Why we should care about quality.

Discussion in 'Mapping Questions & Discussion' started by Shmitz, Feb 26, 2008.

  1. Shmitz

    aa Shmitz Old Hat

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    I'm going to talk for a bit about graphic design, which I will eventually tie back into level design, so bear with me.

    What is graphic design?

    First, I should explain what graphic design is, just in case the concept is fuzzy to anyone. In a nutshell, graphic design is visual communication. It is taking a message or an idea and conveying it through an arrangement of graphic symbols, including letters and words. To do this well is a lot harder than it sounds.

    You've probably seen plenty of bad graphic design, and may have recognized it. There's the club flyer with stretched text and randomly placed images. There's the sign in the mom & pop store window typed in comic sans with odd line breaks. There's the odd package that makes you wonder how it ever got approved. Bad design is not limited to things that are ugly or shocking, however. You wouldn't make a grungy urban punk advertisement for Lincoln automobiles. You wouldn't design a Norman Rockwell album cover for a death metal band.

    Good graphic design, on the other hand, is a whole lot subtler. Unless you're someone who deals with it every day, you're probably not going to notice that the poster you just saw drew your attention to all the right spots in just the right order to tell you exactly what you needed to know almost at a glance. When you're trying to decide between brands to buy, you probably won't be aware that the one you feel more familiar and comfortable with is because of memorable ads or an abstract idea conveyed by the shape of the brand mark and font used for the logo. These are things you experience because you are meant to experience them. Good graphic design is like a sentence you read and immediately understand without having to think about the punctuation or word order.

    The advantage bad graphic design has, though, is that it's cheap. Anyone can make bad graphic design. It's also a lot easier to notice as something that has been designed. However, the problem is not that the design is bad. The problem is that it devalues good design. Bad graphic design is not only ineffective for the person trying to use it, if it becomes prevalent enough people start to view it as standard, and are less willing to pay for good design, regardless of how much it will improve the reception of the message (such as "our stuff is better; buy it"). Or worse, people will stop seeking out better quality design because they think they can do it themselves. In short, bad design destroys public perception of design in general.

    So what does this have to do with level design?

    Unlike professional graphic designers, this group of amateurs, hobbyists, and professional-hopefuls does not have clients that we are trying to satisfy with our designs. We make maps because we enjoy creating environments for people to have fun in. However, there's a group of people that effectively act as clients. In a multiplayer setting, nobody will experience our designs if servers don't run them.

    Valve has provided professional quality maps for server operators to use. That means for the majority of server operators, ones who may not be dedicating the entire server to custom content, anything else must compare in quality. If they start looking at what's available, and see a lot of maps that aren't even close, chances are they just won't bother looking anymore and stick with what they've got.

    So what constitutes bad level design? Like graphic design, a lot of it is visual, such as poor lighting, bad texturing (or no texturing), bad brushwork, and unnatural geometry. Some of it may be more subtle. Maps may look wonderful but play poorly. They may result in constant stalemates. They may give a single class an extreme advantage or disadvantage. They may cause players to wander for extensive periods of times, seemingly in circles, without encountering the enemy. Or even another aspect may be whether the map fits in its context. It may look great but be completely devoid of the TF2 visual style. It may have an interesting play concept, but be for the wrong game. Just has Norman Rockwell does not fit a death metal band, surf maps, puzzle maps, jump maps, etc do not fit a game designed for strategic team based gameplay.

    The more we stress the quality of the final product, the better the overall public perception of custom maps. If server operators just see orange maps and the like at first glance, the well designed maps will remain buried, and the majority of the servers will be stuck playing the same seven maps ad infinitum. We want people to begin at least considering their rotation open to more than just what Valve feeds them.

    But what about those servers that run orange maps 24/7?

    Well, they're like those used car dealerships that think the owner screaming and acting crazy at the camera will be good for business.

    That's the real battle. There are plenty of people out there with good taste. The ones with bad taste though, they're noisy and prolific. If we can convince any of them that there's a better way to do it, even if it takes more time, effort, and help, the battle for better custom content is half won. If we can't, the most we can do is just make our own efforts as high quality as we can, even if it means eating some humble pie and listening to the advice of others.

    So what can we do?

    This is why I am writing this. Snipergen correctly criticizes the maps that will really hurt public perception, even if he goes about it the wrong way. I see it as a lack of proper language. Mapping experience is not itself enough to put into words exactly why something should be changed, improved, or never publicly released. Most people jumping into mapping aren't aware that what they do has an effect on everybody else, and it can be difficult to properly explain the social psychology involved. The long term outweighs the short term, not just for us, but for the aspiring mapper as well. The prospect of not finishing a project, or changing it drastically, may not be pleasant for someone, but in the long term it has the potential to mean better exposure for future projects. Our challenge is to come up with a way to tactfully explain this.

