The creators of the online role playing game Albion Online published a great article, detailing the production of the maps and the open world in their project.
The developers of Albion Online consider the creation of maps one of the most crucial parts for a game. These maps should be balanced and beautiful. The level design process is very difficult and requires a lot of work. One of the game’s level designers explained the process of map creation for this online game. The cool thing about this is that this game is being developed with Unity, so all developers can use these tips to build their own virtual worlds.
In the Beginning
The first stop on the trip is a requirements sheet. That is a design document drawn up in the game design department. It outlines several conceptional ground rules for the design of the map. What is its purpose? Where in the world of Albion Online will it be located? The latter also determines what tileset that map will use – is it a redwood map? Deadlands? How many entrance and exit points will it have? All that is defined in the requirements sheet.
From there on it goes to rough layouting. This is, depending on who you talk to, either done on paper or with a graphics tablet. It is just some general sketch of where the map will contain hills or lakes for example. It is a sort of „visual brainstorming“.
Albion Online WIP
The next step will take place in Unity, the engine we use for Albion Online. A map template, which basically is just an empty map filled with grass, in the right size is loaded. Now the first „real“ steps in the design process happen. The general sketch of the terrain, hills, lakes and important landmarks is created, to get a decent visual representation. Afterwards, the game designers are consulted on the general layout.
If the rough design is approved, the map gets several „passes“, each one adding more details than the last. The first pass includes detailed work with the general form of hills and lakes, and also determines the position of critical structures like shrines or NPC camps. Afterwards, forests and stones are roughly laid out by painting textures in the appropriate areas.
In the next phase, more details are added. For example you now see detailed height differences. Also, the road network, and everything associated with it, is added. Things like roads, bridges and ramps. Afterwards, the so called „basic fill“ is done. That basically is a first rough design of decoration elements to make the map feel more „alive“. Rock formations are placed in this phase, for example.
Fleshing Out the Area
Albion Online WIP
Now, that the general design of the map is pretty much laid out, resource nodes get added roughly where they should be in the final map. The aforementioned requirements sheet gives a number of nodes that are to be available in this map. In the next step, those resource nodes are „fine-tuned“. They are aligned, it is checked whether they fit in the general decoration in that area and so on. A very detailed (and as I was told: rather tedious) step. Once that is done, a first QA pass is done, in terms of whether the resources are perfectly visible and accessible if you walk around ingame.
Next up comes the placement of everything NPC / mob-related. The general area for the camps has been outlined before, and now that needs to be fleshed out. Camp buildings and assets like torches and campfires must be placed and afterwards aligned in a way that they fit the surrounding landscape. Once that is done, the NPCs are placed. Again, roughly at first, to get a decent distribution pattern. Afterwards, it is checked against the requirements sheet again whether the number of NPCs placed is within the desired range. If not, it will be adjusted accordingly. Then, again, they will be fine-tuned in terms of position, and afterwards they get assigned certain behaviours. Behaviours like „Stay at this position“ or „follow this drawn path“.
After the NPCs are finished, it goes on to the remaining decoration. That includes „out of map areas“ you can see but not reach. And, extremely important, all the little details like grass.
Albion Online WIP
From Map to World
Once those last details are added, the map is exported to a so called „world editor“. There you have a 2D display of the world of Albion Online. You can move the maps around and thus determine their place in the world. Once the recently created map is placed in the right slot, it is connected with its neighboring maps, so you actually enter and exit at the right position.
Albion Online WIP
Afterwards a local test is done, so we get a first idea whether there are any bigger bugs in the design. If not, it gets imported into one of our development builds, so we can actually test it in connection with all the other systems. And after that, it’s a matter of a proper playtest to see if it needs additional balancing.
From the first rough draft till the map is implemented in the world, it takes around 35 working hours for a small map. Larger ones naturally take longer. A level designer has close contact with the game designers when it comes to designing the map. He gets in touch with the art team when he needs certain assets, like a new building or prop, to use in a map and, last but not least, he needs to work closely with our coders so that the map is implemented properly into the world.
As the level designer points out, the level design is one of the most important parts of the game. To make a good map you have to do a lot of testing, keep them balanced and beautiful at the same time. A well designed map is essential for making a good game.