How FPS architecture makes us think

We first-person shooter players talk a lot about maps. We discuss spawn points, item placements, and ideal maps to play in a competitive set. We figure out which maps best suit our particular playstyles. We endlessly debate which maps are “good” and which maps are “bad”. We vote on maps to play, and settle on community favorites.

But above all, we seek to understand maps. To grok them so completely that their quirks and influences become second nature to us. To play a first-person shooter well, we overcome and exploit the environment where the contest takes place. An average player simply plays on a map; a skilled player uses the details of a map to their advantage.

While every map is different, we can generally describe maps in only a few characteristics. A map is open, or it is confined. A map is complex, or it is simple. A map is vertical, or it is horizontal. A map has good item placement, or it has terrible item placement.

The first of these attributes is arguably the most important. The dichotomy between open and confined spaces doesn’t just invoke the specter of claustrophobia— it also distinctly modifies the way you play the game.

Take an open space. Open maps have long lines of sight with few obstacles. While you can sprint around with a shotgun on such a map, it’s generally not the best idea, as you’ll get picked off as you try to move closer. Recon becomes incredibly important, and snipers rule the roost until evicted by a push of more aggressive players. You must constantly be alert to avoid getting caught off guard by an enemy in some window shooting at you.

A prime example of this type of map is (almost) any Battlefield map. Rather than focus on close-quarters combat, you rush through large, deserted towns, blasting their structures apart and generally making a big mess. While there are some levels without vehicles (like Operation Locker), the majority of maps are sprawling, complex affairs where you are as likely to die from some jerk in a tower a mile away as you are from the guy you are currently shooting at.

Now, take that same space and shrink it. You have far less time to line up an accurate shot, and enemies are faster to notice and dispatch you. Shotguns, so useless on the open map, are suddenly good again. Recon becomes less valuable. The game turns from detailed strategic movements to fast-paced slugfests. Reflexes trump good planning.

If open maps promote a languid approach to advancing and fighting enemies, closed maps do the exact opposite. You are constantly fighting a battle against anxiety and impulse to make the best of a claustrophobic situation. You are spurred from place to place by an onslaught of foes, rather than settling down on a tower and sipping tea as you casually snipe people from across the map. The careful planning is gone, and all that remains is adrenaline.

These spaces are not just defined by how open they are, of course. They are also defined by their architectural complexity. This complexity is not how pretty the map is, but rather how many different paths you can take when traveling around.

Take a confined space with a lot of windows and doors. Due to its size, you must rely more on your reflexes. Due to the large number of paths into the space, you must be paranoid almost to a fault, constantly repositioning and investigating noises you hear. Thus, you must be hyper-observant and quick on the draw to succeed in such a space.

Now take a confined space with only a single door. The reflex requirement is the same, but you no longer have to be vigilant about learning where enemies approach from. Because their options are so limited, you can figure out the best vantage point on the door that will give you a reflexive advantage. The confined space’s innate limitation – that you must rely on reflexes – is offset by its simplicity.

You can see a lot of these forces at play in Rainbow Six Siege. The attackers always start in an complex open space, while defenders always start in a complex confined space. Attackers are generally given rifles and other long-range weapons which excel in open spaces, while defenders are primarily given SMGs and shotguns which are better for their confined space. As attackers transition from their open space to confined space, defenders are given plenty of opportunities to pick them off, if the defenders are paranoid and smart enough to position themselves properly.

By contrast, Counter-Strike Global Offensive has no spaces as complicated as Siege, so the potential for surprises is far more limited. Instead, players rely on tried-and-true strategies which exploit known aspects of each map, such as lanes, as well as contests of reflexes. For example, a player may throw their AWP over a wall to surprise an enemy, then blast them in the face with a pistol in the confusion, hoping that the single second gained by throwing their AWP would be enough. That’s not something which would work in Siege, even if you could do it, because players are far more likely to be conservative in their strategies on a complicated map.

By creating optimal strategies through proper map design, developers change how players approach their game. A first-person shooter level is not just a collection of geometry and space, but rather an ever-expanding tree of decisions, any of which can lead to either death or victory. Maybe that decision is to sit on a catwalk and pick off people that run below you, relying on your height advantage to win. Maybe it’s to run across no man’s land, hoping that your teammates will be a sufficient distraction. Maybe it’s to hang back in an empty room and set up a defensive perimeter.

Most importantly, these decisions have to be made consciously to be understood. You can’t simply rely on gut instinct to point you in the right direction. This is the principle of map knowledge: to consciously understand what strategies will likely arise from a level’s design, and how to counter them. This process is difficult but rewarding, and a player who has taken the time to really dissect a map will always conquer a person who lives on instinct, even if the other has superior reflexes.

Not being actively conscious of the benefits and drawbacks of the map you are playing can spell defeat for you and your team, because you are unaware of the forces which subtly influence how you play. But understanding how maps influence you allows you to dominate duels, avoid nasty outcomes, and go on ridiculous kill streaks.

In first-person shooters, map knowledge is everything.