How to create interesting levels for online shooters — a workflow description

MY.GAMES
MY.GAMES
Published in
11 min readJul 25, 2023

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In this article, a team of level designers get at the heart of what makes an interesting and successful map for an online shooter; they analyze the steps of the level design process, the level designer’s mentality, and they offer tips for newcomers to the level design field.

A map fragment from “Crash Site” in War Robots: Frontiers at the LD-pass stage

When done right, a map in an online shooter is both like a playground and an ancient gladiatorial arena — this confrontation between players is simultaneously intense, exciting, and fun. But, for in-game locations to really perfect this, the level designers must “build the right pace”, make the necessary balance adjustments, and ensure their map has realized the ideal environment for the game’s mechanics to flourish.

So, to properly explore the topic of designing maps for online shooters, a number of Level Designers from MY.GAMES came together to help create this article: Denis Kozin, Vasily Skobelev, Semyon Zuev, Andrey Gorchakov and Alexey Krylov. Without further ado, let’s get going!

The process of creating a multiplayer shooter map

The process of designing a map may differ from studio to studio: for instance, one studio’s workflow might merge together certain stages, or concepts may be called differently depending on the environment. No matter the process, the general logic of level creation is about the same across the board.

Map creation begins with the generation of a concept document. Here, the level designers briefly describe the main features of the map: setting, visual style, gameplay time (snipers, brawlers, etc.), game mechanics, and so on. This concept document is necessary because the level designer must agree with the team concerning a future map’s underlying vision, and this needs to be approved before starting development in earnest.

After approval, based on that concept, the level designer assembles the map layout using primitive geometry. At this stage, the level designer has already started to uncover the potential how the game mechanics can play out, even within the rough geometry of the level. As you see in the photo below, there are no beautiful assets just yet — instead, we have gray or multi-colored cubes.

The map layout for “The Abyss” in War Robots

From here, the layout undergoes numerous iterations. Playtests are carried out, feedback is collected and analyzed, and then we implement new layout iterations, and again, playtests. This process continues until we achieve the result the developers have in mind. Simultaneously, the level designers are generating a game design document (GDD) for the map. This document includes a detailed description of the level’s mechanics, setting, and other parameters.

When the final iteration of the layout is ready, it’s sent to the art department. There, beautiful assets are created and placed where the gray primitives used to be. In parallel with this, other specialists are working on the map, too; these include the effects artists, sound designers, animators, and many others. They are guided, not only by the layout itself, but also by the GDD, which contains all the features of the map.

The result is a completely finished map. This map is not only ready for gameplay, it also has had all artistic touches implemented. After this, only the final testing and release stages remain.

“The Abyss” map after the art-pass

Map requirements

Now that we’ve talked about the overall process, let’s back up a little bit, and discuss the issue of map requirements. Map requirements can vary depending on several factors: first, you need to determine why a map is needed for the game. What does it bring to the table? What emotions should it evoke? Depending on the answers to those questions, the requirements are formulated, and the level designers can then look for ways to solve these tasks. By the way, this, in essence, is design.

That said, there are a few general requirements that generally apply to all levels. For instance, the location should suit the mechanics of the game, as well as its dynamics. If a map is created with a zone capture mode in mind, its layout should be crafted with the location of these zones in mind. Or, if a player can walk and jump or fly, then they should be able to use these abilities in battle.

For a multiplayer shooter map, balance is especially important. Each team on the map should have an equal chance of winning. If a layout starts with a win rate of 60/40, then, with subsequent iterations, bring it closer to the ideal ratio, 50/50.

Also, tactical possibilities should be clear for players: this includes making it clear where you players go and where they can’t, where the enemy is, and where the game goal is located. Usually, projects have fixed geometry metrics for this, and level designers rely on these: the size of shelters, passages, arenas, and so on.

A level designer’s thought process when designing a location

Each case of map development is unique, but there are general principles of level design that developers adhere to.

Usually, we can start by answering this question: what kind of map should it be? Depending on the type of gameplay and map mode, you can determine:

  • The map size
  • The number of main lanes
  • The gameplay on each lane
  • The location of shelters
  • If the entire map will be designed around close quarter battles (CQB)
  • Whether some areas will feature places to take long shots, convenient for snipers
  • Whether the level should evoke claustrophobia or feelings of freedom
  • Whether players are defending or attacking
  • Where intensity of the battle should be concentrated in a particular area
  • And many more!

It’s important to keep in mind that the map design document should contain all of this, even before the map editor is opened. That is one of the most creative parts of development: coming up with everything, thinking it all through, and describing it in the design document.

In general, any level designer, when designing a location, uses certain methods that suit them.

For example, Denis Kozin, initially starts considering the way the players move on the map — he notes where their home spawns are, the zones that need to be captured, and he contemplates how users will move between these places.

A map’s geometry should guide players along a pattern of movement, while providing enough space for collision where the lines of this pattern intersect.

In addition, keep in mind that we need to ensure the constant circulation of players in the space, without stopping at dead ends. You also need to provide players with a choice of several action options at any point in the battle. At the same time, we shouldn’t overload the player with a huge number of options. We need to maintain clarity of space and make these easy to remember, — Denis Kozin, MY.GAMES

“The Abyss” map concept and players movement patterns

When creating a map, Vasily Skobelev starts from the original idea and gradually develops it.

I usually start with sketches on paper and try to outline the main ideas that I’ll build the map around. This could be a simple pitch like, “make a three-story map”, “create a big concave arena”, or “fight on a bridge”.

