Valve Developer Union

Item Spawns in Custom Quake Levels

(November 2, 2017)

In Quake, blowing things up is the name of the game. As a result, you want players to be properly prepared throughout, no matter which weapons they currently have. Balancing items to give the player a fair (but challenging) shot against Quake's various demons can be difficult. While the following advice certainly isn't exhaustive, it'll give you a good idea as to what to look out for if you're having trouble.

In general, playtest your own map often. Get a feel for its flow. Apply your judgement as a player. Where do you need the medkits? Where do you need the extra rockets? What about armor? Get the opinions of other players. No amount of blanket advice will cover every scenario and you'll still need to plan your item layouts according to the flow of your specific map.


Flow before items, not vice versa

Try to keep item placement for at least a little while after solidifying the general flow of your map and maybe even your enemy placement. Sometimes, you'll develop an area around a gun or a key, and that's perfectly fine. For general entities though, you'll want to keep them for afterwards.

With that said, here's some more specific advice, as well as analysis of some placement patterns found in the official id maps.

Ammo placement

The ammunition that comes with most guns isn't a whole lot. Even if it was, sooner or later, players would need a refill.

How to place ammo

Make sure the player never runs out of shells.

Players use the Shotgun as a last resort when they either have no additional firepower or they want to conserve their other ammo. A player should never have to resort to using the Axe, even if they use the Shotgun the entire level. E3M1 is a perfect example of this; as soon as the player spawns, they're given the Double-Barrelled Shotgun and an extra box to supplement the 20 shells they spawn with, putting them at 50 shells. Within the first twenty seconds of the map, the player is at max ammo for it.

E3M1 preparing the player with two full boxes of shells
E3M1 preparing the player with two full boxes of shells

Give players ammo for guns they don't currently have.

In E2M1, the player gets their first box of nails long before they get the Nailgun itself. In fact, the ammo is placed in the room with the keycard needed to get to the Nailgun later in the map.

E2M1 gives the player nails before they have the Nailgun to use them
E2M1 gives the player nails before they have the Nailgun to use them

If a weapon is present later in the level, you can hint at its presence and prepare the player to use it immediately after receiving it by placing ammo for it throughout the level before it. Of course, it wouldn't make much sense to place rockets in a level without a rocket launcher, so this shouldn't extend to guns the player won't get any time soon.

When fighting Shamblers, give the players nails.

The Nailgun is one of the quickest ways to take down a Shambler. Shamblers take half damage from any explosive damage, and players that know that won't waste all their rockets on one. Give the player a big box of nails just before they have to fight one. (Cells for the Thunderbolt are another good way to take down a Shambler, but if the player doesn't have the Thunderbolt yet, cells are obviously ineffective.)

A box of nails outside of the Shambler lair in E2M2
A box of nails outside of the Shambler lair in E2M2

How not to place ammo

Don't make the player rely on one specific gun by giving them ammo only for that gun.

As tempting as it might be to give players only rockets, remember their splash damage and that they're ineffective against Shamblers. For a small enough map, a player will probably rely more on their Shotguns and Nailguns than either one of their explosive guns. Make the ammo counts even and let the players decide how to progress.

Too much ammo is just as bad as not enough.

If the player has enough ammo to easily overpower the level's enemies, there's no challenge. In this situation, just increasing the amount of enemies might overwhelm the player, but it's not a fair challenge. It's simply a slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouses are not good maps.

Don't place ammo haphazardly.

Have a reason for placing things. Is the player expected to be at max ammo at this point in the map, or are they running a little low? This is where playtesting becomes especially important. If you run out of ammo coming into a certain area, you know you need to add more.

Medkit placement

Health is perhaps an even finer balance than ammo. You want a sense of danger, and too many medkits can ruin the effect.

How to place medkits

Place a medkit or two at the start of a level.

This is more important if you're making a mappack rather than a single level, but players who enter the level with under 50 health will only be restored to that amount. Even if they're over that limit, no one wants to be punished down the road for errors in judgement now. Let them recover.

A medkit at E3M3's spawn
A medkit at E3M3's spawn

Place medkits after dangerous situations.

