Blocktober: Gears Tactics

Welcome to part two of our Blocktober series! In part one we talked about a couple of maps in Outcasters; from the original sketches to the blockouts, and a glimpse at their final, arted designs.

In part two we’re talking about the critically acclaimed Gears Tactics with a handful of our level designers; Darren, Konstantin, Tristan, and Akuila.

Gears Tactics is getting a second wind as part of the Xbox Series X|S launch lineup, and we wanted to give fans old and new a glimpse behind the scenes.

This is a long one, so grab a cup of tea and settle in, or bookmark the page and have a read throughout the day.

Also, we’re hiring! Head over to our Careers page to see what open roles we have.

FUNDAMENTALS OF A GEARS TACTICS LEVEL

HOW LEVELS ARE MADE

We generate the maps in Gears Tactics using a tile-based system. Hundreds of tiles were created of varying sizes that were tailored for a specific purpose and grouped into connector or objective tiles. The majority of tiles were connector tiles, used for the bulk of the gameplay experience, mostly getting players from A to B. We had to give careful consideration to designing these tiles because they could be used and rotated in all directions. Objective tiles were generally larger tiles and designed around a point of interest. They needed to give the player options when approaching the objective to make meaningful tactical decisions.

The level designers handcrafted the levels out of tiles for the campaign to give a more consistent experience. All the levels outside of the campaign are generated through the metadata we gave each tile.

Gears Tactics blocktober
Above: A level designers view of a map in Gears Tactics. Level designers create levels by arranging a series of visualisation tiles and setting the size, rotation and type of each tile. In the image, you can see roads in blue, containing straight, corner and T intersection road tiles. Buildings in orange, and some cliffs cutting into the corner at the top. Once all the major pieces are added we can fill in what remains with flat wilderness tiles which are generally quite open and simple. When this map is loaded in the game all the visualisation tiles are replaced with actual game content that matches the type, size and rotations of the visualiser tiles we have placed. There are multiple variations of every tile type and they will be chosen randomly so that when you load the same map multiple times you will get different environment objects.

HOW TILES ARE MADE

How do we build a tile? First, we need to remind ourselves of the metrics. Metrics are a set of level design rules that, when followed, ensure that the levels fully accommodate any and all gameplay requirements. For example, in Gears Tactics, high cover is 96u (u is a measurement inside Unreal Engine) tall while half cover is 48u tall. To have a character properly take cover behind an object it needs to be 48u wide. The playable area can not be lower than 96u wide to ensure that two characters can walk next to each other without blocking the path. Elevation changes are always 384u in height. This is so that there is enough space to accommodate our largest characters and the distance is large enough to read from a distance. The game camera also moves 384u when you cycle up and down floors with it. All the characters and enemies in the game are designed with these rules in mind so as long as the metrics are followed, all the NPCs in the game will be able to navigate, use cover and attack correctly.

We also had the benefit of making cool looking and interesting gameplay spaces. The game does not have a grid system. This means that we can be a lot freer with space and create unique angles that cannot be achieved in other tactics games.

Gears Tactics Blocktober
Above: An example of the cover system mark up that level designers place in all the tiles. The tall red boxes are standing cover (otherwise known as “full” cover, providing the most protection) and the smaller pink boxes are low cover (half-cover in-game). The yellow targets on each cover node show which angles a soldier can shoot from when placed in that cover node. The yellow curved arrows above some of the low cover nodes show that a soldier can vault over the cover node into a node on the adjacent side. Careful placement of cover nodes and strict adherence to the metrics is essential to create a clean, bug-free cover setup that works as players expect it to. If a piece of cover is too high then you will not be able to vault over it, and if a cover node isn’t placed correctly at a corner then the soldier occupying that node will be unable to shoot around the corner. Both of these examples create frustration for the player and must be avoided!

