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Post news RSS Interview with NS2 Level Designer KungFuSquirrel

I made a previous post announcing KungFuSquirrel's (Andrew Weldon) joining the Unknown Worlds team. An avid fan of his previous work, I was more than excited to learn this news. Well I am proud to say that I was also able to get an interview with the talented level designer giving some insight into his previous involvement with NS1 and his current contribution to NS2. His answers were very insightful both to his personal interest of level design and the upcoming game.

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I made a previous post announcing KungFuSquirrel's (Andrew Weldon) joining the Unknown Worlds team. An avid fan of his previous work, I was more than excited to learn this news. Well I am proud to say that I was also able to get an interview with the talented level designer giving some insight into his previous involvement with NS1 and his current contribution to NS2. His answers were very insightful both to his personal interest of level design and the upcoming game.

Note: NSTR = Natural Selection Technical Release (An early build of the
NS1 game which allowed mapmakers to create levels before its release).

The interview went as follows:

1. Let's go back to the very beginning. When did you first become
interested in level design, and what was the first game/mod you made a level

It actually started before I even knew what level
design was. Around 2nd grade (1991-ish for those of you keeping score), my
parents had saved up enough to build a custom home. I got to go with them on
trips to the architect's office, see the blueprints, and watch as the house was
constructed from the ground up. Like most things an 8 year old sees and thinks
are awesome, I decided that's what I wanted to do for a living. My parents were
very supportive of the idea and found this great stripped down CAD program for
kids/beginners. You could place walls, doors, windows, and outdoor landscaping,
and render the house to 3D to view it from the outside. Pretty cool little toy
for that age.

By 96-97 I was big into PC gaming and Quake was
the next game to devour my life, both with single player and blazing 28.8 modem
multiplayer glory. When the first expansion came out, I checked it out on the
shelf and saw screenshots of a level editor on the back. Up to that point, I
had no comprehension that people could make their own content for games. I
didn't have any money on me, but when I got home I started searching to see if
any other tools were available, and found Worldcraft. I started messing around
with Quake, then Quake II when it shipped, but only casually and never finished
anything worthwhile.

That's about when this "Valve" company
came in and bought Worldcraft for some "Half-Life" game they were
making. I was annoyed at the time, but by the time I'd finished the Half-Life
tram ride after picking up my copy, all was forgiven. I actually finished my
first map in 1999 for a LAN party with my friends, and by the summer of 2001
I'd started releasing HLDM and Op4 maps online and started to take what I was
doing pretty seriously.

2. How did you learn about the original
Natural Selection mod and why did you decide to design a level for it?

The guy who made Bast (Kevin Roberts/Relic25)
had released a few previous maps with some really nice custom texture sets, so
as I started branching out from stock content in my HL/Op4 maps his site was
one I checked often for updates. One of those updates was a series of
screenshots of what would be ns_bast, with a link to this new mod he was making
it for. I followed the link to the NS site, started reading, saw some other
screens and concepts, and decided it was one to watch. I've always had a soft
spot for all things sci-fi, and I felt like it was a better direction to branch
out from my usual DM/CTF maps than Counter-Strike, TFC, or Day of Defeat.
Getting the NSTR to be able to make maps while the mod was in development was
the icing on the cake.

3. What was the first map you made for
NS, and how long did it take to complete?

My first to completion was of course ns_eclipse.
I started it around April 2002 after having been around the NS community for a
few months. Before that I'd just dabbled a bit with the NSTR and an ill-fated
first attempt of ns_veil. The entire process from start to finish on Eclipse
1.0 was about 6-7 months, but an awful lot of that was lost on rooms and
versions that never made it into the final release. With the exception of just
a couple key areas (Station Access and Triad), nothing built before the end of
June 02 survived. And, of course, Eclipse also saw plenty of updates for both
the 2.0 and 3.0 releases of NS.

4. Were you happy with the end result
for your NS maps? If not, how would you like to change/improve them?

I'm about 50/50. I'm still proud of the work I
did and the success each map achieved, but thanks to many years and added
experience I can see a lot more issues with them than I did at the time.

Eclipse succeeded in having a couple solid
landmarks, but was still a mess of a corridor crawl. I was too judgmental on
lots of early drafts of rooms and nuked them without giving them a fair
chance. If I hadn't ripped some of them out on knee-jerk responses, I could
have lightened the amount of corridors without dramatically changing the level
layout. I never could just call Maintenance hive "good enough" and it
suffered from being hacked up every revision I made to the map. Triad stayed
mostly unchanged from the early drafts of the map, but looking back I could
have done so much more with that style of room, both in layout and visuals. The
entire chunk of map between Marine Spawn, Keyhole, and Station Access was just
a sloppy mess with no interesting combat options.

