Follow Level Artist Pontus Ryman into the shattered map Epicenter – Where cracked streets, toppling buildings, and earthquake aftershocks combine to create another unique multiplayer experience in Battlefield 3.
Hello! My name is Pontus Ryman, Level Artist at DICE, and I’m here to lead you through the shattered streets and buildings of the Battlefield 3: Aftermath map Epicenter. As a level artist, it is my responsibility to work on everything from visual fidelity, lighting, theme and composition to prop placement, performance and level layout. Me and the other level artists work together with our technical artists and designers to make each map come alive and get its own distinct feel.
With Aftermath having a post-earthquake city theme I was eager to take what had been established in the single player campaign and bring that into our dynamic multiplayer environment. Just like in the previous expansion pack Armored Kill, the environments in Aftermath are a feature in themselves. You can get a sense of what I mean in this environment flythrough that I created specifically for our blog readers:
The earthquake is what ties everything together in Aftermath, and its effects are apparent in everything from large-scale destruction to small details like cracks in the street, broken windows, and construction cranes being deployed to clear the rubble. The destruction is contrasted with untouched areas, showing that the earthquake has had specific areas of effect.
Shaking the players
To push the theme even more, I wanted something unique in the level that really was specific not only in comparison to the other maps in the expansion pack, but to all other multiplayer maps in Battlefield 3.
In the single player experience you get to play as an earthquake goes off. I absolutely loved that and wanted it in Epicenter as well. I really wanted to bring it close to the player and not only be heard in the background. I decided to take the audio and trigger setup for an earthquake shake from one of the single player levels into Epicenter as a test, and it worked better than expected. With help from the audio team, effects artist and designers, we turned this idea into a full level specific feature, where the player gets to experience an ongoing aftershock while in multiplayer.
The aftershocks in the level go off with a randomized timer, so no one knows when the next shock is going to hit, making it a dynamic experience. The raw sound of the thundering earthquake combines with everything from car alarms going off to dogs barking in the distance just before the shake and debris with dust falling from buildings. Coupled with the literal shaking of the player, it really creates a unique multiplayer experience.
The effects are more than just window dressing. It creates a new element of suspense, as no one knows when the tremors will hit. And when they do, players will need to be able to judge whether to try and steady their aim and go for a shaky shot, or whether to hold their trigger finger until the tremor has passed – at the risk of letting the enemy out of their sight. You could see a glimpse of this framatic effect at the very end of our Aftermath Premiere Trailer.
Introducing Urban Exploring
Another element that I personally feel strongly for is exploration — A city that gets hit by an earthquake creates a different landscape that opens up for a lot of exploration. A broken pipe in the ground becomes something you can crawl through; a rift in the street becomes a protective trench; and a pile of rubble becomes a makeshift staircase that takes you to the next level inside a building.
I also wanted there to be plenty of additional paths for players to find. There are a number of places where players can destroy specific doors to open alternate routes. These routes can be very handy when trying to flank enemies or if they want to avoid confrontation. By breaching these destructible doors, players can transition into an interior environment and find new areas that are clearly differentiated from the outdoors.
I wanted these interior areas to make sense, so each area was designed to fit their placement. For example if you destroy any of the doors that are placed around the hotel, you will find the maintenance and janitor access routes where the hotel staff used to be working. The same goes for the garage ramp staircase access route. These routes are not meant to be main gameplay areas, but I wanted the level to feel more expansive and give a sense that there is more behind it than meets the eye. These areas also create some interesting gameplay twists that will ask players to adapt their strategy as the round progresses.
Experiencing the earthquake
There are certain key aspects to an earthquake that people will instantly recognize, whether they’ve been in one or not. These include collapsed buildings, large cracks in the streets and lots of dust that fills up the air with a thick atmosphere. These were some of the visual markers we made sure to focus on when developing Epicenter.
We also refined our ideas on what a post-earthquake environment might actually look like. We have plenty of destruction in Battlefield 3, but war based destruction and earthquake based destruction actually look very different from one another. An earthquake also gives a lot of possibilities for interesting gameplay areas, so it was important for us to make visuals and gameplay go hand in hand.
One example of that vital combination is the streets in Epicenter. They are not cracked in random directions, but mainly have rifts along its routes. Cracking the main streets open also means creating new and interesting gameplay areas. I am excited to let players run around inside these rifts, and it feels dramatic sprinting between large chunks of asphalt while burst water pipes create little rivers flowing down the sloping streets. It all helps to put the map into a bigger context and fiction.
As for the buildings, we designed them in a collapsed and tipped over state to show that something actually damaged their foundations (rather than them having been hit by a bomb, for example). This gives way to interesting areas where the rubble pile from a half collapsed building creates a new path for infantry to gain the higher ground. Collapsed balconies, large rubble piles and dramatically leaning houses that feel like they could fall on top of you any second. It all adds up to give the city a unique and dramatic identity that makes it distinguishable from any other multiplayer map.
Seeing is believing
When I started the level, there were a lot of question marks on what it would look like and how to achieve a highly detailed earthquake environment. A ruined building requires a lot more details to come to life than an undestroyed one. The same goes for streets and other parts of the environment.
We studied a lot of references of what rubble piles from actual earthquakes look like and tried to mimic the specifics. We also examined a lot of the previous game content like buildings and other constructions and envisioned that in a destroyed state. We continually worked through the level by iterating and adding more and more signs of the earthquake as production progressed.
A lot of the close up visuals become important to be believable in this very specific setting. The side of a cracked piece of asphalt needs to look believable with the correct detailing or the entire visual idea falls flat and ends up feeling out of place rather than enhancing the theme. A great deal of time was spent to just figure out how to nail down these details and then how to build it.
An example of this is the sides of the actual cracks — They have sediment layers and signs of destroyed infrastructure like water pipes and electrical cables, as well as the fine crack details on the side of the tarmac and debris from the asphalt that fills out the cracks. Once this detail concept work was done it was easy to extrapolate the detail philosophy throughout the rest of the level. I think the hard work in getting all the details just right is evident in the final layout and hope you will appreciate it.
The birth of Epicenter
When I started working on the map that would eventually be named Epicenter (where a few of our first Aftermath screenshots are taken from), all I had to go on was the overall theme for the expansion pack. All maps in progress have project names assigned to them, and I simply called mine “Earthquake”. The name was meant as a reminder for myself to push the earthquake aspect as far as I could. The final name Epicenter also echoes this emphasis on the more extreme effects of this natural disaster.
The idea behind Epicenter was to do a severely shattered high-rise district from central Tehran, with the sensation of trying to survive in the aftermath of the earthquake. The map name also stemmed from the idea that this map features one of the areas hit the hardest by the earthquake in the single player campaign.
Working on Epicenter and the Aftermath expansion pack as a whole has been incredibly fun and challenging at the same time. I think we managed to create a new and unique environment to further expand upon the Battlefield multiplayer experience, and I can’t wait to see this in the hands of our players. Let us know what you think in the comments section below, and get ready to rise from the Ashes this December!