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Developing Game Mode Variations

Reported by CCP Frame | Comments

It’s no easy task to create game mode variations for a first-person shooter like DUST 514, with its broad spectrum of tactics and player configurations. That the battlegrounds had to conform to the well-established EVE Online® universe made it all the more challenging. The existing modes are the result of many complex decisions at CCP, but they would not be what they are without one important element: We listen to feedback from our players.

The current level layouts of the DUST 514 battlegrounds use small sections of vast planetary landscapes. Some players have observed that if they fly a dropship high enough, they can see elements from other levels in the distance. As level designers, that is a key factor in maintaining consistency with the scope of DUST 514 - making a battlefield that takes up multiple sections of a planet instead of only one.

Spawning and Safe Zones

One particular testing process had us create variations of the existing game modes to see how they performed during beta testing. Players would either welcome these variations, and we would incorporate them into the regular rotation, or they would reject the changes and see them removed from the lineup.

Trying out one game mode variation, a version of Ambush Mode where players spawned behind defined battle lines, we tried to give players a “safe zone” to spawn into – a potential alternative to the random spawning Ambush Mode Classic. The community panned this idea almost immediately. For one thing, players disliked having to run so far to get back into the fight.

So what did we do? It’s simple: We immediately removed the map from the lineup. The players had spoken, and we listened.

Ambush and Off-Map Support

Here’s another example:

At one point, we decided to separate two distinct, randomly-alternating categories of Ambush map into two definitive categories: “Traditional” Ambush, in which players slug it out with whatever weapons they have on-hand, and Ambush OMS (Off-Map Support), where turrets and other installations are dropped into the battlefield in intervals.

Both of these types of maps were originally in the Ambush category, but players were frustrated because they couldn’t consistently get into the type of battle they wanted. So we made the decision to split the map types, to give players a choice of Ambush Mode variations, ensuring that players got the gameplay experience they wanted.

Skirmish Symmetry

There have also been major changes to Skirmish Mode. Players who have been with us since closed beta will remember that Skirmish used to involve a team escorting a Mobile Command Center (MCC) across a map while a rival team attempted to stop them, a setup now commonly called “Skirmish 1.0”. Unfortunately, this mode was not as balanced as we would have liked. At the time it was deployed, the fittings and skills players could select, and the randomization of outposts in each battle, led to uneven gameplay between the teams.

Players let us know, so we created a version of Skirmish Mode (commonly called “Skirmish 2.0”) with more symmetry among teams. Anyone who has played DUST 514 should be familiar with this newer setup. There are now two MCCs floating above a battlefield, launching barrages of concentrated firepower at each other. Players rush to capture NULL cannons to damage their enemy’s MCC as quickly as possible while preventing their rivals from doing the same.

This configuration leads to furious battles around the NULL cannon control panels and forces each team to devise strategies to defeat their rivals and overtake the objectives. This more balanced mode better represents the raging ship-to-ship combat of the EVE universe, condensed to the scale of ground warfare in DUST 514.

These are just a few of the examples where the input of players and fans helped define the direction we followed while creating the existing game modes. So thank you very much for playing and expressing your opinions to us! Players and fans are an integral part of CCP’s development process, and we thank you for it.

Looking Under the Hood at the Mechanics of DUST 514 Level Design

Now, given that we have all the inspiration we need to make game modes that the players want, how do we apply them to the worlds we create? What can we level designers do to differentiate one game mode from another?

First and foremost is deciding on the size and shape of the playable area of each battlefield. These are defined by volumes we add to the levels and then shape to create a “void” in the middle of the danger zone. Without those volumes, players would spawn into a world where they would be dead in 20 seconds no matter what they did—which we're guessing wouldn’t be any fun for anyone!

We must consider several factors when determining how large to make a battlefield: How will an area play when 32 battle-ready mercs set foot on it? What will it be like if they bring long-range weaponry (as they often do)? What will it be like if (more like when) tanks and other vehicles enter the battlefield? Is the area large enough to accommodate this?

