Saturday, 24 December 2011

No Feedback better than bad feedback!

In response to the release of Daylight I've had lots of comments... mostly positive however there was one player who didn't like the mod. The natural reaction is to reject such negative feedback and focus on the positive. I sulked for a little while after receiving a Think Twice rating from this guy but now it's time to really look at his comments and consider what is driving his point of view.

Here's the post in full:

After all that praise I was shocked when faced actual game.

You can tell me whatever you want but this is my opinion.

This is a collection of bad gameplay choices! You can clearly say – environment was build around puzzles, not puzzles were made to fit into environment. Result: we are in abstract levels (never had a feeling of real place while playing) doing far-fetched puzzles. If I was their beta-tester I would say them to change A LOT of details. Because for very first playthrough they just too… unobvious at all to say the least.
I don’t know where to start… I was stuck at SECOND puzzle like for 10 minutes. So we have: ladder and gas canister on the rope. The rope is too short. So what we gonna do?.. I even tried throwing garbage cans to cut the rope until ACCIDENTALLY at some dark place… God, I wanted to kick something!
This gap at strider part MUST be removed. The strider alone is enough! Besides it looks absolutely illogical and out of place.
After climbing up at train part I faced the fence. Why is it where? Is that really that necessary? By that moment I already knew the rules (environment build around puzzles) so it took only a couple seconds but anyway.
The ‘getting shotgun’ part. Whaaat? No, it can’t be… All HL experience is asking me not to do it. It tells me I’m gonna die at the bottom of this pit. But I already know the rules (environment build around puzzles), so let’s try this anyway. Oh, look, it worked! Never gonna try it in any other mod though.
Big zombie fight. I see something’s coming here. Hm-m wide areas, wide ladders. Hunters? Oh no, not the fast zombies again!!!
Big fans. Oh, barnacles is not bothered at all. Duh!

I can continue my ranting but this is pointless. As far as R&D feels real this mod feels like a training for mapper. If you’re mapper you don’t have any problems playing through your maps because you know all the tricks. But please, try to watch them from the player side!


OK. So lets break it down and really focus on the messages here.

This is a collection of bad gameplay choices! You can clearly say – environment was build around puzzles, not puzzles were made to fit into environment. Result: we are in abstract levels (never had a feeling of real place while playing) doing far-fetched puzzles. If I was their beta-tester I would say them to change A LOT of details. Because for very first playthrough they just too… unobvious at all to say the least.

So I take several points from this.

1: I didn't do enough of a good job disguising the fact that the puzzles were part of a "Real" world.
2: I didn't do enough work to sell the environment to them
3: The puzzles were too abstract and unobvious for them

And I honestly believe that every environment build in a professional game is built that way to service the game play, then disguised to look like a reality. I simply have not done as much work as I could have, disguising the game environment (i.e detailing).

I don’t know where to start… I was stuck at SECOND puzzle like for 10 minutes. So we have: ladder and gas canister on the rope. The rope is too short. So what we gonna do?.. I even tried throwing garbage cans to cut the rope until ACCIDENTALLY at some dark place… God, I wanted to kick something!

I had a feeling that, given that this puzzle was a training exercise, the sawblades should have been front and center. So lesson learned for me. Make sure, when doing player training, everything is laid out nicely for them. Once the new gameplay idea has been established you can be a little more sneaky.

This gap at strider part MUST be removed. The strider alone is enough! Besides it looks absolutely illogical and out of place.

With a little more detailing the gap would have looked perfectly reasonable but I do agree that as it stands is looks very basic and doesn't sell itself very well. As to the gameplay element that the gap creates, I think that's really down to personal playing style (I get the feeling he struggled with this section).

After climbing up at train part I faced the fence. Why is it where? Is that really that necessary? By that moment I already knew the rules (environment build around puzzles) so it took only a couple seconds but anyway.

The fence is there to separate peoples houses balconies from the train line facilities. I thought that would be a little more realistic than having peoples houses accessing an industrial area... so much for real...

The ‘getting shotgun’ part. Whaaat? No, it can’t be… All HL experience is asking me not to do it. It tells me I’m gonna die at the bottom of this pit. But I already know the rules (environment build around puzzles), so let’s try this anyway. Oh, look, it worked! Never gonna try it in any other mod though.

Here, once again, he's correct. I changed the rules of the HL world. For the cable cutting gameplay thing, I trained the player early, for this element though I did not. I simply gave the player no where else to go. Most players, once they had made the jump, really enjoyed the sense of achievement and the action hero feel it gave them. Hey ho.. once again, each to their own style of play.

Big zombie fight. I see something’s coming here. Hm-m wide areas, wide ladders. Hunters? Oh no, not the fast zombies again!!!

There are only two areas with Fast Zombies and their both in the same area so I think it's justified. The playing areas are very different also. Clearly he doesn't like fast zombies...

Big fans. Oh, barnacles is not bothered at all. Duh!

Its true, the barnacles in the game are not affected by the trigger_push entity. I wanted them to all be blowing about in the wind but short of re-coding the game, there wasn't much I could do. Still the demand here is for reality and I failed to deliver...

I can continue my ranting but this is pointless. As far as R&D feels real this mod feels like a training for mapper. If you’re mapper you don’t have any problems playing through your maps because you know all the tricks. But please, try to watch them from the player side!

It's interesting that he sites Research And Development. If you haven't played it, go check it out right now. It's the best mod for HL2 ever made in my opinion. The structure is similar to Daylight, in that you face puzzle after puzzle. R&D however is detailed and polished to within an inch of it's life and as a result, sells the world far better than my mod ever could.
The quality of R&D is certainly something I aspire to but it's very interesting that when players like the commentator above say "REAL" what they mean is, DETAIL.

The HL2 world is no more REAL than the Star Wars universe. Sure it shares common elements with our reality but on a whole it's a million light years away from the real world.

All in all he has picked up on some important failings on my part and lost of things to learn here.

Think he could have been a little nicer about it though...


Monday, 19 December 2011

Me got interviewed!

Phillip, of Planet Phillip very kindly asked to interview me about Daylight and this blog!

We had a great chat and talk through the mapping process and how the mod came about.

Hope you like this...

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Daylight - Finally released on

Hi Everyone

I've now convinced Philip over at to allow me to release my mod "Daylight".

I say allow me to because the man craves perfection and I have to thank him for pushing me to tidy up quite a few areas of the map before release.

There comes a time in every project when you feel you're done with it. You want to move on and try something new. In this case however I felt that I needed a big finale. A fifth map but due to mappers block I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I have no idea why that is.

In the new year I'll begin a new project but next time I won't start building until I know the exact layout and how it will all be integrated. Thus saving myself countless hours of staring at the hammer editor at a half finished map hoping for some inspiration.

Stupid Aazell...

Am looking forward to a new challenge though. Hope you enjoy the full mod. Here's the link:

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Detailing... Detailing and ....Detailing....

I have to admit I have a love/hate relationship with the detailing phase of my maps.

When I have a clear idea of the area I am creating its fine, its fun too.

When I don't have a clear idea on the area it can be frustrating and so so dull.

Bearing in mind I'm building all my areas with gameplay in mind primarily, I often dont have a clear idea of the type of real world space it may become. Sometimes the two come together seamlessly but more often than not I find I have to work quite hard to get my areas to look believable.

Basically, I think the goal when detailing is to add just enough detail that the player accepts the reality I'm presented to them. Sure I could go way overboard and add every concieveable detail however I'm sure that players would prefer me to create more playable areas of a map than adding a working telephone to an office.

There is no hard and fast rule about how much detail is enough but I want you to try an exercise for me.

Pick a section of the HL2 game or its episodes that you remember really well. Load it up using the console.
(for example "map ep2_outland01a"). Now punch in the "sv_cheats 1" "noclip" and "notarget" commands.

Now you can fly about the level at will and get a really good look at how Valve put the map together.

Look at the detail and lighting especially.

