Recently Insurgency: Sandstorm community member MGE Gibs sat down for a fireside chat with NWI’s own Level Design Director Jeroen van Werkhoven, and the creator of the original community mapping contest winner (Prison) Tihomir Garapić where they discussed level design, modding games, careers in game development and more! 

Without any further ado, here is the transcript of these conversations:

JEROEN – Level Design Director

GIBS: You’ve been with NWI since 2014 and helped design dozens of maps on multiple games. What makes this one so different from the others? 

JEROEN: It’s a map created by one of our community members, which already makes it unique and has a fresh approach to how gameplay is designed on Prison.  Also, Prison is mainly CQB-oriented and has a faster phase than our other maps. Teams need to work together, especially on the defending side in order to not get steamrolled. Once the attacking team finds momentum the round can be over very quickly.  The tight spaces can lead to some intense firefights as the battles lead to making that push into the next area.

GIBS:  Are there any hidden surprises in this map? 

JEROEN: I can’t say much about that because it wouldn’t be a surprise anymore! How’s this for a hint? The map contains references to different prison movies. 

GIBS:  What were some of the main focuses when handling this project?  

JEROEN: Making sure we stayed true to the original vision of the creator. At NWI we knew we wanted to make adjustments to the level design such as adding a Push scenario for the Insurgents. We didn’t change the size of the level much to achieve this, but we tried to use the full potential of the space we had. Together with Tihomir we figured out what the core pillars are of the level and built upon it.    

GIBS:  What went through the design choice in changing the environment of the map?  

JEROEN: The original location was outside of our fictional Middle East setting where all Insurgency maps take place. A lot of the architecture was heavily inspired by buildings in the UK and we couldn’t make that work in the Sandstorm universe. We did a lot of brainstorming and came up with an idea to make it more remote somewhere in the desert. Also it gave us an opportunity to add a sandstorm as a backdrop effect (non gameplay interrupting), but it still adds a lot to the atmosphere of the level.

GIBS: You started modding maps before 2008, Insurgency was originally a team of modders. What does a contest like this mean for you and the modding community?

JEROEN: It’s a big opportunity for us to see what people outside our team would create with the tools we use everyday. The modding community can take more risks than a commercial studio to create something new and exciting for players. Also, finding new talent among these amazing creators. Tihomir is now working for us as a contractor on one of our upcoming unannounced projects.

GIBS: Do you have any other favourite maps that you saw in the contest?

JEROEN: Last Light is definitely among my favourites, and any of the top 5 maps. But even outside the top 5 there were a lot of maps with great ideas.

GIBS: In 2007 you originally created Sinjar, which is the remake now known as Hillside. How was it as the creator to see your map be added into the game at that time and how have you seen it evolved to today? 

JEROEN: When the map was added to the mod, I was very surprised and didn’t expect it at all. Sinjar was very different from any of the other maps, mainly due its extensive size and more oriented towards an experience instead of balance. Both the mod and retail Source version were very challenging for a Security player. The retail version was a little bit more forgiving, but still very much the original Sinjar at its core.

Hillside was a refreshing experience for me because I wasn’t as hands-on. One of our level designers around that time, Brian Birnbaum who is still with us at NWI, took the key role in building the level. He came up with the idea to extend the level and brought new life to an established design without moving away from the original vision. It became much more accessible for new players.

GIBS: How was it coming back full circle when joining NWI in 2014 after a couple years of modding for Insurgency as far back as 2007 after that gap in between.

JEROEN: Dream come true! It was great to become part of Insurgency again and play a key role where we are today with a growing studio.

GIBS: From modding as a hobbyist to turning it into a lengthy career, what has changed over the years while designing maps? 

JEROEN: A lot! For the most part I’m not hands-on anymore with designing levels. As a director, I provide feedback and guidance but don’t actually construct the levels. My team is the main focus: finding new talent and facilitating the team’s process and high-level design.  Also, as a hobbyist, I never had to worry about taking risks, could take as long as I wanted, and I wasn’t so concerned about if the player would like the level.

