Hooray, a week of me pouring out my brain about stuff!
Level Design vs Mapping
Don’t confuse ‘mapping’ with ‘level design’ - my loose definitions are as follows:
Level design is high-level: it refers to determining how the map should play, what sort of problems/solutions it will require, and general appearance/design issues. Level design is done on paper.
Mapping is low-level: it encompasses plonking down brushwork, entities and almost everything you do in a tool like Hammer. Mapping is done in an editor.
There is some overlap, and the terms are usually mixed up, but that’s how I like to describe them. To make a good map, you need to do both.
Thou shalt covet other maps
You can learn a lot by just looking. Being dead in a CS match is a good time to do this - look at how the map was built, its shape, how it transitions from one area or one style to another, how it all connects. Note what gives it a unique look (or not) and what makes it special. Look at what is tripping players up, what areas are avoided, exploited, overused, or completely ignored. Look at why this is happening and whether it’s good or not.
If Shift-S, Ctrl-T, Shift-B, Ctrl-G, and Shift-A don’t mean anything, read up on the Hammer hotkey reference. They’re absolutely essential.
Don’t be too clever
There’s always room to try something that hasn’t been done before, or to take an existing idea and push it further, but take the concept too far and you risk negating all the effort that went into it.
That’s how I see de_Torn - a huge map that tried to be truly tactical, with lots of little passageways and non-linearity, but in the end it was excessive. It was easy to lose your bearings, get lost, lose your team, lose the other team, and have no idea what to do. It was a noble attempt, and it looked terrific, but it just went slightly too far.
Don’t be run-of-the-mill
There are hundreds of Dust-wannabe’s and corridor-room-corridor maps out there. Sure, they add some variety, but in the end they move there’s not a lot between them. One of the fun things about level design is letting players try something different - putting them in situations they won’t experience in other maps.
Try to find a unique feature, and work on that. All the official CS maps have differences in style and the situations they present the player with - be it Dust’s “you can’t get lost” attitude or Port’s “he’s all the way over there!” style or Militia’s pure prettiness and grace. Some are born out of unique features, like Assault’s multi-level rooftop assault, Office’s corridor battles, or Tide’s simplicity. Fy_Iceworld is pure, unadulterated action, De_Wallmart is frantic, and De_Simpsons is just… well, someone had to do it.
Get things wrong
If you’re not getting anything wrong, you’re probably not pushing enough. Take risks if you think they’re worth it - they’ll either work, or you’ll have to remove them and try something more ordinary/better. If you don’t get things wrong - or don’t realise - then there will be no opportunity for improvement.
I get things wrong all the time. My HLDM map, my TFC map, the little chunk of wall in Dust that I thought was a great touch but turned out otherwise, the unconventional nature of the bomb spots in DustPCG… all are lessons that I’ll either avoid repeating in future, or do properly.
Of course, the key is also to do a few things right…