Against Best Practices

Several years ago my work tasked me to build a cooperative dungeon themed around a volcanic palace. We wanted the dungeon’s difficulty to rise across a series of rooms and end with a fight against the Fire King. At the half-way point through the level, we wanted to challenge the players with a combat-puzzle encounter.

For my prototype of this encounter, I locked the players in a room with several waves of combat and environmental hazards. Each wave, the players needed to complete an increasing number of objectives in order to survive lava that would rise through the floor.

Outside the specifics of the theme, I designed this encounter to test player coordination across multiple objectives under pressure. The encounter also served as a gear check through the enemies. In the abstract, this encounter is typical of raid design, which was our goal. The problem was the theme and converting my prototype to final art without losing clarity.

In one of several meetings dedicated to solving this problem, another designer asked why the Fire King would have this hazardous room in his palace at all. This led to question about who (within the game’s fiction) built this room, why they built it this way, and what happened since it was built.

When a level is able to answer these questions, it passes a test I think of as “architectural realism”. If a level does not hold up to this scrutiny, and we’re left saying “no one (within the game’s fiction) would have build this place or built it this way”, it fails the test of architectural realism.

This concept overlaps with environmental storytelling, world-building, and immersion, all of which are important for high-fidelity AAA narratives games like Last of Us and God of War (2018). As an industry, we place a lot of value on these concepts.

But my level was not for that kind of game. We used a distant 3rd-person camera, larger-than-life characters with exaggerated proportions, and abilities that worked at massive scales. We built our levels and the environment art to match.

So, when one of these design meetings entered a third hour of argument to solve the problem of architectural realism, I was ready to ship the level as it was, in Mario-like abstraction where primitive meshes clearly conveyed their function. Immersion be damned.

Architectural realism had no place in the problem we were trying to solve, and the efforts to pass its criteria wasted development time and made the encounter’s mechanics opaque. A bad application of best practices made my level worse.

Now, when I see the ideas of architectural realism described as best practice, I remember how it can harm the development process when it does not serve the intended experience.


Here for example, Mark is correct when referring to most real-world architecture, but most real-world architecture ports badly to video games. This is obvious for those of us who learned level design through modding; our rite-of-passage was to build a replica of our house—or school, or office—in Counter-Strike, Doom (1993), or one of so many other games with mod tools. This was a rite-of-passage because it was a painful realization that we can’t just copy what works in the real-world because the context is different. Even within the same genre, the context of Quake 3: Arena was different from Unreal Tournament 2004. An excellent level in one game will be different, often terrible, in another.

The act of design is to recognize a context, its local needs and constraints, and find a solution that fits best. The practice of greyboxing is a way to prototype a solution, evaluate how well it fits the context, and—in professional game development—communicate the solution to the team. The study of level design is too often concerned with the skills of building and not the skills of design, which persist across genre convention.


Christopher Alexander wrote about design this way in his 1964 essay “Notes on the Synthesis of Form”, where he created a visual metaphor of constraints and relationships. The dots each denote a constraint, and the lines denote relationships. The + and – along each line indicates whether the constraints support or conflict with each other. This visual metaphor is powerful because it lets us step aside from convention and any dogma around best practices to instead face the specific needs of the problem.

In real-world manufacturing, material and production—what Alexander labels “economy”—are real constraints. Even in our digital world of level design, material and production are constraints we need to consider. We have our level construction processes, our art asset pipelines, and our production methodologies. We also have our studio cultures and divisions of responsibilities. All of these factor into the local context within which we solve our design problems.

For my lava palace encounter, the values of architectural realism diminished once we recognized the whole context of our production process. Solving the encounter for world-building and immersion conflicted with too many other constraints.


Around the assumed best practices of AAA development, there are assumption of roles and responsibilities. In some studios, level designers are also layout artists, world builders, environment artists, content designer, scripters, and quest designers. Each game and studio has its own needs.

otherTweet.PNG(Jeff also clarified in a later tweet that his advice “can be true or false depending on the situation”)

On another project as a professional level design, I spent several months sculpting and painting terrain. I placed foliage and props. Again, I did this work as a level designer. For the experience we intended to provide, we needed rolling hills and grass, and someone had to implement that solution to the design problem. This is level building, but we still call the job level design.

As another example, look at Dear Esther. Where does the level design end and the environment art begin? This division is artificial until we separate design from building. To provide the right experience, the design of Dear Esther called for an island with terrain and foliage; it doesn’t matter whether it was a level designer or an environment artist who did the work of building.

All of that said, when I see talk of “best practices” that don’t specify their context, I get grumpy. And when these “best practices” are directed at students, I get angry. I think about the days of my life wasted solving the wrong problems, and I think about all of the work I shipped that was less than it could have been.


