Exploring Map Design with AVEX

Hey folks,

Today, we have a special guest. Noted by David Kim as “one of the top mapmakers in the world”, AVEX joins us to offer his in-depth thoughts on map design in real time strategy games.

This interview is a pleasure to read front to back. However, readers who prefer to jump around will find that the questions and responses generally still make sense when standalone. A Table of Contents is provided below for your convenience.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Balance by Maps
  3. Map Making Process
  4. Tenets
  5. Vision
  6. Gameplay and Map Design
  7. Third Base
  8. Influence on the Meta-game
  9. Game Direction
  10. Game Lifecycle
  11. Different Skill Levels
  12. Performance
  13. Interaction with the Engine
  14. Map Vetoes
  15. Player Feedback
  16. Developer Criteria
  17. Tournament Map Pool
  18. Procedural Generation
  19. Evolving Maps
  20. Map Identity
  21. Map Making Tools
  22. Drive to Make Maps
  23. Community Outreach
  24. In-Depth Walkthrough

Let’s start with an introduction. Tell us about yourself – where did you start with StarCraft, and how did you end up where you are now?

Sure. I started off making a bunch of really detailed and complicated UMS maps in War3 and SCBW, primarily aesthetically-heavy maps such as RPGs. I then joined the Starbow team in 2015 after reaching Masters in HotS due to boredom in the Swarm Host meta, and from then on it was trial-and-error learning how to make competitive one-versus-one maps (which I will refer to as melee maps in these responses). I was very fortunate to have the help of the developers at Starbow, where I began to really gravitate toward the concepts and “unwritten rules” of proportions between buildings and base sizes, the issues of chokes and open areas, and was introduced to the ideas of dos and do-nots in melee work. This would all buildup until the release of LotV, where I spent hours amongst other streamers asking for feedback on maps.

Eventually, I began to publish weekly work on the StarCraft Reddit, to which one map caught the attention of BaseTradeTV’s Graham ‘Rifkin’ Rogers. This map was called Purified Forge, something I was very proud of after hours of back-and-forth criticism between myself and ex-StarCraft streamer Fenn3r. The map’s vision was based off my concepts towards a “proper” Ulrena. Creating a map based purely upon aggression without giving up the necessity of bases in LotV was the main struggle against Ulrena. A few months later, a more successful and progressive (in my skills, not meta) map called Detox would replace Purified Forge. Detox would not be based off Ulrena, but rather a more standard, large, 2 player macro map, or one that favors economic playability over early-game aggression. The map had sound success, being featured in BaseTradeTV’s first Ting Open, seeing play from many high level players such as ROOT.Hydra, MVP.Ryung and Liquid.Snute.

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Purified Forge

I would then work on the map which would become known as Invader. The map was chosen by Blizzard after a map submission request posted sometime in February of 2016. It would later be added in the following season, Season 2. It had some interesting games, most famously the double-draw series between Polt and Strange, where the map was played three times. Both in tournament and ladder play, it saw extreme dislike from Terran and Protoss players, and quickly left the pool as the season ended. Months later, I saw further success in the 7th Team Liquid Map Contest, as three pieces of work were chosen for the finalists. I ended in 5th, 6th and 14th place, but was relatively pleased with my results, and left with a $100 prize. These results would then bless me towards an invitation to the 2016 Blizzard Community Summit. Beyond this period of fortune, I have spent my popularity from Reddit and Twitch chat trying my best to improve the map scene. That’s really how I went from nobody to “somebody” in 2 years. Lots of hard work, and amazing people helping me along the way.

I think Brood War is a great example of the importance of map makers. Historically, it was balanced on its map pool. For those who never played Brood War, can you explain what this means? How can a mapmaker balance an entire game?

I’m definitely not the best person to ask about this, I think there are a few others who could give more detailed explanations, such as NegativeZero, but I’ll try my best. Don’t hurt me Negative, but feel free to correct me (you likely will).

StarCraft 1 and Brood War, like any other RTS at that time, had what I call a “shallow water” design philosophy. Hard counter by design, not by stats – while keeping asymmetry. Blizzard learned from WarCraft 2 that literal symmetrical balance is, for one boring, but two just not the best way to go about creating a future for a single strategy game. Each race had identity in their units, and their mechanics, right? We all know that. An important note for Brood War as well, is that it featured very little aid from Blizzard after a short period of time post-release. I believe the last balance patch was around 2000. SC2, obviously, has seen the heavy hand of Blizzard influencing it since conception, and remains that way today.

I think the best way to think about this contrast, is imagine you have a decent looking car. This car will do what it’s supposed to do, drive, but the wheels are a bit janky when on the road, the steering wheel will occasionally lock up, and you have two gears. You have a hammer and a screwdriver with you, and you spend sixteen years smacking things, and sometimes you accidentally fix the tires from flinging around, you master the use of the steering wheel, and you somehow discover another gear or two by.. Who knows. Now, this car is limited in what it can do, but pretend you are also this all-seeing government that can shape the roads and highways to perfectly fit your car. That’s what BW map design was like. Except you had a hundred different cars that all handled completely differently, were better at one thing than the other. One kind of car protected you from dying, another completely blocked highway ramps, and another was really fast but a little clunky and fragile.

… the balance of [Brood War] was the cooperation of players, organizations and mapmakers.