After Eclipse was successful I used the same base
layout idea as a template for Veil. The timing and spacing was spot-on, and it
was generally regarded as the "better" map gameplay-wise, but despite
a couple neat points I kinda phoned it in compared to Eclipse. I actually
started with a symmetrical layout, which did some good things on the gameplay
side, but left just a bit too much of that symmetry in. Using chunks I'd cut
from Eclipse was smart in theory, but I picked them for the wrong reasons.
Cargo worked as a hive, but it was a lazy use of the old Eclipse MS. Where
Eclipse provided a great navigational aid by being a near-perfect gradient of
elevation from top (Marine Spawn) to bottom (Hives), Veil was much choppier
moving up and down.

5. We know you've started officially
working with Unknown Worlds Entertainment on their sequel to Natural Selection.
Can tell us your official title and in what ways you are contributing to NS2?

Just "level designer." I'll be designing
and building level layouts, and doing texturing, detailing, and lighting passes
on the levels as art comes in. I'm also bouncing gameplay ideas back and forth
with Charlie (helping flesh out the new power grid system, for example), and
bombarding Max with lists of every awesome feature from every editor under the
sun for possible implementation into the new editor.

6. Do you have any idea on the number
of levels that will ship with NS2?

We have an idea, yes. We'll be talking more about
specifics later. Before too much longer we'll have every map we plan to ship
built in greybox layout form for testing, then have the rest of development to
cycle through each one based on gameplay feedback as well as continue
developing the art content and run proper visual passes on the levels when
they're ready.

There'll be enough to play with at release, but
we'll definitely want to keep content rolling post-release. I'm hoping before
we even release, I'll have time to knock out another couple greybox layouts and
get them in testing so we can get started on an official pack after NS2 ships,
and as long as there's strong community interest and development there should
be community map opportunities as well.

7. Does working on NS2 feel like riding
a bike? Or are you learning a lot of new things?

That's a pretty good analogy. It took a little
bit to get back into full NS mode - getting re-acquainted with the old maps and
brushing up on some stuff that happened after I'd moved on from NS1 - but it
feels like home again. It's cool this time to be way more involved than I was
the first time around. Even though I had two official maps, I wasn't on the
official core team with NS1 (that was only Relic and Merk on the level design
side). There's a lot of learning to be done, too. Even with the advantage of
years of hindsight and extra experience I mentioned before, NS2 brings a new
sets of questions we need to figure out.

8. As an off-site level designer, how
do you coordinate work with the rest of the UWE team?

On the technical side, it's not that much
different than working on-site. We have an SVN depot for all content and
there's a batch file that can be used to pull down the latest build of the game
executable and tools. Whenever someone checks something in, there's an e-mail
notification with the changelog so you can see what's included. Maps and art
can be downloaded immediately, where a code checkin needs time to be built into
a new executable before running the update batch file again. This works the
same way in the UWE office as it does in my home office.

Most communication goes through Google
Talk and e-mail. For the more important subjects like scheduling, layouts,
or major gameplay with Charlie, we'll usually go to GTalk's voice feature or
move over to cell phones so we can talk directly. For visuals, Cory can easily
paint over a screenshot of part of a map or do quick sketches to get his ideas
across (much like he demonstrated in the Hive vidcast), and a few times we've
gone back and forth where I submit a map file, Cory and Matt poke at it in the
editor and check their changes back in, then I use that as the foundation for
the next version. I've also been using a video capture tool lately when Max has
a question about features from other editors. I'll just load the editor, crop
the video area, capture (complete with unnecessarily detailed narration), save,
and upload. Much easier than trying to describe some of the finer points of
different editors in an e-mail.

9. Are you expecting NS2 maps to look
and play like NS1? Or should we brace for something totally different?

NS2 is going to be different than NS1, but I
think it'll still be familiar to anyone who played the first. Cory is still the
art director, so you'll see a lot of visual and thematic similarities both in
the levels and in the characters and structures. I'm assuming everyone has seen
the hive by now. It's very different from the original, but still instantly
recognizable as the iconic shape from Natural Selection. I think that
comparison applies to the entire game.

Much of the core gameplay is still there, but with
some new elements. You guys have now seen the power grid by way of Charlie's
blog update; map layouts will be different enough that you can't port over NS1
designs in most cases, but many of the same concepts still apply. The layouts
are a bit smaller and more focused and maps will be a lot more cohesive.
Elements like weldable doors, turrets, and sieges are all going to be a lot
more interesting this time around.

People should be excited for the change in visual
fidelity We were limited to 800ish wpolys in the NS1 days... Today, triangles
are all but irrelevant as a benchmark for performance. There are single props
with more triangles than entire chunks of level in NS1, and single materials
that take up more texture memory than entire NS1 maps. Where NS1 levels were
textured mostly 1:1 (1 pixel to 1 unit) or less, NS2 is currently 8:1. Our sexy
next-gen vent2 equivalent is 32 units and 256 pixels tall - the same height as
a wall texture from NS1.

10. Without giving away too many
secrets, what things are you exciting about doing with the level design in NS2
that were too difficult or unavailable for NS1?

