TF2 Design Theory

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Team Fortress 2 is a highly diversified multiplayer game, and well-designed maps that accommodate all of the player classes equally are critically important to it. Unfortunately while understanding how the game plays is one thing, creating a quality map that compliments it is quite another.

  • A good map is fast and fun to play on. The best maps can run on a 24/7 server without getting boring even after the second or third reload.
  • A good map accommodates every class. If a class is useless on a map, players who prefer that class are liable to disconnect when your work comes up in a server's rotation.
  • A good map is designed, not simply constructed. If all you are doing is re-creating the surface appearance of another map, you're highly unlikely to create something worth playing in its own right.

Gametype

The first step in creating a TF2 map is choosing a gametype. Six are supported:

Arena

Lumberyard's CP. The side doors open when it unlocks.
Players should be forced to make a tradeoff if they want to pick up health. Falling here means death!

Arena is similar to Counter-Strike. Players do not respawn, there are no or very few health pickups (but bodies of water are often provided for dousing flames), and rounds are won either by eliminating the enemy team or capturing a single control point somewhere in the middle of the map.

Balance in arena needs to be on a knife-edge, so it's strongly recommended that maps for it be symmetrical. To prevent camping you should also make spawn rooms open to the enemy team.

The central control point should start locked to encourage players to fight each other; in fact its only real purpose is to force an end to the map if they start to hide. In all of Valve's maps the point unlocks after sixty seconds.

Advantages
Arena is designed to be played quickly, so maps are very small and comparatively quick to create.
Symmetric design makes things simpler still.
Simple win conditions simplify entity work.
Disadvantages
Arena forces precise team balance, which can lead to players sitting out entire rounds if there are too many on one team.
Players will be paying far closer attention to your work. Make sure that it is balanced and there are no exploits!

CTF - Capture The Flag

In CTF, each team has a "flag", an intelligence briefcase, and a capture point. Players need to take the enemy's intelligence back to their own capture point.

It is common for the flag points and capture points to be located in the same place but they don't have to be. Separating the flag and capture points can create interesting map designs where the teams have two areas to attack and defend. This creates many "jobs" for the players so, it's generally a good idea to use larger maps in this case.

2fort's Blue entrance.
2fort's Red entrance.

CTF tends to be the easiest style of gameplay to design maps for, as its maps are generally small and symmetrical in layout. ctf_2fort is the classic example of this: it consists of two bases directly opposite one another, each with the same layout. The only difference between them is decor. The pictures on the right show how both sides look very different from one another even though their layouts are the same.

The easiest way to make a symmetric CTF map is to build the basic layout for half of your map, create a copy and rotate the copy 180 degrees and merge them face to face. Then you can customize and re-texture it to your liking.

If you choose to make a non-symmetrical map, you have to make sure no unfair advantages is given to either team. It should take roughly the same amount of time and effort for either team to defend or to capture.

Also bear in mind that having to make a long journey to and from the enemy flag can make a map get very boring very quickly. It's recommended that you keep map sizes to a minimum and include lots of obstacles and alternate routes.

Advantages
Design is generally easier than the other two gameplay styles.
Map design can be simplified using symmetry between the two sides.
Disadvantages
Non-symmetric maps can be very difficult and time-consuming to balance.
With a symmetric design, any changes you make to the layout of one side have to be duplicated on the other side.

CP - Control Point

Control Point maps require players to capture at least one instance of their namesake from the enemy team. The precise mechanic that leads to a team's victory is up to you, but it usually involves one team capturing all of the CPs on a map, with the last one being the closest to the enemy's spawn.

There are two ways of handling this:

Attack/Defend

Interior of Dustbowl 1-1. Grenades can easily be thrown in for massive damage.
Dustbowl 3-2, the final CP. Very open, and with just two small corridors leading into it.

Attack/Defend CP maps cast one team as the attacker (usually tends to be Blue) and the other as the defender. Once a control point in an assault map is captured it is locked to prevent the defenders from pushing back, and the attackers win the match by capturing all of them.

"cp_dustbowl" and "cp_gorge" are prime examples of this gameplay mode. Basic map construction tends to place control points in what is currently known as "stages". Stages contain a number of control points indicated by a round. Once blue captures each control point within a stage they usually are awarded a point, or gain access to another stage. While stages can be designed any which way they tend to never form symmetry, therefore are different in shape, flow, and design as the map progresses. Because of this maps can have a number of stages; stages can have a number of control points attached to them as well as offer individual gameplay experiences based around control point locations, and paths directed to them.

Advantages
More variety
Sense of progress
Better control of pacing
Popular with players
Disadvantages
Much harder to balance

Push

Granary's central, symmetrical CP.

