Jokey’s Guide to Quake Level Design

QLevel Design by Jokey Smurf

Level design is perhaps the single most important aspect in any 3D first-person shooter, and Quake is no exception. Level design does not take a backseat to player abilities, weapons, monsters, or any other feature in the game, because the level plays a huge role in determining the game’s overall environment. The intent of this guide is to give you a framework with which to design maps for both Multi-Player and Single-Player gaming.
What makes me the expert on mapping, you might ask? My answer would be that I’m by no means the best level designer, in terms of skill or ideas; however, I possess the knowledge needed to begin designing great levels.

Overview

The first thing you need to do to start your map is to decide what editor you are going to use. There is a large selection to choose from, including Worldcraft, BSP, Deathmatch Maker, etc. I personally use Worldcraft, because I like the interface and the way it runs. Without the editor you can’t do much (unless of course, you master the art of mapping in text form…hehe… I wouldn’t recommend it.)
The second thing you should check is the properties of your computer. This is probably something you won’t be able to do much about, unless you are willing to spend some cash. The most important qualities you are looking for are RAM, processor speed, and free disk space. The computer I am currently using is a P166 (over-clocked from 150) and 64 MB of RAM. I try to keep 300 MB of free space on the C: drive, because when compiling incredibly large maps I found that if less than 100MB were free, QBSP would crash (go figure.) If your system is slow, or has little RAM or free space you will probably experience major slowdowns while editing.

The only other thing you need to know before you begin your map preparation is editing-specific information, such as r_speeds and vital player statistics. Many level-designers begin mapping without certain knowledge that is vital to editing. Before proceeding, you should read Rogue’s Guide to Designing Levels with Speed in Mind, which details r_speeds far more in depth.

Aside from r_speeds, you need to keep in mind what a player can actually “do” in Quake. For example, you do not want to create a flight of steps where the steps are too tall for a player to walk up. These are the statistics you want to remember while editing:

  • Max distance a player can jump – 225 units.
  • Max distance a player can jump straight up – 42.5 units.
  • Max distance a player can fall and not be injured – 275 units.
  • Min gap between brushes the player can fall through – 36 units.
  • Max height a step can be before player must jump – 17 units.
  • Height of Player – 64 units.

Preparation

Before you get to mapping, there is still more work to be done. You have to decide the environment of your level, the size, the layout, and, of course, a name.
The environment of your level is incredibly important. It is necessary to give your level a “feel.” This means if the intent is a medieval castle, you do not want to be using modern lights, and base textures. You want castle walls, stone, towers, and the like. This seems obvious; however, many designers tend to mix texture sets together and sometimes swap in textures that do not quite fit the environment. Textures consistency is necessary to give the map a realistic feel, and to include as much detail as possible for the given setting to make it believable.

Another important aspect of the level is size. Make a target size for your level so that you can plot it out on paper. If the intent is to create a huge level, you need to designate larger and/or more areas. This goes hand in hand with the level’s environment. If you make an airport, for example, you are going to want large hangars, and thus a large map, whereas a cottage would only be a single room or two, and thus a very small map. This can get tricky for multi-player, when you are targetting a given number of players (I know I’ve had some problems with that in the past…) This all seems obvious, like the level environment, but sizing is critical for the gameplay of the level.

Once you have decided a rough size of the level and a setting, you have to plot the level out on paper. Graph paper works the best if you want to get very specific. Noting the size of your level, draw room layouts and hallways / room connectors to help show how everything will fit together. This step lets you organize your thoughts on paper quickly and reduces your work in the long run by reducing the number of changes you will have to make as you build the level.

While drawing your map, you should be getting mental images of what you are intending the level to look like. It simply isn’t enough to draw a box and say “I’ll put something there” and connect it to another room you have no purpose for. It is very easy to tell when an author makes a room that really has no purpose since he/she “needed one there to connect to the next room.” You absolutely must give each room the detail and look of the environment you chose, and while you draw, only plot something when you know in your mind what it is going to look like.

