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RTS Level Design – The Layout (Part 1)

September 13, 2010

Welcome to my new series on RTS Level Design.

In the following weeks I’d like to develop a multiplayer map for StarCraft 2 with you .

I already published the final map on BattleNet. The map is called “Norkum 5”. You can also find a copy of this map, which can be opened in the StarCraft 2 editor, in my samples area.

Also, you can download a sample WarCraft 3 singleplayer map from my samples page. This sample was made using the techniques I discuss in this series, but with a focus on singleplayer level design.

Let’s start:

High concept/Hook

Before we start with our map, the most important step is to develop a high concept or hook for the map. If you’re not familiar with the term “High Concept”, feel free to check my earlier posts on this topic. You can also use the techniques I presented in my series according quest design, when you design the mission/objectives for your map.

For now, let’s keep it very simple, so we only define a hook. The hook should be a unique feature, which makes your map really fun to play. It can be a specific strategy or story or whatever you like, just remember, we’re designing something that should entertain everybody who plays our map, so FUN is the most important aspect of level design as is for any other game design discipline.  

For my sample StarCraft 2 multiplayer map, my hook is to design a map, which brings back old-school RTS multiplayer action and challenges the teams to efficiently communicate their strategy with each other. Also I added acid-like water, which will raise and lower during a single session as unique element. This element changes the map layout and thus should encourage the players to adapt their strategy and communication.

The layout

The next step after the high concept is to design the layout. The layout defines the general gameflow of the map and also helps to indicate the points of interest. There are different techniques you can use, when it comes to the layout. Most of the time the layout design is not done with a specific editor. It’s done on paper, with a CAD/paint program or something similar. Personally I normally use the schematic layout for multiplayer maps and the sketch layout for singleplayer maps.

Singleplayer vs. Multiplayer

The biggest difference between singleplayer and multiplayer maps is the balance. While on singleplayer maps you can focus on story and objectives, you have to focus on fair and balanced conditions for each player on multiplayer maps. That’s why most multiplayer maps are designed symmetrical, whereas singleplayer maps are usually asymmetrical.  

Symbolic layout

This layout technique works with symbols to describe things like resources, bases and so on. It is usually highly schematic and thus perfect when you design a multiplayer map, because you can quickly spot any balancing problems, which are connected to the layout. You can use, for example, GoogleDocs, yEd or Microsoft Visio to design these layouts.

For “Norkum 5” I designed the following symbolic layout.

Symbolic layout – StarCraft 2 multiplayer map

The huge blue circles indicate the bases and player start points, whereas the small yellow circles indicate additional resources. When you open the final “Norkum 5” map, you’ll see how I implemented the layout and that I made some minor changes, which is pretty normal, because when you implement a symbolic layout, you’ll change the layout in a way so that the fun and the playability is increased. Also you may include feedback from testing sessions, which will alter your layout a bit.

That’s it for today, thanks for joining me on this post. Next time I’ll talk about the sketch, rough and final layout.

I’m looking forward to your feedback.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick P permalink
    May 26, 2011 9:51 pm

    Great article! Very helpful. I’ve quoted parts of your article for a school project as well as used your symbolic map as an example. Don’t worry! All information is correctly cited and sourced!

    Thank you for the information,

    Nick P.

    • June 15, 2011 7:26 pm


      I’m glad that it was helpful for you. Feel free to quote whatever you need.

      So long

      God bless you

  2. alex permalink
    August 13, 2012 10:36 pm

    wohoho, Im making maps for sudden strike 3, a dead game, just for fun and this is really good reading.

    • August 14, 2012 8:50 am

      Thanks. I wish I would have the time to write all the other chapters… Maybe in the hopefully not to far future.
      Have a great day and God bless you.

  3. July 2, 2013 4:57 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this fascinating topic. I have gone back to designing maps again after a 10 year lay off for Ground Control as there is still a community that is active although small in numbers we more than make up for it, and our passion for this great game.

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