Environment Design Tutorial
The design process explained in 8 essential steps
In our game the main character Law will experience an exciting journey through the fantastic world of Kordex. So far, I’ve been explaining in our blogposts how our main character Law was created and how our universe is structured.
Our protagonist has to wander through several very different islands – each one will have a unique style. The energy-concept we designed allows for a very special game experience and gives each environment its own characteristic. The player should experience what makes every island unique and feel immersed into a new little world each time. In order to enable the player to do so, an extensive planning and detailed description is required. The following content describes what steps are being taken by us in order to manage to reach a coherent and harmonious chapter for our game.
Several points can be interchanged or take place at the same time during the development process. I’ll try to keep it rather general, but I will use the example of our 1st island called ORODIR.
1. Main Story & Game Mechanics
Our game is based on the concept that the main character has to travel from island to island in order to fulfill tasks which gradually tell the main story. When planning the individual islands – which also form our chapters – it is important to provide a self-contained experience. Each chapter has those three points:
- a point of entry into the story,
- its own storyline, what happens on the island
- a conclusion of the adventure
We have been inspired by the hero’s journey that is used in so many stories. Law is an immature boy who discovers exceptional abilities that are not easy to control. For this he needs help, which he receives in the form of several mentors on different islands. Each chapter provides new gameplay elements that need to be learned and understood.
Before you start thinking about level design, you should ask yourself the basic question:
what should actually happen in this particular game section? You can’t simply begin to sketch an environment without knowing what it is all about and what objects you are going to need.
We started with the story of the main character by thinking about what is going to happen to him. For the first island, Orodir, it has been extremely important to think about the fact that the player will enter our world for the first time. These questions come to mind:
- Where should the player start?
- How will the player handle the gameplay mechanics?
- Which quests should be done?
- How can we gradually explain the world-concept to the player?
We were standing at the beginning of the main story. Everything has to be explained and shown to the player. In consideration of this we have to shape each island. If a player is already familiar with the gameplay and the basic information of special game elements, it is also possible to build up a level quite differently than the level before. In the development of games it is therefore extremely important to be able to put yourself into the position of the main character AND the player.
In a nutshell, everything has to be defined: what the player has to achieve and what he is able to see in this level. All his tasks must be listed, so that the story around the main character can advance through them.
This step doesn’t have to take place immediately after step 1 because it’s possible that a vague idea of the island already exists and sidequests are then designed accordingly. Therefore, a visual concept and sidequests flow into each other. In our experience these steps in the development shouldn’t be processed separately.
The main story shows the direct and fastest way through the environment of every island. But besides this there can be much more to discover. All the little side stories really make up the charm and flair of the environment! They are what makes the island feel even more interesting and full of life.
Side quests give the story more improvements regarding content:
- more life
- more stories
- more secrets
However, it was very helpful for us to deal with sidequests right away. It was already quite clear what the course of the story will be about and what the player will encounter. Persons, places, objects and special gameplay elements can be seized on and used to add further content. It still doesn’t have to be defined in detail, but you might embody a rough idea. The main thing is to get involved and experiment with the idea.
If you are planning your environment accurately, sidequests can further expand the environment to make it special and create secrets at the same time.
3. Chronicle & Fate
I described in the previous points what is going to happen in the respective section of the game at the moment as well as in the near future. Of course, you can also start with brainstorming and finding the fate of an island itself. However, the island’s past plays an essential role and can have a profound impact on the environment design! What happens – or has happened – there affected the immediate environment.
Every island has – of course – existed for a very long time under special circumstances. Tragic events may have happened on the island before Law’s arrival, which the player himself didn’t witness. Every inhabitant has their own story that has shaped them. We also want to add elements for each island which make the environment special. Those elements could be responsible for the development and chronicle of the island. The objects themselves can show what fate has happened. The player is not directly told what events have happened. On the contrary, he should be able to guess what has actually happened. This is intended to create interest and curiosity. Of course, the past can also be brought to light through certain events, narratives or writings. But it is also very important how to present the environment to the player non-verbally.
Case Example: Orodir
Now I will explain this point on the example of our first island – Orodir, a small and peaceful northern island. Law´s story starts and will take its course from here. The fact that the boulder-island is very far away from the energy-core means that it is supplied with less energy than closer islands. The energy is responsible for how everything thrives and lives on the island. The result is that life is very sparse and austere, and that it is likely that it the climate will become cooler.
We wanted to think of something special for Orodir – a threatened existence of all its inhabitants. What could have a fanciful impact on the entire island?
