exciting.

“Often introducing destruction in a map from the Battlefield 2 days will only lead to great things,” continues Gustavsson. “An example of this is the new version of Strike at Karkand. Where you previously found certain paths, the battlefield will now suddenly be a multitude of new access points as players start shredding the city to pieces. Do you remember your favourite sniping spot from old times? Well, beware – since a well-placed RPG might reduce your cover to a big gaping hole. In Battlefield 3 you can run, but you can’t hide!”

The top level indications of evolution in multiplayer level design (and the franchises that tower over it) can be succinctly analysed, then, through the dramatic return of fan favourites. A phenomenon that Gustavsson’s arch-nemeses in the halls of Call of Duty are also more than familiar with.

“When people say ‘You should bring so-and-so map back!’ you have to sit down and think,” explains Infinity Ward Creative Strategist Robert Bowling. “That might have been a fantastic map for the original game, but that was because you didn’t have the Extreme Conditioning perk, or the ability to do this or feature that does that. All these can change the dynamic of the map. When we brought Crash back for MW2 we had to change the bullet penetrations and the like to deal with the new weapons.”

Approach other famed FPS designers and they’ll respond in the same way, explaining their reverence to the past – both recent and relative ancient – but also underlining how the terrain of the modern shooter is constantly evolving. “The same design processes apply today that did ten, or even twenty years ago,” underlines Dave Johnston, the creator of the Counter-Strike DE_Dust maps and Senior Level Designer on Splash Damage’s recent Brink. “You still have to design from the player’s perspective with the overall game design in mind. I think all of Brink’s maps owe something to games that have come and gone. There are some level design principles and patterns that never change – they simply need to be updated or adopted for different gameplay mechanics. The capturable objectives in Brink, for example, are influenced by our own experiences of playing and designing CTF maps. While the destructible objectives are informed by not only Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, but also by similar objectives in Counter-Strike and Call of Duty.”

The Search for the Perfect BattlefieldRobin Walker, overlord of the remarkable Team Fortress 2, readily agrees – yet underlines that there’s still abundant room for originality and change. “There’s a significant amount of knowledge we have as a team, and that’s drawn on when designing a new map, but it doesn’t dictate how we design future levels,” he argues. “Usually when designing a new map we have a specific goal in mind, such as a new arena layout or geometry feature, or a larger scale feature like a new gameplay element or game mode. Our experiences making previous levels do help, but we can’t rely on that too much, or we won’t innovate. Generally, if we’re highly confident it’ll work, it’s probably an indicator that we’re doing something too similar to things we’ve done in the past!”

Robert Bowling likewise prefers to bypass the implication that Call of Duty’s wares are based on ‘old knowledge’ – preferring instead to underline the design experience gathered from project to project. “We’re constantly discovering new things on our own,” he states. “Our philosophy changes from game to game based on lessons learned and feedback from our fans. In Call of Duty 4 the maps were fairly simple: simple routes, simple sight-lines. They were great, there was a lot of balance to them, but with MW2 we took a different direction. We bumped up the complexity – allowing you to go in more buildings and allowing you to take more routes because of that and how you could go out of any window. A lot more vertical combat was added too – a lot more rooftops, second floors and third floors. That made it more complex and encouraged different types of gameplay – and a lot more defensive game styles. With MW3 we’ve tried to find a balance between the two.”

With advances in gameplay, it seems, come many and varied extra considerations for the perfect battlefield. As time has wound on, meanwhile, complications haven’t only arisen within the map proper – but in the team creating it too. Around the turn of the millennium world-beating dustbowl de_dust was created in a few weeks by one designer and one artist, in 2011 Dave Johnston created Brink’s Container City with several other designers, around 20-30 artists and input from multiple other Splash Damage departments over a period of months.


What, then, are the ingredients that today’s major league designers believe are necessary to create the perfect modern-day killing field? A common theme within both of 2011’s military multiplayer big guns is in allowing for these different types of gameplay within each level. In the words of BF3’s Lars Gustavsson: “There is a higher need to deliver a perfectly balanced game at day one and to deliver a game that is offering more customization options, more variety, and more flexibility.”

The Search for the Perfect BattlefieldWe would perhaps call it being all things to all people, but the EA marketing machine have stamped a mark on it that reads ‘Play it Your Way’. This, of course, threads far beyond map design – into customisable classes, weapons you can fiddle around with and the vehicles and counter-measures you can take into battle. The geography of levels, however, is also a significant factor.

“When it comes to the actual map design, we’re giving each map a strong theme, but also allowing for those different play styles and tactics,” explains Gustavsson. “For example, even if the Caspian Border is a vast, open forest map, it still has sections with building clusters where the focus tends to shift from vehicle combat to infantry combat, subtly changing the encounters you experience there. There should never be the one and only way to play a map. No matter what class you prefer to play, or your preferred play style, you should always find something constructive (or destructive) to do on every map.”

Indeed, this is a policy that is extended to the fact that every map in BF3 has been built with all five game modes in mind – not least the Team Deathmatch that’s making its first COD-baiting appearance in the franchise. Tighter game modes see certain areas of the map locked off, for example, while great pains have been made to ensure the placement of objectives is pixel-perfect guaranteeing the best ebb and flow of battle.

