Special thanks to Ivan Buchta from Bohemia Interactive for his help.
According to Cambridge Dictionary: “Landforms are natural shapes on the earth’s surface”. It’s logical to see how important landforms can be for any outdoor video game map. The way those landforms are incorporated can, as we will see, result in interesting situations depending on how and how much they are used in the game.
During this presentation, we will use war games of different genres: battle royals, war simulations, and traditional fps such as Battlefield. During this analysis, we will ask ourselves a simple, but important, question: “What is the relationship to the reality of war games with landforms?”.
With this question, we will look into games such as Arma 3, Apex Legends or Battlefield 4, 1 and 5. We will analyze what their links are with realism, their vision of realism, and how they adapt that vision of game design according to their vision of realism and what is the legacy of their predecessors: the Wargames.
We will conclude by reviewing the impacts of this vision on our modern vision of war with microtopography and the lack of humans.
Analysis of the topography in shooters games
Mountains and terrain morphology
The hills and mountains constitute the most significant type of topography in reality and in video games. Furthermore, they constitute, as we will see, an elegant way to balance levels and put more challenge into games. This is accomplished thanks to the natural obstacle and challenge that hills and mountains present. What do we mean? We'll explain.
With this really interesting landform, we'll see how a mountain can create interesting situations in different types of shooter games.
First, let’s focus on war simulations such as the Arma series. This series, well known for its commitment to realism and its realistic environments, used mountains as a way to balance play, just as they balance real battles.
In real battles, mountains create a really good way to defend an area, or just to keep an eye on it. Also, they give a good advantage to artillery that has a higher range thanks to the altitude. Moreover, it will make it difficult for tanks and other land-based vehicles to access the top of the mountain.
Finally, perhaps the most important bonus provided by this landform is the increase to a sniper’s range. This means they can detect and eliminate enemies much easiler than would be possible on flat ground.
These bonuses, which are common for all war simulations because they try to mimic reality, are important to balance a battlefield, and these landforms can completely change a game. For example, a poorly placed mountain could create a mismatch between teams. One team could always have an advantage over the other thanks to a mountain that becomes their stronghold.
But a well placed hill or mountain can create a true challenge for teams. For example in Red Orchestra 2 Rising Storm, in the map “Hanto”, the attacking team will have to face off a hill as a first obstacle. This hill, protected by machine-guns and flame-throwers, is difficult to take. However, the map is quite easy to go through as an attacker. This means that, during very first seconds of the battle, the attackers and the defenders go through a tense moment because the faster the enemies take that hill the easier they will win.
We can see that, in shooter games, hills and mountains are a symbol of dominance and of difficulty. But the Arma series succeeded in putting drawbacks to that landform for the defenders.
First of all, the mountains in Arma are sometimes surrounded by dense forests, and so a good commando can sneak into the camp and create a mess, providing an opportunity of attack. In Arma 3, the gameplays and modes are made to encourage good teamwork. And so it motivates players to work together efficiently, rewarding them with a higher probability of breaking through defences. Additionally, if defenders depend too much on the hill, an imbalance in their defences can result in chaos.
Errors such as that, which are inherent to the strategic flaws of hills, are also linked to the way that Arma designs war. As we mentioned earlier, Arma tries to be the closest to reality, which means every flaw or bonus of a landform is translated in the game as the same flaw or bonus, meaning that the level design of Arma, as we will see later, is actually inspired by real battles.
However, terrain morphologies could be used in ways other than just a military way; they can be used to do proper level design. In smaller maps, edges can be used to set the map’s borders. It can be also used to restrict access to specific areas to allow some levels to load and not others (such as in Firewatch).
Mountains can also be used as Landmarks; they're something symbolic that catches the eye of any human. So a mountain can be used as a landmark to give a geographical point of orientation for the player. One example of this can bee seen in Fortnite, where the player can use the mountain as a way to see where the player is. Terrain morphology is a really interesting way to create symbols in level design. It can also be used to enhance the environmental design or narrative design (such as the mountain of Journey which is a narrative symbol and an important landmark).