What remains if we throw out “best practices” and say the quality of a design depends on its context?

There are fundamentals we can still apply. Gestalt psychology has value. There are also psychological models like Self-Determination Theory to help us better recognize our players’ needs. I personally am skeptical of any application of shape- or color-theory that says “[x] will make the player feel [y]”, but there is still value in studying these areas as well.

What remains is local level design, where our work serves a specific context to the best of its ability. To me, this enriches the many forms our levels can take, frees us from the International Style of AAA best practices, and returns us to our position as experience designers instead of overspecialized level builders. This lets us escape high modernism and enter postmodernism (and maybe we’ll catch up with the rest of the art world eventually).

For students, my suggestion is that you shouldn’t greybox levels in Unity or Unreal by imagining a context that you can’t playtest. Doing this is making fan art levels, replicating solutions that already exist rather than learning how to solve. Instead, take a game with mod tools and an active community and design a level for that context. Seek feedback, not to hear how your level is good or bad, but to better understand who your level is for.  Then build another level with this knowledge. This is the only best practice I know to learn the skills of design.

My Changing Relationship to Games

I want to talk about a pivot happening in my side-projects as part of some larger changes in my life.

I stopped playing video games a few months ago. This would be fine—even admirable in some circles—if my job wasn’t to make video games. There are a few games I have sampled, a few minutes of something here and there, and I still mod, but I haven’t sat down to play a game in months.

Making video games in Georgia, I let work become my life. Where there were voids, I worked longer hours and spent my free time studying games. There was always more to do, always urgent, so I worked.

For my enthusiasm, my managers threw me at projects with the biggest amounts of work. In 2017 I moved my desk four times between three games. My weeks may have averaged 50 hours, but many exceeded 70. Several weekends disappeared.

There came a point I vowed I would not work another 16 hour day. Then I received a deadline where the choice was to either create something below my standard of quality (and I am not a perfectionist), or to break my vow. In the end, I did both. I remember a 74 hour week ran through Sunday into another 70 hours in a continuous 14 days, but I was still disappointed with the quality of the game. No amount of work could save it in time.

Once the deadline passed, I rationalized my unhappy results by saying “I am proud of the work I did, even if I am not proud of the product I made”. Months of recovery from that voluntary crunch, now more than a year ago, I wonder why I should be proud of the work at all.

Most people use the word “workaholic” as a humblebrag. I am a workaholic, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean when there is a void in my life, I fill it with work; this causes my friendships to fade; this expands the void further; and this invites me to work even more. My work was a malignant addiction.

To quote David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram” about television, irony, and addiction:

something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes. A malignant addiction is also distinguished for spreading the problems of the addiction out and in in interference patterns, creating difficulties for relationships, communities, and the addict’s very sense of self and soul.

This is what I mean when I say I am a workaholic.

Somewhere in 2016, I stopped reading. I stopped writing. I did not date. The few, short books I did read were about business management. I scoured them for ideas to fix the politics and production problems at work, so I could move at an even faster pace. Through all of this, I had become a different person.

In autumn of 2015 when I considered the job offer in Georgia, I worried it would cost me my soul. From my rural hometown with no prospects, I needed the work, I needed the experience. But after I took the job, I slowly lost something of myself.

As I kept up my pace at work, I felt burnout approaching. I had burned out once before, in college, when I took more courses than I could handle. There was a long recovery then. This time, I knew I couldn’t recover while expected to keep the pace I had set.

Moving to Canada was an opportunity to restart. Outside of a 40 hour workweek, being a stranger in a new country has meant facing the voids in my life. I could fill these voids by playing video games, by doing research for my work, but I haven’t.

In October I entered into a relationship. On our second date, we went to the local poetry slam. This reminded me how I dabbled in poetry before my job in Georgia and reminded me of the person I had been. I mentioned this and my date teased me, asked if I would ever perform a poem here. I said “maybe”.

The relationship was short, but the reminders of my past-self stuck. I was left to reexamine my values: what I want from a relationship, yes, but also what kind of person I want to be. I have had to reckon with the costs I paid in my three years in Georgia because there were costs. I strengthened as a level designer at the expense of everything else. Now I am lopsided. I see my failure in this relationship linked to my addiction to work for the ways I chose not to develop myself.

Since that relationship ended, I am writing again. I have performed at the poetry slam twice. I am reading again too. These are ways for me to grow.

But I stopped playing video games because they can’t help me do this work of introspection and healing. Games can kill time, they can anaesthetize, and—when studied—they can fill the void with work. None of this is what I have needed.