This approach, however, clearly isn’t for everyone. Splash Damage’s Jamie ‘Fishbus’ Manson – Brink level designer and the man responsible for TF2 faves like CP_Freight and CP_Steel – underlines the fact that this approach doesn’t suit every game. He’s quite the stickler for individuality. “Creating a map that appeases everyone can easily make it bland, flat, confusing and overly inconsistent,” he coolly states. “Not everyone likes the same things. Basically you shouldn’t overload a level with every idea you think will make a map unique, special and different from the crowd; instead, pick one and roll with it. You should spend all the focus on that one particular idea, and polish it as much as you can without alienating it from what people are already used to.”

Here we see, perhaps, the divergence between the more specialist shooter and that of the annual all-encompassing FPS blockbuster. A pressure of modernity that all and sundry share, meanwhile, comes with graphic prowess and the need for an engaging, consistent art styles. Every developer going, it seems, wants to underline that this doesn’t just give their maps a pretty face. Good looks mean a good sense of location.

The Search for the Perfect Battlefield“If you were just playing pure geometry would it be just as much fun? Probably. Would it be as immersive? Probably not,” explains Call of Duty front-man Robert Bowling. “You can go back and play insane Quake and CS maps that are just basic geo – and they’re not any less fun. You’re still getting that core gameplay, but the immersion and the full experience is lost. That’s where the visual fidelity comes in: the environment art and our guys building it all together. What the detail adds also plays into what makes a great map, is the ability to easily identify and call out a location. So you can easily call out ‘I’m in lamp store’, ‘I’m in bike shop’, ‘I’m… wherever’. Being able to communicate effectively and quickly like that is essential to the tactical element of our game.”

Robin Walker meanwhile, with Team Fortress 2, looks beyond the appearance of individual levels – and towards the way that his game’s blanketed and iconic art style gives every map a sense of purpose and direction. “The world in Team Fortress 2 is purposefully simple to make our characters stand out from the background and to allow players to see the battlefield and make various decisions at any given time,” he explains. “Routes are usually well marked and the level flows in one direction or another.”

Jamie Manson is also of this opinion. He underlines, however, that clear visual clues and streamlined level architecture go hand-in-hand when herding happy gamers through a map’s corridors. “Map design has come a long way in trimming off the fat,” he describes. “In a lot of ways we’ve made maps easier to read for people, so they’re less likely to get lost. We’ve also made them simpler to learn by taking away extraneous routes, while providing much more visual fidelity that allows mapmakers to create fantastical locations, breath-taking vistas and some memorable objective narrative.”

This importance of knowing exactly where you are and exactly what you’re doing, it seems, is just as true in the modern Call of Duty games. “It comes down to being able to understand the map – and visualise it in your head very easily,” explains Robert Bowling. “To know where the hotspots are, to know where the clearest routes are and to know where the alternate routes are. So when you’re clearing areas you’re blocking it all off in your head – and you can guess at where your team-mates are. It’s all about situational awareness. That’s vital to a good multiplayer map.”

The Search for the Perfect BattlefieldBalance, meanwhile, is this year’s buzzword – at Activision’s Call of Duty XP festival this year the afore-quoted Bowling strode on-stage to mark out the game features that would be struck from the record in MW3 to bring fairness and equality back to his game. The noise in the halls as he did so was deafening. In direct contrast to this however, in games that lurk a few fields distant from the COD goliath, a disparity in fairness in level design can create maps that will become famed throughout the ages. “Character comes around by having memorable locations, fun areas, and so on. What’s more, any flaws that come from that give the map a personality people remember,” smiles Jamie ‘Fishbus’ Manson. “The reason we remember great people, friends, products and designs isn’t necessarily because they were perfect.”

Is the perfect battlefield for some shooters, then, potentially one that’s a little broken? “An assumption that seems reasonable is that maps should be balanced – each team should have an equivalent chance to win,” says Valve’s Robin Walker. “But with TF2 that’s not born out by the data we have so far: several of the most popular maps are the least balanced, in that one team has a much lower chance to win than the other team. Our current theory is that people don’t mind being on a team that has an uphill battle as long as they know they’ll have their turn to stomp the other team shortly afterwards. Since you know your team has less chance to win, it makes it even better if you manage to pull it off.”

Universally, however, it’s Jamie Manson’s sentiment of “Understand the game first and then make the map” that echoes throughout the considered opinions of our assembled gaming giants. The perfect battlefield can only truly exist in the game it has been built to neatly snuggle within – showing off its best features, and smothering the worst.

All this clever level design, this coagulated build-up of ancestral knowledge in the construction of fictional architecture, is created to let games express themselves – which in turn massages your experience into one that feels both free and unpredictable. It’s from this that you gain your treasured gaming anecdotes. The time you single-handedly defended a capture point on Wake Island, only to be joined during your dying breath as your comrades respawned and the distant rumble of a tank turned into an ominous silhouette atop a nearby hill. The time you kamikaze-ed another plane with a sneaky Spitfire-dismount, then finished off the pilot in the shrubbery below. The time you accidentally drove a bunch of fellow players off a cliff and into the sea.

“I can clearly say that one of the main reasons to our success is the wide variety of experiences that a Battlefield game can provide,” reflects Lars Gustavsson. “By now there are millions of stories on the internet with personal moments that people have experienced. These can’t be built intentionally, can’t be scripted and sometimes not even retold in a way that does them justice. You just have to be there when it happens.”

So it would seem that the most vital element of the perfect battlefield, the part whose absence would cause everything to come crashing down around us, is you.

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