A History And Analysis Of Level Design In 3d Computer Games pdf
A History and Analysis of Level Design in 3D Computer Games Sam Shahrani
Designing game spaces is not a new phenomenon. Children do it on a daily basis, constructing complicated games governed by rule sets that can change at the drop of a hat. The design of computer game spaces, on the other hand, has existed for only about 30 years and in that narrow timeframe has evolved dramatically. The level design in most early titles was part and parcel of the game design itself; often the programmer was the person designing the gameplay, as was the case with many titles by Atari Corporation. One person could, much like an auteur, create an entire game alone, but as time went on and games grew more complex the division of labor required led to the creation of a new position; that of the “level designer.”
Defining Level Design & Level Designers
Level designers, or map designers, are the individuals responsible for constructing the game spaces in which the player competes. As such, the level designer is largely responsible for the implementation of the game play in a title. The name “level designer” is something of a misnomer, at least for modern games. Originally, games were comprised of distinct levels of difficulty, beginning with Level One. Each level was more difficult than the last, providing steadily increasing level of difficulty, hence the term “level”. Modern titles follow this formula to a degree, but the levels are no longer as simple as they were in the mid 1970’s and early 1980’s. In most modern titles, the distinction between individual levels is subtle, with transitions happening relatively seamlessly. Alternately, individual levels can be extremely large and complex, with storyline tying the individual levels together. Indeed, the term “level” now refers less to the increasing difficulty of upcoming missions and more often to the next mission or gameplay area. The term “level designer,” then, is an inaccurate description of the job; a more accurate name for the position would be “game space designer.” In the computer game industry the term level designer has become both sufficiently entrenched and sufficiently broad in meaning that everyone understands what the job consists of.
In the context of this paper, “level design” refers to the creation of levels, missions, maps, game environments, stages and any other space wherein the player or their avatar interacts with the game world. The primary focus of this paper will be on “first person shooter”, or FPS titles, though examination of non-FPS titles that made significant technical or gameplay advances is also possible. For those unfamiliar with the genre of FPS games, they can be most simply characterized as games wherein the view on the screen is designed to simulate the view of the player’s character or avatar inside the game world. Examples of traditional FPS’s would be games such as id Software’s
Doom and Quake, Valve Software’s Half-Life and Bungie’s Halo. Additionally, other
titles such as Lucasarts’ X-Wing and Tie Fighter, Parallax’s Descent and Origin’s Wing
Commander could also be considered to be first person shooters, since they place the player in a first person perspective, albeit inside the cockpit of a vehicle.
It is important to note that level design is not unique to three dimensional games, but is an art that applies to all genres of computer games. The level design in a two- dimensional side scrolling strategy such as Psygnosis’ 1991 Lemmings requires a great deal of forethought and testing. The extra dimension present in a 3D title adds a significant amount of work to the level designer, who must now consider movement across all three axes of movement – x, y and z, instead of merely x and y. Reaching the current state of the art in 3D was no easy task. Before there was Unreal Tournament, Doom 3, Half-Life 2, World of Warcraft, Serious Sam or F.E.A.R. there were countless small steps, casual games, labors of love and simple curiosity that laid the foundations for all the games to come.
The Beginning – 1974 to 1991
When contemplating what game represents the original first-person perspective
3D game, the answer is not immediately apparent. Depending on the age of the person being asked, some might state, that Battlezone was the first 3D computer game, whereas others might name Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, or even Quake. While these titles may be some of the best known examples of the genre, the first documented 3D first person game appears to be Spasim, a program written by Jim Bowery for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s PLATO network (Bowery). Bowery describes Spasim as follows:
Spasim was a 32-player 3D networked game involving 4 planetary systems with
up to 8 players per planetary system, flying around a space in which the players appeared to each other as wire-frame space ships and updated their positions about every second.
(Bowery) Bowery recalls that Spasim, short for Space Simulation, was originally released in
March of 1974, but locating documentation of the exact dates for the release of many PLATO games is very difficult since little conclusive documentation exists, probably because these games were not seen as terribly serious endeavors so little effort was made to record their creation and evolution. Users of the PLATO network probably had little idea that these games would prove to be the genesis of entire genres of games. Bowery claims that Spasim is, at the very least, the “intellectual genesis” for a number of other 3D computer games, such as Silas Warner’s PLATO game Airace. Airace later evolved into another PLATO game, Airfight, the creator of which is either Kevin Gorey or Brad
Fortner. Bowery further asserts that Airfight eventually led to the development of a tank simulator for the US army. This tank simulator, Panzer (or Panzer PLATO), appeared on the PLATO network in 1977, and was apparently a highly detailed simulation for the time (Dunnigan, Ch. 6 paragraphs 7-8). Panzer was an evolution of an earlier PLATO game called Panther, programmed by John Edo Haefeli, which was also a tank simulator.
Panther and Panzer would prove to be the inspiration for a game that would mark the
appearance of polygon-based 3D graphics in both the arcade and the home: Atari’s Battlezone .
While Bowery claims to have the first documented 3D first person game, this claim does not go entirely unchallenged. Maze War, also known as The Maze Game,
Maze and Maze Wars, was a program developed at the NASA/Ames research center in
the summer of 1973 that could also be a contender for the title of the first 3D first-person game. Maze War was aptly named, consisting of a maze constructed of polygon walls at 90 degree angles, through which a player could navigate and then shoot at other players (Thompson, slides 10-13). Maze Wars included technical innovations that were not present in many of the early PLATO titles. While the ships in Spasim were wire frame polygons that one could see through, the walls of the labyrinth in Maze War used a set of algorithms to eliminate any polygons that would not be visible to the player, lending an impression that the walls were solid (Thompson, slide 10). This is a technique that would not be seen again for some time, particularly not in the home computer market.
It is important to realize that as impressive as the technical achievements made in both PLATO games were, as well as in games developed on other networks, these systems were certainly not widely available to the public. In many cases, these computer systems were among the most powerful systems in the world at the time, and prohibitively expensive for all but institutional use. True mass-market innovation, and the creation of a more mainstream game industry, would have to wait for the emergence of a broader market in personal computers.
For personal computers, the history of level design for 3D computer games begins with the 1983 release of Battlezone for the Apple II and PC. A “port”, or translation, of the 1980 coin-operated arcade game of the same name, Battlezone allowed players to take control of a tank tasked with destroying enemy tanks and avoiding missiles. Battlezone is significant because it represents the first use of polygonal environments and opponents combined on home computers, along with the ability to move through the gameplay space, at least on the X and Y axes of movement. The move into polygonal environments was the beginning of the transition from the two-dimensional sprite-based environments and into the world of full 3D. Battlezone represented the most basic of polygon environments, with all sides of a polygonal object being visible at all times. This served to enhance the futuristic setting of the title, but also meant that everything in the game appeared to be made of glass, since players could see through the wire frame models.
Battlezone also continued the proud tradition of computer games using storyline to hide
engine technical limitations; battles were fought “in a large valley completely surrounded by mountains and volcanoes” (Battlezone Operations Manual, p. 17), thus explaining why you couldn’t move beyond the area you began in. Regardless of these limitations,
Battlezone was the first truly successful mass-market game played from a first person perspective.
The level design for Battlezone was relatively straightforward, in as much as it consisted of creating a game space (the “large valley surrounded by mountains”) in which the player could drive around and destroy targets for points. Essentially, the level design was that of a digital Roman arena, wherein the player could do battle, and it was a design that worked well for the limitations of the graphics engine, and provided enjoyable and novel gameplay for the arcade and home computer markets. Still, the gameplay was little removed from that of Battlezone’s PLATO forbears.
Not all attempts at 3D games involved the use of polygon-based 3D environments like those used in Battlezone; several games attempted to leverage other technology to provide an impression of a three-dimensional world. Notable efforts include Lucasfilm Games, now LucasArts, 1986 title Rescue on Fractalus!, a first-person title that used fractal generation technology to render the game world. The title is notable both for the use of a simulated 3D world, as well as for the first-person perspective. The player took the role of a pilot looking out from a cockpit, tasked with rescuing other pilots stranded on the surface of the planet Fractalus (Langston). The concept of a spacecraft based FPS would later return in LucasArts’ 1993 title X-Wing and 1994’s Tie Fighter space combat simulators, as well as Origin’s 1990 release of Wing Commander. Rescue on Fractalus! was completed in May of 1984, but due to a number of exclusivity decisions the title did not become legitimately available for home computer systems until 1986 (Langston). According to Langston, however, an incomplete version of the game for home computers was widely pirated.