I think it’s unfair or inaccurate to ask “how can a mapmaker balance an entire game” – because when Fighting Spirit got released, I’m fairly positive it had a decent amount of flaws. I could be mis-remembering, but I think I heard Artosis say the map was disliked initially, as were most new pieces of work. The balance of BW was the cooperation of players, organizations and mapmakers. I could be wrong, because I was too young to truly understand and experience the early mapmaking of melee Brood War, but I believe mapmakers at the time spent more time worrying about the harsh imbalance of Brood War, rather than having interesting ideas to abuse or play with metas until years later. There are exceptions to this, as there are some very odd pieces of work from Brood War, such as neutral Disruption Webs (for non-BW players, imagine very large Blinding Clouds covering chokes), pre-placed creep,  and using buildings to create reverse islands (such as the map Troy). There were also maps that strove for a nice middle ground, and one such map that comes to mind would be Heartbreak Ridge, a map I ported to Starbow shortly after joining. Heartbreak Ridge had multiple long ridges for interesting highground and lowground interactions, as well as many stacked temples to act as a backdoor to a highground behind the natural base, or as a safer route to a far away third base.

At a high-level, how would you describe your process for building and designing a new map? Is there a “right way” of going about it – say, a brainstorming phase, a planning phase, an execution phase, and a testing phase – or is it more free-flowing, like making a piece of art?

This might surprise some people, but I treat mapmaking as a piece of artwork, like a painting, or writing a script, or a piece of sheet music for a piano. Sometimes, I get a nice idea, a melody or a color palette, or a setting, and sometimes it works. Sometimes, oftentimes, it doesn’t.

I’ve fallen to writer’s block recently, with much of my work feeling mediocre, so I don’t have any recent examples. Most often, I’ll think of nature and certain beautiful places or concepts that I think StarCraft could use, and honestly, nature blogs on Tumblr really help. I also take to video games for reference (Vjun Junkyard, an unreleased map of mine, is named after a planet in a favorite childhood game of mine, Star Wars: Jedi Knight 3, and some concepts based off of World of WarCraft, such as my Hellfire Peninsula map), or maybe someone’s hair on instagram, or recent releases, such as the Nova DLC. Aesthetic concepts are most often my inspiration for new work, which explains my shoddy layouts (though I’ve improved heavily recently), and beyond that it’s me just messing around with angles.

For those who don’t know, most of us mappers have unwritten rules on how bases feel, how they look, their distances and the positioning of mineral lines, ramps, etc. So most often it’s just experimenting in the basic sense, such as “What if I put the main ramp father away, but hug the natural close to the main, very defensively?” or “What if I have a map with the least ramps possible, and how does that work out?” Both of those would answer to “probably a terrible idea” after execution, but you get the idea. That’s really the most basic example. This will vary heavily depending on the mapmaker. I know for sure Fatam has much more experimental maps, compared to say IeZaeL or Kantuva. Oh, that’s one more thing, sometimes you see another mapper do something you feel could be better, and try yourself (I’ve had multiple Dasan Station 2.0s, for example).

There is no “right” way, aside from following the unwritten rules that you learn over time. There might be a more efficient way, but that’s not for me.

What are some tenets that you follow while making a new map? For instance, a tenet might be “it should be hard to end the game in less than five minutes on this map”.

Mmm, this is more of a subconscious thing than anything. There are assumptions one makes – which are tenets technically – when deciding on layouts. For example, I have a piece called Installation Zero, which was my attempt at a less stale Dusk Towers. The map has an inbase natural, and a very close third base, and due to the rush distance, you have this subconscious tenet of “it’s unlikely you’ll die to X”. I don’t think I have too much else to say here.

When you’re putting together a map’s design, how do you divide your priorities between developer vision (e.g. Blizzard’s desire for more action and more harassment in Legacy), gameplay necessity (e.g. avoiding too much dead space for liberators), and individual creativity and vision?

I do not factor developer vision into account, sorry David and everybody :/

As much as I respect the vision of the developers, and they choose the map pool, most of us mappers will only make maps that we know the players will enjoy (to an extent), will be standard enough to be chosen in the first place, and good enough to last longer than one ladder season. Blizzard could message me on discord or skype saying “Hey, can you tell the mappers we want a bunch of maps that just encourage one base all-ins”, and I don’t think many of us would really jump on that opportunity, especially if the current meta or an upcoming meta is heavily disfavoring that progressive intent. I often map for the current meta, but there have been instances where I look forward. I know for sure have a few pieces of work that would only be okay if tankivac/medanks didn’t exist from half a year ago.

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Medivacs rescuing endangered tanks prior to Patch 3.8

In any map that you even have hopes for being glanced at by any high level player, one must always prioritize the gameplay and feel of a map. Aesthetics is the first thing most players see (“Oh it’s so pretty!), and directly after that you will hear balance and design concerns, (“The natural mineral line has no room for spores, liberator range is broken here, forcefield is really good for this, drops are really broken on this map, etc.) In terms of design, as I mentioned before, the creative vision from myself comes first, but if it fails, I don’t take it much further to get close to addressing player and developer concerns.

Speaking of gameplay necessity, what kinds of gameplay design characteristics generally make it easier to design competitive maps, and what kinds make it harder? For instance, I would imagine asymmetrical base taking – one race needs to be one base ahead – makes it harder to design a fair map.

Hm, I’m not actually too sure here. I think asymmetry isn’t a problem as long as the designs of each race allow each race to successfully achieve goals within similar margins. For example, I think it’s a failure (as you and I have discussed before) that Protoss struggles so heavily beyond achieving two bases. I know people are gonna say “Yeah but, KR”, and my response is “I want you to play below masters games and count how many go beyond 2 base before the main is completely mined out.” Maybe it’s anecdotal evidence, but most of my PvT or PvZs are strong 2 base timings, with maybe a safety third. I do not see a macro game where a third is “safely” taken. But this isn’t really my most qualified field, just my opinion.

