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  • Writer's pictureWillem Kranendonk

Arena Map Making - Tips and Tricks!

Updated: Apr 18, 2023



My tips for making Arena Maps

I love making Multiplayer Arena maps. It’s my favorite form of map design. To me, it’s beauty meets simplicity. Simplicity doesn’t imply they are easy to make. Rather, they have deep layers of challenges that as a developer you’ll have to work for.


I’ve made plenty of arena map designs throughout my career so far. I wanted to share what I’ve learned throughout that time, and who knows, maybe it’ll help you get started too.


 

Step 1: Make a Plan

How you plan to make an arena map is subjective. For me, I start by writing out where I’d want to play both in terms of theme and setting.


I start by jotting down a few bullet points to get my ideas on paper. I prioritize the ideas I want in the final result. Other times I’ve used a flow chart to help me visualize all the key aspects of the map I want to create



An example of an LD flow chart, you can read more here.


When I plan, I like to keep my documentation to one page if I can. A big reason for this has to do with how Arena gameplay works. The fast pace means players don’t spend a great amount of time (if any) to observe the space and architecture around them. They’ll spend a few seconds traversing or engaging with enemies. So I don’t overthink it, keeping my ideas concise and understanding the nature of Arena gameplay.


Step 2: Reference gathering

Map references are a great way to draw inspiration for your own map.


Traditionally, a mood board is a good way to visualize what kind of map you want to make. Most LD’s I’ve worked with have used a mood board as part of their map design process.


A recent example of a Moodboard I made for my blockout.

But there are other ways to gather references if a mood board doesn't work for you. I like to load up an empty server of maps that I’m inspired by. I “walk” around and screen capture parts of the map I like.


I like to interact with physical spaces as much as I can as opposed to being theoretical. Theory and reality don’t always come to the same result, and that’s the same for map making.


I’ll also jump on YouTube and watch videos from channels that I’m subscribed to that show maps from other games. I look for ones that have zero commentary, showing natural, unfiltered gameplay. To me, it's a great way to gather information about spaces as well as gameplay. I highly recommend Mystical Gaming for this if you want to give it a try.


Step 3: Draw or Don’t Draw!

Ok so, I love to draw my ideas out.


It’s a good way to get a break from staring at screens all day. Call me old fashioned, but renowned Formula One Engineer, Adrian Newey draws out his car concepts, and he’s been pretty successful in doing so. (Newey-designed cars have won eleven World Constructors' and twelve World Drivers' championships*).


I don’t know if it’s common practice, or if it works for every LD. All I’m saying is, if you haven’t tried it yet, I encourage you to do so.


Remember though, the process of drawing concept maps depends on the game you are making. For B.ARK I did zero paper design. Even for Knockout City, I sometimes made levels with zero concepting.


So while I encourage you to try paper design, don’t force the situation. Top down designs are highly optional and a tool for planning, not a proof of good design.



One of many books I have! This book has every map I designed for Knockout City, with over 140 different maps.


Step 4: Make set pieces

My mantra for making set pieces is “keep it simple, stupid”.


When production was underway on Knockout City, I would give myself at most a week and sometimes even a day to make a map. Why did I go from one extreme to the other? It was to figure out my own range and limitations when blocking out my work. To meet my target deadlines, I would group a lot of custom shapes, and reuse them to make my levels come to life. During this part of the process I’m less focused on the narrative details.


That’s how I “keep it simple, stupid” and meet my deadlines. Deadlines bring pressure, so making the process as easy as you can for yourself helps.


Once I’m past that phase, I add little narrative details if I have time. It’s secondary to the total design goal, and perhaps frowned upon, but if you got time on your hands, why not?


Step 5: Testing

Yey! Your map is done! Congratulations!


Sadly, this isn’t the case. You’ve made Version 1 of several more versions of a map you just came up with.


Maps are rarely perfect after one blockout. There is always room for improvement. As a joke, I always say that as an LD I am a “professional failure” as I focus on trying to investigate my map’s shortcomings.


In my opinion, this is a professional attitude you have to strive for. Our job as LD’s is integral to the success of a game. It’s what we’re paid to do, so you should test your work, and find the weaknesses in your designs (if you have any). It’s for your own benefit to do so as well.


Testing is my favorite part of map creation. It gives me the chance to hear feedback from others. Before a test, if I can, I do a few offline games and then gather a group of colleagues to play my work. In my first iteration, I try to not ask many or any questions related to the map. I want feedback to come through the experience after they’ve given it a spin, rather than when it’s happening at the moment.

After my first test, I’ll continue to improve the map and base my changes on the feedback given.


That said, not every piece of feedback needs to be addressed and implemented! You’re in the driver seat here, so use the feedback to make changes you feel will improve your next iteration, but not completely change your own ideas. Having confidence in yourself is what I’m getting at here. Don’t let the feedback influence your map design completely.


When doing future tests, ask open questions that help gather wider perspectives to challenging aspects of your map.


A map I worked on for Knockout City had a train run through the level space. I asked my team, “How frequently did you interact with the train?” I wanted to gather different answers that helped me understand the map’s core gimmick. It was an integral part of the map, and it was important to me as a concept if it was worth keeping or not. I didn’t ask “did you like the train?” because that kind of question I find too simplistic and wouldn’t actually give me the answers I’m looking for.


Step 6: You can ignore my advice (if you want)

We’re at the tail end of this blog, and you might be thinking “well this was useless”. Fair enough!


My word is not gold, and I’m aware of that.

One of my least favorite topics with regards to game design is Leading Lines. A theory that LD’s are told they need to incorporate in their map design.



Me waking up after a nightmare involving "the leading lines".


I dislike this theory not because it’s bad, it’s just not applicable to all game design, or failproof for that matter. As an LD you will deal with different intents and design directions. Not every concept is going to work, that’s just part of it. Leading Lines won’t save your work all the time, and my advice won’t either. But it can come in handy should the moment arise.


On Knockout City I originally created a lot of Call of Duty inspired maps. I thought they were fun, but my colleagues weren’t as enthusiastic. And they were right. Just because those styled maps worked for CoD doesn’t mean it’ll translate well for Knockout City. We were making Arena maps, not full blown Military Shooter maps.


B.ARK, My Project at Amazon and SW: Hunters are different games. They share similarities, but I can’t fully apply the same formula I used in one project to the next. If games were all the same, our experiences would be half as interesting or innovative as it currently is. Heck, maybe AI will start making our work as a result!


My point is, these are tips, not requirements. Whenever I review an LD’s work, I focus on the intent and the execution of that intent. However, more importantly than anything else, I make sure I am enjoying the work presented, and as a player that’s all I am asking for.


Good or bad is subjective. But make sure you’re open to improvement. We are in an R&D industry with plenty of opportunities to create amazing experiences for people. Learn from the pros, learn from your peers, and most importantly learn from yourself.



 


Hope you enjoyed reading this blog. I look forward to seeing some Arena maps as a result, I hope! I have a Discord server full of developers who love to participate and help out whenever they can so feel free to join us to share what you’re making.


Lastly shout out to my brother Marc for helping me grammar check this blog! You can follow him on Twitter here. He's doing some amazing blogs at Roam.Ai which I highly recommend you check out.


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