07 January 2014

Will Shadow of the Xel'Naga be better than Lord of the Clans?

A forum member of SC2Mapster.com asked me a very interesting question and I took the time to go into detail about my feelings about my campaigns, getting a job as a level designer and map making in general. You can follow the discussion here and read my answer here or below.

(When I write level design I mean gameplay. (Level) art is terraining/texturing).

LotC was my first project and it was mainly built out of the desire to make something playable out of a book I read. It lacked direction. Not only the maps were made up as I went but even smaller objectives were made up on the spot as I was working in the editor. DotD had the same design "philosophy", only on a much bigger scale and with more experience with the editor. TLG was a bit different because of the focus on puzzles, so it was more about trying to explore the possibility of a different genre in an RTS game. On the one hand it helped that half of TLG was finished while working on Settlers 7, on the other hand it was quite stressful to work on two pojects at the same time.

I think if you look closely at the campaigns you will notice that the terraining has gotten better from campaign to campaign (TLG again, is a bit of a different kind because it relies so much on imports).

I actually agree with the average quality of LotC and DotD from a smaller point of view. But if you put all the aspects together: the amount of maps, the objectives, the triggers, the time spent. That is what they want to see. If I recall correctly half of the dudes workign at Blizzard as level designers were WC3 mappers, and they only made a few Tower Defense maps or maybe a campaign (something I read a while back).

In the job interview (fyi: TLG wasn't finished at that point, but I submitted the 3 maps anyway) we never went into the details of any map. they asked me to tell them something about my projects and I told them about my love for WC lore and how I wanted to create something playable out of the books. I told them I am not a good storyteller so I chose an existing source. I told them  about the difficulty of trying to create varied gameplay when you mostly control only a single hero. They generally seemed more impressed with my enthusiasm for mapmaking and my will to actually complete large scale projects. (I had to hold myself not to talk too much although I am a very introvert person.) Later I found out they had only played about 1,5 of LotC and didn't like the stealth/fight pace of Map 2 that much. Sometimes it's not so much about quality, but the ability to finish something. Many people get frustrated when their hobby turns into a job and all of a sudden they have to do something daily, without the creative freedom they were used to.

I also believe each level designed is should focus on different strengths from genre to genre. If you have a  portfolio consisting of screenshots of 3D maps (UnrealEd etc.) of course the  screenshots you present should be as good-looking as possible (your best work  only). They should show that you understand texturing, lightning, meshes, object  placement etc. I don't think it's that important with 2D games (yes, WC3/SC2 are 2D  games from a gameplay perspective). Here it more important that your screenshots convey your gameplay ideas.

As the months went by while working on Settlers 7 my responsibilites shifted more and more from level art to level design. I spent more coming up with gameplay ideas for maps than just building the terrain (which is considered an upgrade. Anyone can make levels look nice with enough time and experience, because it is more craft than art).

This way I learned how important it was to plan ahead, make design documents and paint map layouts. I still suck at map layouting but my terraining has improved a lot. You can see the difference when you look at a Starcraft 2 map (http://outsiderxe.campaigncreations.org/sotx.php). I also understand that I should no longer make up ideas for a map while working on it. A map should consist of one clear idea and it should be followed (or changed if it doesn't work). My first SC2 map (SotX1; you can't download it yet) still suffers from that because it has too many elements (driving vehicles, hunting bosses, etc.). The map spends too much time trying to teach the player how it works. Later maps follow a clear genre (SotX2: Puzzles, SotX3: DotA, SotX4: Tower Defense...). I also learned that it is very important to separate gameplay and art. I commit 100%ly to gameplay and work only with very basic blocking elements until I am finished with the gameplay and all triggers work as intended. Only then I start working on the terrain.

Despite all that I still learn a lot about designing with each map I create. I often look back and tell myself I wish I could have done this or that differently. I could certainly overhaul all the old maps, but I prefer to use my experience on completely new things. The only thing I allow myself to do now is bugfixing. And back in 2002-2005 there were not many good maps anyway, especially not campaigns.

To answer your question if you should expect better design in SotX then in LotC: Terrain art (and possibly cinematics) will certainly be better. The gameplay (fun) is a more complicated matter which I would like to discuss. I already said that I like to try out new things. SotX is going to be a co-op campaign with each level featuring a different gameplay idea. I have no experience in making co-op experiences. I already have to change so many details about the story that I am not sure if it is that good of an idea anymore. The campaign will not feature anymore cinematic-only maps to keep the pace. One player shouldn't wait for another. Co-op gets more complicated because each map is vastly different from one another. I explore a lot of new genres and each time I have to teach the player(s) the gameplay mechanics. In my opinion all of my other campaigns had clear high points in terms of map making, which were usually around the middle of a campaign. The first few maps are more like test-maps, where I try out new mechanics. And the final maps usually show symptoms of being burned out. Often they are overloaded with stuff and not enough time was taken to test if it's actually fun. In SotX each map is like a test-map. I spent a lot more time on each map, often throwing out ideas that don't feel right. Once I have finished the last map I will go back to each of the old ones and apply what I have learned during the time. I don't plan on releasing any maps until I am satisfied. But again, that is no guarantee that you will like it more, it just means games/mods nowadays have become much more complicated to make, and the demand for a polished experience is a lot higher.

I've always been a story-driven mapmaker, so my maps will never be as flashy or feature-loaded  as StarCraft Universe, Night of the Living Dead or Hive Keeper. In this day and age story-driven custom maps seem very rare. Most people focus on a single multiplayer map and add as many features as possible. People want to create the next DotA, the next TD, a map that will get them a #1 spot on the Arcade. Maybe it will make them famous, work for Game Newell, or they'll become immortal... I see so many threads here where the first question people ask is "Do you you think people will play it?", and quit if they don't get the desired attention. I'm thankful that I never had to (and never will) ask that question, because I already know the answer.

I agree that my WC3 campaigns are average, but when you look for a job long-term commitment  and passion are more important.
My level design and level art skills have improved a lot over the years, especially during my time with Settlers 7.
The improved skills are no guarantee for a better campaign in SotX because I try out things I have no experience in.
I aim for Blizzard-style story maps, not for feature-loaded multiplayer maps.


  1. Your WC3 Campaigns were supposed to average?? I sure would like to see the campaigns it was supposed to be matched up against..

    I have played a ton of custom campaigns and trust me, Your campaigns were way above average. I can think of only a single other campaignmaker whose work I would say for sure was more impressive than your own.

    Your work was among the best, you don't have to tell yourself anything else.

  2. Thanks. I know they are great. It's my way of saying that there is still a lot of room for improvement ;)

  3. I've had Darkness_Squall's custom campaign collection on GameFAQs bookmarked for quite some time now, intending to play them all when I find the time. And now I find you have never really quit this business, cuz I remember you saying it was time for you to move on. Frankly, I'm touched. You are still doing bug fixes and stuff. I've made up my mind to re-install WC3 and TFT tonight and play them custom campaigns. Keep it up.

  4. What Sumadin said... This and nothing else!

    Quite frankly, it looks like to me that this forum guy is pretty jealous of your ability to create all this by yourself... :x