Forging Ahead: Used Canvas

Just before Reach was released, I wrote a piece looking back on the experience of using Forge in Halo 3 to create custom maps, and what my hopes were for Reach’s implementation. Now that I’ve spent a few months building a map (or two) with it, I thought it made sense to follow up on those thoughts.

I think of Forge as consisting of three distinct, interrelated pieces. There’s the interface with which objects are selected, manipulated and placed, a palette of objects to place using that interface, and a map to put the objects in. Forge World (and its predecessors, Foundry and Sandbox) are generally referred to as canvas maps, because they are largely blank slates meant to be filled in by the user. To extend that metaphor a bit, if the map is the canvas, then the UI is the set of brushes, and the objects are the paints we put down on the canvas. And so I’ll look at each of those three areas individually.

(Forge, of course, is available on every multiplayer map, but for the purposes of constructing new, original designs, we’re limited mostly to Forge World. So I’ll likewise limit the scope of this piece to Forge World.)

A Fine Set of Brushes: The Forge UI

In a way, it’s sort of comic to think back on the experience of Forging a map in Halo 3 now that Reach is out. Tasks that take moments in Reach could take literally hours to accomplish in that game. Making a well crafted map was insanely time consuming, and iteration took hours to rebuild even small areas of a map.

The old Forge had three big problems with object placement. First, it was difficult to judge alignment and position when placing objects. Second, making small adjustments to placed objects was difficult and often required starting over. Lastly, it was cumbersome to build elevated or (especially) merged structures, neither of which was built into the core functionality of Forge in Halo 3.

The new Forge addresses those issues directly. Judging object alignment and position is easy now that the Monitor can rotate around an object while holding it, and place it while looking on from any angle. The coordinate editor allows for objects to be lined up perfectly without having to rely on eyeballing alignment or using objects as a straight edge. Once an object is placed, three features combine to make small adjustments easier. First, objects can be selected without jerking them out of place, which was the primary culprit in Halo 3. After selecting them, small movements can be made using the fine editing mode (clicking the sticks) or using the coordinate editor. Finally, the Phased physics model (correctly set as the default for all geometry) means users don’t have to worry about other objects or the environment getting in the way. The great success of the new Forge UI is that it’s very easy to put stuff where you want it, knowing it will (usually) stay there.

Rearranging large sections of a map is not a time consuming exercise, and the coordinate system means it can be done with precision. The goal of the interface is to make object placement work in the context of a gameplay mode, and it does that well. It is is a vast improvement over Halo 3.

Which is not to say the Forge interface in Reach doesn’t have its quirks. While there are multiple tools for moving objects horizontally, options for vertical movement are more limited. When holding an object, the Monitor can only move on a horizontal plane. So the fine placement tools (clicking the sticks) are only applicable along the X and Z axis. The only ways to move an object on the Y axis are using the imprecise digital shoulder bumpers, or the coordinate system.

There also seem to be a fair number of bugs in the system. Often I would need to nudge a set of objects over a degree or two. This was easy to do, by selecting one object, nudging it, then backing out of the menu and repeating. While the menus usually remember the last option that was selected, defaulting to the last use when the menu is pulled up again, sometimes it would change. Often I would hit a couple of buttons to open and then choose the nudge option, knowing I had just backed out of the coordinate editing menu, only to find it had shifted to Reset Orientation. Or better, Delete All, giving me a heart-stopping warning that I was about to nuke all my floor pieces. Meanwhile, rotating objects using the 90 degree increments often proved awkward: objects frequently decided to only flip in 180 degree increments. And selecting an object that had been previously placed using the 90 degree option would freak out when picked back up using the same setting. I learned to stick to 45 degree increments for most of my Forging and avoided that one.