After that, I start work in the engine and, at first, I’ll try to transfer these ideas 1:1. Of course, they inevitably change in the process and take on new details. Once it seems I’ve implemented everything I want, I make technical changes during the final stage: adding NavMesh, colliders to the border of the play area, and so on.

After that, the map will be tested, and then I make further changes, not so much based on my design needs, but rather to solve any problems the players are experiencing, — Vasily Skobelev, MY.GAMES

To evaluate a map for yourself, you can try taking a look at a level through the player’s perspective; this is the precise approach that Semyon Zuev uses.

I try to imagine myself in a player’s shoes. I turn on the level in the editor, and then run around the map while asking myself questions. Is it comfortable to play on this platform? Won’t the player trip on this step? What if they run backwards and shoot here? Will this shelter really save them? Is it convenient to run into the shelter? What if they crash into the corner?

I compare it to being a sculptor; I apply one after another layer of geometry to the level. I cut off anything inconvenient, and keep everything that turns out to be good and playable, — Semyon Zuev, MY.GAMES

What makes a truly interesting map?

There are two key ways of checking whether or not a map has turned out to be interesting: analytics and reviews.

Various tools and approaches can be used to analyze a map. For example, if the statistics show that a certain map has a high percentage of early exits, it probably has gameplay problems. If it becomes clear that one team wins more often, this suggests a problem with balance.

A Tacticool map fragment after LD-pass

You can also use heat maps to determine the most frequented parts of a map. Based on this data, you can analyze player behavior and check if the map is working as intended.

Player feedback is equally important. Level designers should always ask about user experience during playtests, read their comments, and watch streams. All of this helps us understand audience impressions, feelings, and evaluations about a map.

In fact, player emotions are the clearest indicator of a map’s success or failure. Still, we must understand that in an unadulterated form, often, feedback doesn’t really clarify the problem; it’s either too general, or focuses on the outcome, not the cause. Therefore, developers must be able to decipher feedback in order to determine the cause of any dissatisfaction or inconvenience.

A Tacticool map fragment after the art-pass

Remember: reviews and statistics can contradict each other. For instance, there are maps on the market that are often the subject of rants, even though, in reality, these are the most popular maps — and the opposite also holds true.

The number of maps on the cutting room floor

Let’s talk about ideas and maps that ultimately end up being discarded. Early in the map development process, “bad” elements are sometimes removed, or the team will try to make “controversial” elements work. Then, over the course of numerous playtests, the developers continuously check whether or not they’ve managed to achieve a result that meets quality requirements, or if they need to change something.

To illustrate with a real-world example, say that a level designer has this initial idea to make a level where players will engage in fast-paced firefights at short range. The designer adds corridors, rooms and squares, but during testing, it turns out that some squares turned out to be too large, and thus, none of the desired shootouts are taking place. Therefore, in some squares, the designer added more covers, in others he reduced the size, and removed some altogether, redoing the entire space around. So, quality was checked, the “bad” stuff that interfered with the original concept was removed, and the result is closer to the initial idea.

But only the best maps make it to the production stage; it would be too costly if we decided to abandon a level after that. We must take care to make sure the 3D modelers don’t begin work on something with issues. That said, there are some exceptions. If a map turns out to be a failure in pre-production, it could be given to different colleagues. A fresh perspective sometimes produces better results.

Level artist collaborations

Level artists place ready-made assets on the map, replacing any rough geometry, adjusting the light, and performing other actions to finalize the visual aspect of the location design. The level artists ask designers for both the layout itself and a game design document that describes the features of the map. When level artists finish their work, level designers then make sure to double-check the gameplay to make sure that nothing has changed and everything works as before.

A Crash Site map fragment from War Robots: Frontiers after the art-pass

Collaboration with level artists and artists involves a constant back-and-forth: sometimes, it’s very useful for level designers to listen to artist feedback — this can result in unique design solutions.

Indeed, only through team work can teams achieve first-class, truly outstanding results — professionals should be able to hear and listen to one another.

Tips for new level designers

Make as many levels as possible. Don’t limit yourself to one genre. Create custom maps for your favorite games, and participate in modding contests. You could even create a map based on a game of your choice.

The main thing is that these levels should be complete, even if they are small. This will not only improve your skills, but also enrich your portfolio for future interviews!

Analyze game maps. What gameplay is the location built around? How do players move on the map? What do you like the most, and what do you like the least? What would you change?

Finding answers to these questions will help you better understand the structure of the gameplay and enrich your expertise, which will definitely come in handy in the future. Also, do not give up on analyzing games that may seem bad or unworthy of attention. If you only have examples of “how to do it”, then you won’t be able to see the mistakes when you start making them yourself. You need to analyze unsuccessful works as well.

Play the games that inspire you, not just those that are similar to your project. Our experience has demonstrated that if a person who makes a shooter only plays games from that genre, they’ll quickly burn out from the lack of diversity.

Develop your horizons outside of gamedev. Study films, books, art, music and travel — all this expands your expertise, and this reflects on your work.

Don’t rely on YouTube’s Speed Level Design videos. Their goal is a beautiful picture, not competent level design.

If you don’t feel like playing anything, feel there aren’t any good games around and don’t expect any releases at all, take a vacation. This is almost always a sign of overload, and this is a rather serious problem, because without new games and experiences, a developer will not be able to maintain their expertise. If you have lost interest in games, you need to make an effort to bring that back. And to do that, sometimes — you just need to relax!

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MY.GAMES
MY.GAMES

MY.GAMES is a leading European publisher and developer with over one billion registered users worldwide, headquartered in Amsterdam.