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Visuals vs. Gameplay - Classic Tradeoff in Competitive Multiplayer Shooters

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The oldest question in the book

Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

Umm…on second thought, I think this question is rather irrelevant to our topic; a better question would be:

“What is more important in a map: visuals or gameplay?”

If you answered visuals, you are right and if you answered gameplay, then I’m sorry to tell you that you are…also right.

It all boils down to the context in which these two features are used and inevitably, there is always a tradeoff, as they are both important in a map.

This topic is essential and I could write countless pages on this subject but to keep it simple, I will direct my focus on the first person shooter genre, and more specifically, competitive multiplayer shooters.

In single player shooters

As the name implies, visuals are all about the 3D world that surrounds the player, from models and textures, to lighting and special effects.

Gameplay is the specific way in which the player interacts with the 3D world around him in-game.

In single player shooters, the visuals, on top of being artistic eye-candy for the viewer’s pleasure, contribute greatly to gameplay and are an integral part of it.

In many games, the player is encouraged to use the environment to their benefit to outsmart the A.I. opponents. There is an immense feeling of satisfaction when you cleverly use your surroundings to sneak past the hostile NPCs or to send them into oblivion.


Your cover is blown…run


The above screenshot from Crysis 3 is a perfect example of what I just said. Those green grasses sway gently and realistically with the breeze, and they are a delight to look at. However, they can also be used as a perfect cover to advance through the derelict train yard without being spotted. The player can find rusted cars, dumpsters and similar props that can be utilized as cover or be power-kicked, crushing his foes along the way.

Another example can be found in Far Cry 3.


Keep sneaking or show yourself, your choice


The dense, lush tropical foliage of the island can be used to hide from guards, evade patrols or infiltrate enemy camps undetected. Using a thick bush to sneak up behind an unaware guard and take him silently gives the player a strong sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Deus Ex Human Revolution is another great example where you can fully use your jam-packed environment to your advantage.


It is crucial to use shadows and dark spots to remain undetected


The game is brimming with dark, shadowy spots that the player can use to avoid guards, security cameras, and those pesky turrets.

In all the above examples, the visuals are there not only to enhance the player’s experience, but also to support him during his progression throughout the game. Those games encourage the player to hide in foliage and shadows to gain advantage and surprise the enemy; such behavior is usually rewarded with in-game experience points, in addition to personal satisfaction and the player feeling like they are a hero.

In multiplayer competitive shooters

Multiplayer competitive shooters are a totally different ball game. Franchises such as Counter-Strike, Unreal Tournament and Quake are the pinnacle of this shooter sub-genre.

These games are in a way closer to competitive sports than to games that are played casually to relax and pass time. There is a lot of competition, intensity, team play and edgy moments; these games can be compared to football or basketball or any other competitive sport pitting two teams against each other, and requiring skill, stamina, and team work to clinch the win.

Naturally, these sports need to have a level playing field to allow both teams to have a fair chance to win; it should boil down to skill and aptitude rather than unforeseen outside conditions when it comes to deciding the winning team.

Imagine you are in a basketball court and the opposing team has installed fast flashing lights on their board to blind you while you attempt to score. As time passes, you find yourself unable to shoot the ball into the basket because of the strobing light that is about to cause you a photosensitive epileptic seizure; you get frustrated and go into ball-rage with violent consequences that should not be discussed here.

This exact feeling of justified rage is what happens in competitive shooters when you are treated unfairly by visuals that interfere with gameplay, which become the deciding winning factor instead of your own skill.

Unlike single player shooters, there is always a tradeoff between visuals and gameplay in competitive multiplayer shooters; one of them has to be sacrificed to allow the other to shine. In terms of math, think of them as inversely proportional; if one increases, the other one has to decrease and vice versa.

We need an example

I recently had the chance to review a map for Counter-Strike Source that serves as an excellent case study for our topic. The map is called de_yucatan and is basically de_aztec, the standard map found in Counter-Strike, with enhanced visuals such as lush greenery, realistic sky and atmospheric, moody sunset light.

