Lunaran.com Matthew Breit Level Designer | Texture Artist
This goes into placement of items in a map, and tries to train the reader to create a 'neutral density' of item worth across a map, so that movement and action aren't too lopsided. This is a sound principle, but doesn't work in a vaccuum: some imbalance creates pull or draw in a deathmatch, and contributing or opposing imbalances in the layout can be designed around this, which encourages more interesting player decisions and combat scenarios.
Jan 30, 1999
If a map's architecture were perfectly balanced (like our eight-room map above), and there were no items, the balance would be fine (but the map would suck big time). Take this into consideration: we add a rocket launcher in the lower right room. Balance is, again, tipped. Everyone's going to go for that rocket launcher. It's the only rocket launcher and the only weapon in the entire map. That room will surpass the center room's standing as the most popular room. The upper right room will, inversely, see even less action.
Here's an analogy to put it all in perspective. Picture a vast sheet of rubber. Players are naturally drawn towards sags in the rubber sheet, like balls rolling around. The balls roll into the sags, being drawn towards the lower parts, as rolling things generally do. Stairs and lifts create sags in the rubber, drawing the balls (players) towards it. The more often a player will run through a particular room, the deeper the sag of that room. Items make sags as well, because they draw the players, too. When an item is picked up, it is gone, but the sag doesn't disappear. Why? Likely, few actually saw it get picked up. Have you ever needed a medkit badly, and run for the nearest one, only to find it gone? You still were drawn to the item. Some players just head for the next one, others will hide out or camp waiting for the item to respawn. It's safe to assume that items always sag the rubber and make the players roll towards them if they're in the neighborhood. Have I made things clearer or have I just confused you more?
Items shift balance the same as lifts or stairs do, but they don't shift it all evenly. A BFG is going to draw the player a lot more than a shotgun is. A megahealth will attract the player fifty times as much as a stimpack. This must be considered when laying items. Even a perfectly balanced map like the 8-room ring can be skewed by the placement of items.
The general rule of thumb for item placement is not to bunch things together. Placing three bunches of rockets next to the rocket launcher puts whoever comes across it after it respawns in a very dominant place right away. Weapon balancing relies on availability of ammunition as well as preset things like damage, fire rate, projectile speed, etc. A good map with every weapon and an even distribution of every type of ammo will see a lot more frags with the railgun, RL and BFG than with the machinegun. The machinegun is no match for a rocket launcher, unless the machinegunner has a good supply of bullets and can fire madly, while the rocketeer has only a meager few left and none readily available to pick up, forcing him to conserve his shots and fight smart.
Item imbalance should not be used to compensate for map imbalance. If we took our four-room example that had one room only accessable by crawlways, and put a rocket launcher in there, then the balance would be pretty even. In this case, the rocket launcher room is right in the path of flow (see next section), and even if someone doesn't want the rocket launcher, they have to crawl through anyway.
However, say we put a ledge up in one room that takes a couple of tricky jumps from crates or machinery or some decorative crap to get to. Players who don't want the rocket launcher can just run past the decorative crap, but if someone needs the rockets or the firepower, they have to go a bit out of their way to get up there and grab it. This is another key to helping item balance. If all weapons were equally accessible, there'd be more RL users than shotgun users. But, if the rocket launcher takes complicated jumping/crawling/swimming/falling/maneuvering or otherwise to get to, there'll be less rocket launchers being used in the field, giving the shotgun enthusiasts (heh) a longer life before the next respawn.
In fact, some of the more powerful weapons should always be a little more difficult to get at than just running over it.
Be forewarned: a couple jumps or some swimming against the current to get to a RL or a quad are always a good idea (more powerful weapons and items should always be at least a little hard to get to, even if it's just a jump or two), but there's no one who'll be willing to wade through Hell twice to get it. Be sensible when making goodies hard to reach. If someone had to run through lava, jump and grab a ladder over a bottomless pit, then climb up while swinging blades threatened to knock them off to get to the megahealth you stuck underneath the smashing ceiling in the middle of the toxic slime pit, no one's going to go for it at all.
I've talked about obstructing flow to a BFG or a Quad above, but that only covers the case of a player knowing where the item is and how to get to it. He only has to get to it. But what if the player doesn't know how to get to it, or doesn't know it's there at all?
That's a secret. Take the example of the cargo-train trip to get the BFG in Q2DM8. The player doesn't know it's there, and how could he? It isn't visible. He'd have to think, "Gee. I'm going to take a ride on these crates to see where they go," in the middle of a hectic deathmatch. The other secret there, the hidden Body Armor/Energy Shield, could only be discovered by chance. It's easy to get to, but out of view unless you're teetering over the edge of the walkway above and happen to be looking down at the same time. Once discovered, though, it's easy to get there again. The hard part is in finding it.
That's the difference between a secret powerup and a powerup protected by the world. A secret or two can help make a deathmatch map interesting. Perhaps a silencer hidden in the dark area under a stairwell (one I've seen done many a time), or a crack the player wouldn't ordinarily think to look down (like the gap in Q2DM8 where the armor is hidden). A powerup that requires rocket-jumping on top of a little detective work makes a nice secret, but also breeds campers.
Note that both examples above also make the items hard to reach once the player has found them. That conveyor ride takes a long time, and drags the player very slowly through several large rooms where he can be seen and killed. The only way out of the body armor cubbyhole is to drop down to the bottom level, where a lot of the action is going on. If the player's in bad shape and needs the boost, he may go for something else instead, fearful of being killed after grabbing the RA.
Use common sense when adding secrets. Don't severely unbalance the play by adding a particular item in a secret area. Just because it's hidden doesn't mean it's not there. Don't make an "ultimate cache" of stuff, either, like a BFG, ammo pack, 100+ health and Quad all in one secret. Balance, remember?
The harder the secret is to find, the more rewarding the item should be. Any idiot can crawl under a stairwell. It takes a real secret-hunter to jump into lava and swim up a pipe in search of something. Of course, it would be nice if he could survive to the end of that pipe, too.