After some consideration, we came up with the idea of the tree of life. This ancient tree grew already in harmony with the energy, when the earth wasn’t broken yet. During the explosion the rock was hurled away with the tree. The present island structure simultaneously emerged with this process. The tree reached this extreme size only by the level of energy of the past. Its roots bind the whole earth around it. However, since the island is supplied with only a very small amounts of energy, this is inadequate to sustain the size of the tree. As a result, it loses strength and slowly dies. Its roots can no longer hold the soil together and parts of the island gradually break down. The fate of the island has taken a tragic turn for all residents whose future is uncertain. This tree was a determining factor because it has shaped the island’s appearance!
4. Size of Environment Design
You should consider the following questions:
- How big is the area you plan to create?
- Is there already a rough idea which size the environment design will have?
- Is there a particular factor to be expressed by the size of an island?
It is extremely important to know which capacities a certain environment provides. As a game developer one should be able to imagine how spacious an environment like an interior, a garden or an abandoned cave actually is. Some parts of the environment can even be affected by the story and the gameplay elements. Don’t forget to consider the skills and the team size of the developers. Not every team can create environments in the size of famous games like Skyrim, Witcher or World of Warcraft! A game developer studio should know how much content can be handled. The larger the environments become, the more time you need to fill them with quests, characters/creatures, props, and story elements.
All 8 steps of environment design shown in the content graphic I created above, influence the actual size of an environment. Slight changes to the main story or individual gameplay elements can drastically change the appearance of a level. That’s why you have to keep in mind the other content steps before defining a size.
Kordex will contain a variety of different types of islands in future. Each island will have a different size because each should be unique. If the island will be inhabited, you should have in mind how many buildings are required and what types of buildings they should be. At first, it must be clarified which objects are crucial for the main story in order to be able to estimate their size.
At the beginning of every project you can’t predict the scope of a whole level in detail. Usually the scene is growing with the project progress. Ambient design is an adaptive process and you should keep in mind the step „Size“ for the finished concept.
The following advantages of a vertical design can be achieved:
- A certain emptiness or repetition of elements can occur quickly on a large and extensive surface. Even if you want to develop small islands for the game, you can easily gain more space when you „build“ aloft. The player has many more plateaus to explore if you vary in height.
- Your level is compact. Our wish is to design small and cozy islands, but at the same time provide enough gameplay elements. With the vertical axis we achieve both: creating a well-manageable level, though with enough places to explore.
Each story- and environment element has an effect on the island size in Kordex. The island size has to change as soon as e.g. a new building is added or even just enlarged. My recommendation for changes in the environment size is to make a quick sketch for each modification of the level structure to keep the overview. So the game level can be visualized very quickly and the team can imagine how a certain change will affect the island size. This makes it possible to quickly determine the position of the game elements by checking whether they fit into specific game area or not.
5. Weather, Culture & Technical Progress
The weather plays a very important role in our game Kordex and has a decisive effect on the island design. We did not want to create a logical climate system according to the consistency of the planet, but rather a fictive climate scenario for each planet. This means that the weather conditions of an island don´t influence the climate of another island. We were strongly inspired by the Grand Line of One Piece, where many different weather scenarios can arise arbitrarily.
The climate of the island influences the vegetation, and therefore also the design. Depending on whether it is sunny, cloudy or foggy, there is a unique atmosphere, which also affects the tinge of the island. The atmosphere of the island is a very important factor for us in order to create a harmonious world!
In addition, the implementation of a climate on an island can affect the gameplay. The best example would be an island sheeted with snow and ice. In this case, icy surfaces can generate partly slippery sections and influence the level design.
This point depends on whether the island is actually inhabited or not. Both situations can occur in the world of Kordex. Both affect the shape of the environment. If the island is inhabited by people or similar life forms, you have to consider what living conditions they have. It can be helpful to define a fictional culture or to classify the inhabitants in already existant cultural circles. Widespread ethnic groups or religions on an island can also affect the level design. Typically, each culture leaves visible traces of their existance. The economic status and the design for the accommodations should also fit to their culture.
Further to the life situation, the technical progress of a civilization also has to be defined. Different cultures have different architectural styles of buildings and equipment. Our game Kordex is based on a comprehensive concept of energy. Depending on how far an island is away from the core or how much energy is basically available on an island, their technological advance will be either more or less progressed.
An island with more available energy can achieve more. The energy, which is a natural force, resembles the function of electricity or magic and can be used in any life situation. As a result, an island with more energy resources has a faster-growing economy because the energy offers many opportunities in its usage to facilitate daily life. Therefore the technical progress of an island has a decisive effect on the appearance of an environment.
Case Example: Orodir
According to the steps above, I’d like to explain how the overall appearance of the island „Orodir“ has shaped step by step.