The author clearly focused on the visual side and made a not so shabby modification of Aztec, making it resemble an actual Aztec/Mayan archeological site in the rainforest.

However, these same enhancements butchered the gameplay; remember that I said visuals and gameplay are inversely proportional, and in this case with visuals skyrocketing, gameplay was dwindling.

We need screenshots

Of course you do. Who needs long walls of text when a picture can tell a thousand words?


General overview of de_yucatan


The above screenshot sums up pretty much the map: lush foliage everywhere, beautiful sky and quite lovely sunset light.

To the untrained eye, the view looks normal and the gameplay should be “fine”. To the veteran competitive player, issues stick out from this screenshot like a sore thumb: excess foliage and low lighting condition.

The same visual features that were praised in single player shooters become the bane of multiplayer competitive shooters.

If we move forward beyond those 2 barrels in the above screenshot, we find a ramp that leads to a water underpass.


I’m expecting a zombie to jump on me from the shadows…wrong game


Due to the dim environmental lighting, areas of dark shadows are to be expected as seen in the above screenshot, even though the author scattered some flood lights here and there to brighten up players’ paths.

Let’s check more screenshots to see how those pretty visuals affect gameplay and lead to eventual frustration and rage-quitting.


Spot the other player in this screenshot and call 800-512-EYES to win a free visit to the eye doctor


As sarcastic as the screen cap is, it is also true. You probably don’t believe that there is a second player in this screenshot, but I can assure you that there is. If you look at the radar overview in the upper left corner of the pic, you will notice a second blue dot; yep that’s my teammate, a human teammate that volunteered for science and accepted to duck in the bush for the greater good of scientific testing (and to allow me to beat around the bush – sorry I couldn’t resist).


If only those red markers actually existed in-game. Sigh


My teammate is gracefully ducking inside the bush as denoted by the red circle and the red arrow on the radar. He is slightly to the right of my crosshair, yet I totally do not see him even if I strain my eyes trying to.

If you are a “Counter-Terrorist” rushing to defuse or a “Terrorist” sprinting to plant, you only got a fraction of a second to scout the area for enemies. Any hesitation means that your opponent gets the upper hand.

To see the full extent of the gravity of this situation, let’s switch views and witness this same screenshot but this time through the viewpoint of my teammate.


Catastrophic scenario if my teammate was on the opposing team


I don’t know about you, but for me, this is the definition of unfair gameplay; I can’t see a thing around me while the lurking player in the bush has me right in his crosshair.

Imagine if the player sitting in the bush is not my teammate but an adversary; he would have already put a bullet between my eyes long before I can say “what the f***”. Now expand this scenario to several rounds of a player getting continuously shot round after round by ghostly invisible enemies and you got yourself the perfect recipe for rage-quitting and frustration even for the most calm and wise players.

This issue of non-solid foliage is spread across the map with bushes and short dense trees distributed everywhere even in the middle of critical paths. Gameplay is bound to get chaotic and frustrating from round 1.

To make things worse, those bushes are coupled with low lighting conditions as we have seen earlier. I invite you to take a stroll with me down the dark shadowy water underpass.


Turned out the lurking zombie was my teammate after all


As with the bush screenshot, it is hard to believe that there is another player in the above screenshot. Do you see him? No? Try harder; what’s there to lose, you already got a free visit to the eye doctor from the previous screenshot.

In all seriousness, check the radar in the upper left corner of the pic and you’ll see the blue dot denoting my human teammate, who was beginning to get tired of this photo-shoot.

Let me enhance that pic for you in Photoshop by cranking up the brightness/contrast and shadows’ highlights.


I see him, I see him


Much better now, right? But remember that the previous pic was your actual in-game view, and if that lurking player wasn’t your teammate, you would have been a spectator by now, cursing in 5 different languages and threatening to break your mouse and keyboard.

You can notice that the frustration factor is quite high in this map; players can reluctantly accept their loss if they know that the opponent was better and won fairly. But what they can’t tolerate is losing unfairly and repeatedly due to discriminating map conditions.