GIBS: What do you think helped the most in getting a job in level design?

JEROEN: Creating a lot of bad maps and to keep learning along the way. Especially at the start, I had a very difficult time finishing any of my levels. Once I figured that part out, I had the confidence that this could be my career. Many people helped me after that to become better at my craft and there was definitely luck involved too. 

GIBS: What do you think helped the most in getting a job in level design?

JEROEN: Creating a lot of bad maps and to keep learning along the way. Especially at the start, I had a very difficult time finishing any of my levels. Once I figured that part out, I had the confidence that this could be my career. Many people helped me after that to become better at my craft and there was definitely luck involved too. 

GIBS: What are some key focuses whenever you start creating a map from scratch?

JEROEN: Finding a theme/setting that is exciting and has fun opportunities for gameplay. Creating a new map takes a long time, so always try to find something that interests you otherwise it will be very difficult to finish it. Figuring out the identity and narrative for a level, something that the player can connect with and cares about. For example a prison map should have the core elements of a real prison. Tight spaces (CQB) and some storytelling inspired by movies that the player can get excited about.

GIBS: What’s your favorite part of the process while designing maps?

JEROEN: Collaboration and crafting/testing out new ideas with a team. Also the release of a level still gives me goosebumps.  

GIBS: That brings me to my final question: if you could give any advice to up and coming modders what would that be?

JEROEN: Have fun! Modding is not easy so it’s important to enjoy the journey. Even something that looks very simple on paper, can be an absolute struggle to make it function because the original game wasn’t built for it. Pushing through these obstacles can lead to some awesome new experiences for players or even a career in games. 

TIHOMIR – Community designer

GIBS: How did you get into modding maps and how long have you been modding for?

TIHOMIR: Well, the first map I ever made was a Left4Dead map for a friend’s birthday. Of course it was crap, but it did work and the friend was nicely surprised. That experience left me hungry for more so I started learning and making more and more maps.

I made maps for Left4Dead, Left4Dead 2, Killing Floor, Killing Floor 2, Garry’s Mod , Rising Storm 2, and now Insurgency: Sandstorm. I’ve been at it for about 13 years or so.

GIBS: Is this a career path or a fun hobby?

TIHOMIR: Let’s see… I’m the frontman of a rock band Hik, played guitar in the rock band Agla, sing in the Choir IGK (Tenor 1), I mountaineer whenever I can, did some acting in musicals, wrote a novelette, wrote a musical, among other things, so there’s quite a bit to go under the hobby category. 

Career is no different: I’ve been an electrician, lead technical coordinator, mascot designer, etc. The point really is that I’ve always done what I found to be interesting.

GIBS: What made you pick Insurgency: Sandstorm?

TIHOMIR: I’m going to be honest and say that I came in for the contest as I saw it as a great personal challenge for my level design skills in UE4.

GIBS: What inspired you to do a prison themed map?

TIHOMIR: It just seemed like a really cool idea! Plus, that environment was something I could do in the contest timeframe while maintaining my quality target for the map.

GIBS: What was your main focus while designing this map?

TIHOMIR: That would definitely be level design! Since Insurgency: Sandstorm is a hardcore tactical shooter, the map itself had to have a good level design with various pathways requiring players to choose which path they take each time they play. It’s  a different experience every time.

GIBS: Do you draw it out first or just make it as you went?

TIHOMIR: Since I work alone I don’t have the need to draw anything on paper, but…before I make anything I always spend a good amount of time thinking about what I want to create (drawing in my mind, if you will). Once I have a clear image set, then I start making it. Of course, there are always design opportunities that come simply from looking at what you created, so I adjust these on the spot. Testing also plays a very important role in this. If something doesn’t play well, or I’m not satisfied with how it looks, I revisit it until it meets the standards I want to reach.

