Lessons in Level Design: Boulevard

My self-taught, practical course in level design continues. After a weekend of obsessive forging, I present another multiplayer map for Halo: Reach. Here’s the Beta version of Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

This one’s a $10,000 map – I used every cent of Reach’s complexity allowance. It’s built for team slayer or capture the flag, a game type I’d love to test here.

Concept

I started with a simple concept – how about a map all built along one street? The result is a very long and relatively narrow arena, springing from one side of Hemorrhage canyon to the other, cliff-top to cliff-top. The central boulevard is very long (over 60 ‘units’, which appears to be several hundred meters).

Of course, just a street without anything else on it would be quite boring from a gameplay point of view. So there are also buildings and a square along both sides of the map, aligned symmetrically. At either end of the street is a base built around a tall tower, which offers excellent fields of view right down the length of the boulevard.

One of my main influences in this map was a recent article on level design by Chris Carney, one of Bungie’s lead level designers. He lists seven principles for level design. The one-street layout concept takes care of two of these right away: Simplicity and Orientation. Because there’s only one axis to the map, it’s relatively easy to figure out where you are, even if you’ve been killed and just respawned. (In order to aid the third point – Navigation – I made Red and Blue base very obviously of their colour.)

Dynamics

I thought a lot about encouraging player behaviour with this map’s design.

With these long sight lines and towers, it’s obvious that the place is a bit of a sniper’s paradise. This is something that appeals to me; I like sniping and naturally, I built a map that I’d like to play in.

But I wanted to balance that, to avoid a dominant strategy on the map and allow for multiple ways of winning. So much of the rest of the level’s design evolved around giving players many interesting options to players who prefer other styles.

Risk/Reward

First of all, great reward must be balanced with great risk. Because having a sniper rifle allows a player to dominate almost the whole map, I placed it in the geometric center of the boulevard, obviously exposed for all to see. I even made the floor there white. Any player stepping out to pick up a sniper rifle is blindingly obvious, exposed, and visible to everyone in the game. Getting back to the towers isn’t all that easy, either; there are mounted machine-guns and various other things in the way.  So this map design requires stealth, or teamwork, from players who want to exploit its advantageous long sightlines.

Many Ways to Win

Also, there should be lots of options, many ways to win. This is something I tried to implement in several ways.

First there are the towers at either end of the map. These are the map’s hard points, memorable places that serve as a focus for gameplay. If they were designed wrong, they’d be impenetrable fortresses. Not a lot of fun, if you’re on the outside of one trying to steal the flag from it. So I gave both towers multiple entry possibilities: through the front gate, via ramps from the understory, and also via a grav lift on the tower’s right side. In all, there are four ways to enter the tower (five if you count flyin on a jetpack). That’s enough for an entire CTF team to assault at once, each from a different place. There’s definitely scope for some interesting team strategies here.

There’s another side to the map, too. Underneath the street is a twisting network of rooms and passageways laced with power weapons, with close- to medium-range sight lines. There are also plenty of grav lifts between the understory and the upper levels, and man cannons across the level. So you have to watch your back: it may be a big map, but it’s surprisingly easy for people to sneak up on you – or overtake you if you’re running with the flag . . .

Flow

Another thing Carney mentioned in his article is Flow. This made me think:

Your map should be fun to run around on even without combat. More specifically, you should feel like a ninja running across easy-to-see ledges, jumping on well-placed rocks, and swiftly leaping to perfect bits of cover.

This was another reason for the grav lifts and the understory network. It’s possible for players to advance through the bottom of the map, unseen from the towers, then pop up unexectedly at points along it.

I was wondering at one point whether to include man cannons – energy slingshots that propel you across the map, if you run over them. While I was toying with this idea, my good friend Stuka1941 noticed that he could also ride the Mongoose ATV’s right through the man cannons, hurling himself across the sky with whining engine. It was hilarious. The man cannons stayed.

Lessons

I learned many lessons from making Sky Temple. One of them is that people don’t like falling. So there are railings pretty much everywhere. Another thing is that grid coordinate editing is way better and faster than manual alignment – so this map was way faster to build.

That said, it took me something like 14 hours, all crammed into one weekend. Honestly I can say that it felt like more fun than actually playing the game itself. I’ve never encountered a creative problem that engaged my full attention quite like this. I’m already working on map 3 – The Village. More on that anon.

In the meantime, if any of you are Halo players (or just interested in game design!) I’d really appreciate your comments. The weapon placement especially is Beta – so let me know what you think.

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