Learning to Play, 2 & 3

Since my Learning to Play column at GameCareerGuide got going, two more installments have been published under it.

#2: Dinner Tables, “considers the design of a game project…and uses Valve’s Team Fortress 2 and more as inspiration.”, can be found here.

Most recently, #3: The Mixing Board goes between two large scale game projects from my time at CIA, comparing the team-dynamics between them to illustrate the up’s and down’s of collaboration. Read all about it!

I’m still mulling over what the fourth issue will discuss. Going back through the archives of my experiences in art school, which only ended a year ago, gets tougher with time. Your mind gets foggier, and aggressively dusting off the hardest lessons learned isn’t the most enjoyable thing to do for an entire article. I’ll get around to it as the spring moves on, unless Cleveland keeps the rain away for longer than a day.


Creating an Environment: Pt.5 Playtesting, Cont.

Playtesting any game design for the first time  is unlike most other forms of critique: experiencing people experiencing your work for long periods of time. If it’s multiplayer, then you get the real treat of watching people affect each others’ experience back and forth. What sets games apart from other media in this regard is that traditional art-forms are less prone to collapsing in on themselves unintentionally (unless that’s the point). Of course, playtesting has its practical role of locating bugs, visual snafu’s, and optimizing performance, but all of this eventually funnels back into the player experience.

Getting critical feedback on design work is a tough pill to swallow the first few doses. However, I’ve found it helpful (in both the fine and applied art) to recognize that critiques are of the work, and not of the maker. With that aside, onto specifics.

When should I playtest my level?

The earlier you’ve built playtesting into your regiment, more than often the better. This is a pretty difficult question to answer, and yet it’s very necessary to ask because determining what is helpful for you to at each stage in development gives you a better read of how players are behaving and why. Keep track of the revisions you make, because any significant one can change the flow of traffic and/or action dramatically. Making a number of large changes at once isn’t a bad idea, just as long as you know why you’re making them.

There’s also something to say for playtesting too early on in creating your level. In a game like Team Fortress, gameplay will begin at the dynamic between character classes, which is then morphed and redirected by the environment/s designed for them. For example: if you make a functioning map that’s essentially a large box, completely flat, and lacking a play oriented goal, it becomes useless to playtest because you can nearly guarantee how players are going to operate. If there’s not much to it, then there’s not much to “test”. The point of playtesting is to put a hypothetical design through the ringer of players and see if a theoretical idea is well implemented or not. Make sure there is some substance worth testing before anything else, even if it’s early on.

Day of Defeat map, Blaze. While it looks far from finished in this shot, there's probably enough worth testing.

One extreme not working isn’t solved by another, however. Playtesting can focus your efforts in sections at a time. As I wrote about way earlier in this series, the relationship between your gameplay mode in conjunction with the geography is a crucial decision to make at first, but this doesn’t mean you need to wait until absolutely everything is in place.

After playtesting Arc Mountain over the past year, I found that my game mode and architecture evolved alongside one another over time. From Capture the Flag, to Arena, to King of The Hill now, each time I’ve had to make significant revisions to the buildings to accommodate the pacing for each mode. Even the small deviations King of The Hill makes from Arena gave players much to desire from the flow of each team’s fortress/spawning area. On another note, I only got to playtest the placement of ammunition and health packs just months ago. For such a long time, the map wasn’t as eager to figure out how pick-up items fell into the design before the bulk of the geometry and elements of cover did. It’s a lot of back and forth any way you slice it.

What are the resources needed to playtest, and where can I get them?

People, and computers. In some cases, you may even consider a brief Q&A sheet for those who can’t stick around to give you immediate feedback after testing. Though, from personal experiences and ones I’ve observed via peers, survey forms of any kind only work if they’re given to people who make up your target audience — fans of a game are the ones who’ll spend time thinking about and discussing new additions to it.

The next set of questions is who do you ask to help test, and how do you ask them? Playing with people face-to-face is a rather optimal situation because you can observe people’s reactions and emotions as they play in your environment. If you happen to have friends in the area who enjoy gaming, the game you’re developing content for, or are interested to help at all, you might want to get their opinions. Getting some food and making a LAN party out of it is a really nice way to get feedback and have an enjoyable experience all at once, too.

