The Secrets of Shrunk

4J spill the beans on building their Battle map!

There’s something instantly thrilling about Shrunk, one of the recent maps to be released for Console Edition’s Battle mini game. We like to think that all the handcrafted maps we release are pretty stunning - hidden coves with the skeletal remains of scuttled pirate ships, forbidden cities full of ancient temples and blossoming cherry trees, and skyscraping airships floating above scenes of industrial Victoriana. But Shrunk is different: it takes something familiar - a normal, if messy, bedroom - and transforms it into something fantastic, something epic, simply by changing its scale.

Are you tiny or is everything else just really, really big? Either way, you can’t deny there’s a particular pleasure in launching yourself off the side of a gargantuan fishtank, or dodging arrows among the pieces of a boardgame, before rapidly rope-walking the cable of a gamepad, draped between a vast plateau of bedding and a distant console.

How did 4J settle on this idea for the map?

“I’m a big fan of the 80s - being a child of the 80s myself,” says 4J’s art director David Keningale. “So I fondly remember movies like Inner Space or Honey I Shrunk the Kids. All those films where you had tiny little characters running around an oversized world. Even nowadays you’ve got Ant-Man in the movies, and the idea’s been in children’s literature for years - with The Borrowers things like that. It gives you a whole new perspective on the world around you. It’s a great experience to have.”

While the earliest prototypes of the level are being built, our artists will experiment with models and features to test the concept’s aesthetic appeal, figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Not all maps start with the personal obsessions of the designers, of course. Ideas often emerge from team brainstorming sessions, while others blossom after arriving at an intriguing sounding name.

“If we’re doing one which is specific to a texture pack, that usually helps us a lot with the conceptualisation,” says David. “Shipyard was very much like that. While testing the Steampunk texture pack we built lots of little features for ourselves to see how things would look and how we would think other people would play with the pack. So when we got a chance to do a Battle map for that it was great fun. It gives it a real Victorian vibe straight away - factory warehouses and airships all set miles above the ground.”

The next step is to rough out the level’s layout, says level lead designer Michael Hansen: “Prototyping helps us get our ideas together so that everyone can chip in and flesh out an idea.” With a map like Shrunk, which confines itself to a rectangular space, working out where all the bits of furniture might fit presented an interesting jigsaw puzzle in itself - and that’s before any consideration for how it would play.

1. Often we start by laying out a floorplan in-game to get a sense of scale and try out different arrangements of the main features. In Shrunk's case, fitting it together was a bit of a jig-saw puzzle!

2. We then create prototypes to get a feel for how it is to run and jump around the level. Because of the unusual scales involved, Shrunk took a fair bit of experimentation to get right.

3. This is when things are really starting to get fleshed out. Simplified models are put into a scene to check colour palettes, verify spacing and scoping out exactly what we will need for final production.

4. At this stage we are still moving elements around but, as things progress, the positions of major bits of scenery are being locked down - but feedback from playtests will still inspire radical changes.

“One of the core design elements is that we have to keep the spawn points roughly central in the gameplay area so it is fair for everyone,” says David. “No one has a distinct advantage over anyone else in getting to the first chest, or a chest further out. We really want an even playing field so that battles come down to the skill of the player. To get that right takes quite a lot of experimentation.

“With Shrunk we wanted the spawn point to be the top of the bed. So for a long time we had this big, open, flat area that we knew we had to incorporate in the centre of the level but with testing and further development we realised it felt a little too flat - so Michael came up with the idea of kids playing with boardgames - and that boardgame became the spawn point.”

“We really want an even playing field so that battles come down to the skill of the player. To get that right takes quite a lot of experimentation.”

The need to get resources and weapons from chests is one of the fundamental ways in which the make creates “flow” - the need for players to move about. The placement of chests, and the challenge in getting to them, is critical.

“All the good stuff is in the high value chests, and we make those difficult to get to,” says David. “A player may have to walk out into a very exposed area, or be high up and have a risk of falling. Some players will camp - you can’t stop that - but we try to design the maps so players can’t stay in one place too long. They will get hungry and they need to replenish their food as well as get armour and weaponry for protection. The game self-balances in that way.”

1. Now the design becomes more focused. The idea and layout is solidifying rapidly but we still have a lot of technical issues to solve, like how to light the scene and what details to include.

2. Things are really coming together! We start thinking hard about chest placement at this stage and this tends to inspire further tweaks to the level's flow and the exact placement of its details.

3. We take the level to a finished quality, playtesting all the way to make sure things look good and feel both fair and fluid. Chest and Start locations are finalised and the map goes to external testing.

4. Reacting to feedback is often a balance of play versus aesthetics. Fixes range from simply moving a chest location a few blocks to restructuring entire sections of the level to improve flow.

As the map gets fleshed out, the designers play it over and over, assessing how easy it is to move from one place to another, or whether certain areas turn into deadly killzones, or, conversely, are just too easily defended. One example is the bedroom floor, says David: “The floor was originally very cluttered - it was modelled on my son’s bedroom after all. The problem was that it got so crammed with stuff that you could run across it with almost no danger at all, running from cover to cover, despite all the high vantage points which people might shoot you from.”

Shrunk is a very vertical map, and many tweaks were designed to help players to scamper up and down the scenery easily.

“Because of the size of the map, we needed to allow players to get up quite quickly and get down without feeling too pressured,” says Michael. “The fishtank is a good example. To begin with, it was used as a way of stopping players from getting into certain corners of the map, but then as we were playing it, and as the level evolved, we decided to make the fishtank larger and one of the main features, so players can jump down into the pools of water to get down quicker without hurting themselves, or use it to sneak their way up to the top.”

After all the feedback and bugs are addressed we declare the level final! We then create all the marketing screenshots and promotional material. Finally, we all have a nice cup of tea. Phew!

What tips would the designers give to miniaturised minecrafters looking to tidy up the competition?

“Always be wary of the monsters under the bed!” jokes David. “And look for the bounce pads - they’re a great way to get down. We’ve hidden them under carpet textures, so they’re not always obvious, but you can spot them. We’ve got launch cannons as well to help you get high up quickly. These little secrets around the map will help you play it well and help you get around it in really quick time.”

“Just because you feel like you’re really high up from everyone else, it doesn’t mean you’re safe,” says Michael. “Someone can use one of the hidden launch pads to shoot up right in front of you and take you out.”

Shrunk is part of the Battle Map Pack 4 DLC for Console Edition.