Let's Talk about Maps, Baby

So like another blatant steal from B Net
Last week, I sat down with one of the Noble Map Pack’s Environment Art Leads, Rob Adams, and talked a little shop about how he and his cohort, Sam Jones, guided the DLC team from the mass out phase to finished product over these last few months. My own illustrious art career spans many a whiteboard and includes countless crude approximations of unspeakable unmentionables, but Rod Adams and his team are certified arteests. After forcing him to evaluate my latest dry erase abomination, he agreed to answer my questions – as long as I promised to never try my hand at illustration ever again.

Q. So, let’s provide some context. Where do you and your team start in on the Noble Map Pack?

Sam Jones and I came on the project as co-Environment Art leads when the maps were right in the middle of mass out. Invasion, for example, was just a bowl of polygons being spun around. So, the first job we have coming onto the project was to satisfy a list of mass out’s requirements.

Editor’s Note: I’m certainly not qualified to provide supplemental information on this front, but as I understand it, “mass out” is the phase where all of the core geometry is in place and the bones of the map – the playable framework – is largely completed. – Urk

Q. Do you guys have any design input? Seems like coming on after mass out is largely completed would mean that you don’t have a lot of influence over the map’s ultimate shape or layout.

It’s a collaboration. As Chris Carney says, “a map will live or die in mass out.” If it’s not fun and if it doesn’t work out during mass out, it’s not going to be a shippable map. So, all of the big, key elements have to be figured out first. A lot of the big changes we did to the maps were done in collaboration with design.

For example, establishing key views is one of the top, early requirements. One thing that was really important for us to nail was player orientation. No matter where a player spawns, no matter where they are, we want the number of milliseconds that go by before a player knows where they’re going to be as small as possible. Instant orientation. The instant I spawn, I want to know exactly where I am on the map, and what direction I’m facing. If I have to take a half second to look around, that’s an extra three steps to get to the Needle Rifle – it’s all the difference in the world. 

Establishing those key views and making them very different was a huge part of mass out. Sam has this phrase he loves to apply. “The Cardinal Directions,” to help us keep the big directional elements simple. On Breakpoint, you see the massive Forerunner artifact glowing in the distance, the gorgeously-painted skybox by Mark Goldsworthy, the open cliff with the glacier coming down, and the glacial cave highlighting each cardinal direction. They all look very different from each other.

Anchor 9 and Tempest are the same way. All these things were created as key visual elements in mass out, and we wanted to be heavy-handed. Signage and colors are only Band-Aids. They help, but not as much as we like to think they do. Once we knew visibility wasn’t going to be an issue, we had multiple meetings with the engineers before we started investing a lot of time in architecting, the next phase. Once all the big questions were answered and all the big, broad strokes were taken care of, we started play-testing them every day and making small changes before heading into architecting. 

Q. So, is that how the relationship between art and design plays out over the course of the rest of the process?

We have a really close – I hate to say the word “synergy” – but we have a synergistic relationship between art and design. We can’t survive without each other. We lean heavily on them. They lean heavily on us. There’s a lot of borrowing from each other’s expertise. We’re always playing the game together and always talking about the maps. 

All of our map artists have a good grasp on design – they’re all gamers, which is great, and they take part in the play-tests. They all have something to say about it. But, we definitely have people with strong visions guiding each map. We have Derek, who owns the vision on design, working with Carney. We have me and Sam working on the creative art vision. So, there are very few people who have to understand each other and work together to filter all of the great ideas that bubble up. 

The great thing about it is that there are a lot of good ideas that come out of the process and out of play-testing. Our ability to filter them is super-fast and super-efficient, because we’re all in these play-tests together. 

On multiplayer maps, in this situation, our artists had a lot of input because of our close proximity to the design team, and because of the fact that we were play-testing every single day. We’re giving and getting good feedback constantly. We really understand why something doesn’t work, instead of having to react to change requests that come in second, or even third hand. There’s a short feedback loop with rapid iteration time. This leads to accelerated evolution of map design, and ultimately more polish. 

Q. Are there any big factors to keeping that relationship in good working order?

The biggest factor in getting design to work well with art is lots of play-testing with both disciplines involved. The more people there are play-testing a map, the more consensus you‘ll have, because really an argument is just a disagreement, and the way you get more agreement is to share the same experiences. So, the more people we bring into the play-tests, the more things we all observe together. There’s consensus, there’s buy-in. I know that -blam!-’s broken, because I just saw it with my own eyes.

