Epic Games on perfecting Unreal Tournament's levels

Level designers on the new Unreal Tournament talk about the process of making the very best multiplayer maps...

When you think back to your favorite shooters of yesteryear, fondly reminiscing over the hours spent honing your skills, you’ll likely recall a very specific set of images. These memories will differ from game to game, of course. Perhaps Counter Strike players will imagine Dust, Team Fortress 2 players might conjure up the colorful tones of 2Fort, while those who lost their adolescence to classic Unreal Tournament will mostly likely remember Deck or Facing Worlds.

As the industry matures, so does its understanding of the intricacies that separate a ‘good’ multiplayer game from a ‘great’ multiplayer game. It stands to reason that level design is perhaps the most integral element to any successful online FPS. By refining every aspect of a map--from the visual direction to the subtleties of navigation--a shooter is able to differentiate itself from its contemporaries. Developers today are well aware that building those perfect multiplayer maps is one of the most important parts of development.

“I started in the mod community back in UT99 when I was like 15 years old,” says Stuart Fitzsimmons, senior level designer at Epic Games, “and I was a huge fan of Facing Worlds.” The map he’s referring to is perhaps the franchise’s most iconic level, a floating rock with two castle-like towers--connected by a completely open bridge--the entire scene utterly ensconced by glow of the huge planet the rock is orbiting. It’s particularly famous for the sniper-heavy gameplay as players are forced to barrel down the gauntlet in the hopes of reaching the opposite side and the enemy flag within. It’s also the very same map that, only recently, was reworked for the latest version of Unreal Tournament—a modernizing of a classic, in every sense of the phrase.

But stepping back a little... what gives a map its ‘good level design’? Sidney Rauchberger, also senior level designer alongside Stuart, says it’s all about creating a level with a specific aim from the very start. “The most important thing is to have a goal in mind,” he tells us, “that’s the easiest thing where it falls apart if you don’t. If you don’t have a goal--it doesn’t need to be too ambitious or complex--and just start creating then that will be your first failure point.”

Stuart adds to that, stating that “it can be a sort of weapon, a sort of power-up, a sort of situation. It depends on the type of game type that you’re working on. For me personally if I’m making a Deathmatch I usually try to think of a cool interaction between maybe one or two weapons and start building around that and slowly grow from there.” The difference here, however, is that Unreal Tournament is being developed ‘live’. Epic Games released it months ago in alpha for anyone to play with its barebones maps, animation and movement.

Regular updates bring new tweaks and improvements, meaning fans have had unprecedented access to the evolution of a map’s design--from its basic shell layout to the final meshes. “The design process has definitely changed,” says Stuart of Epic’s new style of game development. “I actually spend a good amount of time going back in and adjusting some of the shells to incorporate some of the new stuff and it does change the process in that you have to go back in and redo things sometimes.”

It’s a more iterative than Epic Games is used to, making alterations to a map based not only on the natural development process but on the constant feedback from players. When a map first goes live it’s the basic shell, a rough outline of the shape and layout of the map put together with a few polygons and very little in the way of texture and lighting. But as it is played and issues are ironed out, the map becomes more and more refined. Open development provides a scale of playtesting that multiplayer levels so rarely get these days. “I find it really cool actually,” says Stuart. “You know you go to shell, you go to playtest, you get people playing it over and over again to try and hone the gameplay elements.”

Sidney adds that “it’s gratifying to have that sort of turnaround time,” claiming that ordinarily in game development “you work on something and you have it take a year or two before you actually get to see people’s responses to it.” In many ways, suggests Sidney, it’s reminiscent of the level designers’ history as Unreal Tournament modders; the pair both began their game development career in the community, creating and sharing mods with other players within the forums.

So what of Facing Worlds, then? Why is it that this level--of so many great UT99 levels--is the one that stands out? “I think it’s just very easy to learn,” says Stuart, “like, even a player who doesn’t play very much can jump right in and the two bases are right there. It’s a very sniper-heavy map so you can kind of sit in your own base and shoot the other team, you don’t have to be great at creating movement and all that stuff.”

Yet Sidney believes it’s the visual element that made it so memorable: “It’s one of the most iconic maps, visually. At the time when that map came out there just weren’t any other shooters that felt they could say ‘hey, here’s just a floating rock with castles in space’. I think that just stuck with a lot of people solely for that reason too.” There’s no denying the vista of that huge planet in the background certainly made it stand out among more contemporary maps at the time...

But in approaching the redesign of Facing Worlds, surely very little would be needed to be done outside of a graphical overhaul? If it truly was great level design, then it wouldn’t need much work. Stuart - who worked heavily on the reproduction of Facing Worlds - understood there was a heritage that restricted much change, whether he wanted to or not. “It was easier from the perspective that we basically took the shell from the original and we didn’t really need to change the gameplay or anything about it,” he says. “All that stuff sort of stayed the same. But at the same time it was a little tricky because you’re very much locked into the very specifics of that map, so initially you have to try and make it more modern looking and interesting while fitting on a BSP [Binary Space Partitioning, a file type] shell that was made in 1998.”

But all the same, Stuart admits that “everybody has a specific opinion on that map, and they feel very strongly about even the little things”. There wasn’t even much room to introduce elements of the new Unreal Tournament’s movement mechanics—“it’s kind of sacred,” he says—meaning that core gameplay remains unchanged. It’s not the only classic map to appear, either, with Deck 16 returning in a basic form and even community members building their own favorites.

As a result, we probably won’t see many more map remakes from Epic for a while. As Sidney says, “Because we’re such a small team we’re trying to focus our resources, whenever we can, on actually coming up with new things and working on things that are moving the game as a whole forward as opposed to work on one little corner.” More classic remakes, it seems, will only come from the modders in the community for the time being.

It’s this symbiotic relationship between the developers and the community creators that really helps refine every aspect of Unreal Tournament--not just its level design. As more and more people begin to play--you can download and play the latest build for free right now--the potential feedback is only going to grow and grow. This cyclical reward system means that its levels will get far more strenuous playtesting than they ever could have in any other development model. Who knows, this may even lead to some all new classic Unreal Tournament maps to remember.