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CS:GO How to Design Gameplay Map Layouts (Complete In-Depth Guide)

Category: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive SDK, Level Design
December 10, 2013
Full Text Tutorial and Notes:

How to create competitive Counter-Strike gameplay map layouts?

In this tutorial you will learn:

  • How to design layouts from scratch using important gameplay principles
  • How to define pathways that offer strategy and choices
  • How to set up choke points
  • How to determine locations where two teams will meet (at the choke point)
  • How to balance your layout
  • How to structure flow and pacing
  • Note: Examples are Counter-Strike focused, but any level designer that uses any form of attack/defend, assault or search/destroy type of multiplayer layout will greatly benefit from this in-depth guide

In Counter-Strike there are certain maps that get a lot of playtime. Servers that are dedicated to only 1 or 2 maps, rotating over and over. After playing Counter-Strike for a good part of a decade I began asking questions. What makes map layouts such as dust, dust2, inferno, office and nuke popular, while maps like chateau, prodigy and havana are forgotten. What makes these maps different from the rest?

All great map layouts contain:

  • Good pacing and flow
  • Balance, where skill of the player and skill of the team is the deciding factor of winning; no layout deficiencies, giving advantage to one side
  • Maps that are easy to remember, simple to learn after a few rounds of playing
  • Could rival the gameplay layouts of some official maps (such as Dust 2, Office, Nuke, Train and Inferno).
  • Others enjoy, willing to download and play
  • Contain strategy; choices in pathways
  • Caters to various playing styles (sniping, close quarter battles, stealth)
  • Could be used in competitive gameplay
  • Fun to play

These are just some of the competitive multiplayer map design aspects. There are many more but to list them all would still leave you confused as to how you would implement any of them into your map.

The following is a study; a how-to guide for gameplay layout map design in Counter-Strike. I will be using Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, but this should apply to any Counter-Strike versions released.

I will go into depth of popular maps in CS:GO and dissect why these maps are structured the way they are. I will analyze what makes a good map and what creates good gameplay, flow and pacing. I will tell you exactly how you can do the same for your maps.

Will this tutorial guide apply to those who do not play Counter-Strike?

Yes, any level designer that uses any form of attack/defend, assault or search/destroy type of multiplayer layout will greatly benefit from this guide. A lot of my insights come from variety of online multiplayer games that I've studied.

Principles of good multiplayer level design for first-person shooters don't change very much. The applications of the techniques do, but principles stay the same.

What You Will Learn From This Tutorial:

One important thing you should do to learn level design in Counter-Strike or any other fps game.

  • How to design layouts from scratch using important gameplay principles
  • How to define pathways that offer strategy and choices
  • How to set up choke points
  • How to determine locations where two teams will meet (at the choke point)
  • How to balance your layout
  • How to structure flow and pacing
  • ... and much more

Let's begin...

GETTING STARTED

Getting started with the layout for your map is difficult but it doesn't have to be.

You must start with an idea for your map. What is the location? What is the theme? What is the gametype (defuse or hostage rescue)? Where does your map take place?

Once you have an idea, jumping straight into the editor is often a recipe for an incomplete map. This may work for some, but it hasn't been my experience. Check out this tutorial why I've failed for years at level design and what I did about it.

It is best to start with gameplay layout. A top down sketch, drawing or schematic view of how your map will play. Many things have to be decided here.

  • How the map will play?
  • What is the scenario for your map?
  • How many paths will the map have?
  • Where are the objectives going to be?
  • Where are the spawn points?
  • Which team is attacking, which team is defending?
  • How many paths to include for T side?
  • Where do CTs defend from?
  • Where are the choking points?
  • How long in seconds should each team take to arrive from spawn point to choke point and to objective?

By end of this article you will have the answer for all of these questions.

Process Steps To Do:

  • Define your idea. What is the location and theme you are going for? Where does your map take place?
  • See this article for further explanation of defining your idea
  • I would also recommend Preproduction Blueprint, a product I created teaching you how to plan your level designs and game environments.