Q. Synergistical! So, with that kind of solid and consistent collaboration, these maps have to be awesome, right? 

These maps are totally bad ass. They are the best multiplayer maps the studio has ever made! 

Nah, I don’t want to make any comparisons to the classic Halo maps, because I didn’t work on them and they are legendary, but I will say that some of our best guys put every ounce of energy they had in order to get the greatest amount of artistic and design polish into the Noble Map Pack. And a lot of our guys worked on the Halo classics, so we built on the successes there.

It’s an honor to be able to work on something that plays this good and to be able to help make it look good, too. It’s the ultimate privilege. We were able to do pretty much everything we wanted to do visually, within reason, and without breaking the design. 

For me, the definition of finishing isn’t just making something look pretty. It’s about not breaking the fun of the mass out version. It’s very easy to ruin a map by over-detailing it or over-contrasting it. And largely because we were careful about this, the finishing phase was a massive success.

Q. It happened fast, too. At one point I went down to Houston for a week and when I came back and fired up a build, it was like night and day. How did you pull off that kind of devilry?

We crammed as many artists as feasible into small spaces. I think we had seven or eight artists working on Anchor 9 at one time, which is insane. It’s pretty amazing, even when you see it every single day. We were already pushing the envelope with stacking artists on Halo: Reach. For example, we had three artists working Farragut Station, a single encounter space for ONI: Sword Base for about three weeks. There was a ton of work that happened in a short amount of time, but because we were near the end of production, we knew our tools and our systems well. For the Noble Map Pack, we took a lot of those same “parallelization of artists” lessons, applied it to a bigger team, and were able to stacked people into small spaces without stepping on each others' toes too much. 

But it did get to the point where it was almost like a stunt. “Let’s just see how many people we can get in here!” Like college kids trying to stuff as many people as possible into a Volkswagen.

We were able to hit a noticeably higher bar than ever, because of our focus, because of our dedication to play-testing, support from our concept department, engineering, and especially the test team. We were able to apply a lot of lessons in hindsight after coming fresh off of Reach. We knew what to do and what not to do. We had a lot going in our favor and we just capitalized on our advantages to make awesome maps.

Q. Are there any specific elements that you think players will really appreciate?

The flow of the maps – the traversal routes that players use to navigate the maps – is ultra-refined. Earlier we were trying to figure out how many play-tests we ended up having, but it was five months, every day, and we were able to make significant refinements to these maps every single day. That level of design refinement is rare for any studio, even for Bungie.

Orientation, routes, jump heights, logical paths from one destination to another, running with the flag, running without the flag, trying to jump with the flag, low gravity, zooming and shooting while running across different surface heights – there are so many very subtle things that got smoother and smoother and better and better throughout the process of iteration. That amount of polish is a key element to these maps’ success.

The other exciting thing that sets these maps apart is the immediate orientation, which means you’ll quickly know them like the back of your hand. It’s not just about trying to make them beautiful. I can give you a list of 25-30 significant visual elements that are deliberately worked into each map to make it immediately obvious to the player where they are. They are not accidents. It’s all hand-crafted. Color, lighting, surface details, silhouettes – a lot of the things that people will appreciate both consciously and sub-consciously.

Another thing that players will appreciate is the fiction that goes into these maps – backstory and justification. We spent weeks figuring out each map’s story and relevance to Halo: Reach. Why does Anchor 9 exist? Why is it out in space? What is its function? Why are the two halves so different from each other? 

We thought about all of these things and pushed ourselves to come up with good answers to all of these questions, so that we could do an hour-long presentation on just the backstory if we had to. And while the player is likely never going to hear any of that, while they’re running around, it all feels grounded and real.

The other important thing that players will appreciate is that these maps are just -blam!- fun. We made sure above all else, they’re fun!

Q. You imposed the fun?

Yup. We played and played and played and just kept deleting un-fun and adding more fun every single day.

The day you drop into Anchor 9, Tempest, and Breakpoint – which is, of course, the 30th of this very month – make sure you pay attention to the Cardinal Directions and thank Rob, Sam, and the rest of the DLC team for ensuring you don’t have to waste any time getting to the Needle Rifle, or drinking in the incredible visuals on display in these three new maps.

Editor’s Note: Just in case you didn’t notice, each of the images in-lined above are before and after looks of all three maps. Mouse over each to check out how the maps evolved. You might have also noticed that they're all watermarked for Internal Use Only. Whatever. I do what I want! - Urk

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