…it amazes me how the game worked out to be as balanced as it is now. I can make large ramps without it favoring one race, I can spam Line of Sight (LOS) blockers without worry, mess around with the orientation of mineral lines and gas geysers without too much worry. It’s amazing how fluid the balance feels at that stage. But, once you push that third 5-10 cells, you start seeing the cracks.

I wasn’t around for the first 3 and a half years of StarCraft II’s competitive scene, but it amazes me how the game worked out to be as balanced as it is now. I can make large ramps without it favoring one race, I can spam Line of Sight (LOS) blockers without worry, mess around with the orientation of mineral lines and gas geysers without too much worry. It’s amazing how fluid the balance feels at that stage. But, once you push that third 5-10 cells, you start seeing the cracks. Like I said, I wasn’t around before this stuff was settled, so I hope someone else could provide better insight from earlier eras with less popular maps with large balance issues (perhaps like Waystation, Kulas Ravine or Desert Oasis).

Though, I’m curious how partial asymmetry in AOE2 factored into this with seeded maps. I never played AOE2, RON or SWBGrounds competitively, just scenario maps.

Can you expand further on your comments above about the frequency with which players take a third base on the lower end of the ladder?

The first part is my belief that Protoss is uniquely vulnerable to encountering problems when design changes occur in the game, followed by the inevitability that some will argue South Korean players and leagues to counter many of my points. South Korean pro players are such a tiny minority of extremely talented players. These players will create builds specifically designed for sniping the opposing player, especially in the case of the now absent ProLeague. My counterpoint, is that said behavior is nearly non-existent to the majority of ladder players, and thus cannot realistically apply to map design. Perhaps maps like Rak’Shir, Sky Shield and Judgement which were made specifically for GSL could keep those in mind, but not a map that I make for the general audience of SC2.

The current meta and balance tilt of Protoss leads them to two-base all-ining half the time (or more recently, turtling to Carriers and pushing out with a safe third/fourth).

It’s not really the maps that have the effect, it’s the meta and the circumstances that are being argued here.

How about the day-to-day gameplay – how important do you think it is to consider the current meta-game when designing a map? Do you try to drive the meta-game in a certain direction with a map, or do you try to create a blank slate?

I touched on this a few questions ago, but I find this very important. Not taking meta into account can make a strong build completely broken. And you have to be careful with this sort of stuff, because a persistent presence of imbalanced map design can lead to balance changes from the developer side, that could actually harm map design in the future. Imagine if very early WoL had design changes that allowed for wider ramps into the main, rather than wrapping it around a forcefield. Weird example, but I think you get my point.

A majority of the discussion you will see on mapmaking, this article included, will focus primarily on what makes a map work in design and balance. I think it would be nice to touch upon the consequences of imbalanced maps and designs that make it to the public platform, or in this case the StarCraft II Competitive 1v1 Ladder. I’ll use my own work as an example.

Invader LE, conceptually, was a four player map designed with a very simple idea in mind, that there would be a unique kind of back door. This back door would circle around the natural wall, but be immediately intercepted by the reinforcing main ramp. Note that this back door did not grant access beyond the wall-off of the main ramp, but rather lead you straight to it beyond the defences of the natural wall. I thought this was a very unique idea, as I and many others dislike the idea of an immediate backdoor into the main base, which can pull apart players and be incredibly frustrating to play against. The other part of its design was to provide a quicker access route to the third base, which was placed slightly farther than the ideal distance.

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Invader LE

Unfortunately, the execution I had made was not the best. The pathway that lead to the back door didn’t realistically shave any time for a worker to expand to the third. So races that need a close third base, such as Terran and Protoss, suffered horrendously from this flaw and were forced into two-base builds. However, the map was very large as well, so with many of these timings their Zerg opponents were already prepared by the time they reached their base. Because of this concept’s poor execution, it further hurt the taste of back doors amongst players, even if I still think the idea I had was unique and could work in the future.

Outside of my example, but keeping with back door rocks, I think this attitude can be observed after the final seasons of Heart of the Swarm, a map pool that introduced maps with a varying assortment of rocks. Bridgehead had a rock back door into the natural base, Moonlight Madness with large diagonal rocks as well as a back door third base, and finally Expedition Lost having a back door directly into the main, out of sight from the natural wall.

So, these maps don’t necessarily harm designs in the future, but push mapmakers away from features we think would be interesting if executed correctly and chosen by Blizzard. I think the only designs that have been harmed recently are horizontally symmetrical maps such as Ulrena, Ruins of Endion and Horizontal Spawns (or close-by-air spawns) on four player maps like Invader LE.

As a map-maker, what kind of insight can you offer into the direction StarCraft II is going in based on the evolution of its map pool? For instance, I noticed that after the original Legacy map pool, we haven’t seen anything similar to Ulrena – do you feel like Blizzard is trying to move away from this type of “rush-heavy” design?

