Saturday, October 24, 2009

Level Design Primer: Keep It Wide

Saturday, October 24, 2009
I credit this rule to a friend of mine, Drew Risch. Mr. Risch was a professional architect for some time before going on to do level design on such titles as Planetside, designing several of the base layouts. Since then, Drew has recovered his sanity and traded in level design for effects work--but his design mentoring always proved invaluable.

This rule comes from the early days, where FPS players lept and bounded like strange, violent gazelles. Our younger readers may not know how different the early games were; for example, the running speed of the original Doom Guy in real terms is said to be about 60 mph. He could keep pace with a rocket fired parallel to him.
With so much play centered around mobility/maneuverability, a fun level was one that gave you enough space to work, but not so big as to be slack. You need room to circle-strafe, clearances to rocket-jump to. We may not be doing much of that in modern FPSes, but it's still important as ever to give the player room.

Boxed In

Recall the refrigerator box: the player is more unwieldy and blinkered than he thinks he is. Because of this, the level designer is called upon to build spaces around him that appear realistically scaled, but also tailored to mask the player's shortcomings. The simplest formulation of this design maxim? Keep It Wide.

This is to say, give the player room to maneuver/direct fire, and give enough space for clear visual navigation. A necessary corollary to this: the more players that play together in a space, the more room is necessary. Like all design rules, there are good reasons to violate this rule which we'll get to, but consider it good general practice.

Let us consider two scenarios--one from Valve's own Left 4 Dead campaign No Mercy, the other an excellent work in progress custom campaign, Highway to Hell.
Both campaigns begin in an apartment complex, but there are some crucial differences.

No Mercy: Bill is puzzled that the apartment's hallways are so generously sized, but knows he's got room to maneuver.

Highway to Hell: the survivors tend to see more of each other than zombies in some hallways. No place for a shotgun.

The setting and quality of set dressing are nearly identical, layouts very similar. One of the few small differences is that in Highway to Hell's apartment building, there are some extremely tight spaces for 4 players to fight through effectively. In L4D all players can freely clip through each other, which eliminates a lot of common related issues of this kind, but not all--friendly fire is still dealt. Which is exacerbated if players don't know the common practice of crouching if out in front.

No Mercy: Maybe a little oversized for the kind of mid-level apartment it would appear to be, but it gives room to play. No one joyfully shouts "this is so realistic!" when they're not having fun. (Outside of ArmA2 players, of course.)

Play through the beginning of No Mercy, paying attention to horizontal space. Most areas are built to accompany at least two abreast at any point--meaning if the two forward most players kneel, this is clearance enough for all four players to fire forward.
Not only does it make the game's stated emphasis on co-operative play viable, but it makes navigation easier as well--the more spatially restrictive an area is, often the harder it can be to clearly navigate. (In another update, I'll elaborate specifically on navigation considerations.)

The above shot is perhaps the diciest example from Highway to Hell. Most of the way through the map the survivors will wind their way through a meticulously recreated gas station.
The sense of place is very real, possibly to a fault: this communicating hallway is narrow and has a whopping six doors connected to it--to the front of the store, the back door, the break room, the restroom, and so on. While this is laid out realistically, suggesting it was all modeled on an actual gas station, it's also a death trap.
It's deceptively hard to move around in and direct fire, and if the Director throws down on the players through one of these connecting rooms--as it is wont to--the players might have a very hard time escaping, much less as a group.

I haven't had the pleasure of playing this map in actual co-operative play, only with bots, so I can't speak to whether the experience of it is panic inducing or annoying. The rub is that these two kinds of experiences live in very close proximity to each other.


This brings me to exceptions to the rule. Valve violates "Keep It Wide," that they otherwise strictly observe, in several key points throughout L4D. There is a storm drain sequence where it's obvious the players will only be able to advance in single file, a dangerous proposition in a world of zombies.
The above communicating hallway layout from Highway to Hell may also be an exception: despite being uncomfortably narrow to move and direct fire in, it is also small, and well connected, and veteran players should be alert enough in such a tight space. (Designing with the 360 version in mind would mean this area is simply out of the question, however.)

The more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to think it is an exception. Though I would note that the navigational issues (difficult to orient in such a nondescript corridor with so many doors) would be helped by introducing orienting details: restroom decal and possibly some chinsy art hanging on the opposite wall.

But the truth is, like every design decision made, you won't know until you get playtesters. If this area is consistently panicking players or making for some tense little shootouts, it's worth keeping, but if it's producing disproportionate casualties or an untoward difficulty spike, then it's worth revising.

Any design decision that violates best practices for level design in your game must be carefully considered. Is it breaking a rule in a fun, tension-inducing way, or is it doing it in a completely unfair, obnoxious way? You won't know without playtesting.

But rest assured that you'll address many aggravating issues with playtesting before they start if you remember "Keep It Wide."

[This was by no means intended to pick on the designer "Unlawful Combatant." Highway to Hell is absolutely professional quality work, and once its polished and completed it will rival or surpass a number of the original campaigns in the game; readers with L4D should check it out and see just how many of the previously mentioned Level Design Primer concepts they can spot (hint: basically all of them).]


Johnnyburn said...

Clipping into NPCs who have no manners is one of the most frustrating things. In a real-life tight space, you just rotate your body (ass or crotch?) and sidle by.

When you are wearing an invisible fridge box and aren't even able to see your body, this is not an option. Also, being unable to speak is problematic.