These uses, in addition to the strategic uses, help a lot in creating a coherent and interesting topography for game design. But also the use of terrain morphology can be used for more abstract level design, or for game’s production.
Plains look like the most simplistic landform that exists on Earth. They are just plain, flat, as simple as a line. But, correctly used, it can be a good way to design landscapes and include elegant level design into maps. Moreover, going through a simple plain can create thrills or strike fear into the hearts of players.
To continue with our thought process, let’s first focus on the flaws and keys strengths of the plain. The first, and most obvious, key strength of the plain is the ease with which vehicles/squads can be transported, which means the players won’t have difficulty transporting vehicles such as trucks or tanks. It’s also provides a space to easily land a helicopter or airplane, for example. This key strength makes a plain a good way to gather units, even to build camps. And of course, it’s quite easy to go through a plain in comparison to rough terrain.
There’s another key strength, which is also a flaw: it’s easy to aim with artillery on a plain. Despite the fact that targets are more mobile, the lack of natural protection (trees, landforms) makes aiming at them easier. This means if someone has to mount an attack on a plain, the attackers can pound the area to exsanguinate the besieged. This also means that anyone who is in a plain is an easy target, and this doesn’t only apply for artillery, but also for snipers or anti-vehicle/infantry weapons.
This flaw has a major influence in the UX of the Arma series. Going down to the plains isn’t just walking straight like nothing will happen to the player. It’s clearly the opposite: Arma’s players are afraid of the plains. Because the danger can be everywhere for them. It can be from the sides by rivals trying to ambush them. It can be from in front of them in the form of a sniper. Or worse, it can be from above them by the artillery or aviation pounding them.
This creates real stress for players. Each minute in a plain creates tension in the group because they become paranoid at every noise. They need to be extremely vigilant to survive. A single moment of inattention can lead to the death of the whole group. Also, as stated earlier, plains are a good place to create an ambush because it’s easy to flank and contain a squad with motorized infantry. The plains lend some freedom to the player to choose a path to complete an objective, the cover and the vegetation have their specifics and allow the player to choose which path is the better in his situation.
So putting a plain in a map is useful if we want to create a meeting point of players or to create tension into a game by making plains the only way to reach the enemy. That makes the plain a good element to create an elegant and dynamic level design.
Forests are often seen in video games, but their use can be very different from one game to another. Some games don’t have huge forests because of performance issues. They can, for example, create a specific atmosphere to a game, create hiding places, be a focal point etc...
In an FPS, the forest can serve as a hiding place and/or be used as a tool to change the gameplay. In Arma 3, the jungle is ever present in the Tanoa map, especially in the middle of isles. It forces players to play as infantry (it’s too hard to control vehicles in the jungle) and challenges them on that particular fight situation (close combat). The jungle also limits visual information, which can be stressful if danger was teased before. This technique can be very useful for solo or coop levels. The camouflage has high importance in the forest, the player can hardly see enemies so the environment becomes very stressful for him.
In Battle royal games, the forests are used to hide and collect information, which gives players a feeling of security and control of the situation. It’s also a place where the gameplay combat changes, and players are forced into close quarters combat like in FPS.
In Fortnite, another use of the forest is to hold resources. Players are pushed to play in forests to take advantage of and use resources during the game. This kind of area becomes attractive to players, providing an area for them to prepare for an upcoming fight. The resulting decrease to the pacing gives players a break before the inevitable rush of adrenaline that will happen in the upcoming battle.
In real life, a forest is a place where it’s difficult to walk because of mud, brambles, roots etc.. Like some real forests, in video games the player often has to zig-zag between rocks and trees. It has different atmospheres, depending on the hour of the day, the season, and various other parameters. Contrary to the forests in video games, where the gameplay is the primary atmospheric influence, a real forest’s atmosphere is influenced by the weather. However, the weather is used a lot in video games as well, to provoke a more realistic setting.
In video games, watercourses are mostly used as obstacles or as communication routes.