We need solutions

So does everyone. Please wait for your turn.

After all this demonstration and the map’s gameplay dissection, one can evidently realize why I said in the beginning that there is always a tradeoff between visuals and gameplay in competitive multiplayer shooters. The key word here is sacrifice.

As a level designer, you need to sacrifice some elements of visual realism for the sake of a sounder and more balanced gameplay. Players will most likely accept a not-so-visually-stunning map if the gameplay is balanced, fun and offers all players a fair chance to fight and win. The opposite is not true.

What can be done to this map to make it more viable on the gameplay front?

The number of bushes/shrubs has to be reduced, keeping only the ones that are on the side of paths. The remaining bushes should also be clipped (not by a gardener but by using clip brushes around them) to prevent players from camping inside; they will be used as legitimate cover to duck behind without peeking through and getting an unfair glimpse of the opponent. It is always a good strategy to keep the details at player height as minimal and clean as possible; excess visual clutter is the reason for premature death in Counter-Strike.

Environmental lighting should also be tweaked by raising the brightness and ambient values in the light entity. The level designer should test what values would be the sweet spot between visibility and atmospheric lighting. As before, the keyword is tradeoff; you can’t please everyone at the same time.

One last note to keep in mind is that some people mistakenly think that the map should look like a flat Counter-Strike 1.6 map to be competitively viable. That is not true. You can have a competitive map that is both fair and balanced and looks visually stunning. You have to sacrifice some visual elements for the sake of gameplay but that doesn’t mean you need to pluck all the feathers from your map.

In the end

We can all agree now that what works for single player shooters does not necessarily work for competitive multiplayer shooters. These competitive shooters form a league of their own and have their special set of rules, closer to competitive sports than to casual games.

There will always be a tradeoff between visuals and gameplay, and some sacrifices are necessary; however, cleverly built, a map can be pleasant and enjoyable both visually and gameplay wise.

Will2k

December 6, 2013

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  • 3y
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    > **Posted by JorisCeoen**

    > I'll let you know soon enough when they are ready, and I will also immediatly add the links with it as well.

    Good to know and no need to rush; holidays are meant to relax and enjoy with the family, not to work ;)
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    > **Posted by will2k**

    > > **Posted by JorisCeoen**
    >
    > > Reading the tutorial all of this makes just more and more sense, and I'm definitly going to keep this in my mind with future projects :) Thanks for the amazing article!
    >
    > Hi Joris, thanks for your input.
    >
    > Resuming work on de\_himeji after the holidays?

    Yes indeed. Sorry about not letting you know that I couldn't finish the version before my departure. However I progressed fairly well today on the map, and I think I should be able to soon do the multiple version. I already fixed lots of the little glitches and errors as well, and now I'm left with some custom props for some foliage, though not foliage that would hinder gameplay but rather prevent some camping spots and add visual input to some extremely empty zones (T spawn).

    I'll let you know soon enough when they are ready, and I will also immediatly add the links with it as well.
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    > **Posted by JorisCeoen**

    > Reading the tutorial all of this makes just more and more sense, and I'm definitly going to keep this in my mind with future projects :) Thanks for the amazing article!

    Hi Joris, thanks for your input.

    Resuming work on de\_himeji after the holidays?
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  • 3y
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    Haha, everything in this article reminded me the first maps that I started mapping on. I learned mapping on the Source Engine and once I got to make maps and learned modeling and texturing I was like "Let's blow everyone and Valve's mind off the world and create the map with all details you'd never seen before". I was so wrong and I quickly realised this once investigating in some more information on competitive mapping.

    During my progression in mapping and with helpful reviewers like Will2K and other, more experienced mappers I also learned this competitive method of mapping in my mind. It's certainly not 100% yet, not even with Himeji Castle (though I'm really trying to do everything completely right till it's a 100% alright for defusal gameplay with the newer upcoming version), but it's coming more and more. Also, observing maps that are being played in competitive tournaments and all of Valve's maps is a great way understanding what balance is.

