posted on August 12, 2020
Welcome to another deep dive in our development world, and this time it’s a long-overdue followup that many of you have been waiting for. Today, the Environment team will be detailing the work they’ve been putting in to get Fallujah, one of our most anticipated maps to date, ready for you to play on.
That’s not all, be sure to join us tomorrow at 11 am PDT Thursday 13th August over on our Twitch channel where Community Manager Krispy will be sitting down with some of the Environment dev team to get your burning questions answered about this amazing map. Without further ado, read on soldiers!
While for many at Offworld it feels like just yesterday, the first article in this series, The Road to Fallujah Part 1, was released almost 3 years ago. In that time a lot has happened, and Squad as a game has changed tremendously. Our team has been hard at work the entire time, but Fallujah as a map has taken many different forms and priorities over the many months it’s been in development. In this article, our level design and environment team will go into detail on their process for developing Fallujah’s many facets, giving a window into the development of this ambitious project.
Before we dive in, we feel that it’s important to address the long wait. When work was originally started on Fallujah, Squad was a very different game than it is today. Additionally, our understanding of the Unreal Engine was still evolving, as was our experience with building and designing maps of this size and complexity. The map went through several revisions during this time, trying different approaches to technical problems, different inspirations and styles for the layout, and various processes for actually building the level and assets themselves. During all of this experimentation and learning, while visual quality and technical expertise advanced considerably, the overall design of the map itself slowly degraded due to all the experiments and processes being worked on. Eventually, it was decided that the map in its most recent iteration simply wasn’t up to the level of quality we wanted and that if we continued to develop it out, the end product wouldn’t do justice to a setting that we hold very dear in many of our memories. With this in mind, we began a full restart of the layout design for Fallujah. While none of us wanted to wait this long to be able to show off our hard work, we’re confident that the end product we eventually arrived at was very much worth the wait, and we hope you agree. So without further ado, let’s see and hear it from the devs themselves:
One of the most prominent things many players will notice when they load into the map for the first time is the great amount of detail that has been scattered throughout the environment. Not only does Fallujah have three times the complexity and object count of any other map in Squad, but as players fight their way through the streets they will likely notice that despite this abundance of detail, much of the decoration isn’t simply for show. Fallujah has been carefully populated with signs of battles past, inklings of narrative hidden in the destruction. Thus, in addition to the stories created by our players, the map itself has a lot to say through the art of environmental storytelling. Let’s take a quick look at some recreations of just a few of the stories that litter the battlefield:
A US Army fuel convoy is ambushed at a critical crossroads.
Middle Eastern Alliance vehicles weave their way through the ‘Highway of Death’ outside the city.
US Army vehicles stop for a spotted IED, caught in a thick sandstorm.
A light garrison of MEA troops desperately defends Fallujah’s battered police station from an insurgent siege.
MEA troops receive fire from US Armor while barricaded inside a dense urban market.
From the beginning, our intention with Fallujah has always been to push boundaries in both environment art and level design. When the design was started from scratch, multiple avenues of the layout were considered, but ultimately it was decided that our inspiration should come from the most reliable source: real life. Fallujah’s layout has been based on the true layout of the city, based on mid-2010s imagery, but the scale is roughly 2:1. This allowed us to use real-life photos from battles as direct references, and also gave us the flexibility to layout the map in a way that makes sense for Squad’s gameplay.
The level design team’s main priority, in the beginning, was developing a concrete concept for what we would like urban combat in Squad to look like, while the environment art team was hard at work upgrading our visual quality and creating a much more consistent look for Fallujah that matched as closely as possible to our gathered reference photos. While there was already some environment art completed when the design was refreshed, doing a bit of a refresh on the environment side as well helped us to make sure the level design and environment art integrated as nicely as possible. Once we had a vision for what our overall strategy and process would be, we then had to move on to laying out the city itself.
Looking at the satellite map of Fallujah, it was clear that it would be impossible to recreate the whole city at a 1:1 scale. The ultimate decision made was to map out the key districts, roads, and terrain features of the real city, scale them down by half, and then fill them with buildings and props in a way that made sense for the space. This process also made heavy use of reference photos to guide how the blocks should look and feel. The design emphasis in this process was to create diverse types of gameplay, from high-intensity urban warfare to a more relaxed suburban environment. We also knew that fighting in a tense urban environment for long durations could be tiring, so the districts often alternate between types, keeping the experience varied. We also made sure that we kept some of the original points of interest from the much-loved PR map, so the mosque, four-lane highway, twin T-buildings, outskirts, and more should be recognizable landmarks for veterans of Project Reality.