Polygon based engines, however, remained the most popular and effective way of delivering 3D gameplay, and as computing power increased throughout the late 1980’s designers improved the technology. A PC port of the BBC micro and Acorn computer title Elite, Elite Plus was a complex trading and combat simulation, wherein the player was given a spaceship and a small amount of funds then tasked with traveling to various star systems and earning money. Firebird Software’s 1987 release of Elite Plus represents one of the first documented implementations of filled polygons (Rollings, 516-517), a technique that solved the “glass enemies” issues of Battlezone by calculating and removing lines that would be blocked in a solid object. By combining these calculations with the ability to fill the polygons that made up the enemy ships with color, Elite Plus created enemies that had the illusion of a solid construction. This was a crucial step towards realism. Elite Plus also featured an impressive amount of gameplay for its time, with eight galaxies and thousands of planets. Even today, having a designer specifically craft such a universe would be a daunting task, so the authors of the software chose to use a technique of pseudo-random generation of the worlds, allowing a complex universe in a relatively small amount of space with a minimum of design effort.
The id Software title Wolfenstein 3D, released in 1992, is generally accepted as the start of the “First-Person Shooter” genre of 3D games, but id software was not the first to experiment with texture mapped 3D games. That honor goes to the now-defunct Looking Glass Technologies for their March 1992 title Ultima Underworld: The Stygian
Abyss , which was also the first Role Playing Game, or RPG, to feature first-person action
in a 3D environment. All 3D RPG titles from Morrowwind to World of Warcraft share
Ultima Underworld as a common ancestor, both graphically and spiritually, though World of Warcraft utilizes a slightly different third person perspective. For better or for worse, Underworld moved the text-based RPG out of the realm of imagination and into the third dimension.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss featured an extremely advanced graphical engine, far more advanced than what the better known Wolfenstein 3D would support.
Underworld could support a number of features that would not appear again until the th
release of Doom on December 10 , 1993 and, in at least one case, the release of Duke
Nukem 3D years later on January 29 , 1996. While Wolfenstein would consist of a world
with only 90 degree angles and ceilings all of the same height, Underworld allowed the use of varying height ceilings, and walls at 45 degree angles, allowing for much more complex and realistic architecture. Further, while id software’s Doom and Apogee’s Rise
of the Triad would introduce stairs, it would not be until Duke Nukem 3D that a major
title from a company other than Looking Glass would feature inclined surfaces, allowing ramps and other effects. All of these elements were in place in 1992 for Ultima
Underworld and David Kusner states in “Masters of Doom” that id software only
contemplated the idea of applying texture mapping after designer John Romero was informed of what Looking Glass was doing with Ultima Underworld. Id software’s lead programmer, John Carmack, admits that id’s game Catacombs 3D, a dungeon-based title that beat Ultima Underworld to market by 6 months, was motivated primarily by Romero’s interest in having id attempt a game with texture mapping. (Kusner, 89; Kent, 458).
The texture mapping that Carmack added to Catacombs 3D was a significant innovation over previous titles. The texture maps were simple, consisting mostly of stone walls with moss or vines across them, but combined with the black ceiling texture it helped to enhance the feeling of being outside (in certain levels) or trapped deep beneath the earth. In an e-mail to the author, former id game designer and creative director on
Catacombs 3D , Tom Hall, stated that the texture mapping in Catacombs was “… the
Wolfenstein technology, but in EGA”. Catacombs 3D also introduced a now-familiar element of many first-person shooter games; a visible weapon in the bottom center of the screen. In Catacombs 3D, that visible weapon was one’s hand, from which a variety of magical spells could be projected to slay enemies. Again, level design and layout were relatively simple, but the addition of the texture maps went a long way to deepening the immersion of the game.
Catacombs 3D itself was an evolution of an earlier id title called Hovertank 3D,
wherein the player drove around in a hovering tank, destroying enemies with its main gun and rescuing trapped people. The gameplay was relatively straightforward, but it was the engine that was something new. Id software’s head programmer, John Carmack, was bothered by what he saw as excessively slow gameplay in flight simulator titles like Wing
Commander and sought to create a faster 3D engine (Kushner 81-82). Carmack utilized a
technique known as ray casting, allowing the computer to essentially draw only what the viewer could see. This meant that the first id game based on this technology, Hovertank
3D , and its successor, Catacombs 3D, were much faster than any other 3D rendered game
of the time. This emphasis on speed, however, meant less complexity in the levels, at least as compared to Ultima. Since both Hovertank 3D and Catacombs 3D made it to market before Ultima, though, players were unaware of the difference. The third id game featuring the technology, Wolfenstein 3D, would prove to be a genre-defining smash title.
Evolution of the Engines
Wolfenstein 3D was a remake of Castle Wolfenstein, a title programmed by the late Silas Warner and originally created for the Apple II computer in 1981 (Kent, 458).
Castle Wolfenstein was subsequently ported to the Commodore 64 in 1983 and finally to
DOS in 1984. The Wolfenstein 3D game engine was based on the same principles as that of Hovertank and Catacombs but with some major additions made by John Carmack.
Catacombs 3D ’s engine supported EGA graphics, meaning that it could only display 16
colors, far from the millions of colors the human eye can discern in real life. Wolf3D also supported 16 color graphics, but included support for the VGA standard, allowing for 256 colors, a major step up (Kushner, 97). VGA also allowed for Wolfenstein to feature higher resolutions. These graphical upgrades, combined with the speed of John Carmack’s improved rendering engine, achieved a level of immersion that surpassed anything id had done before.
The emphasis on speed, however, again led to limitations on how detailed the world was. Like Hovertank and Catacombs, the Wolf3D engine would draw just the walls, leaving the floors and ceiling a flat color (Kushner, 95; Hall). In a game set completely indoors in a Nazi castle this was a decision that ultimately had little impact on immersion, but it served to limit the flexibility of the engine. Texture mapped floors and ceilings would have to wait until id’s next project.
Interactivity in Wolf3D was relatively limited, with the player having only two ways to interact with the world; shooting things to kill them and opening doors by pressing the spacebar, a universal “use” key. Wolf3D upped the ante, though, by adding in “push walls”. These walls appeared like any of the normal solid walls in the game, but if a user hit the spacebar in front of them, the wall would slowly slide back, revealing a hidden room (Kushner, 108). Hidden rooms and secret levels would play a major part in future id games, and First-Person Shooters in general. The push walls were another innovation by Tom Hall, who served as the director of Wolfenstein 3D (Kushner, 108- 112), and served to reward the player for thoroughly exploring the game world. It was an interesting gameplay mechanic, and one that grew out of a tradition in the video game industry for including secrets, or “Easter eggs” for players to find (Kent 188-189). While many would consider these “Easter eggs” to be afterthoughts, they present an important opportunity for level designers to maximize player investment and interest in the game world. Additionally, the careful placement of such Easter eggs or bonus areas can confer additional replay value to a title, as well as providing significant benefit to the curious player. Armor, medical kits and additional weaponry or ammunition are traditionally found concealed in such hidden rooms, though later FPS titles such as Duke Nukem 3D added in secret rooms that contained little benefit to the player but gave insight into the minds and interests of the game and level designers.
Wolfenstein 3D also expanded on the weapon choices available to the player. In
keeping with the style established by Catacombs 3D, the player’s chosen weapon was visible at the center of the bottom of the screen. This helped both with aiming and adding a sense of actually seeing the world from your avatar’s perspective. This technique has become a standard immersive device in First Person Shooters, and later titles have expanded on the functionality, with some titles actually adding the ability so see the players own feet when they look down. DreamWorks Interactive’s 1998 First Person Shooter Trespasser, based on the Jurassic Park license, took the concept to the extreme, with the player being able to look down and see the female avatar’s ample bosom. The player avatar had a heart tattoo on the upper part of the left breast which served as a health indicator, removing the need for a health indicator in the player view.
