Hey everyone, my name is Michael Tsarouhas. I am the lead game designer on Insurgency: Sandstorm. Today’s Community Update is about our upcoming new snow map Hillside, which is available right now on the Community Test Environment. Hillside is a recreation of the classic Insurgency map Sinjar and will be coming in our next content update. Sinjar has been around since the original mod release back in 2007, and was originally created by Jeroen van Werkhoven who is today, our lead level designer. To play Hillside, go to your Steam Library and download “Insurgency: Sandstorm Community Test Environment” if you own Sandstorm.
Sinjar was one of our most brutal, challenging, and to some even outright unfair maps, as our community wouldn’t hesitate to tell you. Funny enough, our stats indicate Security wins a Sinjar Push map in Insurgency 2014 48% of the time, almost an even 50%. Even though there was this bile, Sinjar was one of our most popular maps, sitting as the third most popular Push mode layout in Insurgency 2014. Despite the difficulty for half the server, Sinjar always seemed to get the votes come map voting time. People loved to hate that Omaha beach style assault on objective A. We knew we had to have it again for Sandstorm, but this time with a bitter cold to accompany the bitter defeat.
We took some time to talk to our developers on our level design and art teams working on Hillside. First we have its original creator, Dutch lead level designer Jeroen van Werkhoven, now moved and sitting pretty in our Calgary studio. Jeroen will be answering questions on Sinjar’s design and history for a map that has seen the test of time since he released it over 10 years ago. Then we have Brian Birnbaum, originally a community mapmaker and the creator of Kandagal for Insurgency 2014 in our Gamebanana mapmaking contest. We liked Brian’s work so much that we hired him shortly after his submission, as we’ve been wont to do with many other developers on our team. Since then, he’s been an integral part of our level design team for every one of our projects, and is now heading up development of Hillside. Finally we have Matthias Schmidt, one of our environment artists who you might remember us mentioning a few Community Updates ago. Matthias helped beautify Ministry’s interiors, and now has helped create a completely unique new snow environment to serve as the backdrop for Hillside.
Summarize Hillside for us in five words or less.
Jeroen: Pain in the ass!
Brian: Unauthorized health examination.
Matthias: Brace yourselves, winter is coming.
Take us through the history of Hillside, formerly “Sinjar”, in previous Insurgency games and why you decided to remake it for Insurgency: Sandstorm.
Jeroen: The original layout of Sinjar was created more than a decade ago when I joined the Insurgency: Modern Infantry Combat mod team back in 2005. I remember while I was doing a rough design of the map an idea popped into my head to create something that was different, and very challenging for the Security team...Almost impossible.
While I was connecting the dots to find the gameplay and setting to fit in this criteria, I started visualizing a “D-Day” experience. I started with creating the hill and everything kinda fell into place for that area pretty quickly, but it wasn’t enough. It just didn’t feel complete, and I wanted to give the player a lot more freedom. So to achieve this, I had to make it a lot larger. It became this behemoth of a map that almost didn’t fit on the grid anymore inside the level editor. After a long period of finding ways to get around engine limitations, the map was ready for release shortly after the mod came out. It wasn’t so popular at the start, but I remember after a while more and more people started playing it. Eventually Sinjar became one of the most popular maps in the mod. Many years went by and Sinjar stayed very popular, and was even running on servers 24/7, which was an awesome feeling and quite surreal. Something I never expected!
I joined New World Interactive just after the release of Insurgency 2014 standalone. At that time Sinjar was one of the most requested maps to be recreated for the standalone version. It wasn’t a question of if we were going to do a Sinjar remake, but more when! The map wasn’t very long in development, I think we finished it in about two or three months, which was a very short development time. We wanted to release it as soon as possible to keep the momentum of adding fresh and significant free content to the game. It was interesting and kind of scary when the map was done to release it to the public. This version of Sinjar was on the gameplay side, not that different from the original, except for the bunker, which we removed. We noticed not many players went down in the bunker, and without it we could add more detail in the areas that had a higher player exposure. The art on the map however received a huge upgrade, and turned it into a more believable environment with improved performance. It didn’t take long until it became one of the most popular maps in the game, and this time it supported a lot more game modes.
Because of this continued popularity, remaking Sinjar yet again in Insurgency: Sandstorm made a lot of sense, and it’s been something we’ve wanted to do for a while since Sandstorm launched. We have so many more possibilities with Unreal Engine 4 compared to the Source engine on which the previous two Sinjar maps built. We hope it stays as popular as it has been!
Top: Sinjar remake “Hillside” in Insurgency: Sandstorm
Bottom left: Sinjar from the Insurgency mod, 2007
Bottom right: Sinjar from standalone Insurgency, 2014
Brian, what’s it been like collaborating on this map together that Jeroen originally created himself?