Normally, I find during this process that the elements of the map that I thought were particularly complex are actually fairly basic. By adding some of these basic detailing touches to your map you can give the appearance of detail without spending a huge amount of time on it.

A good example is a small balchony on the side of a building.
When I looked closely at these in HL2:EP1 I realised that actually theyre simply made out of two brushes. One to form the floor covered in a concrete texture, and a second brush that forms the railings. This is just a square brush with a railing texture applied to three sides of it.
Simple to make, but adds a great level of detail to the side of a building.

Lighting can do a great job of masking an under-detailed map. Long shadows especially give off the illusion of a detailed environment when actually detail has been kept to a minimum.

Detailing Prefabs

Some nights I'm not up to mapping or detailing. My brain just can't take it. Its weary... so I tend to spend these evenings creating stand alone detail prefabs.

Little things like flaming torches, working cupboards with items inside, fire escapes, window boxes, non-working doors with locked sound effects. These are things I can drop into any map to flesh out the world.

By building up a huge library of these items, detailing your maps can become far less painful. Feel free to share them online too. These kind of details can bring everyone maps up in quality.

Testing the detail

Players will always tell you a map needs more detail so be careful of this. Don't clutter you're map too much. Also, you must be sure that whatever detail you add, make sure it doesn't affect the gameplay.
The player getting snagged on a light model during a difficult jump puzzle can really spoil a map.

My rule for detail models is: if in doubt, make it non-solid.

The player will accept passing through small models. You might want to consider converting any small detail brushes you have to func_brush and making them non-solid too.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Feedback.... It's like crack...

This post is in response to a question posed by Phillip of the wonderful

The question posed was, why do mappers and modders post alpha versions of their work online?

I totally understand his point. Posting mapping work too early can have seriously detrimental effects on your final release.

1: there's no surprises for players when your map is finally released.

2: any great ideas you have will be undermined by the fact that it looks crap in alpha phase

3: it gives the opportunity for someone else to take youre idea, make it better and release it before you.

So given the clearly detrimental effects of releasing alpha versions it begs the question why would we mappers screw ourselves over in this way?

Well ya see its all about the ego...

Mapping is time consuming, its not necessarily hard, it just takes a while to make things look great. The functional side of mapping, getting the gameplay right for example actually takes little time to create in the editor. As I've said earlier in this blog, I can put together a working dev map to test an idea in less than 10 minutes.

So, I've come up with a great idea and got it working in a basic dev map but I can't share it with anyone!

I want someone else to play it and tell me I'm brilliant. I want a pat on the head and a cookie for coming up with such a brilliant game device....

It's addictive when you get good feedback.

In order to share my fantastic ideas with the community, I would have to spend a month or more building a good looking level around my core gameplay idea.

But I want my pat on the head NOWWW!

It's the detailing that kills you as a mapper.

The community want Valve quality maps. Unfortunately, many of us mappers have partners, jobs, pets, family and other obligations which can limit the time we have to spend on our maps.

As a result the community often receive unfinished maps, maps that play well but look crap or vice versa.

I understand the frustration of reviewers like Phillip because I share it too...

All that potential, all those great ideas spread across 1000 unfinished maps. If you could just bring them all together...

...more on this idea soon...


As Brian has helpfully pointed out, I failed to mention that testing of your ideas is important as a mapper, even at the early stage.

The answer to this problem is, of course, to find a few close online friends who are happy to playtest for you and provide honest, detailed feedback.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Tutorial HL2: Getting Your NPC's Moving

Here's the first draft of a tutorial I'm writing. It needs lots of images adding but hopefully should be helpful for some of you in it's present form.

One of my biggest frustrations when I first started mapping was trying to get my NPCs moving around in a convincing manner. I wanted my NPCs to move into an area and attack the player, or open doors and run away but they just don't do that by default.

So how do we get NPCs to start moving around rather than just attacking the player when they move into their point of view.


Before Left 4 Dead, valve games relied on the mapper placing nodes on the ground to produce a series of points that the NPCs could follow.

Left 4 Dead and games after that from Valve use the nav mesh method of NPC navigation. So if your mapping for HL2 then you need to add info_nodes to your map. Add nodes to any areas you want NPCs to move through. For ground based NPCs (combine S etc...) use info_node, for flying NPCs use info_node_air and for hybrids who fly and walk (e.g. antlions) you ll need to add both. When you run the map in game for the first time in game the engine connects all the nodes together to create a nav mesh.

NPCs use all these connections to find paths to goals in the game. A goal might be the player or any other entity you choose as a mapper.
All nodes must be less than xxx units apart or a connection wont be made. That goes for info_node_air too!

Scripted_sequence vs AIscripted_schedule

I see many people suggest on forums suggesting that others use scripted_sequence to move their NPCs around but unfortunately its usually the wrong option under the circumstances.

Its a fairly straightforward rule to follow when choosing which of these two direction entities to use.
Basically, if the NPC can be interrupted or attacked, you should use aiecripted_schedule, if they cannot be interrupted or attacked then you can use scripted_sequence.
Scripted_sequence is intended more for getting the NPCs to play animations (best for cutscenes) where as aiscripted_schedule is to issue instruction during gameplay...

The reason for this is that while an NPC is following directions from a scripted_sequence they will be locked into an animation until its complete. So they wont react to being attacked and can often stand there looking dumb while the AI takes a a few seconds to kick back in.

With aiscripted_schedule you can get them to move around the battlefield with their AI fully intact and they can react to any event.

All clear? I hope so.


AIscriptedschedule is a godsend for making firefights more interactive. It basically encourages or forces NPCs to perform a specific action without switching off the NPC AI.

You can make the NPC run or walk to a specific place in the map or move to a specific target. You can direct them to move to and attack a specfic target, including the player.

To set it up, you just need to place an AIscripted_schedule entity in your map, give it a name, name the NPC who will follow its instructions. Set the instruction (move to goal entity for example) and then set the goal entity.

The goal entity can be any named entity in your map. If the goal entity is the player then just type in !player. If you just want the NPC to move to a specific location then use a named info_target to mark the location and use that as the goal entity.

You can trigger the schedule with any output but normally you'll be using a trigger brush. If you are using a trigger you can make your schedules a little more dynamic by using the !activator value as the goal entity.

By typing in !activator the schedule will set the target to whatever triggered the trigger.

I add an antlion to my map and set it to start burrowed. I name it antlion1. I set its sleep state to ignorePVS, Wait For Input. I set a trigger_once around it and add an AIacriptedschedule and name it AntSchedule1.

I set AntSchedule1 to direct antlion1 to Set Goal Entity As Enemy. I then set the goal entity to !activator.

I set my trigger_once to wake the antlion onTrigger and then 0.1 seconds later (its good to leave a gap) I set an onTrigger to StartSchedule on AntSchedule1.

I then place a group of friendly rebel NPCs in my map who will form a squad to help the player.

When I run the map, as the player and the team move across the map, whichever entity (the player or a member of the squad) hits the trigger first will wake the antlion and be attacked, like a trapdoor spider.


The interruptibility option on an AIscriptedSchedule is really important.

If you leave it set to General this then leaves it to the NPC AI to decide if there is anything more important it should be doing (i.e. defending itself) rather than follow the instruction. In my experience, general should only be used to direct friendly NPCs when there are no enemy units in that area.

On Damage is a clever option and very useful for certain gameplay types. Basically an NPC will carry out instructions unless it is damaged while in the process of carrying out that instruction.
What this means is that you can set up nice areas where enemies attempt to reach a certain goal and the player has to stop them by shooting at them... or say you want NPCs to run past the player but not attack them, it would be farely unrealistic if the NPC didn't respond at all to being shot, so the On Damaged option will make them attack the player if shot. Handy!