And most frustratingly, sometimes objects don’t quite stay put where they were placed. Often, the Coliseum blocks would tilt by one degree, on two axis. I could place the piece, set it precisely at 90 degrees, and then re-select it to find it was now set to 89. That one degree tilt would then be reflected in the piece’s orientation the next time I loaded up the map. Other minor issues like the UI mis-reporting coordinates – I’ve selected, released, and re-selected an object without moving it many times in sequence and gotten different rotation coordinates back each time – were minor nuisances. Object shifting was a big problem in Halo 3, and Reach’s are not nearly as egregious. But it’s disappointing to see them return in any capacity.

But all in all, the tool set does its job very well. I could never, ever have done the kind of iteration on Crossroads in Halo 3 that I did in Reach. Each rebuild would have been a multi-day affair, and I would have either given up or accepted a sub-optimal layout rather than go through it. The new UI means it’s easy to make better maps.

To illustrate, I built several symmetrical BTB Halo 3 maps in the sand basin portion of Sandbox. And one of those symmetrical maps actually isn’t symmetrical: I realized after it was done that I had build the entire middle of the map (everything but the bases) one grid square off center: the red base was a full click closer to the center of the map than the blue base was. But in order to fix it, I’d have to move the entire middle of the map. And that would take me about a week of non-stop reconstruction. Making that tweak or rebuilding the entire map, it was all the same. When building Crossroads in Reach, I ran into the same kind of issue several times, where one side of the map was not as high as the other, or not aligned the same way. And I’d find these kinks well after I’d built out the major structures. But fixing each was a 10-minute affair, using the coordinate editing system and phased physics.

A Colorful Palette

Placing objects easily is a good thing, but it takes a good set of objects in order to build good maps with. And here I think the jump from Halo 3 to Reach is just as large as it was with the UI.

There were many problems with Halo 3’s Forge palette; for comparison purposes I’ll focus on the Sandbox iteration. First up is a lack of variety: the objects ranged from blocks to wedges to ramps to, well, an obelisk. The number of objects was fairly limited, which meant each one had to serve a specific function. As a result there was very little emphasis on decor and a lot more focus on function. So blocks, wedges, windows and doors was pretty much the extent of it. And worse, the largest of those objects wasn’t very large. That meant constructing floor space required a very large number of objects and budget, which put a throttle on map size.

Perhaps the biggest problem in Halo 3’s Forge was the per-object limitations. Each object had its own cap on how many could be placed, and it was possible to run out of the objects I wanted to use well before the overall object budget was used up. Worse, it was possible to hit the (Invisible) global object limit before the overall budget was spent. Taken together, the small object sizes and per-object limitations meant making a truly large or complex map just wasn’t feasible in Halo 3. (I tried – and failed – many times.)

The most significant change in Reach made in this area was the grouping of objects into categories, with an object limit applied to each category. What this did was free up the map creator to pick the objects they needed for their map, rather than figure out how to make due with 20 of one type of block and 15 of another. That’s resulted in both more variety and more creativity in the maps that have hit the community.

And within the mix of objects, there are some truly massive pieces. The average basic building block in Reach is probably bigger than the largest block in Halo 3; there’s the mix of buildings and platforms that comfortably dwarf Halo 3’s offerings several times over. That means maps can be built an order of magnitude larger than before. My largest Halo 3 map, called Sandstorm, had a secondary playing level about the size of five Coliseum Wall pieces. And that map used up the entirety of the budget. Crossroads used 48 of them, plus some additional objects to expand it, and was far more detailed in the geometry placed atop.

The Forge budget is still present, but it’s been lifted much higher than before. I maxed out several of the object categories, used a large handful of vehicles, dozens of placed weapons and more before I hit the budget cap. It’s a limitation, to be sure, but it’s one that’s generous.

But as with the UI, there are some oddities afoot, especially in the categorization of some objects, and in a handful of objects themselves. The strangest thing in the Forge object palette is the Decoration category, which has a cost of $50 per object. Many of the objects in the category are smaller and simpler than the $10 objects in other categories, such as Bridges and Platforms. The most mind-boggling disparity is the gap between the Column – a small, flat, six-sided block – which costs $50, and the Elevated Walkway, a massive, complex piece of geometry with a cost of $10. Or the $50 railings, which are nearly identical to the railings that come attached to $10 pieces such as ramps and bridges. That makes blocking the edges of flat surfaces a costly endeavor.

