Right, I’m back. First I must say one thing: I hate the very PC I’m typing at. This is due to three things: it crashed while I was working on Granada, it filled the VMF file with zeroes, and it filled the backup VMX file with zeroes (accompanied by a traditional blue screen and sound noises I thought only a ZX81 could make). I sit here utterly confused and infuriated as I don’t know how or why it happened (why zeroes?! and why just those two files?!), nor why I hadn’t incremented the filename for so long. This is hardly helped by the fact that I do backups on Thursdays; the map was a few hours short of being backed up and hence saving me 5 days of work.

Since I can’t find any other casualty of the crash, in some respects I should consider myself very lucky that I didn’t lose everything. Nightly backups from now on I suppose.

Sigh. I’ll get over it in time. It was looking brilliant (from the right angles, anyway…)

Design advice now, since this is what you’re really after.

I’m not a very creative person. That’s why we have Dust, Dust2 (Dust3), and Dust PCG. It’s also why ETC was just a series of rooms with no clear link or consistency between them. When I think of a single-player campaign that ends in a big and exciting finale, I imagine the player starting in front of a door, behind which is the big and exciting finale. Doing the bits inbetween has never been easy.

In industry, you have lots of people working on filling in the gaps and trying to meet X or Y hours of gameplay time whilst also providing an experience to please the player and make the game worth their purchase (or purchasing). So, one small summary sentence quickly grows tree-like into an expansive campaign.

Of course, the joy is in making the bits inbetween - designing the player’s voyage from start to finish - and when you’re doing it by yourself it’s all the more rewarding. But, faced with three empty 2D grids and a big black 3D void in Hammer, it’s hard to know where to start.

Here’s the problem: Hammer shouldn’t be your starting tool.

Here’s a solution: paper.

Here’s how: invent the overall concept of the campaign, describing the major achievement the player will have made once they’ve reached the end (like “Gordon Freeman has locked off City 17 from the Combine” or “Rick Dangerous has escaped the tombs and neutralised the threat of ancient and naked Zombie Mummies”). A single-sentence description. Write it down. Make it short, clear, and concise. It describes the player’s achievement. Leave out what they do, how they do it or what they needed to do to do it.

Next, decide where the player starts and where/how they finish. A single-sentence description of the location.

Draw a line, put the start location at the start and the ending location at the end. Alongside, write how long it takes (in gameplay minutes) for the player to get from start to finish.

The next stage should be obvious - label on the line important set pieces or moments within the entire campaign. For example, at the 10 minute mark label “player reaches dam” and at 15 minutes “player is at base of the dam”. A typical mission probably lasts about an hour (for someone who has never played it before, about 90 minutes is more realistic) and might consist of two or three distinct locations each featuring a couple of specific tasks/problems the player has to accomplish/solve before progressing.

This rough timeline is your starting block. You now have something to start mapping or designing. You could jump straight into Hammer and start building the first blocks (which will now be a lot easier given that you have goals and clear direction) and testing gameplay ideas (problems or tasks for the player.) Don’t put any more detail onto it (like “player encounters 10 monsters”) because that’s ridiculous. The timeline should act as the overall indicator of what you’re making and help you pace out your mission. You can take 10 minute blocks (like the Dam section) and expand it separately. Use the timeline to architect mission and story flow (i.e. to help work out how the player started at home and ended up on the Moon.)

In other words, use this to changes my crappy little door (4 seconds of ‘gameplay’) into 45 minutes of gameplay. It’s much easier to work on something if you have goals, and the timeline gives you this.

(For those who are interested: my absence has been due to me moving across the country courtesy of my new job. I’ll talk about it another time, but the company I’m working for is not the one you’re thinking of.)