Hi, I’m Ely Cannon, a senior member of the Level Design team for World of Warcraft. I wanted to talk a little about the important role that our level designers play in developing the visual style for the zones. In a traditional level design role, you wouldn’t historically find artists; but we’re not what most people know as traditional level designers on the World of Warcraft team. We go out of our way to hire artists with design experience, or designers with art skills, for our level design team. This is essential to our process since each level designer is ultimately the gate keeper for the visual style and tone of the zone he/she is working on.
This process starts with the preproduction work for a zone. Working with an environment artist, the level designer will help to guide and define the scope of environment assets needed. These assets include terrain textures, trees, bushes, accent plants, rocks, etc. The range of models and textures needed must address not only the main zone look, but the sub environment types needed to break up the zone, all the while bringing the concept to life while remaining within the capabilities of our game engine. It can be a challenge, and often is.
Take for example the new Nagrand. Not only do we have the environment that you know of as the Nagrand from Outland, but new areas, like a wetlands, and a higher elevation arid region. The visual clash of these disparate environmental themes could be quite jarring if not handled with care. There is a constant conversation between the level designer and the environment artist about shape language, color, diversity, scale, mood, model usage, and ultimately the visual tone of the zone as a whole that keeps the zone development moving in the right direction.
While the environment artists make the models and textures, it is the level designer who sculpts and paints the terrain, places the trees, rocks, and bushes, all the while considering gameplay and the art/design direction. We approach the whole process in a very considered and intentional way, balancing visual style and gameplay all the while. A typical day for our level designers will include big decisions about the overall look and feel of a zone as well as small decisions about how one plant looks when placed next to another plant in the scene.
Nagrand in Warlords of Draenor is a good example of the color relationships between textures. The vast sweeping savannahs of verdant green which make up a large portion of Nagrand presented a challenge for our level designers. How can we get color depth into massive green fields while staying true to the concept? At first glance the fields and rolling hills seem to be simply green grass – and lots of it. On closer inspection there is a carefully selected range of green tones used to render the savannahs of Nagrand. Each of the green tones is a unique grass texture which is carefully blended with the others in the set to create the effect seen in-game. Likewise, the subzones in Nagrand diverge from the main zone color scheme in very specific ways that were defined early by level design to ensure that players would experience a diversity of environment types while playing through the zone, and ultimately when they return for max level content.
Having capable and talented artists and designers sitting behind our level editing tool allows for fast iteration, and ensures that we can create huge play areas with a consistent level of visual quality. In the last segment of this Artcraft series you’ll meet five more of these designers: Victor Chong, Ian Gerdes, Ed Hanes, Damarcus Holbrook, and Kevin Lee.