The design of the levels in Wolf3D was accomplished using a proprietary program, called TED5, developed by John Romero (Romero; Hall). TED5 was an evolution of earlier tile-based editing programs that id used on Hovertank 3D and
Catacombs 3D (Hall). The levels were designed from a top-down perspective which was
simple to do since all ceilings and walls had the same height in the Wolf3D engine (Romero). Designing what Romero referred to as a “high quality level” in TED5 for Wolf3D could take “a few hours”. Romero also observes that “Back then, it didn't take much to do a Wolf3D level since it was all abstractly represented by tiles - what you saw on the screen in the editor is not what you saw on the screen in the game.” In terms of pre-production, the designers would start by laying out the episodes, general themes and enemies first, then start designing levels that the level designer themselves found to be fun. There were few if any paper sketches of levels made, since the simplicity and speed of the editor made it more time-efficient to simply create levels on the fly, versus doing extensive pre-planning. Again, such simplicity was a direct result of the limited state of the 3D presented in these early id software titles. In effect, the games were not truly three dimensional, but could better be referred to as pseudo-three dimensional, since the player did not have full range of movement, and all rooms were of a fixed height. There were no stairs in Wolf3D, no ramps, and no way to change the players’ altitude.
Many of these engine limitations would soon be overcome, however, when id software released Doom in December of 1993. Doom fundamentally altered the First- Person Shooter genre, cementing many of the innovations in Hovertank 3D and
Wolfenstein 3D as fundamental elements for any FPS. Fast paced gameplay, a variety of
powerful weaponry and detailed, realistic environments became hallmarks of FPS’s subsequent to the release of Doom (Kent, 459). Indeed, Doom was such a watershed moment that most of the First-Person Shooters that followed its release were referred to, somewhat derisively, as Doom clones.
The Doom engine supported a number of new features that finally made realistic and interactive environments possible. Instead of merely featuring doors that could be opened, Doom featured the ability to alter the game world by using in-game switches and “triggers” to activate events. These events could range from a set of stairs rising out of the ground to unsealing a room full of ravenous near-invisible monsters to bridges emerging out of toxic slime. Additionally, Doom added in lifts, which could raise players to different levels inside the game world or, if used slightly differently, could act as pistons and crush players against a ceiling. Further, the Doom engine’s support of variable height floors and ceilings also meant that in addition to being able to move on all three axes, more complex architecture could also be created. Tables, altars, platforms, low hallways, ascending and descending stairs, spacious caverns and other objects could all be created using geometry.
The ability to trigger events that could release monsters or alter geometry led level designers to create a number of surprisingly complex traps for players to uncover as they played through the game, from rapidly rising floors to bridges that would sink into toxic sludge if players moved too slowly. A frequent occurrence in Doom would be players being penalized somewhat for grabbing caches of equipment and ammunition; frequently, if a number of valuable items were left in plain view and easy access, approaching them would unleash an attack. This gameplay mechanic was present in both the 1994 release of Doom II and the 2004 release of Doom 3, though some players in 2004 were notably less amused. However, for Doom players, this was interactivity and detail that they had never seen before.
Doom ’s support of variable height ceilings and floors meant that players were
now free to move up and down in the game world, but not without limitations. Due to the implementations of the engine technology, the game could not support rooms over rooms, which meant that level designers could not have a second floor directly over the first floor, as is common in architecture. Nevertheless, this was not a significant limitation, and the ability to move around on all three axes was a major technical achievement. With careful attention to detail, level designers could deceive players into thinking the architecture was more complex.
The increasing architectural complexity was not limited merely to height changes, as the Doom engine also supported walls that were at angles other than 90 degrees (Kushner, 135). This was one of the most visible changes from the architecture present in
Wolfenstein , allowing much more realistic shapes. The engine supported only horizontally sloped surfaces, however, and did not support vertically sloped surfaces.
This meant that walls could have an angle to them, but that ramps and other vertically sloped surfaces were not possible. As a consequence, all floors and ceilings in Doom were completely flat.
John Carmack also used the Doom engine to greatly expand upon the previous implementations of texture mapping, now allowing textures to the ceilings and the floors, making for an improved appearance. Doom also supported a texture that could be projected onto the “sky”. This meant that when players looked outside or, as was often the case, traveled outside, they could see an image of the sky and the surrounding terrain. These textures could be changed, depending on what episode of the game, or level, the player was in. The appearance of the sky textures was a subtle confirmation that until now the majority of 3D First-Person Shooters had been confined to narrow internal corridors, with no acknowledgement of an outside world.
In addition to architectural advances, Doom also added the ability to alter the light levels in a level. All levels in Wolfenstein 3D and earlier titles were lit at the same level throughout, with no variations. This led to a very artificial appearance, since areas hundreds of virtual feet away were lit identically to areas just a few feet from the player.
In Doom, however, level designers could alter the lighting of certain areas, or even add simulated dynamic lighting, such as flickering lights. In many cases, the ability to alter the lighting level was used to plunge the player into darkness at highly inopportune moments, leading to players panicking as they were attacked by nearly unseen opponents, desperately searching for a switch or trigger that would reactivate the lights. This use of actual sources of light would be expanded upon further as game engines advanced.
The level designs for Doom were accomplished using much more advanced tools than previous id titles. Romero wrote an engine-specific level editing program called
DoomEd , which ran on the NeXTSTEP operating system, which was light-years more
advanced than DOS, the then-current standard PC operating system or the newly developed Microsoft Windows (Romero). Developed by NeXT Computers, a company founded by ousted Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs, the NeXTSTEP operating system and NeXT hardware was a powerful development tool for software designers, and provided a perfect medium for John Carmack to develop the next-generation engine that would power Doom. That meant, however, that all development had to be done on NeXT systems, and then ported over to the PC. This, combined with the new complexity of designing worlds in a three-dimensional editor meant that the days of a simple tile-based editor to create levels were over.
Despite the increased realism that Doom allowed, from a design perspective the levels were still more suggestive of a locale than representative. The levels could be detailed in a way that gave the impression of a military base or demonic setting, but the limitations of the engines prevented more detailed representations of the environments.
Doom did represent a major step forward in level design complexity and innovation, but
it proved to be an even better illustration of the potential of the First-Person Shooter to actually simulate real-life locations. Doom also illustrates that levels do not have to be based on easily recognizable locations in order for players to enjoy them, nor do they have to conform to preconceptions of what an environment should look like. Few would argue that the levels in Doom accurately represent what a research facility on an alien world would look like; indeed, the fact that the world is simultaneously familiar and abstract (Kushner, 136) may be a fundamental part of the charm of the game. The emphasis in Doom was not in levels that were recognizable, but in levels that were fun to play.
The emphasis on playability, the ephemeral “fun factor” is an important aspect of level design. Early Doom levels focused heavily on replicating the appearance of an actual military facility (Kushner, 136), but the fact is that most real-life locations are poorly suited to serve as game environments A variety of factors conspire against the level designer that seeks to use actual buildings and spaces in a simulation, but the primary issue is that most real world locations are not designed to be played in, making for an unmemorable experience. The key goal of a good level design is to balance setting with flow, the balance between exploration and moving through a plausible game world and interacting with the inhabitants and items in that world. Early Doom levels were likely accurate in terms of architectural style and function (Kushner, 136), but were lacking in two distinct areas. First, the levels failed to highlight the innovations of such a groundbreaking engine. Second, the levels failed to provide compelling or innovative gameplay to the player, a cardinal sin in level design. Recognizing the problem, later level designs emphasized the fast paced “run and gun” nature of the game, and also served to showcase the technical advantages of the engine.
