[Article] Stairs and your map.

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grazr

Old Man Mutant Ninja Turtle
aa
Mar 4, 2008
5,442
Introduction.

Stairs are often an overlooked detail within a custom map, often abused for more obvious detail subjects. For starters it's always good to have consistency within your map. A lack of it can make your map confusing to play through, messy, and amateurish in appearence. Sometimes, however, it can be unavoidable due to available space or lack of themed materials for use; making stairs potentially conflict with your environments theme; a common design issue in custom maps.

Basics.

I am going to summarise 'stairway' construction into 3 basic techniques. Models, Ramps and Stairs.

1. If you are lucky enough to have the correct heights and space available, you may simply use a stair case model, such as: props_forest\wood_stairs*, models/props_farm/stairs_wood* or prop_trainyard\stairs*.

An easy but purely circumstantial resolution. The con from using prefabricated models from other maps, is that players noticing them may be jolted from their immersion as they recognise the model; thinking "hey, this is the stair case from such and such map". So discretion is advised when utilising prefabricated stair models. It is often convinient to have certain stairs of your own converted from brush work to a model, if you have the social connections or ability to do this yourself, it can be a healthy pay off. As a models equivilant cost to memory is significantly lower than that of brush work (another topic altogether, however).

2. Ramps, the easiest and simplest approach to allowing players to climb to higher ground. Ramps have the benefit of allowing any (climbable) angle possible with little worry to grid allignment, atleast beyond texture alligning. So ramps may be employed as a design choice due to awkward space availablility, or just an area design theme that would call for a ramp over steps. They also provide a much cleaner combat surface for splash damage weapons.

ramp2-jpg.130921


'Ramps' may come in 3 different forms:

Your basic brush based ramp.
ramp3-jpg.130920


Displacement.
disp-hill2-jpg.130919


Or model based.
rampprop2-jpg.130918

prop_1-jpg.130917


3. Your most common and durable stair case construction method will be your brush based stair case. Which will come in (commonly) 1:1, 1:2 or 2:3 x/y ratio's. Valve mostly utilise 2:3, although 1:2 tends to be a custom mappers preference (probably due to the stricter grid allignment).

Stairs may also come in more custom styles/appearences, but as long as the tallest step remains 16 units high or less, it will not cause players grief to traverse (which is good).

custom1-jpg.130916


Construction techniques.

The beginner mapper may be slightly at odds with how to start constructing his stairs. Which is often why you will find a lack of continuity to stairs within beginner made maps. Each stair case ends up unique as he/she explores the possibilites and often forgets or fears to revise older stair structures within the same map. Here are some guidelines to producing more consistant and professional looking stairs within your maps. Summarised again into 3 common construction styles:

'Solid' stairs.

solid-stair3-jpg.130915

solid-stair6-jpg.130914

solid-stair2-jpg.130913


A lot of stairs will run over solid geometry, basically consisting of steps sitting ontop of what would otherwise be a ramp. If the stairs are flanked either side by walls there will be no obligation to trim your steps. But it is always nice to trim your steps anyway. Valve commonly rim their wooden steps, utilising a 2 unit wide trim boardering the wall (think-skirting board), usually using wood/wood_beam* or wood/grain_elevator_facade* textures, and occasionally skip trimming their metal or concrete steps given the circumstance. If they have however, the trim will likely be 4, 8 or 16 units wide.

'Hanging' stairs.

solid-stair5-jpg.130912

step-stair3-jpg.130911

step-stair4-jpg.130910


Stairs with an open space underneath. Allowing for player usable space, or space for other map details. Irrespective of the climb ratio, these stairs will usually end up providing some sort of strong cover, which in turn provides a more dynamic experience for players. Combining stair mechanics with obstacle/cover mechanics.

stair1-jpg.130909


It is sensible to provide a solid back to 'hanging' steps. It works out this way in general when using the optimum step sizes and allows you to have appropriately sized stair frames. this gives the impression of strength to hold the player, but also prevents possible pixel sized visual leaks if you apply a gray texture underneath, where the area behind might show through (which occasionally happens for people who don't run anti-aliasing). Trims for 'step' stair cases tend to be wider, allowing players to more easily believe the structure they are being supported on is strong enough to actually support them. 4, 8 and 16 units wide are safe unit sizes for your trims regarding a 'hanging' stair case. When utilising metal textures, Valve have used 2 or 4 units wide trims at times (lumberyard). Steps will also conform to 8, 12 or 16 units in height.