There’s also remote testing, which occurs more frequently than local happenings for a game like Team Fortress 2. TF2Maps.net is probably the best place to go for this because it’s a one-stop shop: they’ll host your map on their server for others to download at their discretion, they host playtest days on their Team Fortress 2 servers every week (sign-ups required before hand), and they have an incredibly large community behind it already willing to give people feedback and share advice in a number of ways. Convenience is the big plus here: they provide a set of free services and tools to gather dozens of people at once who share a common enthusiasm. It’s a great platform for other players to give your design a shot and stress test the hell out of it, in the hopes you’ll continue to refine it. You’re not guaranteed to always get the most useful or glowing feedback, or necessarily get into a testing slot (they tend to fill fast), but it’s really helpful to participate.

What should I be looking to get out of playtesting?

Not everything is quite ready at every play test session, so one approach is to inform your playtesters about what you’re looking for feedback on specifically. Is it the layout? The capture times for goals? The distance between checkpoints? Being proactive in what specific characteristic/s you want attention drawn to will help focus the feedback, thus focusing your next goal as the creator. Make sure your playtesters know what your intentions are for their experience, because their fresh take can provide insight as to what makes that sort of experience work better, and how your map is addressing its concerns.

You’ll probably know when to put the whole package to the test and see how it feels as a full experience from front to back, but most important is that enough people are engaging in it and telling you what they think. This only further enables you towards making the right decisions for the map, level, or game play mechanic you’ve probably had in mind for awhile now.

(To close Pt.5 of this series, I’ll be making screenshots available of each revision Arc Mountain underwent between game-modes, and why.)

Creating an Environment: Pt.5 Playtesting

Originally, this stairway was mirrored to the right with the railing justified to the center. Players told me they actually wanted less routes to each key-point in the map to make significant pathing choices more often. Additionally, the proportions were causing players to get physically caught on objects. By refitting each side of the structure to  one stairway, it presented a design that also limited the means to reach the central Capture Point, which can decide a match.

No practice in creating game environments has proven as informative  to me in design-work as play testing. Even if it’s an author’s first map ever, one that has never actually been tested, there’s a good chance the ideas going into it are based off past experiences in a particular game. What kind of level have players generally disapproved of, and what kind of flow of navigation felt intuitive or “right”? Perhaps there was some sort of imbalance rooted to the structure of the environment, and regardless of when a map takes form it’s important to recognize what recreated a certain situation, successful or not, and what that might mean later if reestablished in a new map. Are new ones required to innovate a design, and if so how long might that take to construct and resolve via technical skills? Levels take a lot of time to develop. Good-levels take a lot of time to let others actually try them out.

I was asked the other week whether my thesis project was more relevant to technical skills or the user experience, to which I replied, “The user experience.” Ultimately, this is what is relevant to the player – yet it only comes as readily as our knowledge of the tools to create a space for that  relevance. Surely I’ve learned over four years what it means to appreciate the craft of something, especially in digital media. Things either work or don’t work, and suddenly the only willingness that tends to matter is the kind that seeks and applies information. When a level is being constructed, behaviors within that environment begin to exist as well. These behaviors are another kind of information, another source of data to be mindful of as iterations surface. Ultimately, I’ve made Arc Mountain for others to play and if no one ends up wanting to play it then I’d like to know why. The least an author can do is sit some people down, peers most likely, establish a LAN (Local Area Network) or a remote server with the map available, and recognize what they appreciate and/or what they could do without.

Creating an Environment: Pt.4 Landmarks

Look – Over there! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It…hopefully, caught your attention!

The central tower brings attention to traffic, and a capturable point that could decide the round.
The central tower brings attention to traffic, and a capturable point that could decide the round.

Sometimes the funnest part of playing within a gaming experience is making things your own within an environment. By that, I mean personalizing the level in some way for you and/or a group of your comrades. Find the best spot with your favorite unit or weapon, and begin staking out for a heated competition. Make the space work for your own individual strategies with the rules already provided. These areas are your beacons of victory,  your bastions of hope. This is just one significance of making landmarks work within your level.