In this view, a passage from Austin Grossman’s novel You comes to mind:

Let’s admit some things about video games. They are boring. They induce a state of focus that is totally absorbing but useless—like the ghost of work or creative play, but without engaging the world in any way. They are designed to focus attention but don’t train you to overcome the obstacles to being focused.

They are fun but don’t tend to make a person more interesting.

The rewards are false coin—they are rarely satisfying or moving. More often, they offer something like a hunger for the next game …

Against this cynicism, I see how video games can be a means of social connection across long distances. Increasingly, this is what I value about the medium. This is why I work in multiplayer. However, I see this role of video games as a supplement for social connection, not the replacement it too often becomes.

I’m not sure how much of this thinking is an indictment of the medium. Games may have a capacity as tools for introspection—Firewatch and Dear Esther come to mind—but this is not our medium’s strength. If I want to see the world in new ways, books remain the best tool.

Within these feelings about work, and within the catalyst of a failed relationship, my attitude as a designer is changing. When I am feeling pragmatic (and blunt), I say my job is to design toys for children. When I am feeling poetic, I say my job is to design architecture for imaginary cities. When I tell strangers about my job, these descriptions free me of the stigmas (and embarrassments) of video games without excusing the frivolity of my work. I don’t know the terminus of this thinking.

I will return to playing games at some point. To be good at my job, I must. There are still games I want to play and games I want to make, but there are debts I need to pay first.

I hope you read this as an explanation and a warning. If I had read a post like this in 2015, I might find myself now with a life in better balance.

Moving forward, I have some fun side-projects in the works and ideas I am exploring. They may not be what you would expect from a multiplayer level designer, but I am excited to show you all when they are ready.

Thanks for reading.
– Andrew

New Quake Map “Recursion”

Today I released a new Quake map, “Recursion”, which you can download over Here.

Or if you’re here to read about the map, I have some notes below!



Notes on the design

In standard Quake maps, there is an exit that leads the player into the next level, and on from there through an episode of maps. Harder levels block the exit with locked doors that require gold and silver keys, which require exploration. Mid-2000 level design replaced keys and doors with narrative equivalents—power generators and bridges, objectives and targets—before late-2000 design practices abandoned nonlinear spaces altogether. The result of this older lock-and-key pattern is that the player takes a mostly linear route through a nonlinear space, backtracking across hubs as the player takes keys to their respective doors. In Quake levels, backtracking is an opportunity for the player to reorient in what may otherwise be a disorienting space. Good backtracking also offers new gameplay through role reversals; for example, now the player fights downhill in contrast to the earlier fight uphill.

“Recursion” breaks from that format. Here there are four runes that each restart the level when the player acquires them. Once the player has all of the runes, the exit becomes available. Instead of backtracking, with opportunities for role reversals, this structure means literally replaying the start of the level multiple times to reach the end. On paper, this sounds worse! And if the start of the level was long, it would be worse. But “Recursion” quickly opens to a hub with several branches and many gameplay dynamics. Players also keep their inventory between level resets. With this format, I’ve tried to create a sandbox with a variety of toys for players to use, so the same space can play many ways. That is my goal with the format change from locks-and-keys to runes: a sandbox, not a series of skillchecks.

The short length of each branch also reduces the impact of death. There’s no need to save or load while playing “Recursion”. Since inventory persists between lives, the player can quickly try any of the objectives again, or try with a different tactic. I also applied this low-risk attitude to level boundaries. Instead of killing a player who falls into the abyss, the level teleports the player back to safety.

Another goal of this format is to keep the level alive as a world. When the player kills an enemy, collects a rune, and returns to the level start, that enemy will be alive again! I want all of the enemies to feel like inhabitants of a living world that the player is just passing through. This means the player isn’t “clearing” the level, or claiming territory.

In this way, I am drawing on the structure of Mario 64, where there are many stars to collect in a level, and each will send the player back to the start. My favorite levels from Mario 64 also play like sandboxes where I explore by setting my own goals. When I see a big hill to climb, I’ll want to reach the top, and when I do, the level replies to my exploration by giving me a star, or a boss to fight, or a puzzle to solve.

