Getting started on map design with Disney Melee Mania

Ever wanted to start level design, but not sure how to start? Or maybe you’re a beginner looking to improve on it? For this article, I’ll be walking you through the process of how I design maps, referencing Disney Melee Mania as an example.

Establishing parameters and metrics

Before even starting to design, you’ll need to gather the parameters and metrics that are necessary. For example, which character is the biggest? The map would need to accommodate for that, else they’d get stuck in awkward corners! Wreck-It Ralph was the biggest champion at the time of my designing the map, so I had to make sure the smallest space I had between objects was at least 1.5 Ralphs wide.

Other things I took note of were character run speeds, whether we would have treadmills or not (treadmills speed up movement, allowing a player to get around more easily, and would allow for a bigger overall map size), and maximum and minimum range of each champion’s projectiles. I also took note of the map sizes of previous maps and the feedback we got on them; were they too big, did they feel too sparse, etc.

Photo by Vadim Bozhko on Unsplash

It’s important to have these metrics and establish them with the team. Usually I’d check in with the artists and see if there were any objects in the map that we had to have. For the Riley’s Mind maps, it was the holograms. I’d typically get the space requirements from the artists and reserve a space in the map for those. I’d also check in with the engineers about restrictions: things we can and can’t do with our maps because of tool limitations.

Boxes and boxes and…. more boxes?

After gathering all the required parameters, I typically start greyboxing! The map is divided into little tiny cubes via grids, which I then populate with things like bushes, covers, treadmills, etc. Here’s a few tips I have when it comes to greyboxing :

Start big, work small

Start your map’s macroscopic design first before diving into little details. If you start out with microscopic design, you might end up spending a lot of time fussing over the little details instead of asking questions like:

  • “Where should I place the bushes?”
  • “Do we need more cover for players coming out of spawn?”
  • “Where should I place the Power Crystals?”

It’s also good to think of things like:

  • “Where do I want confrontations to happen?”
  • “Where do I want chokepoints in the map? Do I even want chokepoints in the map?”

A good way for me to differentiate macroscopic design questions vs. microscopic design questions is to zoom out so I get a bird’s eye view of the map. If I can obtain or see the answers for these questions from afar, it’s probably a macroscopic design question. If I can get the answers without pointing at a very specific block in the map (i.e. general area), then it’s definitely a macroscopic design question.

Keep it tidy and neat

This applies to a number of things. One of it is using prefabs! It’s always easier to replace one prefab rather than 10 different objects that make up one shape. Make things easier for others and in turn it’ll also help you out down the line. If you are repeating the same shapes and components for something like a wall that you know you’ll reuse over and over, turn it into a prefab!

I also recommend using checklists! Using a checklist in a task tracking tool is helpful not only for you to not forget to bake the map for the billionth time after making minor changes. It’s also helpful for others to know what the next steps in the process are, and where they can chip in or give feedback.

Checklists I’ve made and used for creating maps

And yes, please utilise grid snapping. Your environment artists will thank you later.

Be consistent and clear

The purpose of greyboxing is to get a “draft map” testable as soon as possible, which is why we use simple shapes for it. In this case, I use cubes for everything: from the bushes to the walls; they’re all made with the same size cubes.

But because everything will be made up of the same shape, you’ll need to be consistent and clear with elements of your map! An easy example of this is to use the same colour for all objects that players cannot pass through, a.k.a. obstacles. For treadmills, I put chevrons on where the directions that they’ll push the players towards.

Don’t be afraid of asymmetry

While you’re inclined to make everything symmetrical since it’s a brawler and both teams have to have the same advantages map-wise, it’s always good to break up symmetry. You can break up symmetry any way you want to, although we decided to only make the top and bottom part of the map asymmetrical.

One of the maps that were asymmetrical

Art passes and additional design passes

Example of a greybox map

By this point, I typically have a functional greybox map! The map is playable and it usually goes through a few design reviews before it makes it into art passes. Prior to art doing their thing, I prepare a document and schedule a meeting with members of the art team who will be doing the map. In the document I detail what design needs, what art can change, what scene the greybox map is in, and other details that might help them out.

Playtesting the heck out of it

After art finishes their first art pass, we bring the map to the wider team for a project-wide playsession! One of my favourite things to do is let playtesters (usually the internal team) discover for themselves all the gimmicks (or lack of) in each map I design. This is an important step because it also helps me understand how intuitive my design is for a player.

After the playsession, we e gather feedback from everyone who participated. This feedback is then discussed with the wider game design team, and we decide whether we want to act on each point or not. If we do, additional design passes may be made and I’ll need to coordinate with art to get the map update. I’ll also schedule more playsessions to test out the changes.

QA also goes through the map to check if everything is functioning as they should. This phase goes on for quite a while; my maps usually go through about 3–4 design passes and iterations before they make it out to an update.

Photo by Akson on Unsplash

Keep learning!

The best asset a designer can have is an openness to receiving feedback. Be open to feedback from your coworkers and peers. See the good from all of the feedback, pick it apart and see what you can do better next time. Most importantly, be open to feedback from the players themselves because ultimately they are what keeps the game going.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

That’s all from me! I hope this article was enjoyable and helpful — feel free to leave some comments if you have other tips for designing maps, and don’t forget to give me claps!

Getting started on map design with Disney Melee Mania was originally published in Mighty Bear Games on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.