My absolute favorite part of editing is giving my level a name (actually, I hate this with a passion.) It may seem silly, but it is a good idea to give your level a name depicting what the level’s environment is like. For instance, “Area 51” would be a good name describing a military installation, whereas “My level” would be a good name describing NOTHING. Or, “Castle of Despair” would be a good name describing a medieval castle, whereas “A level with stuff” is a name from someone with no imagination. A bad level name can actually ruin your level because no one will bother to try it out. Don’t take naming too lightly. :)

Layout

When you are creating a map, there are still many things you need to consider aside from the architecture. The most important other factors include weapon location, spawn points (for deathmatch play,) camping spots (for monsters and players,) hot spots (places of high interest in deathmatch play,) and power-ups.
When you are plotting the level out, you can not haphazardly place rooms without purpose. Each room should be defined by what is contained within it. Weapon layout is incredibly important and integral to how enjoyable it is to play. In a single player level, you need to have progression of weapons, as the level is played out. On the other hand, in deathmatch levels you need to have the weapons carefully laid out so that players can vie for control, and one person cannot simply grab a rocket launcher or Quad and dominate until the frag limit is reached.

In multi-player play, one of the major design factors is spawn point location. Even with random spawns (if you are using the Clanring mod) you need to make sure the spawns are placed well apart, and that each spawn has close access to armor, weapons, or an area that can help the player get equipped quickly.

Camping spots are a two way street. If you design a map for both single and multi-player play, camping spots can be used by both monsters and players, and you want to be careful not to create one that will be over-used by players. While it may be nice for a monster to be able to fire down on a player, if that spot overlooks a rocket launcher in deathmatch, that spot could be used to camp a rocket launcher. If it is a very effective camping spot, someone could stay there for the duration of the level, and the other players will not have a chance to come back, and eventually people will stop playing on the map.

Hot spots are also a factor worthy of consideration. In deathmatch play, if you have one main area with most of the items, most people will flock there and leave other areas of the map relatively empty. This is something you want to avoid, because a hot spot will cramp the action into one area, allowing one player with full armor and weapons to rack up all their frags in a short amount of time and again creating a level that is not entirely fair.

Power-ups also need to be taken into heavy consideration when designing the level. The most notable of these is obviously the Quad Damage. The Quad is the most important of the three power-ups because it respawns every minute (30 seconds after it wears off,) and is a huge factor in getting frags quickly. Some people will tend to camp the quad, so you don’t want to place it in a position that would enable a player to easily wait for it to re-appear. The same does go for the Ring of Shadows and the Pentagram of Protection, however their positioning is not as important as that of the quad.

Single Player

Single player quake maps have one obvious thing that deathmatch maps lack. Monsters! It is necessary to place monsters so that the player will be able to deal with them in an effective way. As the difficulty level rises (easy, normal, hard, nightmare) the ease with which the player can handle the monsters should decrease.
In order to deal with the monsters, players need weapons, ammunition, and power-ups. The power-ups are not a necessity for defeating the monsters you come in contact with, but they are a nice reason to include secret areas.

You need to lay out the weapons and ammunition in an increasing fashion, as the monsters will be laid out. Obviously putting a shambler at the beginning of a level when the player only has a shotgun would be bad monster placement. Rather, later on, when the player receives a super nailgun (which is the most effective means of killing a shambler next to a lightning gun) a shambler would not be so out of place. And, of course, after the player picks up certain weapons, they need the correct ammunition to arm themselves. In other words, don’t place useless ammunition at the beginning of levels when the player does not have the proper weapons to go along with it (e.g. cells are useless to a player if they have no lightning gun.) Rather, save that ammunition for later in the level when the player can actually use it.

Secrets are another important aspect of the single player game. They enable you to equip players better in the event that they are persistent enough to find the secret. If you have a particularly difficult area, for example, place a secret that contains a quad, pent, or a strong weapon that the player has not yet had access to. While creating secrets, you should keep in mind how they will look to a player quickly scanning an area. If it is easily seen, it is not much of a secret. However, if you have to shoot 3 unmarked areas, each at different points of the level, to open a secret door, that would be considered too difficult to find.. While you do not want to make a secret obvious, you also want to make it find-able. The more powerful the secret, the more you may want to hide it. However, every secret should be accessible, should the player be smart enough, not lucky enough. It is an important distinction.

