Back in 2010, our multiplayer design pod was facing a dozen level concepts up on the wall. The previous day we had narrowed it down from 29 pitches, and these were the ones that had made the cut. I picked the one with the beautiful countryside — a serene landscape of trees, open fields and expansive gentle slopes. The pitch simply read “Rolling Hills”. This would be a fun level to toy with – and this is the story of how it turned into the classic Battlefield 3 map Caspian Border.
Caspian Border started out with the working title “Forest” during production of Battlefield 3. It was to be a throwback to the classic open Conquest Head On maps from Battlefield 1942. The ambition from the outset was clear and simple: A massive playground for players of all types and tastes.
We wanted players to be able to choose between all the major vehicle and aircraft classes across an open layout, or alternatively have the option to choose infantry combat inside more tightly constructed areas. It was to be all-out epic ground and air warfare, scaling up to 64 players on PC.
When I started considering layouts for the map, one of the early influences that I studied was Operation Kursk from Battlefield 1942. With its open terrain, forested cover and vehicle-focused appeal, it seemed like a good starting point for a retake of the classic Battlefield gameplay. The early prototypes we play tested thus featured (similarly to the classic Operation Kursk) two bases at each extreme, roads along the outside borders leading to the enemy territory, and flags centered in the middle where the two opposing teams were expected to collide.
Setting Forest up
When designing layouts for any multiplayer level, the challenge for the level designer often centers on adding the right amount of symmetry and asymmetry into the design – you want something that ultimately plays balanced, but with interesting contrasts depending on who you have chosen to fight for.
My original plan was to implement a four-flag set up – equal distances to each team’s home base ensuring a certain amount of symmetry – and to introduce strategic or tactical subtleties by way of unique terrain features specific to the American or the Russian halves of the map. Furthermore, the map was to be split along the north/south axis by a river, with the eastern half being more prone to lighter vehicles and infantry, and the western half encouraging tank vs. tank combat across the hilly terrain.
On any Battlefield level, different types of players need to have different fighting areas that will appeal to them – the bases or terrain around the flags naturally designed to match those combat scenarios. But considering how some of the flags were clearly vehicle-focused, and some were more prone to infantry, one of my main concerns when building Caspian Border was to come up with a layout that forced vehicles to interact with infantry, and vice versa.
Collaborating with senior designer Alan Kertz and the level artist for Caspian Border, Johannes Fors, we eventually came up with a layout proposal that did just that – infantry fighting would occur in proximity of the central flags, while the flags on the other side of the river would be dominated by vehicles.
Making ends meet
After a lot of tinkering with the possibilities, there was now a layout that I felt comfortable with. But there were still many loose ends when it came to the art direction. The primary concern was the lack of good visual contrast between the natural areas, lack of identity for the actual bases, as well as the lack of main visual guidelines for players to orient themselves. To break the level up, our talented crew of level artists decided upon a border crossing theme, which in turn gave us a solid border checkpoint theme that would become the centerpiece of the map. The highway running from north to south functioned as a visual landmark cutting across the map, momentarily parallel to the river but eventually crossing over and leading to the area that now houses the Gas Station base.
Slowly but steadily, Caspian Border was beginning to take its present form. Given the traditional Battlefield gameplay we were bringing back for Battlefield 3, it had been decided that we would be unveiling a hands-on version of 64-player Conquest for the first time at GamesCom 2011 in Germany. Caspian Border was to be the showcase level.
As we continued play testing the map internally – we were playing the map on a daily basis during August to get the level ready in time for the show – I felt the infantry areas were in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of vehicles across the open terrain. To balance things up I opted to add a third flag in the center of the map, giving us two mixed vehicle/infantry flags (Checkpoint and Hilltop) along with one infantry-only flag (Forest) that was still reasonably close to the more vehicle-centric bases on the other side of the river (Gas Station to the North and Antenna to the South).
Thus we arrived to the base layout that we see today on Caspian Border for the PC – one that we felt lived up to our expectations for a large scale Conquest gameplay. But this very same layout, when play tested for 24 player Conquest matches on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, felt less intense than its PC counterpart – the original expanse of terrain was now roamed by fewer players, so the fighting felt too spread out.