This is an early shot of how we planned out the map’s districts, overlaid on top of a satellite image of the real city:
Here’s a list of what each color represents:
Orange: High-density commercial areas with tall rooftops
Blue: Medium density residential neighborhoods with narrow alleys and walled yards
Tan: Low-density neighborhoods and farmland
Grey: Industrial, mixed-use zones
Green: Parks and palace grounds
Yellow Circles: Points of interest, ie. capture points
Once the districts had been planned out we moved to focusing on core locations that would be fun and dynamic to fight over for players. We also made sure there was adequate spacing between these areas to account for our RAAS/AAS system and to give room for strategic maneuvers, FOBs, and daring flanks.
The map design process is heavily based on POIs (Points Of Interest), which are designed to be centers of attention for the map, such as cap points and FOB locations. Placing large objects like buildings and designating negative space (like roads and alleys) were usually the first tasks of the team when creating these areas. This is so we can determine how the players move through the overall space, both at ground level and across the rooftops or interiors.
Taking the Crossroads POI as an example in this photo, the early blockout can be seen with blue and yellow lines depicting the flow of movement. Blue boxes show large objects that provide cover and red boxes are areas kept clear to ensure there are protected locations to build a HAB.
After the primary objects are placed, we tweak every aspect of the area from the player’s perspective. For example, can a player sprint from cover to cover and have a reasonable chance of surviving? What are the views from the rooftops and are any positions overpowered? What are the viewing angles and lines of sight? What benefits does a defender have and what options are available for attackers? These are all important questions that must be answered before the design stage can be considered complete.
The end result of all this planning has led us to a map that will hopefully provide plenty of opportunities for fun, emergent experiences without feeling repetitive or stale, and should be a platform to offer fresh gameplay for years to come.
In part one we shared a behind the scenes look into the pre-production phase of Fallujah’s environment art. We showed off the residential buildings that are now used on several Squad maps, such as Tallil Outskirts and Mutaha, and helped solidify the map’s artistic look by creating a “vertical slice”. The next kit that we began to work on was the all-important Urban Center set, which would eventually fill almost half of the map. This set was extremely important, and we spent a lot of time going back and forth between the designers and environment artists, making sure that the assets would suit our needs from every angle.
After collecting countless reference photos and researching past battles over Fallujah, the environment team got to work. From multi-story apartment buildings, marketplaces, Fallujah’s iconic blue mosque, open-air markets, and far too many others to list, the urban setting was an entirely different challenge than we had ever had to face before.
When it came to the creation of assets for Fallujah we studied real-world references from the city itself as well as the surrounding regions, especially when it came to the overall atmosphere and architecture. This isn’t to say that we were restricted or bound to only recreating existing buildings, the Environment Art and Level Design teams worked together to analyze them and extract the main elements of what made those locations what they are.
This process involved creating blockouts and really proving out the gameplay spaces of the assets thoroughly, which were then taken into an Alpha stage with basic materials, and then secondary and tertiary forms were added. The Beta stage came after and focused more on material development and the Final game-ready stage came after, which included a detailed pass with decals and additional props like air conditioning units, water tanks, and satellite dishes. This process was highlighted in the previous edition of this article, however, we did add some new complexities to it, such as our use of ‘prefab’ actors, which allow us to arrange many smaller actors into a large prefab, and then use it repeatedly to save time, effort, and performance.
Once the POI design is complete and playtested we place decorations, such as rubble, awnings, signs, trash, bullet hole decals, etc. These don’t usually affect the gameplay, but they’re instrumental in making each location feel authentic and interesting, as well as immersing the player into the environment they inhabit.
Last, but not least, is optimization. Fallujah is an incredibly detailed and expansive map, so keeping the map running within acceptable levels has been an ongoing battle since the very beginning. During the process of optimizing, we tweak nearly every aspect of the map. Explaining this process could easily fill an entire article on its own and so we won’t try to cover it here fully, but we thought it was important to mention at least a little because the final optimization process for Fallujah took around six months and required us to use every single tool in our toolbag along the way. We scrutinized every static, sound, particle effect, and piece of foliage then ran the map through several more CPT playtests to see how the map performed on different hardware configurations, on a full server. Fallujah is an extremely detailed map that pushes our current technology to its limits, but we’ve managed to squeeze through and create something we consider playable from it.
Fallujah has undoubtedly been our most exciting and challenging map to create. It’s been a long journey through the initial design phase, the blockouts, set dressing, and through playtesting and optimization, and we hope the quality and detail we’ve created will provide a stage for some of the most immersive experiences ever had in Squad.