There are a few more things you want to keep in mind when designing the level. You want to be sure the weapon and monster layout are appropriate for the given setting. If the level is in a series, you want to put weaker weapons and weaker monsters in the beginning of the series, and stronger weapons and harder monsters toward the end. You also want to be sure you account for difficulty settings correctly. Easy should be, obviously, pretty easy to beat. Normal should present a moderate challenge but should involve a decent amount of skill to beat. When a player selects hard, they are asking for a challenge. Give it to them. When a player decides hard just isn’t cutting it, you give them nightmare. This is supposed to be the all out, die-hard, show-em-what you’ve got setting. This isn’t to say you just start throwing hundreds of monsters randomly in, and putting shamblers and vores all over the place. The level still needs to contain order. You want the level to still be beat-able. But you want to give the player a run for his money.

Another thing that adds depth and character to a single player level is little tricks and traps. Anything that adds a feel to a level is something that makes a good experience. If you get the player to get “into” the game, or somehow get them to interact more with the setting, then you make the experience more realistic. Traps are a nice touch because the player is not expecting them, however they still need to stick to the environment of the level. Little tricks are things that could let players escape or avoid portions of your level. It could be a spot that a rocket jump could aid in or another particularly difficult jump (as seen best in some of the levels done in Quake Done Quicker).

Clan Levels

The ideal level to look at before making a clan level is, of course, dm3, the Abandoned Base. DM3 is the single most played clan level on the net. I would go so far as to say 99% of every clan game is played on this level.
So what makes dm3 so great? The balance of the level. DM3 is a constant struggle for power of the rocket area and sometimes the red armor area. In general, you will find one team covering the rocket area and the quad, and the other team building up with red armor and super nailguns. Then a fight usually occurs at quad, when the weaker SNG team tries to take back the rocket area. It is a pretty simple concept, making a level that is balanced from one side to the next, or somewhat balanced (a good argument could be made that dm3 is not evenly balanced, and I would concede that point, however it is close.) But while the concept is one that is easy to understand, it is not the easiest to implement. I have found (from a lot of experience) that it is not easy to create a clan level. Not everyone is going to be pleased with what you make, and it is hard to get servers to put your map up so that people can play it. The thing is, you just need to keep in mind that not everyone is going to like it. A lot of people are stuck on dm3. They have played it for over a year now, every day, over and over, and they are not ready to give that up now.

Hot spots in clan levels are by the quad, the rocket launcher, and the red armor. I do not intend to turn this section of the guide into a strategy guide for dm3, however much of what I am discussing now comes out of dm3 experience, and will be the map I am referring to. When creating a clan map, you want to be sure that you spread hot spots out, or one clan will be able to dominate every hot spot, and the other will be left searching for scraps. When a clan is searching and fighting with scraps, they are not going to be able to put up an effective fight, and the match is essentially over.

Spawns are incredibly important when it comes to clan games. Before spawn randomization was put into the Clanring mod, all a team had to do to win a level was sit at the spawn points or run the spawn point order. Spawn randomization almost fixed the problem. The thing you have to be sure of is that you put in enough spawn points so that one clan will not be able to cover them all and they can’t cover multiple spawns at one time. You also have to place them within a decent distance of armor and/or weapons, so that the recently spawned player can build up fast enough to help his team again.

Weapon layout goes a long way to determining balance and hot spots. If the level is based like dm3, you need to be sure one team can have weaker weapons but stronger armor in order to take down the side that is controlling the rockets. You do not want one team to be able to effectively take control of all the weapons on the level. If so, one clan is left with nothing at all, and will be completely dominated the rest of the game.

Armor layout is integral to the balance of the level as well. If one side can control the strongest armor on the level, as well as the rocket launcher, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other clan to mount a comeback. This is why strong armor for the losing side is necessary for them to take a shot at the winning side. And that means putting the strong armor well away from where the winning side will most likely be, that is, near the rocket launcher and/or quad.

Powerups. On dm3, the two powerups can mean the downfall of either clan. I disagree with the positioning of the quad, because it was put too close to the rocket launcher, and thus easily controlled by the winning side. In my opinion, I think the Ring of Shadows should be swapped with the Quad, thus putting the Quad by the side the losing team will most likely be on. The Pentagram can turn a game around, if the losing team manages to get it and grab a rocket launcher. The quad can do the same, because the losing team will be able to frag an opponent and take their rocket launcher with more ease. However, poor placement of these powerups can lead to easier domination of the losing team, so choose carefully.

Traps are not found in dm3, but that does not mean that they should not be included in a clan map. A trap could help a losing team put the winning team at a disadvantage. However, one thing to note is that dm3 is a wildly popular level, and there are no traps in it, and the including of a trap could actually hamper people’s opinions of it. In other words, if you don’t have a great idea, don’t do it.