A later iteration of the Doom series, id software’s 2004 release of Doom 3, took a much different approach to level design, laying out highly detailed environments that looked very much like what one would expect a base on Mars to resemble. However, designers chose to take a progressive approach, wherein early levels appeared hyper-real, but as players proceeded further into the facility, the levels grew increasingly abstract, laced with pseudo-organic structures and, eventually, bringing the player into a gothic nightmare vision of Hell itself. With an additional 11 years of technology, perhaps level designers were now better able to bring the original vision of Doom to life. Conversely, the progression into more complex and inventive levels later in Doom 3 may be an example of level designers becoming more comfortable with their tools and the game engine as development continues. Such a trend is certainly not limited to Doom 3, and is surprisingly common in game development. In several cases, levels designed early in a project are later revisited and improved upon by level designers that are now much more comfortable with their tools. In some certain cases, such as 1998 release of Valve Software’s Half-Life, the development team may completely scrap earlier level designs and start anew, though financial constraints usually prevent such drastic steps.
Despite the many technological advances that Doom displayed, there were still some sacrifices made in the name of speed. Just as with Wolfenstein 3D, enemies and many objects in Doom were not constructed of polygons, and thus not actual 3D objects. Instead, the game rendered enemies, items and many decorative objects as sprites, simple two-dimensional graphics. The advantages of sprites are that they require little processing power to generate, and sprite-based characters could be designed relatively quickly. For Wolfenstein, characters were manually drawn by artists, but for Doom several characters were created as clay models, and then digitally photographed in various poses. These digital images were then adjusted and used as the various character attack and movement animations (Kushner, 134-135). This approach reduced overhead while improving the quality of the animations. One of the major downsides to using sprites, however, is that they are two dimensional, meaning that they don’t actually look like part of the game world, but instead like moving paper cut-outs. While this could be compensated for to some degree, it meant that dead enemies and objects lying on the ground would always appear to be facing the player, even if the player did a full circle around the objects. Essentially, the objects appeared to have only one side, and the player could never see the sides or back of these objects. While annoying, the fast pace of Doom meant that this was not a priority issue, and would eventually be dealt with when engines became fully three- dimensional.
Before Doom, level design had centered on a single player experience. That is, levels were laid out only with one person in mind, the player, and how the player would progress through the level. Doom, however, added the now-common idea of multiplayer gaming into the mix, which it called DeathMatch. Designing levels for multiplayer requires a different set of priorities for level designers, depending on if the map being designed is for co-operative play or, more commonly, a map for players to do battle against one another, deathmatch-style. Level designers need to be aware of the size of the map and how many players they are designing the map for. Too big a map and players may never find one another, but too small a map and all semblances of tactics and strategy is lost as whoever grabs the biggest weapon first will likely dominate. In modern titles, multiplayer maps are usually specifically designed for multiplayer play, though sometimes they are modifications or tweaks of levels found in the singleplayer game.
More often the levels multiplayer levels are custom-designed for multiplayer play. In
Doom , the single player levels did double-duty as multiplayer levels for deathmatch, as
well as for the co-operative play. When designing for multiplayer, flow through the map is very important, as players should be able to quickly move from one place to another, particularly if being pursued. Weapon and item placement are also extremely important in multiplayer games, as placing items such as armor or health replenishment too close to powerful weapons can again unbalance the game, particularly if a player decides to “camp” around these items and prevent other players from obtaining them. Several of the singleplayer Doom maps were extremely popular deathmatch levels, a testament to their excellent design. Doom also had another advantage over more modern titles. Each of its maps was a stand alone map, not structurally linked to the map before or after it, allowing for a unified theme between maps but not requiring maps to directly flow into one another. More recent games such as Ritual’s SiN, Valve’s Half-Life and Half-Life 2 and id’s own Doom 3 features a unified level structure, where each level is a single portion of a contiguous whole. Such level architecture helps to create a feeling of being part of a larger world in the single player game but means that these levels, typically, are unsuitable for Deathmatch.
The emphasis on single player storytelling and plot structure has also led to a steep decline in the number of titles that allow cooperative play, since many of the techniques and missions that are appropriate in single player are unworkable in multiplayer. Further, since the emphasis in a single player is the individual player, there is often some form of puzzle solving in order to allow the player to proceed. In Doom, this typically consisted of finding a key or switch to open a locked door, but in newer games the puzzles or obstacles have increased in complexity. Puzzles are usually structured such that they work only if there is one person attempting to solve them, and the addition of anywhere from one to three additional players either renders the puzzles too simple or possibly breaks the game. As such, commercial designers typically do not create maps suitable for cooperative play as it is simply not time or cost effective.
Fortunately, Doom was also a leader in user-modifiable content. The game was essentially in two separate parts, with the engine being one part and content such as levels, sound effects, animations and music being contained in special files called WADs, or .wad files. By separating the content from the engine, it meant that individual users could modify the program by themselves, adding in new content (Kushner, 166). Players modifying games was not a new concept, since players had been developing content for text-based role playing games for years, not to mention hacking Wolfenstein 3D and other titles to change the content. Hacking the executable files, the program itself, was a concept that wasn’t embraced by the developers, since there was nothing to prevent people from distributing the hacked executable, and thus the game. That meant software piracy, which meant lost profits (Kushner, 166-167). By making the game easily modifiable, Carmack and id software hoped to prevent piracy while encouraging creativity.
The decision to make Doom easily modifiable led to an explosion of creativity. Users began creating their own level editing programs and their own levels, along with new music, new characters and entirely new textures. Drastic modifications, called Total Conversions, such as Aliens Total Conversion emerged, transforming the corridors of Doom into the Atmosphere processor or Med Labs from the James Cameron film Aliens, complete with facehuggers, Aliens and pulse rifles. Level editors such as Brendon Wyber’s Doom Editor Utility or DEU gave players a graphical interface allowing them to modify existing Doom levels or create them from scratch, while Greg Lewis’ DeHackEd, went far beyond the .wads and allowed alteration of the executable itself (Kushner, 168). This gave incredible power to the emerging modification, or mod, community, and this power was the key to enabling the total conversions. The mod community would come to be an important component of game development in the coming years, serving as a recruitment pool for the growing ranks of game developers.
Doom created a sensation in the gaming community and popular media, but it was
far from being the only title pushing the boundaries of technological innovation. In March of 1994, Looking Glass released System Shock, a science fiction title built on a modified version of the engine used in the Ultima Underworld titles. The gameplay of system shock is that of a first-person shooter merged with an RPG and an adventure game, much like that of Ultima Underworld, but with an enhanced role playing system.
Indeed, much of the success of a System Shock player centers on the ability to make wise choices when literally upgrading and modifying the player’s avatar. Since the player is a hacker that has been turned into a high-tech cyborg, the player has a number of abilities and skills that can quite literally be upgraded, as well as allow the player to interface with a virtual reality cyberspace set inside the game, a sort of world within the world. The antagonist of the game, an amoral female artificial intelligence known as SHODAN, routinely taunts the player from displays and interfaces, as well as sending cyborgs, mutants and robots to attack the player. The game is not a fast paced title, with designers choosing instead to emphasis story and character development, as well as providing a complex mystery for players to unravel. This type of gameplay is a marked contrast to that of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, which emphasized a faster paced, higher-body count approach to immersion.
System Shock ’s engine had many graphical features in common with Doom, but
was designed to create a much more detailed environment, as well as for a slower pace. A purely singleplayer game with no multiplayer capability, the emphasis in System Shock was not on “run and gun”, but instead on slowly unraveling the mystery of what had transpired on the Citadel Station space research and mining facility. The engine supported almost all of the features present in Doom, many of which had been present in the earlier Ultima titles. System Shock supported higher resolutions than most other games, allowing up to 640x480 resolution, which was necessary for the full amount of detail included in many of the textures to be completely visible. These abilities came at a price, however, as many computers couldn’t run such a complex game at a reasonable speed. Conversely, Doom was engineered to run very quickly on as wide a number of systems as possible. Since the engines were designed for games with two completely different approaches to interactivity, comparing the two on merits of mere speed is unfair, and any comparison must take into account the different approaches to gaming.