Brian: Jeroen and I have been working together for some time now. I honestly always enjoy working with him, Jeroen is an excellent level designer. I loved hearing him talk about designing Sinjar for the mod, his ideas for the level when creating it, and his struggles. I’m glad to have gotten to work on a level he made. I didn’t want to mess up his baby, but I think we did a great job on the remake.
Jeroen: I really enjoyed working with Brian on the map, and not only designing it based on my vision and ideas. Of course we had to stay true to the vision of the original design, but there was still plenty of room to be creative and try new things. Brian took those opportunities and pushed it to ahum…the next level! We iterated a lot on the map until we were satisfied with the result. Brian and Jan Huygelen, (one of our other talented level designers who joined just after the initial gameplay pass) turned this map into something that I hope a lot of people will enjoy for a long time!
What’s happening to the dreaded hill and its well guarded A objective?
Brian: The hill (HELL) is longer and bigger than before! We had to make some changes for the different gameplay we have for Insurgency: Sandstorm. Now that we have Fire Support call-ins and vehicles, we needed to expand that area. But just in case the players find they don’t want to use those, we also added additional cover to the hill. The objective area itself is really close to the original. We added a roof area on one of the buildings in the objective which will make it a little harder to capture, but will also be a good place for snipers to use for the B objective after.
Jeroen: The hill was the main subject of many of our playtests. We definitely wanted to recapture that “How the hell do I get up this hill!!” feeling, but also try to add more options for Security to provide cover fire while their teammates are desperately trying to capture objective A. I think we added a few nice extras. There are more sniper spots this time around for Security to counter the hill’s defenses and call in fire support. Also, we added a bit more protection when exiting the spawn area.
How has the map changed since earlier versions, and what influenced those changes?
Jeroen: We made quite a few adjustments to the map on the gameplay side, but I think the change of setting to snow makes it feel like a completely different map. Early in development while we were working on the blockout I felt the map was too similar to the Insurgency 2014 version. I have to thank the community for this. I remember reading the forums where multiple people asked for a snow map, and it popped into my head “Why not change Sinjar to a snow map?!” This also justified the name change to Hillside, to make the map fit better in our naming scheme of not using real world locations. Also, the interiors look so much better in Hillside. Jan and Brian made it feel and look more like an actual place.
Brian: From a gameplay standpoint when I blocked it out it was almost 1:1, but we ended up having to make some areas slightly larger for vehicles. We also had to expand the town area for a five objective layout. Visually there are a lot of changes. We wanted to have a mixture of our mud/old building styles with newer looking buildings as you go further into the town area of the level.
Matthias: I believe originally the map was supposed to be a straight recreation of the original, and a typical dry middle eastern environment. So when I started working on it there was no snow and ice, just our regular assets. Then someone came up with the idea of a snow environment. For me as an artist, this was a welcome change. Transforming the map into something different visually was a super fun task.
In terms of gameplay, what sets Hillside apart from other maps in Sandstorm?
Jeroen: Gameplay is for me a lot about feeling and story. When the player spawns on this map, and especially when they spawn at the bottom of that hill, they will immediately notice a unique feeling. There is no time to sit back and plan your approach. It’s a full on attack, and once you make it up that hill, well you still have to plow through the cold, make it to the village, and finally destroy that beloved cache. Defenders on the other hand can enjoy the view and wait for their opponents to desperately try to crawl up that hill in unbearable cold.
Brian: Besides the hill and most players being in pain? Hillside is very vertical and there are a lot of places for players to sneak and use sniper positions. Because the level is linear it is also easy to tell where players will be coming from. Though don’t let that fool you, I added some fun flanking routes.
In terms of visuals, what sets Hillside apart from other maps in Sandstorm?
Matthias: The fact that it is our first snow map is of course the most obvious difference. It required us to create a lot of new level art. Our environment artists made a whole bunch of new modular sets and props, such as snow piles, icicles, etc. that really help selling the environment. I also created a new set of rocks/cliffs that fit the scenario as well as shaders for the snow and ice. Overall this makes it a drastically different map visually compared to anything that we have done before.
What was the process like making Insurgency: Sandstorm’s first snow map in terms of workflow, inspiration, etc?
Matthias: First i did some research about how other games deal with winter landscapes and what people have done in UE4. There is some truly spectacular work out there, for instance the winter area in Red Dead Redemption 2. Unfortunately many of the shaders that make things look awesome in single player games or beautiful in portfolio scenes are too expensive for a multiplayer game where people are extremely aware of even slight performance hitches. So for instance, highly tessellated and dynamic snow effects on the ground were not an option.
Early in the development I began with creating a set of unique tiling materials, but soon I realized that I would have to recreate almost our entire material library for winter to give level designers a high degree of flexibility in their artistic choices. There was also the bigger issue of how we deal with making winter textures for all our props. Then I had the idea that I could just repurpose a snow shader that I was working on for the rocks/cliffs for pretty much everything. And with some trickery (blending just whitish color instead of a second actual snow material onto many things) that came at only a tiny performance cost. Not super fancy, but it does the job well. It had the welcome side effect that I could reuse our complete material library instead of having to make everything from scratch. From there our workflow was that level designers worked on the map like they would on any non-winter map, and then I would go in and “snowify” all assets that they have picked.