On Death is the daddy. An NPC will follow direction given by the schedule no matter what happens. This is the one to use if you want to move an NPC into the area of play. From outside of the players viewpoint.
With On Death you can have NPCs moving all over the place and because the AI is still switched on, they will continue to fire on the player whilst moving. So you can make Combine soldiers retreat to a certain point, or make Antlions fly up to a high ledge etc...

The info_nodes

In order for your NPCs to follow instructions from an AIscripted_schedule they need to be able to find a route to their goal through the info_nodes you have placed in your map. If your NPCs are not following direction from your schedule, an incomplete node path is probably the reason why.
You can check your node connections by activating sv_cheats 1 in the command console and then typing in ai_show_connect


Annoyingly, things like doors can break a node path. The reason for this is because the node graph is built at the point the map is launched in the editor. Its then saved as a data file in the graphs directory of your maps folder.
If all the doors in your map are closed at the time when the map is first loaded then the node graph will not connect nodes on either side of a closed door because the door would stop the NPC from moving between them.
For this reason, its often handy to set all of your doors to the open position when your map spawns then close them using a delayed logic_auto after 1 second. As long as the door is not in the players view when they spawn in the map you should get away with it.

If you want doors to open and close when NPCs approach them then you can add a trigger multiple that is only triggered by NPCs. Expand the trigger so that it reaches out on both sides of the door. Now just add an OnTouching output to the trigger to open the door. You may need to play with the size of your trigger in order to get it working properly.
Note that this will only work of your doors were open when the nodegraph was built.

The NPC Clip Texture

NPCs are sometimes a little dumb and need some extra help to keep them out of areas of your map you don't want them in.
Obviously you wont need info_nodes in areas where you don't want NPCs to go but sometimes they decide.. to hell with it and follow the player there anyway. This is where brushes covered entirely in the NPCclip texture come in very handy. NPC clip brushes act like invisible walls that are non-existent to the player keeping NPCs away from dodgy areas.
The uses for NPC clip brushes can really be quite varied. You can make NPCs seemingly walk on air if you like... or use them to funnel NPCs in the right direction.

Player clip brushes

Equally, sometimes you may want an NPC to ignore the fact that theres a fence model between them and the player and go for the player anyway.
In a recent map of mine I had a situation where a fast zombie runs and jumps at the player across a fan shaft. The player is behind a fence so they cant accidentally fall in. As the zombie jumps at the player, a trigger push whips them away into the fan blades to their doom.
I achieved this by setting the fence to be not solid and then covering it in a thin brush of player clip. As far as the zombie is concerned theres nothing in the way and the node graph is connected so he goes for the kill yet the player finds the fence to be normal.

Getting NPCs to jump.

Go read this tutorial...

Now I will explain whats missing. Some NPCs can jump a really long way... like fast zombies. To encourage them to make those jumps you can add a few info_node_air entities to their jump path to encourage them to make that leap.

Climbing NPCs

Oooh this is where things get a little tricky... well fiddly...
Some NPCs do have climbing animations and can climb up special ladders with their AI in tact all the way.
NPCs that can climb are the following:
NPC_Fast Zombie

In order to set up these special ladders go read this tutorial... then come back here and I'll tell you a little more...

Go on...

Off you go...

Back? Good.

There are a few things missing from that tutorial that you need to understand when it comes to NPC climbing. Heres da rules.

1. If your NPC ladder is higher than 128 units high you'll need to add info_node_airs at regular intervals up the ladder. Like this...

Add image!

... so that the node graph is still connected all the way up and a path can be found.

2: Your info_node_climb nodes must be lined up exactly in a straight line. Like this...

Add image!

NPCs can only climb straight upwards.

3. The NPC must exit the ladder in the direction they started it in. Like this...

Add Image!

4. NPCs can die and fall off ladders if shot but cannot fight while climbing. They just dont have the animations for that... sorry.

5: NPCs can climb downwards but it aint pretty. Fast zombies for example simply play the upward climbing animation when climbing downwards... always keep them climbing upwards.

Friday, 19 August 2011

HL 2 Weapon Fatigue

Weapon Fatigue

One thing I learned from a recent map testing session was that players actually got annoyed by the sound of their own gun if fired too often. The repetitive sound of the shotgun every few seconds as they capped another zombie grated on them.

What I discovered was that players would switch weapon, not because it was a more effective weapon against an enemy, they switched weapons also to add variety to gameplay and sounds.

I've learned that if you give the player at least two weapons at any one time their feeling about a map changes dramatically. The map seems more interactive, more dynamic because the player can engage the enemy in a number of ways.

This is worth noting if you're intending to use lots of the same NPC in one area. Due to the fact that there tends to be an optimum weapon for each NPC, if you use lots of one NPC type in one area, the player will be tempted to use that same weapon over and over. As a result, that particular gunfire sound is going to start to really grate after a while.

So how can you prevent this weapon fatigue?
By making the player engage the enemies in different ways.

The shotgun is fairly ineffective at a distance. The SMG ia also pretty useless at a distance.

The magnum is crap against fast moving NPCs like fast headcrabs.

The zoom on the crossbow is risky to use if you could be attacked by a melee class NPC.

The rocket launcher is slow to reload and dangerous at close range.

The AR2 is probably the best all round weapon so keep the ammo scarce.

The grav gun is wayyy powerful so limit the prop physics in some areas.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

My current dev map and a great example of good mapping feedback

OK.. it's my blog so if I can't post my own maps in development here... where can I huh?

Here's the map... it's still a work in progress hence the feedback. This is the 3rd map in a 5 map series.
It's for HL2 EP2.

Here's the feedback I received from an very kind individual who took the time to play my map and then feedback...

This is the kind of feedback you should be looking for if you can get it. To each point below I'm going to add some comments of my own.

I won't mention the testers name but I would like to say thank you very much.

Any other comments from readers are welcome.


The first gate I come to after the lift, on the left, only opens a fraction. I kept thinking it was how I was opening it. Eventually I realised that I wasn't allowed down there. I suggest blocking the door with something that obviously can't be moved with the Grav Gun. Perhaps a generator or something.

This is an issue with the player's visual dictionary. The player has just opened a door with a breakable padlock on it. The player then comes across a second door with the same set up. The assumption by the player (quite rightly) is that this door can also be opened too. The player has performed the act of breaking the padlock but the fact the door doesn't open means the player doesn't get rewarded for that action. Bad Aazell!

I found the first area too dark and I am not a big fan of dark areas. Perhaps have some of the torches all around.

As per my previous post on darkness. Getting the balance right between light areas and dark is very tricky. I have way too much dark in this first area. So more light must be applied for the player not to get frustrated.

The first zombie I encounter was too close to the corner and I could see him waiting for me. If you moved him further back and had him moving towards me as I turned the corner it would feel better.
Actually, same for the second zombie.

A quick fix but clearly this will make all the difference to the players reaction to that moment. As I have said previously the difference between something feeling right to the player and feeling wrong can be a simple small movement of an NPC.

I found both sets of steps a little steep. Didn't seem right.

I'm pissed at myself about this. The first area with the arches was a pain in the ass to seal and optimise. Now I need to rethink some of it. Thinking of removing the stairs completely...

There is a round opening that allows barrels to fall through but not the player. I tried to jump down there and was frustrated not to be able to. The "cover" of spiders web is not a strong enough indication I can't go there.

The web referred to above was a response to a challenging issue. I had manholes where NPC_Fastzombies would spawn from. How do I communicate to the player that they can't go down there yet leave it open for the zombs to pass through. My solution was to place Player clip over it and a non-solid brush covered in the Antlion web texture. I think it works in the later area but without a light on the web in the first instance it's very hard to see and therefore doesn't work. Will add a light.

I got the feeling that the handle that open the gate carried on forever. I didn't see it stop. Does it?

A simple fix but it's interesting that the player picked up on it. The turning degrees of the turning handle is currently set to 3000. Lol. I honestly didn't think the player would care if it stopped or not as long as they could get under the door. But clearly the expectation is that they are to turn the handle until it stops and that indicates that the door is fully open. So I've learned that even though the main reason for turning the handle is to open the door, it's not the door that the player focuses on. Interesting stuff innit!

