To celebrate the 10th anniversary of World of Tanks, Evgeny Martinovich and Natallia Chachui from Wargaming discussed their level creation process, shared curious cases, and talked about useful tools.
We pay great attention to game locations in World of Tanks: this is not only a high-quality and interesting gameplay, but also modern graphics, high-quality visuals, and a sound line. All maps are individual in their own way and have their own specifics or a “twist”, so creating each new location for a team is not only a new experience but also a new challenge where you need to surprise and please the player.
Recently, we have been trying to tie the release of each map with some significant events. As an example, Berlin map was dedicated to the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Victory in World War II, Province map was released alongside with the Italian branch of tanks. But this was not always so, in the early days it was necessary to produce lots of maps and we made them for specific settings. There was a European setting so to fill it we produced Himmelsdorf and Siegfried line maps.
As for historical maps, it was a kind of pen test, it all started with the Kharkov map. There was a desire to recreate some historical areas that would be recognizable and referring to past events. At the time of release, the map was received with interest, but some gameplay nuances appeared and we had to correct them, but unlike a regular map, you are limited in the historical map, so working with them is more difficult.
With the map “Studzianki” we were already on a different path. We were inspired by historical events, studied the references of the region, and based on this information we tried to imagine how this place might have looked, without reproducing it exactly. That is, we focused on the gameplay rather than on the recreation of something real.
Often employees go on a business trip to the local area to get the most reliable information about the relief, the team also focuses on historical reports, photographs prepared in advance by colleagues from the historical department with whom the artists, in turn, they get acquainted and reproduce the art component. If we talk about the terrain, we try to reproduce it as accurately as possible, but there are many game conventions that do not allow us to do this 100% because the real terrain is not intended for tank battles, so easy art adjusting process for the sake of gameplay takes place on every location.
The Berlin Map
In 2015, the map already existed in the game, it was made for a special mode. However, after removing the mode from the game, the need for a map remained. Initially, there were attempts to remake the map to the standards of Random Battle. But over time, after several tests, it became clear that with this version of the map, nothing can be done in the framework of the task - so that it would be interesting to play on it while maintaining its similarity to Berlin. In the past, we already had the experience of introducing historical maps - Kharkov, Stalingrad. We relied on it and tried to make Berlin map suitable for a Random battle. In this regard, new options for building a map and its location in historical Berlin were considered.
We used aerial photography, landscape and subject photographs, architectural plans for the buildings of the Reichstag, and the Kroll Opera. Since there were certain difficulties with the photographs from Kroll Opera and Alt Moabit, we even had to use lithographs and engravings. The western facade of the Kroll Opera was the most difficult - unfortunately, it was not possible to find visual sources for its appearance, it was reconstructed according to the architectural plan of 1846. In total, about 300 sources were used. Our internal department of historical consultants worked on the map.
The city plan is historical, city houses correspond to the era and style of Berlin at that time. Buildings, bridges are reliable, in general, the nature of the destruction is fairly realistic, but it must be understood that the topography of the map, the destruction and the location of the fortifications were influenced by the gaming needs. Nevertheless, there are key objects that were recreated with high historical accuracy.
It was very good to reproduce the bridge across the southern part of the harbor (Hugo Bridge). Despite the fact that there were not so many materials for this, it leaves a very pleasant visual sensation.
The Moltke monument in front of the opera is an exact copy of a real one. To recreate it, photogrammetry technology was used. Today it is located in Berlin, was moved closer to the Victory Column installed in Tiergarten Park. The Victory Column itself is also on the map - it can be seen in the distance, outside the playing area.
Generally speaking, we tried to recreate the historically authentic Berlin of those years. Great emphasis was placed on the dynamic atmosphere: fire, smoke, air combat, anti-aircraft tower, shooting down bombers. All this makes the map lively and dynamic.
The principles with 3 ways are repeated on our maps. There may be more of them, but most often there are three of them on the map: the left direction, the right, and the connecting center. The presence of three flanks is not a “service”. This scheme is dictated by the rules of the Random battle mode, the size of the location is ~ 1km and the number of players is 15x15. With an increase in the number of directions, the density of players decreases, as well as the ability to predict the possible result of events and, accordingly, build tactics of behavior. There is a loss of positionality.
Also, do not forget about the readability, comprehensibility of the map. It is very important that the player, appearing on it, understand its logic.
We have a realistic setting so we have to reflect the laws and rules of our world, this is expressed in the structure of cities, the architecture presented on the map. Forming locations, there is a stage of preparing a reference, when the designer is immersed in the culture of this area.
Along with this, an important factor is the support of the core mechanics of the game. A map should be created in such a way that it helps to implement the basic mechanics of the game and help each vehicle class realize its strengths.
