A Level Designer behind levels in Partisans 1941 Dmitry Butkevich talked about the working process during the development of the game, what tools were added to Unreal Engine 4 for the production, and shared his opinion on the optimal map size.
For those, who have played Partisans 1941, it might be interesting to find out that it wasn’t supposed to be a strategy game in the first place and we wanted it to be a survival game with elements of tactics and strategy. We even used This War of Mine as one of the main references for a while.
But over time Alter-Games designers have changed their views on the game and as a result, new wonderful ideas appeared. Primitive stealth mode, which used knives only in the first place, has become more complex due to adding special abilities, disposables, and partisans’ skills. Their combat behavior has also improved dramatically. Therefore my very first maps required not only constant improvements but sometimes complete redesign.
Despite the fact that as soon as the very first game previews and screenshots were posted, Partisans became known as Commandos twin, the game was supposed to use both combat and stealth elements almost in equal measure.
At least we tried to balance these elements on maps and not to tire the gamer of taking tones of guards out. It became my main goal while designing levels.
Combat Areas, Stealth or Combat?
In games like Commandos or Shadow Tactics, the player was usually punished severely for failing to stay in stealth and trying to carry out a bloody massacre. In Partisans, we managed to achieve parity, so if a player fails to be in stealth, it doesn’t mean that the whole mission is spoiled, it only makes the player go into battle, which is possible to win. However, there are some storyline maps, which are impossible to go through without being in stealth.
As soon as we started working on maps, we figured it out that in order to develop easy to master and play gameplay, it’s required to divide them into combat areas. The word "combat" doesn’t mean that you always have to fight because you can go through the vast majority of areas both fighting and being in stealth. It’s better to call them gameplay areas.
It’s important to highlight that every area is a visually local space (a yard, a meadow, and so on) where the player achieves their goals, and where the quantity and quality of enemies and their location directly affect the difficulty level.
Also, we had to take into account that on the majority of maps the player has great freedom to move and choose what to do.
Frankly speaking, the best strategy to go through the majority of gameplay areas is supposed to be like that – first of all, the character should cut out guards who are away from the centre, then occupy the most advantageous cover and finally finish cleaning up the area with accurate fire. It does not rule out both total stealth and open combat from the very beginning.
However, any universal solution is always worse in detail than a narrow field of specialization, so we had to sacrifice it while developing maps.
For example, the stealth itself is not as deep and puzzling as, for instance, in Shadow Tactics but it involves more ways to go through. And you can do it by different and variable groups of partisans.
Why Are Germans So Deaf?
Soon after the game release, we started to get negative feedback on the unrealistic range of enemy hearing and map distances that are quite small. A vast majority of tactics and RTS game developers tend to face such problems. This applies in particular to historical ones. I’ve got such feedback on Blitzkrieg and Blitzkrieg 2 once.
Of course, in real life, a gunshot and especially a grenade attack in the yard would hustle the whole garrison, and partisans would have to hide in the forest quickly and spend there more time before getting back.
But would the gamer be interested in such a hyper-realistic game? Or would be interesting to run from one combat area to another in real-time through "realistic" miles of fields and forests? I don’t even mention the process of optimization of such huge maps.
If I had had to redesign some maps completely, I would have increased some distances. Only a bit. But in any case, we can’t ignore the term «game convention» regarding distances. It firstly concerns military-history games with an isometric viewpoint.
When Skills Come After Maps
Any professional level designer knows all the stages one has to come through on the way to a final game perfectly well. From the blueprints to blockouts and prototypes, and then there are alpha and beta versions, where the game is getting finalized. But it’s just in theory. Working on Partisans was much more fun!
As the gameplay concept has changed a lot at least several times, there are still a few dozens of levels I’ve created but never used. And it’s clear that I’ve made the right decision to develop new ones, instead of redesigning the old ones completely.
Old maps not included in the game:
It’s important to mention that the vast majority of current levels were ready to use long before the release. We spent almost a year before releasing a game on finalizing and polishing gameplay, bug fixing, and working on the partisan base itself.
During this stage, the designers have to add new skills, change old ones, balance weapons, and so on. As a result, I had to adjust maps and their gameplay to new rules and conditions.
What conclusions should we draw from all the above? A very simple one. Even if you have both time and a strong desire, there is no need to rush to finalize the level until you are 100% sure.
Trust me – there will be always time to tidy everything up. But it would be much easier, for example, to expand combat areas on every map if designers suddenly decided to extend the range of fire before tidying everything up.
Unreal Engine 4
The very first working prototype (before I joined the studio) was made with Unity, and then we decided to move to UE4.
It was my very first experience of working with such a powerful and universal engine. All the projects I used to take part in had their own engines and editors. So, I got really excited to keep working with this engine.
In general, UE4 was perfect for developing maps in Partisans, taking into account some specificities, of course. In any case, this tool is very handy. Its UI is quite flexible, and you can adjust it to your own needs.
