Forging Ahead: Testing Ground
I was trying not to plan out any map concepts until Reach’s Forge was revealed, but I couldn’t help it, and I blame Halo 3. While I completed five maps using Forge on Sandbox, I had to scuttle a good dozen more due to budget and object limitations, and those abandoned plans festered. Lurked. Grew. Most of them had been set in the sky bubble, where I had hoped to make some epic aerial battle maps. One such map I attempted multiple times featured two large castle-type structures a long distance apart, and a multi-level bridge – think Assault on the Control Room meets Narrows – between them. But the budget limitations turned the castles into barren platforms, and the bridge into a ramshackle string of unsheltered paths.
An idea for a map I eventually finished was called Sandstorm, built around the idea of a multilevel space for vehicles. I was interested in what would be a straight forward Slayer-style map, but writ large and meant for Warthogs, Ghosts and Choppers to move about the levels with the ease of infantry. Eventually that map was scaled down and set in the sand basin, but it still used nearly every dollar of the Forge budget. But the original idea was much larger, and part of me wanted to revisit the concept of a multilevel vehicle map.
During the six months or between so when I stopped Forging due to burnout and Forge World’s reveal at Comic-Con, those were among the core ideas that kept simmering. By the time Shishka flew outside the canyon at the Comic-Con panel, I had a number of spaces already planned out that were unlikely to fit into the prefab terrain which Bungie had crafted on Forge World. So it wasn’t the level itself I was interested in, it was the Forge palette, the array of objects from which custom maps would be assembled. The scale of Forge World was incredible, but I wanted to know how big I could build.
Several questions lingered: with Forge designed with custom maps in mind and the added prowess of Reach’s graphics engine and its impostor system, how generous would the budget be? Would pieces larger than the cargo bricks of Halo 3 be available? Just how much terrain could I generate, and at what cost? I didn’t really get a good sense of that from either the Comic-Con panel or Forge World vidoc.
The first real clue emerged with an image Bungie released alongside the vidoc, showing the set of every Forge World object in the palette. Among the objects was a pair of enormous wall-type pieces; the scale of them wasn’t apparent until I spotted the Spartan, a tiny spec perched on a block, hidden like a futuristic Where’s Waldo? game. At which point I let my simmering imagination boil over.
After romping through Campaign, my first stop was Forge World to do some stress testing of the object and budget limits. In order for the map to function as a good BTB map, I needed to be able to generate a lot of surface area cheaply; if I was spending half the budget building the foundation of the map it would be too barren to function properly. I didn’t want to go down the path of planning out a map in detail only to scale back or scuttle it this time around. While the new Forge tools meant assembling a map was dramatically more efficient than in Halo 3, I still wanted to plan properly.
Bungie made an important shift in how the per-object limit was handled in Forge. In Halo 3 each object had a cap on the number of them that could be placed, and the result was a lot of maps used blocks of various sizes and thicknesses toward the same goal (usually, flooring). The objects in Reach’s palette are organized into categories, and each category has a global cap on the pieces within it. This more flexible system means players can pick and choose how many of each part within the category they want to use. The upshot was I could place up to 50 Coliseum pieces (the global cap on the Doors, Windows and Walls bucket), if I was willing to forgo the use of everything else in the category. And because my map was going to be a wide-open, I had little need for lots of other doors and windows. So I began slapping down the Coliseum wall pieces to find out what it could do. I was pleasantly surprised.
The picture above is 25 of the 50 possible Coliseum pieces, at a lowly cost of $10 each. Which mean that space – which I’m guessing was around one third to one half the area of Standoff – cost 2.5% of the budget. The leap from Halo 3’s ability to create playable surfaces to Reach’s was orders of magnitude, and I was in business.
Confident in the engine’s ability to create a large enough space, I built out a rough rough playground to test vehicle physics. My first order of business was to make sure that whatever map I constructed was fun for vehicles to drive on, and that meant seeing what kind of space was needed for them to have enough room to roam. Here the objects themselves presented a challenge: Warthogs don’t corner at 90 degree angles, but that was the shape of all the foundation objects. This meant they would have to take the corners wide, which in turn meant the roadways would have to be large.
I began testing other objects mixed in with the Coliseum wall pieces to see how small was too small. Because I wanted a vehicles and infantry to mingle, the routes needed to be large enough that vehicles could both avoid infantry if they chose and take the corners without having to slow down too much. If drivers had to hit the brakes at every turn, the map wouldn’t have good flow.
The grid system Bungie used to build the objects was helpful in defining the right sizes for vehicle play spaces. In knowing how many world units wide the pieces were, I could establish rules of thumb to follow throughout the rest of the design process. After doing a series of tests I concluded the 5×5 flat blocks and Coliseum windows – the next largest flat pieces – were too narrow, and posted a high risk to drivers using them as road ways. In the end, the Coliseum wall objects were about the idea width, with a surface area of 10×12 world units. I concluded anything less than 10 world units wide didn’t provide enough space for a Warthog to blaze around the corner at near top speed. Encouragingly, it was already really fun to zip around the space, even as flat, sparse and crude as this testing bed was.
Next up to test: man cannons. The man cannons on Avalanche were both useful and added a level of epic whimsy to the map that fits in nicely with a vehicle-heavy BTP style of play. I intended to incorporate a few of them to aid infantry movement – given the size of the map that would be necessary – but there was a tantalizingly named “Cannon, Vehicle” on the object list that was practically begging to be used. Placing it, I was surprised it had more in common with the infantry grav lift than a man cannon: the flat, circular base and vertical thrust pushed vehicles straight up, with whatever momentum the vehicle had defining the trajectory. (Interestingly, the vehicle man cannon is much more effective on vehicles than on infantry.) Man cannons were more directed, both in how the base funneled players into the stream and how the current was directed forward. Which was fine, I could force the direction using other geometry. The problems came when I landed.
I was never able to land a vehicle gracefully after launching it over a man cannon, of any variety. They tumbled, belly flopped, crashed onto their nose (or backside), but never kept their forward momentum while remaining on four wheels. The Ghost and Revenant didn’t have the same issues, but I wanted the cannons to be viable for Mongoose and Warthogs as well. But no amount of angling or tweaking made them play nice with vehicles in the tests, so I ruled out using them in that capacity.
By now I was ready to stop playing and start building. I was confident that Forge could generate enough space to create a viable BTB map using objects alone, without chewing up the budget, and had an idea of the size of the spaces that needed to be in place to make it work.
The Coliseum pieces hung in space over Forge World like a giant deck of cards, scattered and crumpled. It was time to gather them up, shuffle and deal them out properly.