There are $50 glass windows, while the epic Coliseum Window costs $10. And so on. There seems to be little rhyme or reason for the category to be $50, or what went into it. And likewise with the Building category – many of the $10 platforms are larger and more complex than the $150 Bunkers. The fifteen platforms below have the same cost as the bunker next to it.

And then there’s the Natural category. I need to practice some restraint here. The category would be more aptly named, “Rocks”, since that’s all it contains. There are essentially three types of rocks: spires, an arch, and several types of boulder. What’s odd is that none of them were designed to be suitable as bridges or roads: none of them have flat surfaces. They’re all lumpy, chunky, rounded and designed so that they are simply hostile to players and vehicles. And that means they’re primarily good for cover elements or for blocking off edges. No stone bridges or roads here. And this on a map that is festooned with rocks all over the place to begin with.

I’m glad this was rectified in the Forge palette on Tempest from the Noble Map pack – a lovely large, flat rectangular rock was included – but it would have been nice to have on a map designed to accommodate it.

But those nit picks – and in the grand scheme of things, that’s what they are – aside, the Forge palette on Forge World is very good. The Forerunner visual motif is a thematically interesting one, and the objects are nicely detailed. Most were designed along a grid system, so they fit together cleanly, and have helpful markings in their center for easy alignment. Sure, there’s some additional objects I’d have liked to see. And any singular visual them can get old fast. But the advent of the phased physics means the existing set can be combined into a ridiculous number of iterations. Being able to toggle color highlights on most is the icing on the cake. On the whole, the object range, size and quantity have exceeded what I expected to find in Reach.

But there’s one type of object I was hoping to see that is missing entirely. While the large pieces allow for the creation of a great deal of terrain, it is all flat terrain. One of the more creative things I saw in Halo 3’s community Forged maps was the use of the golf cup, flipped upside down, to create curved green terrain. It was small, but would be used to break up the flat sandstone in moderate sized areas.

The nature of Halo’s engine largely precludes a robust terrain editor for the end user, but I think the “golf cup” approach might have worked well. Specifically, I was hoping to see a set of grassy hills, of various inclines and shapes, that could be used to resurface large areas of the Forge World terrain, much as we can do with rocks or other objects. Or, to create a new foundation in the air. That way Forge could have evolved into a faux terrain editor. As is, the community has two choices: accept the terrain on Forge world, or use flat objects to make flat terrain of their own. And given how inflexible Forge World is for creating custom maps on the ground, that’s a frustrating choice.

Wanted: Blank Canvas

Halo 3’s Sandbox was the template from which I was hoping Forge World would be built: a set of spaces of various shapes and sizes that could house a multitude of different types of custom maps.

I built my first map, Crossroads, in the open air mostly because it was a vision I had conceived of before Forge or Forge World was announced. But when I set about finding a location for my second map, I realized something. The reality of Forge World is that, for the most part, it’s not a canvas. It’s a series of interconnected, fully detailed maps. And that makes it oddly inhospitable to Forging.

The Coliseum is comparable to the Crypt from Sandbox, a self contained space suitable for arena-style maps. The Nook serves a similar purpose, but with a different visual theme and cut to the dimensions of Halo 2’s Sanctuary, so as to house its remake.

With the Phased and Fixed physics models in Reach, there’s no need for something like the Sky Bubble in Sandbox – the entire map is the Sky Bubble. And with the Coliseum filling in for the Crypt, that left the large, BTB-style space on the ground to go. But when I set about trying to find a location for my second map, I was surprised to find there wasn’t one.

The largest contiguous space on Forge World is the Gulch, a replica of Blood Gulch from Halo 1 (with geometry taken from Halo 2’s Coagulation). Aside from the bases and a few of the rocks, it’s a fully fleshed out, undulating map.