Final map in the UE4 editor:
Standard UE4 NavMesh and generated RecastNavMesh work well by default in the case of shooters and arcade games, but in our case, we had to change its configuration subtly and run many tests. Finally, we managed to get satisfactory results.
Despite the fact that there are a lot of different ready-to-use modes for this engine, all the tools I needed for working with maps, were created by programmers. Many thanks to them! Among them, I can highlight: our own road and ravine constructor, a quest and dialogue system, a universal ActionManager (for different events and Al actions), SpawnManager for doors and covers, and other smaller tools
Collections is quite a beneficial UE tool for any level designer, and I used it all the way through development. There might be some people who have never heard of it. It allows sorting and collecting your own "hot" sets of the most commonly used objects.
Problems and Solutions
We had to redesign covers completely during the development. Finally, the actors of isolated covers started to look like on the screenshot since then we haven’t faced any problems with them.
But we came across a lot of obstacles designing covers on the corners of the houses and by the windows. The actors of the houses also play an important role.
Initially, we were not going to put fighters inside the houses and conduct battles. That’s why countryside houses on some maps look like toy houses. But it’s beneficial for the whole visual style.
Later, when it became clear that it’s essential for a tactics game, the houses became bigger. The actors they were made from were also getting more complex. The covers by the windows and ones on the corners of the houses appeared not long before the release and were generated after placing houses on the map using special SpawnManager.
Working on the very first maps, our artists and I were actively trying to play with terrain heights. But finally came to the conclusion that it’s unnecessary.
Great height variations caused a lot of predictable problems with shooting, terrain travel capability, and visibility, while it didn’t cause any gameplay problems. Taking into account the camera angle, small height variations are almost noticeable for a player, but still were a source of problems. As a result, we can come across some rough surface somewhere in the game but it isn’t very profitable for the game.
In those cases, where it was necessary to highlight any heights and create an impassable place, I used ravines. They are just angles arranged along with dramatic drops in height.
The gameplay element appeared in the game thanks to the feedback from our beta players. The thing is that the players got quite surprised when one of the watch guards got killed and disappeared while another watch guard, who was passing by, didn’t care a lot about the fellow guard’s disappearance. Such things were quite normal ten years ago but today we can’t ignore our players’ opinion because it’s quite rational.
But how to balance classic step-by-step stealth gameplay and appearance of logical behavior/responding of Al enemy?
We partly managed to solve this problem by adding officers who checked their soldiers from time to time. When they noticed if one of the patrolmen was missing, they started to sound the alarm. So it was necessary to eliminate the officer in the first place.
In my opinion, it’s a good solution for such a game. But I wish I used it more frequently and on every map.
Night and lights
There are a few night maps in the game. According to the feedback, stealth lovers are quite interested in night maps.
Such maps have not only beautiful visualization, but a unique gameplay, which plays with sources of light, including dynamic ones, changes cones of visibility and uses switches. It wouldn’t be possible without powerful and handy support by our programmers
Foliage and Covers
At first, artists supplied me with many cute bushes and big trees of two types – pine and deciduous ones. Speaking of bushes, they are always passable and if the partisan uses them as a cover, the enemy can’t see them. It’s quite logical and looks good.
The situation with deciduous trees was a bit strange. A block of trees was supposed to be impassable. But it got beta players puzzled. They just didn’t know where the bushes ended and the impassable forest started and vice versa. Such forests tend to merge with bushes, taking into account our camera position.
As a result, I almost removed such impassable pieces of forest from the maps or rebuilt them into such small actor bushes, where there are one or two large trees in the setting of bushes. It was a good solution, which didn’t ruin the map's visual style.
Due to smooth trunks and a lack of leaves in the lower parts, pine trees do not cause any problems for players. And there are some such blocks of impassable pine trees on the maps.
Wanted But Impossible to Get
We wanted to get this feature but failed to implement it in the game. We were experimenting actively with destructible sacks, but UE's built-in tools weren’t quite suitable. As a result, the destructibility of covers was partly implemented with a help of Houdini but there wasn’t enough time to finish the process and we decided to leave it like that because it’s better to get nothing than a bad result.
Another important element we used to develop actively and which could significantly impact the gameplay. We even designed a working prototype but the risks were quite high and the time was almost up, so we decided not to introduce the equipment at all. And I have to curb my appetite as a level designer
As it was mentioned before, our main goal is to create universal gameplay suitable not only for stealth lovers but for those who love to shoot freely.
There are maps or tasks developed to go through in stealth mode only, for example, the very first training mission or the night map called “We don't leave people behind” where the player can choose the way to get into a German prison. There is a map called “Execution”, where stealth is limited to the time needed to go through. However, the limitation is quite smooth.
On the map “At all costs,” the player has to get into severe combat, where all the stealth skills get useless. War is war.
Concepts and references for maps:
The vast majority of other maps are completely universal, and the player is free to choose tactics, game style, and favorite characters, which are most suitable for any mission.
I hope this feedback will help tactics game designers make their games better and more interesting. Thanks for your interest in our game.