On the sci-fi battlegrounds of Dust 514, immortal mercenaries take contracts to control, attack, or defend important infrastructure on the planets within New Eden. With such an expansive universe, containing so many planets, CCP had to develop a system that allows for interchangeable environments.

Using a system we call “Terraforming,” we have made sure that the massive battlefields you will find on each planet can be customized using “sockets,” places where we can insert a wide variety of modular structures and terrain features. The structures can be swapped out randomly, or we can specify particular sets that load into specific districts or battlegrounds.

For example, several socketable structures are part of a cargo depot set. If we wish to create a battlefield in a full-fledged cargo depot, we need only instruct our internal system to exclusively load structures from that set. Using this and other sets, we can create either randomized or highly thematic maps to host your battles.

We currently use three different sizes of sockets: small, medium, and large. A large socket is most commonly used to provide what we call Outposts. These vary from a filler piece to the very important Surface Infrastructure pieces like the Research Lab. It is the design of such massive outposts that I mean to discuss in this dev blog.

First and foremost, this process depends on our extremely talented art staff. Not only do they have endless ideas about the overall visual style of each outpost, but they also provide a unique perspective on gameplay mechanics. Involving our artists from the beginning keeps them fully aware of the goals, ideas, visuals, and intended gameplay flow of each structure, so everyone is on the same page from day one.
So where do the level designers begin? Well, every structure begins with an idea: What environment do we need? Is it a Terraforming Plant that makes the planet habitable? A Cargo Hub that brings in goods from across New Eden? A Research Lab working on tomorrow’s tech?
Armed with inspiration, we create a 2D layout, beginning with scribbled drawings on paper, keeping in mind the flow of the vehicles, infantry, and installations through the structure. We spend a few hours to a day mulling over layout ideas, making sure to bounce ideas off the artists assigned to the outpost.

Once we’ve nailed down a basic plan, the level design creates a digital version, translating hand-drawn scribbles into a more complex and fine-tuned visual. This is where we start defining what the various sections are inside of the outpost: “This is a weapons lab, this is an administration building, this is a hangar,” and so on.

We also visually make sure to thoroughly demonstrate the infantry flow, or how we intend to “guide” players through the outpost, or what paths they may take on their own. We might, for instance, create a building that naturally suggests setting up certain defensive positions, or advantageous routes for infiltration. Every structure should present plenty of unique opportunities for gameplay and innovation.
We also pay attention to lines of sight. How far down this road can a tank potentially see? Will it be able to come to the front gate and just spawn-camp a turret? Do we want it to be able to blow up the CRU? If it does, how would that affect the overall flow of the outpost?

Once the team is happy with this formal 2D layout, we move on to documentation. This is where we begin to give some history and detail to the environment.

At this stage, a concept artist also begins to draft ideas for the outpost, creating mood and structural detail, while also bringing a 3D perspective to what has heretofore been a 2D layout.

During the documentation process, we choose some areas of interest from the 2D lay out and zoom in on the action. Creating macro 2D layouts of these areas, we can demonstrate some key elements of the gameplay that will happen there, such as where cover will be, and how the infantry or vehicles will flow through this area. We make sure to summarize the potential experience from a player perspective. For example, here's what we heard from one DUST 514 player:

“We arrived at the southern gates and were met with a wall that rose 15 meters up. The base’s owners had the advantage as they rained down bullets from behind the fortified railings crowning these ominous walls. They even had turrets blasting us from raised platforms that flanked both sides of the gate, each covering the other and making it extremely difficult to hack them. Our tanks could barely fit into the main gate’s access road, where the walls were lined with open slivers for infantry to waste anything coming through. It was as if the whole side of the base was built to choke anyone to death that dared to try and enter.”

This kind of description really helps the concept and art teams to further gameplay and visual elements that hammer home the desired mood and events.

We also take time during this phase to document and demonstrate the various game mode layouts that can be set up in the outpost, including Skirmish, Ambush, OMS, and Domination modes.

Once we all are on board with this documentation, we can start bringing the outpost to life. This phase is known as the block-out stage, and this is where our level designers get really excited, and where interaction with the art team ramps up.

The block-out phase begins much like the 2D layout. We first assign the roads and infantry paths, and the foundations to the buildings. We place all of our installations and player spawn points. This takes roughly a day or two. Then we run a test with the level design team, artists, and some of the management to get an approval on the overall vehicle flow within this space. If any adjustments are needed, we work them out and test it again.

Next we install the big buildings. This is where it gets really fun. To help streamline future socket creation, we begin to think about modular design. We try to develop buildings, walls, supports, and various other structures that can be re-used elsewhere, in the same way or even in different ways. Working with the art team, we discuss how each building’s layout affects the visuals, and vice versa. Sometimes what looks great doesn't always play well. So we go back and forth with ideas to achieve a visually appealing gameplay area. We cannot ensure that all the structures can be reused, but we spend a little time thinking about it in these initial stages.

After we get most of the buildings in, our team performs a small internal playtest to make sure nothing is broken, though we still have very generic textures, and nothing has been treated or converted to models by the art team. We also make an in-depth cover pass, to make sure all of the terrain provides appropriate cover from fire.

Passing a small scale test in functionality we introduce the outpost to the entire team and play it in our many playtests. We request as much feedback as we can get, and continue to iterate on the design as needed until it is ready for a delivering to our players.

Now the artists start turning the block-outs into art-treated models based on the approved concepts. The level designers continue to work closely with the art team to make sure pieces work as intended, and can be used as modular sets if at all possible. We run active playtests all throughout, to see what effect the art-treated assets have on gameplay, making sure they do not impede lines of sight and intended cover, or else our intended game flow breaks down.

Only when we’re sure that every structure serves looks amazing, fits in New Eden, and fosters exciting gameplay, are we ready to ship it out to eager players.
-CCP Logic Loop
-CCP Tigris
-CCP Stiff Neck

Test for Directors on the weekend so study this in detail.