I analyzed several flag configuration options, and ultimately concluded that eliminating the Antenna flag from this set up allowed us to reduce the amount of contested flags (and hence player spread) while still conserving the essential northwest/south axis of fighting going from the Gas Station (typically held by the Russians), past the Hilltop and Forest neutral flags, all the way to the Checkpoint area (usually controlled by the US).
Delivering all game modes on Caspian Border
All nine maps we shipped with Battlefield 3 were set up with our six different game modes. In practice, this meant 54 different level setups, and a whole lot of work for the three multiplayer level designers in the project. We approached the different maps by first establishing the creative vision of the level around a dominant game mode – Rush or Conquest – while keeping the necessary considerations for the other game modes at the back of our minds, and eventually making the game mode specific adaptations to make sure they played well in any game mode.
Caspian Border was unequivocally a Conquest focused map, conceived to play to the strengths of open, freeform, sandbox-style gameplay – as opposed to Rush’s inherently more linear take on Battlefield. The first layout that I attempted for Rush had the attackers beginning where the RU base currently sits, moving on towards a base at the Hilltop, and culminating with a final attack on the set of M-COM stations by Checkpoint. In our play tests, though, this set-up proved underwhelming.
The hilly slopes around the northern Airstrip (the Russian HQ in Conquest) were not adequate for tank on tank combat, and the distance from Hilltop to Checkpoint was too short to really allow for interesting tactics for both sides. I decided to invert the layout instead – the US base would be the starting point, with the attackers taking over Checkpoint, before moving towards Gas Station, and culminating on a climactic push uphill towards Airstrip. We added helicopters for the attackers, plus ground assault jets for each team, and voilà – Rush was a thrill once again!
The Team Deathmatch game mode followed a similar pattern where I tried different failed set ups before settling on the one that we shipped the game with. We first play tested Team Deathmatch on the area surrounding the Checkpoint and Hilltop bases, but it didn’t lend itself well to multiple spawn zones (I wrote about the spawn zone system for Team Deathmatch in my previous Battlefield blog entry) as well as the combined Forest/Hilltop area, which was too open to present enough tactical options for players. Curiously enough, the setup around Gas Station had been completely overlooked at first, but it turned out it played great once the environments had been iterated by our artists. The natural four-zone layout of the area made it a very fitting setup for Team Deathmatch. As it stands now, the blend of open fields and forested areas with destructible buildings in the center makes it one of my favorite Team Deathmatch layouts in the game.
The finishing touches
Team Deathmatch is one of the areas that benefitted the most from our continuing post-release patch efforts. After we shipped the game last autumn, we looked hard at the feedback from the community across the different game modes. As part of the initiative to improve the Deathmatch spawning experience, I made an effort to further tweak many of the original spawning positions – a lot of the spawns were moved from their original locations close to the buildings in the center to safer locations at the periphery of the playable area. Players spawn further away from the action now, but this allows them to come into the fight on their terms after having enough time to read the battle.
Along with the aforementioned Team Deathmatch changes, avid gamers probably noticed a little surprise that came with the Karkand patch – the tall communications antenna that comprises one of the visual landmarks of the level would now tumble down when nearing the end of any Conquest match. We had always envisioned this hulking piece of destructible scenery as the climax of a prospective end-game outro cinematic (think Battlefield: Bad Company 2) but that cinematic feature was eventually cut. So we decided to try to get the event into the round itself instead. Unfortunately, when our deadline loomed we were unable to solve the technical complications of triggering such a complex animated object while the match was still taking place.
That said – being pummeled to death by a collapsing monster antenna simply had no substitute. By the time the first big patch came up, we had fortunately been able iron out all the kinks, and the antenna would no longer be just a prop.
Speaking of big structures – I am interested to know what you think about interacting with large structures during Battlefield matches. The collapsible Antenna is admittedly only a scripted event, and one that is played too late to really impact the gameplay. But what if it was to be triggered by players, at any point during a match? Is that something you think would improve upon the Battlefield gameplay? Would you like to be able to interact with structures more often? Make your voice heard in the poll below!
Multiplayer Level Designer