The creepy, almost oppressive atmosphere of System Shock was enhanced by the utter lack of non-player characters to speak with. All humans encountered in the course of the game are corpses, whose bodies can be rifled through. Many of the bodies contain data discs with audio or text messages that provide the player with clues as to what happened on the station, as well as information on how to defeat SHODAN. The original release of the game provided these logs and messages as merely text, but a later CD release of the game added an extensive amount of audio to the title, heightening the immersion and fear factor of the title significantly. Ambient audio combined with the vocal performance were an integral part of the game, providing clues as to hidden enemies, as well as allowing SHODAN to harass the player as they moved throughout the station.
The level design in System Shock emphasized giving the player choices and rewards for thorough exploration of the station. The levels varied between the computerized corridors of Citadel Station to hydroponics bays filled with mutant creatures and plants run amok, orange tentacles creeping across the walls and integrating with the digital systems. In certain cases, the player actually had to jack into a representation of cyberspace in order to achieve goals such as unsealing doors or repairing systems. The need for the player to balance choices, as well as having to actually interact with computer and security systems in the game were innovative features in the genre, and significantly increased the direct influence that players could have on the game world besides merely butchering enemies and throwing switches.
System Shock’s design choice to eschew non-player characters in favor of using logs and messages left before their death is an interesting choice from a game design standpoint. In a postmortem on System Shock 2, Irrational Games developer Johnathan Chey notes that System Shock made this decision primarily because the computer technology of 1994 “was simply inadequate to support believable and enjoyable interactions with them” (Grossman, 12). While the decision was made out of necessity, it served to greatly improve the feeling and immersion of the title, and was a decision that
was carried through in the August 11 , 1999 release of System Shock 2 by Irrational Games and Looking Glass.
While System Shock and Doom took a grim and serious tone towards their gameplay, other titles such as Apogee’s 1994 Rise of the Triad took a somewhat more light-hearted approach to the violence that was such an integral part of FPS titles. With a design team led by former id software member Tom Hall, Rise of the Triad, or RotT, used a modified version of the Wolfenstein 3D engine. Since Apogee had been the distributor of Wolf3D, they had the rights to use the engine; Doom was made and distributed by id software itself, meaning that Apogee would have had to license the Doom engine if they wanted to use it in a product, a costly proposition.
RotT featured several innovations for the Wolf3D engine, including adding the
ability to move vertically. The game added a number of both humorous and deadly methods of interaction for the player, including “jump pads” that could launch players and enemies high into the sky, razor sharp spinning blades that could eviscerate unwitting gamers, weapons that could leave bullet marks on walls and the introduction of explosive deaths for all enemies. In RotT, when an enemy character was hit with a rocket they would frequently be reduced to a shower of digital meat, completely obliterated, seeming to fly out towards any nearby player. This shower of exploded body parts included an eye, bloody skull and, occasionally, a severed arm with its middle finger upraised. This was a graphical advancement over Doom, which simply showed a shredded pile of an enemy after a rocket hit them. While a small addition, it made for some truly amusing kills in multiplayer, called Comm-Batt.
RotT ’s deathmatch also introduced a variety of inventive new ways of dispatching
enemies, including homing missiles, heat seeking missiles, flame wall bombs, fire jets, floor and ceiling spikes, and weapons such as the Excalibat, a cursed Louisville slugger.
These weapons and innovations allowed players, who were frequently in the same room or near one another on a Local Area Network, to truly embarrass their opponents as they beat them, as well as pulling off impressive feats of acrobatics.
Other technical innovations included walls that could move inwards and crush players (a feature not present in Doom, where walls, ceilings and floors could only move vertically), poison gas that required a gas mask to evade, fireproof jackets to ward off flame-based weaponry, and enemies that could steal a players weapons and also feign death. While seemingly superficial additions, these ideas were innovative and forced
RotT players to be more aware of their surroundings.
While Apogee was busy with RotT, Volition software was busy with their space- combat FPS, Descent. Released on March 17, 1995, Descent was the first PC game to feature a full three dimensional environment as well as fully three-dimensional enemies. The engine was not completely three dimensional, as it still used sprites for doors, pilots to rescue and item pickups, but was a significant improvement compared to Doom.
In Descent the player flew an upgradeable space-fighter through narrow twisting corridors of a robot-infested mining colony. The goal was to clear out the robots in a given mine and then locate the reactor for that mine and destroy it. After destroying the reactor, the player had a set amount of time to reach an emergency escape door before the reactor went super-critical and destroyed the mine.
Descent ’s level design was intriguing because it blended the narrow corridors of Doom with the spacecraft-based combat of the earlier Wing Commander and X-Wing
games. The 1993 release of LucasArts’ X-Wing featured three dimensional ships like
Descent, but X-Wing was set in deep space, and the ships were simple colored polygons,
similar in nature to the walls of Hovertank 3D. LucasArt’s 1994 sequel to X-Wing, Tie
Fighter , would add polygon shading but few other graphical enhancements. Again, faithful to the Star Wars movies, all combat took place in deep space.
Descent on the other hand, featured fully three dimensional ships with texture
maps applied to them, allowing a greater level of detail. The various colors helped players to quickly identify the types of enemy robots they were engaging, even from a distance. Descent also took place exclusively inside the mines, though 1999’s Descent 3 would add the ability to leave the mines and do battle outside using its Fusion rendering engine.
Since the environment of Descent was fully three dimensional, that meant shafts could connect at unusual angles, requiring players to look up, down and to both sides when moving through the levels. Making it to the escape hatches after destroying a reactor either required extraordinary luck, or carefully pre-planning a route of escape before trying to detonate the reactor. It also meant that level design could be challenging, since the 3D engine had very specific requirements about how levels could be constructed.
Descent was also an innovator in its lighting. Where Doom’s lighting was
relatively static, Descent had a dynamic lighting system that enabled the use of flares to light areas, as well as laser blasts and explosions. The dynamic lighting also allowed more gradations of light in the mines, which gave a more natural and realistic appearance to in-game lights.
While Volition was adding three dimensions to its world and characters, Apogee and its sister company, 3D Realms, would continue their more humorous take on the
First-Person Shooter genre with their next title, the January 29 , 1996 release of Duke
Nukem 3D or Duke3D for short. Based on the Duke Nukem side scrollers produced by
Apogee in the early 90’s, Duke Nukem 3D was the first commercial implementation of a new engine known as BUILD, developed by Ken Silverman. A self-taught programmer, Silverman became a contract programmer for 3D Realms during his freshman year of college. His BUILD engine matched and, in several cases, surpassed the Doom engine in technical achievements. Set in a near-future science fiction world, Duke Nukem 3D places the player into the boots of world-renowned hero and tough guy Duke Nukem. Duke is essentially a caricature of the stereotypical macho action hero, spouting one-liners throughout the game and generally fulfilling the stereotype. The game was a huge hit, not merely because of the never-before-seen attitude that Duke displayed but because Duke
3D and BUILD had solid technical and gameplay advantages over the games that had come before.
BUILD featured an editor that had a real-time What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) interface, meaning that level designers could lay out a level in two dimensions, then immediately switch into a 3D mode to see what the level would look like. Previous editors and engines required the map to be compiled and then run in the game engine in order for level designers to see the progress of their work. This innovation significantly reduced the turn around time for level design, and also made the process much more intuitive.
Besides making level design easier, BUILD allowed Duke3D to have an unprecedented amount of interaction with the world. The game had the ability to give the illusion of dynamically altering portions of the level, allowing effects such as buildings exploding and collapsing, ground cracking in earthquakes, and certain walls that players could destroy with rocket launchers or explosive barrels. Most of these effects were accomplished with technical slight-of-hand in the engine and in the level design program, and didn’t mean that the engine was actually capable of changing level geometry. Duke
3D and BUILD allowed level designers to add in, for lack of a better term, special
effects that gave the player the illusion that they were dramatically effecting or altering the game space, when in reality they were merely triggering the special effects that the level designers had pre-placed. This is in contrast to later games such as Volition’s 2001 release of Red Faction, a title in which the player could use explosives and other weapons to dynamically alter and destroy many walls and other surfaces in the game.
In addition to the influence players could have on the geometry of the level, Duke
3D also added in the ability to destroy or interact with a large number of in-game objects.
