If you asked me to recommend the best public park in town, I would need to know what you want from a park. One park offers quiet walks through woods, but lacks open greens for a picnic or sport. Another has a playground for the kids, but lacks seating for parents and forces them into a hovering limbo. This same question is true in multiplayer level design. While a multiplayer game is live, the maps are like public parks to its players, and not everyone wants the same experience.
With this in mind, there’s a challenge in writing about multiplayer level design. In singleplayer, the standard structure is series of obstacles to overcome with a limited set of actions. From these patterns in singleplayer levels, we can talk about what a level does, and how variations in those patterns create meaning. But in multiplayer, the obstacles aren’t always designed or consistent, and the player’s goals may shift to keep the game interesting.
I want to talk about the first Halo’s multiplayer and its level design, but it requires some explanation.
A Background on Halo
If you aren’t familiar with Halo’s multiplayer, here are the basics: each player controls an armored super-soldier and sees through their character’s eyes. These players use sci-fi guns to fight and kill the other player characters. When a player character dies, they respawn in the environment after several seconds. (Because of the tight link between a player and their character in a first-person game, we use “player” to mean the character. This shorthand of “player” for “player character” creates odd conversations outside of gaming, like “I shot him in the head, but his grenade still blew me up!”)
The environments in Halo’s multiplayer are self-contained with varied vantage points, weapons, and powerups to affect player tactics and to encourage to take risks and move around the map.
If you are familiar with other FPS multiplayer games, the identity of Halo comes from its floaty movement and its shield mechanics. With the movement, players are slow at full speed and are slow to accelerate. Unlike Halo’s contemporaries on PC, when the player jumps, they can’t affect their velocity. The jump itself goes almost as high as the player character, and the jump lasts longer than it would in Earth’s gravity. This slow movement becomes predictable, which means easy to shoot, which means there are consequences for making a bad move during a fight.
With Halo’s shield mechanic, players take damage to a replenishing shield before they take damage to a health bar. A partially damaged shield will start regenerating after a second, and take up to a second to complete. If the player takes damage during that regeneration time, all of the shield timers reset. If the shield is completely destroyed, the player is vulnerable to headshots and must wait multiple seconds before the shield starts regenerating. Some weapons deal greater damage to shields than health. Other weapons deal enough damage to effectively bypass shields. In the first Halo specifically, the human pistol is overtuned: two headshots break an opponent’s shield, a third headshot is an instant kill.
This combination of mechanics makes standard Halo multiplayer about sustained precision and thoughtful movement. Tighter environments amplify these mechanics and introduce an aspect of map control and positioning that defined competitive Halo.
Imagine it is 2001 and I’m playing Halo on a couch with three friends. We’re all kids, and when we decided to play, the goal was to determine the most skilled among us. But after a couple matches, the skill disparity is apparent and we start improvising new goals and rules. Melee only on the map “Wizard”, back-whacks worth 2 points, falling-whacks worth 3. Or maybe active camouflage and sniper rifles on the map “Sidewinder”. If a variant grows dull, we adapt it mid match and start shooting instead of using melee, or we start driving vehicles through the fields of invisible snipers. At this point, the group’s goal with all of these variants isn’t about who won, or who is the best. The variants are about adapting the rules, adding chaos and unpredictability so that even the weaker players have moments of success. If the variant instead aggravates the skill disparity, then a player may throw the match or break its rules; this kind of “trolling” behavior in local multiplayer is a way for a player to signal that they aren’t having fun.
This whole pattern of play is similar to how children on a playground will adapt tag into “freeze tag”, or “lava monster” (only the player who is “it” can touch the ground), or “metal monster” (the player who is “it” can only move around the structure where they are touching metal). This freeform play is not about winning or losing, and if the game locks into a solved state, where one player is stuck being “it”, the variant has failed and requires modification.
