The main room The jungle gym Floating platforms

If you're not familiar with the way a jam in the Quake community works, a jam is where a community member proposes a theme, and people submit maps to fit that theme. Sometimes, it's just a WAD and a deadline. Othertimes, like in the case of 100 brush contests or speedmap packs, restrictions on time, build space, or brush count are in place instead. Jams are pretty ideal as mapper challenges, community events, or debuts for new mappers, of which dumptruck_ds' DM4Jam was all three for me.

Now, I was cursorily aware of DM4Jam come mid-March 2018, but I didn't exactly have much of an interest in it at first. The challenge was to build a singleplayer level in the style of DM4, "The Bad Place", one of the original Quake deathmatch levels. I was already buried in two separate projects, and I was about to skip it.

Until this happened.

[4:46 PM] Bal: @Mariteaux you making one?
[4:47 PM] Mariteaux: no i'm skipping this one
[4:47 PM] Bal: aw
[4:47 PM] Bal: seemed up your alley
[4:47 PM] Mariteaux: it'd be perfect given what i'm working on yeah
[4:47 PM] Bal: dumptruck thought of the jam cause of you!
[4:47 PM] Mariteaux: really?
[4:47 PM] Bal: yeah
[4:47 PM] Mariteaux: ...i might do something
[4:47 PM] Bal: hah
[4:47 PM] Mariteaux: wow that's surprising
[4:47 PM] Artistical: Yaaaay, do something! :D
[4:48 PM] Mariteaux: yeah i gotta now, don't i
[4:48 PM] Mariteaux: i like dm4
[4:48 PM] Mariteaux: i can come up with something
[4:49 PM] Artistical: :D

[4:15 PM] Bal: did you think of this because of Mariteaux?
[4:16 PM] dumptruck_ds: @Bal yup. It was the inspiration. I almost made it a remix id jam. But I think dm4's look is so unique it would be a simpler idea.

[4:50 PM] Mariteaux: that's really cool

dumptruck_ds was pretty supportive of Quake: Update when I had first brought it up to the group, and now it inspired a jam. Whoopsy-doodles. I decided to accept being the father head-on and dive right into building a DM4 of my own.

Dissecting DM4


Now, in order to capture the flavor of DM4, we have to pinpoint what exactly makes DM4 so unique. It stands out among any of the other pack-in deathmatch levels, and I'd argue it's probably the best visually-aged map in the game. DM4's appeal boils down to five main elements:

  1. The use of layers and vertical space arranged in a tower-like layout, which, in DM4's case, causes a lot of dropping and very little rising
  2. The strange, angular geometry (form over detailing, which ages much better)
  3. The blue textures, a strong contrast to much of the original game's more earthy colors
  4. Copious amounts of lava as an environmental hazard
  5. Teleporters that allow a return to the top areas of the level

Making good use of these five elements was my original goal for my jam submission. Other people were going further with the theme, but I wanted to create something frantic and old-school, where my tastes lie.

Hell's atrium

I started quickly, building out the shape of the main room. I wanted to break symmetry for a lot of the map because it makes for more interesting layouts. Right from the start, I figured players could hop the lava river and skip the entire first section of the level, so I continually widened it until it stopped being an issue. You can still pull off the jump, but just barely, and it'll take you a bunch of tries.

The Drop's main room after the first day

This main room is reused several times during gameplay. Initially, the player comes through the area on the left side, and returns on the other side when they've retrieved the silver runekey. This leads to the second level, where a Death Knight patrols. A classic DM4 teleporter makes an appearance as well, which is how the player gains access to the second level.

After a room with a DM4-style floating walkway, the player comes to the first challenge area. It's a bit I refer to as a "jungle gym", because the player is continually fighting and progressing at different heights with a wind tunnel and a plat in there for good measure. The goal of the room is apparent when you enter: a silver key suspended over lava. Go get it. If I had to pick my favorite part of the map, it'd probably be this one. Lots of neat geometry and angles and fun combat everywhere.

Part of The Drop's jungle gym area

It was at this point that I came up with the name "The Drop", which was an early single for the band Starflyer 59. Most people involved in the jam named their level after "The Bad Place", but that struck me as uncreative. Meanwhile, half of the DM4 experience was dropping, so why not name it after that?

The second chunk of the level involves a looping atrium area where the player has to retrieve a gold runekey. I began using copper textures in spots as a contrast to the blue textures of the DM4 theme. Spawn, both atrium rooms, and the end of the map were built using these copper textures. The geometry in these areas are also less angular and claustrophobic than the rest of the map.

The Drop's atrium area, early in construction

Throughout the level, I kept stacking more and more scripting onto things. I attached toggleable spotlights to weaponry, monsters, and keys. Monster teleports are absolutely all over the map. After grabbing the gold runekey, something shifts in the distance, and a rocket launcher becomes the centerpiece of the atrium. Wind tunnels also make an appearance across the level, a bit of a segue between areas. I credit DM4Jam for showing me the value in dynamic level design, something I still look to do more of with every map.

The end has no end

This brings us to the end of the level. Leading up to the deadline, I was working with a monster arena that was way too fucking big, derivative of the main area, dark, and had no obvious goal. It was unsalvageable. But what could I even replace it with? I started to doubt if I could even finish the map on time.

The Drop's scrapped arena ending

Then, on the final day, a burst of inspiration hit. I completely refactored the final third of the map and conceived of the lava swim mechanic as an homage to E1M8. The player would be provided a Pentagram of Protection and told to swim through tunnels of lava to find two buttons, which would grant them access to the final horde fight. This was a far more satisfying conclusion to the level.

Lessons learned

Of course, that ending presented its own problems. In the jam version of the map, the Pentagram doesn't respawn. If you don't find both buttons in 30 seconds, you'll be completely stuck and unable to progress. These tunnels were also ironically very dark and hard to see through the lava screen tint. I used a map hack in the fixed version to allow the Pentagram to respawn until the button puzzle had been completed, where a trigger_relay killtargets the Pentagram and prevents it from being used in the end horde battle.

I mentioned in my postmortem of "Temple of the Strange" that I'm often too obscure with my secrets, and that's also an issue with The Drop. A Thunderbolt, ammo for which is available in various secrets, is placed in front of the pipe at spawn, behind a demon face. To unlock it, players must shoot the three floor grates, as well as the two rune crosses on the stairs.

The problem here is that players had absolutely no idea that the crosses could even be shot, and not a single person found the Thunderbolt until I revealed how to. Making matters worse, I set the trigger_counter to silent, so the normal message counting down the amount of objects left until it delivers its payload was stifled. Players were giving up and skipping a major secret, and I wasn't even allowing them to backtrack to it! I simplified the secret's setup in the fixed version of the map, where only the three grates need to be shot to obtain the Thunderbolt.

One thing that was pointed out to me after the fact was that The Drop contains a few sections that are known as "sawtooths". These are areas that prevent backtracking, generally by way of dropping the player downwards, like off the edge of a sawtooth. Sawtooths aren't necessarily a bad thing, but if used inconsistently or too frequently, they can break immersion. The Drop is full of them, pretty much by necessity. This was another factor in making the Thunderbolt secret easier.

The Drop became a learning experience for me. It was my first real exposure as a mapper, and all the demos and feedback were instrumental in patching up the second version, beefing up the ending, and showing me firsthand what players look for and what they don't. By the end, I was glad it came out as fun as it did.

(2019 update: the patched version of this map is available in DM4DLC, which also adds a few new maps. You'll have to install it over the original version of the jam, so link's still provided to that. Still really proud of this one.)