This is why so many kindly scientists/standersby/teammates get shot in the face and that is what's wrong with society these days.

chiasaur11 said...

Heh. Too true.

Ever played Marathon, Johnny?

There's a reason most players put the allied units as target #1 in a firefight.

Davie said...

I don't mind narrow spaces, as long as noclip is applied to the players. I like how they do this in TF2, where you can run through members of your own team but enemies form a solid obstacle. This makes choke points and hallways much easier to defend, allowing for each team to maneuver strategically while retaining their ability to "meatshield", as it were.

Gabe said...

I think in my own enthusiast work I tend to instinctively follow this rule a bit too much. My first completed map starts the player at the top of a 30 foot wide staircase that goes down three floors to a 10 foot wide hallway with open booths on either side through windows for security.
I just felt at the time I could make that bigger space look more grand and impressive. And that was actually true, with some detailed pillars in the center, and some statues, and some trim, and reflective marble floors, it certainly was a grand entrance to a level. :P Wish I still had it (or screenshots of it), it managed to get me on my first mod team (though the mod team leader said what he was most impressed by was my basic understanding of how to make a working door, which kinda hurt my pride...)

Aubrey said...

Some single player games employ the vent crawling dynamic-- MGS going so far as having an entire alternate control scheme for when you are in vents, but they (wisely) rarely make you fight enemies in these situations. This tends to be a bit tedious. It seems awfully realistic that crawling in vents would be unfun, so I can hardly complain...

Although it would be interesting for them to try. Both in HL and MGS you are able to shoot at people outside your vent, and that is always cool. Maybe it could work in a haunted house style game where you are crawling behind the walls and peeping into rooms.

Anonymous said...

Which bases did Drew Risch design?

Hope the Biolab or Amp station weren't one of them, because having the gen/CC unconnected to the internals of the base was an awful design decision IMO.

Tigerdot said...

Very good, I don't think you've made a single post yet which I haven't enjoyed.

I would love to see a (post? page?) on how you would go about making a map from start to finish. Preferably a city one, I want to see whether you think of gameplay first and model a town around it, or make a realistic city and then cut off passages and alter things so it would be fun to play in.

Robert Yang said...

I'm experimenting right now with how to design a claustrophobic setting, and my methodology seems to be shifting towards "apparent narrowness."

I have all these forms jutting out of the walls and ceilings, making the hallway seem narrow, but then I turn the collision off on these pieces. It's still technically "wide" (more for the NPC's benefit) but it still seems "constricted" because of the appearance.

gauss said...

Johnny: Absolutely this is one of the biggest issues with why this is a sound design maxim--player are usually treated as an inflexible box, with no such courtesies to possibly consider. I think that eliminating clipping entirely is a bit of a copout, since it can take away immersion, but there needs to be a more elegant solution available than a solid box. Break through the confines of the refridgerator box!

chiasaur11: man, with how simplistically most characters' collisions were reckoned in those days I have no doubt. I only gave Marathon it's pace through some all night DM games with friends, but never had it on a home system myself. Still a classic.

Davie: Yeah, see above. I don't know why I never seemed to notice that L4D has full noclip between players, but maybe this is, in fact, the most elegant solution despite the small loss of immersion every time you ghost right through each other. And I have noticed the same benefits in TF2, good comments.

Gabe: Hahah... yeah, there still need to be walls close in enough to promote tension--if weapons are accurate enough and you're engaging all targets from too far away, all the difficulty of a given scenario can drain away quickly. Like most things to do with design, it's a question of balance.

Aubrey: I think it's interesting you'd bring up vents, something I didn't consider at all but there's a whole other subset of interesting questions to do with stances--not to mention the question of allowing prone. Man, that's enough for a whole other discussion right there. Crouch/prone/lean--some very important questions buried in there.

Anonymous: I was treated to the beta but I'm sorry to say I'm not familiar enough with the game to answer your question. But for the purposes of the discussion we'll say only the good ones and none of the bad ones. :)

Tigerdot: Cheers man, I'm trying very much to keep up the quality of output. So many sites just trade off links, I tried to make a commitment pretty early on to high quality material. If it wasn't a screenshot of a game I was talking about, any imagery would be something I illustrated--and I've held true to that.
I like your suggestion as well. In short, the answer is of course "it depends," but there are enough commonalities to the way I work on a level to be able to comment on the workflow... probably at length. Thanks.

Robert Yang: Hope it goes well--it's an impressive thing how even just the lowering of the ceiling or other such manipulations that have no "real" effect on the player space still can have such enormous psychological impact. Visual clearance issues/headroom go a long way. Some time I'd like to follow up this entry with a discussion about one of Valve's favorite design maxims--player don't look up. Which has held true in my own experience. Interesting stuff, thanks for commenting.

chiasaur11 said...

I've only been playing Marathon recently thanks to it being open source these days. The plot's good, there's some impressive art at the chapter breaks, and they actually had an elegant enough solution to this sort of problem for the first few levels of the second game. The friendlies teleported out when they were done with the current firefight. Simple, worked.

Then, later in the game, they stopped doing that and never tried it again. Irritation.

Stickfigs said...

Yay, my favorite type of article! I particularly liked the inclusion of Highway to Hell as a way to demonstrate the design rules while also sort of previewing and critiquing the developing mod, it's nice to see the modding community recognized.

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