To get into the specifics of “Recursion”, I want each rune to offer its own type of gameplay:

  • Rune 1: taking the left route down from the hub, the room locks in on the player and spawns 4 zombies. These enemies can only be killed with explosives, or by dealing a massive amount of damage. On a platform to one side is a grenade launcher. There are also explosive barrels for players who prefer that method, and to add a comedic danger to missed shots. There is also a quad damage powerup available in the hub before entering this space, for players who want to bypass explosives altogether. By eliminating the zombies, the room unlocks to let players return to the hub, and a cage opens to give access to the rune.
  • Rune 2: at the highest point in the level, a platform floats with a rune on top. There are several routes from the first floor to the second floor. From there, a staircase leads up to the platform, and a Shambler spawns in for the player to fight! If the player skipped earlier fights during their ascent, or if the player is low on resources, this Shambler fight will be a chaotic retreat back down into the hub of the level. But once the player defeats the Shambler, a path opens to reach the rune.
  • Rune 3: on the second floor of the level, a teleport takes the player into a separate arena with two moving piston-like columns in the middle. A Shambler spawns in, and the player must dodge between the dynamic cover to avoid the Shambler’s line of sight attacks. Once the Shambler is dead, a ShalRath and a Hell Knight spawn in. The former fires homing explosives projectiles, and the latter swings a sword and fires a fan of fire arrows. Both pressure the player to keep distance, but the homing explosives require the player to move and either lead the shot into the Hell Knight or into one of the pillars. After all enemies are dead, paths open to reach the rune, or to return to the hub. This rune is the closest to a traditional Quake skillcheck encounter.
  • Rune 4: on the far right side of the level, a series of moving platforms cross a chasm to a button. On pressing the button, the player has 8 seconds to return and loop up a staircase where a cage has opened and made a rune available. The void under the platforms teleports the player back to the button, where they can quickly make a new attempt across. I designed this to be a bit of a puzzle, where there isn’t enough time if the player jumps on each platform as it becomes available. The solution is to make two longer jumps across, instead of four short jumps. This rune is frankly the weakest of the bunch, since there is only one correct way to complete it, and since partial failure is still punished. (I’ll be making a few tweaks in the next version.)

Beyond the runes, I also added a hard mode that makes the level much sillier. When the player walks along a ledge off to the side of the level start, a message warns the player that they’re about to activate “Fiend Mode”. If the player continues and picks up the relic at the end, their next instance in the level will be on hard difficulty, with many Fiend enemies added to the level. The Fiends tend to lunge past the player and off the level edge, where they are teleported back to the start. The result is as much humor as danger. This hard mode also gives the player the lightning gun and piles of ammo at intervals, which balances out the added enemies. Altogether, the changes of this “Fiend Mode” make the level about speedrunning and avoiding enemies on the way to each rune. It’s not a pure difficulty increase, but rather a new way of playing in the sandbox.

What’s next?

If you’ve followed my design blog for this year, you’ll know I wrote about these ideas back in March in “Early notes on Level Design Playgrounds”, and also back in December in “Halo’s Multiplayer and Public Parks” with an eye toward multiplayer. “Recursion” is the result of asking myself the easiest way to start testing these ideas and putting so much talk into practice. But there’s only so much I can do with vanilla Quake, and I had to skip many of the ideas from that March post.

Altogether, “Recursion” was maybe 24 hours of work (4 evenings after work, 5-6 hours each), ignoring dozens of scrapped level ideas that came before. For such a short turnaround, I’m glad it has proven a few of the core ideas.

In the long term, testing this playground design theory in Quake calls for a total conversion:

  • New art assets to create a happier and more inviting world.
  • A wider range of interaction options, fewer “do damage” weapons and more “do [thing]” tools. E.g. reimagine the rocket launcher as a no-damage knockback tool.
  • Tools for randomization and surprise, like Mario Kart blocks.
  • Full support for co-op.
  • Respawning enemies and items instead of hacky level resets.
  • Allow multiple levels of this type in an episode without restarting the game.

But that’s all too much for a side project, and it would take too long to get results. So, the short term:

  • A bigger level, where each rune feels like a distinct area
  • A better solution to varied gameplay than precision platforming
  • Try separating the level start from the level proper, for a less jarring reset
  • Look into basic code changes for a less hacky experience

These are a bit easier to achieve on my own. At the very least, they’ll verify the ideas of “Recursion” as more than a one-off gimmick approach to Quake level design.

That’s all for this post. Thanks for reading!



My Public Work on Paladins

Yesterday was my last day at Hi-Rez Studios. I have some time before my next job starts, which means a little vacation, maybe some new Quake maps, and also some time to reflect. All of the information in this post is publicly available, but I wanted to gather it up in one spot.

My first day on Paladins was the launch of closed beta, November 17th, 2015. I started as an associate level designer under Jordan Smith as lead level designer. At that time, Paladins had the look and presentation of a fantasy Team Fortress, but it played like an MMO’s PvP arena. Paladins had a limited set of roles and a first person camera with shooter gameplay, but the combat was far more about the calculus of a high time-to-kill brawls. Damage-over-time attacks and crowd control abilities like stuns, slows, and fears were key to winning objective fights. The mismatch of player expectations around first person gameplay was a problem for many players.

