MAAR DÚN was a passion project, and it shows. Two years in the making, the map oozes that special something that you can’t ever quite put your finger on, or put words to. It brings to mind flavors, scents, and maybe a few tingling sensations in forbidden parts of my body (to much information??).
I find myself animated into an ancient Wraith City, which is simultaneously dark and beautiful. Set in the gloom of a seemingly floating rock island. There’s the feeling of being abandoned, alone. And then I get shot in the face and come to my senses. There’s a battle at hand, and I want to be on the winning side. But alas, this is a tale for another day. For today, the star of this show is MAAR DÚN. And who better to tell us about it than the man behind the map, Jake Stegmeier (MartianMallCop).
The Making of MAAR DÚN
Whenever I come across a really well polished map, I invariably have the feeling that it was guided by a strong and clearly defined set of goals. I’ve come to realize that this isn’t always the case though. Did you begin this project with a set of design goals - Were they clear from the beginning, or did they evolve over time? Can you share what they were?
I’d actually say that my process is much more iterative than predetermined. It’s not that I didn't have a set of clear goals I wanted to achieve, because I definitely did. It’s just not like a perfect epiphany where I have everything I want to do before I start. I typically develop those goals throughout a level ideation process. Essentially, when I’m coming up with inspiration for what I want to build with reference art and locales, those references then really inspire my goals.
For Maar Dún, in a lot of the concept art I was viewing, I really saw precariousness; like walking on a knife’s edge. A lot of really perilous locations where I could see players jumping from ledge to ledge mid-battle. If I had a main goal for Maar Dún, it was that I wanted to make it’s combat acrobatic; where players on my level would be able to have a lot of mobility mid combat that was very synergetic with their combat abilities. I get really annoyed with combat in a lot of games being in flat rooms, where the battle starts and finishes with the two players staying in their positions just waiting to out damage each other. I want a fight to be an actual fight; which could be somewhat drawn out, with combatants constantly attempting to one up each other, utilizing the environment around them. Insta-kills or fights with no turnarounds are just less exciting. I made it my goal for fights to not start and end in the same place. Another goal I had was to have the level be ruthlessly efficient. I personally don’t like the idea of having the same type of encounter in multiple locations on the map. I think it is very important to keep encounter types varied in a level to keep the match interesting.
Maar Dún from a Distance
Like most iconic maps, Maar Dún feels as if it’s a real place, with a history - a story to tell. Was this intentional, and if so, how did you go about bringing it to life?
Well first I guess I have to thank you for calling my work iconic. I appreciate that. While Maar Dún doesn’t have like a complete narrative, there is certainly some lore behind it. Maar Dún is a chapel of the wraith kingdom. Maar Dún is a sort of accursed place, filled with ghouls and dark spirituality.
Players enter the arena as part of some sort of ritual where only those who are cursed can enter the realm. With Maar Dún I wanted to portray a different side of how people often view the idea of evil though. It is definitely a dark place, with very spiky terrain, chains, acid, etc… but I liked making the chapel look like something that was really mysterious, yet alluring. Often a side of evil that I think is necessary for it to exist is a sort of persuasive nature. Christians often refer to it in the bible as temptation. For instance, when a guy steals your wallet, there is the incentive that comes from the value of the potential cash that you may have had. With Maar Dún I wanted to try to capture that urge in its rawest form. I also like the idea that when the lightning strikes and a power weapon spawns, that it is by the might of a demon, like bestowing gifts of destruction to players to increase the carnage for its own entertainment. I wish so much that forge would let us like record or own voice lines, so we could essentially make our own announcers.
Rocket Launcher Spawn - Trap Hall
Something I’m always fascinated to hear about on maps that play exceptionally well is gameplay balance. Balance, in the gameplay sense, can be difficult to define, much less attain. What are some imbalances that came to light during the iterative process, and how did you go about addressing them?
I actually found that balance for Maar Dún didn’t take what I’d consider to be too much iteration compared to a lot of my previous work. I feel that at a certain level of experience, many designers can see how their map is going to play before running it through tests. That’s not to say that there were no issues however, but most issues in testing came from the technical side, with only a few significant geometry changes.
