The Guide to Open World Environment Design

Environment designer on Oblivion, Skyrim and Fallout 3 talks about crafting the virtual world of your dreams.

If you’ve played any games created by Bethesda in the last decade, you have probably witnessed some of Noah Berry’s work. Noah is an accomplished environment artist with a taste for incredible fantasy environments. He is the man behind the environments in The Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim) and Fallout 3. His taste for color, lighting and details in open world games is unprecedented. In his exclusive collaboration with, Noah shared some of his ideas on environmental design, creating open world maps and building virtual cities. A real treat to all you level design beginners.

Open World Design Rules

From the very beginning, open world, 3D environments have held a tremendous appeal, and a powerful attraction for both the player and the developer. With their more naturally paced, non-linear play and explorative flow, as well as their often simulative nature with regard to presentation and construction, I have always lovingly held them in very high regard. Looking back to my favorite titles over the years, I can see in them all, shades and elements of open world design that detail and give life to, if not outright steer, what it is like to truly be within their environments.

Ask the Right Questions


At the outset, I sought to keep the player’s experience – from their actual view and perspective, as well as with the unfolding of any and all progressive gameplay events – fully in mind. In creation, I would posit questions: What is the player’s arc throughout the game? What is the backstory? How about the perceived tone? Will the world presented be a somber place, or one full of wonder and joy? Is it to represent reality, or be more fantastical in nature? What about the gameplay -is the world something akin to a principal actor, taking center stage, or rather a mechanism for more complex interaction, in and of itself? Is it merely there as a non-interactive vessel for some other form of gameplay? Simply said, establish the nature of what you want the player to fundamentally experience, then begin to shape the world and its construction around that goal.

Set Up the Right Scale

Fallout 3

From a visual perspective, scale is often one of the very first questions to resolve when bringing any world out of idea land, and into a more tangible reality. This answering process will often be grounded in, if not constrained somewhat by other design and engineering related factors. How big will the desired play space be for the player – is it more the size of a city, or an entire country? A planet perhaps? How will the world be technically presented – are there segmented levels with loads, or is it one continuous space? Are there any memory, storage footprint, or hardware related concerns that might impact how the world is constructed at basic fundamental levels? Given the desired world scale, to what degree of detail is the resulting environment art made – what are the thresholds for model detail versus texture detail, as the production pipeline and technical specifications accommodate? Doing this kind of question-and-answer legwork up front will steadily provide a healthy set of guidelines to then work within, helping usher forth a brand new world into existence.

Check Your Goals

With the size and scale of the world, as well as the intended player experience healthily in mind, the creation process begins to move forward from the realm of thought and idea, and onto the initial steps of its basic, physical construction, advancing further into the heart of the development life cycle. While being born and realized, and throughout all subsequent stages, it’s important to frequently check back with some of the initially proposed design goals and questions – especially with regard to player experience, as it will undoubtedly (and probably should) fluidly evolve and grow over time, given the nature of building such a massive and complex environment. This very act of creation itself will lead to new questions arising to the surface of consciousness, otherwise unaccounted for at early stages.

The Size May Change

While basic fundamentals and constituents – as an example, the square footage of your new world – will hopefully not be dramatically reconfigured or otherwise change, it can happen, and there will be occasions to retool something that no longer fits in with ongoing growth and iteration, or to retrofit a new, broadly reaching directive across a massive amount of affected data such as landscape, terrain, environment art props and related assets, and so on. Deeply solving for this basic framework with care and consideration, then designing around many of the types of questions touched upon here from the outset, even if it’s simply to allow room for unknowns and error at later stages, will help the life blood of an open world game – the world itself – be in a good, solid place that positively underpins and foundationally supports all that is subsequently created.

Crafting a Map of the World

Fallout 3 World Map

Having worked with large, open worlds within storied and sequelized franchises, there was usually some form of pre-established blueprint in place, creating a delineated sense for basic map features and shapes. In this case, available maps would be gathered and studied, usually to consolidate any disparity within the lore and all the various details from previous maps and their iterations, added or altered over time. With initial map creation for a new title, there was never really an example in my experience where an old map or image could be used unaltered, as it had previously existed. History showed continually that nothing is ever truly set in stone, and all should remain fluid, to better serve the needs of the project at hand.

Skyrim Map

Sometimes, however, there was cause to create brand new worlds where none had existed prior, other than perhaps within a few one-off words here and there within a dusty design document, and it would be necessary to construct a fresh map. Here, basic outlines and larger geographical, or civilization related features and locations would be established, usually in two dimensions, with careful consideration for the world’s scale as it translates to the technical specifications of the engine, of neighboring landmasses (from lore, or in visual context with the game at large), and in accordance with the desired player experience.

The amount of detail defined for the map can easily vary from a few key demarcating lines, to a richer image filled with increasingly smaller local information and color, where either extreme is best chosen for the project at hand in relation to what has been established at earlier stages of world creation. If a great deal is already known about the world in question, it can be better to try and work out the next steps of detail sooner, as it’s easier to adapt and iterate in 2D, design document space, than at later stages in a full 3D environment, possibly with many existing layers and passes of environment art detailing.

Morrowind World Map

With this traditional overhead map, world overview image, or document in place, the landmass for the open world environment now has a core framework structure to take shape around. Once again, real world references and data sets can help launch the landmass building process, with manual, or procedural generation tools either filling in the gaps, or creating entirely new spaces from scratch. Iteration, and playful experimentation will lead to good results during this phase, tailoring the work done to the guiding needs of the project at hand, with all its potentially moving targets.

