During my time working on Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation, I have made many new maps and reworked countless of the existing ones. There are recurring characteristics for the changes I make to maps, and criteria that I base most of my maps on, so I thought it would be interesting to articulate what it is that governs my map making and rework process.
Making maps before the release of an RTS is difficult because as a designer, you don't know what formula of maps are going to work the best. Once extensive playtesting happens and feedback starts to emerge, the most popular maps can be replicated and expanded. If you go back and play the launch maps of an RTS game, most of them are laughably bad and imbalanced. In other words, making a bunch of different maps and seeing what sticks is what tends to happen, and it's part of why we ended up with a lot of funky maps that needed reworks.
Making a map within a formula does not mean all the maps are homogeneous, there's still flexibility and lots of variation between them. Not all maps need to follow this formula, I have made some deliberately designed to be "noob maps" with little aggression opportunities, but it's useful to have a format in mind to base maps on to cater standard play. As a designer, you want to give players the freedom to play your game any way they want, but it is valuable to have a clear vision in mind for what you think the best way to play it is. If a designer focuses on delivering a particular experience, it can be iterated upon and refined to give more depth and longevity to the game. When I'm designing maps, here's what I consider:
Proportion of choke points to open terrain
If there are too many choke points, base defenses lock down the map, and it becomes very defensive and campy. Alternatively, aggression becomes overly prominent if a map is so open that players can easily avoid base defenses. There's a sweet spot in the middle, where the game flow is not too fast but not too slow. I typically aim for maps to have both areas of open terrain and other areas of choke points to create decision making about where and when to attack. The gentle use of high ground is important as high ground offers a strong defender's advantage.
Proportion of Metal to Radioactives
There's a similar a sweet spot for the proportions of resources; too much Metal and you're forced to spam frigates, but not enough Metal and frigates are neglected over high tech units. I aim for a 2.5/1 ratio of Metal to Radioactives as that's where the most strategic diversity occurs. It's not as simple as just counting the number of deposits, the accessibility of the resources and how dense they are for Amplifiers and Refineries is also a consideration.
Moderate use of cutoffs
Cutoffs are frustrating if they're overly punishing, but can offer interesting tactical gameplay if done cautiously. Disconnecting a player's base from the resources of the map should require cutting off at least two regions, with single cutoff points only used for smaller amounts of resources out on the map.
Mirrored but asymmetric layouts.
Maps should be mirrored for all spawns to be balanced, but the layout of regions and resources can be asymmetric to allow for exploitation of the map's layout to cater specific strategies. Let's do some analysis of Seginus:
The non-linear region design of Seginus and asymmetric sides offers lots of flexibility for different capping orders.
- Players can delay capturing of the left side and some of the central Metal regions to rush the Radioactives regions to fuel faster air units or tech.
- Players wishing for an aggressive game can forego the sides to rush the central Metal region which boasts 4 Metal Deposits, but will need to keep up the pressure in order to hold the region and prevent counter-attacks.
- Players wishing to turtle could rush the Turinium Generators on the high ground, then lock them down with defenses and artillery to deny their opponent movement around the map and hold out for a VP win.
No ideal locations
Good maps make players think about which regions they prioritize, especially with our creeps that must first be cleared before a Generator can be captured. No maps should have overly strong positions that players default to every game because everything else is sub-optimal. There should be pros and cons to different areas on the map, if the middle has the same resources as the sides then players will prioritize the middle every time because it grants the ability for quicker map rotation. An area that grants high mobility should have fewer resources than the sides, while Turinium Generators and the rich resource regions should be spread out from each other. A bad map is predictable and repetitive, and while some maps have a center rich in resources, the exposed position means they're risky to saturate.
Tidiness and consistency
I don't want to talk about cosmetics in this journal, but this point also bleeds into gameplay. If there's inconsistent spacing between regions it looks messy and means the game doesn't flow as well. Having several low yield regions right next to each other can create tedious gameplay of capturing and building Extractors. To tidy up a few maps I condensed regions together into a single richer region and standardized distances between Generators.
Clearly defined player resources
Team members shouldn't be competing and bickering over resources. For team maps, resources near a player's base should be located in a way to suggest which regions each team member is supposed to capture. It's a limitation of our interface that you can't gift regions to allies, but either way, you don't want players and the AI accidentally capturing their allies regions because they're too close. All spawns should be balanced with access to equal amounts of resources; no one should get stuck with the bad spawn. Here's a breakdown of Delta Serpentis that shows each player's equal access to designated resources, despite there being lots of possibility for team strategy and combined attacks.