Massive Multiplayer Map Design and the Level Designers Ever Changing Role

Level Up

Recently, several co-workers and I have been working on a pet project tentatively entitled Boot Camp.  Mechanically, it is a tactical team based military shooter which can handle up to 120 concurrent users per match.  With that amount of people running around shooting each other, how do we ensure that it doesn’t start to feel overcrowded?  Well, by building a 4 km2 map.  As the level designer on this project, this is a somewhat colossal task.  The map is currently a work in progress, but the following is how I got to where I am, and what my next planned steps are.

Height Maps – the broad strokes

What is a height map?  Well, when you look at a map on a piece of paper, elevation is communicated with lines at certain height intervals.  The closer together the lines are, the steeper the incline.  A height map is similar to this, but uses values of grey instead.

You start with a blank canvas, and simply paint where you want elevation to be.  It works in greyscale; white is low, black is high.  Using these, along with shades of grey, a broad stroke overview can be created.

An example of a rough height map

After the height map is created, it can be imported into the game engine of choice (in our case, Unity) where it is then converted into a terrain asset.  In the engine, the maximum height value (black) can be modified and tweaked.  Once that’s done, we get into touching up the terrain and smoothing out the odd pixels so the terrain looks natural and flowing.

Middleware Tools

One of the great things about Unity is the community – pretty much anything you’re looking for can be found in the Unity Asset Store.  This is where we found a terrain toolkit that simulates natural erosion.  This makes for easy overall work on a huge map such as this one.

The toolkit we found allowed us to simply add values to fields.  This allows for much faster iteration of the visual composition of the terrain, as well as doing all of the terrain at once instead of hand painting over every square inch.

Blocking Out and Separating Areas – the Finer Details

Typically, during the creation of a multiplayer map, the level designer needs to place each individual asset.  Usually this would consist of walls for cover, ramps to get from one floor to the next, and other things to block lines of sight and create interesting encounters.  In a map of this size, however, there is an extra step before this.

This capsule represents a player


By breaking the 4 km2 into smaller segments, we can essentially create levels within a level.  In the center of the map, we have an urban city area.  This will consist of skyscrapers, apartment buildings, narrow alleys, and other such urban assets.  In the city’s skyline-defining skyscraper, the bottom two floors will be open to gameplay, and this area could be considered a level in itself – not ideal for 120 players, but great for 10-20.

An overview of the entire map and its various zones


East of the city is a suburban area.  West, a small set of islands populated with fishing huts and sheds.  To the north is a rural area, and the south is the industrial area.  By dividing the map up into areas like this, not only can players orient themselves more easily in such a large setting, but it also allows for variations in gameplay.  You wouldn’t approach a winding mountain road the same way you would an open farm field or a suburban setting, so players will need to use different strategies in different situations.

Landmarks – Drawing the Eye

Landmarks are important in all maps, but become crucial in large ones as they aid players in orienting themselves.  I use a two tier ranking system for landmarks – First tier and second tier.

First tier landmarks are those that can be seen from anywhere in the level at almost any given time.  In Boot Camp’s map, these include a radio tower to the south, mountains to the north, and a main skyscraper in the center of the map.

Capsule approximately 200 meters away from radio tower landmark

Second tier landmarks are those that are visible from a closer range within the area that the player is located in.  This allows players to find their way around the smaller chunks of the map with relative ease.  Structures like monuments or cathedrals would be considered a second tier landmarks as they are visible from within the city, but once outside of the city they do not aid in player orientation.

In Closing

Boot Camp is still early in its development stages, but we are constantly having people playtest and, using their feedback, iterating on its overall design.  What started as (what we thought was) a hilarious concept is now turning into a potential release candidate that we are all happy with and proud to be working on.

Even though I’m the level designer on this project, I’m actually creating more art than designing levels.  One may think this is strange, but as stated in my previous article about “The Truths and Myths of Being a Level Designer,” even beginner art skills are a necessity.  And making a map is a great excuse to practice.

Jon Tittley is a Level Designer TA and Alumni of VFS Game Design