The area with the three fans is excellent but it feels too much like a place in a game than a real place. For example, why would all those crates be there? Think about it. That would mean they would have to have been manually carried there and that doesn't seem "real" to me. Of course, this area needs something, but I would suggest just rubbish would be enough and maybe some tools etc.

Very true.. A further detailing pass on this area with a few fake doors added should clear this up and hopefully make it feel a little real world.

All three fans stopped permanently after I turned them off a few times. Is that supposed to happen.

This is exactly the sort of testing feedback I need. It's a very good example of why the mapper is not the best person to test their maps. I'd become so familiar with playing through the map I simply rushed through each fan area on the first time I hit the reset button. It didn't occur to me that players might hesitate and hit that switch more than three times. LOL

I would delay the fast zombie for a fraction longer, as when I entered the area I looked around and didn't seem him get sucked into the fan. of course, it's pretty obvious, but if he is there to demonstrate, as I assume he is, it would be better to have it very obvious.

A moment I'm really proud of was missed by the player simply by triggering it slightly too early, I think we're literally talking about a 2 or 3 second delay but it makes all the difference.

The next large area looked fantastic but this is where I really wished I had recorded the demo because it was boring to play. The first thing I did was jump down onto one of the supports and collected the ammo etc. I then jumped across to the main area. A quick look around told me that a poisonous zombie was behind the door.

I don't know what made me do it, but I decided to jump to the next support. At that moment, the lights seem to come on and the fast zombies appeared. I simply stood next to one of those pipes and as they came out shoot them. Of course, they also cam out from other pipes but jump across and when they land it's easy to pop them.

Another classic example of the fact that the player will not always play an area as you saw them playing it. My intention with the fast zombie Arena was have the player constantly moving around being chased by zombs. It's much more fun that way.
By putting the ammo next to the zombie holes I gave him a perfect combination of ammo and spawn point so he just stood there and capped the zombies that appeared. Must have been really dull. For those of you that play the map, try and stay over on the main area and you'll get the idea of what I was going for.
I now have to rethink this area a little to stop the player moving onto the spawning platforms.

I feel that that support area should be just for the fast zombies and I should be forced to move around in the main area.

The double fan was fun, but when you smash the crates the piece fall to the ground. I suspect there's nothing you can do about that.

A minor tickbox change to my trigger_push brush, but when the debris from the broken crates falls to the ground when everything else is being blown up to the roof it can break the mood and the illusion.

The vertical elevator shaft is fine, but those three fast zombies are wasted. They should appear the moment I enter the corridor, so I have to run to break the wood or stand and fight.

When I got to the elevator shaft I assumed the blades were to kill the zombies or break the wood blocking the entrance. I tried three time to jump into the elevator, thinking this was the way forward. It too a few moments to realise that I needed to cut the cables.

Yes my big finale to this area. It clearly needs a little more work to stop the player from wanting to access the elevator and to stop the player from heading back down the ladder and killing the zombies. I think I will have the zombies climb up towards the player. Should add some pressure.


Hope this gives you a good idea of the sort of feedback you should be looking for and I think it gives some great examples of the traps you can fall into when putting a map together.

Hope you enjoy the map in it's current form. I'll be posting a new version soon.
Let me know any further feedback you have, and please keep it constructive... (be gentle).

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Example of map area development... choices choices.. hmm...

Developing an event list

I thought it might be useful to take a look at the thought process that leads to a small section of my map.

The setting is simple... a lift shaft..

So how much fun can we have with a lift shaft. Heres several scenarios I've built in test mapping.

1. Player jumps to ladder on far side of shaft. As they climb, combine blow the lift cables and lift falls down shaft past the player. As player nears top of shaft, manhacks are released and combine with SMGs fire down onto player from top of shaft.

Pros: Movie moment with lift hurtling past the player. Combat while on ladder is different and plays quite well. Feels kinda Die Hard!

Cons: Lift never actually is near player so no interaction. Manhacks are rather predictable in these circumstances. Difficult to gate in order to ensure player doesnt just speed up ladder and escape.

2: Player ascends ladder with lift at top of shaft. As player climbs, fast zombie jumps on ladder below them and climbs up towards them. Player jumps off ladder onto lift roof and across to other side. Lift is blocking exit. Player is presented with circular saw blades which, using grav gun can cut lift cables and send lift falling down shaft to kill persuing zombie.

Pros: Love the idea of player seeing zombie jump onto ladder and start coming for them. Love the idea of finishing off zombie area with a final fairwell of crushing them with a lift.

Cons: zombies cant attack player while climbing, its a set animation. So player would have to reach the top of shaft before zombies start climbing. Will player even notice zombies are at bottom of shaft? Will have to be a pretty short shaft...

3: Player climbs ladder of abandoned shaft and reaches beams blocking shaft with prop_physics metal panels on top. Player has to use grav gun to clear the ladder and send prop physics junk falling to bottom of shaft. Once clear player moves to top of shaft and jumps onto lift roof. Lift creaks and one cable snaps and lift descends a little to a point that player can jump off onto second ladder. As player jumps off lift, final cable snaps and lift crashes to bottom of shaft.

Pros: Like the upward grav gun play. Nice movie moment at the top. Also good to have puzzle and movie moment section as this follows a big long combat sequence.

Cons: No combat.

I haven't decided which to go with yet but as you can see, by creating three different test maps for each scenario I can establish which is the most fun and try and judge which players will enjoy the most.

I'm very tempted by number 2 to be honest. Its a nice bit of closure to the zombie section of my map series...

Let me know your thoughts...

Friday, 29 July 2011

In Game Story-Telling

As I mentioned in my previous post on the evils of the cutscene, there are always methods to relay story or information to the player without removing them from they're own perspective. Lets explore some of these options.

Monitors and Cameras

One of the most effective methods of doing a cutscene in game is to use a monitor system. Most games are capable of outputting camera feeds to some form of surface within the game itself. This method is fantastic because you can show your cutscene without breaking the players immersion.
Simply gate the player and un-gate when the cutscene has ended on the monitor.

NPC scripted scenes

These are scenes played out around the player within the map. If the player could possibly interrupt the scene then keep them away from the npc actors behind a fence or forcefield etc...
Friendly npc scenes can normally progress with the player in direct contact as the player can normally not inflict damage on friendly npcs.

Enemy NPC scenes are usually best played out when the player is apparently unnoticed by the enemy. Keep the player in a dark spot and light up the area where the scene is played out.

Most of the time the player is happy to let the scene play without attempting to interrupt however you should ensure that the player can't interrupt the action anyway because some players just can't help themselves.

Enemy npc scenes, if not critical for gameplay, can be made interruptable if you so choose. Go play "No One Lives Forever" for interruptable enemy scenes at their best. Good god that game is funny...

Environment Stories

As in Left 4 Dead or Portal, you can apply a story via the game environment. If you haven't realised before, the graffiti on the walls in the L4D saferooms tell multiple stories about survivors who had passed through before you got there.

Tannoy Systems or Walkie Talkies

Having voice messages played out to the player while the game progesses can be very effective.

A tannoy system is great for keeping the player up to date and can also really ratchet up the tension in a map if the player is given a message that the enemy is on their way.
This is probably the most acceptable method of delivering information while the action is ongoing. Just make sure you're in a quiet period if you are going to tell the player anything important.

I like the idea of adding a narrator to a story. So the narrators voice plays at key points in the story recounting what the player has done or is about to do. You could have a lot of fun with this by having the narrator misinterpret the players action for extra comedy.
If you've ever seen Monty Python's Holy Grail think brave Sir Robin and his minstrels and you'll get the idea.

Even better have the narrator tell the story from the enemies perspective, painting the player as the bad guy. I may try this one day but feel free if you want to have a crack at it.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Why Cutscenes Are Evil!!