I'm mostly glad to just be rid of all the
limits. I shouldn't say
all; we'll still have
limitations to worry about, but they'll at least be reasonable modern
limitations. By the time NS1 came out, we were already in the age of Quake 3
and Unreal Tournament 2003. As awesome as Half-Life and its mods were, it was
already archaic by comparison.

We had these "high-res" 256x256 wall
textures, but they all still got used at 1:1 because if you scaled your
textures down, your poly splits would scale too. After 1.0 we found that static
entity counts were killing network performance, so we had to strip out dozens
of objects and combine dozens more. I was one of the only people to never run
into plane count issues, and I did it by building Eclipse and Veil in solid
shells of shared brushes that make it impossible and/or infuriating to go back
and modify them now.

There's obviously cool stuff like dynamic lighting
and dynamic infestation, and the weldable doors I mentioned earlier. The new
commander camera implementation makes elevation changes much easier to handle
by following a heightmap generated by a grid of entities placed at floor height
throughout the level - as your level goes up or down in elevation, the camera
can follow. It's a little thing, but greatly improved from the flat height of

I'm really excited about the new power grid
system. I think it's going to be super easy for people to see and understand,
but still add some really cool strategic options for expansion and disruption,
and still fit with the inherent asymmetry between the two sides. I think when
people get their hands on the tools they'll be able to come up with some cool
maps based around it.

I should also add, this has nothing to do with
difficulty or availability, but I was asked a few times to re-orient both
Eclipse and Veil to have north-facing Marine spawns. Never got around to it
then, but all layouts are being designed with the assumption that marines spawn
on the south side of the level facing north.

11. Your definitive style for Eclipse
and Veil have become somewhat of an NS level mainstay. Are you looking to do a
sort of trilogy with this "theme" or are you planning on
experimenting with new and different styles?

Personally, I'd love to put together a proper
Eclipse 2 post-release, but it won't be in the first release. We'll be starting
off a little dirtier with NS2.

Right now we're using one core theme for all the
levels which is definitely not Eclipse-friendly. If you've been browsing the
concept art and following the Twitter feed you'll probably know the direction
we're headed. The goal is to have a single base content set that spans all
levels, but to then complement that with unique sub-themes for each level to
give it a unique identity within the main theme. Assuming everyone reading does
their part to make NS2 a huge smashing success, we should be able to knock out
a couple new styles for post-release map packs to spice things up, and
community mappers will of course have the option to mix and match or even
create their own new styles and themes.

12. Level design aside, what is the one
thing (you can talk about) in NS2 that is going to rock the gaming world?

I'm actually going to cop out on this and talk
level design, because I'm really excited for Max's new editor, and while it may
not rock the whole gaming world, I think the community is going to be really
impressed with the direction it's headed. As many of you have probably seen
already, between Max's occlusion culling system and the dynamic lighting
system, there'll be no compile process to get levels into the game. No leaks,
no "void." No hour-plus lighting compiles just to see what your level
looks like.

It's a little early to talk specific feature
details yet, but if you can think of an awesome feature from Hammer, Radiant
(id Tech 4 or COD4), Unreal, or even some lower-end features of 3D packages
like Lightwave or Max, it's probably been requested or has at least been
considered. In general, look for a lot of Radiant influence to geometry
construction with mesh flexibility more akin to Unreal and a texturing setup
inspired by Hammer but with one awesome addition. You will be seeing a powerful
geometry editor. We're in a position where speed and efficiency is critical,
and we just don't have the flotilla of art resources to uniquely model out
entire levels like some studios. In addition, Natural Selection was a very
community-driven effort and I don't think there's any question that with this
team size we'll end up looking to the community again to help expand NS2.

There will be a learning curve to the editor; like
any editor we do have to put our needs first which will move it out of what is
familiar Hammer territory for most of our fans, but plan on having
documentation, tutorials, and a direct line to us available for questions as
the NS2TR becomes available and of course after the game releases. I think
those of you looking forward to building NS2 levels are going to have a blast
once you get up to speed.

14. Is there anything else you'd like
to say to the countless fans who are totally stoked that you're working with

There's plenty of things for people to be stoked
about with this game... I can't wait for people to see more of it and get a
chance to play it.

And we all can't wait for it, either! Thank you so much for your time, Andrew. We wish you and the rest of the UWE team the best of luck on NS2.

Also, there is a very interesting blog post on the UWE website about the direction they are hoping to take with the NS2 map mechanic:

You can see KFS's input toward this mechanic here:


For those of you interested in learning more about KFS's various projects, both past and present, check out his website:


Crispy - - 602 comments

Good int. And finally I found out how the Commander view is going to work with NS2 mapping, sounds good.

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Knights - - 164 comments

Go Go andrew! Good luck with NS2!

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Mars_3K - - 729 comments

Your work on NS was some of the most memorable for any game I've played to date, thank you for returning with more ***-kickery!

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