Architecture and Layout
- Plan your map on paper before opening Hammer. It gives you a surprisingly clear idea of proportions and gameflow. A quick and ugly sketch can save you hours of work and probably starting all over.
- Don't build your map inside a big box. The area around whatever you put in your giant box will become lifeless and boring. Killboxes are bad maps. God knows why people still play them. There is certainly no need for more.
- Wall columns are one of the best (but also most obvious) ways of breaking down boring walls.
- Floor detail is most important, then come walls (especially the area around doors). No-one ever looks up so ceilings are the least important, especially if there are high walls. Make sure ceilings aren't too salient, leave them dark. You can add some detail at random places, though, to surprise the player. Make sure there's something at least mildly interesting in any direction the player can look. We're building in 3D here!
- Boring rooms and corridors still look boring, no matter how many prop models you put in them. Use non-right-angled layouts and photos of real world places as a reference. The look and feel of a room can be established with some basic brushwork and lighting. Only add detail from there.
- Transitions between floors and walls and walls and ceilings should look fluent. Make sure the textures fit both in theme and color. Add some borders and trims where necessary. It's worth the extra work.
- Never confuse graphics and graphics technology. Just because the curvy wall was difficult to make it doesn't mean it looks better than a more simple one. Balance of detail is very important and often unrelated to technical limitations. Sometimes a flat wall does look better than one made of hundreds of polygons.
- Switch on the frame rate counter (type "cl_showfps 1" in console) and make sure your map runs at similar speed as any official map. Most maps running really slow can be optimized without losing any visual quality.
- Give every room, corridor and piece of architecture a purpose. Polygons are still expensive and slow down the game so think twice before putting in a random detail that players will hardly appreciate. Don't waste hours building rooms that don't add anything interesting to the map. Meaningless corridors that go over hundreds of meters are annoying and should be avoided. Too many rooms make the player feel lost.
- Remember nobody knows what the layout actually looks like when first playing your map. When building, think of someone running around the map for the first time, just looking forward like a labor rat in a maze searching for the cheese. Add landmarks the player can use for orientation and simplify the layout to only a few main areas that make it clear where to go.
- Avoid dead ends. There is nothing more frustrating than running in a wall while trying to escape someone with a rocket launcher. Also dead ends in corridors with powerful weapons in them can be camped forever. There's an easy way to avoid dead ends: Make sure there are at least 2 ways in and out of every room/area in the map.
- Avoid choke points. Imagine a map that consists of two bigger parts that are only connected by a small corridor in the middle. Soon the corridor will be spammed with grenades blindly, making it almost impossible to pass. Try to give your map a circular or figure eight layout.
- Avoid death pits and hidden traps. If the player is pissed he will show you by leaving the server, never playing your map again.
- People don't play dark maps. Make sure the floor is always lit brightly so the player sees where he's going. Imagine playing the map at daylight with reflections on the monitor (or even better - try it out yourself). You'll quickly see which area needs to be brightened up.
- Make sure powerful weapons like the rocket launcher are hard to get. Consider adding a puzzle the player has to solve in order to get it. Place combine balls sparingly (not more than 2 or 3 in the whole level). Try to incite battles between the more powerful weapons (like placing the RPG in the field of view of a crossbow sniper).
- Avoid placing lots of weapons, ammo and medkits at some place that is too easy to defend. That way players can't camp there forever without taking any risks.
- Reward curiousness. If there is a place that looks like a jumping puzzle, there should better be some goodies hidden at the end.
Atmosphere and Ambiance
- Soundscapes are relatively easy to add and can create a lot of atmosphere. Consider writing your own soundscape. It's a matter of minutes and gives your map a personal touch.
- Use pictures of real places as an inspiration. You'll find some surprising details. Don't hesitate to rebuilt some piece of architecture from the photo plank by plank. That way the architecture looks more stable and lively.
- Think of a theme, something the player will remember your map for. Consider making your own set of textures, new sounds or custom models!
- HL2's texture set has a certain grayness to it. Good lighting is one of the easiest ways of overcoming this. Use warm (yellow) lighting for places you want players to feel comfortable in and cold (blue) lighting for places you want players to pass quickly. Try not lighting your map in a constant brightness. Make sure there is some contrast between shady spots and brighter areas. White light looks gray in game. Alarming colors like red lights should only be placed where it makes sense (dangerous places and machinery).
- Visuals are as important as gameplay. Even though you have to start with the latter. A fun map that looks rubbish is only half of a map.
Construction and Testing Methodology
- Never release your first map to the public. That's a rule of thumb in the mapping scene. Still most mappers do it anyway Remember that your first map has to be humble by most standards. Try to improve with every map you build.
- When you first think your map is finished release it as a beta. Make sure the name of the BSP file shows that (name it "mymapname_beta1.bsp" for example). That way you can add things later without any confusion over the file name. Release your next version as "beta2" and so on; until there are no complaints from other players. Then release it as a final version without any appendix in the name.
- After so many hours of building your map you're blind. Blind for your mistakes, blind for what the map actually plays like. Release it in a mapping community (or forums, clans ect.). Do not just give a link to your map file, make some good and representative screenshots. People won't check out a map because of the cool name or how awesome you think it is. Upload the screenshots at your homepage or some hosting site and make sure they're 800x600 pixel JPGs with file sizes under 100kb. Expect some constructive feedback and accept that everything people say is probably true.
- Maps tend to look bigger in Hammer than they do in game (or the opposite). Especially if you haven't mapped for a while. Make sure to test your map early in game to get the proportions right.
- Smooth movement is vital for a map to not feel claustrophobic so make sure you never get stuck or run into a wall at unexpected places. Get rid of too many physics props that totally block off areas of your map.
- Save every 5 seconds.
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