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Unreal Tournament – Stonehenge

DESCRIPTION

Stonehenge is a 4 players DeathMatch/Free-For-All map for Unreal Tournament; even thought I played a lot of FPS, this was my first experience playing UT and of course, designing contents for it. The challenge designing maps for UT, is that customized blueprints are not allowed; at the same time there are a lot of implied rules to to follow, because players has to experience a consistent gameplay through all the maps, even if these are designed by different people.

I wanted to achieve a very specific visual target, that’s why I decided to jump to work in engine too soon: this meant having some problems with the placement of weapons. Sadly, the map is unbalanced even if provides an interesting pacing: I didn’t fix it, but I would like to create a new map using the knowledge that I acquired working on this one.

Also in this breakdown, I will point out where the map provides -or not- interesting design choices. I didn’t have a lot of time to work on this map, but I think that knowing how to work fast and efficiently is a very good skill for a level designer. Having the opportunity to work again on this project, I would surely spend more time designing on paper, in order to have a better understanding on how to create interesting geometry that also enhance the gameplay.

DETAILS

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I. Visual style

During the design of this map I wanted to use familiar geometry in order to create something with a unique look; since my first UT match, I really wanted to create something with multiple levels and a different take on how to move between them.

Jumping itself is part of the fun, even if surprising an enemy falling from the sky it is very rewarding. I personally enjoy to jump away from a difficult situation, while I l see a lot of bullets hitting the ground where I was until a second before.

This was my first experience trying some advanced lighting techniques, at the time it felt a bit overwhelming, but at the end I was able to use different layers of lights in order guide the player through the map.

Having a sky sphere with a sunset pushed me work on achieving a very aerial visual style, I liked the idea of having a holy temple at the top level, something like the Throat of the World in Skyrim

 

II. Level Design breakdown

My design for this map was placing the long range weapons at the top level, short range in the middle level and middle range at the bottom level. I wanted to provide a different kind of gameplay depending on how open was the area around the weapon itself; this did’t work bad, but I didn’t take in account the distance between spawn points and weapons.

It is true that players spawn randomly, so the system is fair, but at the same time the map is not balanced and most importantly, players start to have favorite areas closer to the weapons.

Every player has a different play-style, so it is totally normal that some people stick more to spot A and some others to spot B, but when everyone is always hanging around spot A, it means than spot B suffers of some issues.

Weapons placement

Unreal Tournament is a very fast paced game, players are use to fight always near the same spots, then move a bit outside of the action in order to recharge or pick up health and ultimately to jump again into the fight.

I tried to expand the action to every level,  but I think that the player has to complete way too many actions in order to complete the loop: during playtests I had to force myself to explore the whole map, this means that there is surely something wrong with the gameplay flow.

There are just two methods to reach the top of the temple, using a slow elevator or using a launchpad from an inferior floor. Surely too slow; UT rewards space awareness a tactic skills, but while a player is trying to reach that special pickup, others already completed their loop twice. I would surely totally change my design for this map, which looks like an interesting architecture experiment but the gameplay pacing is, sadly, horrible.

Pickups misplacement

Having an important landmark in every map is very important; it helps to guide the player, clearly identify the map and often it acts like a catalyzer for specific gameplay actions.

In this case, the central launchpad is surely the most recognizable spot of the map, all the gameplay happens around it, which is great but at the same time is also related to some design issues that the map has, because with the actual layout players are not enough encouraged to explore other areas of the map.

Also, there is too much distance between the second and the third floor, this means that players loses health every time that they hit the ground of the third floor, falling from the second one. Having closer the two floors would remove this problem and reward a faster kind of play-style. Loosing health is perceived like a negative feedback; in this case I am also rewarding the players when they play in a less dynamic way, which is not what I designed this map for.

Central launchpad

Unreal Tournament uses pain volumes in order to create dangerous pits that players has to be aware of, during their fast movements through the map. 

My poisoned pit has another function: providing an alternative way to get out from a difficult situation, like having an enemy behind and not having enough space to turn and face him.

This worked quite well for the designed layout, but looking at the whole picture, it raises a consistence issue with the other UT maps. I already spoke about consistence, but it is worth to mention it again, because even thought it was quite difficult to wrap my head around it, I think that it is a very important design factor to take in account.

Poison pits

When I look at this floating spawn I always stop a couple of seconds, just because I really like how it looks, but gameplay-wise it causes at least three problems:

– when a player spawns there, he is way to exposed.

– if an enemy is close enough, it is impossible to see him because the platform obstructs the view.

– there is some space between the platform and the floor, this means that it is not a good cover, because enemies might target our legs without us even noticing them.

This is a very good example of what happens when I design using my eyes and not my brain; interesting and good looking surfaces can be tricky to deal with, because their beauty can hide several issues.

Not effective cover

I already spoke about some errors that I made when I designed the placement of the pickups, but this picture clearly shows another very big issue.

I wanted to use the tips of the star, in order to not having the player always stuck into the central area, then I decided to move some health pickups near the extreme end of the tips.

This is a good example of what sounds great on paper and horribly fails in game. Trying to get a health refill, players are forced to walk for a long time with their back exposed, without having any cover to protect them.

Far away health pickups

The majority of the gameplay happens at the bottom floor: it is easier to jump down than to climb up. There are more than ten different accesses to reach the bottom section and no covers on the whole floor.

This means that is extremely likely to have an enemy failing behind us while we are already fighting someone else. This increments a lot frustration and takes away some tactic aspects of the game, that gets narrowed on trying to kill someone before to be shot in the back.

I think that this area needs a complete redesign in order to be even close to be balanced.

Lack of cover

Taking as example me falling from the main platform, I want to speak a bit about the difference between hard and soft fail. It totally make sense dying after falling from high heights, but I think that it is important to consider that this means restarting the loop from scratch.

Nobody likes the whole respawn thing, it breaks the flow, it forces to stop playing even for a few seconds, it is surely a very stressful moment.

Does it makes sense to create an “hard-fail area” in this section of the map, where players are already struggling because the very fast-pace action?

I don’t think so. Having some areas where players has to show skills can create very interesting beats, but I always feel frustrated when I fall off the platform because I was too focused fighting an enemy.

Hard fails