    Also, to add onto the tutorial, because we reviewed a Source Engine map here, it's also good to note that Source **especially relies on this particular sacrifice**, as games like for instance Crysis or Far Cry 3 are enhanched to have the most photo-realistic graphical images. Source doesn't, although CS:GO did a good effort on lighting. What I mean is when you use textures or when you make props for Source, they are all more or less made in the same way, more precisely a way that Source accepts with it's rendering settings and texturing methods. Source uses a lot of baked props (textures that illusionate depth on a model) to enhance depth that is not all too important but **makes a simple model stand out** without being too heavy or using tons of shaders and eliminating **readability**, something that Will2K also wrote about.

    Other engines just have all the techniques to make everything and all look mind-blowing, while mapping for Source is a totally different way to approach these.

    As such, while mapping for competitive gameplay, you also need to decide what's important visually and what's not, what props/brushes can have details and what other props definitly do not. A recent map like that is de_cobblestone from CS:GO that is a perfect example. Foliage, in the 3D Skybox/outside of the map is highly detailed and looks very nice, but simply serves as eye candy and does not make part of the gameplay.

    Minigames and Zombie Escape are exceptions amongst the maps, as they are multiplayer modes that rely on one objective without really the usage of competitive techniques or quickly eliminating a team, defending a point/area, but simply the environments to play **with** (with, not in) so there you could certainly make impressive and detailed environments as long as you keep yourself within the limits of the engine.

    Reading the tutorial all of this makes just more and more sense, and I'm definitly going to keep this in my mind with future projects :) Thanks for the amazing article!
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    > **Posted by Sebhael**

    > I don't particularly agree with your points here, though I've never played whatever map you're referencing to know the general "flow". If there's sweet-spots like this on a map, then you should understand that and preemptively counter the opponent using these sweet spots. You could throw a grenade, a flash grenade, use a M4A1/USB silenced and pre-fire, or just over-all avoid that route.
    >
    > Also, seeing as you're talking about "competitive gaming" - I have NEVER seen a competitive player use max settings. Your screenshots of the "problem" map are countering your entire point when speaking of playing on a competitive level. So what does it look like with a real comp config?

    Hi Sebhael, thanks for your comment.

    You probably read through the article quickly and missed some important passages. Let me re-quote myself from the article:

    > This issue of non-solid foliage is spread across the map with bushes and short dense trees distributed everywhere even in the middle of critical paths. Gameplay is bound to get chaotic and frustrating from round 1.

    We're talking about bushes scattered on every path in the map. Your strategy of flashing/pre-emptive fire is simply not feasible let alone viable; you will get shot by an invisible enemy lurking inside one of the many bushes in the map regardless of the route you take or tactic you choose. A non-solid bush is a non-solid bush regardless of what graphic settings you use, and players will inevitably exploit it, and gameplay is bound to get frustrating.

    I also said this:

    > If you are a “Counter-Terrorist” rushing to defuse or a “Terrorist” sprinting to plant, you only got a fraction of a second to scout the area for enemies. Any hesitation means that your opponent gets the upper hand.

    Pausing for half a second to decide which one of the bushes in your direct field of view to bang/blind fire means that your potential lurking opponent gets an advantage over you.

    Another re-quote from the article:

    > These games are in a way closer to competitive sports than to games that are played casually to relax and pass time. There is a lot of competition, intensity, team play and edgy moments; these games can be compared to football or basketball or any other competitive sport pitting two teams against each other, and requiring skill, stamina, and team work to clinch the win.

    >Naturally, these sports need to have a level playing field to allow both teams to have a fair chance to win; it should boil down to skill and aptitude rather than unforeseen outside conditions when it comes to deciding the winning team.

    Competitive shooters, as I explained in the article, are competitive by nature: You pit players in a level playing field with more or less similar weapons and they need to rely on their skill and mastery of the game mechanics to dominate other players. The game does not have to be played in a pro league with money prizes to be considered competitive. These leagues build upon the competitive nature of the game and not the opposite.

