Master the gameplay, not the map: Behind 5TH Cell’s map designs in Hybrid
I've been a fan of 5TH Cell for years, and after play Hybrid when it was first announced and in its updated form at E3 this year I was curious about how the game's designers created maps for such an innovative method of virtual combat. After talking for a while, I decided to get out of the way and let them share their process with you directly, and they were nice enough to share some concept art and even videos of a map throughout the design process. It's fascinating stuff. Close to two years after the first unveiling, Hybrid has arrived on XBLA as part of Microsoft's Summer of Arcade promotional lineup. The level of excitement here at 5TH Cell is high - it's our first little self-funded independent console project. And yeah, of all things we decided to do, we went with a cover based shooter. To this day we are still getting astonished comments from our fans: “Wait…5TH Cell made this? The guys who made Scribblenauts? What??” Are we crazy? Making a compelling shooter for consoles at a small, independent studio poses many challenges. We were fully aware of the upstream battles; we also knew we had to bear in mind the reaction from gamers like you. And with our handheld roots we had to deal with the technical hurdles that come with creating a great 3D shooter. At any rate, in the fall of 2009 we set out to self-fund Hybrid with a small team that carefully grew to less than 30 developers, minuscule by today's standards. Over the three-year development span, we experimented with various game mechanics and tossed out elements of the game that didn't help shape a unique compelling experience. We found that adding more limitations actually made the game more focused and fun. In spite of these parameters, the vision of the gameplay and experience set by Creative Director Jeremiah Slaczka remained steady from the inception of the game's concept: having a “bite-sized, fast-paced tactical experience, waging an epic war across a persistent world with hundreds of thousands of players.” Not too long ago, Ben Kuchera came to us and thought that we might have a story to share on our adventure to be innovative in the shooter space. This would include the trials and tribulations of developing a 3D game environment with a “unique” control scheme and a cover system on walls and ceilings. Ask any game developer and they will tell you that levels first and foremost need to take into account the controls of the character and the camera of the game - and our controls and cover system have gone through quite an evolution during the development process. So how did the level design and environment art team cope with supporting this evolving key feature? In our story, you'll get some more insight behind 5TH Cell's creation processes in shaping a fully fledged cover based multiplayer map with a unique control scheme and crazy wall covers.
Redefining a Genre
One of the defining features of Hybrid is the control scheme we call Combat Focused Movement. We found that by limiting the player's stationary position to cover, we can shape a more tactical experience. Players can visually “look” at a cover they want to go to and then automatically move to that cover destination while having some ability to strafe in all directions. Or they can choose to focus on aiming, allowing them to blindly move backwards while shooting someone behind them. Getting sniped from someone camping behind bushes and corners no longer happens - players can readily predict where the threat is coming from. It also means that those traversing to and from their cover positions are more vulnerable than those protected by cover. Because the experience and the vision are unique, we had no other game to reference. If we could have adopted a control scheme or mechanic from a previous successful game, a lot of risk could have been mitigated. Plus we'd get a lot less flak. When an “adoption” of schemes and mechanics becomes prevalent in a genre, it becomes conventional. And when we as gamers become accustomed to things, we naturally become resistant to change. Shooters have, for all intents and purposes, been pretty static for many years. As Jeremiah was designing the beginnings of Combat Focused Movement, a rare opportunity became apparent; that the team would be bringing something new to the genre and that was really exciting. Hybrid rewards mastery of gameplay, rather than the map - it is very tactical yet very different from current shooters. With the cover selection and movement scheme, you know where players can be. They aren’t sniping from a hidden location or hiding in some small bush that the developers might not have intended to make and dominating the map. The player can carefully think through their strategy – how, where, and when to move, based on the knowledge of where players will be. We think about the game experience from the perspective of our players and so we don't build games from the ground up. Rather we shape the game from the top down, constructing and reconstructing as we go. Such an approach does not put effort first, it puts the game experience first. It meant throwing away a lot of things we had spent a lot of time on, if it didn't hold up the top floor. Some of us are veterans from other studios and we were so familiarized with developing maps with conventional control schemes that we all had to take leaps of faith at times when dealing with the uniqueness of our controls. We went back to the drawing board to fix map layouts when the controls were adjusted. While level architecture conventions were established, sometimes the aiming angles would be refined from cover to provide a smoother experience. Any change to the player's aim mechanics would result in a layout change to support the improvements. This would of course cause a ripple effect of artists and designers iterating on the maps in support of gameplay and at times, feelings were tense inside the trenches! You may notice that our game relies solely on jet packs to traverse through the map. This wasn't always the case. We used to have the player running in the game and later in development we ended up removing it, to the dismay of some of our team members as well as our partners at Microsoft Studios. Early in development, the players were running through the world with Combat Focused Movement before we had jet packs. It all started when we experimented with cover layouts. At first, we treated them like conventional cover elements in free movement games. We also wanted players to have a sense of freedom, being able to run on walls and ceilings. That is when we placed cover on walls and ceilings and thus jet-packing was born - allowing players to fly to their destinations. It was invigorating! We found the experience so much more compelling