'Hanging step' stairs.

step-stair1-jpg.130908

step-stair2-jpg.130907


A similar principle to the previous, but with gaps between each step that allow the player to see through to behind the stairs. These provide less cover for players, limiting their dynamic effect on gameplay, as they prevent ambushes due to increased visibility through them, and are (with great difficulty mind) able to be shot through. They do provide limited cover, blocking most bullets/projectiles, and are a favourite hiding spot for cloak and dagger spies; due to the visibility factor. These stairs are also good for detail oppotunities as they allow the player to see into a possibly out of bounds/unplayable area. In the case of 'hanging step' staircases, trims are an absolute necessity to make them look functionally believable.

Stairs and your map.

longstairs-jpg.130906


One of the most common habits for beginner mappers is to create long stairs. These are boring to look at, boring to traverse and often count as 'anti-cover' for players whilst being climbed. A useful technique is to wrap a staircase into/around a corner, this will often provide a more dynamic experience for the player as well as improving aesthetic appearences.

corner2-jpg.130905

corner-jpg.130904


Along the same lines, one may utilise a "step" technique. A 'pad' in the middle of the height of the stair case provides a platform that makes the stairs more interesting to look at and provide an oppotunity for the mapper to leave items or engineers to build here. These 'pads' are often used these days (irl), for ease of use for the less physically capable, such as old or disabled individuals, allowing them to comfortably stop and gain their breath/strength whilst climbing tall stair cases (although these are hardly circumstances enacted within TF2, they are grounds for justification).

Taking this a step further, one creates spiral stair cases. Often associated with flats and American ghetto fire escapes, these constructions allow for a gain in height with little to no hinderance to space (provided an appropriate x:y ratio is applied). These can how ever become clumsy to traverse if not given enough space.

spiral2-jpg.130903


Rubble.

prop_2-jpg.130902


Rubble is what i call detail items that neither constitute a ramp or stair case and will often require jumping to traverse. Leading to a tendancy to break game flow, players will not like to climb 'rubble' as (like long winded staircases) it behaves as 'anti-cover'. Leaving them vulnerable and often horizontally static for brief periods of time whilst they jump up and over. 'Rubble' significantly over powers any high ground defence, particularly sentries, demo's and heavies, as it reduces the pace of an assault. Rubble can provide an interesting/unique game mechanic within a map, but more often than not lead to frustrating the standard player, leaving them to ignore that route altogether. But balancing it as a short cut can be a good method of justifying such a scenario, whether players hate it or not.

After Construction.

As a finishing touch, it is a wise practice to player clip a ramp over your staircase to stop the ingame bobbing effect players experience whilst climbing steps.

One of, if not the worst abuse of attention to detail regarding stairs is copy and paste. It shows through your textures if you are not careful, and the larger/longer your stair case, the more noticable it will be. Especially in more detailed textures, where certain patterns will repeat over and over in each step. This can be avoided by manually displacing your texture horizontally every 20 units, via the texture tool window. So you might have one step at 0 horizontal displacement, another at 100, the next at 80, the next at -200, the next at 120, etc. The amount you can displace your texture to break up 'repeatative texture syndrome' is dependant on the texture size, which can often not be that much at all when dealing with textures specifically created to be steps or trims. But vigilance will prevail, even if you just copy and paste 4-6 steps at a time with differing texture displacements.