    Besides that, I won't claim to have all the ideas. This is more a call to arms of language (though I wouldn't say no if someone suggested a group rating raid on FPSB :p). Language demands discourse, though, so what do you guys think?
     
  2. Koei

    Koei L4: Comfortable Member

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    Dear God, what have I started.
     
  3. Paria

    Paria L5: Dapper Member

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    the last point you hinted at on fpsbanana is so true, even if i am still working on my first map i'd say i've put a few hundred hours into it, making it the to the best of my current ability and knowledge, i check fpsbanana daily since i also own my own 24 man server, i dont run any custom maps in the standard rotation , but i have a wealth of what i deem good quality custom maps on the server that are voteable by the players.

    The last few weeks on fpsbanana seemed to have seen a rise in the "this map scores a 10" rating from my best friend syndrome, i've rated a few maps on there in the past and i've tried to be fair and objective - i.e having actually played them on a full/semi full server and offer relevant criticisms, but judging by what currenty is scoring a 9+, i feel somewhat guilty for scoring some of these good maps lower than this :/

    Honestly there are maps on there that are about 1 step past "my first room" that are scoring 9's, and its hardly inspiring for server operators or the mappers submitting quality content, that will simply get brushed aside from the plethora of utter rubbish that was made in a couple of hours.
     
  4. MangyCarface

    aa MangyCarface Mapper

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    There're a couple absolutely beautiful maps that aren't given enough playtime in general. My favorites in terms of aesthetics are mach4 http://www.fpsbanana.com/maps/43802 and junction http://www.fpsbanana.com/maps/41290. IMHO junction is prettier than any of valve's maps although maybe not 100% sticking to their idea of red and blue architecture. Wish it was on servers more often.
     
  5. Hawk

    Hawk L7: Fancy Member

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    Yeah, Junction is very eye-catching. I sometimes look around in it and try to learn from it... and usually I'd be trying to learn from Valve maps. Last time I tried mach4 it was REALLY early and kind of ugly. I guess it's time to give it another go.
     
  6. MangyCarface

    aa MangyCarface Mapper

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    Junction was definitely great to learn from. I dunno what popular opinion is on Badlands here (I personally love it, just wish they had the balls to rename it because it stands alone as a good map, but not a faithful badlands translation) but Valve really came through in terms of the base/last cp designs. For once they added detail with their architecture rather than just creating models for whatever purpose they needed. Badlands shows some really novel lighting and I love walking through each base to gawk at it.
     
  7. Shmitz

    aa Shmitz Old Hat

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    This topic has been brewing in my head for a while now. Your map was just like the long skinny tetris piece that finally slid in and made a four row combo. ;)

    Really, my goal here is to give the community some kind of established vocabulary for providing good feedback on an issue that most of the time just results in people talking past each other.

    More thoughts:
    TF2 is an experience. What are the basic factors that define that experience? I would say 1) the distinctive art style, and 2) strategic team based gameplay.

    The art style is composed of several things. The obvious start is the illustrative, impressionistic visuals, such as the cartoony player models or the painterly surface textures. The next part is environmental, but it's important to note this does not necessarily mean desert, industrial, spytech, mining, and/or farm. Those are just general themes we've been given. The real environmental art style is the nature of the architecture and the colors, and the psychological differences in the details. Red is warm colors and angular architecture, but the environments also often convey feelings of homeyness, hard work, the power of the individual, and natural, earthy values. Blue is cool colors and orthogonal architecture, but like red the environments speak of progress, the technology of the future, the power of the organization, and civilization.

    Gameplay is equally important. There needs to be a win condition based on team accomplishments. This doesn't mean all maps need to be based on intel or capture points (or, soon, mining carts). Innovation in game types is wonderful. But they need to be based on strategic interaction between teams, and there needs to be feedback to the players on just how their team is doing. At some point, whether after reaching a goal, at the end of a timer, or when the server map time limit is up, something needs to tell people who won.

    Am I missing anything. Is there any other basic feature of playing TF2 that if you finished a round on a map without, you'd feel like you just played some other game?
     
  8. MangyCarface

    aa MangyCarface Mapper

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    Well speaking to that point, you have to think about where these environments came from. Think of 2fort, two relatively normal buildings with ulterior purposes hidden within their basements. Or of granary, grain buildings holding missiles. The entire thing about tf2 is that the characters are fighting for some sort of spy organizations that are fronting as mundane companies. I think that levels should generally show a progression from natural or broken down to clean and processed as one fights into the opposing team's base. That's what ends up producing the environments we see in the professional (valve) maps and that's what reminds me that the map I'm playing is an explainable part of a story that the tf2 characters are fighting through. So I guess what I'm saying is to think of a story to fit your level and let that influence the art design, or vice versa.
     