Before deciding what and where your landmark/s should be, first it’s beneficial that you have the main course on the table: the gameplay, the goals, and hopefully the look or an idea of it at the least. Aesthetically, proportions mean more than anything else for solidifying a well designed landmark. What makes it special, and stand out from the rest of the map? This might help you tone down parts of your map and balance  it out a bit before giving focal points the attention they deserve. Video games today are throwing information at us from every angle: Names, numbers, scores, status of an objective, time left, health left, ammo left – making the actual navigation flow is a way to bank on the qualities of play a game already has, if you’re modifying/generating content that is. Become a composer of rooms. Introduce variety into the mix, but with moderation. This is why landmarks can become a smart anomaly, balanced within the context of its environment.”It’s the space between the notes that makes the music” – Noah BenShea. Even if you’re not the most ambidextrous fellow, you probably hear or listen to music a lot. Humans are good at recognizing patterns and rhythm. Use that to your advantage, visually.

The hot spots represent the areas of most deaths in Dustbowl, for Team Fortress 2. The hot areas are all around capture points.
This graph represent the areas of most deaths in Dustbowl, for Team Fortress 2. The hottest areas are all around capture points (Taken from Valve’s official live statistics).

Landmarks don’t always have to be the point of objective victory either. Sometimes they’re so visually gripping they can help us focus on the real point of conquest. By populating the space with something like a capture point, a flag, or a table-turning device, it gives added incentive and significance beyond a nice spot to “Camp”, or remain stationary because of the topographical advantage it has over the rest of the map. In that instance, give the spot some vulnerability that makes it an opportunity more than a tree-house-for-cowards.

Focusing the traffic of multiple players to one area means they’re going to confront each other a lot there – so be conscious of how you work cover, or natural protection, into the area. Put the ball in the player’s court – they’re the ones in the game anyways. Let them decide what’s better for their situation. Guns blazing, or hide n’ seek? For as much reference there is to go by, you’re the one spending the time and making these choices, so be as creative as you can with what’s already proven to “work”.

Lost Winds (WiiWare) employs windmills as a landmark to suggest areas you might often return to. Crossing this bridge over a large gap in the village helps visually weigh the spot in an interesting way.
Lost Winds (WiiWare) employs windmills as a landmark to suggest areas you might often return to. By crossing this particular bridge beneath it, the player is involved in creating a distinct sense of scale.

Games with custom content will generally have a loyal fan-base, and fans are usually better at the game than most people, but what about games that are not as competitive? How can similar rules apply to the single player experience? Landmarks are just as useful in this case for many of the same, but not excluded from other, reasons. The one-sided, sometimes cooperative experience, can be enriched by allowing the player to see their goal ahead of time, but not giving it to them. All show and no touch, for now at least. How can obscuring the “goal” or reward add a layer of mystique and interest to it, without making it seem so generic it gets away from the point of being a landmark? Its job is to stand out, after all. A more passive approach to this is through the “hub-spoke” design. By inventing a memorable area a player needs to leave, and return to, can help a player teach themselves about the inner-workings of a game; the warp rooms introduced in Crash Bandicoot 2, or the gargantuan tree in the final level of Banjo-Kazooie. Sometimes a landmark is powerful in the sense of a capital city where one can repair, regroup, and rest up such as Zelda’s Hyrule City or the great mountain dwelling Ironforge from World of Warcraft. To feel safe and prepared is a potent thing in video games, and provides the trip to more dangerous landmarks with some depth. The relationship that landmarks then have with one another becomes a crucial role in the pacing of a longer experience.

Games benefit from repetition as well, so how can you avoid a predictable outcome of play within the design of a level? The outcomes are finite, but you’re so busy making the level you won’t probably have much time to count them all anyways. That’s what playtesting is for – and the next post in this series.

The tunnel in the middle provides early cover from two sides for a stretch, giving both teams a breather. One side is safe, the other knows they have one way out.
The middle tunnel provides early cover for a stretch, giving both teams a breather after the open-warfare and an added incentive for the progressing team.

Creating an Environment: Pt.3 Architecture

Initial design of the central structures.

