Recently my buddy Juan sent me to a link about FPS map design from the past, and now the present. I looked at the link and laughed and then thought about how it wasn’t true and to me how this image is stating that cutscnes in FPS games have made level design ride backseat and not shotgun. But maybe it wasn’t a joke? Juan is writing a paper/giving a speech on this image and I figured I would provide my opinion on the matter. So before I start my rant, below is the picture that started this discussion. It shows the layout for an old level and then a very simplified layout for newer level. Something I want to point out is that since most people who view this have varying opinions I am not going to abide by the  mentioned in the source graphic, but I will still be using modern games for examples. Oh and sorry for the novel, it’s uncalled for and highly inappropriate.
I think this image speaks volumes on how people perceive FPS games these days, and more so how people are thinking about the levels they play. I feel one of the most important aspects to look at when analyzing this image is the design behind the games. The core design behind a game can dictate how levels are constructed. Is your game linear? Is your game open world? Do you have in-game cinematics? Do you have pre-rendered cut-scenes? What are the players overall goals in the game, and what are his goals for the level? All of these questions and more can be asked when constructing a level, and all of them have an impact on the layout of the level.
That being said I will take a few games and compare their designs and discuss aspects of in-game cinematics you may or may not find in their game. If you look at the different types of FPS games and the player motivations you can see where some of your layout choices come from. Doom a classic FPS has you walk through levels in search of keys to unlock new areas, while weaving you through previous explore areas, and placing you in new arenas to fight hordes of demons. There were no cut scenes back then it was all action. A game like MW2 does not have you search for keys or lead you back through areas in their levels [very often], however they deliver an edge of your seat movie like experience by a linear level design that presents you with balls to the wall action. Their level design may be “very linear” but the game delivers an action experience unlike most new games on the market. So we have two games that do not use cinematics, and yet one game design calls for exploration and collection of items in order to progress the player, and the other is all about delivering an experience to the player. I think exploring some other games we can highlight some more design choices that influences some of their level layout decisions.
First up is an older game that came out during 1998 called Half-Life. I credit this game for me even getting into level design, and really fueling my desire to get into the industry. What I loved about this game was that their levels had a beginning and end, a linear path if you will, but one of their core design decisions was to not take control away from the player. Let him experience the “holy-shit” moments [or cinematic] moments in game, real time. I have preferred this approach because I think it really cements the player into the world, and lets the player experience it from what ever angle the designer intended for him view it from. From the tram ride in, the test chamber, the Garg in the turntable track room, to the jet ripping by when you are coming out of a pipe onto a cliff side. All of this was in game and happening in-front of the player, without taking control of him and forcing him to view it via cinematic. Their level layouts gave players areas to explore, rewarded them with ammo and goodies, or snippets of a real world the player was participating in. That being said, all of the levels were ultimately linear because they had an entrance and exit point, but were laid out intricately and was always about the player experience throughout the level. A crafted experience that strings these amazing moments together as you work your way through the level. We can call this a “type 1” layout since it matches the first picture.
A newer game with a different approach to FPS level design would be the Call of Duty games. These games have what we may call an extremely linear path or a “type 2”, and usually have their big moments at the beginning and or end of their levels leaving their meat and potatoes combat in the middle. This could in theory be the second image, but they still have very well laid out levels. The difference here is that in Modern Warfare you are not exploring around the way you would in a Half-Life game. You are fighting with your buddies pushing through to your object while being ambushed by enemy combatants. What makes this particular COD so much fun is that they have these huge epic moments that you get to be apart of without grabbing the control from the player. My example here would be the first level for COD MW where you are on the ship working your way through trying to get to a specific piece of cargo for inspection. Going through tactically, you and your crew are clearing the boat room by room until you make it to the cargo crate. All of the sudden BOOM, the ship is hit with missiles and begins taking on water. Everyone is thrown to the ground and it becomes your job the get the hell out before you die. The ship is tilting on it’s side, you are running down hallways watching objects shift around, your friendlies have leans to their runs, this ship is screwed. You get to the deck and the ship has a massive lean, you start to run up the deck, make a final leap and grasp the edge. You begin to slide back and just as you are about to fall off your buddy pulls you up. They never took control of you to show you the missiles were hitting, they never showed you escaping without you doing it, and the only thing the player didn’t control was getting saved, but HOLY SHIT I was sold. That was an explosive beginning to a game, and there were no in-game cinematics throughout the level, you lived it. So while the layout of the map may have resembled the second picture, you were not overwhelmed by cinematics, and yet had a completely different look and feel than a Half-Life level. The level was laid out to deliver the mini-moments and combat sequences, but ultimately fed the player a cinematic movie like experience that the designer had laid out all along. A “type 2” level, but no cinematics.