Fire hydrants could be smashed, urinals interacted with, coke cans exploded, and so on. Practically any decorative object could be destroyed, resulting in a shower of debris, adding realism to the firefights. Glass also made one of its first appearances in Duke 3D, though another sprite-based version had also appeared in Apogee’s earlier Rise of the
Triad . In addition to glass, Duke featured mirrors that reflected the architecture around
them, as well as Duke. The glass and mirrors could usually be broken, adding yet another small touch to the worlds.
Duke 3D , for all of its technical innovations, was not a fully three dimensional
world. Enemies were still sprite-based, as were all of the in-game objects, and the BUILD engine, much like that of Doom still did not support rooms-over-rooms. This made effects such as multi-story buildings or sewers running under a building impossible to do traditionally. Instead, Duke 3D leveraged an effect first seen in Doom: the teleporter. In
Doom , teleporters were spaces, usually denoted by pentagrams, that when stepped on
would immediately transport a player to another part of the level. The effect in Doom was primarily used to transport players from point to point or to teleport monsters into an area to attack the player. The effect of having monsters appear in this manner was referred to as “spawning”, a term still widely used in level design to refer to the appearance of enemies or objects in the game world.
While still not a completely three dimensional engine, Duke 3D found many innovative uses for sprites, allowing certain decorative sprites to be applied directly to wall surfaces. These sprites were commonly used for items such as signs, boards and calendars, though they were also used for blood spatter on walls, cracks, scorch marks and bullet holes. Such sprite based effects were first used in Rise of the Triad, but Duke
Nukem 3D greatly expanded their use, and did so in highly creative ways. Minor effects
such as blood from enemies splattering against a wall behind them helped to make characters seem more a part of the world.
In Duke Nukem 3D, developers took the idea of teleporting and used it to cover up the weaknesses of the engine, giving the impression of it being capable of more than it really was. An excellent example of this can be found in the Red Light District map, the second map of the first episode. After obtaining a keycard and destroying a building, one can find a manhole cover in the wreckage. If one destroys the manhole cover with explosives, one can drop into the sewers. Looking more closely, though, one will note that the manhole pipe is actually a dead end; if one looks down, the bottom can be seen. By dropping into the hole, however, an invisible teleporter is triggered that moves the player to a different area of the level that looked like a sewer. The sewer was supposed to be immediately below the destroyed building, but since the BUILD engine couldn’t do rooms-over-rooms the level designer, Alan Blum III, chose to use an invisible teleport to move the player to a location not immediately underneath another room. Such techniques are used throughout Duke Nukem 3D to accomplish a number of effects, including any water in which the player can actually submerge themselves and swim in. Because of careful forethought and good map design, these effects are almost completely transparent unless you know what to look for.
These effects were a crude predecessor of the scripting languages now used to control many of the variables and effects in FPS titles. By altering values in the editor, known as “hi tags” and “lo tags”, level editors could assign certain actions to certain objects, as well as link a number of objects together to function as a single entity. These tags and links made extremely complex actions possible.
Unlike Doom and RotT, the levels in Duke 3D were usually built around a central theme, as well as sharing a thematic link via episode. For instance, many of the maps in episode one, L.A. Meltdown, and in episode three, Shrapnel City, are centered on recognizable city buildings such as a movie theater, sushi house, prison, and so forth. The second episode consists of more fanciful, but still recognizable, space-based structures. Again, all of these maps, while not linear in the way levels in Half-Life are connected, are still linked, giving the player the impression of a larger world. The fact that the game world was both easily recognizable and more interactive than ever before made Duke Nukem 3D an extremely popular title.
While Duke Nukem 3D was gaining fans with its tongue in cheek attitude to the game world and its technical innovations, id software, fathers of the PC First Person
Shooter revolution, were not resting on their laurels. On October 10 , 1994 id released
Doom II: Hell On Earth , the sequel to their smash hit. The game was a huge seller, but
offered no major technical advancements over Doom. Indeed, the engine was exactly the same, featuring no improvement to graphics or to the gameplay, though there were several new enemies and a new weapon, the double-barreled shotgun. The game, while wildly successful, offered little more than its predecessor, but the gameplay of the original Doom and Doom II was so compelling that it did not matter. Still, id’s John Carmack had a vision for the future, and that vision was a fully three-dimensional world (Kushner, 178-179).
Quake would be that next id title, and the realization of Carmack’s technical
vision. Everything, from the environment architecture to the enemies and powerups would be polygon based, another first in the industry. Singleplayer gameplay and world detail, however, would suffer a severe decrease during the transition to full 3D, since the computing power needed to render the world meant that the pace of the game would be much slower than Doom. Worse still, since everything was polygon based, that meant that adding detail to an object meant adding polygons, and more polygons meant less speed (Kushner 216-217).
Released on July 22, 1996, seven months after Duke Nukem 3D, Quake featured next to no story, but like Doom chose to focus primarily on action. The game featured dynamic lighting, similar to that implemented in Descent, and a variety of enemies that ranged from towering lightning-shooting behemoths to twisted knights to zombies that would throw hunks of their own bloody entrails at the player. The game was extremely popular, and was a major software engineering achievement, but featured single-player gameplay that was almost exactly identical to that of Doom.
The levels in Quake were a mixture of the work of a number of level designers, all working on different themes. This led to an uneven tone in the level designs that id attempted to reconcile by making teleportation and inter-dimensional travel a core theme of the game. Nevertheless, compared to many other titles, particularly Duke Nukem 3D, the world had a very static feel. Combined with the dark color palette, Quake provided a singleplayer experience that, beyond the technical achievements of the engine, offered little new gameplay.
Like Doom, Quake was designed with modification in mind. This time, instead of simply relying on WAD files, Carmack developed a scripting language called QuakeC that allowed members of the mod community to drastically alter the game. Adding new weapons and enhancing player function became a relatively simple affair, and a number of popular modifications such as TeamFortress and ThreeWave Capture the Flag were a direct result of the power of the modding tools. These user-created modifications would help fuel the popularity of Quake as well as a growth in the popularity of modding games.
Multiplayer proved to be Quake’s strong suit, with the game featuring support for the TCP/IP networking protocol, allowing multiplayer games to now take place over the burgeoning internet. A later update to the game would add in a system known as QuakeWorld, which added client-side prediction to the game, greatly improving network performance on slow dial-up connections.
Curiously, the greatest achievement of Quake may not lie in its gameplay or its ease of modification, but in its use as a test bed in the evolution of 3D accelerator cards.
Carmack used a modification of Quake known as GLQuake to allow the game to use the new consumer technology of graphics accelerators to add both new features to Quake, as well as improve its rendering of the world as it existed. In addition to increasing the speed of the game, allowing gameplay speed closer to that of Doom, GLQuake added graphical enhancements such as making water transparent, adding reflections and also adding shadows. Until GLQuake, water in Quake and most other titles had been essentially opaque, with no way to see what was in the water without jumping in.
GLQuake made it possible to look right into the water, which not only allowed players to
butcher their swimming opponents, but added another small touch of realism to the now fully three-dimensional world. The added shadows served an important function, giving game characters and items a greater appearance of being grounded into the game world. Use of 3D graphics acceleration is now common in the industry, and its adoption has shifted much of the graphics strain from the processor onto specialized graphics chips, allowing the computers main processor to devote it’s time to other tasks, such as artificial intelligence for non-player characters and physics calculations for game objects.
Id would follow up Quake with two official mission packs, the first being Scourge
8th, of Armagon , released on February 27 1997 and created by Ritual Entertainment. The
second mission pack was Dissolution of Eternity, released on March 31, 1997 by the now-defunct Rogue Entertainment. While Scourge of Armagon received considerable praise for its excellent level design and inventive use of traps, as well as a cohesive series of levels with an overarching story, Dissolution of Eternity was somewhat less popular.
The fact that Richard “Levelord” Grey, one of the founders of Ritual, had been intimately involved in the level design for some of the most memorable Duke Nukem 3D levels likely played a part in the inventive design of the Scourge of Armagon maps. In addition to new levels, both expansions added new weapons and new monsters.