Now, if you asked me in 2001 to recommend the best map in Halo, I may have said “Wizard”. It has four sections of axial symmetry, two sets of linked teleports, a discrete first and second floor, and four powerups of two types. The teleports and symmetry create a kind of disorientation, which for casual play introduced chaos and puts a limit on tactical play. “Wizard” is also small enough that disorientation doesn’t matter; if the player picks a random direction and starts walking, they will find an opponent to fight. The map was also suitable to many of our game mode variants. “Wizard” was the go-to map for shotguns-only, or melee-only, or absurd infinite-grenade games. It also makes a great King of the Hill map, due to a central pillar structure that players can only reach by jumping.
“Chill Out” was another key map in the rotation for our local multiplayer, but its design has more nuance to it and has stuck in my memory longer.
The Structure of Chill Out
“Chill Out” is an interior environment where each room feels like a subtraction from a larger solid. There are now views out into the space beyond. The environment’s textures belong to the covenant alien art set, but the architecture has the harsher angles of forerunner architecture; even within the Halo universe, it is difficult to place where this map would exist. There is also a low, dense fog in the lowest part of the map, informing the players about their location. This fog gives a cold impression, playing off the pun in the map’s name.
Green lines indicate teleport paths.
Structurally, “Chill Out” has three sections, and six rooms.
Offset from the center, there is a four-sided room with two-floor, two elevated platforms on pillars where the rocket launcher spawns, and a long ramp leading from the bottom floor to the top. From this rocket room, the top door leads to a long, sharp-angled hall that exits at pink room; this hall also has a one-way teleport to shotgun room. A lower door leads to gold room, and a small curved door leads to the shotgun room. There are also two large archways and a space above them that connects rocket room to a lower room with a broken bridge.
Rocket Room. The door ahead leads to the shotgun room. Gold room is to the right, pink hall is above, and arches are to the left.
The bridge room has two wide halls on the lower floor connecting to the shotgun room and to gold room. The bridge doors connect to pink room on one side, and a spiral down to shotgun room on the other. Across the room there are two large pillars with a head-height gap to shoot through, and a one-way teleport up to pink room. Together, the rocket room and bridge room make up the middle section of the map.
Mid. The bridge to the right leads to spiral, and left leads to pink room. The lower hall on the right leads to shotgun room, and the left leads to gold room.
To one side of the middle section are pink room, gold room, and pink hall. Pink room is where the active camouflage powerup and the sniper rifle spawn. One exit from pink room is part of the broken bridge across the middle. The other exit is up a ramp and into pink hall to the top of rocket room, with a window looking down on gold room. The window in pink hall is too small to easily jump through, and the angle offers little to shoot at, but it is effective for throwing grenades. Pink room is also small enough to be susceptible to grenades.
Looking into pink room from pink hall.
Gold room mostly functions as a connection between one of the long halls from mid to the bottom of rocket room, but it also has a one-way teleport to the broken bridge at spiral. This teleport is risky because the player exits facing toward pink room with their back exposed to anyone at the spiral from the shotgun room.
Looking into “Gold” room from the long hall. The door leads to rocket room.
The last section is the shotgun room and spiral ramp. This is where the overshield powerup spawns. whoever grabs it receives two extra layers of shield protection and a second of invulnerability on activation. Aside from the overshield, the shotgun room is a weak position. The shotgun itself is only beneficial in close combat, and the pistol starting weapon is more consistent across all of the map’s spaces.
Looking into shotgun room from rocket room.
From the spiral, a player may look across the broken bridge to pink, but the opponent in pink may have the sniper rifle. The spiral is also vulnerable to grenades. From shotgun there is also a small bend to the bottom of rocket room, but it has blind spots to three sides, including above it where the rocket launcher spawns. The only other exit from shotgun room is the other long hall into mid, which is vulnerable from the top of the arches. There is also a teleport exit from pink hall to the middle of shotgun room, which can lead to unexpected close-combat fights.
The view from spiral, while jumping.
Competitive Chill Out
In competitive 2v2 Team Slayer (a game mode where kills convert to points), the effect of this design is that both teams attempt to control rocket room and pink room. While players are in these rooms, the game blocks enemies from respawning nearby, which increases the likelihood they respawn in bottom mid or in shotgun room. From this setup, the team in control times pushes into the shotgun room with the overshield powerup’s respawn. For a team trapped in the shotgun room, the overshield is the best way push the enemy team and regain map positioning.
