The Hollywood Screenplay Approach to Designing Game Levels: Part II
By Babak Kaveh
In part I of this article I discussed the six-stage Hollywood storytelling formula and how it can be applied to level design. I also promised to show you a practical example in the form of a TF2 Level. If you want to play the level before accompanying me through the design process go ahead and have a look.
If you can’t play the level you might have to get the latest Unity 4 web player plugin for Mac or PC. You will need at least version 4.0.0f5.
Glad to see you are back! Now the boring/educational part:
TF2 Class Rundown for Level Designers*
Before we start designing the map, we need to remember who we are designing it for, namely the player classes in TF2. Each of these classes has their strengths and weaknesses, and they all must be catered to both as attackers and defenders. Even though players do switch classes when they have to, they also have favorite classes that they play well (or think they play well) and a map that allows all classes to be utilized in interesting ways at different stages will be popular with players.
Here is a quick rundown of the classes in TF2 and how they affect the design of our level:
Pyro: excels at ambushing groups of enemies at close range and finding/killing spies in narrow tunnels and in closed to open area transitions. They are easily killed in wide open areas. (Element = Narrow Corridor/tunnel)
Soldier: excels when above target especially when hard-to reach or see perches are available. Most powerful at medium ranges and when standing in an open area that faces an enemy exit point. Is weak at close ranges or very long ranges and when fighting one on one in open areas without obstructions. When a medic can hide nearby the soldier can cause havoc on enemies with splash damage (Element = open area facing an enemy exit or when on high-ground)
Medic/heavy: excels in killing enemies at close range when medic can hide while healing heavy or if close to a cart and where the heavy faces a narrowly spaced group of enemies. Is a large target for snipers and rockets, and is slow so cannot really duck. Also draws spies like dung draws flies so is very weak in tight sneaky areas. Heavies are generally better for defense (due to low mobility) than attacks, unless they are ubercharged of course) (Enemy funnel next to protected area for medic)
Scout: excels at flanking and fast surprise captures when aerial access exists to go around enemy defenses – this also enables them to do quick hit and runs. Scouts do well in multi-level areas and places where they can outrun enemies around corners. When they have to take the common routes or when enemy heavies and pyros are around scouts are easy canon-fodder. (Element: exploitable height-differences and bends that allow loss of LoS)
Spy: excel in open areas with nooks and crannies they can regenerate in. Excel at getting behind enemy lines or to where only one turret can stand. Very weak against two or more turrets, tight spaces, and open areas with no hidden nooks. (Element: areas with lots of rooms)
Demoman: excels at killing units at entrance/exits (especially exists) with sticky traps. Traps also come in handy when defending enemy gather points. Excels at lobbing grenades into windows or around corners of defensive positions which makes him excellent at defending choke points. Demos fail in wide open areas against sniping and are weak against fast units like scouts or at very close range. (Element: Mazes/Corridors/cave funnel exits)
Sniper: excels when hiding behind windows or obstructions, and facing a wide open area or an enemy exit at large ranges (Generally you should not give them LoS towards narrow exits). Spies are weak in close combat or when spies have alternate access to their perches. (Element: windowed rooms with good LoS on open area)
Engineer/sentry: Dominate area when hidden behind 90 degree angle in path and if defended against grenades. Defenseless in open areas or narrow tunnels when there is no bend or in areas that are easily accessible by spies (backdoors). (Element: defensible 90 degree bends)
Now that we know which elements each class excels at we will give them access to ample opportunities to use those elements. We will also use this knowledge to weaken or strengthen the positions of attackers or defenders when needed to drive our six-stage Hollywood inspired narrative.