I disagree with the Ulrena part, we just had a map called Dasan Station that shared the main interest in Ulrena, that being a narrow path shared between the player mains, and short air distance. And honestly, I think I have a decent influence with Blizzard and the mapping community, as the four maps entering the map pool next month were technically picked by my hand. I expressed concern for the cold shoulder we received in favor of the dream pool, citing that we have work that share some design principles with the maps chosen (at that time). I then posted a large list of maps that could be seen as replacements for maps like Ulrena, Whirlwind, Habitation, Overgrowth, Dusk Towers, etc. The four maps that they selected, Abyssal Reef, Proxima Station, Paladino Terminal and Honorgrounds, were all on my list. No one else, as far as I know, ever mentioned those maps.

So, I think we’re going to see, next month, a bit more of the same of what we’re seeing now (I mean, I don’t have all-seeing-vision when it comes to the balance team), but more tuned for LotV. I also don’t know what three maps will be staying after this season, which can have influence. I do know that Proxima Station has a less traditional expansion structure (akin more to how BW worked – nonaggressive expanding), Paladino Terminal will see many 1-2 base allins in all matchups, such as 3 rax reaper, adept allins, speed/bane allins, ravager allins. Abyssal Reef will probably create some of the more interesting and traditional games (with entertainment, featuring the low gravity), and Honorgrounds will likely showcase the lategame of current LOTV, be it Battlecruisers, Swarmhosts, Lurkers, Carriers or Ravens.

With these maps in mind, I think Blizzard wants to experiment with Macro maps and what actually defines standard. I hope, personally, we can find a place where you can be standard, and aggressive at the same time, but we won’t know until, I think, late next year. I am very excited for the upcoming TLMC, as we’ll be given the free reigns to mineral/gas layouts (aside from standard 8m 2g)

Do you feel like different eras in a game’s lifecycle – for instance, right after a new expansion or content update – call for different pools of maps than more “stable” states of the meta-game?

Hard to say. LOTV had very very different games compared to HotS. Often, Zerg will see favorability in early expansion/balance releases since Zerg never really changes with their timings. You will still get a pool, gas and hatch at the same times (reactively), you will get your lair at a certain point, your larva still come at the same rate, etc. So, I think it’s okay that Blizzard takes a tight hold on maps after massive changes, but I do think if Blizzard communicated more to us directly, we could mold maps for them that suits what they think a new expansion needs.

However, aggressive maps don’t have to be early all-in maps. I can push Overgrowth together at the horizontal axis by like 25 cells, and it’s suddenly a much more aggressive map.

If Blizzard wanted LotV to be more about aggression, then it makes sense that they’d want more aggressive maps. However, aggressive maps don’t have to be early all-in maps. I can push Overgrowth together at the horizontal axis by like 25 cells, and it’s suddenly a much more aggressive map. The map doesn’t need to have close-by-air, or have a small bridge connecting the mains for it to be an interesting aggressive map.

When it comes to designing a map pool, I think developers should keep in mind the image that they want the game to give to players, both new and old. I have concerns with using old maps aside from design issues, primarily that if an older player with less than favorable views of the game for whatever reason tunes into a stream and sees Frost or Habitation Station on the screen, they might think that the map scene is dead or the meta has gone stale, or Blizz gave up. I’ve seen this numerous times since the dream pool and I don’t think it’s a pretty picture. Similarly, I don’t think it’s very fun if all the maps are frosty/ice, or all of them are dark and metal, or all shiny protoss textures, or at the worst, brown. There are numerous map styles that embrace vivid colors, lighting and textures that would really make the map pool just much more appealing to viewers (Blizzcon viewership for Carbot alone shot up, not just because it’s Carbot and Cartoony, but it’s very bright and vivid!)

What about different skill levels – do you feel like maps work better at certain skill levels than others? Do you agree with stuchiu’s assertion that the ladder should actually use two different map pools – one for lower leagues and one for higher leagues?

I think it’s safe to say after being Masters, and now stuck in Diamond again, that there’s a very wavy line of where one can draw “low” and “high” levels of play. I’m fairly confident that the map pool has very little effect amongst players below the bottom of Platinum league. There are going to be players who want to mimic the high levels, but if they’re clumping a bunch of marines or hydras into a tank line or disruptor shots, it often won’t have much to do with the map pool. The map pool doesn’t really feature maps that are heavily choked.

I think what’s important with sharing the same pool amongst all leagues is that a low level player will not feel lesser by being bad at the game. If they watch a game on Lerilak Crest, where there’s a lot of marines, tanks, and mines versus a bunch of zerglings, banelings and roaches, they can feel like they’re playing that game. Are they? No. Will they? Probably not. But the fact that the player can load up the ladder and play on that same map, with that same-ish unit composition, and feel like they can get to that point is super important.

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Now, that doesn’t mean the very very new players couldn’t do with some different maps. I think we could feature some map variations for newer players, such as less gas geysers on the map, less mineral fields, to slow the game down without really losing too much of the core gameplay – the other alternative being slower game speed, or the like. I’m hopeful for the improvement in AI, as that might be one of the best ways to help new players adapt. I don’t think too much of map design in regards to base distances, ramp sizes, etc, will ever have much effect at this point, perhaps it did in WoL, but not now.

Do you put any thought into performance when building a map? Do you feel like it’s the role of the developer to ensure any map built with their tools will perform well?

Ideally, I would love to. There are some components that I do consciously think of – such as the use of reflections in water, or density of high poly models in a small area. But most of the time, us mappers are in the dark when it comes to how Blizzard will “rip apart” the work and optimize it for older systems. I’ve expressed my concern to the CMs about this, so that we can do the QA ourselves and minimize the hair-pulling that can come out of the map being changed (I recall controversy regarding Terraform, Echo, and most recently Galactic Process).

