On the Grid

Posted Sep 8, 2015
Last Updated Oct 5, 2017

If you've ever discussed the idea of designing levels for the Source Engine in 3ds Max, the odds are that the topic of the grid has come up. In Source, keeping world geometry vertices aligned to the world grid is very important to successfully compile levels into Source becuse of how the BSP compilers work. World geometry that is not aligned to the grid is prone to create either leaks or microbrushes--both of which are bad.

A long history of Source Engine workflows have turned into community wisdom on this topic that, in reality, is not entirely accurate. Traditionally, all level design was in Hammer and all the models were in external "modeling" applications. Because models, built in these external applications (like 3ds Max, Maya, Blender, Milkshape 3D, etc), do not have to keep all vertices aligned to the grid, a common misconception has developed in the Source Engine world that the external applications are incapable of being used to do Source Engine level design; the Source Engine community has confused the tradition of Source Engine development as a technical reason for not using external applications.

In terms of 3ds Max, which is what the Wall Worm pipeline uses, the only real hurdle is for level designers to first let go of the preconceptions about the grid in 3ds Max and then to become familiar with the tools in Max. Just because you can make objects like models that don't worry about the grid, it does not mean that Max's grid tools are inherently different than those in Hammer. You can build geometry in 3ds Max just as easily (or even more easily as you learn more tools) as Hammer.

Success in building worlds in 3ds Max starts with aligning the World Units in Max to those in Source. This means that your Units should be set to Generic Units where each unit equals one inch. You can set that via the Customize > Customize Units dialog.

Next, you should become familiar with the different snap modes, including 2D, 2.5D and 3D snaps. The best way to understand them is to watch the Autodesk video on snaps (embedded below). The main thing to keep in mind is that 2D and 2.5D snaps should only be using in orthographic views (Top, Left, Front, etc) and the 3D snap should only be used in the Perspective view. Note that Wall Worm will now automatically switch the snap mode to 3D when you change to a Perspective View, and it will switch to 2D/2.5D when you change to orthographic views.

  • For basic level design (and world geometry blocking) you should generally limit the active snaps to Snap to Grid and/or Snap to Vertex. This will save you a lot of time.
  • The default shortcut key to toggle snaps on/off is S.

You should read the documentation on snaps in 3ds Max as it relates to snap overrides and all the various snap settings.

Once you understand basic grid functions in Max, you can then understand some of the additonal tools for working on the grid like the Nudge Tools (see video below).

In the end, there is no fundamental difference between the grid in Hammer and that in 3ds Max.

Grid Objects

Aside from the Home Grid, you can set any number of custom grid objects inside your scene. Any grid object can be used for grid snapping if it is the currently active grid. You can create grids via the Create > Helpers > Grid button in the Command Panel.

Wall Worm adds some extra functionality to any grid object added to the scene with a new rollout called Advanced:

  • Auto Axis changes current grid display plane based on current camera view (Max 2018+ only).
  • Auto Freeze will freeze a grid as soon as you deselect it so that you won't accidentally select it wile moving other objects.
  • Keep on World Grid will force this grid to snap its pivot to the world grid when moved.
  • Activate will toggle this object as the current active grid.
  • Move to World Grid is a one-off button to move the grid to the world.
  • Pick New Pivot lets you pick a new pivot point in the scene for the grid.

Note that the grid object additions are automaticly added to grids. If you want these additions but do not need the entire Wall Worm, you can install the Advanced Grid Ops independently.

Modifiers, Geometry Objects & Utils

For your convenience, you can also keep your geometry on the grid more easily with the Snap Verts to Grid modifier (for older Max) and Brushify modifier (for Max 2016 SP2+). The brushify modifier is more robust and preferred if using Max 2016 SP2+.

Also, several geometry objects made by Wall Worm specifically for BSP game design have a parameter to turn on grid snapping. These geometry objects will have all vertices snapped to the grid automatically when this option is turned on. The geometry with these controls are CorVex, ShellVex and Arch.

And finally, there is a must-have grid toolset called Miauu's Work Plane that has all kinds of grid related functions.