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What is gunplay, and what makes for 'good' gunplay? This article is a breakdown of the mechanics of gunplay, and the impacts of various approaches (ex: Projectiles vs Hitscan).

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A 2v2 slayer level for Halo 5, set in a Wraith City called MAAR DÚN

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    Level Design for Combat - Max Pears


    Hello Everyone! 


    It has been a long, long time since I have written an article but what can I say Inspiration hit me! Before I begin, I want to say the way that inspiration struck all came across by taking part in an online course I recently just finished on CGMA which was ten weeks long. Thank you very much to Em Schatz for putting the course together and to Patrick Haslow for being a great tutor and taking the time to review my work. 




    Now I have worked on a range of titles as a Game Dev and Level designer, but as my career has switched over to AAA for the last five years I have noticed a common thread with the projects. That thread is Combat. What you make of combat within games and especially in AAA games is up to you and heck, I hope we get to talk about it in detail in the future but, none of us can deny how popular action is, in all mediums. 





    With the projects that I have been working on, a lot of combat spaces have been designed by myself and by my teammates. So I have seen a lot of AI blood shed, as well as seen some good and bad examples of levels for combat.  While working on this course one of the weeks we are asked to design a combat space (Ranged combat with guns). I completed the level and it is not the perfect example of a combat space, but it is one that I am extremely proud of. After this it got me thinking, “What makes a good combat level?” 


    The question yet still haunting me, I decided to try to find out more. Sadly, there is not as many resources as I had thought would be available (If you know some great ones please do send them over to me). 


    This is a great article though so please do read this, it was another inspiration for this article. 



    Past Thoughts:

    I even went back to think about how I was taught at my University, and how bad my levels then were for combat. For what plays such a massive role in the gaming industry we were not taught anything about this topic: How to design levels for the purpose of Combat.


    Now with my xp of working in the industry for a while, making different spaces for combat, I finally feel that I can help. Hopefully, someone who reads this will find this useful, and it will also build a topic of discussion for many more and far better designers than me to help us understand Level Design for Combat. (see how I worked the title, into the article? Pretty impressive.) 


    Keep in mind that I will only be talking about Combat involving guns, designing for close quarter combat, or turn based combat will not be mentioned here. (Here is a great article on DMC’s combat design)  This article will only be focused on the level design involvement of combat as well, not breaking down anything to with weapon or mechanic design. 



    With that out of the way I am going to be breaking down how to create a level built for gun combat step by step. Let Us Design It!




    One of the first steps to designing a good combat space is first by understanding your Metrics. The subject of metricts I do not feel is mentioned enough when creating a level and how vital it is. Metrics determines the spaces of your levels, how high the cover should be, how wide corridors are, and much more. 


    As for who decides the metrics for your game, that is a task for the level design team. It comes with experimenting in a ‘Gym’ it is tough to decide as you must decide by what feels right. I personally have only been involved with it once in my career and it is a tough thing to figure out. 


    Create spaces for you and your teammates to test


    (This here is a ruler where I would time the players movement speed and jumping length) 



    (having a range of boxes I used this to test jumping heights, single and double)




    You get the point that I am making. Once you have these gyms set up, have others test them out to see which they agree feels the best. These numbers and sizes will change depending on the view of your game, TPP, FP, Isometric, etc. Once you have the metrics, make sure that you are constantly checking them. (Side note, make sure that the document is easy to read and people understand it from first glance) 


    Here is an example of what I put together when creating my combat level:




    From what you can see, the documents are very easy to read and you roughly get a sense of scale when looking at them. (Again these are not perfect documents, as it would be good to have tables listing the numbers on the documents as well so designers can have one place to look quickly without scrolling down several pages to get to the info they need) With these figures you have a great starting point, make sure that you are constantly referring to these documents. 


    This is super important as not only does it allow you to make sure the architecture of your world is to scale. It allows you as a level designer to start understanding how verticality on two floors can play into combat, how to signal to players which rooms are safe while others they must be on their toes. Final point on this is now how you can combine the believability and theme of your architecture with the great feel of your gameplay.    