Next important step begins with knowing the game you map for.

KNOW YOUR GAME

In order to create good maps for any game, you have to play that game a lot and know every subtle detail about that game.

"...make sure you really intimately know the game itself and all of its subtlety so that you can position that knowledge." Jim Brown, the Lead Level Designer at Epic Games.

You can't create a great map for Counter-Strike or any other game if you don't know the specific mechanics of the game. You may know a lot about principles of FPS level design but if you never played the game you are mapping for, you won't be able to design the layout that will use full potential of that game.

Principles will help you to get started with designing a good layout but you need to know game mechanics and level design within that game.

Play a lot of Counter-Strike. First get a good feel of all the maps that come with the game. In particular play a lot of the following maps:

  • Dust
  • Dust 2
  • Inferno
  • Italy
  • Office
  • Aztec
  • Nuke
  • Train
  • Mirage

These are the essential maps. Each map is balanced, fun, used for competitive play and stood the test of time.

Once you get a good feel for official maps, start playing custom made maps. Workshop made it very easy to try out user created content. I would focus on most popular and most downloaded maps.

As you play, you want you to keep notes and analyze each map. Play both sides of the map, as Counter-Terrorist and as Terrorist.

Here are the things you want to pay attention to when you play:

  • How many choke points does the map have? Where are they?
  • Is the map balanced? Does one team have an advantage in the map? Does one team keep winning more then the other?
  • How is the flow and pacing? Are there enough paths and connecting areas for strategy (choice)?
  • How long does it take from spawn to encounter a choke point and start playing?
  • Which team gets to choke point first (gaining advantage)?
  • How many main paths does the map have for each team from spawn?
  • How many connecting paths does the map have?
  • Does the map support various playing styles? Which areas are sniper alleys and which areas are for close quarter combat?

Here is one of many level design notes about certain things I liked while playing a map.

Here are some notes on gameplay timing; how long it takes each team to reach a choke point.

Once you play a lot, you will get a feel of the game and gameplay mechanics that are required for a successful map.

There are times when you are on a team that is working on a game, and you do not have a playable/testable build of the game. You can still learn and apply these principles. If you are unable to play the game you will be mapping for, you can still learn a lot of principles of FPS game level design from other games. Find a similar game where gameplay mechanics closely resemble the game you will be level designing for. For example, Counter-Strike has a similar feel and gameplay mechanics to Call of Duty. They are obviously different games, but they do appeal to similar playing style that attracts Counter-Strike audience and Call of Duty audience. Level design insight can be transferred from one game to the other because of similar gametype and gameplay mechanics. Learn and stick to principles of good level design.

Process Steps To Do:

  • Dedicate a certain amount of time playing the game, with a purpose of learning more about the game mechanics and layouts of popular maps.
  • Keep a level design/game environment journal or sketchpad nearby to write down any ideas or sketch layouts.
  • Note any interesting gameplay mechanics you find.

SCENARIO

Once you have an idea for a map, decide if it is going to be a defuse map or hostage rescue map. Defuse maps tend to get more play then hostage rescue maps.

You could simplify defuse and hostage maps down to attacking and defending. Many fps games have their own modified version of attack/defend scenario.

On hostage rescue map (cs_ prefix), Counter-Terrorist team is attacking, while Terrorist team is defending. On defuse map (de_ prefix), Terrorist team is attacking, while Counter-Terrorist team is defending.

There are other unofficial gametypes that you could create maps for in Counter-Strike. Some of these are fy (fight yard), ka (knife arena), aim and deathmatch. Such gametypes do not require well thought out map layouts. In this tutorial we only focus on hostage rescue and defuse maps. But if you learn what I am sharing with you here, designing layouts for unofficial gametypes will be almost effortless.

Process Step To Do:

  • Decide what gametype do you want your map to be? Defuse map or hostage rescue map?

STARTING THE LAYOUT

Once you have decided if your map is defuse or hostage rescue, next step is to figure out your gameplay layout. Get a drawing pad and begin sketching out layout ideas; write down any gameplay themes and locations you may want to create.