Quake and it’s sequels Quake II and Quake 3 Arena would continue to push the
boundaries of rendering technology, but would do little to advance the art of level design th
and storytelling. While Quake II’s release on November 30 , 1997 would be a significant cash cow for the company, its much-vaunted single player storyline would once again place the player in the shoes of a lone space marine against impossible odds. Technically, the game would add improved graphics and the ability to render colored lighting, allowing for much more dramatic graphic effects. Quake III Arena would enhance the engine technology by allowing rounded surfaces in games, meaning that more organic shapes could be constructed. Previously, almost all levels were constricted to more angular shapes. As Quake II Arena was essentially a multiplayer only title, little use was made of this technology, and even if it had been properly seized upon it is unlikely that players involved in intense multiplayer deathmatches would stop to admire the architecture.
Engine Refinements, Storytelling and Interactivity
The move into a fully three dimensional world with Quake was probably as momentous an occasion as the release of the original Wolfenstein 3D or Doom, a turning point in the development of three-dimensional first person titles. Many companies would license Quake engine technology in order to construct their own games around its powerful rendering technologies, just as companies did with Doom. In addition to permitting faster development of games, this licensing of engine technology had a second, less recognized effect. It allowed the licensees to concentrate more of their energies on the design of the actual game, instead of focusing as heavily on technical concerns. That is not to say that the engines were simply plug and play, but that programmers were spending more time modifying the engine to suit their needs, instead of designing whole new engines from the ground up. As the 1990’s came to a close, a slew of new titles arrived on the shelves, with many offering singleplayer innovation.
On May 28 , 1998, Digital Extremes and Epic Games released Unreal, a title that had been under development for four years (Grossman, 91). Unreal had impressive graphical capabilities, supporting very detailed textures, connected linear levels and fairly advanced artificial intelligence for the enemies. This resulted in moments where enemies would narrowly dodge projectiles at the last moment, a nasty surprise to players.
Level design wise, the game featured moments demonstrating nearly cinematic pacing, such as the players first encounter with a Skarrj warrior. Like Quake, Unreal featured a full three-dimensional engine, but supported more complex environments.
Unreal also required levels to be constructed in a much different way than Quake engine
titles. In Quake based titles, a level starts empty and must be assembled from various geometric shapes, called brushes. These brushes can be manipulated to alter size and shape, as well as other features, resulting in what can be called additive level construction. Unreal engine based projects, on the other hand, use a subtractive model, where the world starts full and level designers create empty spaces to serve as rooms, then add other geometry as details, much like a sculptor whittles down a block of clay or marble to create a sculpture. Level design for Quake engine titles were more akin to working with Legos that could be stretched and modified.
Unreal also featured much more natural environments. While Duke 3D did a
good job of simulating cities and urban environments, Unreal was adept at creating believable and lush pseudo-tropical landscapes. The levels featured effects such as waterfalls, transparent water, colored lighting and greater interactivity with objects such as boxes, which could be pushed and used to create stairs. While the actual game offered little new, the impressive use of graphical effects served to add yet another layer of depth to the virtual world.
While the Unreal and Quake engines would become the two dominant engines used for the creation of First Person Shooters for computer games, they would not be the only engines developed. Several companies, such as Looking Glass, would continue to develop their own engines from scratch.
The Dec 3, 1998 release of Thief: The Dark Project and the August 1999 release of System Shock 2, developed nearly simultaneously, marked the first implementations of the Dark engine. Thief was best described as a First Person Sneaker, where the object of the game was not to loudly blast through enemies, but instead to avoid detection while pilfering valuable or interesting objects. The storyline was involved and played out in animated cut scenes before and after each level, setting the stage for the action to come.
The cut scenes were well done, but it was the gameplay that was novel, encouraging players to hide in the shadows and use a variety of arrows to ease their path. Thief featured truly dynamic lighting, with almost every light source able to be doused, a vital component of the gameplay. Thief is, at the very least, the spiritual ancestor of popular modern titles such as the Splinter Cell series from UbiSoft. Thief also illustrated that there was a market for titles played from a first person perspective other than violent slaughter-fests.
Thief also relied heavily on audio as an element of player involvement. In most
previous titles, enemies were essentially silent unless they were attacking the player. In
Thief , one of the best ways to determine the location of an enemy was by their footsteps.
Further, players could use the sounds made by the NPC’s to determine how aware or suspicious they were; casual whistling could indicate they were unaware of anything amiss, while yells for help would ensue should the player be spotted. Players could also use these aural capabilities to their advantage, throwing objects or using special noisemaker arrows to distract opponents. This use and recognition of audio as an important part of the immersive experience was a significant step forward, adding another vital element to level design; the placement and use of ambient audio. While ambient audio had been used in previous projects from Doom to Duke Nukem 3D and beyond, Thief was the first title to make audio a central element of the gameplay (Grossman 175-176).
System Shock 2 , developed by both Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios,
was a sequel to the innovative, if overlooked System Shock. System Shock 2 continued the story of System Shock, with the player taking the role of the sole survivor of a terrible disaster aboard two ships deep in space. The player awakens with no knowledge of past events, and through audio logs and e-mails must piece together what happened aboard the ships.
Like it’s predecessor, System Shock 2 was a difficult title to categorize, having elements in common with role playing games, action games like Doom and adventure games. More generally, the game could be categorized as an action horror survival game, as the player had no idea why the crews of the ships were dead, and seldom enough ammunition to simply blaze through any opponents. Item placement was a critical element of level design in System Shock 2, as designers were careful to never give the player an overwhelming amount of resources. Players were required to carefully horde ammunition and supplies, as well as manage various ammunition types. As in System
Shock , certain weapons and ammunition types worked best against certain enemies, so
players had to be aware that they could encounter any of a variety of enemies at any time, and that using a more effective ammunition type would help conserve their meager resources.
Problems or “puzzles” in System Shock 2 frequently had multiple solutions that would depend on the various skills of the player character and their playing style.
Enemies could be killed or snuck by, doors opened by finding a key code or by hacking the lock. Players could disable cameras by shutting down a security system, destroying the camera or merely sneaking by it when the camera was pointed elsewhere. As in previous games from Looking Glass, players were usually rewarded for careful play and exploration of the world, receiving upgrade chips that could be spent to improve character abilities in an RPG style system. The game also allowed characters to do research on enemies using a variety of simple chemicals. This research would then yield distinct knowledge or combat advantages over opponents.
System Shock 2 also made extensive use of scripted sequences, a concept that
would be fleshed out more fully in Half-Life. As opposed to pre-rendered movies advancing the story, System Shock 2 chose to display almost all events inside the game engine itself, helping to maintain player immersion which could easily be broken by the interjection of pre-rendered movies. Many of these events were highly unexpected, such as the player’s first encounter with a “ghost” of a crewmember. While the models of characters and objects would later be criticized by some players as primitive, the attention paid to character and level design, as well as the vital role of sound effects and spoken dialogue made System Shock 2 a highly successful and critically acclaimed title. The game is still considered by many to be one of the best examples of the genre and of game story in general.
System Shock 2 is joined in this pantheon by another game that has direct ties to
Ultima Underworld and System Shock; Ion Storm Austin’s Deus Ex. Released in late June
of 2000, Deus Ex was set in a dystopian future where conspirators and terrorists have turned the United States into a fractious, diseased and crumbling nation. Levels were set to resemble recognizable locations such as Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty, Battery Park in New York and other areas throughout the world. The player Avatar, J.C.
Denton, was a nano-augmented agent for a United Nations anti-terrorist group.
The game, designed by former Looking Glass developer Warren Spector, had much in common with titles like System Shock, System Shock II and Ultima Underworld.
The player’s character could define an early set of skills and abilities that later could be modified through a combination of experience points and “augmentation canisters”, which would add new functions to a player, such as the ability to increase their strength or to become resistant to radiation. Augmentations could also be upgraded using upgrade canisters, a separate system from the experience or “skill” points system.
