Saturday, 30 January 2010

Don't be afraid to cut content

Great progress has been made! After Wednesday night's epiphany I got stuck in and tore my map apart (well, one section of it at least). I now have something I'm much happier with. The main change I made was removing the warehouse and the gas station and building a larger warehouse where they stood. This is visible from far away and I'm going to work on illuminating it a bit to make it eye-catching. This taller building is also great for occluding objects behind it, helping to greatly optimise the level's performance.

Here are some before and after shots (left and right respectively):

The interior of the warehouse now has more nooks and crannies for infected to pop out from, as well as a raised catwalk that the survivors will have to traverse. The high windows at the far end also give a sneak preview of the barracks, foreshadowing one of the main locations of the campaign.

Finally, I managed to retain the gas station's shop in all its glory! Very pleased with this for reasons mentioned in the previous post. Admittedly it's no longer a gas station as the pumps were removed altogether, but the store itself is the same except for having a flat roof instead of a sloped one.

So all in all the changes I made over the last two days have achieved the following things:
1. The placement of buildings makes more sense from a logical perspective (they're not too close together and impractical).
2. The taller buildings help occlude more objects from the player's view, helping to keep frame rates nice and low.
3. The survivor's path is now a bit longer and more winding, helping to pad out the length of this level.

Lessons learned: Don't be afraid to cut content if it's not working! If possible, try to retain the elements that do work but not if they compromise the bigger picture.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Taking breaks is healthy for your design

I've slightly neglected my Left 4 Dead 2 campaign this week as I've been tinkering with Multimedia Fusion 2. As it turns out, this has actually helped the design. I fired up the Authoring Tools last night and made some minor changes. A new skybox here, some tweaked lighting values there... But I had also taken a long enough break to spot some rather large design flaws in my layout. They're not necessarily anything that hugely affect gameplay but more like errors in layout logic.

It's mainly to do with the gas station in Map #2. The gas station's tall, white sign is actually visible from the highway bridge in Map #1 and it can also be seen peeking over the top of a high wall soon after the players exit the first safe room. It acts as an eye-catching landmark which is why I was so keen to put it in there in the first place. Unfortunately, what I didn't really consider at the time was how the gas station's cosy placement is somewhat illogical and highly impractical for the military transport vehicles and 25-foot cargo lorries that supposedly use its facilities.

That's is what I lay in bed worrying about last night.

As it turns out, my ideas for fixing this problem will hopefully solve some of my other concerns about the nearby warehouse that I felt was too small. But there is also another location that I am not going to change and that's the gas station store itself. It's a nice little set piece that I'm really proud of as it features some interesting gameplay decisions for the Survivor team, and some excellent attack opportunities for the Infected team. I'll be relocating the store as it's just too good to sacrifice in this rearrangement.

The only challenge now is replacing that glowing landmark, but I'm sure I'll think of something.

I will post updates here when I've made the changes, so be sure to check back. Better still, sign up with Blogger (you can use a Google account) and click the Follow link at the top of this page to receive automatic updates! Or follow me on Twitter.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Progress on L4D2 campaign

Work is well under way and I've almost finished an alpha version of the whole campaign, start to finish. For that reason I'm holding off releasing the add-on VPK of the first two maps so that people can first experience the campaign in a more complete form.

One of the trickiest areas of mapping with an open, outdoor environment like this is optimisation. Traditionally with the Source engine you would use the tops of buildings to create invisible skybox walls that restrict visibility to other parts of the level, but in Left 4 Dead this can severely hamper the Infected team's ability to find advantageous points to attack from. Hunters in particular rely on high rooftops to pull off heavier attacks. I've tried to bear this in mind when designing the levels and find a happy medium but I certainly now appreciate why Valve had to block off so many areas in their official maps, much to the frustration of the forum users.

I'm finding that I'm using a slightly unusual system of developing the maps in this campaign. Maps 1 and 2 are right next to each other and in one area there is clear visibility between them, plus of course they share a safe room as the level transition area. Map 3 involves taking a shorter route through both previous maps to get back to the start. Because of this, I've been creating the entire campaign in one single VMF file and compiling it as separate BSPs. When the whole alpha's finished I'll delete the irrelevant parts out of the maps that they're not needed in and add detail to the bits that require it.

In retrospect, there are probably more efficient ways of doing it. After starting this campaign I learned of the usefulness of Valve's new instancing system, allowing you to reference other maps within the editor. The system seems ideal for creating areas that are shared by two or more maps, such as safe rooms or weather settings (something that my campaign features quite a lot). If I knew more about that when I started I would have probably taken full advantage of it, but it seems too late now and it would probably take a lot more work than it's worth to re-organise my maps, so onwards it is.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

There & Back

Now that my uni work is out of the way I've been working feverishly on getting a beta ready for my L4D2 campaign. My plan is to block out all 3 maps and have them playable from start to finish, albeit in a low-detailed form. I'm using textures, props and lighting where necessary to convey the setting and mood but not going overboard in case I have to change a lot after testing.

The first two maps are nearly finished in this simple beta form. You can play the first one here or here or wait for both of them in a VPK addon file which I should have ready in the next few days.


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Level Diagrams

You can see some changes I made to the route of Map 2. The route is longer and will take the survivors through more of the run-down exterior areas, partially revealing what happened at the evacuation centre. The barracks are now at the top right near the bunker and they will act as the last main location the survivors visit before the finale.


I'm focusing on the barracks to try and make it a memorable location with some interesting gameplay. An example of this is the panic room crescendo. Survivors drop down into a room and must hold off the infected attack while the door slowly opens. I've cunningly placed a defibrillator in this room, meaning that if survivors want to bring back a dead companion they will have to weigh it up against wading through the hordes of zombies and delaying their escape to the panic room (safe room).


Let me know what you think!

Friday, 8 January 2010

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Out with the old...

Well, for several reasons the aforementioned Miami campaign for Left 4 Dead 2 has been cancelled, but has made way for a new campaign which should be more manageable. I'm aiming to try and recapture the dark, atmospheric tone of the first game rather than the sequel's light-heartedness in a short "there and back" campaign along the lines of Hard Rain. This doesn't mean you'll be playing the same maps again only backwards, but rather taking a more efficient route back to the start as you have a ton of zombies on your tail. I'll also be trying to work a bit of story into it and suggesting what might have happened in one of the CEDA evacuation centres.

The campaign will aim to be a short but challenging experience for Campaign mode, but its real focus is Versus mode so it will feature lots of good spots for the Special Infected to make use of their abilities, as well as doing away with those overly-abundant first aid kits! I'll also try and get a Scavenge and Survival map out of it if I get the time.

Below is an overview of the whole campaign with the coloured lines indicating the different chapters. I've got the first map blocked out and semi-textured, but have some university work to finish before I can continue.


What would you prefer? A campaign that plays well and is finished, but looks a bit ropey round the edges, or one that takes ages to be released and looks very polished?