When a player is forced to make a sound, it alerts all players in nearby areas to that player’s presence. As such, you need to be careful when designing the level so that players can avoid making sounds if they try. One of the big advantages is surprise, and making sounds denies a player this tactic which could be essential for helping the losing team to make a comeback.

Free For All

The main difference between a level designed for Free For All (FFA) and a clan level is that you will never have a whole bunch of guys controlling given areas. And as such, you can build your level differently.
The level should still somewhat remain balanced like a clan level, except the dynamics are different. Balanced in a FFA just means you should spread items out, whereas it takes new meaning in a clan level.

Item layout should be somewhat similar to a clan level, but not identical. It is perfectly fine in a free for all level to put in several powerups, rocket launchers, and armor. The idea behind a free for all, as I see it, is to have a fast-paced rocket-flying hard-core frag-fest. If you want something like that, you want players to all get large (well-equipped) very quickly. Smaller levels yield high frag counts quicker. If the level is decently spread out, putting rocket launchers at different ends of a level can aid in building players up quicker.

Powerups are a godsend for FFA play. When you toss a quad into a level, it changes the level dramatically. Players will fight over it, and it will become a hot spot of activity. If placed well away from rocket launchers, it promotes the rocket-wielding people to leave the rocket area and attempt to get the quad. This leaves the rocket launcher area open for others to fight over. And thus, more people gain rocket launchers, and everyone can pose a threat to whoever is in the lead. A Pentagram aids in yet another person gaining a rocket launcher, and can add to the fun if fought over. The Ring of Shadows, in my opinion, is just a fairly worthless powerup, unless all your opponents are using GLQuake.

Overcrowding tends to be a major problem in Free-For-All games. In most levels, the number of hot spots is limited, and thus many people generally flock to one or two areas. This causes problems because it enables one person to camp the area with a powerful weapon and rack up frags on many peons, who carry little to fight with.

Traps are a great asset in FFA. DM2 is the perfect example of the perfect trap. It’s a trap in a trap. On DM2 (Claustrophobopolis) when you open the floor to reveal a pit of lava, you leave yourself vulnerable to being crushed by someone else. Traps, while not always useful, are often just plain fun. Dual traps, like the one in dm2, is a great way of implementing them. If you have the potential of killing a number of people with a trap, it should be possible to kill the person who trips it with ease. And dm2 is a prime example. This is not to say all traps should be designed like that. A good trap is one that could kill a camper, or one that prevents camping in some form or another. It is a useful asset in enabling you to get to items previously unattainable due to a large player sitting directly on them.

Testing and Revising

Perhaps one of the most fun parts of level design is testing. This is where you get to see all your hard work pay off. Testing is necessary to be sure you have built a level in such a fashion that it plays the way you intended. It is truly amazing the things that people can figure out that you never thought of.
And some of these things could be good…and some can be bad. That’s where revision comes in. This is the part that is not so fun. A lot of times, changes can be, well, a pain in the butt, and rather than make them, a designer may make a “quick-fix” solution which really is not an effective means of solving the problem. Really, this is one of the most important parts of level design. Gaping holes can be found in a level that you never even realized were there. This is not to say the level will not play as perfectly as you imagined. If planned out perfectly, a level should play just like you want it. However when planning a level most people never take into account rocket jumping, grenade jumping, or even grenade-rocket jumping. It is amazing how high you can get if you try. And that could lead to some interesting places.

Revision is something that is necessary to finalize a level. Testing also tends to yield many suggestions from the players as to what they would like added or changed. And it tends to be a good idea to listen to the players. Especially since without them, you have built the level for nothing.

Conclusion

Again, I am not a master of level design, and this guide was intended as a basic guide towards mapping. A lot of authors begin creating levels and do not understand what is really integral to designing a good level, and as such haphazard projects can be released.
Right now, I will be taking a lot of my own advice in creating my next clan level, Abandoned Base 3. Level design is not easy, and it takes a lot of time and patience. Sometimes little things can get tedious, but you have to put up with all the miniscule details to create a quality final product. All of the hours of pain and suffering are worth it when you see people play your maps, and when you know they enjoy them.

https://web.archive.org/web/19980121122918/http://www.gamers.com:80/features/1997-11/5-qlevel_design/Home.Asp

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