For reference, there was public frustration from the author of Terraform regarding the change in ground texture work from the TLMC version to the version used for ladder and tournaments. Echo, which can be viewed at this time on the ladder, has some cliff issues for the bottom right spawning player, where it changes from manmade to natural (obviously unintentionally). Galactic Process had a fiery explosion from its author after mineral line, destructible rock and art changes on the lowest level. I don’t think it’d be fair to bring this up in detail out of respect for the author, but it did not resonate well with the mapping scene.

Performing well is really hard to address, as the engine itself just doesn’t perform well in high intensity scenarios with the processor. So mapping really… wouldn’t have TOO much effect for it.

How do you feel about map components that mess with the game’s engine? For example, New Gettysburg’s airblockers slowed players down partly because air units couldn’t path by them without manual intervention.

The New Gettysburg thing was pretty disappointing to me, as air pathing in general is in my opinion. Air pathing is really wonky in the editor, as everything is based around soft and hard cylinders, when everything else is based around triangles, and yet units don’t even count the pathing in their movement, even if it’s clearly blocked. I took some pictures to clarify this point, with comments attached to each image. You can view that here.

I thought after Gettysburg won TLMC7 we were going to see improvements in that pathing, but unfortunately we didn’t. I think it’s cool that maps have features where you should pay attention to the map (like the Shoutcraft map Fallen Dreams), but it does end up punishing lower level players – since high level players already constantly check their armies.

What do you think about the map veto system? Do you think it creates the wrong incentives for players in terms of trying to maximize the number of maps where their race is favored? Do you pay attention to the player behavior around who is vetoing your maps and who is not?

I don’t think the veto system would be problematic if you could veto based off matchups, for example, I didn’t like TvT in Vaani Research Station because of the vulnerable in-base natural, but I like it in TvP, because I can pull Protoss apart between three bases.

I’d also love if every game was a bo3 by default, which would make vetoing 3 maps actually have some sense. But, many players just like the idea of one game after another, different people, refresh/reset mindsets, so that’s probably a bad idea. My concern with vetoes is less with player win rates, but more that people will avoid change with the veto, and that’s not something I really have an answer to. Expansion of the map pool size seems like the only reasonable response.

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Map vetoes on the competitive ladder.

I do listen to criticism, but a veto is not criticism most of the time, it’s avoidance.

It’s inevitable that some players will veto your maps or have negative feedback about them. How do you go about processing and responding to this? Do you feel like, at a certain point, it’s impossible to please everyone?

I don’t concern myself with the loud voices, I never really did. I know for a fact that Feardragon loves Dasan Station, I know that MCanning loved Invader and had a great winrate on it. So, honestly I’m no longer concerned with vetoes on my work (even though I haven’t had to worry about it in half a year), as long as I end up happy with the execution of the map’s vision, and I know some players understand and use it to their liking, the vetoes are fine for me.

The official ladder map pool tries to follow certain criteria set by Blizzard – for instance, bases must have two Vespene geysers. Do you feel like that limits your creativity, or would you end up following such criteria anyway because it’s the only way to build a balanced map?

Initially this was a large reason I started with Starbow when it came to SC2 mapping. In Starbow I liked the idea of non-aggressive expansions, literal advantages with ramps and expansion distances or mineral compositions. As I mentioned earlier, I have been told multiple times from different people at Blizz that they would like to look into allowing us change the mineral and gas layouts of bases in the upcoming TLMC. Otherwise, it does sort-of limit me, because I might want a really tight natural, but the geysers and mineral counts just make it impossible (ontop of design concerns, like liberators).

The official pool is also generally what’s used for major tournaments. Do you like this approach, or would you rather that individual tournaments picked their own map pools – or even requested specific types of maps from map makers for use in specific tournaments?

I hinted at this earlier in regards to lower level players, but I think if the pros play the same thing as the low level players, it gives the lower level players inspiration. It’s like playing on the same basketball court as Lebron James, or the same baseball field as Babe Ruth. But, sometimes organizations should take a stance against a map pool they, perhaps heavily dislike. Or one map. If it weren’t for BaseTrade accepting Purified Forge and Detox out of dislike for Lerilak Crest and Central Protocol, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I could submit the next Daybreak to a major organization that is really balanced, decently aesthetically pleasing, but someone else could submit an unbalanced but very pretty map and get chosen. It’s a fair concern, and one that I faced heavily over the past year due to how I handle(d) the design process.

I know a bunch of people would love it, if we were personally asked to work for tournaments. I know GSL did that with Rak’Shir, Judgement, New Gettysburg, and Sky Shield with Jacky_, Enekh and the other talented KR mappers/map teams, and it would be interesting to see it applied in a larger scale. Concerns would be if the organizers really have an idea of what makes a map good – which was also expressed in the submission “contest” which chose Invader and Korhal Carnage Knockout. I could submit the next Daybreak to a major organization that is really balanced, decently aesthetically pleasing, but someone else could submit an unbalanced but very pretty map and get chosen. It’s a fair concern, and one that I faced heavily over the past year due to how I handle(d) the design process.

Older RTS games sometimes featured procedurally generated rather than static maps. Do you think this approach could ever work in a game like StarCraft II?

Ah, I should’ve known you’d ask me this again after we spoke for the first time :P!

