Q&A With Lead Designer Eric BoltjesBy Bart Suichies on 28-Nov-2013 00:00:00
It’s been only a short while since Killzone Shadow Fall has launched in the US and Europe is about to follow suit in two days. This means multiplayer servers are filling up quickly and custom warzones are being created and played by the community. For us, this seemed the perfect time to sit down with lead designer Eric Boltjes to talk about the creation and design of Shadow Fall and its multiplayer experience.
Okay, let's get the obvious out of the way first. Killzone Shadow Fall is quite a leap in a different direction of the franchise. Wasn't it scary to put all your eggs in this new basket?
Hell yes. Doing something that is not in your comfort zone is always scary. Even within the company it took a lot of convincing to show people this was the right way to go and I feel we succeeded in both creating something new and staying true to what Killzone is all about. For me personally and as a Game and Level Designer I always want to innovate. To create something that hasn't been done before. I believe that keeps it fun for both the developers and ultimately the players as well.
How has this change in direction affected the design of the multiplayer experience?
We had one overall vision for the game which was "Add Player Choice", which for SP meant the OWL and the new methods we used for objectives and level design and also greatly affected our Multiplayer. We focused much more on customizability of what you play now in Multiplayer through the Warzones feature, allowing you to determine what is available in terms of missions, what weapons, what classes and much more. It also influenced how we defined our progression system, where instead of having to grind countless hours to play how you want, you now simply have all the core features unlocked from the start so you can choose how you play from day one. Add Challenges to that where you can choose what to specialize in and it becomes quite a different game in my opinion.
Looking at multiplayer maps for shooters in general, what do you feel makes a map stand out?
I think a good multiplayer map is balanced first and foremost. But it also should really allow for learning skill-based tricks. Finding that one spot that gives you a nice sniper position, understanding which routes to your spawn beacon placement are most effective, where you'll need to place a shield for maximum effect, et cetera. In that sense, great maps are like great teachers. They'll let you learn by doing and make you a more skilled player because of all the different elements you can master while playing.
Do you have a personal favorite when it comes to Shadow Fall?
My personal favorite is The Forest, because it's very open yet it has a lot of secret hiding places which always put you on guard. I really like it!
And when it comes to other games?
I'd still have to say DE_Dust from Counterstrike, not just because it has really awesome balance and replayability but also because it represents level design basics really well. That level has tiny little details that make it a great map; specific lines of sights, cover placement, light/dark gameplay in the central hallway. That and I had such a great time playing CS back when online FPS gaming was just starting to mature.
Do you look at other games a lot or do you have other places for inspiration?
Well, I basically get my inspiration from anywhere. Literally. Movies, TV series, books, walking around the city, friends, websites, commercials on TV... Anywhere. An idea for a level or a game or a feature can come from anywhere at any time. Most of the good ideas I had came completely unexpected and from sources I never thought were relevant. It is all about keeping an open mind at all times.
An open mind seems a necessity with Shadow Fall's new feature where players can completely customize their warzones. How do you ensure maps stay balanced under all these different circumstances?
The customizability we implemented in Shadow Fall puts a lot of requirements on the maps; where and how you design basecamps, the different mission locations, same route-length to key areas, an equal amount of escape routes, the works. Play-testing is essential to make sure all maps are as balanced as possible, but to be honest you can never get it 100% perfect, especially when there are so many variables at play! You just can't be exactly sure what will happen in the custom warzones, so you will still find unbalances if you look for them. What's essential for us is we keep listening to the community, applying fixes where necessary and maintaining the game as people play it. That enables us to keep the game as balanced as possible.
Even with DLC coming out? Will we still be able to play games with our friends?
It's essential for us to not split up the community with any DLC we bring, so our starting point is that players should always be able to play even matches with friends. Even if they don't share the same DLC! Besides that, with any type of DLC we'll bring out we'll do our very best to keep the game as balanced as possible. Again, this means a lot of play-testing prior to release and seriously monitoring the community after release.
Listening to players sounds great, but can be tricky. How do you guys distinguish the signal from the noise coming from the community?
It starts with cataloging all the feedback and judging its 'severity'; how many people are saying this? How does it compare to our original goals? And then we look at all the facts we have; telemetry, balancing, etc. And then, as a group, we decide on a course of action.
How do you balance the community's views versus your own vision?
The hardest cases are those where the feedback and the facts go directly into our original vision or goal but even then the Player should be king. If enough people say something is needed, then I'll be the first person to throw away the original vision and start over!
Start over? That sounds a bit drastic.
Well, maybe a little... Because of the production effort required to finish a level being months rather than days now, the way you approach a level requires to be a lot more controlled. Iteration is still key but where previously I could re-design half my level quickly if I didn't like it, it now requires a much more staggered and cautious approach. There's simply a lot more people involved. To an extent this limits the level designer more than before but if you embrace the process it can also work to your advantage. Having more than one creative mind on something is always better than one, as long as there is a clear process at work.
You should know. After having designed levels for about fifteen years now, you're practically an industry veteran! Have you seen a lot of changes in the way levels are being designed?
A lot of the core principles that were important in 'the old days' are still important now and it's amazing how much would-be level designers can learn just by examining levels in older titles. Because we didn't have the graphical tricks back then, it really stripped down level design to its bare essence: balanced distances from A to B, controlling lines-of-sight, creating chokepoints and key combat areas. It also was a one-man job back in the day (I sometimes miss that!), now you have teams of up to ten people working on a map so good process and communication has become key. But at its core, there are still a lot of similarities to the early days.
One of those similarities seems to be spawn-slaughter and base camping, which can be a major buzzkill in any online shooter. As a level-designer, are there certain measures you can take to prevent stuff like that?
Looking at those issues, I don't think you can ever get rid of them entirely, but we actually implemented a lot of new features to prevent it as much as possible. Or at least give you some options. As a prevention measure, we put shields at every basecamp exit and are guarding them with more turrets. Also we implemented some ‘stimulating' measures, like making sure there are always three or more exits from your basecamp and incorporating bigger buffer-zone to make them less of an interesting target. Plus we brought back spawn beacons. In all, I think the combination of these measures limits base camping and spawn-slaughter a lot more than previously.
Eric, thanks for your time! As a closing question: do you have any tips for aspiring level designers?
Learn the basics and understand them deeply. Master them. No matter how good a level might look in the end, the basics have remained the same for a large part and they are key to a fun map. How many key gameplay areas do you have? How long does it take to get to them? How many routes connect them? And more existentially: ask yourself why a level exists! Don't just throw a few hallways and rooms together; you need to think about every single level design decision you make, no matter how big or small they might be.
Sure, sometimes happy accidents happen but it's better to truly have reasoning to every corner you create, every line-of-sight you block. And then playtest and iterate until you feel it is perfect.
And then playtest some more.
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