In some cases, a hybrid mixture of modified, Earth-based digital elevation maps, combined in a collage-like fashion, offered a great, rough foundation for large scale terrain layout.In other cases, a more meticulously crafted, custom generated data set solved for particular design requirements upon its importation, where local space world editing and building would otherwise be too time consuming, or tedious for the scales involved. Harness the power of computers, and put them to work for you, when creating large, open world locations. Be fast and loose with features, and iterate with software, stencil masks, procedural noise, etc., to get in and refine as much detail as possible, and to the threshold where is becomes feasible and reasonable for local world construction to take over,down towards 1:1 player scales.

Devil is in the Details

Fallout 3

When considering the thresholds of information, visual or otherwise, for a role playing title or with any game type, I believe that the intended experience for the player should help govern where time and energy is spent towards establishing detail. As with any creative undertaking, ideas can quickly overtake the reality of realizing and actually implementing them, for any number of reasons. Ultimately, it is about what you want the player to see, hear, play, think, feel, and where the intent resides within those goals.

Simply along visual lines, computer hardware has rapidly advanced over the years to a point where there is a fair amount of headroom for graphical detail to exist in a game environment. Does this kind of deep detail reinforce and support the overall art and design direction for the entire world? Sure, the various tree bark and rock surfaces can be detailed to such a degree that individual clumps of lichen can now be articulated, shaded, and lit – but to what purpose? In this case, is the world presented about stopping and pondering nature, savoring a detail level that has moss growing from antipodean directions to the sun? Or is the game all about getting the player to the next joy trigger as smoothly and deftly as possible, with just enough detail to keep the focal beats strung together? Are both extremes to be accommodated, if not equally appeased? Perhaps detail is wanted from a larger, contextual industry standpoint, where competitor A has ‘x’ bullet point in their specifications, and maybe competitor B feels compelled to do the same, if only from a more harried mindset involving larger groups of people.

With the sky as the limit for even riffing on what detail should be included, as well as why, time and resources will ultimately end up holding your hand as to what is realistically possible, especially with a complex undertaking like creating an open world game. Focus in on what you want your audience to experience, assess the tools you have to work with and the limits you have to work within, solve for, and implement at larger scales on down, and then detail to a degree that feels right, in every way. Perhaps lovingly layer in even more detail at later stages, as a cleansing breather, or as time allows. A unique joy can be found therein, when its application is undertaken from a good, healthy place and intention.

Putting Cities to The Game

Skyrim Concept Art

Ideally, there is little separation, if only aesthetically, between a city and its surrounding environment. I’d go as far to say that great architecture, in turn, honors its surroundings, acknowledges them, and has taken them into account with its own design and construction, symbiotically existing in harmony with nature. This mutual reinforcement can lead to something perhaps grander, even alive, in a sense. Having the landscape serve and reinforce the visuals as well as the design goals for a city was always a high priority.

In most cases, the basic layout and blueprint for terrain existed prior to a city’s construction, but in nearly all cases, the surrounding features would be shaped and honed in response to the, typically, less flexible nature of more rigid, piecemeal, architecture-based objects and cityscapes. Foundation, again, is the key, and the work done to envision, as early as possible, the nature and purpose of the city for the player to experience, helps drive how the landscape builds up to, and underscores this intention. The best results then have the two realities blurring beautifully together, yet also making their resulting union stand out clearly and enticingly from the wilderness.

Skyrim Concept Art

Cities are often dense, intricate focal points and gameplay epicenters for the player, involving rigorous layout and design iteration. While much of this would happen in idea, document land, many overlapping areas and departments within a project would invariably steer the outcome of city building. Performance budgets were usually one of the more prominent problems to solve, as these more urban locations specialize in unique and complicated environment art assets, throngs of intricately designed, visually elaborate NPCs, along with the collective total of all their weighty engineering, code-based requirements and concerns. Collectively, this unique mixture would constitute and give rise to the heart and soul of a city, where design and environment art strove to eke out, describe, and directly show that living organism to the player.

Aesthetically, cities as well as their inhabitants were usually treated as extensions of the world itself, perhaps even as a focal character within the world. The state of a city –such as the amount of ruin or decay, opulence and wealth – would inherently drive the qualities infused into the art used to build out the space, with both natural, and architecturally-based modeling and texturing. Additionally, the city’s layout and population design would also reflect, and equally reinforce these conveyed messages as well, with NPC personalities, dialogue, and quests serving to represent and even personify the surroundings they find themselves within.

Skyrim Concept Art

In that sense, each city strove to have and embody its own unique personality, intending to translate those qualities directly, or subconsciously to the player. With landscape and terrain, wherever possible, the geographic surroundings – farmsteads, settlements, camps, and other related points of interest – leading up to and segueing into the city proper would serve to support the spirit and core of the city, such as its social or political purpose, as well as to organically transition the player, with both art and design, between play outside and inside of a city. The goal, especially so with open world games, is to creatively soften such distinctions as to respectfully simulate reality, as we experience in the real world, and in life.

Come back to read the second part of Noah’s environmental design article!

Noah Berry, Environmental Artist

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Comments 1

  • EvilBook

    Great stuff as always but I'm sure this article could have been half the length if Noah Berry tried to write like a normal person and not like the oxford dictionary of the English language showing off.



    ·7 years ago·

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