The story of Law, our main character, starts on an island far away from the core, which is supplied with a very tiny amount of energy. A barren appearance should define the characteristics of this island. Therefore the population has a very modest and humble life. We wanted to give the island a cold and foggy climate to underline these factors. We decided to refer to the typical English weather. The vegetation is extremely resistant to cold. The very damp weather lets thrive mossy plants and mushrooms. The whole appearance should be kept in dull colors. However, to bring some color into the landscape, we wanted to create trees, which some of them having very bright leaves – like the autumn leaves.
The inhabitants of Orodir resemble Vikings, attain a slight technical progress and lead a very simple life. However, these people are not savages, in fact they are very nice. The buildings should get a medieval style combinded with viking-fantasy elements.
The very large tree that permeates the whole island with its roots plays an important role for all buildings as well, since the roots are an crucial architectural element for the houses. The inhabitants of Orodir learned to live with only the simplest technical devices and little energy. The visual impacts of weather, culture and the architectural style of the buildings have also added up to the character design of the citizens.
6. Consider Energy Elements
The energy of Kordex is a fictional system of natural power which represent the planet as a living subject matter.
Energy enables life in this world.
The energy arises from the core and is distributed to all surrounding islands. Symbolically it can also be compared with a river- or a vein system. The energy only flows within those „pipelines“. The empty space beyond it exhibits life-threatening characteristics. Once the energy reaches an island, a percentage remains on it, the rest „flows“ to all nearby islands. The more energy remains on an island, the more fertile and livable it gets. Accordingly the outermost islands only obtain a small amount of energy, since the energy flow is already very weak.
We use this energy behaviour for the creation of our islands. An island is only habitably with an existant atmospheric-crystal. As long as the atmosphere-crystal is supplied with sufficient energy, the remaining energy can be utilised by the inhabitants. If we decide to provide more energy to a new island, it can get a more fantastic appearance in the environment design. With energy, wonderful new elements can be created.
Through peculiarities caused by energy, this can also influence the role of an island. As an example I would like to refer to our first island Orodir and show you how the energy has influenced the environment design.
Case Example: Orodir
In Chronicle & Fate I already explained that the island is held together by the roots of a huge old tree. This tree particularly depends on the energy, because it only reached this enormous size through energy and it has been kept alive with energy until now. Without energy, it would die and the whole island would break apart.
Energy is a really powerful factor in our world. The tree of life in this way can only exist with the power of the core energy. The roots should grow everywhere on the whole island. The villagers can benefit from this. By the use of special growth-crystals, the shape of the roots can be manipulated and brought into a desired form. This can even create a basic structure for e.g. a house.
We also want to emphasize the importance of crystals the inhabitants need to „survive“. The atmospheric-crystal should be placed right in the center so that the player immediately recognizes its importance. As opposed to this, a storage-crystal should be placed at e.g. a village square. This place should become a assembly point for all the villagers where they can procure the remaining energy. This energy is very important for the inhabitants with regard to their daily work: cooking, light sources, heating, water sources.
7. Sketch, Sketch, Sketch …
I learned early, that you can’t just use the first sketch and go on drawing. Even if you really like it, you should overcome yourself and think about another composition. You have to do this process again and again till you got a bunch of sketches!
Never forget, that your job as an concept artist is to create several designs and combine them in an unique way.
If feedback is appreciated, you have to respect every opinion and vision of all team members. Sometimes this can be really hard for yourself. Imagine, your team has 7 artists, and every single one has another imagination of a special object.
Consider the suggestions of any team member. It could happen that the majority of the team votes for a design you wouldn’t continue with. The next goal is to draw a new sketch influenced by the preferred suggestions.
However, sometimes you start to like the concept you are working on but you weren´t happy with it at the beginning. Additionally, let me point out that this doesn’t mean that you have to implement every feedback you get. Your job is to pick out the good and realizable ideas!
In case of Orodir, I had to recreate a whole new design, because the first one didn´t meet our requirements for the first chapter of our game. Aferwards I was glad that I started over…
Anyways, the development process has led to a much better result than I thought before.
8. Detailed Concept
If a sketch has been chosen, the next step is to discuss it in detail. That leads to a more proper line drawing. Once all ideas are integrated in the new design, an exact draft with color and volume can be created. For this, a lot of time has to be invested to finalize all the elements that have been defined in the previous sketch. We can start with a 3d implementation after the drawing is successfully finished. This means that the level design is created according to the specifications of the 2D concept.
In the following video you can see a environment concept timelapse of ORODIR.
…for reading this article. We hope you enjoyed it 🙂