There are no requisites for this section.
This introduction part will try to motivate you as to why decals can be important to both the experience of the player and the perception on the product as a whole. Essentially it is the finishing touch on a beautiful cake, the final mile of a marathon or the last tweaks on that hobby of yours.
And exactly that is why it is one of the hardest phases of the development of a map: it is already fleshed out, the resources are in place, the strata are done and as a whole its seems to be already good and playable. Why spend hours and hours on those decals?
Well, good of you to ask. Lets go on a journey together.
It is important to understand what it is that we're trying to achieve. With my students I like to work backwards: we start looking at the result and try to understand what it is trying to tell us. And let us start off good with some animated content of maps that are either in the vault or under construction. The purpose is to try and understand what it is that these decals mean to you. What is their added value in your own experience?
Hymn and Bone: there are no decals in the slider.
Fifth Nomad Mission: there are only decals in the slider.
Seton's Clutch: There are no decals in the slider
Next off we have a bundle of images of maps. Feel free to post your map down below and I'll ponder on whether it fits the next series. All of them have 2 sections that do show decals and two sections that do not show decals. Again, the purpose is to try and understand what all of this means to you.
Nomad Mission 5, under construction as of writing
Long John Silver, under construction as of writing
When looking at the examples, determine what it is that you think that decals are doing to the map according to you.
Seton's Clutch, before Forged Alliance
Don't stop here. Experience it live yourself - open up one of the following maps in the Ozonex or GPG editor:
The GPG editor crashes when it is trying to open up a map made by the Ozonex editor that is saved as version 60 (forged alliance), instead of version 56 (vanilla). You need the Ozonex editor to open these up and save them in version 56 of the map file format in order to open them in the GPG editor.
You can find maps that you have downloaded in:
You can find the default maps at the installation folder of Supreme Commander Forged Alliance.
There is a Hide all and Unhide all button to quickly switch. You can find it under Decals -> Tools.
Use CTRL+A to select all the decals. Then press Delete. You can now quickly switch between a view with and without decals via using CTRL + Z and then deleting them again.
I hope this gives an idea to you as to what decals mean to you. This can be anything - there is no good or bad here. Use this as your argumentation.
The next topics cover as to what decals mean to me. We don't have to agree and a discussion is always welcome.
Decals on their own do not affect the simulation. After all, they do not make the terrain more bumpy or change the terrain type - it just looks more bumpy or more grassy. Nevertheless, to me they do affect the interpretation of the simulation. In other terms: to me decals have influence on the gameplay.
Let me elaborate via the usage of strata. Typically a rock stratum is used for places that are expected to be unpathable, such as cliffs, mountains and steep hills. This is done in almost every single map. Especially the default maps that are shipped with the game both learn us and use this association to make it easier for the player to understand the simulation.
In its essence: the rock stratum communicates some form of state to a player: this piece of terrain is likely unpathable.
Other instruments that communicate state are:
And that is how we get back to decals. Decals allow you to tap into a source of associations that the player typically learns throughout playing the game. This source of associations can be used to make your map easier to understand. As an example, would you say there is a hill on this bit of terrain?
After some careful consideration you'll probably say: 'Yes, of course! Look at the lighting on that piece of terrain. There must be some elevation there.' And you're right: there is.
Typically though, after play testing the map with new players, people build turrets behind the hill such that the hill blocks all projectiles flying towards units that are in front of the hill. In turn this forces me as a map designer to question as to why this is.
The reason turned out that even though the state was communicated through lighting, it was communicated too poorly. People do not have time to inspect the terrain when they are playing a real time strategy game. And because the lighting wasn't that significant, people just generally just overlooked the hill.
To communicate 'the hill' better I decided to place a few decals on it.
After which I never had the complaint again of their turrets shooting some hidden hill. Players either made their turrets in front of the hill. And if not, at the very least understood what went wrong and that they could've known about it before hand.
Therefore to me, decals can help you as a designer to communicate state.
The magic circle is an interesting concept in which a user accepts to drop the normal rules of the physical rules and replace them by new rules - allowing you to enter a world such as a game, or a movie, and emotionally live along with that world.
It is the reason that people can cry at the end of a movie: they accepted the environment which describes whether or not a user can accept a new reality as a truth - and in turn, accept anything that follows from that reality.
One can argue that initially when you start playing a game decals can help a lot to capture your imagination. It is what makes the world feel more acceptable - imagine playing this game the first time when all of the maps had no decals on them at all. The gameplay may be just as interesting. All the trailers, footages of the game and other PR material on the other hand would appear blunt and less appealing to you. In turn, you would be less quickly drawn towards the product.
The same still holds if you do not play the game competitively but more casually. The graphical appearance of a map can introduce all kinds of play and allows people to see a higher contrast in this world of play, or, step into it more easily.
We started off with a question what decals are for you. Throughout the article we have tried so far to answer this question by comparing maps with and without decals. The hard truth is however that the majority of popular maps barely have any decals on them at all.
Some people were discussing this fact in the Map & Mod Making Discord channel, and they have a good point. When we take the top 20 of the 18th of August, 2020 then the results are as following:
The overall consensus is that decals aren't that important for a map to be popular. Surely people may enjoy aesthetics maps, but generally, they won't choose a map for aesthetics. They choose a map for the game play experience that the map facilitates. And decals aren't a part of that choice.
There are maps out there that do not have that many decals, while still being appealing all on their own. And there is something to say here: decals are not a necessity. In my opinion they are a powerful tool to enhance an experience, but they cannot create the experience on their own.
A map that is beautiful on its own with a mere 318 decals on it, of which 44 are unique
And all of this brings us back to the original question: is it worth spending time on carefully placing decals on a map? This is question that is for you to answer - some will say no, others will respond with an astounding yes. I hope this article allows you to make this argument with yourself.
For more information on the magic circle:
A few good talks from GDC about level design:
If you have interesting sources, approaches, opinions or ideas that are not listed yet but may be valuable to the article: feel free to leave a message down below or contact me on Discord. The idea is to create a bunch of resources to share our knowledge surrounding development in Supreme Commander.
If you've used this resource for one of your maps feel free to make a post below: I would love to know about it!