Architecture is, in my opinion, the most difficult task of creating a level. Whether it is the level or populates an exterior, it speaks on the author’s behalf to a player very directly. It’s like changing a square into a cube; the responsibility of one thing becomes that of several simultaneously. How does each wall and plane, given they’re in a three dimensional space, give and take to and from the player?

But really,  where the hell do you even start architecture in a wasteland, or a nebulous space of geometry? What would its purpose be, considering I’ve gone so far as to make the landscape designs look probable enough? Well, let’s consider that, and how I can use it to my advantage. I’ll be honest, I got a little lucky.

For starters, its given me some boundaries. I’ve defined very literal borders and established general navigation by making the map a straight line with focal points on either end and the middle. There’s not much concern in making something this simple to me. Having a familiar foundation is what can pull you into a few new ideas, and hopefully by the time it’s finished that goal will be met. So sure, there’s some real restrictions I’m cementing in place already, but we don’t want to make things too easy now do we? I’m only still learning afterall.

 First render for each teams' base.
First render for each teams' base.

Being in the alpines meant more rustic architecture would be the way to for now aesthetically, and the sketch above very closely met what’s in Hammer. Granted, this was  still a CTF map, hoping a central landmark would break it up when I mirrored it. I’ve already loosely described why this layout hasn’t survived, but the architecture had a lot of specific reasons for that. In my mind, the best way to reimagine CTF was to move the flags from their traditional spots: the ends of the map. That meant putting them in the center, if I wanted to go to the nearest extreme. As one would expect, all that did was further inhibit the grab-n-go method because opponents won’t fight eachother if they aren’t forced to cross paths, sort of like chess. 

So, I made a good excuse to do things tried and true: the team bases were underutilized (Note: this is an issue I’m revisiting in the current build, so we’ll see what comes of it soon). A trip from the 3rd floor of two towers to the back-spawn rooms was quick enough, as was what it revealed in game: the problem was my map, not the flag. This is but one example why constructing a whole map like an underpainting first is beneficial. “Time for some new ideas, brain” (at this point it was mostly melted though, so I took a few days break from the project).

The new guy, simple and clean.
The new guy, simple and clean.

Before I threw up the white flag on my red and blue ones, I had to give the existing architecture another shot. I was pretty stubborn about there being towers with exposed bridging from one to the other. That didn’t mean it had to be every bridge however, and nearly six of them; everything was redundant and ununified as a result of the “reflected half” not delivering. A few things took place as I put on my hardass-design-sheriff hat:

Deleted an entire third of the complex, removed the third floors and any pathways to them, deleted the bridge between the two tall towers, spaced them twice as farther apart, and decided to build an entire new structure between the two.

For as arbitrary as my choices started off, you can see I responded by cracking  down on more conscious ones the further I got. Given that it was between two tall structures with asymmetrical floor plans, I chose to contrast that by making a short panoramic building that was very accessible. Notice the difference in the concept art from here to the ones above: I had an interior plan as much as an exterior. I cannot stress how awesome this made the workflow in-engine go, just as a proof of concept. What really sold me, was that the bridge going through the middle of it (Without planning ahead of time) met the 2nd floors of the two towers exactly.

As I said, I got a little lucky. Landmarks will continue this part of the series.

Creating an Environment: Pt. 2 The Gravity of PLAN B & Gameplay Structure, Cont.

From this...
From this…

I last left off being at odds with my map’s ebb and flow. While I’m still learning constantly, I have been through enough design issues to know when to nip something in the butt. Self-sincerity is such an important thing to have when you assess your own work. When you can no longer divorce yourself from what sits in front of you, while not being able to look away like its some terrible car accident, that’s a really good sign you should approach it from a new perspective. There are a couple avenues I’ve learned to take, and highly suggest:

1. Get away from it: Being fatigued is going to show in your work if you’re not careful. This could be personal/health fatigue, or just burning out on an idea while its still premature in realization. I found that If I’m aimlessly observing something for a couple hours straight those weren’t hours well spent anyways. Might as well cut my losses and get out of the caldasac before I’m circling myself for the next day. This forces you to take a break and let your attention gather inspiration from other sources that you may not have considered up until now – and it also clears studio-eye/studio-ear. When you observe something for an extended period without breaks, it distorts your ability to pick out the needle in the haystack. Things blur together, “bad” ideas seem like impenetrable fortresses, and decision making is thinned out. It’s the quickest and healthiest way to brainstorm without pouring over a blank sheet of paper. Take a shower – get some food – watch TV – play a videogame from a different genre – get some sleep (I should know this better than anyone else, haha). Anything in excess can become unwieldy in time, so if you can afford the time, sleep on it and you might come up with a faster solution. Ideas are instant – production is never as measurable.