Some things I begin to think about during this process:

  • How many main paths/routes will the map have?
  • How many connecting paths will the map have in addition to the main ones?
  • Where are the choke points going to be?
  • What are the locations I want for choke points and spawn points?
  • How will this map support various gameplay types? (Long for snipers, short for close quarter combat).
  • Start to collect photo reference.

Begin thinking and exploring your map idea. During this step, do not force yourself to create a map layout. We will do this later in the process. Simply write and sketch different ideas that come to you as you look at reference, play maps and have insight of what your map may play and look like. Right now, you are collecting data.

Your sketches/drawings do not have to be pretty. Sketching process should be very quick. I often go through dozen of rough, very messy layouts as I narrow down ideas.

I do not keep anything in my head. Any time I get an idea, I write it down or sketch it out. I always keep a sketchpad handy as I go through the layout process for any map.

I also begin to collect photo reference. This helps me to expand on map pathways, locations and choke points.

Process Steps To Do:

  • Sketch ideas for your layout as they come to you; don't force to come up with an actual map layout but simply note ideas that come to you; write/sketch them down
  • Start collecting photo reference of your map idea, go to images.google.com and type in your map idea location; start saving images into a ‘photo reference' folder of your map project

MAIN PATH ROUTES

We now get down to the core of layout design, developing main path routes.

Each map in Counter-Strike contains main paths, choke points, connecting paths and objectives.

Main paths are routes that each team takes to reach a choke point and an objective. Connecting paths are routes that connect main paths between each other, giving the player a choice for strategy. I'll cover connecting paths a bit later.

Whether you are on Counter-Terrorist side or Terrorist side, main paths lead each team to a choke point where they battle for control. If attacking team breaks through a choke point, they reach an objective to either plant the bomb or rescue the hostages.

Let's take de_dust as an example. Dust has a simple layout. It contains 2 main pathways - Underpass and Palace Interior. These are main pathways for Terrorist team to take.

You need to design main pathway routes for your map. This process is simple. Develop 2 or 3 main paths leading from spawn point to bombsite or hostage locations. Don't do any more then 3. If you look at any official CS:GO maps from Valve, they all contain 2 or 3 main paths.

When I develop main paths, I find it easier to think from point of view of the attacking team.

In defuse maps, Terrorist side is the attacking and Counter-Terrorist side is the defending side. In hostage rescue CT side is attacking and T side is defending.

I start with the attacking team. I use pen and paper and I draw arrows from spawn points to objectives. I keep it very simple. For a defuse map, I start from T side and think how will they attack the bombsite. What are the paths they will take and where will they meet resistance? It doesn't mean that I don't take defending side into consideration. I do, but when I am figuring out main paths, I think from the point of attacking team first. Remember that each main path usually contains connecting paths within. I do not count connecting paths as main paths. I focus on simplicity of main path design first.

Here are variety of sketches I did for main path layout. Notice how rought and simple they are. I'm thinking of flow and gameplay. Not final layout. Sometimes I main pathway arrows, other times I think main map sections.

Main pathways are core of your map layout.

Let me give you a better understanding of main path layout in official Counter-Strike maps. If the screenshots aren't clear to you, watch the video tutorial above and it should make more sense.

Dust 2: 4 main paths. Upper Tunnel to B; Middle to Mid doors; Catwalk to Short Stairs to A; Long A.

Inferno: 3 main paths. Middle/Second Mid to A; Middle/Second Mid to Apartments to A; Middle to B.

Train: 3 main paths. Side Yard to B; Front Entrance to Middle to A; Side Yard to Back Entrance to A.

If you are creating hostage rescue maps, same principles apply. Only now think from CT side, which becomes the attacking side.

Here are official maps for hostage rescue and main pathways that lead CTs to choke points and to objective.

Italy: 3 main paths. Left Alley or Apartments to T start; Middle; Market to Long Hall. (Italy may at first seem to contain more then 3 main paths, but many are connecting paths)

All main pathways you create must lead to map's objective.