GIBS: From a player’s perspective, what were some of the goals you wanted to achieve while creating this map?

TIHOMIR: I wanted to make a unique environment that’s fun to play in, is extremely optimized, and has many details (environmental stories).

GIBS: Creativity comes from the tools you make use of, were there any hidden tricks you used while creating this map?

TIHOMIR: Aside from the editor work I used Blender to optimize all the merged meshes in the map. On each mesh I reduced the number of collision primitives, removed any unseen geometry, redid the UV maps so I have nice texture tiling on all meshes, and since Sandstorm is using Static Lighting I made custom Lightmaps for all meshes to prevent light seams… I did this on all 324 meshes which took two weeks.

I also made a few custom models I needed for the map, and modified a few existing textures using Gimp.

GIBS: While making it, what was your favourite aspect of this map?

TIHOMIR: It’s really hard to choose since I work on every single corner until it meets my demands, but, I’ll say the showers because that’s the first part I built.

GIBS: How was collaborating and working with NWI to bring your map into the game?

TIHOMIR: Working with Jeroen is always a nice experience. Although I technically didn’t do anything he kept me informed and asked my opinion about all the changes like the location change to better fit Sandstorm, expanding the map in some areas, etc..

GIBS: How did you find out about the contest and what made you want to join?

TIHOMIR: I learned about the contest through the Unreal live-stream. I decided to join it because since it was featured there it meant that almost every developer similar to myself has seen it too. Therefore, a good number of them may enter the contest… This was a personal challenge I couldn’t resist! I wanted to see how I’d rank on a world scale.

GIBS: During the contest, how did it feel seeing your map start to gain popularity and eventually winning the whole thing?

TIHOMIR: I loved watching people play the map and finding bugs for me to fix.

Since Sandstorm custom servers have a lot of variety and ways to play the game, I played it with players from extremely realistic servers (no hud, team glow, one shot kill, really slow paced and tactical), to servers that have 60 bots, and in each case it was a blast!

For example, the particular duo of JC and Sheppy loved blowing up my second objective from a distance with RPGs, so I tweaked that spot about seven times back and forth until they finally couldn’t blow it up without actually getting closer to it.

Winning the contest was awesome, especially because I had a lot of good competition that also worked hard on their maps.

GIBS: Did you run into any major issues while designing the map?

TIHOMIR: There were several issues with the editor, upload etc. but things like that are something I’m used to working on custom maps. Thankfully, there is always the wonderful mapping community that strives to work together and resolve them when an issue comes up.

GIBS: Roughly how many hours did it take to create a map like this?

TIHOMIR: From my Epic launcher: 54 days, 12 hours, plus around 3-4 weeks of Blender work.

GIBS: Do you have a favourite map in Insurgency or any other games that you gained inspiration from?

TIHOMIR: I loved the Powerplant map in Sandstorm and took great inspiration from its environment. That’s actually why I named the Prison “Mabarak Prison,” to place them in the same location.

GIBS: Are there any projects you’re currently working on?

TIHOMIR: Currently freelancing as a level designer, working on Tobruk map as part of a “Desert Rats” team (a mod for Rising Storm 2), and making my own game (still shhh shhh).

GIBS: Is there anything you’d like to let the Insurgency community know before signing off today?

TIHOMIR: Yes, I’d love to thank the guys at Olympus Servers, Bahzooga, TGN, SGC, and all the others for helping me test the map and get it into the condition it is now!

None of it would be possible without you guys, and I hope you all enjoy what we created! 🙂

P.S. I’ve never been in a contest where I’ve met so many level designers that helped each other out. I befriended a good amount and truly enjoyed playing all our maps and finding them bugs… we should all be proud of ourselves!

And that brings us to the end of the interviews! We would like to thank MGE Gibs, Jeroen & Timohir for taking the time to open up about their processes & we hope you enjoyed this article. Until next time soldiers, see you in the field!

Photo credit: invictus_VP