Just over four years ago, I wrote that ‘Detail versus Design’ essay/article/rant, which basically said, “Gameplay first, geometry second, perfect texture alignment third.” It was a response to the onslaught of absolutely pristinely designed maps (featuring trims on anything and everything, textures aligned to the pixel, and 1000-poly realisations of door handles) that featured gameplay as uninspired as the title of this post.
Of course, a lot has changed since then. I won’t list them but rather summarise: we have more room to play!
These days, maps are expected to have much more detail in them. They need more time and care than the previous generation did. We can afford to put additional bells and whistles in. We can use 16 polys where we once used half of one (you heard me). We can show distant trees, valleys, skyscrapers in the same picture as the roach crawling around our feet. We can do so much… if we want to.
That’s the difficult bit. Working out where to spend our time. In this respect, nothing has changed at all. We still have to architect out a theme and layout that works with the intended gameplay and adopts all our cunning little gameplay plans. The only difference is we can do it in more detail, with more tools, and more possibilities, over a longer period of time.
(This paragraph is where I say that gameplay should take precedence. It’s still true. I’ll spare you the words because you know that anyway.)
So, I’m going to take a different slant. Detail is good, detail is great when done right, but few people do. It is too often wasted on small details that are forgotten when the time comes to actually play. Or, it works against the map, making the environment feel too organised, too architected and too ‘perfect’ to be feasible. Think of the film, ‘A.I.’ The reason the androids were rejects was because they were too-human, flawless and hence false. Being perfect is a flaw in itself.
So, with your maps, be prepared to forget about perfect alignment and ideal solutions. Do something radical and use the technology to create something that is natural rather than perfect. Break up the clean lines and work against the patterns that you have adopted for the map (it’s very easy to repeat something over and over without knowing it.) Be messy and careless. Don’t go overboard either - if everything is flawed, that sparks confusion. The key is balance.
Oh and please, I know HL2/CS:S/DoD:S come with loads of assets to mess your maps up. If you insist on using them, use them properly, carefully and conservatively. See the aformentioned games for examples!