I think a procedurally generated map that took into account every balance and design concern whilst remaining unique and interesting would be either impossible or run out of options within a month (assuming it was constantly generating). Surely even in AOE2 there were some seeds that were just bad compared to others. Were this system to exist for SC2, it would basically only employ artists as mapmakers, not designers, so I don’t think the system would really be desired by us. If Brood War were better balanced and had a more fluid engine, perhaps it could? But I don’t think SC2 can.

Last time we spoke about this, I mentioned that a key reason this can’t exist in SC2 was the concept of map identity. I’ll talk about that a bit later.

Some of those older games even changed the map’s characteristics as the player progressed – for instance, Rise of Nations revealed oil deposits to the player once they had sufficiently teched up. How do you feel about this kind of design?

I really loved that about Rise of Nations, actually. I wish there was more evolution of resources, if I had to be honest, I wish there was more of that. In the expansion for RoN, you get to choose governments, and I think it’d be really cool if the government choices you make molded the resources that were revealed to you, or maybe had more relationship with rare resources (like Uranium, Diamonds, Platinum, Sugar, etc).

2016-01-04_oilDeposit.png
Oil deposits in Rise of Nations appear on the map in the mid-to-late game.

I have actually considered this in SC2 maps before. I’d love to talk about it, but I’m keeping it a secret for now, as I may use it in the near future. The idea of concealing or revealing resources isn’t new, but I always liked the idea of raw resources in less-than-normal positions along the map.

Speaking broadly about older RTS games, which one do you think had the best maps? Which one do you think had the worst?

Oof, hard to say. I loved Blitz X in Brood War, because I’ve seen a few TvTs that ended in BC vs BC on it. I liked seeing experimental maps like Gladiator more recently, or Troy with the assimilator “reverse walls” at your main entrance. Total Annihilation has some decent maps, as does Supreme Commander, but names don’t come to mind. In AOE, RON and SW: Galactic Battlegrounds, I often liked island maps with shallow/marsh pathways in between the islands. Also, have to shout out Big Game Hunters for being a great SC1 map. I don’t think any had “bad” maps. Aside from BW and SC2, I never played the others competitively to understand a bad map from good, really. I just remembered Ogres being horrifically broken in WC2 no matter what map you played.

I wanted to take this moment to talk about map identity in all games. I alluded to this a few questions ago, but felt it was more appropriate to go into depth since you are literally asking me to recall the identity of maps in previous RTS.

I know a few casters who thoroughly enjoyed Ulrena and Dasan Station, and found games on more standard maps like Deadwing or Overgrowth to be less memorable, even if more balanced and fair. It’s an interesting issue to consider when designing a map, where you might find that your map will be fun to watch, but horrific to play.

As I said when we initially talked on your Age of Empires / SC2 compare and contrast video, one of the stark differences between seeding a map and creating one by hand is that you have literal personal attachment to the maps you play when you load up a seeded map. In StarCraft 2’s lifetime, we have had a number of maps with different identities attached to them, some are good and some are bad. For example, most people have a positive reaction when you say maps like Daybreak, Bel’Shir Vestige, Bel’Shir Beach, Overgrowth, Neo Planet S, Cloud Kingdom and Whirlwind. Other maps can harbor strong negative reactions, such as Inferno Pools, Ulrena, Secret Spring, Desert Oasis, Slag Pits, and Dash & Terminal. The interesting thing to wonder is how much of this is based off of personal play versus tournament viewing. I know a few casters who thoroughly enjoyed Ulrena and Dasan Station, and found games on more standard maps like Deadwing or Overgrowth to be less memorable, even if more balanced and fair. It’s an interesting issue to consider when designing a map, where you might find that your map will be fun to watch, but horrific to play (something I discovered with Invader and Namaste).

When you have randomly generated maps, you really only feel identity to map preferences, such as Highland, Ghost Lake or Coastal in AOE2. This would be akin to a StarCraft 2 player saying “I like Standard maps”, or perhaps more accurately, “I like StarCraft maps where your third is slightly farther than normal, and there’s abyss/unpathable terrain in the middle to split the map into two lanes (ala Orbital Shipyard, Dusk Towers, Star Station, and Expedition Lost).” You become attached to characteristics of maps, rather than a map itself. Map aesthetics play heavily into this, such as the overwhelming love for Ohana, Bel’shir Vestige for the sake of “Beach Maps” despite any curbs on balance and fun gameplay.

For AOE2, Rise of Nations and Galactic Battlegrounds, which use these seed systems, the land type can be changed amongst the seed should the preferences allow it. For example, I can have a map with a massive hole in the center, and that center could be space/abyss, or water, and the land surrounding it could be a forest, asteroid, or beach. Because the maps in StarCraft are static, you will feel a sense of return to familiar whenever the map loads on your screen. Aesthetics aside, there are also some other characteristics that more well versed players will come to appreciate. For example, Overgrowth LE has four mineral patches that are physically the closest they can possibly be to the main command structure. Back in Heart of the Swarm, if you micromanaged your workers to pair effectively with these patches against a player who let them automine, you would have a stark early advantage against them. This was especially useful in some early game builds, like the 8/8/8 Terran Reaper play, as you always had the most efficient mining possible with the workers given.

…if StarCraft 2 were to take this approach with map design, would we not just see clones of Overgrowth, Nimbus, Cloud Kingdom and Daybreak every season? They would all nearly be the exact same maps aside from aesthetic/tileset randomization. Would it create a balanced game? Maybe it would, but I personally don’t think that’s the route to go.