that, despite being far into development, we cut running entirely. This event became our true “less-is-more” moment. We had already invested so much time animating and refining the running system and it was hard to throw that away, but we could clearly see that this was much, much better without it. Here's a look at an early version of the game, before the change:Much has changed since that early look from GDC! All departments here are always in service of gameplay. We don't prioritize the game's schedule, process, or look until after we have a prototype that is compelling. While this process is philosophically similar to methods employed at other studios, what makes 5TH Cell stand apart is the cultural structure of the team. Our entire development cycle is based on our decision-making process. Our highest level decision maker, Jeremiah, is the center of both financial and creative decisions. This provides for quick choices, minimal unnecessary deliberation, and fewer long-term concepts that later get scrapped due to cost and creative conflict. Contrary to how other development teams operate, we consider efficiency and process secondary to our primary goal of supporting the vision of the game. We are stubborn about moving on, refusing to skip to the next map until the current one is polished to a level we are happy with. We never band-aid an issue. If there was a problem, we all went back and fixed it properly. For example, while our cover system was still in development, after nearly completing a map that we realized that there was a cover point that, regardless of where you stood in it, you were not totally protected. Slightly changing the angle of that cover would have a domino effect on the stability of all other cover points on the map – so we had to start all over to fix that area. We also uniformly respect and follow the singular vision that remains set from the beginning of the project, leveraging our experience and ability to think outside the box to fill in the gaps. Game play and visual goals set for a map that are deemed too crazy are not prematurely thrown out, but rather given a chance to shine.We want our maps to be instantly playable and traversable with small three-man squads, we want to limit the number of choices a player can move from cover (about three tops), and we don't want to overwhelm the player with “analysis paralysis”. We want players to get into the heat of the battle quickly. In Hybrid, you will never be wandering around aimlessly. It's never a good strategy to sit back and camp, the arenas are small enough for opposing players to rush and flank you. These are the design challenges each map has to meet.
When coming up with a map concept, we focused on making it both intuitive and compelling. Our maps needed to be instinctive to new players - they needed to subtly communicate to the user that they were safe or vulnerable in certain areas. At first we tried to make it incredibly easy for anyone pick up and learn from minute one, but it ended up being too easy. This led to recognition of what was actually important in getting a player to keep playing a game they did not immediately understand: making it compelling. If you can make a game compelling, the player will keep their hands on it long enough to master the controls. The map we'll be showing our progressive steps on here is called “Airfield.” Our goal here was to create an map that felt very open, leveraging the feeling of flight and giving global visibility of the playing field. It is in contrast to some of our smaller, tighter loop corridor maps. Once the idea was set, we roughed out the 2D layout on paper to refine the vision of the experience goals. Then using a 3D level editor, we would then block out the map within a day to be playable in a multiplayer environment. After the map is “grey boxed”, we'll play the hell out of it. Once the gameplay had been dialed in, the map receives a concept art treatment to visually establish the high level visual themes. A digital “paint over” is made over screenshots of our prototype “grey box” maps. Despite moving forward with detailing our maps in 3D, the game mechanics and systems are under constant scrutiny and undergo seemingly endless iteration - even late in production. Levels architecturally rope and stream the atmosphere, mechanics, and systems into a cohesive and compelling experience. So the approach by design and art team was to accommodate this constantly adjusting environment to support these changes. It is sort of like exercising - it's undesirable at the moment but afterwards it feels great, and our game was really shaping up. With each subsequent map in development, we learned more about what made for a more compelling and fun map and became more efficient creating it. Our levels started requiring less and less resources to bring a map to completion. One of our first maps, “Drydock”, took 3600 man hours: 6 people working for 75 days. One of our final maps, “Foxtrot”, took 320 man hours, or 2 people working for 20 days. Our efficiency curve shows the importance of being unified behind a vision. While efficiency isn't a priority at the beginning, by having a refined “reference” level the team can rally behind, we all are in sych with understand the project's vision and as a result we become more efficient at supporting those goals. Note the progress of efficiency from the start to the end. As mentioned earlier, there was a heavy emphasis on game play rather than map mastery. To successfully utilize quick, twitchy controls, we needed the game to run at 60 FPS (frames per second), a refresh rate that allows the screen and control inputs to update at twice the rate of other typical console shooters. This was decided halfway through development and this change really required acceptance at a cultural level. The designers had to design optimally and work closely with the artists in cleverly focusing on peripheral areas where players can't go. With a restricted map we were able to optimize art on the outside of the playable area. Unfortunately we had to make visual sacrifices in order to attain the performance bar we wanted. But in the end, the team all rallied together because it made the game's controls and visual feedback more responsive. It is a testament to the tight-knit team here along with the unique vision and gameplay focused development philosophy that allows us to deliver Hybrid, an insanely fun and unique experience. The MP shooter genre is highly competitive and scrutinized by knowledgeable and sophisticated gamers like you. We hope with Hybrid that it offers you a unique and compelling experience playing it (as we did making it!). And yes, while we admit we are crazy, we expect with Hybrid that we can proudly say that we have been able to execute on “the crazy” every single time.