    A rule of thumb when creating metrics (Again all depends on your game, in the world of game/level design there are no hard rules only suggestions and what suits your game the best) is to make sure that your differences between a main door vs a side door, a main corridor vs a side corridor. Is that the main is double the size of your side, the reason for this is it is visually different. Increasing your main door size by just 1m is not visually distinct enough, so try to do it by doubling as visually it makes an impact on the players’’ 


    Now you may be thinking that our time working with sexy metrics is over, but oh no no no there is still some fun to be had here sweet child. We have set up the rules for our architeture but now we need to set up rules for the combat spaces themselves. 


    Because we were smart enough to set up the metrics for the architecture before it makes things a little easier for us. With the combat spaces, the elements you want to focus on are:

    • Correct Cover Height & Width
    • Cover Spacing (Buffer Zone) 
    • Cover rules on Architecture
    • Weapon Range
    • Enemy Archetypes



    Cover Height & Width:

    This is an easy one, for this we are focusing on what dimensions the player can use for cover, from low to high cover. Making sure that it is clear and readable to the player what is cover and what is not.






    Cover Spacing:

    Now this one is extremely important and should be one you follow very closely. This here is the distance between covers, we use this to make sure that cover is not just randomly scattered all over the place. That it is clear for players to understand a cover route through the combat, but also that AI can make it’s way towards the player too. There could be other technical reasons too, but this is a very important to follow these rules. 




    Cover Rules on Architecture:

    As you have seen above we have metrics for say our doors and windows, but in order for us to not just have these set up for traversal we need to think about how to best use them for combat. Making sure that there is always cover on a door so players do not walk into a room and get blasted in the face. How players can use windows as a sniping spot, etc. 



    Weapon Range:

    In most games that involve guns, there is a whole array of weaponry with some games like Boarderlands having over a Billion Guns! With that in mind it is important to build spaces to help encourage certain styles of play. Thinking about sniper nests or areas for players to flank and use short range weapons like a shotgun to attack the enemy from behind. 

    Before we do all this though we need to understand how far these weapons can shoot, what is the best distance to use said weapons. 





    Enemy Archetypes:

    In your games there will more than likely be different enemies within your game. Again like the weapon range we as level designers need to make sure that we build spaces that allow these enemies to have the best space to shine, show off their skillset but provide players cool and unique ways to win.




    By understanding these enemy types, we as LDs can build unique challenges which force players to strategize, who they should take out first or even work together as a team to coordinate an attack.  


    How Players Avatar Holds the Gun:

    This topic here was not mentioned on the list above as it is not the biggest thing to consider but it is a detail worth knowing. What am I referring to when talking about how the avatar holds the gun? I am referring to will the avatar be right handed or left handed. Small detail but a detail nonetheless as then you must make sure that there is cover with an opening for the weapon. If the avatar holds it more to the right, then on door frames make sure there is cover to the left, and visa versa. (A lot of game though now allow the player to switch the shoulders of which they aim from)






    Now you can see the amount of planning that goes into creating a good combat space before we even have opened the editor. These steps are vital in creating a great combat space for your game. 


    (Please note these design pages which I have put together are to show you an example of what to plan, when you are putting your design doc together you can do way better, these are just to show you what I mean, use these as a learning point and make fare better documentation team!) 




    This article has become an extremely long article already and there is still more to cover. So this is where I will end part 1, but  we will move on to the next step following this, such as paper design and the actual Blockout. We will be breaking down the blockout I mentioned at the beginning of the article, breaking it down. 



    Please Support:

    If you have enjoyed this then please be sure to check out my podcast (Level Design Lobby): 
    iTunes: https://apple.co/2CwAkqD
    Spotify: https://spoti.fi/2ybMelK
    YouTube: https://bit.ly/2XUXcLf
    SoundCloud: https://bit.ly/2XYIo9K


    If you want to reach out to me, to give me some suggestions on good combat spaces or to see my bite size level design tips then please check me out on Twitter


    Read Part 2 here: 



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    Article Preview: Max Pears, inspired by his CGMA experience, asked himself "What makes a good combat level?" This article is the first part of his answer, covering super sexy concepts like Metrics, Cover, and Weapon Ranges.

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    Sadly, there is not as many resources as I had thought would be available (If you know some great ones please do send them over to me). 