Why cutscenes are evil!

Unlike our console based cousins PC gamers are very lucky in the fact that the culture of the cutscene has been kept to a minimum on our platform. Most PC games will provide you with a cutscene at the beginning of a level and a cutscene at the end. These bookend scenes usually help to provide an introduction to the area or move the story along and then provide a conclusion and show how the player has affected the story.

So what do I mean by cutscene. I'm referring to any moment within a map where the player view is removed from their own perspective and forcibly pointed at other areas of the map in order to draw the players attention to something important or to tell further story.

Anyone who's played an action orientated console game in the last 10 years will know that games built for consoles have an obsession with the cutscene.

So why are cutscenes so evil.

1. It takes control away from the player and removes them from the moment they were in at that time. You spend ages trying to get the player fully engrossed in your map then rip them out of their own view of the environment and that feeling is instantly lost.

2. Its very lazy from a design perspective. Rather than build an intuitive environment where the player can understand what they need to do through exploration, you jam it in their faces by pointing the camera at it.

3. It patronises the player and caters to the lowest common denominator (i.e. dumb people).
In effect by pulling camera control away from the player and pointing it at something important, the developers are saying "we think you might be dumb and not understand what you are supposed to do, so were going to show you... just in case you're dumb!".

It may be that publishers have more say in the development process in the console world. So when the publishers get they're first look at the game they make recommendations of what to change in order to make the game more generally playable for everyone(read.. more accessible for dumb people!).

4: Often the best action scenes are reserved for cutscenes.
Did you ever get shown something in a cutscene that was very exciting after playing through a drab repetitive level and think... hey.. why couldn't I do that in the freakin game!

If what happens in your cutscenes is more interesting or funny or exciting than what happens in your map. Then there's something very very wrong!

5: Cutscenes are used as a supposed reward system.
What's more enjoyable, playing the game or watching a cutscene? It SHOULD be playing the game if the title is any good. So, surely your reward for completing a section of the game should be... well... more game! Unlocking bonus levels perhaps?
I've never understood why watching a cutscene is something the player is supposed to look forward to. To the point where in some games you can go back and re-watch the cutscenes you've unlocked so far.

I think my biggest gripe with the whole cutscene culture would be that's its cheap. Like reality TV, publishers like cutscenes because it takes far less effort and money to produce one than it does to create truly great gameplay and levels.

There's a reason it took Valve 8 years to release HL2 and why console game tie-ins with movies can be punched out in six months. It takes time to make maps that are intuative. It takes time to run through map iterations until playtesters know instictively what to do. Time is money!

An Alternative Approach

My next post will focus on in game story telling methods. Most modern games offer a variety of alternative tools to help the mapper tell the story within the game.

Here's a challenge for you. Before you build your cutscene for your map, try and think of any other way that you can convey the information to the player without taking them out of their perspective. Try and make cutscenes the very last resort for storytelling.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Is my story ruining my gameplay?

The Story: Is it ruining my gameplay?

While I was a member of a mod team a while back, for some reason I got lumped with the job of writing the script. I inherited an already done outline and several scenes of dialogue already written.
What had been done up to that point was truly awful. What I tried to do didn't turn out much better unfortunately. It might have made a good TV show but it had no place in a game.
See the problem was, the guys on the team had already selected the environments, the order that they would appear in and the general motivations of the player.
Everything they had done was pretty good but trying to write a story to string it all together was an impossible task. I recall days where the team actually considered altering whole sections of the game in order to try and make the story make sense.. Utter madness...

I learned a valuable lesson from that experience. Make the story as minimal as possible! I mean, one line of text should do it. For example...

Escape from jail
Outrun the bad guys
Get to this place by this time

That's all you need in a custom map. Anything more is overkill and unnecessary.

I don't think I've played a custom map or mod that had a compelling story. I can't say I've played that many games that had an amazing story either. There are rare exceptions of course (Jedi Outcast, Thief 2, X-Wing Alliance) but most game stories are very awkward affairs that never really grab the players attention.

I wish this wasn't true, because when a great game story is created, it can be magical, but alas most fail. Custom map stories are usually incredibly awful...


Stick to good gameplay.. the player will forgive you I promise.
Just set the player up with a basic goal and keep those goals coming each time the complete the last one.

Goals can be delivered by NPCs if you like. It just doesn't have to mean anything. It doesn't have to fit within a larger context.

The moment you find yourself ditching great gameplay idea to service a story for gods sake stop.

Think about Left 4 Dead or Portal. Two amazing games that ditched story almost altogether (some sly graffiti in both adds a bare minimum).

I may give the player a choice in my next map. "Do you really want a story? Break glass to hear story...".


The mapping method known as looping is the practice of having the player move through the same environment multiple times.

This serves several purposes...

1. You get more gameplay out of a small map space.

2. The player gets to see the area you've created from several different perspectives

3. The player has the nice surprise of discovering that they have returned to a familiar location after a section of gameplay

As a mapper, whenever I create a playing space I'm looking to get the most amount of gameplay out of that space as possible. It can take weeks of work to create a convincing environment so to have the player blast through it in less than a minute is a huge waste of great work.

Consider a map set on a city street.

A single pass at this area may be set at street level. A firefight amongst cars etc..

Now consider how much other playing space has not been used.

The sewers under the street, the floors of the buildings on either side, the rooftops, you could add balconies or scaffolding.

By having the player pass through the area several times, winding back forth through it, an area that once offered a two minute firefight can now incorporate around fifteen minutes of gameplay if done correctly.

Looping isn't just to make the mappers life easy. I think players don't like to have too many environments thrown at them too quickly. If bombarded with too many areas too quickly the player can often feel overwhelmed and disorientated.

Finally there's the loading times issue to consider. Lots of gameplay within one area means the game engine only has to worry about rendering one location for much of the map. It can improve performance within map and also shorten loading times as well which is always welcome from a players perspective.

Loop Creatively

Did you ever play a map where you seem to be heading backwards as much as you were forwards? I've played maps like this and walked way with the feeling that I'd just completed a slightly enjoyable Disneyland ride queue.

Loops are good but the player must feel like their making progress or they're gonna get very frustrated very quickly. Try and make each loop move through a areas that have different looks and feels to them.

Differ the gameplay on each loop to keep the player involved.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Their First Time...

One of my major challenges in mapping is presenting a world the player can understand the first time they encounter it.
It takes refinement and playtesting and can sometimes really stand in the way of a great idea being implemented.

But should it?

Consider this example:
Say I want to implement an Indiana Jones style moment of action where the player is chased by a huge boulder down a tunnel. The player jumps down into the tunnel and the ball starts rolling, only at top speed can the player outrun the ball.

Exciting stuff, but the player has no warning of what is about to happen and almost no chance of getting out of the situation alive unless they're incredibly lucky.

So, is it fair or right for the player to have to learn through death or injury?

Should a map always be completable the very first time the player plays it?

I've played many official games and maps where the learning through death approach is taken and it can be very frustrating.

To counterpoint this though, a map that you can breeze through in 5 minutes may be fun but not really any challenge.

Also... some events work better if the player has no warning or pre-knowledge.

So how can I know which events the player needs to be warned about or not?

Playtesting will only get you so far on this issue as it's often a case of play style preference.

A good example is found in a recent map of mine.

I added a jump to my map where the player must jump diagonally down and through a window across a gaping chasm. Traditionally, glass doesn't break in HL2 if you jump at it horizontally. So the player has to take a leap of faith at this point.

Its all carefully set up so that the player has no where else to go, a shotgun (first weapon after going a map and a half with only the grav gun) and heathpack are on the other side of the window as a lure but still playtesters said they were reluctant to jump.

When they finally plucked up the courage they were thrilled by the fact they'd made the jump, broken through the window, snatched the shotgun and killed the combine guard patrolling on the other side all in one swift movement.

