In 2010, Treyarch would release what some could argue as being the second-best Call of Duty game ever: Black Ops. This inaugural title that would become beloved among Call of Duty fans contained a map so fast, so frustrating, it was like you were pumped adrenaline and the supply never ran out. Nuketown became the most iconic map in the Call of Duty franchise, being remade for every Black Ops sequel ever. Some might argue that Nuketown is just a map, but the popularity that it attracted was so massive that it has transcended the franchise and ingrained itself into player’s minds. There are only so many maps that fall into this category; Blood Gulch from Halo, Dust2 from Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Summoner’s Rift from League of Legends, and now? Noshahr Canals from Battlefield 3.
Anyone who has played Battlefield 3 has played on Noshahr Canals, and specifically played Canals’ in Team Deathmatch. The non-stop chaos, the screen shake from explosives, the crane snipers, the container area; it’s all part of what makes Canals so fun and so iconic. And I’m not the only one who shares that sentiment. In fact, 80 percent of all Team Deathmatch players in Battlefield 3 played only Canals. 80 percent. That number isn’t hard to believe when you look at the server browser and see titles such as, “24/7 CANALS DEATHMATCH NO RULES MAX TICKETS.”
Thinking of Canals had me nostalgic, but it also had me curious. I wanted to know how DICE created the map, if they planned out the container area, and if they knew that it would become so popular. Instead of speculating about it, I decided to see what I could find. Only one blog post about the map design for Canals was ever published, and it was deleted (or archived) from the original page. Luckily for me, MP1st (back in its infancy) lifted the entire blog post and published it on the site. This blog post had something that not even the credits for Battlefield 3 had: the author of Canals.
His name is Niklas Åstrand, and he’s currently the lead game mode designer for DICE’s next shooter Battlefield V. Back then, however, Åstrand was a level designer responsible for other fan-favorite maps like Damavand Peak and Grand Bazaar. A couple of hoops jumped through later and I found myself speaking with Åstrand about the process of how canals was made.
MP1st: In 2011, DICE described the map making process in very generalized terms saying:
From there, prototypes of the favorite levels were produced in so called “pods” — pairs with a level designer and artist per map — so the team could play them to see which ones were the most promising. Then, the team as a whole weighed the maps against one another to see which ones would make the most compelling and diverse package to ship the game with.
When the team picked Canals to ship with the game, was it in part due to the TDM variant of the map?
Niklas Åstrand: The selection process you mentioned was a very high level one with 4 or 5 images showing the theme and few key words for each map. I dug up these documents and for Noshahr Canals the pitch said: “Infantry, ground, sea and air vehicle fighting at a large coastal city. Carrier at sea, harbor area, airstrip, city vista, sewer canals and steep cliffs.”
Most of the features or key points listed did end up in the map. The harbor and industry theme grow over time and the large coastal city became a backdrop – due to scope but also since other maps were focusing heavily on urban themes. This made Noshahr more unique in the multiplayer map offering.
When it comes to the container area it was not specifically mentioned on the wall. Sure, a harbor area often include containers but that specific area of the map that we ended up with did not exist in the initial design.
MP1st: Is the process to build these maps to create separate sections of the map, each with a motif for a particular style of gameplay, and then combine them into one big map?
Niklas Åstrand: When building a Battlefield multiplayer map we want to make each objective area visually different. This to both make the map more interesting and easy to read for players. There is also the wish to make objectives play differently, some might be vehicle friendly, some can only be reached by infantry. Sometimes the level designer knows early exactly how the map should play, the themes and the play style of each area. Sometimes it evolves during the development process. The important thing is that each sub area fit with the neighbor areas and the overall look and feel of the map.
Half of the maps picked from the pitch wall should be designed with Conquest as main game mode and other half primarily built for Rush. Still all maps should of course support both the two main game modes. Noshahr was initially listed as a Conquest map but with the beach assault and visual themes of the sub areas of the map change as you move through the map suiting Rush as well.
MP1st: When the crates area was being set up, what type of design philosophy did you follow? I notice that when we talk about the TDM variant, it has a classic three-lane design with this hectic pathing being put into a cluster of crates that emphasizes action and thrill because you never know who will be around the corner.
Niklas Åstrand: The base layout of the container area was built by me, not really based on some secret formula, copying older maps or other games. I basically placing object after object in the area, building it to something that felt good and that I wanted to play in. To be able to run around, sneak up on enemies in a hide-and-seek way but also allow vehicles to not only drive around the whole area but have a few routes through it. I’ve always built maps this way, on feeling rather than a detailed plan. What feels natural and best in that location. I guess you could look at it as how a painter draws – not always having a plan or spreadsheet to follow.
MP1st: Do you think the map and its TDM variant would be as popular as it is?
Niklas Åstrand: When a game is launched all maps are played a lot. As players then get to know them and find their favorite and we can start seeing a trend of maps becoming more popular. The popularity of the Team Deathmatch on Noshahr Canals is nothing more than spectacular with 80% of the Team Deathmatch players playing that map and 20% playing all the other maps. We’ve seen high numbers on a specific game modes on a specific maps before – Conquest Assault on Strike At Karkand in Battlefield 2 to mention one – but never this extreme. We saw on our internal playtests that it played well but so did the other maps. So no, I cannot say that we knew this would be the case but it was an interesting development to see how one map would become basically the only played map in a game mode.
It make me very proud to be the designer of this map and I would also like to credit my former colleague Diego Jimenez who was assigned to assist the other level designers and when it came to the setups of Team and Squad Deathmatch. Diego did multiple iterations on all the maps – including Noshahr – adjusting and tweaking layouts and gameplay based on feedback from playtests and BF veterans on the team. At the end of the project when the team was ramping down and I was again the only designer working on the map I remember going through the container area multiple times. Opening some container doors and closing others to optimize movement flow. Adding and moving crates and boxes to extend or limit line of sight. Testing jump paths up on elevated positions. I think this area had more opportunity to do mini-adjustments than other areas on the rest of the maps. This could be one reason why it work so well.
MP1st: Were you excited to bring it back for Battlefield 4?
Niklas Åstrand: I always think how we could revisit favorite moments of our old titles. Areas or entire maps from previous game to new ones as a tribute to the memories we’ve had playing those areas in those games. Bringing back the entire container area from Noshahr Canals to a new map in Battlefield 4 was a really good idea.
MP1st: Lastly, am I overstating the absolute genius I believe went into this map? I have an emotional connection with just how good it played.
Niklas Åstrand: Well, I do want to say that you are absolutely right but to be honest I think it was a combination of many things, people and their decisions and actions down the line that made the map end up in the way it did. Just go back to the beginning of the project in the pre-production phase, if I wouldn’t have suggested the harbor idea and people wouldn’t have voted on that pitch the area wouldn’t even have been thought. I guess the idea that this could be something really different and good was what made us push for some ideas which turn out to be the best Team Deathmatch map in Battlefield 3. Best ever? Well, I leave that up to each player to decide.
Canals’ incredible design was highlighted not only in the server browser but also in the numbers. Maps like this one are few and far between, but that rarity is also what makes it so memorable and special in people’s hearts and minds.
With Battlefield V out later this week, I hope DICE strikes gold twice with a map that becomes bigger than intended. A map that lives outside of the game and in the memories of its players. After all, isn’t that what makes art so incredible?