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Hellkeeper, 30/09/2011 à 18h00

Post-Mortem DM-Atomnium

DM-Atomnium was at some point the very best map I had produced. To be honest, I still think it is one of my best works, only slightly inferior to DmExar (which dominates everything I have made up to now). DM-Karalen, DM-Premaka and DM-Megatan are all more or less on the same level - with DmRiot maybe a bit better than them and DM-Honored a bit worse. DM-Cooling and CTF-Axlik were only experimental works and were not intended to be widely played. If Exar is my best work, Atomnium is a close second - at least in my opinion - and this is even more satisfying when I remember its chaotic and endless development.

The final build was finalized in the second half of June 2008. That brings us back three years into the past. It might seem futile to discuss it so long after its release, especially considering I released 4 maps and a side project since then, but I still remember clearly how it went: badly.

In the very last days of 2006 and very first days of 2007, after about a year with no finished project, I was becoming desperate to accomplish something. Anything. Karalen was almost a year old already and I had not learned anything while building it. I had released Cockpit, which was not a playable map and amounted to only one room anyway. I had envisioned many things, from a grand CTF map that I had already begun in the form of the ill-fated CTF-Hellkeeper, to an indoor assault map based on DOM-Core's design, but also BR and DM projects with Arborea or medieval themes. I had thought about everything and anything. What I had done, however, was nothing. In mid-2006 it had occurred to me that CTF-Hellkeeper, despite almost two years of work and tons of experimentation with emitter systems, was doomed. To be blunt, it sucked. Despite all the work I had put into it, its layout was simply not good enough. It had almost no height variation and only one path from flag to flag. I dumped it with regrets.

I did nothing for months until, in a sudden burst of indignation, I decided to do something, even something useless and devoid of a soul, just to keep myself working on something. I took the overused Shiptech theme I had already abused in Megatan and Premaka (and Cockpit) because I knew it perfectly. At that point, I was not going for original, unique, or even mildly interesting stuff, I was only falling back on this package because I knew I wouldn't be able to do anything with unfamiliar assets given my lack of ideas. With a greyish-green texture, I started subtracting cubes in the last few months of 2006. It was only the beginning of a long disaster.

In January 2007 I showed everyone what I had done. I could only sum it up by saying that it was being done under self-imposed "moral constraint". It was what I would later call "beam-fest".

Young Atomnium Young Atomnium Young Atomnium Young Atomnium Young Atomnium

For someone who had abandoned many projects because they were unplayable I was making a remarkably bad job at improving the situation. The map was symmetric, although in a complex way as the two levels were not symmetric relatively to the same axis. There was only one way to access each level on each side, which meant the map would suffer problems due to its structure. It was narrow, which hindered movement. In terms of BSP, it was a complete mess. Almost no static-meshes were used, all brushes were solid. Using semi-solids gave me huge BSP holes, and when I tried to convert some of my twisted brushes into meshes it gave me lighting problems so huge fixing them would have been a full-time job. The initial release of that alpha was met with initial enthusiasm, but this was mostly because people who knew me were eager to see what I would do after Karalen. When things began to cool down and real critical feedback started to arrive, reception became exceptionally lukewarm. The map was ugly, it was crippled (several flickering polygons were spotted); it had terrible flow. Adding insult to injury, I was not fond of it, it was hard to edit because of its structure and the horrible unaligned BSP was becoming troublesome.

I had to rework it, and rework it entirely. It was still an early alpha and nothing was settled. Someone suggested I should mirror everything I had already done and link both circular structures with corridors in a DM-Compressed sort of way. I suggested several ways to improve connectivity, but each of my attempts was met with doubtful comments: my fellow testers and mappers could not see a way to make it less bad. To be honest, I couldn't either. Moreover, the map had no interesting concept or idea behind it, it was just a contrived beam-fest.