The closed beta of Paladins had its niche, but the design needed to change for the game to succeed. In those first few months, the decisions about the game’s identity seemed like a knot of many interacting factors: lower or higher time-to-kill (TTK), fewer or more champions, random cards or decks or item shops or levelups. With distance—and a false confidence that comes from forgetting the details—the choice seemed to be 1) make a niche, casual game embracing the random cards on the MMO Arena combat style, or 2) make a mainstream, competitive game with a fast TTK and less impactful cards. It took a long period of experimentation to settle on the second option, and then another long period of experimentation to get our levels up to speed.

This was the topic of my GDC talk at the Level Design Workshop (slides here, video isn’t public yet). The short version is that we spent 2016 redesigning maps for faster competitive design, believing that we could serve a wider range of player motivations at the same time. This left many non-competitive player motivations forgotten, and I feel we’ve only come back to serve our wider audience in the last few months.

In the summer of 2016, I was promoted to a mid-level role and Hayley Williams joined the team as an associate level designer. As we finished the redesign for the maps, we also worked on early versions of what became “Stone Keep”, which we released in January of 2017. Around that time, we also started a public test queue of greybox maps to help us vet the quality of new designs before entering full art production. The team kept updating the test queue and adding new maps until the fall. By July of 2017, with the three of us designing maps for the test queue, we understood the formula for solid competitive designs. Unfortunately, if you care about competitive play, the formula is strict. That’s why all of the Siege maps from “Stone Keep” onward are variations of a c-clamp shape.


Sandbridge (image from my GDC talk)

This limitation was frustrating. I built “Sandbridge” and “Sewer” for the test queue as alternatives to the c-clamp formula. They were fun gimmick maps for the test queue, but they would have made terrible competitive maps. A good rule of thumb: if you want players to like your map, don’t name it “Sewer”.


Sewer (image from my GDC talk)

2016 had been about solving the problem of level design for Paladins, and the first half of 2017 was about refining that solution. This was a slower, easier task, so I sought new challenges by moving to Smite Adventures.

After that, things sped up and blurred together. I worked on Smite Adventures for a few months, then I worked on the battle royale prototypes that led to Realm Royale, and then I came back to Paladins. I moved my desk 5 times in 2017.

In these last few months on Paladins, I have tried to improve some processes so the team is set up for success. There are some great things in the works, and I’m looking forward to experiencing them as a player.

My Time at Hi-Rez (approximated from memory)