Our narrative will be applied to a single TF2 level vs. a map consisting of related levels that players cycle through as in the original ”Goldrush” map. Each turning point will be marked by a “checkpoint”. Checkpoints provide a perfect symbol to signal to the players that a new stage in their journey has begun, and since our narrative turning points are evenly spaced, it is easy enough to adapt them to be equivalent to checkpoints. Additionally, Stage one and six which are the setup and the aftermath will happen inside the friendly (attacker) and enemy (defender) bases, respectively, and they are clearly defined by the game rules, so we will not spend too much time designing the level for them, other than following simple best-practices. So here is the breakdown into narrative stages
Stage 1 – The setup
Here the attackers haven’t started the fight yet. They are allowed to pick classes, load their ubercharges, overcharge, get acquainted, taunt, and generally be silly. This is the perfect analogue to the every-day life of a hero. The only rule to remember is to provide multiple exits for the attacker base that provide quick break-out opportunities for the different classes. In our case our attackers have three exits. The main exit (B) s wide and provides no protection – it is also the closest exit meant for heavies and ubercharged attackers. It is also the closest point to the cart. Exit (A) allows for support classes to exit somewhat protected by the protrusion. Exit (C) provides a protected exit further away from the possible sentry gun that might be behind the protrusion at (A). There is also a protected exit that leads to the watchtower at D which also provides a good overview of the field to snipers via windows. Though enemy soldiers can rocket-jump into (D) they won’t stand much of a chance when the gates open.
Turning point 1 “the opportunity” happens when the gates open after the count-down. Again a perfect metaphor, as the life of our heros now suddenly changes and battle ensues.
Stage 2 – The New Situation
As soon as players break out into the new situation we want to create a complex interactions with enemies and the environment. This area will set the tone for the future stages. In order to allow attackers to explore the area above all we need nooks and crannies where enemies can hide – yet we cannot give the enemies full territorial control. To this end, we will give enemies points (E) through (H) which with seemingly good firing and ambush positions. These points are designed to tempt the enemy to set ambushes and sentries, and yet they are easy enough to overcome because they are open to attacker firing lines. As you can see, from Point (A) attackers will have a great view towards all enemy setup points.
The new situation is generally an understandable and easily overcome challenge, therefore we have a straight track out of the area, and it should be easy enough for the attackers to break through to the first checkpoint (= turning point) which is the “change of plans”.
The “change of plans” turning point is where the hero makes a choice or is driven to the visible goal of story. Therefore we place our first decision point of the level here and now things go from interesting and fun in stage 2 to challenging and requiring tough decision in stage 3.
Stage 3 – Progress
This stage is all about ups and downs. Our heroes are challenged, and they are in the thick of things. This is where, after the initial shock of the new situation, they create a plan for their future and start to work towards it. In order to force players to make a plan we need to provide them with important choices.
Here is how we do it:
Choice of path: Attackers get to choose if they will stay on the main track, clear out building (T1) or move on to building (T2). If they are in (T2) they can choose if they want to exit on the top and enter the tunnel (B) or exit right unto the raised gallery to the left of (T2).
Choice of class: the area is designed to be full of twists and turns (which symbolize the ups and downs of the hero’s progress), and for the first time “real” ambush points (T1 and T2 and around corners) and defendable sentry points for the enemy are introduced. This is where the attackers meet their first challenge and will be forced to switch classes if they were snipers or heavies, etc. as most of their Line of Sight benefits are lost.
I provided the enemy with a quick path to the point of conflict (PoC) through tunnel (B) to even out the teams at this point. This equality will give the attacker team a sense that they have now entered the stage where they need to start coming up with a plan.
Stage 3 ends with the “point of no return” (A) above – we want to make the heroes (attackers) feel that they have left their base behind and are now entering a whole new setting – where they are required to make painful decisions. In a war movie, this would be where the heroes chopper crashes behind enemy lines. In the Hollywood formula the point of no return always poses a painful decision between two contrasting things (e.g. shoot the criminal or call 911, Charge head-on or escape, cheat on a loved one or stay loyal). In order to create this stark contrast I implemented a huge change of venue from the building to building combat in Stage 2 to an environment that gives players a choice of backstabbing the enemy (via tunnel (B) above or charging ahead into sniper territory via ramp (A) above. Each player has to make a choice here and the difference between the choices is a big as it gets, i.e. being a hero in a wide open area vs. a backstabber in a dark tunnel.