..to this...
..to this…

2. Approach it from a radically different angle: Sometimes the solution is way too obvious to see because we’ve committed so much to one we’ve subconciously taken on. That sounds really abstract, I know, but I’ll use my own project in context and tie it in to wrapping up my major Gameplay decision.

So the goal of my semester project was narrative through our respective medium, my personal goal being passive narrative through the environment. I took a good look at my map visually in its state and asked myself what I saw very literally. What was there did not at all dictate my original synopsis – all of which would’ve had to been done through posters and custom textures. It’s cynical in a way, but I seriously asked myself, “Then why the hell am I making all THIS for some posters? Why didn’t I just make them and call it a day? Just so I had something to keep busy with??”. It’s not to discourage but you just list your goals with your tangible work and see where things are perpendicular to the cause.

Recently I had added a train depot for a landmark and central obstable for cover, as well as reworking a couple of the adjacent towers. I also noticed that the two spawn bases were in these basin-like dips. I wanted the central area with the train tower to act as an island in this delivery yard, but that on its own didnt scream CTF to me. I realized if one of the towers on the corner was a water tower teetering to its demise, it’d give the map a reason for the train – using it as an escape route to fight over considering its passanger-capacity. So the story is now a story, and not lore: Take control of the transportation first, or die! It integrated the gameplay more, the fact that the outcome was unpredictable and interchangable, and didnt require reading text as much if at all. Fighting for a middle point spurred an idea, so from there I removed the flags, and took the whole thing for what it was – an Arena map.

...to mirroring and connecting the two...
…to mirroring and connecting the two. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Spending an hour coming to this decision eventually showed its flowers in the architecture, providing reasonable solutions to replace those that would’ve taken days of my sanity. Onto building buildings, next.

Creating an Environment: Pt. 2 Gameplay Structure

BLU's flag room in 2 Fort.
BLU's flag room in 2 Fort.

My story was fairly simple:

Twos greed driven pioneers go behind each other’s backs over land contracts. Setting each other up,  previous colleagues make anything besides peace.

To backtrack a bit, just before I chose my geographical and architectural references, I had to decide whether the map would be symmetrical or asymmetrical. The differences between the two reach far beyond location, and dictate the type of game it will be. After spending a week brainstorming, I moved from making a Portal mod to taking another go at TF2, and making my map symmetrical. There were two quick choices with this in mind: either I make a twist on the CTF style, or one based around the new Arena Mode.

Personally, I found CTF more appealing at first because 1. I wanted to do something different with such a well-known gamemode that was tailored for TF2’s class-system, and 2. the flag had some inherent potential for narrative. While I started laying out the map in Hammer, I was lead to believe that it was my spawning points that’d need a ton of attention. This was a response to the initial flag pickups (note the sketch below) being within the middle zone, and not at the opposite ends of the map, which proved  confusing and turned the map into more of a race – the opposite of what I wanted.

First layout of the contested (middle) area.
First layout of the contested (middle) area.

Retreating to the spawn buildings, I tried rennovating the half of the them that housed the flag when I used it as a developer room. Larger than it might seem, my new problem was a poor floor plan. It worked, sure. You could get around, but the flag seemed arbitrary,  while navigation felt awkward to me and, more importantly, my studiomates (generously playtesting). It did not help that my main area for combat was also underutilized and open. Snipers had a target from anywhere, Scouts could disregard almost all the architecture without compromise, and any class with a speed detriment had no advantages to compensate with. All of this was readable with only six players.

My story was simple. Solving my problems were anything besides that.