  • Winter 2015: More Siege?
    • At launch of closed beta, we had two maps: “Temple Ruins” and “Enchanted Forest”. These were designed by several level designers who left the project before I joined (I believe it was Katelyn Pitstick and Kevin Powell) and by Jordan Smith.
    • In this phase, we explored new Siege layouts and we released “Glacier Keep”, designed by Jordan Smith.
  • Winter – Spring 2016: We add payload
    • I built “Outpost” the first payload map, a remake of “Ice Floe” from Global Agenda with a few minor gameplay adjustments.
    • Other maps of this period were “Serpent Temple”—later renamed “Hidden Temple”—and “Frostbite Caverns”, both payload maps designed by Jordan Smith.
  • Spring 2016: Survival!
    • “Tropical Arena” – I built it as a skirmish arena for 2v2 and 3v3s, but plans change and we released it for the 5v5 survival game mode.
    • In this period I also designed the layout that became “Snowfall Junction” a year later.
  • Late summer 2016: The massive 3-Lane Siege maps turn into 1-Lane Siege maps!
    • “Frog Isle” – a new siege map drawing inspiration from the canyon objective of “Temple Ruins”.
    • “Serpent Beach” – a siege map modifying the sunken city objective from “Temple Ruins” with a new payload route.
    • “Jaguar Falls” – a siege map modifying the ruins objective from “Temple Ruins” with a new payload route.
    • “Timber Mill” – a siege map remixing the second half of the payload push on “Outpost”.
    • “Gauntlet” – a siege map remixing the first half of “Outpost”, later removed from siege and turned into the tutorial.
    • “Fish Market” – a siege map remixing two objectives from “Enchanted Forest”
    • Other maps of this period were “Waterfall”, “Frozen Guard”, and “Ice Mines”, which Scott Zier started as modifications of “Glacier Keep” and which Jordan Smith finished for release. Zier worked on the project for a few weeks to guide the design process.
    • We removed “Waterfall” in the next patch along with “Gauntlet”.
    • In this period, we also removed Survival and then later on removed Payload, but I forget when exactly.
  • Winter – spring 2017
    • “Stone Keep” – the first new siege map in the one-lane format
    • “Snowfall Junction” – the first  survival map built with survival rules in mind! But then we disabled Survival (again?) and released the Onslaught mode.
    • “Primal Court” – a layout revision for “Tropical Arena” as an Onslaught map.
    • My memory is really fuzzy on when exactly Survival went away and came back and then was replaced with Onslaught.
    • We also started the Test Queue for releasing work in progress greybox maps and getting feedback. I released 7 of these maps in the first half of 2017:
      • “Undercity” – a map designed to gauge the response to high-complexity maps.
      • “Grotto” – became “Splitstone Quarry”.
      • “Frog Isle Redo”
      • “Forward” – the only payload map we released in the test queue.
      • “Moss Garden” – a high-complexity map inspired by a David Bowie song.
      • “Sandbridge” – a map designed for flying flanks and long sniper sightlines.
      • “Sewer” – a map designed for healers and tanks with no room for flanks.
  • Spring – summer 2017: focus on Siege and competitive play
    • “Splitstone Quarry”, a siege map attempting to be slightly more complex than “Jaguar Falls” and “Stone Keep” to serve our competitive players.
    • Another map in this period was “Brightmarsh”, designed by Jordan Smith. He also designed “Ascension Peak” in this period, which released the following winter.
  • Summer – fall 2017: Smite Adventures
    • “Corrupted Arena” – a remix of the Arena map to have pits and meteor strikes. The design started before I joined the team, and I helped guide it to completion.
    • “Shadows over Hercopolis” – a 3 player cooperative dungeon in the style of an MMO raid with an ice region, lava region, and an underworld. Travis Brown led the design with Dishant Samtani and Matt Barcas working on the design of the encounters, bots, and boss behavior. I prototyped the encounters, implemented the designs into the level layout, and coordinated with environment art.
    • During this period on Paladins, Hayley and Jordan worked on maps for the Onslaught and Team Deathmatch game modes. Hayley designed “Magistrate’s Archive”. Jordan designed “Foreman’s Rise” and “Trade District”. “Ascension Peak” art also started production. I forget if “Snowfall Junction” and “Primal Court” were still around at this time, or if they came back as Onslaught map after having been disabled.
  • Fall 2017 – Spring 2018: The royales
    • In this period I worked on the version of Paladins Battlegrounds that we showed at HRX. I led the map design for this initial version, but got help from the rest of the Paladins design and environment team as we wrapped up.
    • After HRX, I did the groundwork for version 2 of the Paladins Battlegrounds map, which we released in March 2018 for a few days before shutting it down and taking it back to internal iteration. During the new phase of iteration that led to Realm Royale, I returned to Paladins.
  • Spring 2018: Back to Paladins
    • Aesthetic and gameplay touchups on “Frozen Guard”, “Ice Mines”, “Frog Isle”, and “Timber Mill”.
  • Early summer 2018:
    • “Rise of Furia” – an event map that starts with a platforming climb up a tower and then turns into a Team Deathmatch brawl.
    • ???
    • ???

Public Works
This timeline is a list of my public works, and I mean “public works” as a play on words. First, these are the works that went live to the public, not the many levels and experiments that didn’t make the cut. There is no “Stone Keep” without the dozen versions before it and the lessons we learned from them. Second, “public works” because I like how Paladins is open to the public, like a small town diner. As a level designer, I feel like I’m working at the grill to serve you something, or that I’m a line cook in the kitchen working with a team to make the best meal we can. Because I work in multiplayer, nothing I’ve built will last forever, but I want it to be excellent for as long as it does.

That also means ownership is kind of a weird concept. In the timeline of my work above, I tried to give credit where due. “Serpent Beach” and “Jaguar Falls” are some of the best maps in Paladins, and those were modifications of older work by other designers. Now that I’m off the team, my contributions may also be subject to modification, touchups, and reworks to make the game better. It means after a while I won’t be able to go back to any of “my” works as they were, but it also means they never were “mine”. This is a weird feeling that I am still processing, but there are definitely some maps that I hope the team will get around to reworking (Frog Isle, please)!

Working on a live project for a couple years has meant facing all of the ghosts of what could have been. There is a ghost of Paladins for every card system. There is a ghost that pivoted to consoles earlier, and another that never went to console at all. There are ghosts of art, where we could’ve leaned into the sci-fi inspirations instead of the fantasy. After these years, I can’t play Paladins without feeling haunted by all the forms it could have taken.