This all sets us apart from classic shooters. On our maps, there are 5 different classes of tanks with unique behavior that need completely different things.
The level design team creates a terrain so that each type of vehicles can somehow use it, forms playable and non-playable areas. There is also an agreement that the level design team is responsible for the terrain in the game area, and the level art team is already working on detailing it.
Simply saying, the level designer makes sure that the art team does not break the key pillars of the graybox that were planned and tested, the specialists of the level art department are responsible for creating a beautiful, realistic picture.
The first step is the work of the Level Design team. Their task is to create a prototype of a new map or in another way graybox. This is where a real brainstorming begins, when the guys sort out a lot of ideas, draw different layouts for the future location, sketch out variations of the game terrain, while several prototypes are in the works at once. It all starts with diagrams on paper, then successful ideas are recreated already on the game engine, but so far they have the appearance of only a frame for future artwork. Game testing of each prototype is carried out, then the most interesting option is selected from the point of view of gameplay and brought to perfection. If you plan to revive the old map that was withdrawn from the game earlier, all the forces of the team are aimed at improving the balance on it and at solving problems previously noticed by the players.
Graybox is a kind of foundation that gives a complete picture of the terrain, the location of gameplay objects, and the shelters of the future map. Level designers are preparing a set of diagrams that clearly illustrate the main strategically important areas, the scheme of combat positions. This will allow artists to work out in as much detail as possible the zones that will be the most visited and important for players, while not violating the game balance.
The time is coming for the next very important stage in the work - the creation of an art concept for the future location. At this stage, the Supervisor leading the map forms the basic ideas and art solutions that will be implemented in the future. He selects a specific region and plot, determines the season, time of day, and weather on a future map. Also, the task of the supervisor is to select a reference - this is a set of images, on the basis of which he forms an art concept for the location prototype. Further, the Supervisor defines a key plot that will help distinguish the map from others. Thus, the specialist sets the vector for all future artwork. Also very often involved are concept artists who offer interesting visual solutions to help other professionals. Such an approach will help to form the most complete idea among all involved employees about what visual result you need to come to and what will need to be done. In the course of work, a selection of objects for the location corresponding to the region is being carried out, a list of the missing content that will need to be done to fill the map is also determined. It often happens that at this stage it is required to use photo-scanned materials, for these developers often go on business trips with a full set of photographic equipment and drones in order to capture a high-quality reference and bring photorealistic models from a particular place.
After that, the entire future set of green for the map is formed (trees, bushes, grass). A set of tiles is also formed (these are textures of the earth's surface) and a set of decals (and this is a special set of textures that allows you to enhance the detail of the earth's surface and give it a natural variety).
All this fascinating work will be done to synchronize the art vision between all participants in the process. This will allow to estimate the amount of planned work for the future map. In the future, the Supervisor will accompany the artists and oversee the development of the location regarding all art-related aspects.
When creating a completely new location, about 50 people are involved: these are 3D modelers, level art department, special effects professionals, sound designers, level designers, QA specialists, tech art.
Let's take a map of Kharkov, for example. About 80 new unique objects were requested in order to authentically reveal this area. About 35 people were involved in the creation of objects that worked for 5 months, and this does not include the work of level artists and other units of the art team.
It takes 5 months to create a completely new map, and about a month to update existing locations, this does not include fixing errors and solving technical issues.
Level Art Team: we have a lot of software, we often use the World Machine tools, which allows you to create a high-quality relief of edge geometry: mountains, valleys, soil erosion. Houdini - we use it rather delicately, we study its potential. This of course is also Adobe Photoshop, Maya, SpeedTree, Substance Painter, Substance Designer, etc.
We also create our own unique HDR skyboxes for the game. We often use photo scanning in our work, which helps us to create realistic content. And we try to integrate it into the game as often as possible.
Level Design Team: Unified editor is our in-house tool for creating maps, allowing you to design new maps from beginning to the end. Unified editor allows you to shape the landscape, exhibit objects, flora, work with textures, effects, sound. We can say that this is a place on which different departments collect different things to create a map.
In order to test maps, the game’s virtual servers are actively used, allowing you to feel the map “live” and make changes to the maps more precise and detailed.
“Heat” maps are also actively used. They are a visualized display of data received from the release servers of the game. Here you can track the current situation on the maps in almost any playing area: maps of tank movements and their shooting, light and comfortable positions, etc.
A lot of things happened - including a wide variety of bugs and errors of various critical degrees. They almost always promptly corrected. To name a few:
Tabor goes to heaven
Not much was displayed on the map, quickly fixed.
A real snowfall
One of the bugs made the snowflakes too large.
Add some color, otherwise, the game looks gloomy. Done!
The 2D interface was displayed correctly, but something went wrong with the 3D objects.