What challenges did you encounter recreating Hillside?
Jeroen: One challenge was to improve on the map and keep it balanced and fun, but still maintain the difficulty level of the original design. It has always been hard to win Push mode on this map as Security, and we wanted to keep that sense of difficulty. But at the same time, we still had to make sure it wasn’t totally unforgiving. So we made some changes to make sure it didn’t feel totally unfair as some players in the past have complained. This includes the extra cover on the hill itself, a building at the bottom, and also of course non level design related things like fire support and drivable vehicles. Even if the Security team doesn’t win, it’s important the player has a great experience and still feels willing to give it another shot next round. It’s a tricky balance though. We will continue to monitor how balanced and fun the map is, but our playtests so far internally and on the CTE have had positive results.
Brian: Creating a remake of a level from Half-Life 2 and Insurgency 2014’s Source engine is not easy. You have a few options. You can use a third party tool that can convert bsp (the Source level format) into meshes and import it into Unreal 4. Or you can go my route: Use a stop watch and time your run times from objectives to buildings and other things. This is harder and more time consuming, but will allow you to have more freedom and have a better feel for how the level will play in Unreal 4 and in the new gameplay of Insurgency: Sandstorm compared to Source.
Recreating the terrain was also an interesting process. How high do I make the hill, is the slope long enough, is the slope high enough? It took a lot of running around and tweaking to get it right. It was also a little difficult trying to fit vehicles when I was working with the version from Insurgency 2014. There were no drivable vehicles in our previous game, so I had to expand road areas and make routes for them. We also didn’t have a five objective Push mode layout before, only four objective. So coming up with a slightly expanded area for the level was a challenge. We had to make it feel like it fit.
Having to work on this level with multiple people is a challenge at times. There is a lot of communication involved when working on a level together. We had to split up Hillside into sections so Jan (another level designer), Matthias, and I could all work together at once. Jan and Matthias are in the Netherlands and Germany respectively, and I am in our Denver studio. Most of the time our work days wouldn’t overlap too much, and we could each be free to work on it without interruption. Other times someone might be working on an area you also need to work on, and you would need to just find something else to do in the meantime. Besides that, working with Jeroen, Matthias and Jan has been a lot of fun.
What are each of your favorite parts of Hillside and why?
Jeroen: Hard to pick, everyone did a fantastic job on this map! The hill is still one of my favorite parts because it’s very iconic and I have a lot of fond memories designing the hill in the original version.
Brian: I loved working on the hill area. Sculpting that and making it feel right was a lot of fun. Adding extra cover on the hill up to Push mode’s objective A was an interesting task trying to balance right. Getting some rock meshes from Matthias was also something I fondly remember. Going around and placing them and making that entire area look pretty was a lot of fun!
Matthias: The area around the bridge came out really nice. It’s always a good feeling when others take something that I had a hand in (assets or materials) and turn it into something even better by being creative with it.
What are some other games that inspire each of your work?
Jeroen: Many games inspired me to create Sinjar back in 2005. One of the games was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. I remember playing that for the first time and had goosebumps when I landed on that beach and had to fight my way up the hill. Another game was Deus Ex. Even though it’s very different from Insurgency, the amount of options the player has in Deus Ex to simply enter a room made it so much more immersive and fun! Also the Battlefield franchise, mainly Battlefield 1942, and Joint Operations are big inspirations for the original Sinjar design.
Brian: There are so many games I love to play. Recently I’ve been getting into racing and single player games. Detroit: Become Human has me glued to the TV, Same with Star Wars Battlefront II. Playing some of DICE’s games and looking at their level design is quite inspiring. Other than that, I like wasting my time in Dirt Rally.
Matthias: I love analyzing the art in other games, particularly materials, since this is my main occupation. In recent years games by Naughty Dog have been a huge inspiration as well as Assassin’s Creed games and Red Dead Redemption 2. I always try to stay in touch with what’s on the market, what gamers enjoy, and what new tools and workflows other developers use. AAA games have gotten a bad rap recently, but it’s still where the magic happens in regards to technology and art production. Artists in small teams like ours can learn a lot from bigger productions.
Thank you Jeroen, Brian, and Matthias for taking the time to answer these questions. Hillside will feature support for all game modes: Push, Firefight, Skirmish, Checkpoint, Hardcore Checkpoint, Frenzy, Team Deathmatch, and our upcoming new Versus mode Frontline. Plus, all of the mutated game modes we have planned with the limited time playlist system. We appreciate you taking the time to read this update, and be sure to follow us here and on social media for more info!