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Workshop Wednesday: Issue #2 – Mapping Out Your Success

In Issue #1, we discussed the definition of a modder in present day.  In this issue we’ll be taking a look into the process of making a map!  I can’t recall how many times I’ve had an image in my head that I would like to translate into the virtual world.  It all seems so straightforward in your mind, but it’s not that simple in application.  Since I’ve always been interested in the process, I talked with several members of the ARK development team about level design and the map modders in the Sponsored Mod Program.

The process of creating a map seems so daunting when you’re inside of the development kit.  Where do you start?  For a lot of artists, it starts with a high-level layout of what they’d like to accomplish.  This layout could end up being a sketch done in 5 minutes or something much more complicated that takes weeks or months.  For ARK, we started with some rough sketches and concepts of what the overall vision for The Island would be. Navin, a Senior Producer for ARK, says the team started with some rough designs that weren’t concrete. “At the beginning of pre-production for the Island, we had a clear vision of what we wanted to do with the map visually/gameplay wise, but it wasn’t very detailed. We felt that making a playable prototype and getting in the game itself would help us obtain a better conceptual understanding of what we wanted to do with ARK. So, we initially started with rough/loose sketches, prototypes, concept art, etc.”

In the case of the modded map Ragnarok, that team started off with a relatively detailed plan of what they hoped to accomplish.  When asked if this is similar to what they ended up with, Jackson replied: “It’s changed so much!”  However, that isn’t the case for everyone who makes maps.  Exilog, the modder who made ShigoIslands, shared his before and after photos of his map.  To me, the differences in the overall layout are negligible.

Often your starting concept isn’t at all what you end up releasing.  For many modders who make maps it’s just a starting point that serves as the original inspiration.  There are some people, such as Tkat, who didn’t start with a high-level concept at all.  “I don’t have any paper maps. I work from the mind. I see it in my head and paint it. That’s how I do all of this. I just see it and paint it while I see it.”

Damien, the Environment Director at Studio Wildcard, outlined the creative process for Scorched Earth.  “First, we started with reference images.  We thought about all the different types of desert biomes around the world we wanted to include in our map.  We then thought about how these different areas would all live together symbiotically.  This will eventually serve as a loose guide for everything we create going forward.” For our Sponsored modders, this is the defining point which brings character to their maps.  Do you make a fantasy map or one that’s more traditional? Joe, the creator of Madagascar Evolved, shared his feelings on the subject. “Several factors influence the style of the map. Madagascar is meant to be immersive as well as beautiful and challenging. The players I talk to want a unique, open, safari map with an emphasis on realism and their feedback is ultimately what shapes the look of the map. I also think it is important to me as the designer to study nature and learn to represent it well in the ARK Dev Kit so that I can meet their expectations in terms of quality.”

When speaking about the creation of Iso: Crystal Isles, Isolde says: “I used a photo of clouds for a height map.  I let the map tell me what it was going to be based on the initial first shape.  From there I hand sculpted it place by place.  When designing the biomes, I would start out with a small spot and start with the simplest thing, letting the environment form itself.  It sounds fruity, but it is just how I work artistically.  I let the biome take me where it wants to go.”  What’s a height map, you ask?  Put simply; it’s an image that stores values, such as surface elevation data.  It’s what can take a flat terrain into mountains and valleys.  Whether you start with a height map like Iso: Crystal Isles or you sculpt it by hand, this is the first step to translating the original concept into the 3D world.

Before creating the landscape, it’s important to consider the biomes that might be in your level. In Damien’s case, “We had to make decisions on where we want these biomes to live according to our maps story.  This will serve as a guide later as the level designers begin to paint foliage in appropriate areas.”  This design document is what all of the artists refer to when placing assets or painting foliage. This is where the process of making a map may differ for several of our modders in the program.  I asked Ben, the creator of The Center, whether he had detailed design documents when he was working on his map.  “No, didn’t really feel like I needed since I was just making it by myself and thought it would be a 2-month thing at most.”  When you’re the sole person working on a project a lot of these details are in your head, and you may not need detailed design documents to ensure the map is consistent and going to plan.

Biomes aren’t necessary, but they are an integral part of creating a unique experience for many end users.  The size of the biomes and where they are placed are given a considerable amount of thought.  The biomes that ultimately make it into the map dictate what type of foliage and assets get put in that area.  Jackson, a member of the Ragnarok development team, said:

When determining the size and location of the biomes, we wanted to give each biome it’s own room to breath, so to speak. We referenced our first landscape iteration and used the natural features of the land to dictate some of the biome sizes and locations. From there we added more iterations until we were happy with the basic biome layout, making sure to leave room for transitions. An important thing we felt that was missing from ARK was proper biome transitions. We wanted the players to move from one biome to the next seamlessly and realistically, as opposed to an instant biome change; it was important for us to give each biome enough space to transition properly.

It’s easy to skip past all the prep work we’ve discussed, jump into the editor, and start painting away.  However, you’re putting your map and your end users at risk.  The challenges of developing for a live game means when you make a mistake, people can be immediately affected.  We’ve had to make some of these changes when planning for the Redwoods biome.  At this point in development, a solid design document and forethought helps.  But making these earth jarring changes isn’t always unavoidable. “You do have to rework the map sometimes,” Joe says. “There is usually some way to upgrade an area without destroying bases, for example, you can redo the foliage or ground textures and it won’t affect bases. The best way to prevent base wipes is to do planning ahead of time so that major updates don’t include content that erases people’s progress. In general, if players are worried about base wipes, they can always talk to the map developer and find out which areas are permanent.”

After this brief overview, I can begin to understand some of the challenges that modders run into when they are creating levels.  Even if they aren’t on the same scale, they are often of the same type of problem that our design team here at Studio Wildcard runs into frequently.  Maybe this is inspiring you to make a map of your own?  If so, there’s tons of material out there to help you get started!  Start with downloading the Epic Games Launcher and download the ARK development kit.

Until next time, I’ll leave you with some teasers from the maps in our sponsored mod program.

Wildcard Ced

Skies of Nazca

Iso: Crystal Isles


Madagascar Evolved


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