Malden 2035: From Landscape to Level Design | Dev Blogs | Blog | Argo

Malden 2035: From Landscape to Level Design

/ by Ivan Buchta / Category: Dev Blogs

Hello mercenaries!

We know many of you are curious about Project Argo's environment, which as you might know is a reimagination of one of the islands of Operation Flashpoint (aka Arma: Cold War Assault), Malden. I was very happy to see the feedback, and quite surprised that many of you managed to figure out a way to explore the work-in-progress parts of the map, therefore I decided some interesting bits about its ongoing development. I have to stress that "Malden 2035" is not just another great addition to the vast library of Arma environments, but bears sign of novelty: contrary to the other Arma terrains, we haven't 'just' been investing the usual amount of effort to make it a nice and authentic virtual landscape, but we also attempted to make it a balanced multiplayer environment using the Arma technology and assets.


For those of you who haven't played the Arma series since its very beginning: Malden was one of the three main islands of Arma: Cold War Assault, featuring a sort-of-subtropic mountainous island with pinkish limestone rocks. Its layout is completely made up, and it is based on a crude and heavily downsized terrain of Lefkada. It was supposed to be part of the Maldenian Islands, a fictional archipelago in which CWA took place.

The idea of recreating Malden is more than 4 years old, and yes, I should stop hiding behind the team, the idea was mine. It seemed interesting to me to see how a Flashpoint terrain would fare if done in Arma 3 standards of detail and fidelity, and since Malden's setting was closest to the Mediterranean Altis and Stratis, I decided to try it one day.

More than a year ago, Jarek Kolář and Lukáš Haládik started experimenting with PvP multiplayer, and it became apparent that the classical Arma terrains didn't really facilitate the kind of gameplay Lukáš envisioned. I then proposed to use Malden: a meaningful terrain which could easily be brought alive using existing Arma 3 assets, look decent and provide the desired playground for developing the multiplayer-oriented locations.

When starting the project, I immediately experienced a cool moment of cooperation with the Arma community: after I failed to find the usable data, the Cold War Rearmed 2 mod team helped out by providing me with their data derived from the original Malden package we donated to the CWR mod ages ago. Needless to say, I massively appreciate their help and modesty.

We decided to stay efficient in making Malden 2035, regardless of what its final purpose or extent would be. We avoided creating huge asset lists, but rather decided to stay humble and if the opportunity would arise, to prioritize function over eye-candy. I have to say I enjoyed this limitation - instead of going through a tedious process that would take months before we could start doing anything, I jumped into Terrain Builder and had fun since Day One, knowing that the assets we were using were final products of Arma 3 development. Besides feeling safe about what models we could use, we were also instantly able to focus on supporting the gameplay.

The Level Design Challenge

We started with the basic terrain and road network, but contrary to the common approach of populating a map area by area, we started with a small urban location of Larche, soon followed by the isolated area of Saint Louis and some experiments in the south. At that time, the current game modes of Project Argo started to emerge and we tried to fit them onto the existing places, or build new places to formalize and verify the level design metrics. For quite a long time, we didn't care much about the visual aspect, we only fought on a beach surface in basal-looking areas until we realized that Project Argo could actually be fit for release.

Building a balanced location for a multiplayer mode (which rules may change in the process) is a challenge different from the one we usually face when making an Arma terrain. The basic elements of cover, concealment, landmarks or mass dynamics are there, but there's also the extra consideration of arranging these in a way which is not just authentic, but is also balanced in order not to give any of the competing sides an unfair advantage. We soon realized that letting me to just put something arbitrary together will not always yield the kind of environment suitable for multiplayer scenarios we envisioned. Therefore, we began to focus on rules that should govern the "level" design, and we hired more map designers to increase the amount of test cycles, and of course, played a lot.

On top of that, we also wanted to make each location original and well navigable. We wanted each village or town to be unique, and tried to come up with some other types of locations. This is where the surrounding terrain comes into play. Even though it did not receive as much love as the locations themselves, the work seems to pay off: having a distant mountain ridge or a lighthouse conspicuously standing out in the background adds further means of navigation to a place.

There was another interesting aspect to making a multiplayer level as part of the landscape. We soon found out that the map alone may not provide the amount of cover, concealment, approach routes etc. if it should also work as part of the Arma 3 sandbox (which is something we wanted to ensure from the start). Thanks to the capabilities of the new 3D Editor, we were able to clutter the locations some more, and the complaints about areas being too open were even replaced by those mocking us for making things appallingly cluttered. A delicate balance, for sure.