In addition, Deus Ex allowed players to use a variety of play styles and tactics to achieve in-game objectives. Many objectives had several different approaches that would all be suitable, allowing players to exercise their discretion and giving the impression of a great deal of freedom in what was still a largely linear game world. For instance, when confronted with a locked door in most games, players would know they would have to find the key or a switch to open it. Deus Ex could allow players several options, such as destroying the door with explosives, picking the lock, hacking the security system to open the door or finding a way around the door, typically through a ventilation or sewer system, or by navigating other nearby rooms.
Naturally, such freedom came at a considerable cost for level designers, necessitating massive amounts of pre-production and planning for level design and other systems (Grossman 200-201, 205-206). Level designers would have to take into account the various augmentations and skills that a player might have and provide a sufficient variety of tools for a player never to become completely stuck in a dead-end merely because they didn’t have the requisite skill level to hack a computer or pick a lock. This meant that other solutions had to be found, such as key rings containing necessary keys for players to use.
The issues faced by Deus Ex serve as both an example of how good planning can result in better level design, as well as a cautionary tale about the difficulties of giving players choices. While many players clamor for more inventiveness and freedom in games, implementation of such abilities presents serious challenges for designers, necessitating, as was done with Deus Ex, early functional prototyping of levels and other resources. Deus Ex was richly rewarded for its efforts, garnering a great deal of praise both for its comparatively open-ended gameplay and its ability to allow players to play the game in a manner that fit their personalities. The game also received considerable praise for its conversational system, allowing players to choose from a number of pre- scripted conversational choices, each of which would affect the course of the conversation with an NPC. This furthered the sense of immersion and the impression that player choices would have tangible effects on their ability to progress, as well as NPC’s perception of them. This system, allowing players to actually select from conversational choices was an ideal method for exposition and character development, but not the only approach to player and NPC interaction.
A company that took a different approach nearly two years before Deus Ex was
Seattle based Valve Software. Released on November 20 , 1998 after more than a year delay, Half-Life put players in the shoes of Gordon Freeman, a research scientist at a top secret government facility in the fictional location of Black Mesa, New Mexico in the United States. Half-Life is remarkable in many ways, but one of the most obvious is the method used to introduce the player to the world. Typically, players are thrust into their characters immediately after a disaster has occurred rendering all other friendly non- player characters dead or dying, or at the very least in need of help. This is a storytelling device that serves to cover up the fact that the technology for players to interact believably with Non-Player Characters was, at best, limited. Indeed, this idea of the limited capability for players to interact with “friendly” characters had become something of an accepted fact in many titles.
Half-Life took a different and arguably more cinematic approach to their
storytelling. Players began on a highly detailed tram ride into the Black Mesa Research Center, with the tram ride serving as an introduction to Black Mesa at the beginning of a normal work day. As would be expected, the player is completely unarmed throughout this portion of the game, a dramatic difference from practically all other titles. The player would then have to follow verbal prompts and instructions from Non-Player Characters in order to achieve their goals. The characters featured a form of lip syncing, similar to the appearance of a puppet, that caused their mouths to move in approximations of the proper shapes for certain sounds, giving the impression that the characters were actually human and speaking to you. Players would then proceed down to a test chamber where they themselves would become responsible for the initiating event that would lead to the disaster at the facility. The concept of showing players the world before the disaster, letting them become familiar with it in its natural state, served to give players a reference point by which to compare the following chaos and disorder.
The player would then have to move through the facility, frequently relying on Non-Player characters to open doors and provide medical attention, as well as supply advice and hints as to the next course of action that the player should take. Valve, also realizing that the technology was not yet sufficient to allow back and forth conversation with NPC’s, chose to make Gordon completely mute, and simply have characters speak to him directly. With careful writing the designers could give the impression that the conversation was at least a natural one, if decidedly lopsided.
Half-Life also featured an excellent implementation of level transitions, similar to those used by Unreal. Instead of an intervening screen between levels, Half-Life would load the next level dynamically when the player reached the end of one map, displaying a small “loading” graphic before resuming the game. The transitions were as seamless as possible, allowing for next to no pauses in gameplay. While the level transitions typically required a reasonable amount of pre-planning on the part of the level designers, the seamlessness gave players the feeling of truly being in a continuous world. Additionally, players could backtrack over considerable distances in the game, allowing them to go back for items or equipment that they may have missed or wanted to save.
Half-Life was based on a heavily modified version of the original Quake engine,
providing the game with a fully three-dimensional world, but the additions made by Valve made the singleplayer game many times more advanced that that of Quake.
Colored lighting, the use of scripted animated sequences to advance story and heighten tension and the construction of both impressive indoor and outdoor environments made Half-Life a hallmark of the industry. Combined with the intriguing plot and the addition of an endgame choice, the game was a wild success. Further, the release of level design and other tools, called a Software Development Kit or SDK, turned Half-Life into a success in the online gaming world, spawning a number of third party modifications such as Counter-Strike, Natural Selection and Day of Defeat.
While a number of titles have been released since Half-Life, including its widely acclaimed sequel, Half-Life 2, there has been surprisingly little advancement in the field of level design since Half-Life. Many other titles have adopted features that were present in Half-Life and made iterative improvements, while some titles have updated older methods of interaction, such as Deus Ex or System Shock 2. Still, the question remains regarding what level design and level designers are becoming.
The release of mapping tools to the general public has allowed the creation of hundreds of thousands of maps and collections of missions for a variety of FPS’s, beginning with Doom and continuing on with titles like Doom 3, Half-Life 2, Star Wars
Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and Halo 2. First Person Shooter titles have branched out
from personal computers and onto popular consoles, with games such as Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64 and the Halo series for Xbox, but the gameplay model has, by and large, remained the same. Some of the more popular modification teams have even been hired to do commercial work, such as the poorly received Gunman Chronicles, the product of a total conversion for Half-Life.
While the availability of the tools has given rise to new ranks of level designers, the job is constantly increasing in complexity. Early titles could have their levels designed by only one person in a few hours, as was the case with Wolfenstein 3D. Games such as Half-Life and Half-Life 2 now require team efforts, with designers specializing in lighting, weapon and enemy placement and the creation and implementation of scripted sequences to make the world come alive. It is highly likely that in the coming years we will see the emergence of a division of labor very similar to that of the film industry, with certain designers laying out architecture while others apply textures and still others place enemies, items and monsters. Valve Software itself noted that it has had to change the design process for its own levels, laying out architecture with a flat default orange texture in order to test gameplay and level flow before dedicating the resources to applying the necessary texture maps, lighting and other small touches that truly bring levels to life.
Level designers have come a long way from the early days of the first person shooter, but with each technological leap the necessary time, preplanning and design required to create a level has increased significantly. It is highly likely that just as the auteur game programmer has become extinct, so too will the auteur level designer, replaced instead by what Valve software refers to as “cabals”, teams of designers working in concert to bring a level to life. This is not limited to just FPS titles, since the growing complexity and open-ended gameplay of games like Grand Theft Auto: San
Andreas and World of Warcraft require level designers to expand their skills far beyondthat of simple geometry creation and lighting.
These design challenges raise important questions for the game development community regarding the methods and technologies that are being used to develop content for titles. Certain designers, such as Maxis’ Will Wright, advocate the use of procedural generation technology to allow algorithms to handle the bulk of content generation, a technique he plans to use in his upcoming game Spore. Valve appears to advocate the cabal design process, wherein they recognized that level gameplay and flow is the primary issue. Because of this, they chose to use their technique of texturing prototypes in a flat orange color in order to concentrate fully on gameplay and not be distracted by graphical concerns, a process that appears to have worked well for Half-Life 2 .
However, perhaps it is not an issue of team size, but an issue of tool improvement. The level design tools that we have today are advanced, but likely have not advanced at the pace of the rendering engines themselves, so there is likely room for improvement both in function and usability. Could we alter the way the levels are created so that rapid prototyping could be made even easier? Which approach to level design is more robust, the additive techniques used in the Quake and Doom 3 engines, or the subtractive methods used by Unreal engine titles? Is there a combination of the two techniques that would work best? These are questions that must be answered so that the pace and advances of level design can keep up with the requirements that are being placed upon the level designers, particularly with a new generation of consoles and other hardware nearly upon us.
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