Having considered these factors, we can take two distinct directions with the size of a battlefield: A) We can make the battlefield large enough to accommodate long-range warfare at the expense of frequent contact with enemies, or B) We can make the map smaller to intensify the combat encounters but lessen the long-range element.

Once we have defined the size of the overall battlefield, we may need to define team-specific boundaries, such as in Skirmish Mode. We divide the created area into three different segments: An attacker zone, a defender zone, and a neutral zone.

Both teams spawn into their respective zones, but they can’t enter their enemy’s zone for more than 20 seconds without risking excessive enemy retaliation. Both teams are free to move about the neutral zone, though, and this is where the majority of the combat will take place.

What about aircraft? Would it be fun to pilot a dropship in a very limited ring like a goldfish in a bowl? We add a larger – often vastly larger -- area to define aircraft boundaries, which is also divided into three separate areas if team boundaries are needed. This only applies to aircraft in flight, though—so if you have to bail out of a doomed dropship outside the normal playable area, you’d better book it back to the normal ground zone before the danger-zone timer (and your current life) expires!

Earlier, I mentioned how Skirmish Mode 2.0 and Ambush OMS Mode were created, and how “Classic” Ambush Mode arose from a need to allow players to slug it out in a team-based deathmatch within a fighting area, the size of which depends on whether we wanted more action or more strategy the playstyle.

But building a vast landscape can be a huge undertaking, so we broke the warzones into individual battlefields. This is why high-flying players can see the familiar structures of one battlefield from another. For now, each landscape is broken into several distinct battlefields, with their own playable area parameters. Some maps are larger, some smaller, and many areas have variable outposts that will change each time a new battle begins.

In every area of DUST 514, the weather, planetary surface, and environmental lighting can change from battle to battle! Players will be exposed to varying conditions with every battle they fight, and a mercenary with his or her wits about them will know how to persevere regardless of conditions.

Given these varying conditions, can we further control gameplay and the flow of battle? Of course!

We can position objectives, turrets, and supply depots across the battlefield. NULL cannons are the objectives in Skirmish Mode, so they are vital to any strategy there, and players will most likely rush to them first. Turrets provide serious firepower at a moment’s notice and free of cost, so if a turret controller sees a decked-out merc throw caution to the wind and run out into the open expecting to survive anything… well, let’s just say we hope Captain Courage kept the receipts for all that sweet gear.

Unless a player packs a nanohive in their loadout (which I strongly advise), supply depots are the only source of precious in-combat reloads. Players will be drawn to them and protect them at all costs—sometimes making the fighting around them more deadly than the fighting around objectives! And unless a player packs a drop uplink (also highly recommended), captured Clone Reanimation Units (CRUs) can help turn the tide of any battle, providing spawn points that allow players to mount attacks quickly on nearby objectives.

When setting up a Skirmish battlefield, all of the turrets can be in position from the start of the battle. Meanwhile, Ambush Mode provides no (or extremely few) installations to work with, but Ambush OMS is different. Installations will drop in waves throughout each battle, and capturing a turret that suddenly appears in an area can ruin any enemy squad’s day if they aren’t careful. Having supplies suddenly drop from above is a huge benefit as well, and, as in Skirmish Mode, fighting around these precious resources will often be fierce—sometimes resulting in the accidental or even intentional destruction of the supply depot itself.

Thus, planning in an Ambush OMS battle is key to survival. Players should always anticipate turrets and supply depots dropping in from orbit. We made sure to keep each wave of drops varied; a mix of railgun turrets, large blaster turrets, missile turrets, and supply depots ensure that each wave will overload the battle with one type of installation. Players must plan accordingly.

Creating map parameters to provide multiple battlefield conditions within a region of varying size is a challenge we have undertaken as level designers. These map parameters have changed during the beta periods based on the feedback we received from our players and fans.

So again, we DUST Devs thank you, players and fans, mercs across the galaxy, for helping us create the battlefields you enjoy.

Now, on with the war for the universe!

DUST 514 Level Design Team
CCP Tigris, CCP Stiffneck and CCP LogicLoop