Stage 4 – Complications
Besides providing a change of venue, the exposed ramp and area beyond creates a delightful sense of “Oh crap!” in the attackers. Stage 4 forces an all-or-nothing combat style.
If the player has taken the ramp he will be fully exposed to sniper fire from the end of the field. If he manages to get to the entrance to the tunnel at (E) below he will have to face enemy ambushes to fight his way into the tunnel and to silence the snipers, and during all that time his team mates pushing the cart will be completely exposed to enemies jumping down from (G) below, and snipers through the windows.
As you can see in the image above the snipers in the sniper gallery could be duck-hunting on the ramp (A) and along the track. In my first tests this was just too easy to defend– so I added obstructions (the Tesla coils) where attackers can hide, even if for a short while before pushing the cart forwards. The coils are also meant to add to the “Oh crap!” feeling!
On the other hand if the attackers had taken the tunnel (from (A) to (B) below) they would have had to overcome an extreme disadvantage at the tunnel exit when they faced the enemy machicolations first, and an easily defendable position close to the defender base thereafter. Both cases offer a “now or never” situation.
This stage ends in turning point 4, “the major setback”. For the cart pushers this is symbolized by a ramp that leads upwards and where the enemy has the higher ground and a path to flank them (by jumping down the ledge to the open area. For anyone being able to exit the sneaky tunnels towards the enemy base, the building in front of them will be very hard to surmount. I did need to inject a glimmer of hope as in any good Hollywood movie, and that’s why I connected the sniper gallery in front of the open area via a secret tunnel to an area close to the enemy base.
Stage 5 – The final push
Nothing symbolizes a final push as a bridge does; hence, I went all-out Jungian and jammed a bridge in there. I also liked the multi-level combat tactics that the exit into the water, the bridge, and the higher up buildings and balconies surrounding it allow players on both sides. Here the enemy is very close to his base, and the only comfort, albeit a small one, I could offer the attackers was the shielding (B) and (C) on the bridge and the fact that they have access through the tunnel and further protection from the high columns behind the bridge. The water needs to be there to provide people burned by pyros with some relief and we needed the ramps so attackers blown off the bridge get a second chance.
In the image below you can see the bridge opening (A) which is totally in LoS from the enemy base, the tunnel exit (B) from the sniping gallery which will give attackers relief and a chance to attack the enemies exiting their base, the ramp (C) out of the tunnel that leads behind the large columns that offer cover to attackers, and water (D) under the bridge.
If the major attacker force decided to make the final push through the tunnel (which also provides them with a quick access to the final PoC, the will need to take control of points (B), (C) and (D) below and give their cart-pushing buddies a chance to get on the bridge.
This stage ends in turning point 5 “the climax” which needs to be very close to the end of our narrative. It is where the enemy has all advantages and the attackers by extreme measures and personal sacrifice overcome the enemy. In our level this is the exposed mid-point of the bridge. Once attackers are past it, we get to stage 6.
Stage 6 – The aftermath
After the bridge mid-point the attackers get some cover, and from there it is only a few meters to the final checkpoint. I kept this distance really short, so that the battle for the mid-point is not overshadowed. If the attackers have gotten this far they get to enjoy the fruits of their labor by blasting away at cowering enemies!
Before I finish, I do want to remind you that just like the attacker base, the defender base needs multiple exits, and in this case, since the defender base is so close to the PoC, I also gave it good LoS over the bridge mid-point (B) and quick access to other areas (D) and (C) from their main protected exit (A) as you can see below.
As you see it is entirely possible to lay out the six stage narrative of Hollywood writers by using well-understood symbology (twisting alleys, exposed areas, down/up ramps, bridges, secret tunnels, etc.), controlling the level of challenge/relief for the attacker team, by allowing for multiple types of choices at specific points, and by controlling the duration it will take the attackers to go through each stage and reach the turning points. If you have more ideas on how to control and shape the narrative, without taking away control from the players, or a critique of how the level was lain out I would love to hear from you.(source:gamedesignideas)