A History And Analysis Of Level Design In 3d Computer Games pdf

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A History and Analysis of Level Design in 3D Computer



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


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,


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 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


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


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 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,


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


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


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 release of Doom on December 10th, 1993 and, in at least one case, the release of Duke Nukem 3D years later on January 29th, 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,


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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 increasedrealism 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


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


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


not a priority issue, and would eventually be dealt with when engines became fully


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


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,


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


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


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


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


The level design in System Shock emphasized giving the player choices and rewards for thorough exploration of the station. The levels varied between the


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 11th, 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


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


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


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


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


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 29th, 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


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,


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


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


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 10th, 1994 id released


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 compellingthat 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


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


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 of Armagon, released on February 278th, 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.


and storytelling. While Quake II’s release on November 30th, 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 IIIArena 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


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


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 28th, 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


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


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


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


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


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


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





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