Bad:
copy-paste1-jpg.130901


Good:
copy-paste3-jpg.130900

boarder-jpg.130899


Useful metal stair materials:
metal/metaltrack001
metal/ibeam*
metal/floorplate01
metal/metaldoor001
metal/metalstair*
props/metaldoor01_192

Useful wooden stair materials:
wood/grain_elevator_facade*
wood/wood_beam03
wood/wood_bridge001
wood/wood_wall006
wood/wood_wall020*

Summary of information:
Valve utilise a stair climb ratio of 2:3.
Maximum step height is 16 units tall. 8, 12 or 16 are common heights. Do not be afraid of such small grid sizes!!!!
2, 4 and 8 are the most common Valve trim width. 16 is also acceptable.
Long stairs play awfully, and look as aweful as they play.
A healthy stair width allows for 2 players to pass without clipping. 128 units is healthy (Badwater reference). Less dictates a choke point. (such as <88 units).
Ramps are as acceptable as stairs, but stairs look nicer.
Player clip your stairs to prevent screen bouncing.
 

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Last edited:

grazr

Old Man Mutant Ninja Turtle
aa
Mar 4, 2008
5,442
The purpose of this thread was to highlight the more over looked item, the staircase.

I have several pet peeves that are almost garaunteed to pop up in a beginners map regarding the staircase which include copy and pasted steps that lead to texture tiling, steps that are too large or over scaled, stairs that are overly long/tall and generally recieve a lack of close attention.

I hope it was an educational read as i feel i kinda missed a couple of the basic construction methods. Let me know what you guys think so i can improve it.

also see:
[ARTICLE] Roofs, Skybox Brushes and Your Map
[ARTICLE] Immersion and Your Map
[ARTICLE] Base Facades and Your Map
[GUIDE] Balance, Layout and your A/D map
[GUIDE] Scale and Your Map
 
Last edited:

Freyja

aa
Jul 31, 2009
2,936
Wow, very useful for a beginner like me. Thanks for taking the time to write this! I never thought of displacing the textures to decrease repetition.
 

psihomir

L4: Comfortable Member
Mar 17, 2008
192
I'd like to add, a much simpler method to get variety in the textures of copied stair brushes is to use alt+right click with the texture tool - just pick a random step's texture, and start alt+right clicking on everything else :D
 

grazr

Old Man Mutant Ninja Turtle
aa
Mar 4, 2008
5,442
Added cleaner images now.

I'd like to add, a much simpler method to get variety in the textures of copied stair brushes is to use alt+right click with the texture tool - just pick a random step's texture, and start alt+right clicking on everything else :D

True, however its effectiveness is limited to the texture at hand. Ok for wooden-plank based textures, but not as helpful with trims textures. Especially when a lot of trims will be a quarter or more of 0.25!

Embedding stairs into ramps also looks cool.

Indeed. It was hard to decide what was worth mentioning and worth overlooking, for trying to convey the basic concept behind making aesthetically pleasing stairs, in the smallest amount of text possible, as issues occured at a much lower skill level than at this level of inginuity. This method is definately worth a mentional, simply, though, that anyone with the creativity to produce such an outcome probably doesn't need the help of this tutorial.

On a scale of 1 - 5 in terms of level design experience (1 being beginner, 5 very experienced) i was aiming at 1's, maybe 2's.

When i revise this submussion i will see if there is space to include this, though.

I might even be tempted to create a stair library, allowing people to access complimentary textures. A less fancy library than most around here, but hopefully helpful for the more amatuer of the member base here.
 
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Ida

deer
aa
Jan 6, 2008
2,289
Really well made article, it covered pretty much everything. I see so many bad stairs in maps, so I hope this will improve overall quality. :)

Oh, and another argument for adding a clip brush to your staircase is that if you jump while going up a non-clipped staircase, you're likely to bump into a step in front of you and jump straight up. It's very annoying, but sadly rarely paid attention to.
 
Feb 14, 2008
1,054
Brilliant.
 

Psy

The Imp Queen
aa
Apr 9, 2008
1,708
Oh, and another argument for adding a clip brush to your staircase is that if you jump while going up a non-clipped staircase, you're likely to bump into a step in front of you and jump straight up. It's very annoying, but sadly rarely paid attention to.