The mapmaker themselves will feel attached to their work, as an artist would with their painting, when it comes to the judgment of said work. If a map fails to last past one season, there’s likely some issues that were glaring enough to Blizzard and/or the player base to warrant its removal (like Invader, for me). One downfall to this, is that we fear experimentation on interesting characteristics that would make for entertaining games (ask how many people would want a variation on Dasan Station, or Ulrena right now and you’ll see what I mean). But, one could argue that this was an even worse problem with randomly generated maps in AOE2. In your video, you spoke of the different map types that were selected for high level play. If one could use this as evidence, and if StarCraft 2 were to take this approach with map design, would we not just see clones of Overgrowth, Nimbus, Cloud Kingdom and Daybreak every season? They would all nearly be the exact same maps aside from aesthetic/tileset randomization. Would it create a balanced game? Maybe it would, but I personally don’t think that’s the route to go.

I’ve spent many a twitter rants going off about how I’d rather a game be fun to play with asymmetrical imbalances, large variance in the maps of the map pool and spectator “sparkle and shine” to keep the game interesting. I love me some Brood War, but I got bored of seeing every game on Circuit Breaker and Fighting Spirit when I tuned in half the time. I love ASL now, getting to watch some of the standard but different maps like Overwatch, some of the ridiculous games on Taebaek Mountains and an interesting return to Eye of the Storm. These aren’t the most ridiculous maps Brood War has seen, but I think you understand my point. Variation in map pool is very important in keeping the game fresh, especially since Blizzard is looking to reach a point where the game is balanced enough to where this philosophy can be applied, where maps and metas change without screaming for design and balance changes. This could be far fetched, or in the near-ish future, but I agree with this design choice and welcome it fully.

Coming from an older RTS game myself, I was amazed by the depth of map making tools available in StarCraft II. How do you feel about the toolset that’s available? What tools do you wish you had to make it easier to develop new maps? (For instance, I think it would be cool if you could select a ramp and get an automatic calculation as to how easy / hard it is for a Protoss to wall it off with a one-unit-wide hole).

The StarCraft II editor is a beast of a machine, it will get the job done, but it could definitely use some tune-ups, mainly in the data module. In data, which we have the luxury of using for custom tilesets, textures, and doodads, many fields are unexplained, or very messy in organization to the untrained user. I don’t think I was ever comfortable with the editor until a few months ago, and I still don’t know quite a hefty amount.

When it comes to map design, the only tools I actually use from the editor are the placement grid, (ctrl+shift+h, and shift+h if it you have pathing disabled), pathing mesh (shows you connected near vertices and exact footprints for buildings, needed for walls), and measure distance (just the distance formula between two points on the map). Your ramp suggestion is interesting, but not all walls are the same amongst players. Sometimes the walls I create are good, but a player will find a much better version for less cost without losing strength in defense. I think the only major tool improvement I’d ask for is a legitimate air unit plane to create proper pathing for them, as I expressed my concern earlier with New Gettysburg.

Speaking about RTS games more generally, do you see yourself as a map maker, or a StarCraft II map maker? Let’s say Warcraft 4 came out tomorrow and it was the “next big RTS” – would you switch to making maps for that?

I see myself as someone who loves to design worlds and landscapes for people to enjoy. My long term aspiration would be to create large vast pieces of land for players to explore in any game, as a level designer. I love using models to create new things, new set pieces, new unique locations. I have for a long, long time. Unfortunately, the schools for that put me in debt for the next lifetime, so I’m doing what I love right now, which happens to be StarCraft II. I don’t doubt I’ll change focus down the road, to different games, different engines, different styles. Hell, if I wasn’t stupid and deleted my save, I would be working on Brood War right now with a Unit Tester in the style of the one we have for SC2, with really pretty landscapes.

If WarCraft 4 came out tomorrow you can bet your ass I’d be ripping that editor apart and making stuff.

How do you feel about Blizzard’s engagement with the map making community? Again, coming from an older RTS player, I am consistently amazed at how much effort they put into community outreach. Where would you like to see them do more?

The community outreach as a whole is good, much better than it ever has been. Blizzard is a large, and sectored corporation. The WoW team, the Overwatch team, the Diablo, StarCraft, Heroes, and Hearthstone teams are all separate from each other, and do their own jobs very well. Some are better than others, that’s just how it’ll always be, only the names change. StarCraft’s team has vastly improved since the LotV beta, but I still personally feel they have a long way to go. My concern, and many others, is that the Blizz team and the Community Managers will talk to us for a little bit, make us feel like we’re in the spotlight with the rest of the community, and then we become irrelevant once the discussion comes to a close. I know this isn’t StarCraft, but this is very apparent in the WarCraft scene, where the private server Nostalrius caused a large uproar, had a response, and then nothing but silence after the meeting. If it weren’t for me, or other mapmakers being very active and remaining very prominent in the scene, I don’t think there’d be a community map scene at all anymore. I’m sure there will be a few professional players who share this as well, I recall a select few being concerned regarding some skype group a while back, same with the casters. And maybe it’s that there aren’t enough people to talk to all of us, and that’s fine, that happens. Chris (Rackle) and Andrew (Kibbelz), do a great job handling the abundance of information and opinions thrown at them, and I’m sure everyone else at Blizz does too. But I would really like if there were direct communications to specific teams at the campus. I, for one, would love to be able to directly ask any quick question to the engine devs, as I recently needed for a secret project, rather than having to go through CMs, but I understand if policy gets in the way.