Defending side will end up having the same number of main pathways. There nothing extra you need to do for defending side, since they usually don't advance within a map and they must defend the objectives.

At this stage you should also note spawn points for each team and objectives. These most likely will change. Take your main path layout and mark where Terrorist and Counter-Terrorist will spawn from and mark the objectives. I simply write CT Spawn and T Spawn for player spawns and X for objectives.

Process Steps To Do:

  • Decide how main paths will your map have. Will you keep it simple like dust and create only 2 main paths? Will you create a more sophisticated layout like Inferno, Dust2 or Mirage?
  • Draw out your main pathways. Keep this process simple. Use straight lines and think from point of view of attacking team.
  • It will help you create main pathways when you know your map idea, location and theme. Use photo reference to help you out with main pathway design.

CHOKE POINTS

Choke point (a.k.a. control point or bottleneck) is where the attacking team meets resistance from the defending team. Attacking team must push through the choke point to reach the objective. Choke points should be specifically designed to offer interesting combat opportunities.

Choke points can be designed for close range as in de_nuke (Back Room/Hut/Squeaky areas), de_inferno (Apartments):

...or long range for sniping as in de_dust2's (Long A) and de_aztec's (Bridge):

Channel the attacking team towards a choke point; a bottleneck where the they have to:

  • Fight through it, or
  • Change direction and try a different strategy through a different main path, thus a different (new) choke point.

Choke points should be placed before the attacking team can reach the map's objective. So if you have 3 main paths, you should have 3 choke points; one for each main path.

Timing becomes very important in choke point design. You want both teams to get to the choke point about the same time. With some flexibility given to the defending team; where the defending team can reach the choke point couple of seconds earlier to set up position. Timing is crucial for defuse map gametype. In hostage rescue, it is not as important because Terrorist team simply needs to stay with the hostages around the spawn area.

Choke Point Design Principle 6: "...hostage rescue map choke points are dynamic. Hostage rescue does not require very precise and timed approach as it does for defuse maps. It is because choke points will change based on if Terrorist team plays aggressively (attacking) or passively (defending). So when designing hostage rescue maps, you will need to think about strategy of defending team and how they may play the map."



Recommended Reading: CSGO 6 Principles of Choke Point Design Tutorial

Timing the arrival of each team will be done in BSP layout stages in the level editor. From spawn point you will have to time how long it takes to get to the choke point for each team. Refining until both times are about the same.

Design choke points so the attacking team has to fight through it.

Do not create more than 2 paths (entrances) to the objective within a single choke point that is not visible from the same point of view of the player.

For example:

Dust (Underpass and Up the Stairs) - both are visible and can be seen at the same time, giving a strategy option for that choke point:

Dust2 (Upper Tunnel), single entry to the objective, a tunnel:

So avoid multiple (more than 2) entry locations to the objective within the same choke point that isn't visible at the same time. Control your choke points and you will control gameplay.

Let's take look at the de_train. All of the attacking paths narrow down to a hallway or a doorway, thus keeping the attacking team and defending team fighting. If choke points were bigger, wider and had multiple paths within a single choke point, it would destroy pacing, flow and balance of the map. It would offer an advantage to the attacking team. Allowing T side to easily rush and plant every time without CT ability to defend.

Let's take a look at a few examples:

Dust: Underpass choke point. This is a long-range choke point and higher elevation gives CTs extra advantage.

Aztec: Bridge and Double Doors. Bridge is long range and Double Doors being both long and short range. Bridge offers a way to jump down and go water but at a very high risk.

See this blog post for CS:GO Choke Point Design, it goes more into depth about official maps choke points. (Coming Soon)

Process Steps To Do:

  • To successfully design choke points, you must know where the objectives are for each map. Either hostages or bombsites. Place choke points as a barrier for attacking team to overcome.
  • Make sure to narrow the flow of open areas to a single entry point. Such as a tunnel, doorway or a hallway. Channel the attacking team towards that choke point.
  • Be aware of timing. The arrival of each team to the choke point should be close to the same time; or making the defending team arrive at a choke point slightly sooner in order to properly defend. Timing this will be done in the layout stages in level editor.