So common sense gameplay training would indicate that I should train the player to understand the new glass breaking rule, however if I did it would detract something special from the experience. The unwillingness of the player to make the jump adds a huge amount to the triumph when they do.

All this can get rather complex... this is where instincts come in as to what I feel the player experience should be...

Sometimes you just know when something is going to work and it's worth pushing that idea through.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

I will let you down, I will make you hurt!

I like to think of player health as currency. They begin with a full account, it is then whittled down by NPCs or map events and they earn it back as a reward for surviving these events.

Players will take great offense to their health cash being taken from them due to circumstances beyond their control.
So if a jump is a little too high in your map and the landing causes damage, I've essentially just mugged the player.

I don't see myself as the mugging type really. I'm more partial to petty theft or casual vandalism...

Free credit!

When I build my maps I try and consider how much cash the players going to need up front for the next section. If it's a puzzle where the penalty for failure is death (falling off a bridge or something) then I'll avoid giving them any. If it's a big action moment then I'll throw in a full health charger before they reach the action zone. Think of this as free credit which they'll have to pay off in chunks of their own ass in the future.

Up front payment can of course be avoided by issuing small health loans within the action zone itself. This ups the pressure on the player as they actively seek out heath stashes and I try to use this approach only towards the end of a map where the difficulty is at its highest.

Health can also be used as a lure into a trap or as an indication of the way forward. The player is always seeking health. It is the only sure route to survival.

I try and be flexible with health. After playtesting, try and remove any surplus health that I feel isn't absolutely necessary.
If the player is constantly at 100 health then there is really no challenge there at all.

The best use of health I've found is using it to make the player move in moments of high action. If you place the health around an area at a significant distance apart then the player is forced to keep on moving in order to stay alive.

It can add a whole new dimension to a battle.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Play Area Types

While putting together maps using a modular method I've discovered that most single player map areas can be classified into a variety of types.


An arena is a locked off gaming area that the player cannot leave until a battle is complete. These areas usually have multiple circular paths running through them and can often be very similar to multiplayer deathmatch maps in terms of layout. In fact, back in the Quake 3 engine days it was not uncommon to see arena sections of SP maps cut out and sealed off in order to be used as an MP map.
Like MP maps, arenas should have free flowing gameplay with little obstruction to players movement. I would also recommend that the MP rule of making sure that there is no spot in the arena where the player can not be flanked, be observed. There should be no safe place in an arena map.
My final observation about arenas is that the player has to pass a point of no return into the arena. A locking door or a small drop into the area is usually the best method I find.

The stunning Bespin Carbon Chamber from Jedi Outcast was used as a dueling arena in multiplayer...

Puzzle areas

The player is gated and has to solve a puzzle to progress. NPCs should not be in direct contact with the player at these times. It's best to allow the player to focus on the puzzle. If you want to up the pressure you could add an npc shooting from a distance but definitely no close contact.

No enemy's just a good ole hunting the batteries puzzle from HL2

Progression Battles

The player has to fight their way forward through a section of the map. Full combat NPCs should retreat as the player presses forward and denies them cover points. At no point should an NPC be behind the player, these sections are always about clearing the map ahead.

Nearly the whole game of Farcry was based on progression battle areas.. it got a bit dull after a while, I thought...

Fiddly Bits

This title refers to map sections where the player has to traverse difficult ground that requires them to concentrate on walking and jumping carefully. Put the player off their stride by throwing some minor NPCs at them when it gets to the most tricky point.

Careful there! The toe curling and amazing bridge span in HL2...

Pressure Points

The player is driven forward by some form of deadly force (rising water, rolling boulder etc...) player must traverse tricky ground ahead of them or simply stay ahead of the deadly force in order to reach safety and survive.

Jedi Academy's Giant Mutant Rancor forces you forwards in one map. Shame about the rest of the game...

Hold Outs

The player has to wait for something to happen and in the mean time fight off a slew of bad guys. Endless spawning NPCs, probably better to be melee orientated as opposed to projectile based, this puts pressure on the player to keep them at a distance.
Projectile based can be used too of course, I've just found it to be less fun.

The No Mercy Rooftop... nuff said!

Rest Stops

An area where the player can take a break from the madness. Usually at the start, middle or end of a map. No bad guys here obviously but a good place to add cool effects or impressive mapping work, friendly NPCs to explain whats coming next or some form of overview of the next map section.
Pay special attention to detailing in these areas. The player has all the time in the world to appreciate it.

Chillax! Nothing to do but listen in and take in the details


Connecting halls, alleyways or other pathways between one gameplay area and the next. Try to reserve only minor bad guys for these sections. Small annoyances rather than big foes. Add in minor hazards to slow the players progress a little. Make them fun little mini-puzzles like a gated doorway that needs to be blasted open or a platform that must be raised with a winch or something. Anything the player can interact with. It will improve the overall playtime of your map without diminishing the fun factor.

A HL2 Connector. Completely unnecessary but it all adds to the fun and makes the level last longer.

That's all I've come up with so far... still very useful I think.

Monday, 11 July 2011


"Feel terror cloud your senses, feel its power to distort and know that this power can be yours!" Ras Al Gul, Batman Begins

Manufacturing fear isn't like it used to be. These days it's all about the cheap thrill. The schlocky gross out scenes or long drawn out torture porn movies. Take me back to the days of good old fashioned scares. A better word is creeps...

I've heard friends say that fear is a very personal thing. That what scares one person won't necessarily scare another. I disagree...

Somethings are universally scary and with the right timing and atmosphere you can put anyone on the edge of their seat.

Lets look at some great examples of game based fear.

Left 4 Dead

For all its Romero homage gore based gaming, Left 4 Dead does have a key element of fear to it. The tension is generated by the ever present threat of a zombie rush at any time. The games randomness of zombie spawning thanks to the built in Director gives the players really no place to hide because a rush could come at any time.
I'm sure that many folks who have played Left 4 Dead over and over have become numb to its scary charms but if you recall your first campaign ya gotta admit you were shitting it!

Verdict Fear Type: Fear Of Randomness

Thief 2: The Metal Age

Creeping about hoping to god you don't get discovered by guards is pretty nervewracking stuff at the best of times. When you replace the guard with a steam driven robot that fires deadly cannonballs but talks in a creepy Droopy style mechanical voice you're pretty much hitting the fear button dead on. Even better is a whispering corpse with a sodding great mallet!
Thief took a basic premise "don't get caught" and simply upped the stakes of what might catch you and what they'll do to you when they do. Nice...

Verdict Fear Type: Fear Of Discovery

System Shock 2

Yes those Looking Glass boys again but this time they flipped the idea of Thief on it's head. Rather than the maps being filled with baddies to avoid System Shock 2 filled the map with well... er nothing...

It's you, alone on a sodding great spaceship. Well you're not alone but the creatures are very few and far between. Looking Glass realised something that no other game seems to have twigged onto. Being alone is bloody scary!
If you've ever been in a very large space alone (say a shopping mall or a school after hours) you'll know what I'm getting at. It's freakin creepy...

Verdict Fear Type: Agoraphobia?

Bad Examples Of Fear Based Gaming

Resident Evil

OK Resident Evil started the whole console survival horror genre but the execution was just plain annoying. It wasn't the environment or NPCs that created fear, it was the shitty camera and control system. In a moment of panic you could walk out of shot, change camera angle and end up running back towards the bad guy.
There is a lesson we can learn here, loss of control generates fear too!

Verdict Fear Type: Loss Of Control!


Having played through the original and the sequel I can honestly say that I didn't find it scary at all. The slow motion action was fun though!
F.E.A.R made a fatal mistake when implementing it's horror elements, it took control away from the player. Many of the flashbacks and clever screen elements that were supposed to mimic a modern horror simply didn't work because the player had no interaction with them. Once the flashback was over the game simply returned you to the same drab warehouse or whatever you were doing before. The actual maps themselves and gameplay did nothing to even make you hesitate when moving forward.

Verdict fear type: None at all!

