Designing a zone, with World of Warcraft’s Ely Cannon

Ely’s favourite place, Icecrown.

What goes into designing a zone in an video game? Sure it is different for each game genre, but for an RPG, or an MMORPG, I often think about how things come about. Who starts the process, or makes that little idyllic area for that special quest?

“There are three groups involved typically, in the creation of a zone, at least, for the most part.”

So instead of pondering on it, I asked Ely Cannon, the art director of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, all about it. Ely got his start in video games as a level artist at ArenaNet, where his enthusiasm for the great outdoors and how nature’s various systems all work together to create something amazing. (A previous interview can be read here).

In previous posts, Cannon has explained how the massive trees of Ardenweald work, thanks to being set to specific object types, or how the Shadowlands skyboxes can now contain 3D objects to allow for more vibrant skies with a better sense of scale and distance. But how does this all start?

“There are three groups involved typically, in the creation of a zone, at least, for the most part. So the first group is the level designer the reason I’ll say that they’re the first group is that they’re really the ones that take the information from both the quest designers or content designers and the artists, and put it together and build it into the world. So, the artists provide all of those assets, but really, it’s through the level designer that the world is created. So the level designer and the quest designer are the ones that really work very closely together when they’re designing a specific space in the zone.

This process is pretty intricate, and it ends up happening in layers, allowing multiple teams to work together on the project.

“The first phase would be that the level designer would come up with what they feel would be a functional space in that particular portion of the zone. And that can be something that they come up with, on their own during early zone phases. Really it’s the level designer saying, ‘well, I think we need a point of interest here. We might need a player hub that you can get quests out of here. We might need a major adventure POI or point of interest here where you’re gonna go and kill things and collect things.’

“So they’ll do that sort of level of planning and then they’ll come back into it with the quest designer and talk about those individual locations and their functionality and relationship to the quest story and quest mechanics that need to happen there.”

Once locations are picked for various quests, there is a lot of back and forth between level designer and quest designer to make sure things feel like they belong together and that there is some consistency, among other things.

“There’s a lot of collaboration between the quest designer and the level designer to make sure that not only this space itself works to support the quests. But also, that the navigability coming into that space, and out of that space, help the player find the things that they need to in the zone, help them find the next point on their path fairly easily without feeling like they’re really being handheld or really put on rails and that’s it’s a real art form, right? Because we don’t want to enforce particular navigation through the zone, but we also don’t want players to feel lost and it really is through a partnership between quest and level design that we can achieve navigability and really give players of sense for where they should go, but not force them.”

Sometimes this is done with large roads, or an easy looking route to avoid a travelling through a ruin or a forest or dangerous mountain. Or it could be something interesting looking near the horizon, drawing players towards the next big quest or point of interest.

We also spoke about the difficulty posed by varying PC configurations, and how designers need to make sure that everyone playing the game has a similar experience when seeing a zone or vista.

“We don’t want to enforce particular navigation through the zone, but we also don’t want players to feel lost.”

“It is definitely a challenge. One of the things that we have done for a while now is actually to test our game on a variety of different PC builds to make sure that we’re getting the core look that we want specifically when we’re talking about vistas. One of the things we know, of course, is that the further away something is on a lower spec machine, the more that it will disappear into the fog bank, and that it just becomes basically a solid colour in the distance. So, what we try to do is make sure minimally on the lowest spec machines that we’re still getting attractive silhouettes in the distance.

“We’re maintaining the achievement that we have with the high-end machine vistas, and trying to really make sure that all of our compositions are always as attractive as possible, no matter what machine that they’re on. But it does require that we check and really balance things across different build types.”

I also asked when we would get screenshot tools to take better shots of the places we enjoy in the game. One day, maybe?

“I haven’t thought of it, but it’s definitely an interesting idea and certainly taking screenshots of our world is an interesting endeavour. I find even internally we battle a bit because of the vastness of the world and, sort of the scale of it at once. It’s sort of small and big. Right? So, one of the things that I think we do try to do is create those vistas where you do have an actual screenshot as much as possible, but I can see some value there. That’s a pretty interesting idea.”

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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