  9. Scotland Tom

    Scotland Tom L6: Sharp Member

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    Shmitz, as an artist to an artist I applaud your well constructed and thought provoking topic. You've hit a lot of points that I think are extremely important to consider for any mapper who wants to create a map worth seeing some regular rotation on public servers. In order for a map to be appropriate for a game the mapper must first consider the game he is creating the map for. If the map doesn't compliment the game graphically or through its gameplay then it, and by extension the mapper, hasn't done its job.

    I'd weigh in more heavily on the matter, but I'm a bit tired at the moment. I hope everyone interested in mapping reads this thread and at least begins to grasp that it's not just about making a cool new map to play, it's about integrating a new creation in a way that compliments the one that's been provided.
     
  10. Apex_

    Apex_ L3: Member

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    A very good read, Shmitz. As the owner and operator of an increasingly popular server I wholeheartedly agree about your points regarding proliferation of substandard content. Or rather substandard becoming so common the standard gets lowered. When you have dozens of players pestering you to put orange maps, surf maps or any manner of things I simply don't want to run on my server day in and day out, it becomes tiresome.

    I try to keep a fairly high standard of both map quality and gameplay quality by actively seeking the best of the community's maps and pruning those deemed to be the least fun to play on a weekly basis. In fact, Mach in its progressively improved forms has been a staple of my server since Mach2's release way back when. This process seems to be rare in servers these days, since a surprising amount of servers I venture to on slow days have literally DOZENS of maps on their rotation. Not the vote list mind you, the actual rotation. I keep quite a few custom maps in the rotation, but no more than a dozen or so at the most, often with a few marked for review.

    I think servers themselves, though defined loosely as clients in this case, adhere to many of the points you brought up. What if these orange map servers become the "standard"? There are plenty of TFC vets who already feel the lack of friendly fire (it's back now, but by and large the new standard is not having it on) and emphasis on control point maps has lowered the standard of Team Fortress gameplay. Quality being subjective certainly doesn't help things of course.

    I would say, from a server owner's standpoint and also from the view of an avid player myself, the biggest problem is repetition. Stock maps wear out quickly, with the exception of people who like knowing every nook and cranny of the level. 2fort was old on my server before the game even launched, since I host primarily CTF. After filtering out all the junk, I'm left with maybe 20 maps at most that are acceptable quality gameplay wise or graphically. Most have one or the other, not both. As time goes on it will become more difficult to find the needle in the haystack, that one really good map in a pile of orange. I'm starting to consider expanding to control point maps despite my personal feelings about the mode, simply because all of the good maps are either being played into the ground or ignored outright.

    Regarding your second post, I fully support innovative maps. One of the most popular maps on my server right now is as_hillbase, which despite being a concept map and having quite a few gameplay issues has captured the attention of an audience starved for unique play styles. Unfortunately it also means people are playing it to death, resurrecting it and playing it to death again[/], so it's rapidly approaching old-hat status as I type. What we need are some more maps that take these concepts and flesh them out! If I weren't so busy slaving away at my job and running a server I'd gladly pick up a Hammer and join the cause. I have a variant of attack/defend drawn up and ready to go, just no time to do it!

    And so I lay the final brick in my wall of text. I'm glad to see a discussion on this subject though...it's been on my mind for awhile as well.

    Edit: I'd also like to add that having absolutely no artistic ability myself, your insights into the design process will most certainly help me in the future. Thanks for that, and for stirring the pot a little around here!
     
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2008
  11. MangyCarface

    aa MangyCarface Mapper

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    I'm not sure if you guys follow Smash Bros Brawl, but Nintendo's announced that along with its map editor they will pick on average one map a day to showcase and make available for download. That is, they're sponsoring user-generated content based on its merit. Now Valve occasionally has spotlighted up-coming mods, why haven't they ever cast a light on their favorite maps? They could go so far as to make them canon. I'm sure the mappers would appreciate the popularity boost, and Valve gets free (i.e. they have to do no work on it) content for their game. Additionally this would drive mappers to actually compete (friendly-like) by adding more and more detail and love into each of their maps. I guess someone's probably already thought of this. Just wish it would happen
     
  12. dirtyminuth

    dirtyminuth L5: Dapper Member

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    Shmitz, your analogy about user car salesman screaming into the camera is quite apt, and your post was an enjoyable read. The path to quality maps is right, the path to substandard maps is easy.