Some of the biggest issues were with scale. Some of the areas were a bit too small. and some wall layering was little bit too extruded. In initial matches this led to players snagging edges, and some excessive clambering where jumps were a little too high. That led to traversal around the map being a bit too cumbersome during combat. So, I took that build and stretched out the middle of the level by double buttress, making those less steep, and extended Trap hall significantly. Also there was a little bit of an excess segmentation issue between outside the front of the chapel, and the rest of the map. Adding in the triple wraith windows and the double doors gave other areas of the map the utility and interaction required to make that outside area a more viable location to use in combat.
So one thing that really stands out in Maar Dun’s favor relative to the vast majority of Halo 5 forge maps is the tremendously polished art and lighting. How the heck did you do it?
Well I can’t take credit for all of that. Christian (@MultiLockOn) did almost all the lighting of the level. I showed him the concept art and the color scheme I was going for, and he put together the skybox fog and most of the lighting, and taught me a lot about lighting in the process. I think that one of the biggest things that makes Maar Dún stand is the soft hues that are used. Forge has very harsh lights by default when placed on map, so to get those soft hues, in some cases you have to turn the brightness almost down to zero. Christian even came up with a new lighting technique for the bright windows in Chapel, using light rays at a higher brightness. We could’ve just used emissive objects behind the windows, but they were bright, and really messed with perception for players in that room.
Structurally, however, I could give some more in depth answers. For Maar Dún’s art I ended up using an established architectural style, and then put a fantasy spin on it. I used a lot of gothic romanesque architecture features, such as the pointed arch, the flying buttress, pinnacles, nave, and vault. But then I played with things like the buttress pinnacles, and had them inverted pointing downward. I also played a bit fast and loose with where flying buttresses were pointing to allow for more unique routes and cover. It’s tricky with forge, you have to keep certain details simple because adding a lot of details can eat up budget quickly. A technique I used was a lot of repetition and layering, to give walls and structures a bit of depth. Adding a simple dark black rail trim on the center catwalks gives them a bit of outline that is much more appealing than without. Also on the walls of the secondary building by trap hall you can see some layering, with a bit of a triforium being layered on the wall to give it more depth. With forge though, you really have to let your lighting do a lot of the heavy lifting, because otherwise you direct players eyes to areas that are lacking in detail.
Can you tell us more about the testing process? Here’s a good one for you - can you tell us about some of the funniest or most entertaining things you remember from your testing sessions?
For sure. Maar Dún had quite a few funny, technical bugs during initial testing. Some things were just totally obvious that I had forgotten about. Others were less obvious, but had some bizarre results. In the first test, I had forgotten to put in the death barrier under the map. So in the very first match, Westin (@Westin) fell all the way down to the chromabox, and it was just ridiculous. I believe he had thrown his grenades too, so he couldn’t get a spawn in to get up there.
Easily the funniest was that in some cases the wind stream by the main door of chapel would throw you off into the void and just kill you. Also, if you jumped from high enough above, you’d go through fast enough that you’d just fly right through the wind stream and into the death pit. I eventually ended up fixing that with strategic invisible barriers, but I think I just hadn’t updated it until our fifth session. By that time people were getting mad at me, so I finally went in and fixed it. This was when I was still finalizing art and lighting so the tests were just in the meantime.
Also, I guess a last fun fact is that I scripted lightning strikes to fire off every time a power weapon spawns in on the map. It’s a really useful way of figuring out which item is up for those who have mastery of the level, because you can just listen for which item spawned. I felt that this was important because I had done something very similar on Oblivion for Christian, but at the time I messed it up by not making the lightning spawn dependent on the spawn of the weapon. So the lightning would just fire, and no weapons would appear sometimes on Oblivion. It’s fully functional on Maar Dún, so it feels good fixing that.
Maar Dún is an incredibly polished map, bringing stellar gameplay in a convincing setting. It hits all the right notes.
Here’s a look at the Trailer video:
You can view a full allotment of images in the Map Thread. Also included is a podcast style video on the making of the Maar Dún with @Jake Stegmeier | MartianMallCop, @MultiLockOn, and @Westin, which is well worth a listen.
There’s a great breakdown of the level on Jacob’s Portfolio as well, which includes a more detailed breakdown of specific aspects of the level. Plus of course, there’s a link to download Maar Dún, which you should do right now.
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