The ghosts that haunt me most are the ones where we didn’t chase esports and competitive play. This was at the heart of my GDC talk. I imagine a version of Paladins that could have been the Mario Kart of first person shooters. Maybe if we’d done that, I would be writing a similar post looking back and imagining Paladins as a competitive game. Collecting these ghosts seems to be part of the job.

And while some of these ghosts may have been better games, many more would have failed. There was a moment when hero shooters seemed to be the Next Big Thing, like MOBAs had been a few years earlier, but then a few of those games didn’t catch on and battle royales took off instead. We were incredibly lucky that Paladins found an audience. I want to emphasize, this was luck and not thanks to skillful foresight or expert design or market research or whatever. I am very lucky that I was able to work on Paladins for a couple years, and I am proud of the work I have done to make the game what it is.




Fuzzy Cooperation in PvP Games

Throughout the Practice 2018 design conference there was a question of building games around cooperation and negotiation. Several talks referenced the prisoner’s dilemma and its payoff matrix as a way to describe a range of outcomes for cooperation and competition. Through conversations, this problem solidified: how do we build cooperation into traditionally competitive multiplayer games? A successful solution to this problem requires cooperation and competition to both be viable and fun strategies.  (Idling in a tied match until the server instance shuts down is neither). I also think these strategies should exist inside the game’s systems and mechanics instead of relying on the social dynamics that surround multiplayer games.

Fuzzy Cooperation in Battle Royales
To me these question are a response to the popularity of last-player-standing battle royale modes and the mainstream industry’s shift toward multiplayer. For the codified battle royale format, there is no cooperation in solo play. Even in squad variants, cooperation is limited to a tribal Us vs Them. These games lack mechanics to build and maintain social contracts, and there are few interactions that can benefit multiple teams. There is nothing to negotiate. At best, two teams may independently decide to keep their distance instead of fighting, or to pick on another team first.

For Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, intentional team killing in squads and teaming up in solo play are against the rules of conduct and can be punished by a ban. There are some good reasons for this. If players were allowed to team up in solo mode, they would gain unfair advantage, which would undermine competitive play and hurt the game as an esport. In Fortnite’s code of conduct, players are told to “Play fairly and within the rules of the game”, and Epic has penalized players who team up in solo mode.


Screencap of PUBG’s Rules of Conduct

This is a significant divergence from the original inspirations for battle royale game modes. DayZ, a mod for Arma II, put its players and zombie AIs together in a huge map. Around its initial release, players were unfamiliar with the mechanics and were afraid of the zombies. As a result, those new players would signal willingness to cooperate so they could better survive. Over time, players learned the rules of the world and players formed groups. These gangs became bigger threats than the predictable zombies, which turned the game into a cruelly tribal PvP experience where kidnapping and enslavement became norms. DayZ succeeded as a multiplayer story generator, and it demonstrates both the positive and dangerously negative outcomes of fuzzy cooperation.


Another inspiration these game modes claim is the film Battle Royale about a class of students in Japan who are forced to fight to the death on an island with no escape. Unfortunately, the game modes only draw inspiration from the setting and its rules, not the social dynamics that emerge in the story. Only a few students in Battle Royale are eager to kill their classmates, and most of the students reject the rules and try to cooperate and escape. On top of being an exciting action film, Battle Royale is about generational conflict in Japan, where youth are expected to enter a competitive, zero-sum business world. The Hunger Games series falls into a similar category for a Western audience. In both of these works, the only ethical moves are to break the rules, and that gets messy when trying to survive against competitors who are acting within the immoral rules.

When I worked on a battle royale for a few months, I wanted the mode to return to its source material. In the early iterations, I had a few lofty goals (which we didn’t get to explore):

1) undermine competitive play in favor of generating unique stories. Surprise and uncertainty are the best tools for generating stories in multiplayer, and they comes at the cost of fair competition. This also means keeping the game accessible for new players by limiting the skill ceiling and going wide with systems instead of deep.

2) create ways for players to break the rules of the battle royale. My hope was to include some improbable system for a cooperative victory. (My example for this idea was to randomly spawn a “One Ring” that players could destroy in “Mount Doom” on the far side of the map.) This goal of breakable rules also means encouraging dynamic teams where cooperation and betrayal are both valid play.

3) keep death meaningful. A dead player shouldn’t back out to the menu and launch a new match as though they were respawning in an arena FPS. They should feel investment in the story of their teammates and the world. Even a defeat should feel like a complete story.

