My students shuffle into my Counter-Strike level design course here at UC Berkeley.
Today we're play-testing a student's final project, the culmination of a semester's worth of design theory. We've discussed map layout iteration, real-world architecture and timing the counter-terrorists' route to Bombsite B. Now this student has a chance to show what he's learned and impress his classmates. His level loads ...
... and we're immediately treading water in a vast, featureless rectangle of ocean adorned with a lopsided pirate ship parked next to an impossibly tall lighthouse, all bathed in the same dim gray light because he forgot to point the sunlight downwards. There are no buy-zones, hostages or bombsites, because he forgot those, too. Some players are stuck inside walls, while the lucky few individuals gifted with movement wander aimlessly, knifing at shadows until the sight of the lighthouse mysteriously crashes the game and boots them to their desktop. It's virtual purgatory.
"Well, if it crashes the game, then just don't look at the lighthouse," the student helpfully advises us. Thousands of miles away, DaveJ sheds a single tear.
At that moment, I felt what many game developers feel when a play test goes horribly wrong, similar to the stages of grief: First you deny it happened, then you blame the player/student and then you finally accept responsibility and start trying to fix it.
What Went Wrong
UC Berkeley has no formal videogame design curriculum, so as part of a special education program called DeCal that allows students to develop and facilitate courses for their peers, I decided to leverage my background as a modder to teach level design. (The notorious UC Berkeley StarCraft course is also one of these DeCals.)
I thought I did everything right. We contemplated the alleys of de_inferno and why no one ever plays de_piranesi. We even covered the hot industry buzzwords and design practices: the anatomy of meaningful play and intentionality, the importance of emergent player narrative - all the popular high-level game design theory relevant to Counter-Strike.
Apparently the students didn't care about that stuff. They were typical gamers with no intention of pursuing a career in videogame development, but as their instructor I had to make the occupation appear accessible and attractive.
I wanted my students to appreciate the simplicity of the routes in de_dust, the elegant way the bridge in de_aztec looks risky and also plays riskily, how form fits function and how designers control both, orchestrating a beautiful ballet of controlled chaos.