The Old and New Assets

As mentioned earlier, at the start of development, we decided to use only Arma 3 data in order to avoid art production, correctly assuming our artists have better things to do than supporting an experimental project. However, things changed as we figured out there needed to be some new assets which would be important for gameplay. When the artists formerly working on the Apex expansion became available, we put the extra hands to work immediately.

The first demand for new assets arose when we found out that players lacked spatial reference for reporting contacts in urbanized areas. Long story short, we got tired of explaining at length which of the ten white houses in sight is the one with the enemy sniper. So we started by painting some of the Altis houses in colours, taking inspiration from the scenery of Azores (Jarek was fortunate to stumble upon this on Google Maps by the time we started discussing the matter). In order to provide more variety, we were also fortunate enough to be able to borrow some of the Apex assets.

From the very start, I wanted Malden to stand out compared to Altis and Stratis despite using the same assets. The amount of complaints hint that we have probably failed terribly in the eyes of many, but I am still proud that we were able to get some models which are not just extra landmarks, but give Malden some originality. Contrary to common belief, it is not a single huge landmark but the most common and ubiquitous items which change the feel of an environment. To illustratie, one of our first decisions in this regard was the umbrella pine, which model looks very Mediterranean but wasn't used much on Altis. Once we were able to get some extra help from the artists, other choices were the signature models of the CWA original: cypress trees and white rocks (to please everyone remembering the white-pink-violet rock texture of the original).

We also revived the idea of vineyards, originally used on Arma 1's Sahrani and perfectly fitting the setting of Malden. The idea shouldn't be blamed entirely on me playing The Witcher 3's magnificent Blood and Wine DLC, as the vineyards were also welcomed by the level designers as a chance to provide areas where players may move well concealed across quite some distances.

Paint It Till You Make It

One requirement for making a terrain in Arma 3 standard also called for inventing a decent way of producing the supertextures (this is what covers the landscape as an aerial image, another one defining the occurence of surfaces or grass clutter). This time, we didn't have any aerial photos or satellite imagery as reference, thus we decided to base the textures on the objects in the map, and paint the dirt and concrete surfaces where it would make sense. We decided to use the ready-made surfaces from Arma 3, and to limit their numbers so that we could work quickly and efficiently. The results were rather plain, thus we came up with several additional layers to add detail and variety, such as noise on concrete surfaces, dark surface for forests, "rocky" noise allowing the rocks to blend in, or footprints of boulders. Also, we employed some World Machine outputs to generate some details related to erosion.

We still have some more tricks up in our sleeves, and we hope to succeed in making the "satellite" texture look natural, supporting the layout of the landscape and consistent with the detailed surfaces. I also hope to be able to give the Arma 3 modding community the sample of our source data. Maybe one day?

You Are Being Watched

Example of your movement through the town of Le Port during numerous Clash play-throughs in which the central objective was contested.
Example of your movement through the town of Le Port during numerous Clash play-throughs in which the central objective was contested.

Yes, you are - as is common with multiplayer games, we collect anonymous data on gameplay events and players' behaviour, e.g. movement, shots fired, kills and deaths, and we are able to sort them by particular rounds or to aggregate them to handy heatmaps, and we are trying to assess how people use our locations. I am sure there will be a devblog dedicated to this once we start getting clear results out of the massive data from Project Argo's first public rotations.

What's the Status?

As we speak, Project Argo's map development is focused primarily on the scenario locations, with our QA developers and the rest of the team presenting my map designer colleagues with some interesting challenges. However, as announced in the Arma 3 2016-17 Roadmap blog, Malden will also become a free DLC for Arma 3, which requires us to be equally aware of the importance of the terrain's "sandbox" functionality. We are working hard on the open landscape and the formerly unconnected locations slowly become a single sprawling landscape. Although we should not expect an influx of more assets (which is something we are actually glad for, as it would take ages to re-do all the months of work of 3 people on the locations), we have months to polish the terrain so that even the sneaky Link explorers should expect a better scenery growing gradually.

So far it's been an interesting journey into the realm of completely different design paradigms, leaving us more experienced and better aware of the variety of solutions than before, and it also made me personally recognize the qualities and flaws of large virtual landscapes more clearly. I hope all of you Project Argo players will find your favourite location where you dominate and earn your share of loot, and that the hardcore Arma 3 players will appreciate its potential once it's out in the sandbox. We are doing our very best!

While it is perhaps too early to promise anything, making Malden provided us with some lessons which could also be useful to our creative community. I will do my best to find appropriate ways to return the favor of CWR and support the community in making their cool maps even more cool.

Hats off to everyone involved in making Malden happen or those who were brave enough to give it a try now in the Project Argo Open Prototype!

Ivan Buchta (Creative Director)