So what have I learned from all this?

1: That if you want the player to experience fear the scares must happen around them while they are in control of the game.

2: That a constant threat of attack builds a great atmosphere in which fear can flourish

3: That knowing that something is coming for you and there's nothing you can do about it is damn scary.

4: That a creature that stalks you rather than attack is scarier than the attack itself.

5: That an empty open space with a hint of threat is scarier than a room full of creatures

6: That being hunted, for any creature is terrifying

What scares the hell out of you guys?

Friday, 8 July 2011

I am one with the darkness...

... a shadow, of a cat, in the night...

Torches are a pain in the ass.

You spend days of your life getting the lighting just right on your map and all the player has to do is hit the torch button and it's ruined.


Recently I've tried my hand at creating an almost pitch black level in order to creep the player out. The concept was pretty straightforward...

The player moves through a section of the level which is in total darkness. All the while creepy monsters move around them. Across pipes above, along walls adjacent to the player path, under floor grating.

The idea was to make the player feel surrounded by something they only caught glimpses of. I had the monsters (in this case the NPC_fastzombie from HL2) only move when the player performed an action like opening a door or jumping down onto a new ledge.

In practice however, I've found that total darkness is no fun at all. It puts the player under pressure but they quickly lose patience with the inability to see anything and the game play suffers greatly as unless the player is looking directly in the direction of an oncoming creature, they miss their entrance and end up just fumbling around in the dark.

So I added some lights, fairly minimal at first. You know what I found? Having just a few small lights is even more annoying!

Eventually I found the solution. Have alternating dark and light areas for the player to move through. Always give the player a light to go for in the distance. The light areas act as rest stops and relieve the pressure of being in total darkness.

I'm not saying that dark levels can't be fun, Valve proved it could be done well in HL2:Episode 1 but it requires a lot more skill to make it fun, than I thought it would require.

If you're interested in making a dark section for your valve based map I totally recommend you look into the env_flare entity. I pretty much does what it says on the tin. It's a flare, but it's very pretty, gives out minimal red light and can really add atmosphere to a map. Basically it creates a small island of light in a sea of darkness but the player feels totally isolated. Very cool!


Monday, 4 July 2011

The Trouble With "Real"

On many forums I visit I see loads of feedback on gameplay in maps with comments similar to the one below...

"That's not very realistic!"

As a mapper I'm very careful when I receive this kind of feedback because you see... we're not building a representation of the Real here are we?

Players who make these comments about the Real need to stop and think about the games they've been playing.

I've yet to play a game that accurately represents reality. If I did obtain a game that attempted to re-create reality I've no doubt it would be dull as shit. Real is dull. That's why we play games to escape the drudge of the real.

I think when players say that something is not realistic I think they're actually saying "you haven't done a good enough job getting me used to this idea".

With the right level of introduction and explanation, the player will engage with anything.

As an example take the film The Matrix.

At the beginning we see Trinity pull off some Matrix type moves, running on walls etc. We're wowed by the visuals and the action. The film then spends the next hour, pretty much on exposition to answer the question "What is the Matrix?". Every element is carefully set up, including acres of exposition from poor Laurence Fishbourne, and all of it is put in place so that when the action kicks off, the audience are totally bought in to the world and the plausibility of what takes place.

I can bend or break the game reality as much as I like as long as I take the player by the hand and lead them through it.

Reality does have its uses though.
On a micro level there is a place for reality in my maps. A certain type of light, say for example a bedside lamp, should give off a realistic light. Attention to these details when detailing your map, does have an effect on gameplay. It sells the new reality I've created. Because the little things are as they should be the new gameplay elements are more acceptable. They're taking place in an environment the player can instantly connect with.

So in conclusion, we find that there is a balance to be struck between Real and Unreal. Unreal elements will be accepted if introduced carefully and the Real elements help the player accept the Unreal.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Weapon Progression

In many custom HL2 maps I've played the authors add an element of weapon progression from Crobar through to Rocket Launcher. In smaller maps these weapons are delivered to the player thick and fast so by about 4 mins into the map they're fully kitted out with a complete arsenal.

It seems to me though, that unless weapon progression is going to serve the gameplay, you might as well avoid it completely and simply give the player all the weapons at the start of the map.

Here's some thoughts on the various functions weapon progression can serve.

That Good Ole Feeling..

Each weapon has a certain feel to it. This can really help when trying to convey a feeling across to the player.

Taking HL2 weaponry as an example... if you want the feeling of motion and swift firefights then the SMG, grenades and AR2 are probably you're best options.

If you want the player to feel powerful then the Shotgun and Magnum and Grav Gun are probably good choices.

For a more considered and slow approach the Pistol and Crossbow should fit the bill.

And for all out destruction, even at targets on the ground, the Rocket Launcher is the daddy but it's slow to reload don't forget so the player is left a little vunerable.

Weapon Absence

I would argue that not having the right weapon or not having a weapon at all makes for some pretty interesting gameplay.
Players aren't used to running away from the bad guys. It takes a hell of a lot of coersion to make them. The players natural reaction to an enemy is to attack. That's what games have been teaching players to do for years.
At the beginning of HL2 when Gordon was on the run, it takes about 5 NPCs all telling you to run away just to convince the player to do so.
I've been dying to put together a map where the main aim is to outrun the bad guys. To make it through some crazy assault course with the bad guys chasing you all the way.
One day I'll crack it...

Also, by denying the player a gun I force them to think creatively. A situation that could be resolved swiftly with a few shotgun shells becomes a mad scramble to stay alive using other methods provided to the player by the mapper.

No Gun Just Run!!!! Point Insertion From HL2

The Right Tool For The Right Job

Its often the case that the player is given the weapon that is most effective against a particular NPC just before they meet them in the map. I often think this is a bit of a wasted opportunity and comes across as quite contrived.
Surely it's more challenging and more fun to have the player meet that NPC before they find the appropriate weapon? Make them fight hard to reach the weapon that will make their lives easier.

A great example of this is the Surface Tension map for HL1. The player spend lots of time running away from the Apache chopper then finally get rewarded with the weapon they need to take it down. The victory is very sweet indeed when it comes...

Alternatively, I can make that weapon the objective of an area. The player can see the weapon they need but just can't get to it without a fight or puzzle with the tricky NPC hassling them every step of the way.

Too easy or too hard?

A major consideration on weapon progression is how a particular weapon will affect future encounters later in the map. What weapons will the player have in their arsenal at that time. Later NPC encounters in my map need to be much more dynamic as to how the player can assault the enemy. If they have a long range weapon at the time it gives the player more choice as to the style of the assault. My map has to provide cover for sniping positions.

I can also manage weapon usage through the provision of ammo but that's not a certain method to ensure the player wont have access to that weapon at any time. Some players enjoy being frugal with their bullets.

Weapon Stripping

Sometimes, in order to justify a certain type of action, removing all the players weapons is necessary. I would be very careful with this though. I mustn't forget that the player worked really hard to get the weapons in the first place. It seems very mean to take them away and the player could hate me for it.

Also, working in a plausible reason why all they're weapons are being taken can be tough.
The most obvious is a capture scenario. The player is thrown in jail and has to escape and reclaim all their weapons. This is very cliched though and I'm sure we can can come up with something a little more interesting.

Weapon delivery and weapon gates

Creating various ways of delivering weapons to the player can also be a little difficult. I don't want my player to miss a weapon pick up, so I need to find a way to make sure they actually have picked up the weapon they need.
I covered weapon gates in my earlier post so I wont go back into the idea but if at all possible I must make sure that the player picked up the weapon before they proceed. A nice way is to place it in a tight doorway or crawl space where the player cant miss it.
I could also use an NPC gate where the NPC wont open the way forward for the player until the weapon is picked up.

In addition I would say that I try to make the placement of the weapon pick up as logical as possible.

Simply having a loaded shotgun lying on the floor in the middle of a hallway doesn't sit well with me.