Symmetric CP maps allow either team to attack or defend as they please, and are won when one or the other holds every point. cp_well, cp_granary and cp_badlands are the main examples. In them, both teams begin with the two points on their side of the map and start by fighting over the neutral middle point. Since the maps are symmetrical, whichever team holds the middle point is generally winning the game.

Traditionally, only two points are ever unlocked in symmetrical maps. This focuses the fight in one area and allows players to concentrate on the matter at hand, without worrying that a pesky scout has slipped past them and is going to take an undefended point far behind their lines.

Advantages
Symmetry halves design work
Disadvantages
Matches can go on for a long time if no team gains a decisive advantage, leading to player burnout
Size is a constant issue at times. Larger push maps can be problematic for slower classes.

PL - Payload

Goldrush 3-1. Note the tunnel adjacent to the track.

Payload is an assault gametype in which control points are captured with a moving bomb cart instead of by players. Attackers push the cart along a rail track and over the timer-extending CP's by standing nearby, while defending players stop it either by keeping attackers away from it or by standing near it themselves. Payload was introduced with pl_goldrush, which for quite some time after release was TF2's most popular map.

Payload has many similarities to CP assault, but also some subtle differences. The biggest is that the objective area doesn't leap from one area to another as it does in CP: the bomb trundles steadily, meaning that attackers can't ninja cap the next point before the defenders are ready. This removes the temptation some players feel to defend a locked point "just in case".

Advantages
(See Assault CP)
A 'smoother' experience. Progress is gradual, instead of the sudden lurches of CP maps.
Bomb cart is a clear focal point at all times.
Disadvantages
(See Assault CP)
Much entity Work, even so including custom models for Payload explosions.
Bulk of attackers must take a completely predictable path.

TC - Territory Control

A inner CP on Hydro, currently owned by Blue.
A outer CP on Hydro, raised up above a radar dish. Height becomes an issue here.

Territory Control can be thought of roughly as linear, round-based CP on a nonlinear map. Four cross-connected areas are fought over two-by-two until one team controls all, at which point a one-way assault into their "headquarters" launches. If this seems confusing, play a few rounds of tc_hydro and you'll soon get the hang of it.

If neither team capture an area within a time limit the round is declared a draw and, if the server has it enabled, sudden death mode begins. This will happen quite a lot, unfortunately, since the four main areas can be played in any order so all need to be balanced against each other.

This also makes TC maps the hardest to create, since you've got 3*3 = 9 possible combinations to cater for! Texturing can also be challenging since each area can be owned by either team, leading to a predominance of Grey and white tones.

On top of all this, hydro is unpopular on servers thanks to the number of stalemates it leads to. You might have trouble getting server operators to include your map in their rotation

Advantages
Very few are made so there's less competition
Can afford to experiment and try a variety of different ideas in one map
Disadvantages
Very difficult to balance four different areas against each other
Visual design difficulties
Very large

KOTH - King of the Hill

Viaduct's central point. All of the fighting occurs around here.

In the King of the Hill gametype both teams assault a central point. The control point unlocks 30 seconds after the round has started. When one team captures the point their timer on the top of the screen starts ticking down. If the other team captures the point then their timer starts ticking down and the other team's timer stops. (So if Blu ran their timer down to 2:30 and then Red took over the control point then the Blu timer would stop at 2:30 and the Red timer would start ticking down)

When the timer for one team has reached zero, that team wins. If the point is partially captured when a team's timer reaches zero, overtime occurs until the point is either captured by the other team or defended by the team with zero on their timer. If the other team captures the point during overtime their timer will start ticking even though the other team's timer is 0.

KOTH maps are popular on many servers due to their simplistic gameplay and chaotic action occuring at one control point. They should always be symmetrical to ensure team balance and should also be relatively small due to having only one point.

Advantages
Easy to create
Easy to balance
Relatively popular
Very unlikely for one round to go long enough to burn out the player
Disadvantages
Not much depth
Can get repetitive due to short round times

Design

There is a great deal that can be said on this subject, so consider the following a brief introduction only.

