DevBlog: Island creation
Hi, my Name is Simon Wolf and I am a Level Artist on Anno 1800. I joined the team here in Mainz roughly a year ago and today, I would like to give you some insights into my job- both what motivates me and how us Level Artists shape the world of Anno, one island at a time.
At its heart, Anno is about vast cityscapes, ships on high waters or citizens roaming through narrow streets. But at one point in any discussion about the series, you will be able to hear players talking about another really important element of the game: the islands themselves.
Islands are both the playground to let your creative energy loose and the challenge which stands between your goals, such as expanding your city’s population by just a few thousands citizens.
The importance of your game world
Playing a game is more than progressing in the campaign or advancing your city. Becoming an explorer of the game worlds around me, always on the hunt for hidden secrets and stories, fueled my passion and creative investment in videogames since I was a kid. Questions like, “is there something hidden behind that mountain?” or “look at that landslide, is there a story why it collapsed?” was probably even the driving factor for me to become a level artist.
That enthusiasm allowed me to experience games beyond gaming. I started to play around with level editors to create my own levels and with that, to become the writer of my own environmental stories.
Anno 1800 is in fact the first strategy game I’ve worked on. In the game, islands are more than just a blank space, islands have personality, add to the feeling of the game and even create gameplay challenges, as players have to work within the given space.
It’s a creative puzzle you need to solve as you alter and shape the game world surround you.
Islands in Anno come in various shapes and sizes, some of them making it easy to expand and to grow your city while others have a higher difficulty, challenging the player to optimize and deal with the situation at hand. The specific features and difficulty level of an island has a strong impact on the gameplay. We call that “Creative Constraints”, where limitations result in solutions and interesting designs in order to overcome that challenge. Overcoming that limitations feels rewarding and often results in a more organic and beautiful city layout.
The creation of an island
Okay, let us see how our level team actually creates and shapes that playground for you.
It all starts with a shape!
It usually starts with a shape: Ideas for the look and form of an island come often from different sources, sometimes just creative brainstorming in the team full of crazy ideas but we also spend time researching satellite data or photos from real islands as an inspiration.
We are always on the hunt for the right middle ground between interesting shapes, a good challenge and gameplay freedom.It also depends on the type of island currently needed for the game. Do we need a few larger but easier islands or are we talking about a design which should test the skills of our veteran players? Beginner islands should not have overly complex structures, mountains or other obstructing details as these terrain elements can determine the difficulty level.
The first concepts for island shapes often include color-coding, where we block out construction areas, mountains and other obstacles. When defining these areas, we usually check back with the Game Design team for their requirements such as the size of a beach or mining resources, but how we implement that is usually up to us. We always have to keep one thing in mind: from the beaches to mountainsides, the layout will have an impact on your future city layout, such as having the choice of two beaches allows you to decide where to build your harbor and start your city.
Tools of an level artist
When our shape got a thumbs up from game design or other stakeholders, we can start to work on the actual 3D model. In our daily work, we make use of various tools fitting the needs of the different steps we are working on. While we spend a lot of time in our actual engine, handy tools such as World Machine, allow us to create a basic preset terrain based on various parameters (ground land mass, cliffs, plateaus, mountains, beaches, erosion etc.). The resulting model is a perfect foundation for the next steps.
When we are happy with the three dimensional form of the asset, we implement the island in our engine. In this first iteration of our future island, we will bring it to a playable state. That means basic texturing, defining construction and harbor areas, placing obstacles, mining slots, basic vegetation and more. The next step is a feedback process where we will decide if everyone is cool with the design or if we have to change something
And here the final work piece, you can see blocked out areas and basic level of terrain.
Environmental Storytelling and future steps
And now it’s time to bring some individual character to our island in the so-called “visual stage.”
In this stage, we take our time to make it look natural yet interesting by texturing, placing decorative objects, vegetation and sculpting. While our engine does offers some neat sculpting tools, we often take a piece of terrain to a sculpting tool called Mudbox to work on the fine details.
With the visual stage completed the island is about 80% done, with further polishing work to be done for the release version of the game.
On average, a large island takes roughly 80 working hours to complete. In the polishing phase, which usually comes a bit later in development, we will add the smallest visual details and include even some environmental stories, such as landslides or other unique things to discover. Keep that in mind when examining screenshots or discussing the footage seen during a stream, as the polishing phase will have an impact on the final visual fidelity of the islands.
It is all about ideas, inspiration and handicraft
I hope this blog about the daily work of a level artist on Anno 1800 gave you some interesting insights. The next time you play an Anno game, you may want to hunt down all the handcrafted details and secrets we love to hide in a level.
I know that you started many discussions about your favorite islands types already. To shake things up a bit, I would like to hear your ideas about small visual elements, remembered from previous titles that could make up for great environmental stories in Anno 1800. You can share your inspiring ideas with the level art team in the comments below.