Potential pitfalls in mobile shooter MMO design

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Pixonic’s in-house game designer Alexander Linchik gives App2Top.ru the low-down on creating mobile shooter multiplayer maps – where to begin, which tricks to use, and what to keep in mind.

Creating different maps for different game genres has its peculiarities – in creating new maps for Walking War Robots, we ended up accumulating tons of experience, and I eventually decided to share some of the basic principles of creating locations for shooter MMOs.

Pick your available opportunities

Your first step in planning a new location should be familiarising yourself with the features of the gameplay – carefully survey all the opportunities that the player will face when he begins your new level. Apart from that, it’s useful to write down – or, better still, to memorise – the key metrics. In our case, these metrics included not only the speed, size and class of each given robot, but also the range of their weapons, as well as other abilities.

Ideally, you should only construct levels by zeroing in on the opportunities available to the player.

Test out your ideas in an empty space

While you’re collecting and studying metrics, create a testing ground, and pepper it with various obstacles of different sizes. Also, add different planes to test out gaming opportunities – this allowed us to save a lot of time when developing Walking War Robots. We were able to quickly grasp the limits of the the character’s interaction with the environment – the maximum height of the robots’ jump, the proper shelter size, and adequate slope design, to prevent the robot from slipping.

The weapons metrics allowed us to create a set of “rulers” to determine the perfect attack range and plan points of approach, shot penetration and territory control.

Level geometry

After understanding the possibilities, templates and restrictions, you need to start thinking about creating the location’s geometry. One of the standard techniques in doing this is employing symmetry. Chess is a perfect example – if you look at a chessboard, you’ll have no trouble finding symmetrical patterns: both players are placed on a level playing field in order to compete. Similarly, maps, boards or fields in other games or sports don’t help or restrict the game itself.

Stick to this principle when building levels for PVP battles – unless you’re trying to develop a regime for territory control, or the capture/defense of a given location. Otherwise, instead of battling the enemy, the player (or the whole team) will end up fighting the terrain, and they’ll get bored in the blink of an eye.

Don’t forget to observe the balance between open and closed spaces – when placing obstacles and shelters, think about their utility for the player, and take into account possible countering strategies. No point of the map can be completely safe, as you have to keep the players on their feet at all times.

Don’t clutter all available space with obstacles – concentrate on the key areas. Try to avoid excessively large locations – people quickly get irritated when it takes a while to close distance with the enemy. The player’s there to have fun and enjoy himself – long, meaningless wandering across the map will turn him off.

On the other hand, though, if the battle begins too quickly, the player won’t have time to realise and react to what’s going on. In this case, there’s a danger of being locked in the landing zone straight off the bat. Ideally, the optimum distance to enemy contact shouldn’t exceed 10-15 seconds.

During this time, the player will have time to assess the situation, and come up with a strategy based on his/her preferences and capabilities, as well as the overall strength of the team and the direction in which they’re going. Keeping this in mind, you should also correct for the characters’ speed, abilities, and unique gameplay features.

It’s important to know the technical constraints of a given location, as a good map has to achieve the optimum balance between spatial saturation and performance. Using your vision for the location as a cornerstone, distribute resources accordingly – some maps may require more attention to the terrain, some may need extra obstacles. Your focus should be on optimising the player’s in-game experience – while the player may forgive bad graphics, he’ll never forgive bad gameplay. Even ultra-realistic graphics can’t keep a player hooked if the gameplay’s boring – he/she will just walk away, it’s that simple.

Create equal opportunities for all teams

All teams’ possibilities and options should be equal, regardless of the geometry. To achieve the best results, play around with the roughness of the terrain – in open areas, rocks, hills, riverbeds, canals, cliffs, bridges and other elevation changes add realism to the situation, helping create a varied gameplay.

The exception to this would be fighting at the city level – small, enclosed spaces often imply more dynamic and tactical game mechanics. You’ll need a different approach when it comes to this terrain.

Level symmetry as a solution

As I mentioned above, it’s important to give users a level playing field, compensating for inequalities by adding on extra abilities. There are a number of ways in which you can create a well-balanced map: mirroring obstacles’ locations, installing multiple tiers of play with varying height differentials, shelter types and detours (based on the number of team members) – these are all great solutions to the challenge of equal opportunity.

Location symmetry can take several forms – it can either be seen in plain sight, or be more discreet. The mirroring may be direct, axial, or may run along an axial offset. In some cases, there may even be several subtle axes of mirroring.

Having multiple tiers of play on a given map helps you save room for extra obstacles, and allows you to make the location more interesting by modifying the terrain. For example, we employed multiple tiers and mirroring in creating our “Canyon” map – each tier is a basically level of its own, and the player can pick where and how he wants to engage in battle. The obstacles on “Canyon” are symmetrical – if you’re playing as a sniper, then the sniper positions for both teams are identical, with overlapping firing scopes and areas of responsibility.

Add vibrancy through measures and counter-measures

One of the most important aspects in creating a “map skeleton” is carefully devising the gameplay – you must engineer a set of mechanics that will trigger an enemy counter-reaction to your player’s every move. For the purpose of simplicity, we’ll label this “measures and counter-measures”.

Resistance shouldn’t only occur in a particular direction – in strengthening one part of the map, you may weaken another, for instance, by reducing the number of shelters for small and fast robots. This will allow the smaller robots to flank the enemy, and prevent heavy robots from landing effective shots.

In capturing a location, a team may be required to secure a position by “digging in” – their opponents then need to counter by drawing them out, or by securing a similar position elsewhere. By “digging in”, however, the first team leaves their flanks open, giving their enemy various options to manoeuvre and implement tactical ploys.

These tricks radically affect the overall image of the battle, as they lead to the repeated change of tactics, strategy and motivations. In designing a new map, try and take into account the player’s psychology – let the scouts find narrow alleys and lanes to help flank the enemy, and let snipers provide them with cover, or engage in positional warfare.

This leads us to the next important aspect – players’ creative freedom. You need to provide the players with as much room as possible to realise their ideas. Let them employ their cunning and ingenuity, shocking the enemy through unorthodox tactics and taking full advantage of the characters’ classes and abilities. Don’t reduce it to a sandbox, though – otherwise it’ll become too boring.

You can smooth over the symmetry of the location by using a variety of visual effects. For example, symmetrical objects in different parts of the map can take on different forms – a cargo container, a bus, tank, building or a cliff. The use of broken symmetry lines could also add variety to your map.

Try to use all the features of the landscape – use all three dimensions, don’t restrict yourself to only one plane. By changing obstacles’ height, for instance, you can regulates shooting capacities, and provide “jumping” characters with an additional tactical advantage.

Most importantly, add variety to the gaming experience. Access to a point on the map can be given in multiple ways: a bridge, an underground tunnel, or even a riverbed. Mechanically, these areas will be the same – visually, however, they’ll be completely different. A low-lying patch of land, along with a small house, may serve as great cover – leaving the lowland, however, will expose the player to potential enemies.

Collect feedback

After you create a playable prototype, you should test it in conditions which are as close as possible to the real thing. The type of testing you select – internal or external – isn’t that important.

What’s crucial is getting feedback about your faults and flaws. Learn to absorb criticism, and use it as a tool to make the map even more interesting – at the end of the day, everyone benefits from a better product.