    Back when HL2DM was released, Valve held a custom map competition. The winning set of maps was included as part of Valve's stock maps. Valve should hold a similar competition for TF2, as we're running right now.
     
  13. trackhed

    trackhed L3: Member

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    karma + for shmitz
    thanks for making me have to type less
     
  14. Earl

    Earl L6: Sharp Member

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    I think anyone who doesn't aim for Valve quality when they make a map is just wasting their and everyone else's time.
     
  15. MangyCarface

    aa MangyCarface Mapper

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    Problem is server rotations & attendance seem to say otherwise, which can be viewed as a shame
     
  16. bazola

    bazola L1: Registered

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    Popularity is really the best indicator of the success of a map. Quality is something different than success, of course. I think if everyone was intent on making their map fun to play then this wouldn't be an issue.
     
  17. DJive

    aa DJive Cake or Death?

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    True, but a successful map doesn't necessarily mean its a Quality/good map.

    a LOT of people play surf maps/orange maps/jump maps. These maps are not good by any standard, yet, people play them.

    at this point i don't feel success has anything to do with my own mapping. I aim for pride to know I'm doing it well.

    If someone would rather play a 1mb file surf map or a "my-first-map-lawls" so be it, there loss.

    I just have hope that we *tf2mapping community here* can help raise they very....very... VERY low map cycle standard thats out is currently hurting us.
     
  18. Apex_

    Apex_ L3: Member

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    I hope so too, but if people ignore quality maps it won't matter. It's a three-front war really: the mappers, the players and the servers. Unless at least two of them can drag the standards back out of the ditch they're in now, things probably won't change much.

    A mapping community movement to increase design awareness and help mappers do the best they can is great, but we would also need server owners beyond the reach of our forum here to pitch in and give these maps respectable play time. If those two things happen, players will slowly start to "get it", I think, but it'll be a major task to get that far.
     
  19. Baysin

    Baysin L2: Junior Member

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    Well, I thought I'd toss my two cents in. I pretty much agree with what's being said here, and having made a lot of custom stuff for a popular Neverwinter Nights server back in the day, I've seen the same sort of phenomenon before... the community releases lots of easy to make but uninteresting, unoriginal, or unusable content, with a small amount of functional stuff that still needs some work, and a handful of real gems that, ironically, are so good that everyone's using them and everyone gets tired of them.

    HOWEVER.... I would like to caution against being elitist. Being concerned about producing content that both looks and plays great does not mean that we are somehow better than other TF2 players or mappers, or that we can judge other people and what they enjoy. The guy who totally gets a kick out of playing a novelty map like Mario Kart, or the guy who only cares about his kill/death ratio and will play in a grey and orange cube as long as it'll help his stats... these people are perfectly legitimate members of the TF2 community. As long as they are enjoying it, then there's nothing wrong with it. In fact, if the game can attract a wider range of player types than just serious FPS players (which in my case it certainly has), then ultimately that's good for the game overall. There's a place for the novelty maps, to be certain. Even for the serious player, every once in a while it may be a hoot to goof off on... say... a map made of nothing but breakable glass. ;-)

    I am NOT arguing with the ideas being presented here. Far from it, I agree fully with them. I just want to make sure that part of the process of promoting good map design and discouraging the public release of sub-par maps does NOT include looking down on those who actually enjoy those other maps or who don't see what the big deal is. If they want to play those maps, then great! They're having fun, and that's the main thing. We should try to offer them better alternatives... we should make maps that make them wonder why they ever bothered with an orange map. And we should discourage people from producing sub-par stuff and presenting it as a polished product. But we do want to be careful not to go down the elitist path, and act as though we know better than they do, or tell them that they are wrong to like playing certain maps. That sort of behaviour is ultimately counter-productive, and will only serve to isolate this group from the player base. Lead by example, and if we do our jobs right, many players will easily see the difference between a "TF2Maps.net influenced" map and CTF_justforlawlz, and they'll be turning down those maps on their own.

    Just to repeat... I am not arguing in any way. But, every now and then, a certain post on these boards, a certain phrase or word choice, will have the smell of an elitist mindset about it, and that's something to be avoided at all costs. Just because the maps coming out of here are better than other maps, doesn't mean that WE are better than the other people making or playing those maps.
     
  20. DJive

    aa DJive Cake or Death?

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    I dont know Baysin..

    I still believe MARIO_KART is only played because of its textures.

    I don't believe if you took away all those custom textures anyone would even play it for a second. MARIO_KART is not a good map by any stanards, yet its played because of its relation to the mario game.

    god forbid we ever see and manga/anime maps, forget it, game over lol.