However there are more modern games that take a different approach and remove the camera from the player to show them a scene or story element, like Halo 3. This game allows you to explore around like Half-Life, and also has a very open world feel like Half-Life but it is still linear. In their first level Sierra 117 when the player reaches about half way through the level and is over looking a small Dam below the camera is taken away to show the enemies mis-treating and imprisoning your buddies then control is given back to the player. A small cinematic that gives the player a reason/desire to go down and fight through the hordes of enemies, but at the cost of removing control from the player for 5-10 seconds. Is it worth it? That’s really up to how you feel about these situations. Some people argue that they feel more attached to the story when they can watch these cinematics play out, some argue they are not experiencing the story because they did not get to experience it real time the way they wanted. Again I think this comes down to personal preference. This type of level almost blends the two, but since “type-2” is an overly simplified line with cinematics we will say this is a “type 2” for the time being.
Finally you have games like Killzone 2 which has to date the best First Person feedback I have got from an FPS, and uses cinematics as story elements/pacing/and ways to set up new goals. Their levels have great layouts that range from fighting up a beach landing and through canals, to zig zagging up streets and battling back and forth while trying to march to your objective. I feel like Killzone 2 is a successful marriage of both pictures. Great levels with inter-dispersed cinematics throughout the levels, that often connect the levels together. While I am not huge on cinematics I thought these were well done enough that kept me tied into the game and left me wanting more. It might have broke that FPS connection, but the moment that I was back in my shoes, their mechanics and feedback pulled me right back in. Had their feedback not been so strong I may not have been able to become as fully immersed as I was. I think example really goes to show how their design influenced their level layouts. The levels, still linear, allowed for a little exploration to collect items, but they still use cinematics throughout their levels to link story elements and levels together. The design behind the player look and feel always pulled me right back in which allowed me to forget that I just had an “out of body experience”. So due to little exploration, and cinematics you could call this “type 2”, but I stand by the fact that I enjoyed their level layouts.
To sum up my mini-rant I feel like the image which is obviously an over exaggeration and a joke, is false. It states that level design over time has become watered down and saturated with cinematics. I think that it all comes down to the design of the game, and what the development team wants the player to experience. Perhaps the games that had more intricate level layouts that usually involve a full world are not being made as much? Perhaps there was a marketing shift that people want short, fast, high action levels that deliver a quick and lasting punch? Half-Life’s design went into the second game and was more refined, and yet still has beautifully laid out levels. Call of Duty’s layouts may be more linear and perhaps like the second image, however this is deliberate to ensure they can give you the player the best action packed movie like experience possible. Pacing is key in their games, and if the player is off exploring around and the rest of their design did not account for that, then the pacing would be a bit broken. Halo 3 does not have as intricate level design as Half-Life’s and but is certainly more open then COD’s. It has in-game cinematics, but kind of rides the line between type 1 and type 2 which is why I labeled it as a 2. Do you think it has too many cinematics? Do you think it falls into the second type? Killzone 2 is a game that has great level layouts, but also has in-game cinematics. This is right in the middle of the two types, yet I think it sets the bar in terms of FPS feedback. I don’t feel it’s level design is watered down, and it still uses cinematics well yet according to our image a modern FPS game sacrifices layout for cinematics. Killzone 2 gives you both.
My job is to create and design levels and make experiences the player will never forget. Currently I happen to be doing this on an FPS so I mill over questions like these frequently. I am not huge on in-game cinematics because I like to experience things in the game world. That connection to the environment the player fights and plays in, further immerses the player in the world around him. When the camera is removed and you can see your avatar, I feel like it severs that connection you had in the world. A connection that I love. A connection that when I was young I felt like I was in Black Mesa, or when I got older I was a part of a tactical team trying to get off of a sinking ship. A connection that served as an escape to the real world around me. I love feeling like I am in a whole new world, some place I am not, and me becoming someone I’m not. I sit at a desk and make games. So if someone can convince me that I am someone else in a completely new world then why would I ever want that connection broken except for when it’s time to come back to reality? It’s an amazing experience to be able to give to players, and one that I hope we FPS designers keep doing regardless if we are making “type 1” or “type 2” levels.