In Fortnite, the watercourses have two goals. The first is to give a pleasant way to move across the map, watercourses provide a fast and easy way to reach the next “safe zone”. This goal is linked to the second goal, have a place to fight and break the monotony of some games. People are attracted by the advantages of having boats, and the level design encourages boats to go to the middle of the map, so some fights happen to take advantage of other players.
In Heroes and Generals, the players can swim to cross watercourses, but can’t use their weapons. So it’s a dangerous move which can be rewarding if the player succeeds, allowing them to access a new situation. This kind of moment is highlighted when the objective is on a bridge, or on the opposite shore. When attempting to cross the watercourse, the player feels mainly stress because of the danger, but if he succeeds and kills other players the feeling of satisfaction and pride will be very high, which helps to balance out frustration resulting from previous deaths.
Real watercourses are a way to exchange, to move or to communicate. But in wartime, they becomes an obstacle, and bridges become strategic points. The watercourse’s goals in video games are very close to the uses of rivers in real life.
Origins, context and construction
Large water areas
Large water areas are in the majority of the open world games (The Witcher, GTA V, Just Cause etc…). Often, they are used as a border, but sometimes they serve the gameplay.
Like in Metro Exodus, where the goal is to put pressure on the player, and to do that they include some water areas with aggressive monsters inhabiting them. You can see when they go underwater, but you don’t know when and where they will attack you. These monsters produce a sensation of insecurity and pressure. Combined with the poor maneuverability of the boat, the player feels like he can’t control the situation and must adapt to complete his objectives.
In Arma the large water areas and watercourses allow players an alternate method of completing objectives. It links to the game design of the game, which aims to give some freedom to players with vehicles and other ways to move. One example of this is the Tanoa map, where islands are separated by the sea and players must use ships, planes... or swim.
Seas and oceans are empty, occasionally used to transport goods. We can see a parallel between the games which use the sea as borders and the empty area in the ocean, the two have no interest for the majority of people but can also serve as communication roads.
Life and topography
We noted previously that games try to be very realistic with their topography and use it to improve their gameplay, but it often lacks something important to make it feel very realistic: life.
Some animals are in Arma, such as rabbits and lambs, but there aren’t any civilians living in the cities, mountains, or other landforms. Those games are dedicated to wars, and so the battlefields are just a place to fight, and not to live. Arma and Apex Legends provide a clear vision of “realism” for these games. War isn’t something dirty, with lives or cities destroyed. It’s just a sandbox where you can “play war” with your friends, like when you were a child. And this gives a biased view of war. They tend to make players see “realistic” war games as games that tend to have ballistics, wind, and a huge FOV. Even more, it doesn’t include the uncertainties of war created by civilians: road nails, makeshift roadblocks or sabotage of team sites. This tends to make the players think that a war simulation doesn’t need civilians to be realistic.
Nevertheless, the games with the most realistic part about humans are the military simulations. VBS is a good example of this type of game. To train military's, some civilians are in cities. They are autonomous and react to the environment, but their impact on the environment is non-existent. The DLC “Laws of War” from Arma 3 is an exception, Bohemia Interactive tried to put the human in the centre of the game. Despite the last part being very difficult to develop (because it’s requires very complex AI) it could be interesting to add this into games. But to make the environment credible, impacts of life could be visible. For example, in Battlefield 1 blast craters are the result of the actions of humans. Little paths or mines in Arma are created by the action of animals or humans. This produces environmental storytelling which is important to create stories and make the environment credible.
As we saw previously, the human (except players and militaries NPCs) is not often represented in shooters and has a limited impact on topography. (Nevertheless, initiatives to represent the human factor exist, like “Spec Ops the Line”...)
In Spec Ops: The Line it’s pretty clear to see all the influence of war in the area, building exploded, traces of previous human life which was here to show how terrible the event is. Despite the sand being mostly symbolical in this game, it shows a really good overview of how a cataclysm and war can affect humans in terms of psychology and topology. It could be a bad example because in this game everything is scripted, contrary to Arma 3 (despite the campaigns are scripted it’s still more free than Spec Ops: The Line).