    These games, in an extreme way, are not meant to "relax". Even if you play a round of Unreal Tournament against your brother on a home LAN on a Sunday afternoon, things will quickly get heated and testosterone levels will rise; the game dictates so and if you lose because of discriminating map factors, then frustration ensues.

    Visual sacrifices need to be carried on for the sake of better gameplay in these shooters. Re-quoting the closing sentence in the article:

    >There will always be a tradeoff between visuals and gameplay, and some sacrifices are necessary; however, cleverly built, a map can be pleasant and enjoyable both visually and gameplay wise.
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    > **Posted by Sebhael**

    > I don't particularly agree with your points here, though I've never played whatever map you're referencing to know the general "flow". If there's sweet-spots like this on a map, then you should understand that and preemptively counter the opponent using these sweet spots. You could throw a grenade, a flash grenade, use a M4A1/USB silenced and pre-fire, or just over-all avoid that route.
    >
    > Also, seeing as you're talking about "competitive gaming" - I have NEVER seen a competitive player use max settings. Your screenshots of the "problem" map are countering your entire point when speaking of playing on a competitive level. So what does it look like with a real comp config?

    This might be the reason why my review and will2k's review of the map in the screenshots are different. At the time of playing it, I thought like that too, now that I think about it.

    Since you didn't play it, I will mention the lots of vegetation in it as an example.
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    I don't particularly agree with your points here, though I've never played whatever map you're referencing to know the general "flow". If there's sweet-spots like this on a map, then you should understand that and preemptively counter the opponent using these sweet spots. You could throw a grenade, a flash grenade, use a M4A1/USB silenced and pre-fire, or just over-all avoid that route.

    Also, seeing as you're talking about "competitive gaming" - I have NEVER seen a competitive player use max settings. Your screenshots of the "problem" map are countering your entire point when speaking of playing on a competitive level. So what does it look like with a real comp config?
  • 3y
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    Yep youre right. Excessive graphic quality is affects gameplay into worse

    But some people said "OMG CS 1.6 has low-res textures. i need eye doctor :v " CS 1.6 has only one disadvantages.

    Not support high-res textures map unless with 3rd-party plugin

    This screenshot shows example of enhanced de_aztec texture and holding P90 MC (lol project-blackout weapon). very refresing your eyes for anti-lowres gamer


    But some people said "OMG CS 1.6 has low-res textures. i need eve doctor :v " CS 1.6 has only one disadvantages.

    Not support high-res textures map unless with 3rd-party plugin

    This screenshot shows example of enhanced de_aztec texture and holding P90 MC (lol project-blackout weapon). very refresing your eyes for anti-lowres gamer. Include 3rd-party Plugin Graphic enchanment for Half-Life



    Tell your opnion about that screenshot. For multiplayer i choose visuals and gameplay has propotional balance
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  • 3y
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    > **Posted by JC75**

    > Great and true words from beggining to end. I'll definitely keep this in mind shall i ever get to mapping.
    >
    > However, i was kinda expecting an analysis on the visuals/gameplay balance of today's popular multiplayer shooters. What would you have to say about that?

    Thanks for your comment.

    Today's multiplayer shooters are more casual, targeting the masses and weekend warriors. COD is a prime example where you rely on levels, XP points, airstrikes, drones, dogs and what not; it's not your skill that counts rather it's luck, blind fire and an assortment of enhancements you receive or purchase in-game.

    Competitive shooters is when you and your opponent have more or less the same weapon/weapon class and it boils down to your skill and mastery of the weapon and game mechanics to dominate the other players. This is why visuals cannot and should not hinder the way of proper intense gameplay in these competitive shooters.
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  • 3y
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    Great and true words from beggining to end. I'll definitely keep this in mind shall i ever get to mapping.

    However, i was kinda expecting an analysis on the visuals/gameplay balance of today's popular multiplayer shooters. What would you have to say about that?

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