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Analyzing Level Layouts to Improve Level Design in Competitive FPS

A look at three successful level designs at their most basic layout and how level designers can take these concepts and improve their own player versus player FPS level designs.

Curtis Gaunt, Blogger

April 5, 2017

6 Min Read

The world of competitive games is still on the rise, and within that more and more first person shooter games are making their way into the world of esports, though not all of these new games are successful as competitive multiplayer games. There are some things that cause this, such as game mechanics, level design and sometimes lack of users playing the game. For the purpose of this post, I will be examining the level design at a basic level and ignoring all of the finished assets and props that give it life, and looking strictly at the layouts that the players can move and interact in within the level. 


Some things to consider

Before we begin, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when reading this. The most important thing to consider is that every game is different. Mechanics will vary between games, as well as what players are able to do within the bounds of the game. It is important to keep these in mind as we progress and to understand that we are looking specifically at the level layouts themselves.


Establishing terms

In order to understand what is being examined here there are a few terms that need to be known. The first term is “choke point”. A choke point is a location within a level that is heavily contested by both teams and results in a large portion of player versus player interaction. Another important term is “line of scrimmage”. This line is imaginary and isn’t visible to players. This line can be used to determine “sides” for each team, and in most cases further emphasise the objectives present within the level. 

A look at a classic

The first level we are going to look at is Dust II from Valve’s Counter-Strike. Dust II has evolved visually over the years but the fundamental layout has remained the same. This level was released in 2001 and is widely considered the best FPS level of all time.

Green line represents the line of scrimmage, while the orange circles represent the choke points. Blue lines represent defenders and red the attackers.

Taking a look at the layout of the level, both objectives appear in the upper left and right corner of the level. There are only three pathways within the level. Note that there are only two ways to reach each objective from either side. Each entry into an objective creates a choke point where the defenders attempt to keep the attackers away from the objective. The line of scrimmage doesn’t appear to players, but divides the level in the upper third. This creates imaginary “sides” to the level where players tend to stay on unless some form of aggression is required. Given that teams in Counter-Strike only have five players each, what would happen if a third or fourth choke point was added to one objective? The defenders would become overwhelmed and unable to reliably defend a location, and the attackers would be able to exploit this, causing an imbalance. In addition, the other objective would be left alone, leaving only one half of the level actually used. 

Multiple objectives at different times

Overwatch has some fundamental differences when compared to other titles in the genre. Unlike most games, verticality plays a large factor as some of the characters within the game can fly. Due to this new mechanic, the level design changes to accommodate height and has multiple tiers of height. Having added emphasis on height doesn’t change the core pathing of the level at its most basic form. This map is known as Temple of Anubis and like Dust II, it has two objectives. 

Red lines indicate potential attack paths.

The difference here is that only one objective is active at a time. The attacking team must capture the first objective in order to attack the second. The attackers have three avenues onto the first objective, each giving access to a different level of height. There are three choke points present for the first objective. The first is quite easy to pass for the attackers and is a relatively minor choke point. The back two are contested heavier as losing the hold as defenders means losing the objective completely. As such the line of scrimmage tends to be in between each set of choke points in which the defending rarely if at all will push onto the other side. Once the second point is active, the idea is the same. Even though the overall shape of the map isn’t just a box, the new objective is designed similarly. There is still a distinct line of scrimmage and a new set of choke points to be fought over. 

What happens when player start points aren’t finite?

Levels made for Call of Duty games have to take multiple game modes into consideration. The same level can play a capture the flag mode as well as a king of the hill style gamemode. This level is known as “Sovereign” from Call of Duty:Ghosts. 

Spawns are fluent after the initial start of the game.

The level is largely symmetrical and due to the nature of Call of Duty’s respawn system, teams can spawn on either side of the map after the initial start of the game. While the design and intricacies of the level seem complex when viewing the final product, the level can be broken down into three lanes. The objectives of each mode sit relatively close to, if not on the imaginary line of scrimmage. As a result, the main choke points lie directly on the line and result in the contest of entries into locations where objectives would appear. 

What can we learn?

The largest take away here is that less is more in level design. Too many paths to a location make defense of objectives too difficult for players. Having too many choke points makes choices from either team less meaningful. Getting a good layout of your level is more important than the aesthetics. Remember to keep the mechanics of your game in mind when designing your levels. Once all of these ideas are taken into account, the visuals and aesthetics can be considered and your level can be completed.

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