The view from pink room.
If both teams are equally skilled, it is difficult to maintain this or any other setup. In 2v2s in particular, when one player dies, the other needs to move or risk facing a 2v1. Because of these power shifts, both teams must keep rotating between strong locations on the map. Some of these positions are about information more than the damage a player could deal from them. For example, at the door to the bridge from pink room, a player can see two exits from shotgun room and a clear view across rocket room, but not all at once without stepping out onto the bridge. Two of these views are too narrow to hit a running enemy more than once, yet it is a valuable position for spotting enemies. In this way, information control is linked to map control.
With competitive play, we can also think of each action a player takes as an exchange of resources. A player may exchange shield and health for a better position when they take fire, or a player may exchange a good position to get a powerup or weapon. Strong positions are those with many options with good exchange rates. Weak positions and “traps” are those where every option becomes a risk.
Other Aspects of Chill Out
For couch multiplayer, this isn’t how “Chill Out” plays. For us playing in 2001, “Chill Out” was less of a coherent playfield than a funnel for conflict and surprise.
Doors, Halls, Teleports
All of the door and hallways on “Chill Out” are long and narrow. Some doors are as long as they are wide, blurring the definition between a hall and a door. In the tightest of these spaces, a player can’t juke an enemy’s aim or avoid grenades. Some of the ceilings are so low that a player will bump their head if they jump. Due to this, a player can delay an enemy push or force a retreat by throwing a grenade into these hallways and doors. These structures also force a harder commitment than doorways in tactical shooters. The shield mechanics and their requirement for sustained precision in combat mean that a player must commit to entering an arena rather than poking ineffectually from the far side of a door.
Big door from Gold to Rocket creates big blindspots.
Long hall from overshield spawn, through mid, to gold room
The map’s one-way teleports also function as a kind of doorway, but they force an even harder commitment than actual doors. In casual play, where there is too much chaos to predict the game state on the other side of the map, the teleports are like a die roll: an enemy may be camping the exit, or the player may catch their enemy off guard. As a new or infrequent player, it is hard to even remember which teleport goes where, which can be a source of surprise and even humor in the gameplay.
The teleports are also a way to escape fights, since it is not possible to shoot or throw grenades through them. Whoever enters the teleport first can step back, wait for their opponent to chase, and strike them with a melee attack. Or, the player can bounce a grenade off the teleport entrance as they walk through it, discouraging enemies from continuing the chase.
One tenet of current game design is to limit the “friction” or “rough edges” that players encounter. One form of friction is to test boring skills. For example, crossing the bridge from pink room to spiral requires a careful jump, and timing it incorrectly means barely missing and falling into the open at bottom mid. There is a similar jump to the rocket platform, and another to the top of arches. These are frustrating skill checks because there is no partial failure state or room for recovery. The punishment of a slow, predictable fall from these failed jumps makes them even worse.
There are also broken chunks of the bridge on the ground of bottom mid. Although these add visual interest to an otherwise abstract map, they add literal friction to the play space. An inexperienced or distracted player trying to cross bottom mid will not realize what they are stuck on without looking down or jumping blindly, both of which cost time and may get the player killed.
We could also include the narrow hallways and low ceilings as sources of friction. These spaces feel uncomfortable. But fixing these areas, as Halo 3 did in its “Cold Storage” remaster of “Chill Out”, removes something from the heart of the map.
There are a lot of aspects to “Chill Out”, or a lot of ways to view it. So, how do we talk about multiplayer level design? Is “Chill Out” good or bad? Is it a dog park to someone who wants a quiet stroll, or a playground to someone without kids?
We can list all the ways in which players play a map. We can divide a map into its components, describe their interrelations, and consider how each piece affects various players. Or we can take a narrative approach and tell stories of our times in these spaces. None of these approaches seem to fully reveal the heart of a map. But, inherently, isn’t that because a good map, like a good public park, should mean many things to many people?