EDIT: nvm. >_>
 

Acumen

Annoyer
aa
Jun 11, 2009
704
i like insights tutorial on detailling your map with lots of explaining pictures.
very nice !!
 

flux

L1: Registered
Jun 16, 2009
49
:D beautiful
 

Terr

Cranky Coder
aa
Jul 31, 2009
1,591
[It is often convinient to have certain stairs of your own converted from brush work to a model, if you have the social connections or ability to do this yourself, it can be a healthy pay off. As a models equivilant cost to memory is significantly lower than that of brush work (another topic altogether, however).

Another topic, you say? Darn :p
I'm thinking of changing some brushwork to models myself, but wasn't sure of the benefits/downsides. (Aside from perhaps making them easier to animate and spin without using a physics motor.)
 

grazr

Old Man Mutant Ninja Turtle
aa
Mar 4, 2008
5,442
As long as it is detail work, then it shouldn't really compromise your maps performance. Stairs are generally not used to break line of sight for vvis and end up func_detailed anyway. It is also useful to make a model from any detail brush work that is repeated in your map, due to how the game calls forth the mesh from its memory. I wouldn't convert anything that was intended to be a solid wall into a model. It helps when you understand how vis, hints and areaportals work to know what's appropriate, so i'd say start your research there.

Another interesting fact i forgot to mention is that the trims are often set to func_lod rather than func_detail. I'm not sure why Valve don't make the whole staircase func_detail or func_lod, but they just func_lod the trims and func_detail the steps.
 

Ninjilla

L420: High Member
Sep 13, 2008
445
As long as it is detail work, then it shouldn't really compromise your maps performance. Stairs are generally not used to break line of sight for vvis and end up func_detailed anyway. It is also useful to make a model from any detail brush work that is repeated in your map, due to how the game calls forth the mesh from its memory. I wouldn't convert anything that was intended to be a solid wall into a model. It helps when you understand how vis, hints and areaportals work to know what's appropriate, so i'd say start your research there.

Another interesting fact i forgot to mention is that the trims are often set to func_lod rather than func_detail. I'm not sure why Valve don't make the whole staircase func_detail or func_lod, but they just func_lod the trims and func_detail the steps.

I dont fully remember what func_lod does, but if I recall it controls when the prop appears to the player, so maybe they make the trim func_lod to save on how much is drawn at a time but make sure players know the stairs are still there because they are just func_detail? Just a guess.
 

Terr

Cranky Coder
aa
Jul 31, 2009
1,591
I know the whole vvis/visleaf angle, but are there any performance benefits from, say, a runtime rendering perspective, assuming the same complexity? Do benefits scale with the number of times you repeat the prop?
 

grazr

Old Man Mutant Ninja Turtle
aa
Mar 4, 2008
5,442
Well lod stands for Level of Detail, which is a function usually associated with models. Models having different versions of themselves of different levels of detail, to render at respective distances, to improve performance.

---

Yes, the effect would essentially scale. Mostly it's to do with the model itself rather than the .bsp or ingame rendering, as the game pulls the model from elsewhere; whilst brush work is rendered and computed on a case by case basis, it will only have to take a model once and cache it for other copies of itself. So it will also lower your bsp file size. There are also ingame performance benefits, how ever i am not sure as to the actual render based benefits behind how models are rendered at a lower cost than brushwork. A whole bunch of different processes are at work that differ with models to brushwork, such as lighting and physics. But the vertex rendition of a material is somehow more efficient than brush based geometry. Similarly to how displacement faces are rendered in a batch process, which is covered briefly in several 'displacement roof' tutorials around the net.
 

YM

LVL100 YM
aa
Dec 5, 2007
7,098
Don't forget textures such as metal/metailstair001a

Its a HL2 texture, but it's made it into a lot of the valve tf2 maps because it just fits in well.

-Don't be affraid to use HL2 textures if they blend in!