Aside from the Gulch, the largest solid land mass on Forge World is the Island. But it, as with the Gulch, is very much a finished map, missing only the bases.

It’s not a canvas in any way. If the island were intended as a canvas map, it would have been flatter and not detailed with rocks, nooks, tunnels, trees and undulating terrain. As is, it’s a good map design. But the only way to modify it is to festoon it with Forge World pieces – think Paradiso – or to use the giant walls to slice off sections.

I often think about the development history of Forge World. We know from the Forge World Vidoc that it started out as five separate maps, and the environmental artist Steve Cotton conceived the notion of stitching them together into one massive space.

From pre-launch interviews, some additional other details about how Forge World came to be trickled out. The Reach project did not have resources to created distinct skyboxes for each of the planned Forge spaces, and so the plan was to use one – the one used in Forge World – for all of them. The visual theme would unify them under a hub of worlds to Forge using the expanded object palette we use now. Eventually, Cotton combined them. That helps explain the somewhat truncated number of original multiplayer maps that shipped with Reach, and how Bungie planned to make up for it with Forgeable spaces. And it fits with the unearthed listing of maps from the Reach Beta code, which had, among maps such as Spire, the following:

• forge_arena

• forge_ascension

• forge_badlands

• forge_gulch

• forge_sanctuary

• forge_island

These are the maps which were combined into Forge World, comprising the Coliseum, the Rock (for the Ascention remake), the Gulch, The Nook (home to Asylum), and the Island. I’m guessing that forge_badlands is the geometry that became Alaska and Montana.

I don’t know whether the plan was to have the Ascension and Sanctuary remakes be constructed out of Forge parts all along. But the _ascension, _badlands, _gulch and _island were and their final areas in Forge World are not canvas spaces. They are fully detailed maps, housed in a single, large location.

And since an artist put them together, it makes sense that there are artistic touches everywhere. Rock slides on the beach, rock piles on Alaska/Montana, undulating terrain, crevices and more are all lovingly modeled. But with each addition, the spaces become less and less flexible.

I keep asking myself, why are those piles of rocks there? We have a bunch of rocks in the object list to pick from if we wanted tp put down piles of rocks. But these can’t be removed, and that limits the flexibility as a play space. It’s also no where near symmetric, with its teardrop shape and uneven hills. Likewise, the beach area is littered with unevenly placed rocks and drift wood. Each area is filled with details that need to be worked around.

The end result is less a blank canvas and more a used one. A massive, multi-part multiplayer map, with two small flat areas for custom maps to be built on. Everything else needs to be a variation of what the artists at Bungie constructed, variations on detailed, uneven map designs.

There’s nowhere to build a symmetric BTB map, which is what I like to build. The Gulch just doesn’t work – I know, I tried like crazy (more on that in the next entry). There is no equivalent of the Sand Basin on Sandbox for large-scale map construction. And it’s a glaring omission, one likely born of the process of stitching together five maps rather than conceiving of Forge World as a truly blank canvas.

All of which means, Forge World is not a place where I can let my imagination run free, as I had thought it would be. I have (literal and figurative) piles of map designs, none of which can be created in Forge World. And all of them could be, if there was just a large, open space for me to build on. Rather than conceive of a map to build, I need to find somewhere on Forge World to work, and then come up with a map idea that fits that space.

Forge has a powerful user interface and a vast array of objects to assemble, but the canvas we’re provided with has already been painted on. All I can do is dabble around the edges, or come up with ways to tweak the picture that’s already on it. Whereas the primary limitation in Halo 3 was the tool and object set, in Reach, it’s the lack of clean, open space to build on. This realization has been the main reason this series has taken such a long pause: I’ve had to scrap my intended map designs and accept the fact that I won’t be able to build from my imagination. I’ve only just recently settled on some concepts utilizing Forge World’s geometry in a way that fits into a design I like.

This, more than anything else in all of Halo: Reach, is my largest disappointment. It is my hope that in the next – should there be a next – DLC pack for Reach, a truly blank canvas space to Forge on is included.


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