I mean some kid could just come along and pick it up!!!

I try to place weapons next to dead soldiers, on tables with NPCs near by, or on a weapon rack in a secure room. I try to make the weapon pick up placement fit and blend with the environment as much as possible while still being obvious to the player.

Hope this was an interesting read.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Allowing Players To Play - Free Prefabs Anyone?

I'm currently mapping for Half Life 2: Episode 2 and in my tinkering I've produced a number of fun prefabs that can be added to maps for the player to muck about with.

See it's more than just a good layout and engaging combat and puzzles.
The Half-Life 2 world gave the player a million things to tinker with through the physics engine and the grav gun.

I think levels are all the better when the player has numerous objects to interact with.

So here we go...

1: The Fire Axe Cabinet

Pretty straight forward. A cabinet with breakable glass and a prop_physics fire axe. Great for that quick zombie kill if required!


2: The Gas Bottle and Fire Lamp

This one gives the player a choice.. do you want light? or an explosive barrel to throw at the enemy. Pull the gas barrel and the flame goes out.


3: Explosive Gas Tank On A Rope

So much fun to be had with an explosive gas tank hanging on a rope. For extra fun the rope is breakable so you can spin it like crazy then cut it and watch it fly.
Might want to warn the player that if they're close when they fling it it might come back round on them... ouch!


4: Explosive Oil Drum Dispenser

Yes it's Aazell's patented oil drum dispenser. When you need those oil drums thick and fast... accept no substitute!
Pull the bottom plank with the grav gun and you're ready for some oil drum flinging fun!

Just be careful where you leave your grenades, this baby goes off like a rocket!


Tuesday, 28 June 2011

What does the player want?

It's not hard... they want financial security and a warm dry place to live, with enough food to eat and the love and support from their families and partners...

In terms of gaming experiences however that's a whole different ball game.

With certain caveats, the following sentance is true.


I honestly believe the above sentence is true..


This applies to new types of gameplay. It is not true about environment design.

If I am mapping for a specific game, the player comes to my map with a specific set of expectations. These expectations were set when they played the official game.

They expect a reasonable level of mapping capability so that the map I create looks reasonably like that which I am purporting it to be.
If I tell the player that my map is set in some docks, my map should look pretty much like a docking area, with boats, jettys etc.. and plenty of the details filled in.

If I just throw a blockmap together with a few water brushes and some boat models it's very hard for the player to suspend their disbelief and get into the zone.

The Visual Dictionary

In games such as Portal and Half Life 2, a visual dictionary has been built by the player as they interacted with the game.

For example... in Half-Life 2 a red metal barrel is explosive.

This is understood by anyone who's played Half-Life 2. Through playing the game they have built up a set of expectations about how the game world works.

If I decide I'm going to make the red metal barrels er... unexplosive (?) then I first need to let the player know that in my map the visual dictionary has been altered.

So how do I do that...?

Player Training

Training the player in a new form of gameplay is a slightly laborious process, but it can also be very fun for the player and you can work it seemlessly into your map.

First I introduce the player to the idea, normally through an NPC telling the player about that idea (you could use screen text if you're feeling lazy) or through a demonstration that the player can watch and learn (think, NPC walks into trap before you get to it).

Then I ask the player to solve a puzzle using the new form of gameplay in a safe environment where they can take their time and learn at their own pace.
I may want them to repeat the action several times just to be sure they understand it.

Then finally I am ready to introduce the player to the idea under pressure, i.e. during a firefight.

I have learned that it is really infuriating for players if you try to introduce an idea in a moment of action. The player doesn't have time to absorb the information or learn anything at such times. They are simply concentrating on the cross hairs under their noses.

Progress is reward

The thing the player wants the most is to progress forward through you're map. The goal don't forget is to complete the experience, so to move forward is to get closer to that goal. The challenge is to throw enough barriers in the way of them moving forward for it to be enjoyable but not too many that it becomes annoying.

I remember playing Final Fantasy 7 on the Playstation and yelling at the screen every time I was trying to travel across the world and got sucked into a fight. There's a lesson to be learned here in my opinion. Barriers to progress should be varied and interesting.

What are the chances of me getting to the cave without a sodding fight?

The constant interruptions to my progress in FF7, in the same format, and the same stupid sound effect (anyone who knows the FF games will know that dreaded sound) just grew too annoying.

I never finished it by the way.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Gating player progress

Player gating is a term that is used to describe the various methods of halting a players progress through a map.
Without them players could charge through every encounter like an 8 year old in a particularly boring museum.

Player gating can be a seriously frustrating business. How do I make sure the player kills all the bad guys before the move on?

Its a simple enough problem however trying to make the reasons for player gating plausible to the game world can be a real problem. Heres some of the various methods Ive seen used.

The Puzzle Gate

The simplest form of gate. Solve the puzzle to access the exit.
Think about the breezeblock seesaw puzzle near the beginning of HL2.

The Weapon Gate

The player must obtain a new weapon in order to break through a barrier.
This is a great way to ensure the player doesnt skip a new weapon that they will need later in the map.

HL2:EP1 Pistol Weapon Gate

The NPC Break In Gate

Once the action has finished in the area, a previously blocked route is unblocked by a new enemy NPC being introduced, normally by smashing or blasting through the door.
The slightly overused combine door lock blasts in HL2:EP1 are ax good example of this. The nice tuing about this method is that it keeps the action going.

HL2:EP1 Break In Gate

The Slow Mover Gate

The player activates the gate opening mechanism but it take a very long time for the gate to open. While waiting the player normally has to deal with a slew of enemies and survive long enough to escape.

This is seen over and over again in the Left 4 Dead games and suits the play style well. The other typical scanario is activativing THE SLOWEST LIFT IN THE WORLD!

The crane scene in the Left 4 Dead: Dead Air campaign is a great example of a slow mover gate...

The only downside for SP is that its a timed event, which means that the player can escape without clearing out all the enemies.. thats probably mostly OK though.

The Death Throw Gate

As an enemy dies it's last actions are scripted and open up a new route for the player.
This one is tough to pull off because the NPC once defeated has to perform a number of scripted actions before they finally shuffle off the mortal coil. It stretches the imagination a little but can be more plausible for flying enemies or really big boss npcs that can fall in a certain direction to smash through a wall or something.

Mate Opens Gate

A friendly NPC appears and opens the route forward for you. This will require NPC scripting and can be fun if its done well but its not my preference. The less help the player gets from NPCs the better in my opinion.

Examples of this are prolific in HL2 with Alex hacking combine terminals over and over again.

The Eye Candy Gate

A jaw dropping moment for the player to watch and enjoy that open up a new route for the player. Think the plane crash in the L4D Dead Air campaign. Will take you ages to build but may be well worth it as you know the player will be fully focussed on all your hard work.

The Astounding Dead Air Plane Crash

Let me know if I have missed any methods... or if youve seen any other really cool ways to gate the player.

Falling Into Player Gating Traps

Heres a good example of how a mapper can fall into a player gating trap.

In my map Ep2_aquaduct_4-5 the whole sequence of events begins with the player turning a valve to make water rise in order for them to reach the first level of the chamber.

In order to add some necessary action to the early part of the map I had a nice firefight going on with combine on the higher levels of the chamber shooting down onto the player.

I dont want to lose that but how can I prevent the player from turning the valve and making the water rise before the attacking combine are dead.

I tried having the water rise anyway but the combination of the player having to swim whilst being fired upon was too annoying for playtesters and just wasnt any fun.

In the end I had to settle for a rather unrealistic approach. The combine dont attack until the player turns the valve (at which point the sound of rushing water can be heard) but the water level doesnt rise until the combine are all dead.
You could explain this away as it simply took that long for the water to rise but playtesters also commented that it seemed to take forever for the water level to begin rising...

I can think of no other way that the death of the combine could realistically provide access to the valve..

Heres a link to the map if you want to see for yourself how this works...

Here's the link: