Thursday, 20 December 2012

Why I think Halo 3's 'The Pit' is the best multiplayer map ever created



Arena shooters, such as Quake, Unreal and Halo as a more modern example all focus heavily on the map design and how it compliments the gameplay. The common trend with shooters at the moment however seems to be more class based, and even more so player-level based, meaning the more time you invest the more stuff you get. This is what makes map control change, as it's no longer for weapons that spawn, more about running around trying to find the next guy to kill. So, instead of talking about current level design for multiplayer shooters, which I don't have a familiar enough grasp on yet (because running around a map for 10 minutes trading kills isn't my idea of fun) I'm going to be discussing the map design behind more arena based shooters - that is to say ones that I personally feel are far better designed as they had ensure the player enjoyed the map a lot, to compensate for the lack of unlockable content seen in the average modern shooter nowadays. As you may have probably expected, the franchise I'm going to use as an example is Halo, and analyse and compare my personal favourite map of all time, 'The Pit' with a Halo 4 map, 'Complex'. Now before I take apart these maps, I'm going to start by saying it will be a comparison of what to do and what not to do with map design, as these maps are almost polar opposites in terms of fun-factor and clever design. I played Halo 3 for around 3 years solid, at least 3 or 4 times a week average, for probably at least 3 hours a day. According to Bungie.net, I've played on The Pit 644 times, at least (I had other accounts on Halo 3 as well). After all that, I still never got bored of it; I had the same team-based strategy on that map for 3 years, and never got bored of it, simply because the map was so perfectly designed. Within 3 matches of playing on Complex on Halo 4, I decided the map was terrible, not fun and poorly designed with no real flow to it at all.




Now the reason why I believe The Pit and many other arena based shooter maps are great is oddly because of the lack of depth to the unlock systems, as mentioned earlier. I can't really think of a multiplayer shooter that has a vast weapon/item/aesthetic unlock system, that also has a respectable amount of great maps. Developers seem to focus on one or the other. Now Halo 3 is an arena shooter, so no gameplay altering unlocks - at the start of every match every player is at an equal level (excluding personal skill). The weapons and items within the game itself are placed at certain areas of the map, and over time players learn where on the map they are, and how long they take to respawn. This means the map already has a natural flow to it - the players are trying to get to these 'power weapons' and ensure they have the upper hand for their team. Alongside this natural flow, are the choke points and vantage points of the map. Throughout the course of a standard team match, either purposely by the players will or because of flow of the match, players transition through these gameplay highlights and give the match meaning; players will move to areas of importance when the time is right and slow the pace when they need breathing room. Of course every player has free will, they can do what they want within the confines of the game, but because of the way the map has been designed, they will often find themselves back in the action and natural flow of the game. Now I will quickly add that adding a sprint function (in my opinion) can easily break the natural flow of any map. It's used just to get to and away from the action and not much else. It serves as a cheap escape tactic when you bite off more than you can chew in a firefight, and consequently level designers need to make the map almost twice as big to accommodate the sprint function. I've never felt Halo 3 needed sprint because the movement speed was already nice and speedy, and you played more cautiously because you knew you couldn't just run away. The maps also stayed a nice comfortable size and didn't feel over-sized just to compensate the distance sprint can cover.
The Pit is a 'training facility' according to its description - it's little back-story is that Marines would train there for combat preparation. When it's not being used for that, it's a cargo bay. Now, this design choice probably came into play during the maps development, or before it. Whatever the case, in the maps earliest stages, it needs to play well - it needs to be enjoyable. Much like a painting, if the first few stages aren't right, the final product never will be. Now right from the get go, the idea of a training facility is a strong one, as the story behind the map is also combat based. This works stronger than if it were say, a town centre; that doesn't sound like it would play particularly well.



Even in this early concept art from Bungie, you can see how heavy the focus was on combat training and flow (such as the naming of the bases, and arrows on the floor).

Before the map is even textured or had small details added in 3D, it needs to be play tested. For multiplayer maps, 'how pretty it is' should be one of the least important aspects of it. If you were to remove all the textures and unnecessary 3D areas on The Pit, you would still be able to assume that its some kind of man made facility with a focus on on-foot movement and combat training, because of its design - it has a few levels accessed via ramps and lifts, long lines of sights from high areas and corners with raised walls for cover.
For arena shooters, these sort of features should be mandatory on multiplayer maps; the map should be reasonably sized for how many people are on it, it should have areas that work well for concentrated fighting and areas that are good to fall back to. These sort of things come about during concepting and whiteboxing, but can only be properly tested within the game itself. This is where Bungie succeeded immensely on The Pit, and 343i failed immensely on Complex.

In this crudely annotated diagram of The Pit, I'll try explain some of the key areas of the map, and why they work so well. The map is symmetrical, so I've only annotated one side. Being symmetrical is automatically a bonus point, as this ensures for team based games, both teams start in the exact same position, mirrored. While asymmetrical maps can be balanced well to compensate the asymmetry, I feel symmetrical is always a strong starting point. The red blob is where the team starts. For most high-level 4v4 team based games, the initial 'rush' at the start of a match would be: one or two players head towards (1) and (3) respectively, and the other two players go towards (5) and (6). This is because this is where all the power weapons spawn. Within the first 5 seconds of a match, we already have a natural flow to it - players trying to get the upper hand by ensuring they get the better weapons. The sniper rifle spawns below the tower at (1), and players would normally lift up to the top and try cover their teammates getting the Rocket Launcher at (6). This is a very good vantage point, especially with the sniper, as the arrows demonstrate that it has a huge line of sight across the map. However, this is obscured by the walls at (2), (3), (5) and (6), meaning that it isn't too much of a vantage point, balancing the map. The tunnels at (3), (5) and (6) are alternatives to getting to the other side of the map, but sacrifice cover. People can bank grenades off of the walls without compromising their own position. (2) is a good way to quickly traverse to the opponents side, but risks being shot at by whoever may be on the tower at (1). A good offensive team strategy would be to move the sniper to (3), giving them a good view of the opponents side of the map, and have the other three teammates push through (5) and (6), effectively forcing the opponents onto the open space below and on (4). Because of the design of the map, the team that co-ordinated themselves better get the upper hand and push the other team into the areas of the map that are more open and susceptible to being shot at.
The large walls separating a lot of the map also allow players breathing room. If their plan isn't going so well, they can fall back and recuperate in a safer area with ease. What's good about The Pit is that it has a lot of cover, but not so much that you're constantly bumping into walls and chasing people round corners. Any less and it would be too open, anymore and it would be too annoying. For example, the corner at (2). If that wasn't there it would be a flat platform with no cover - no player would risk running across that gap without anything to fall behind if they get shot.
The thing with shooters nowadays is the maps tend to follow a sort of racetrack kind of design - players run around the maps getting kills and continue running or backtracking - I don't often see people stopping and controlling an area with other members of their team. I can't recall the number of times I've sat, nervous, tied at 49-49 (first to 50) on The Pit in high ranking Team Slayer. Both teams would retreat to their sides, formulate a plan, and wait. These quiet moments are far more tense and enjoyable than desperately trying to rank up for the 45th time to get a new scope for my assault rifle. It's because of the way the map was designed - with a heavy focus on map control and weapon placement - that allows these sort of matches to occur. I get that most people would play FPS's to pass the time, and constant rewarding with level ups and unlocks helps maintain interest, but to me, having a game that's properly designed and allows for extremely fun and extremely tense matches captures my interest far more, as it's just so much more memorable.



Now this is Complex. A fitting name really, because it seems 343i tried to slam as much into this map as possible. Given that this map currently sits in the Team Slayer roster on Halo 4, it's fair to compare it to The Pit as they are both used for 4v4 or 5v5 team based gametypes. Already we can see that the map is huge for this; its probably around three and a half times bigger than The Pit. This could attributed to the fact that Halo 4 allows you to sprint, therefore allowing you to traverse the map faster. This seems to be the design behind every Halo 4 map, but it doesn't really work. Making the map this large, regardless of sprint, instantly messes up the flow of the map. Couple that with the fact Halo 4 doesn't really have traditional weapon spawns anymore means that the initial rush at the start of the map doesn't focus on certain areas, and the instant respawn means there are always going to be people on the map at all times - there's no breathing room.
This is a great example of how altering the gameplay inevitably means the map has to be designed to accommodate this change as well. The focus for this seems to be less for multiplayer gameplay, and more for visual flare. There's a lot of fancy geometry outside, and some nice lighting effects cast by the monitors inside - but if it doesn't play well, what's the point? Removing the textures for this map, You'd be able to tell that it's a man made structure sitting within nature. But it's kind of hard to tell that its a research facility, there's a lot of geometry that doesn't really lend itself to that too well. I also personally can't see how 343i could play test this map and say to themselves 'Yeah, this is a fun map, it plays well and the community will enjoy this'. It might work in a single player environment, as there are a lot of elements that lend themselves nicely for that - courtyards for skirmishes and interiors to fall back to - but in a multiplayer environment, no. 
Teams spawn at #1 and #8, and the match often ends up trying to control #4. Now this is admittedly a kind of natural flow, but the problem here is that #4 is too powerful of a vantage point. It allows you to see the entire map, excluding the interior areas. If a team has two or three players up there with decent aim, you're going to have a hard time getting anywhere. The only time I've felt the map played semi-decently was when the entire game was focused at #6, occasionally branching out to #5 and #7. This is one quarter of the map being used - all that extra space, it's not needed. The interior at #6 has a few corridors and ramps, with an open backyard area. Nothing too fancy, but it worked. Then you go outside and see a plethora of ramps, platforms, trees, rocks, all manner of things that clutter the map and at times even make the framerate struggle. 343i seem to have forgotten that simple is often better - hell Blood Gulch from Halo CE was just an oval shaped canyon, and it's iconic. A lot of the maps on Halo 4 look nice, yes, but they don't play that well, and the framerate occasionally dips. Even more annoying is that to save render time, they knocked back the time it takes for weapons to disappear once dropped. This is a terrible idea. What it means is that that Sniper you just picked up that could turn the tide of the match for your team, but you were then unfortunately picked off before putting it to good use, will disappear probably before you can get back to it. Why? Because no one was looking at it, the game engine decided it was unimportant and deleted it. That Sniper is now gone for a good 2 or 3 minutes before it reappears on the map, all because the maps are too engine demanding, and gameplay takes a hit because of it. It sounds weird coming from am Environment Artist, but gameplay should always come before visual design.

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