My love of games started with Sonic the Hedgehog, then Quake, and later Unreal Tournament. It wasn’t until UT4 in 2017 that I took up the challenge to open the editor and make levels of my own. And boy was it addicting. I was completely activated: creating interesting levels challenged my creativity. Creating functional levels challenged my logic. Testing and iterating – being both the maker and the user, completed the designer in me. It’s both art and science. You might start with a crazy idea and then spend time trying to make it work, jumping between different approaches as necessary.
Level design is a very interesting creative endeavour. Levels make the game as much as the gameplay variables themselves. You can make one game into another with levels. Exploring edge cases that stretch the intended gamepaly, is a part of the fun, and the responsibility of being a level designer.
- designing levels for an indie AFPS.
- level design for the cancelled (but still great) UT4.
- designing and developing a released multiplayer FPS game.
- designing levels for an indie multiplayer platformer (that I also made).
Levels for Glitch Arena
Glitch Arena overview
Glitch Arena is an Arena First Person Shooter, published on Steam. I designed and developed this game using Unreal Engine blueprints, but most enjoyed the level design process. Glitch was first proposed to take the basic principles of AFPS and present them as minimally as possible. It’s inspired by the two main strands of AFPS, Quake and Unreal Tournament, resulting in a fast and fluid game like Quake that has the exciting engagements of Unreal.
Everything I learned mapping for Unreal Tournament was poured into this and then some. I did a lot for this game (including programming in Unreal Engine blueprints, making materials and music tracks and sound effects) but the level design is what makes Glitch stand apart.
*in AFPS levels are referred to as ‘maps,’ and level design ‘mapping.’
The Glitch levels are almost entirely BSP, a homage to 90s BSP games like Quake and UT.
This video introduces Glitch Arena as a whole, which you could use as context for the levels.
Glitch Level Design
The levels took shape alongside the gameplay, over time. They are definately informed by other AFPS levels, however I wanted to create a group of highly unique maps that explored what was possible. There’s more work to do here, but I’m very proud of a few of them.
These maps were developed one at a time, over a period of a few years. It was a great pleasure, and the single most enjoyable creative project of a life full of creative projects, to make, test and iterate on these.
Trikuti started with the shell of HackO1, my last UT map. It quickly became it’s own thing. It’s also the ‘standard’ map: a baseline for gameplay and scale. As such it has a simplified circular flow, with high secondary items and low primary items. A high path crosses the middle with the rockets pickup, with another crossing below it perpendicularly, with health. Having health central on the map in a main connecting corridoor is a departure from AFPS tropes.
Getting knocked off the map, to your doom, is generally considered taboo in AFPS, where accidental and random occurrences can be annoying to players. However, in Key this is the name of the game. Items such as the main armour and ammounition are located on platforms with no walls, from which it is easy to be knocked into the swamp. The main lift jump from low to high leaves a player vulnerable to shotty or rails, which could knock you off the map.
This video features Joel (his POV) and I duelling on “Key3” (the working title stuck), probably the most realised map in the game.
Figur started as an attempt to create an iconic ‘figure 8’ map, with an overlapping middle. Finterp (these are still all working titles!)is another attempt to do the same, but Figur retained more simplified geometry on a larger scale, making it a super fast to run around, while Finterp turned out a bit fiddly.
One area where Figur really succeeded was in iconic item placement. When making so many maps it’s hard to creating unique positions for armors. The teleporter from directly under the megaHP (mega health) to behind it means it is unique to attack and defend.
Dying Sun & Lathe, UT4 and Glitch
Having played Unreal Tournament heavily since 2015, I started making maps and mods for the game in 2017. The best of these maps was Dying Sun, which evolved into a new circular version of the map, Lathe.
The idea for Dying Sun is separation of in control and out of control routes.
In AFPS duel, players struggle for control, by which they maintain a position in which they can defend and keep the major items on a map. Players must know how to keep control, but also how to play “out of control” without dying, but while slowly winning back control.
For Dying Sun, we intended to correct a problem with Unreal Tournament, in which control was too easy to keep and too hard to win back. I say ‘we’ because the idea was developed with Joel.
The main features of the map are two lifts, located at opposite ends of the map, which served as the only ways from the lower levels to the top (except for one jump pad).Because of these strong sound cues, the top level player would always know when the bottom level player was attempting to track them down.
Dying Sun reached 100 playtested iterations before final release. Go on, watch them all! Or maybe just one:
Lathe kept these most important features from Dying Sun, and was more an experiment in Unreal Engine’s geometry.
I made another couple of maps after these two, however these two recieved the most attention and represent what I learned from mapping for Unreal Tournament.
Design and development
Frag forest was my first attempt at a game. It currently exists as a playable, but unpublished prototype.
I had been lamenting for some time that my favourite genre was doomed because of the high barrier to entry that mechanical skills presented. These are skills that need to be practiced before the game can be enjoyed. The main prohibitive skills are mouse aim and movement abilities such as strafe jumping. While one of the good things about AFPS is the high skill ceiling, these games sadly require a huge investment of time.
I was wondering if the non-mechanical aspects of the genre are independently enjoyable. What if those elements were available in a more accessible format? This sparked Frag Forest. The idea was to translate the important elements of the Arena First Person Shooter genre, but into a 2D format that could be played with less mechanical skill. In this sense it’s a direct theoretical precursor to Glitch.
Unlike Glitch, before I started building the game – which was quite a scary as until this point I had only been learning Unreal Engine by modding for Unreal Tournament – I prepared a game design document and shared it with Joel, who helped refine it. Once I got into development and we were play testing the game, things evolved a little, but we remained faithful to the basic concept.
There is some gameplay from Frag Forest testing in the “Can AFPS be Easy” video above, in the Glitch section.
Mods for UT4
After having started in mapping, I became interested in modding for Unreal Tournament. I guess it was pure creative curiousity. I had some ideas, and wanted to see how they played out. Doing this was how I learned to code in UE4 Blueprints, and key to building the confidence to make games. Multiplayer networking concepts particularly proved hard to learn, and boy did I put in the hard yards.
This was my replacement started weapon for UT4, which was meant to replace the stock starting pistol, as well as the impact hammer that people could use to clear modest heights and increased map mobility.
Foreshadowing Glitch, fludity was my attempt to move the UT movement system towards Quake’s. UT has very linear movement, while Quake’s is fluid. Essentially, this allowed you to bunnyhop in UT.
This video introduces both Airgun and Fluidity, as well as another good map I made Hack01.
Strafeboard was another way to sneak fast and fluid movement into UT4, however in this case, it had precedent in the UT3 hoverboard. Players in capture the flag were able to switch to a hoverboard to move around the larger maps much faster than otherwise.
Strafeboard incorporated Quake style movement tech to increase speed while on the board, another homage to Quake and a precursor to developing ‘Glitching’ later on.
The Jetpack was designed as a new powerup for UT4. It worked pretty simply and as you’d imagine.
Here it is in action, or check out the following video for an intro and overview.