    Here are some resources (Reposting for the reformat of this article):

    Matthias Worch's "Meaningful Choice in Game Level Design" https://youtu.be/BEF4GVNzkUw

    Key concepts

    • Orthogonal Unit Differentiation - enemies that are different along multiple axes
    • Self-Determination Theory's notion of Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness (as a framework model for why we play combat games at all, and why some action games are better or worse than others at providing satisfaction)
    • Target Prioritization as  Meaningful Choice
    • "Checkpoint Test" - if I die and reload a checkpoint, will I play it the same way, or can I update my plan based on that new knowledge and try something new?


    Vectorpoem's "Coelacanth: Lessons from Doom" http://vectorpoem.com/news/?p=74

    Key concepts:

    • Movement as defense
    • Territory control
    • Enemy differentiation


    Simon OCallaghan's "Gameplay Builder - FPS Encounters" https://twitter.com/SimsOCallaghan/status/1012039880841617408


    Robert Yang's "Dark Past (Part 4)" https://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2011/07/dark-past-part-4-useful-post-or-randy.html

    about stealth level design and what he refers to as the "valence theory" of Randy Smith's GDC2006 talk on stealth level design. This is about stealth, but the ideas of territory control "valence theory" are  applicable beyond stealth. In GDC2019 Aubrey Serr presented a talk "Radically Nonlinear Level Design" that also applied Smith's model, but this time to action games like Brigador (skip to slide 55 onwarad for the most relevant bit). https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1026398/Level-Design-Workshop-Designing-Radically


    More broadly, if we think abstractly of combat gameplay as being about "map control", then we can also look to multiplayer level design for guidance. This commentary video on Rapha vs Cooller in Quake 3 shows what "map control" looks like in high skilled play, which exposes something that almost feels hidden in the map's design: https://youtu.be/XdkDjsBiO58

    The same ideas of map control apply to singleplayer encounter design. Having map control means having many options while depriving your opponent (whether AI or human) of their options. Gaining and maintaining "map control" often means a resource exchange: time and health for positioning, ammo for points, positioning for information. This is especially apparent in high level MOBA design where these resources (xp, gold, etc) are literally graphed; in most action games its a more subtle resource of positioning and sightlines.



    Blake Rebouche's GDC2018 talk "Balancing Action and RPG in Horizon Zero Dawn Quests" (the relevant part starts 14:45) https://youtu.be/b8WDPmwOHKg?t=890

    • Readability: for players to make interesting choices and form tactical plans, they have to be able to see that there are choices at all
    • The idea of a vantage point to examine the layout and form a plan.


    Matthew Gallant's GDC2017 talk "Authored vs. Systemic: Finding a Balance for Combat AI in Uncharted 4" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8W7EQKBgcg

    • It's an AI focused talk, but it reveals something about how their combat encounters are designed, and about the tools the level designers use.
    • "AI zones", sometimes referred to as "AI leashes" or "AI volumes", used to control the AI.
    • The combination of level geo and AI setup / manipulation is what creates the encounter.


    Lisa Brown's GDC2017 talk "Applying 3D Level Design Skills to the 2D World of Hyper Light Drifter" https://youtu.be/LFsMenc5Q8I?t=737

    • Digs into applications of "prospect" and "refuge" spaces, which are similar to the positive and negative valence ideas of Randy Smith's approach to stealth level design. (I personally prefer the valence model because it's gameplay agnostic, and doesn't rely on fuzzy concepts of human instincts which may not align with game mehcanics.)


    Some multiplayer examples to consider:


    Shawn Snelling and Salvatore Garozzo GDC2015 "Community Level Design for Competitive Counter-Strike:GO" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5RZP52jYy4

    • Building layouts for multiple viable tactics, meaningful choices
    • Less is more (up to a point) with chokepoints, cover, and verticality.
    • "Divide and conquer" as player tactic for map control
    • Effect of art on gameplay, readability. Functionalism in art.


    As a follow up to the idea of map control visible in competitive Quake level design, here's an explanation http://cpma-news.org/guides/content/leveldesign




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    @yoder Thank you again for the fantastic links.  I've just had a chance to look through them all.

    Your last link is to an article by Joel McDonald which is published on the site.


    Also, prospect and refuge spaces are covered pretty well by Chris Totten both in an article that's published here, and in the book that grew out of that article.  I've not had a chance to read the book yet, but the article is excellent.



    I have all of your other links bookmarked, and will give them my full attention at some point.  I'm sure they're all fantastic.

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