There was also great concern amongst the previous Team Liquid Map Contests regarding Blizzard’s vision. It was just before my time, but I have been told from multiple corners that there was a great deal of controversy behind Blizzard’s invisible hand in TLMC..5? 6? I can’t remember. Perhaps the other mapmakers will be able to shine better light on that. And there was some in 7 as well, as Blizzard publically sponsored New Gettysburg, as did KeSPA before the voting even happened, and it made the rest of us finalists feel like absolute shit. There was a quick response regarding this concern. We also, for a long period of time prior to S2 2016, had no idea what Blizzard really wanted with LOTV maps, and we had no means of communication. Since then, I have received more open communication between the Community Managers, but I still hold some concerns towards the next TLMC.

So, they do a great job, all of them, but they still can do much better in many departments. Tried my best to remain as constructive as I could.

Finally, walk us through the design and production process for your maps. What are the key decisions that you make? How do you usually discover and resolve mistakes?

As I mentioned before, it generally starts with an aesthetic idea. For most of us, it starts with choosing a basic tileset and a flexible boundary size. I often explore and experiment with tilesets early on so I have a clear vision with what I want the map to look like before I start on the layout. The size is often quickly changed towards the beginning to create a general shape, often rectangular as opposed to square. Symmetry is chosen between Rotational (which most maps use) or Rectangular (which maps like Ulrena, Vaani Research, and Habitation use). Bounds will again be altered one or two more times but in much smaller amounts, we’re talking at most 16 cells added or removed.

After that, you start shaping the main, which will in turn affect the rest of the map completely. From the main, you decide if you use a maximum of two or three cliff levels in your entire piece. You will also decide your cliff styles, maybe you want round curves, or straight 90 degree angles, or you don’t care at all. This also ties to your map aesthetic. Nature in general appears random, so you don’t want straight lines or hard angles, but too circular looks very alien and terraformed by man. You decide where your main ramp goes, place your main mineral line, check the size of the main to see if it’s too small for P and T (I told you I learned from Invader).

You then shape the natural, decide where the mineral line is in relation to the ramp from the main, how close does the nexus/cc/hatchery hug the ramp? This would affect walling, as would the decision to have a flat natural choke (Overgrowth, Foxtrot Labs, Cloud Kingdom), or a ramp to wall off (Expedition Lost, Nimbus, Ohana). Now you decide, are you going to have your third base on the same level as the natural, thus requiring another ramp? Or perhaps on the lowground? Is the third “far”? Or very close? What about an inbase third? Inbase natural? And then the process sort of repeats until you get something either horrible or relatively standard/not-so-unique, or you’re Fatam with really wild map concepts and you break rules but make sick maps anyway. I’ve actually been inspired by him recently with how he handles his high ground “waves” as I refer to them, his mineral lines and base layouts. All during, I’ll often find little pockets around or inside the bases that look ripe for aesthetic detail. I’ll often stop designing the layout to complete this first, which can lead the rest of the map to suffer. It’s not a very good thing, but I like it.

Most of my maps have their mistakes solved during the mapping process – before I publicly release them. Once released they rarely see large changes (Namaste and Caldeum Plateau being two sole exceptions for various reasons, but mainly because I hated both their layouts). But in terms of discovery, most mistakes happen early on in the mapping process, and can unfortunately cause permanent damage to your design. It’s not uncommon for me to look at a newer mapmaker and tell them that there are so many problems, that they would have to start over to have a better map. The most common problem here would be distances between expansions, ramps, and how they all mix together. Back to Invader, the main base was really small, and the natural was tucked back. To my ignorant perspective and improper view of proportions, this made it okay to push the third a bit farther. As this continued, bases got farther, and at each quadrant of the symmetry, vital expansions were too close. It was a mess, and unfortunately meant the map needed a redesign rather than quick fixes. I made an Invader II to address concerns, but it still had too many flaws.

Vivid colors, bloom, high specular lighting and HDR manipulation made for gorgeous pictures, but horrendous in game.

Other mistakes can be aesthetic, and as I mentioned previously, aesthetics are often what we see first. I thought the lava in Moonlight Madness was disgusting, it looked like melted cheese under a blue plateau installation. That’s an easy fix. But another map, which is very beautiful, called Kill the Watchers is extremely bright and hard on the eyes. Vivid colors, bloom, high specular lighting and HDR manipulation made for gorgeous pictures, but horrendous in game. These kind of mistakes are much harder to change, which is a reason I spend so much time experimenting with aesthetics than layouts. A layout early on can have its issues fixed relatively easily. However, aesthetic themes can appear well to you, while horrific to others and cause your map to flop. Finally, you have the small mistakes such as missing pathing, obstructing doodads or minor layout issues, such as the lack of a reaper cliff or a lack of space behind main and natural mineral lines for drops, buildings, static defense and liberators.

Oh and, you asked about testing at one point. I don’t really test that often, I know people come to me and others offering that they’re available to test but.. It’s not the same when you’re testing in a controlled environment to that of a tournament or ladder. I appreciate the offers, and I’m sure the others do as well, but surely you understand that we’d rather learn from mistakes and subconsciously make an effort to not repeat said mistakes and map around them.

It’s been a pleasure talking to you these past few months, and I hope most of my points were coherent enough for you and your audience. I look forward to seeing the other mappers’ perspectives, as we all see things pretty differently in philosophy and execution.


Thank you so much to AVEX for generously volunteering his time to answer my questions in-depth. I highly recommend that you follow him on Twitter and check out his live mapping on Twitch.

Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Twitter or Facebook, or checking out my game-design focused content on YouTube and Twitch. Thank you for reading and see you next time.

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