Mid-2007: I had not done anything more on the map. I would launch UnrealEd, open the map, stare at it for a moment and then go do something else. I couldn't, for the life of me, decide what to do with it. I was angry at it and at me. Life was not helping me either. In the last third of 2007, things worsened suddenly for me. DM-Atomnium was dumped. Parts of my computer died and I lost the file anyway. I was low. I had even added DM-Atomnium to my Lost Maps Pantheon long ago.

2007 ended. Unreal Tournament 3 was released. Even if I had had a project going, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that, UT2004 was now dead and mapping for it was foolish. I began studying Unreal 2's particle system, dialog manager and triggers. It led nowhere, because Unreal 2 is the last platform one should use for his mod or custom content. I abandoned the idea, and I more or less thought I was done with mapping at that time, given that UT3 was what it is. Most of my mapping-time was spent doing little experiments on UT99 and UT2004 - I updated CTF-Axlik's graphics at the time -, small things with triggers and emitters. After a while, I stopped launching UnrealEd out of mere habit.

In March 2008, I suddenly realized I was forgetting how to use UnrealEd after finding myself unable to answer a stupidly easy question on some forum. This was an outraging epiphany: not only was I unproductive, I was also becoming unhelpful and useless. "Well, I thought, it's time to find something to do if you don't want to forget everything". The last modification of Atomnium dated back to February 2007, as did the last post of the topic about it on Unreal-Design. That was more than a year old. I posted, digging this topic out of its grave, asking if someone still had an early version of, "that shit". It turns out someone (Alea) did. Incredibly, the guy had stored it somewhere for a full year and was able to send it back to me.

Oh but it was not over yet. When I opened it, it was as chaotic and disastrous as I remembered, but I had leveled down. I had to re-learn UnrealEd, but also reeducate myself on how this mess of a map worked.

I toyed with the idea of rebuilding it from scratch with the original map as a blueprint, as I had done with Premaka and Megatan, but in the end I rolled with the first alpha. Seeing how un-cluttering the viewports was almost impossible, I decided to just go with the flow and build on upon this rotten base. I converted my custom static-meshes back into brushes and added lifts to finally fix my connectivity problem, enhance the flow and add the opportunity to lift-jump to add even more possibilities. Looking back on this map, it could have been finished in a few weeks only, had I made these lifts from the beginning instead of waiting a full year to do so.

I finished decorating by just piling beams ad nauseam. When all the walls and ceilings were covered with shiptech-textured beams I covered parts of the floor too! When I had sufficiently abused the brushwork, I used blue and yellow/orange lights to lit the whole map, with touches of red - a very very very (very) traditional lighting - I would use almost the same colours in DmExar, one year later, almost to the day. To add a feature to the map, I added a semi-random event with a "Bang" sound, smoke falling down from the ceiling and camera effects in order to simulate bombings. To further enhance my walls, I added lights between some beams and increased the lightmap factor to get complex shadows at the cost of a tiny performance hit. Given how complex the ceiling was, having complex shadows was just a matter of putting some light actors between pillars.

Atomnium Atomnium Atomnium Atomnium Atomnium

And there you go, I released Atomnium in June 2008. Lo and behold, I had done something! It had taken about 18 months, but I had succeeded. Compared to Premaka and Karalen, it was slightly more complex, as it had 3 levels and was not mirrored the same way. It was of course smaller than Megatan but much more interesting to play. As far as visuals were concerned, it had its own personality, if only because it was beam-land and a style I can only describe as being "a bit fucked up". The final release came a few days later, with a couple of bugs corrected. A few HOMs were hunted down. Still, you can find a couple of them today in very specific places viewed from very specific angles. Visiting the map in Zone/Portal mode shows why they still exist: the BSP Cuts are... Well... It's a bloody mess.
There also remains, to this day, a huge zoning bug which causes the upper room to be part of one of the two main zones. If the map wasn't so old, I would fix it, but I noticed it months after it was finished, so the Lighting Gun Room and the Bio Rifle Side will remain fused.

It's also my map with the most brushes to this day, exactly 1800, 65 more than DmExar.

And it's a monster...

Atomnium Wireframe

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