This might seem obvious, but note the points in the level where players are likely to take a beating and heal them afterwards. Episode two provides some great examples. In E2M2, a large number of medkits are placed in the Knight-infested foyer area after the player fights off at least an Ogre, a Fiend, and gets caught in a spike trap. E2M5's infamous "water elevator" has the player unable to avoid taking drowning damage, but provides medkits right after.

Medkits in the foyer in E2M2
Medkits in the foyer in E2M2

Place medkits around critical objectives.

If you've planned your level well, the player will need to fight for keys, runes, or whatever the objective is in the map. Heal up the player after those kinds of firefights.

Medkit near the key in E2M4's Zombie-infested waters
Medkit near the key in E2M4's Zombie-infested waters

Place medkits in areas where the player backtracks.

Good Quake levels reuse areas. If a player is likely to use a room or a location more than once, like in the area leading up to the key door in E1M3, place some extra medkits in case the player needs them later, even if there are no more enemies to fight. This area now becomes a breather for a player who's spent the first half of the level blowing enemies to bits.

E1M5's main chamber holds four different medkits for different trips
E1M5's main chamber holds four different medkits for different trips

How not to place medkits

Don't hide medkits.

You might think you're being clever, but things that are apparent to you are not apparent to players. You can use medkits as a reward, but if a player has to go hunting, that's poor level design. They might not even know the medkits in question exist.

Don't place more than five in any general area.

Even if they were all rotten medkits, that's still enough health to bring a player back from the verge of death to full health. Rarely will you need more than three in an average sized room, and you should give serious thought to anything more than five.

Don't place medkits where players might accidentally use them.

Health is precious. It's probably a better idea to place medkits in areas after a large firefight, or at least sufficiently out of the way where players won't stumble into them and use them before they want to. (This is less of an issue with ammunition, where players might actually need a refill during a firefight.)


Ticking more than one box

Much of the above advice can and does overlap. E2M2's foyer area is in a location where players would backtrack, is after a critical objective (retrieving a key from a Shambler's lair), and both times the player traverses it, they will have just been in a dangerous situation where the chance of taking a large amount of damage is high.

Armor placement

Armor is a player's second line of defense against damage. There's three grades of armor: green (item_armor1), which gives the player 100 points of armor protection, yellow (item_armor2), which gives the player 150 points, and red (item_armorinv), which gives the player 200 points. Red armor is second only to Quad Damage in being an effective objective for players, especially in a deathmatch context. Players should almost always have at least a bit of armor left in reserve.

Yellow armor out of plain sight on the bridge in E2M2
Yellow armor out of plain sight on the bridge in E2M2

You'll rarely need more than two or three of each set in a level, and the higher grades should almost always be harder to reach. id's episodes often give players green armor close to the start of the level or have them out in the open as a basic refill, in case the player's running low. Yellow armor occasionally fills this role, especially before large firefights, but is usually better hidden or at least out of the way. Red armor should nearly always be hidden and hidden well, as a reward for exploration.

Green armor out in the open at spawn in E2M1
Green armor out in the open at spawn in E2M1

E2M1 provides a great example for how id places armor in their official levels. Across the water room near spawn, green armor is present in plain sight. Red armor is also present in this room (directly behind the camera in the above screenshot), but requires the player to swim into an easy-to-miss nook for it.

Artifact (quad, protection, invisibility) placement

"Artifact" items (such as the Quad Damage, Pentagram of Protection, and the Ring of Shadows) are best suited as a way to reward players for finding a secret or for preparing a player for intense parts of a level. id usually keeps their Quad Damage artifacts behind secret doors, but not always. E2M5 has a Quad Damage in the water near the end of the level, where the player fights three Fiends at once.

You probably shouldn't place more than one of each in a level unless you know what you're doing, as they can throw off the balance of your map. In a deathmatch context, however, a Quad Damage placed in a visible but difficult to reach central location can provide a worthy incentive for players to fight each other harder for it. Be careful that the artifact doesn't become easy to camp.

E1M2's secret Quad Damage door
E1M2's secret Quad Damage door

Most of the difficulty of your map hinges on how plentiful ammo, armor, and medkits are. Smart placement will enhance your layout and make your level feel cleaner and more professional as a result. Likewise, smart artifact placement can make an otherwise dull area of your map more fun to play.