Context and history of the topography in-games
Video game landscapes are inspired by natural landscapes, but their utility in game-design can come from literature, movies, series etc… For example, in movies like Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, the swamps represent something dangerous and scary, where we can barely walk. and it’s hard to move around. The landing of Luke Skywalker, the creature who eats R2-D2, and the sinking of the vessel enhance this sensation. We can find the same feelings in Metro Exodus, where the boats are hard to handle and there are enemies both in and outside of the dirty water. These reactions can be explained by the dangerous animals we can find in swamps (Snakes, Leopards, Crocodiles etc…), the lack of visibility, and the difficulty for humans to live here.
So the natural landscapes and the corresponding reactions are inspirerd by stories created by traditional media, and these stories were converted into gameplay by designers.
History is also a great inspiration for topography in games. As said before, battles were mainly influenced by the topography (Waterloo might be a very good example of this, because the French partially lost because of the topology). This explains why the Topology has been a key factor in many strategy games.
Many great battles (mainly in the Total War’s series) are represented in games. The point of view is different from one game to another, but the goal is the same: let the player experience the battle as if they were part of the history. And the exactitude of the topology helps a lot in immersing the player into the experience (and also rewarding them if they play the role of the loser, such as for Waterloo’s battle in Total War Napoleon).
Making the topology a key factor of immersion also influences the way to maps are designed. Level design is, for sure, heavily impacted by this. The level designers have to make a historically precise battle, meaning that the battle will be unbalanced. This way to design could sound really strange but it’s actually made in a way that players have to use their game’s knowledge. But also, and it makes that kind of games pretty unique: their historical knowledge. Thanks to historically accurate AI behaviour/units.
But the relation between topography and Game-Design is not exclusive to video-games. Warhammer games are precursors in the use of the topography, the magic zones, the covers, the dangerous zones etc.. add different elements to play, so each game is unique. The rules help represent what could happen in reality. For example, the more a unit is hidden behind cover, the higher the penalty for shooting at it. Nevertheless, the use of environments is limited by very precise rules which make it difficult to have different ways to play with it.
Pipeline creation of realistic map
Example of the production pipeline of Bohemia Interactive to create maps. (“Terrain Processor” and “Terrain Builder” are internal tools)
To create a huge map inspired by real locations, developers can use the geographic data. The geo data is data of the topography. To obtain it, developers can buy, download or create it. They can buy NASA’s data. They can also ask private companies to get it for them, etc. They then analyse the data with a GIS (Geographic Information System) (which shows where there are mountains, their height, width...where the rivers are...). Data points are adapted to the game, reducing the size of the map, the height of the mountains, etc. as needed. Terrain must also sometimes be adapted to facilitate the job of AI, and the gameplay of players.
Finally, the map is implemented in the game and playable content can be made with it.
During our presentation, we saw that games have two main ways to represent landforms. The first is a non-realistic one, where the gameplay is more important than landforms. In this approach, landforms are adapted depending on the game design, and those landforms are used to enhance the game design. The second way is to use the landforms in a realistic way, which means those games try to represent as close as possible the influences of the landform on the soldiers. This way sounds the closest one to reality, and those games also try to be the closest to reality, as the game design is adapted to the landforms and not the reverse.
It could be a quick, logical, and quite a simple answer to say that the scientific approach of war simulations is more realistic than Apex Legends or Fortnite. As mentioned earlier, although there is a huge lack of humans in games, there is more and more of an awareness to develop games so that civilians are included. We can even cite the humanitarian aspect in, for example, the ARMA series. But this awareness is clearly a niche compared to the vast majority of shooters. And many ARMA players won’t play the add-on despite the great sales (more than 300k sales). Even though It's a wonderful initiative and well done (half of the revenues were given to the charity and it respects Geneva laws), it’s very little compared to the very large sales of Red Orchestra, Fortnite, or even Arma 3 itself, which don’t talk of civilians normally. And VBS isn’t accessible to civilians.
This tends to make us think that if we want realistic landforms maybe those war simulations need to rethink their vision of war in general despite some of them (and the most famous) trying to get rid of this lifeless vision of war.
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