I think one key to hitting these goals is to add improbable systems for players to revive their fallen allies. One version of this system would be a “graveyard” that teams must reach and fight over to revive their friend. A more forgiving version would be like Left 4 Dead’s closets or Spelunky’s co-op coffins, where each new level section offers a chance to “rescue” a dead teammate, at some risk. Spelunky’s co-op mode also keeps dead players involved by letting them fly around as ghosts and nudge objects in the environment. The importance of these mechanics is to keep dead players invested in the game and to affect the team’s story instead of encouraging them to quit to the menu.

All of these ideas have problems to solve in the specifics of their implementation. My larger hypothesis—that cooperative story generation should take priority to fair competition—may also be false (which is to say, it may serve too small of an audience to be viable as an online game). That said, as designers who have codified the battle royale mode, I feel we have failed our source material by prohibiting cooperation and embracing a zero-sum design.

Fuzzy Cooperation Inside the Mechanics
My examples of cooperation in existing battle royales rely on external social mechanics and rules of conduct rather than mechanics built into the game. For a version of this interaction that plays through mechanics, I want to look at the MOBA formula.

For readers who aren’t familiar, the traditional MOBA has two teams of 5 that respawn at bases on opposite sides of a 3-lane map. Each team has towers that protect their lanes from waves of AI that spawn at their opponent’s base. There are also neutral AI in areas between the lanes that players can fight over to gain resources. A player spends their resources to improve their character. Each character is unique and may have different resource needs as the match progresses. Destroying the enemy base wins the match. Beyond this, a lot varies between titles. The complexity of MOBAs makes many strategies viable, and there are ways for teams to adapt and exchange resources to get ahead.


Summoner’s Rift from League of Legends

For a prisoner’s dilemma MOBA modification, we could start with the same foundation. We would keep the two teams of 5 with their own bases that can be destroyed. We would also keep the idea of players gaining resources to improve their characters. However, instead of team AI spawning in waves to attack the opposing team, the AI would be an antagonistic third party that would spawn to the side and attack both teams. This AI team would scale in difficulty over time so that the players are pressured to gather resources efficiently. The longer a team survives, the more points they earn, and the final score would go to a leaderboard. If one team decided to steal resource from the other, they may survive longer and thus “win” the match, but they will score lower on the leaderboard than teams who cooperated. The variety of resource needs for each team should also be asymmetrical so that “trade” or “resource gathering permission” emerge in gameplay.

If players violate the peace by stealing from the other team or attacking, there need to be non-verbal tools for negotiation. A robust emote system to signal intent may suffice, but a global chat system could make cooperation too easy and introduce other problems.

While I believe this is a solution to the design problem, there are other faults. First, in this design, a “win-win” solution is still a “defeat”. Second, the mechanics are now too strict for generating a wider range of stories. As a result of these problems, I expect the game would have trouble retaining a playerbase.

Fuzzy Cooperation, but Cozy?
Another path to explore in the overlap of cooperation and competition is the idea of “cozy” design. In 2017, one Project Horseshoe report explored what it means to make a cozy game, and related research has looked into design patterns for friendship and the spectrum of player trust. To achieve the goals of these models, any competitive mechanic that can violate trust may come at too great a cost. It seems that this means swinging to the opposite side by adding competition into a cooperative game. But I think there is a way to add cozy cooperation as a subversive element within competitive games.

My early intuition here is to add features that function as “community gardens” do in real neighborhoods. Interactions with these “gardens” would persist across many multiplayer interactions and benefit other players. The garden would be a medium for giving gifts to the community, and for player expression.

An easier implementation: add toys to a competitive environment. Add a big trampoline in the middle, add a fishing pond, add a slip’n’slide. Let players opt out of competitive play if they want, and give them the tools to do so.

Other Examples?
I’ve had my head down in traditional multiplayer design, and I know I’m blind to some of the work going on in this space. However, there are a few recent examples that come to mind:

  • Destiny 2 is adding a new game mode called “Gambit” where two teams fight separate waves of enemies and have opportunities to invade the other team. This sounds like a horde mode with a little competitive play added in, but well have to see how it plays out.
  • Fallout 76 is online with a shared, persistent world of a dozen or so players. It is not strictly competitive or cooperative. It is also not clear how the game will police uncooperative behavior, or if it will have the same problems as Ultima Online.
  • One Hour One Life is a shared world multiplayer game by Jason Rohrer where players try to advance technology by working on the civilizations that outlive their characters.


There is potential for us to reach new audiences and tell new stories by moving away from traditional competition. As a multiplayer designer, I want to create better shared experiences (and create fewer experiences that encourage toxicity and hate). I think there is potential to achieve these goals in games designed around fuzzy cooperation and negotiation. There are also many problems to solve, but I hope this post has been a useful step forward.

Thanks for reading!


All sources were retrieved July 4th, 2018