Mapping Perfection

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Gamers of a certain age may remember the infamous Sonic the Hedgehog cheat code that let you meddle with the very fabric of the level itself. Want to give Sonic a million rings to collect? Go ahead. Want to build a new platform and fill it with swarming enemies? Knock yourself out. To the Ribena-addled mind of a pre-pubescent gamer, it was all very exciting … yet simultaneously frustrating. Yeah, yeah, tinkering with base-level objects and graphics was fun. But surely more could be done, right? Why couldn’t this brave new world of content creation go a whole lot further?


Flash-forward a couple of decades. Level design and modding for PC games has been around for longer than many current players have been alive, while the console market has begun to take tentative steps into the world of user-created content with titles such as Halo 3, Far Cry 2 and LittleBigPlanet. Still, the vast majority of this aftermarket content remains solely of interest to the modders themselves. Either it’s too difficult for ordinary players to find these mods, or the user-created stuff in question is simply too shoddy to garner much attention.

There have been, however, notable breakout points, user-created maps and mods that redefine the notion of what homemade game content can achieve and even go so far as to set new standards for professional designers. Quake mappers like Ikka Keranen, Neil Manke and Pete Burrows were among the earliest prominent modders, helping user-mapping grow from Bambi-on-ice hesitancy to confident, balls-out creative strutting. Minh Lee and Jess Cliffe’s Half-Life mod, a part-time university project, became the official Valve product Counter-Strike, which later featured David Johnston’s “de_dust,” one of the most popular multiplayer maps ever, and home to around five percent of the online player base at any one time. Valve have similarly inspired more recent user-modding: Tom Baldry’s epic “Dam It!” takes the four Left 4 Dead survivors through the interior of a massive hydroelectric dam with stunning vision and clarity.

But what qualifies as a success? What transforms a user-made level from embarrassing amateur-hour nonsense to gripping, heart-pounding, play-again-and-again interactive perfection? As mapping communities have grown, so have the unspoken rules, the innate and necessary guidelines needed to cobble together a good map. So, what are they?

The best person to ask, it seems, would be the best-known. As the creator of “de_dust,” David Johnston is a man who knows what attracts players. His three cardinal rules are refreshingly simple: “Originality, accessibility and presentation, although not necessarily in that order,” he says. “Excel in just one and you’re halfway there towards making a map people want to play and want to keep playing. Some of the best, most fun maps have been hideously ugly, such as the ‘knives’ or ‘ice’ CS maps, and the same applies for the other facets. Master all three, and the world is your oyster.”

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Looks aren’t necessarily that important, then – a neat little departure from most other aspects of life. And while the bar is high for mods to actually attain the level of popularity that “de_dust” has, the simple act of altering a game world is satisfying in its own right. “The first time you mod a game, be it changing a single texture for the Mona Lisa or a gunshot sound with a quack, and then see it in action … it’s a moment you never forget,” Johnston says.


But designing a great level is not the remit of the part-timer – it’s for those who care. If you were thinking of throwing together the next hit level over the weekend, you’d better revise your schedule slightly. “It does concern me that map-making is becoming a more and more involved affair,” Johnston says. “It can require such a broad range of skills and immense amounts of time that people will be put off.”

What hope is there, then, for those among us who, while hugely enthusiastic gamers, are somewhat sloppy with our coding skills? Are we doomed to forever play user-created levels made by others while only dreaming of a world where we’re able to participate in the creative process ourselves?

Not entirely. For the last few years, the console market has been muscling in on the user-created-content action. The results have admittedly been mixed – Halo 3‘s Forge system is certainly innovative but perhaps a little off-putting and overcomplicated, while Far Cry 2 has a wonderfully easy-to-use mapping tool offset by lack of developer support and a number of niggling interface issues. The undisputed champion in this field is LittleBigPlanet, a flagship PlayStation 3 title that makes level design almost kindergarten-simplistic.

How do Johnston’s pivotal three rules translate to the world of LBP, then? With varying success. Presentation? Yep, that still matters; but with LBP‘s organic textures, the fact that your level will look amazing is almost guaranteed. Accessibility? Sure – just switch on your console and jump online. Originality? Weeeeeeell, now. This is where things start to get complicated.

One look at the most popular LittleBigPlanet levels reveals that familiarity, not originality, is often the key to popularity. If you’re thinking of knocking together a brave new world for Sackboy to leap around, you could do far worse than to base it on an existing cultural reference point. Take Danielsan88’s “Little Big Colossus,” a tribute to the 2004 PS2 masterpiece Shadow of the Colossus, or RRR30000’s remake of the seminal Konami shmup Gradius. You even have the chance to guide Sackboy through Sonic the Hedgehog‘s Green Hill Zone, recalling that aforementioned game-breaking cheat code

These examples highlight a major discrepancy between the gaming desires and priorities of PC and console level-modders. Not to rehash old gaming clichés – i.e. that the PC crowd is made up of goatee-stroking “serious” players, while console-land is home to Ritalin-fueled teens hurling abuse at each other over Modern Warfare 2 killstreaks – but the evidence speaks for itself. Console-based level-design is still seen as the younger, less mature brother of PC modding. It makes sense that the “rules” on how to craft a popular level are different for each.


Mark Healy, designer of LittleBigPlanet, has some thoughts. “I’m not sure there is a formula,” he says. “It’s probably a bit like asking ‘What makes a good song?’ … The tempo, the progression, is it memorable? What’s the context and purpose? Is it just simply annoying?” Like Johnston, he also has a three-item checklist. “Number one: Don’t think too much about the end result when you start, just experiment with small ideas, little sections. Number two: Jam with someone – get feedback and input. Number three: Iterate and evolve it until the point it is having the desired effect on people … or give up, throw it in the rubbish bin, and start again.”

It could be a while before console level-design becomes as ‘sophisticated’ as its PC counterpart. For Johnston, desktop design is still very much where it’s at. “I love that consoles are getting in on the action, albeit in watered-down affairs,” he muses, adding a caveat: “I’m hoping it’ll encourage people to hop onto a PC and attempt some ‘real’ modding where they can get their hands really dirty!” Healy, unsurprisingly, has a more complimentary viewpoint on console modding, stating that he is “constantly amazed at the creativity people show. My personal favorite levels are the ones that don’t really feel like LittleBigPlanet, but more like a new game entirely.”

In the end, if there are any specific “rules” for how to design successful user-created levels, they’re subject to the same changes in technology and taste that the rest of the industry is. Sticking to the principles outlined above is a start, however, and it seems that more and more people are going to have the chance to grapple with them. Content-creation democracy will continue to grow, perhaps even launching more amateur designers into the same league as the big boys. “We recently employed a guy who had no other games experience than creating some maps in LBP which we happened to find while browsing one day,” Healy explains. “He was a real builder – bricks, cement and driving dangerously in a white van. He had harbored dreams of becoming a game designer – and he’s turned out to be really amazing. I love it when that kind of thing happens.”

C J Davies is a screenwriter and journalist based in London. He can be found online over at

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