(Note: The following is mostly relevant mainly to PvP maps. In a Player vs. Environment situation, you can be sure the enemies won’t exploit every advantage and will perform in a fairly predictable pattern, in turn letting more varied landscapes thrive. In PvE, the world exists as a stage for the play of the characters life. In PvP, the world is merely the arena one choose to kill or die in.)

Alright, the last in this weeks balance set and we’ll be taking a look at maps. This can be the make-or-break moment for any game, as playing on unfavorable 1-sided maps can lead to bad games and lost battles just because the enemy spawned on the ‘right’ side. There are two main kind of maps, symmetrical and asymmetrical, and these are what we’ll covering today. This will probably be a short one, just because of the massive amount of variance between games. You wouldn’t play a game of Starcraft II on a map that was designed for Team Fortress 2, and you would probably be pretty bored playing a Team Fortress 2 map on a massive sprawling map were engagements are few and far between. Before we get into the two main categories, let’s cover the basics.

Map Creation:
First and most important, remember that size is the deciding factor in how people play games. If you have a massive map, players will split up to cover ground faster. Engagements will be fewer with more time in between, and some players may cease roaming and simply set up shop somewhere, assassinating people who get to close but otherwise never moving. Likewise, smaller maps will encourage players to roam as a group and engagements will have a more pronounced effect if there is an objective on the map, with more fights springing up because of the closer proximity. Too large, players may rarely see each other. Too small, and the player feels cramped and afraid to move, sometimes with that fear persisting through the team. Be cautious with map size, and try to avoid making the map to large or small.

The next thing to remember, always provide some form of cover in a player vs. player environment. No one likes having to sprint across a wide open field while every enemy lines up a bullet for your head, and no one likes dying because they had no options for trying to out think the enemy player. Use breaks in line of sight or distortions in the silhouette to keep players feeling safe as they move, and allowing for more drawn out battles between players.

On a similar vein, always make sure power-ups (if they exist) are only moderately safe to acquire. Having them be totally safe is frustrating for the enemy team since they can’t stop it, and frustrating to your team for the same reason.  Likewise, having it be too dangerous and players will ignore it for other, safe rewards until they can be sure that they are safe. Adding an element of danger and safety allows for the team to have a chance to react if needed and for the enemy to attempt to steal the buff or disrupt your teams actions.

Alright, that’s the basics. Now on to the other categories!

The most blatantly obvious thing first: make sure everything in the map is a reflection. Symmetrical maps need a lot of cover and thought to keep one side from eking out an advantage over the other, and slight differences can break the precarious balance of the map. If your going for a symmetrical map, leave out the fluff until it is completely constructed, then add whatever graphical flair you want. For a map like this, it has to be fun before it can be pretty. Which isn’t to say it can’t be pretty, but it will take a lot of work. Upside to this, it’s easy for a player to know where they are in relation to landmarks, though not necessarily in relation to the whole map, and to set goals easily. Further, new players will learn the map quickly since they just have to reflect or invert the image they already have to see the whole, and can know what is ahead without seeing it.

Symmetrical maps are some of the hardest to balance, but once you find the perfect spot, it all comes together for the players. Works best for arena style matches, and objectives that need some measure of foreknowledge, like Capture the Flag.

This is the harder of the two over long-term to perfectly balance, but it more open to tweaking than a symmetrical map. Here you can have any number of differing ways to keep a game balanced while having fun play at hand. I’m going to borrow an example from one of my favorite maps, Team Fortress 2. There is a gametype called ‘Payload’, which consists of pushing a bomb into the enemy players base. Nearly every map has a form of dynamic balance, which shifts favor as the game progresses. Early on, defenders have to fight far away from their base, and thus respawn areas, but have the ability to dig in and create a form of miniature siege warfare. Attackers constantly pour out and try to push, until about a half-way point when things even out. From there, the balance shifts slowly in favor to the defenders as the bomb approaches their respawn areas, drastically cutting down on travel time and, again, allowing them to dig in before checkpoints and attempting to do the most damage possible.

So, you have an asymmetrical map that favors both teams, only at two different points in the game. Power-ups or weapons can be placed in out-of-the-way areas, creating danger zones as players rush for the advantage. Hotspots for conflict quickly emerges and continues as players try to abuse their territories level geometry as much as possible. Combat on these maps comes down to choke-points and high-ground areas as players attempt to hold or take territory from the enemy.

The important thing to remember is this: there is no ‘right’ map. Things inherit to symmetrical maps can be out-of-place in their wilder siblings, and asymmetrical maps will always have ‘power-areas’ where one team holds significant advantage over the other when all things are equal. It’s up to the designer to make fun and balanced. Counter those power-areas with weapons or power-ups elsewhere. Create shifting conflict on one map while the other revolves around precise battle plans. Variety will keep the player base happy and ensure that new strategies have to be created in order to continue winning. Always always always playtest maps to keep them fun and combative. When you think you have it right, get new playtesters and keep working. No two people are the same, and each will have their own unique style and attitude to the map and their own mobility. Make sure none of them break the map so that everyone can enjoy it.

Alright, and with that, so ends the week long idea-a-thon that was my balance segment. I’d like to come back at some point and elaborate or cover some missed spots, so if anyone has questions or suggestions for the next piece, feel free to leave a comment or email and I’ll see what can be done. Until next time!