SINGLE-PLAYER LEVEL DESIGN IN HOMEFRONT
by Rob Donovan, Associate Level Designer
Designing the single-player levels for Homefront was a long journey fraught with peril. Over the course of development, through changes in focus, tone, and design, we managed to assemble a single-player game that we think marries our gameplay with our story and immerses the player into the world of an occupied America. And it’s fun, too!
In this article I’m going to talk about how the design of a level works with the tone of the game, how we make elements of the single-player game interesting and memorable, and what we do as level designers to separate Homefront from other games.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF SHOOTER
A single level of a game can be broken up into discrete sections, called encounters, which we tinker with and polish until we achieve the desired effect. In Homefront we wanted to avoid a “shooting gallery” in which the player simply went from one combat encounter to the next, mowing through waves of bad guys. We made a conscious effort to pace our levels with feelings of calm, impending dread, and a sense of loss. This meant having encounters that weren’t just about shooting enemies.
We talked at length about breaking up “massacre fatigue,” a term we coined for the never-ending parade of enemies to kill. In all first-person shooters you’re going to be shooting (it’s kind of the point), but in Homefront we wanted to give the act of firing a weapon a greater emotional meaning. By interspersing our combat with slower-paced areas, we hoped to make each individual battle more important and meaningful.
While many games use third-person cinematics to break up the combat sections and set the level’s pace, on Homefront we wanted to keep as much of the story as possible in the world. There are many sections of the game where the player is simply moving through a ruined space, which serves both to make the combat more exciting by providing contrast, and gives us an opportunity to tell a story within the world of the game, or to let our ally characters talk to each other like human beings.
Although we ended up cutting sections of the game that were only about getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, we wanted to keep many areas where the player moves, on foot, to an important destination. Moving through a space grounds you in its world, and in Homefront we really wanted to put the player into the shoes of a Resistance fighter and let the player see what America has become in our fictional future.
We want people to remember Homefront when they’re done playing it. We want friends to be able to talk about sections of the game and reminisce about the experience. In the combat sections of the game, this often comes down to interesting and fresh scenarios that a player has never seen before. Having a shootout near the broken hulk of a downed plane, for instance, is something that we hope you remember.
One thing we wanted to avoid, though, was relying on gimmicks. At one point in development we had an extended battle with a helicopter that was shooting its mounted guns at your position inside a guard house. After taking it to a high level of polish, we realized it just wasn’t working. It felt too much like a clichéd “boss battle.” It didn’t fit with the tone of the game we were creating and it made future helicopter encounters feel less threatening. Once you’ve single-handedly taken down a chopper, the next one doesn’t feel as powerful.
The lesson we learned wasn’t “destroying helicopters isn’t fun,” but “when you destroy a helicopter, it should matter.” As a member of the Resistance trying to engage a well-funded military, it’s important that enemy vehicles and armor feel appropriately scary. When a machine gun on a Humvee starts firing at your position, you need to keep your head down and fight for a better position, not engage it head-on. This informed a lot of our level design, as we discovered that escaping or outrunning strong opposition was as exciting as fighting it.
NATURAL COVER & FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT
In many games, objects that can be used as cover are immediately obvious. Any shooter fan knows the feeling of walking into a room, seeing a group of chest-high walls, and thinking “Looks like I’m about to get into a fight!” In Homefront, we wanted to avoid this feeling and offer cover that was more interesting and not quite so obvious. Our fantastic Level Artists made our encounter spaces ruined, abandoned, and realistic without losing the importance of having a good solid wall to hide behind.
Combat isn’t just about cover, though. A lot of the success or failure of an encounter lies in the various ways the player (and the enemies) can move through the space. As Level Designers, one of our primary jobs is making an interesting and smooth route for the player to travel.
Unlike multiplayer maps, single-player level design is more about creating a player experience. While multiplayer level designers have to make a balanced map that caters to different styles of play (sniper, SMG, etc.), the single-player game can be one-sided, overwhelming, and tailored to a specific weapon setup.
In each encounter we had an idea of the high-level experience that the player would have. We tried to pace our combat in such a way that no two fights were alike, and so the encounter in the backyard of a suburban house was different from a fight in the parking lot of a big-box store. Even though the environments were very different, early versions of some of our best encounters had combat that felt strikingly similar.
Early in the project, we experimented with “arena”-style combat that was reminiscent of multiplayer maps. We would create a group of enemies, have them enter the combat space in a number of different ways, and let them duke it out with the player and allies without too much regard for “ideal” ways to play. This offered the player the chance to invent strategies on the fly, but when we played it to judge the quality, the combat experience felt watered down.
It may seem counterintuitive, but offering two or three clear choices ended up giving the player more opportunities to improvise, not less. Without these choices, the player could accidentally take cover too far ahead, and end up behind enemy lines getting shot in the back (never fun) or suppressed in a corner forced to pixel-hunt enemy heads from far away. However, when you see a juicy piece of good cover that will let you get an advantage on your enemies, you can work out how to get to that location, and we as designers have a good idea about how to direct the enemies based on that likely movement.
Through scripting, we could piggyback on the intelligent behavior of our AI and set up reliable events that could happen in the middle of a fight. Aggressive enemies with SMGs could charge forward, hoping to push a conservative player off-balance and encourage a more dynamic play style. Enemies could fall back once their numbers were thinned, and a wave of reinforcements could bolster their ranks as they desperately tried to escape the player’s wrath. Enemies could fire on the run as they raced for cover and then bunker down behind a solid wall to pour hot lead on the player.
MIXING IT UP
A good way to add texture to a combat encounter is to add elements of verticality. Enemies are all roughly the same height, so by default their heads are all along the same horizontal plane. This can make an encounter boring as the player simply strafes back and forth while aiming at head height. An enemy standing in a window or up on scaffolding breaks this monotony and forces the player to improvise.
Putting some enemies up high also underscores their importance. If an enemy needs to stand out as a threat (a soldier with a rocket launcher, for instance), he should be separated from his allies. If he’s just one of many, he’ll blend in with the rest of the crowd and you might get clocked by a rocket before you realize what’s happening. Putting an enemy up high makes him more visible and indicates to the player that he’s more of a threat.
Another way to make an encounter space exciting is to offer a “flanking route,” a way to take a side path and move around to catch enemies from the side. The player can usually get a few easy kills before the enemies are able to move and protect themselves from the new threat, and it’s always rewarding to see the side route, come up with a plan to get there, and be rewarded when you execute the plan and get the drop on unsuspecting enemies.
Although not all combat encounters need a flanking route, all combat spaces need avenues to move through, places to stop and hide, and places that offer good position on the enemies. It’s important that the player is able to make intelligent decisions about how to advance on a fortified position, where to fall back to, and where the most defensible location is.
WHERE IT ALL COMES TOGETHER
Designing the single-player levels in Homefront was often challenging but always inspiring. Through changes in tone and direction, and a boatload of iteration and new inspiration, we experimented throughout the project to get encounters and levels that felt like more than just a violent amusement park ride. We hoped to impart depth and meaning to our levels, and allow the gameplay elements to coexist with the story and allow them to improve each other. I hope you found this article interesting, and I’ll see you on the field of battle when Homefront ships next week!