TILES SHOWCASE

Now that we’ve gone through the design process of levels and tiles for Gears Tactics, let’s put some specific tiles under the spotlight with some additional information from the authors. These tiles cover a range of biomes, use cases and tile types from across the game. We hope you enjoy it!

DARREN

The Gas Station is a medium-size objective tile for use in the Vasgar War zone biome. The layout is split between ground level cover on one side and an elevated position on the other. This is because our tiles can rotate when placed in a plot map and we want to leverage that functionality to provide different gameplay experiences when playing the same plot multiple times. During one mission you may approach the objective from the low cover side, and when replaying the mission later on the tile may have rotated and you approach it from the high ground side which will change the tactics you use and the resulting firefight.

When the tile has been validated by level design by playtesting and iterating it is handed over to the environment art team for dressing. During this process, the level design team will check in on the tile as it passes environment art milestones to make sure that the environment remains readable to the player and that environment art dressing is still respecting the metrics imposed by the game.

The Well is a large objective tile for use in the Vasgar Coast biome. The size of these large tiles allows us to make much more bespoke and unique architecture and they are frequently used in campaign missions for this reason. The layout of Well is similar to Gas Station in that it is split between a ground level and elevated position on opposing sides to gain the benefits of tile rotation in plot maps. There is enough floor space in large tiles to place multiple objective spawn locations, for ‘Well’ I placed objective spawns on the low ground in the centre of the well and on the upper floor overlooking the well, this further pushes replay-ability of the tile as the location of the objective on it can change along with the rotation.

After the large bulky designs and 90-degree corners used in Act 1 of the game we wanted to shift to more organic and rounded shapes in Act 2 to further differentiate the biomes both visually and in gameplay. ‘Well’ was one of the first objective tiles created for Act 2 so I leaned heavily on the circular design of the well itself to provide the more organic shapes we were looking for.

KONSTANTIN

The Temple is a large objective tile for Act 1 and was also my first tile on the project. It had to go through multiple iterations as new features and mechanics went into the game and my understanding of the game improved. The red blocks in the tile were part of the most recent iteration and highlighted what areas the environment artists had to fill. This change was necessary when we figured out that having playable space stacked on top of each other wasn’t reading and playing very well and needed to get minimised as much as possible. The tile features entrances from various elevations and plenty of cover from every approach, while also selling the fantasy of a ruined temple.

This tile is a connecting tile for the building set in Act 2. My goal with most tiles was to allow entry from all cardinal sides, provide enough cover that is spaced far enough apart to make good use of action points and give some nice elevation changes without appearing overly complicated. 

TRISTAN

This is an elevation tile in Vasgar War zone biome. This tile is used to connect two different elevations together. There is is no way to switch between elevations but combat is possible. This tile becomes interesting when it is next to an elevation tile that does have a way to go up or down since the destroyed bunker up top is a great vantage point to everything that comes close.

This is an objective tile for Vasgar War zone and is completely unique to the campaign. This is the first tile where we experimented with gates for Sabotage/Incursion missions that you see throughout the game. Once the player is through the gate, they have the choice of taking the high ground and digging in against enemies there or flank around and use mobility to get around the enemies.

AKUILA

The Landing Pad is a medium-sized objective tile used in Act 3 themed around an abandoned light aircraft maintenance facility. The tile features multiple access routes to the upper level granting strong defensive positioning with good cover options, allowing players to dig in and utilise their overwatch

The Chapel is a large objective tile featured in Act 1. It was originally far more complex and even had a lower level crypt area that was ultra-cool but feedback from playtests showed it was over-complicated and the routes hard to read. The tile underwent a complete redesign focusing on simplicity, multiple flanking opportunities and destroyed elements. A key reference was the ruins of Coventry Cathedral that was devastated by a bombing raid during the Second World War. 

Thank you so much for reading through the second of our Blocktober articles. If you missed our first, you can go back and check out an in-depth look at Outcasters.

We have just one more article to go, and you won’t want to miss it.

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