CONNECTING PATH ROUTES

Once you figured out main paths and choke points, it is time to design connecting paths.

Connecting paths are routes that connect main paths between each other, giving player choices for strategy. An opportunity to switch direction to a different main pathway.

You don't want the attacking team have to track back to spawn in order to change their direction. Offer a way to do so by giving a connecting path between two main paths. This keeps gameplay dynamic and interesting.

An example of Dust 2, if Terrorist team goes left through the Upper Tunnel, they have a choice to continue to Bombsite B or they can switch and reconnect through Lower Tunnel and Middle at Double Doors. At that point they can go through double doors to site A or B.

Another example of connecting paths is the crawlspace and middle haystack in de_inferno.

In Dust, each of two main paths offers choices. Palace Interior has two directions, left or right side entrances. Underpass has an option to continue up ramp or take stairs and come to overpass.

I would first focus on a single connecting path between two main paths. Once you get better at level design in Counter-Strike, you can play around with more options. Remember to keep it simple. Don't complicate your layout. Offer strategy but keep it balanced and simple.

Not every main path needs an option of connecting paths. In Dust 2, if you take Long A (right side from T), you only have that single path to take towards the bombsite. In Italy, once you commit to Long Hall Tunnel, you have to push through to the other side or retreat back.

Creating connecting pathways is simple once you have main pathways laid out. During this process I start with the attacking team and look at main path routes. I visualize where and how I want to connect main paths to each other. Where will the attacking team be able to switch strategy?

Connecting pathways are pointed out in red.

I do the same thing to defending side. I think of how do I want defending team to enter objective areas using multiple connecting paths.

Let me give you more examples of connecting path routes by showing you official maps in Counter-Strike.

Train: Ladder and entire site A is inner-connected.

Nuke: Ducts and ladder to above A.

Inferno: Library near A and Ruins/Garden at B.

Process Steps To Do:

  • Take your main path layout and begin to fill in connecting paths. Focus on the attacking team. Think of how you could add strategy to the attacking side with connecting routes.
  • Repeat the same for defending side.
  • Do multiple iterations until you are happy with connecting paths and main paths layout.

OBJECTIVES AND SPAWN POINTS

Revisit objective placement and team spawn points. Based on layout iterations, your spawn points and objective locations may have changed.

Process Steps To Do:

  • Mark any new objectives and spawn points locations.

Let's put everything together and create our layout.

CREATING THE LAYOUT - PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

I know this is a lot to take it, so let's quickly cover the entire process straight to the point. Once you understand this, you'll be able to put it to use very quickly.

I hope you've been sketching and putting down ideas on paper. If you haven't this is the time to start. Let's go through this step-by-step.

  • Put down where Counter-Terrorist and Terrorist spawns are.  Where is the attacking team and where is the defending team?
  • Decide on how many paths your map will offer for the attacking side. Draw out the main paths. Stick to only two or three main paths. Remember it is easier to design main pathways for attacking team first, since they are going to be pushing to advance. Keep this process simple.
  • Figure out where the choke points are going to be. Each main path brings the attacking team to the choke point. A bottleneck of gameplay where the attacking team has to break through the choke point and arrive at the objective.
  • Once you have main paths and choke points sketched out; decide on connecting paths. Take main paths and add connecting routes before the choke point to allow choice and strategy.  Not all main paths have to connect. Do not add connecting pathways through the choke points.

After this process you end up with a gameplay layout that has been thoughtfully designed and focused on balance, flow and strategy.

Rework the layout as much as you need, but do not spend a lot of time. Paper layout is to help you reference what you'll create in the editor.

We are now done with paper layout. What we have created will be used as a guide to help us during the BSP block-in phase.

Updated & Revised - Preproduction Blueprint: How to Plan Your Game Environments and Level Designs

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