Tip:Try sketching your layout idea with pen and paper first. It's much faster than building something in Hammer only to discover that it doesn't work, or that you want to do something else.
Class abilities
The key to a fun map is playing off each class' abilities against the others'. Height, sight lanes, windows, cover and arena size are just a few of the tools you have at your disposal.
Objective location
Where to place flags, control points or the payload track is the most important decision you'll make. Closed spaces are generally harder to defend than open spaces, unless that space is so open sniping becomes viable. Raising the objective up makes approaching it a more delicate (and potentially frustrating) act, while lowering it allows players to pound whoever is down there from a height.
Entrances/exits
Never, never, EVER leave a team with only one entrance or exit to or from a location, unless it's at the very start or end of a map. Doing this invites grinding, griefing and general misery.
Equally important is the balance of entrances/exits for each team. If one team has three choices of approach while another has ten, the second team has an obvious advantage (which may be what you want).
Detail
Don't choke your map with detail. That approach might work in story-driven single-player games, but in TF2 clarity is everything and detail only serves to slow the eye down. Try to focus your details around areas of interest, such as objectives like flags and control points, doorways, spawnrooms, and frequently used hallways. Detail any area the player will see up close often and pay attention to.

Look at others' work, keep playing the game and keep making maps, and eventually you'll have an understanding of TF2 map design.

Case study: GravelPit B

Only Soldiers, Demomen, and Scouts can reach the roof of point B.
  • Gravelpit (Control Point B) has a well-balanced mix of outdoor and indoor combat, spiked with a rooftop that is only accessible to Soldiers, Demos and Engineers. However, health and ammo can only be found by descending. If players on the roof are prepared to crouch down and stand on the rim of the bell tower they can fire down directly into about half of the CP's floorspace.
  • There is a raised platform to the left that can only be mounted by Soldiers/Demos and Scouts; other classes must run around the other side of the building, or else go in the front.
  • There are windows in the CP building to lob grenades through, the left of which reveal walls which allow Soldiers to deal splash damage to players or buildings sheltering nearby.
  • Elsewhere a small shack can provide shelter for an attacking Engineer's buildings, but an unbreakable window allows defenders to see what's happening inside.
  • There is a ring of rock spires, roofs and thin wooden walls that Scouts can use to leap about on, though very few players actually do this.
  • Lastly, a raised walkway on the left edge of the arena provides cover for snipers, albeit with limited visibility.

Construction

Basic Elements of a TF2 Map

A map is built from basic geometrical elements. Some tutorials cover the creation of these elements. If maps are the complex molecules, the elements are the atoms. The covered topics include:

Other tutorials approach the explanations in a different way. The following tutorials are in-depth explanations of the creation of certain elements and goal systems:

See Basic Map Construction for details on how to create each component of a TF2 map. This section gives only general advice.

Signage

TF2 maps have lots of signs in them that guide new players in the right direction. They take the form of models that you can place with the prop_static entity, are located in the props_gameplay/ folder, and all start with 'sign_'. Use the model browser's Skins tab to select the appropriate message and team color.

The big arrows seen in Valve's maps are materials, which can be used as decals or by applying them to brushes. Hydro's round arrow sign can be found at props_hydro/cap_point_arrow, and will need a floating func_brush with the appropriate material placed in front of them.

Tip: Dependent on map design and flow, a good idea would be to "enable/disable" signs based on team, and location, direction of goal. This can help stop confusion with players going the wrong way if your map happens to offer multiple routes. You want to streamline your map using signs!

Clipping

Use player clip brushes to stop players from getting stuck on complex walls.

Clipping is the process of creating invisible walls in places where you don't want players, buildings, or both, to go. You should always associate one with a visual effect that lets players see that they can't go that way, unless it's in the sky or another location where people shouldn't be unless they've found a map exploit. Since rocket/sticky jumping can launch players high into the air, you need to be extra careful about doing this correctly!

Warning:Beware creating 'perch points'. These happen when one object or clip brush sticks out from what's above it, by even the tiniest amount, allowing players to stand halfway up a wall.

There are two types of clip. Each are made by applying a certain material to a brush:

tools/toolsclip
Stops anything from entering the volume, including physics props and engineer buildings, but does not stop projectiles such as grenades
tools/toolsplayerclip
Stops players from entering the volume

It's a good idea to playerclip the roofs of buildings and any small ledges unless you specifically want players to be able to access them. You should also use playerclip on 'rough' surfaces that they might otherwise get stuck on when sliding along.

Brush Heights

Study brush heights within your map, and try to design the map on an even ground. This not only helps with optimization, but it can also help how certain classes can move throughout the map. In example, if a scout double jumps and can't seem to reach a ledge due to it being a few units higher, lower it. Make no area of the map only restricted to one class, allow at least half of the classes to be able to access multiple heights. Take into account as well the many Unlockable weapons to come for further updates. Many of the weapons unlocked by classes have the ability to push other players. Things like cliffs, or clipped areas could be griefed or accessible by such weapon features.

The usual height of a wall tends to be "192" units. This offers enough space for all classes, while still maintaining realistic design.

See also