Hello Adventurers! Jason Marquez here, from the Environment Art pod, and today I’ll be talking to you about the development of Undermountain’s Twisted Caverns & Vanrakdoom. I’ll talk briefly about the creation of the cavern assets and how we would use them to craft the various zones in Undermountain, then I will go into the zones themselves.
Once the team at large gets wind of where the next piece of content will occur, the pods take the next few weeks to plan & roadmap the desired content. With Production’s help, we craft a feasible timeline in which we may deliver a well-executed and polished section of content that we hope all players will thoroughly enjoy. Within this pre-production phase we establish a solid yet flexible plan including art vision pages, supported design documents, high level concept art, and designated IP documents and information. Once the goal is chosen and the desired locations are established, the pods work tirelessly on their disciplines, and we set our sights on delivering our best content possible.
The Environment team quickly sets out on the task of creating the desired environments in which the players will travel. These will support the dedicated story & player experience which is crafted by the amazing Design teams. We work closely with them and the dedicated Content Designer we are paired with to craft the desired locations. We aim for an experience that will hopefully leave you wanting more. Something that gets you excited to step into Neverwinter and enjoy all it has to offer.
For this update, I would be tasked with creating one of the environment asset kits used within Undermountain (a new caverns set) and once completed I would transition onto Twisted Caverns, the 2nd playable region, with Content Designer John McIntyre. Soon after the completion of Twisted Caverns we would craft Vanrakdoom, the 5th playable region. Partnering with John was an exceptionally enjoyable experience, leading to many learned lessons & an interesting piece of content. I was saddened to see him go yet equally thrilled in his career development.
My first task would be to create a flexible “caverns” kit that the zones would be comprised of. One which is malleable enough to use multiple types of textures & materials, and a kit that could be used at various scales. Since the team size is limited, we seek to craft our assets with maximum re-usability in mind, that way they can be easily iterated on in future uses.
We decided on a 40ft gridded interior kit as a starting place. These initial pieces would resemble other interior kits within Neverwinter, and would evolve throughout its creation. From there we would create various sections of white box proxy models in which we would test & iterate upon. These initial pieces are created to allow Designers to quickly snap the pieces together and to aid them in custom map creation. After further tests, the kit had additional pieces added on throughout its creation.
Here is an image of the Interior Kit (roughly 50% of the pieces with materials applied)
After the initial pieces are created, they are grouped together into Objectlibrary prefabs, allowing Designers & Env. Artists to quickly snap together playable spaces. The prefabs are usually composed of a wall, floor & roof tile. Once the whitebox kit was robust enough to create several variants of maps I would move to the next step.
I shifted my focus to the material creation of the kit; for that task I chose to use Substance Designer. Due to the small team size and speed at which we needed to work, this program would be extremely helpful in creating a variety of materials within a short amount of time. After some R&D I was able to put together a material generator which would be used for all newly created Undermountain materials (architecture aside). After the graph had been set up, we would be able to tweak parameters and generate full textures, leaving us with quicker iteration times while retaining quality & variety.
The full graph for the material generator used
Below you can see a few of the generator tests. The spheres show off basic shape sculpts for various rock and sand materials. Below those are a few albedo flats, giving some examples of what the generator is capable of. With a few tweaks you gain varying results, allowing us to speedily craft material sets.
A few test sculpts using the created generator
A few texture flats out of the larger set
Throughout the creation of Undermountain a number of materials would be created using this generator, from various rock materials to sand & soil materials. Here are some tests of various materials within our terrain system.
Terrain material tests
Once we had a solid visual I would use the new textures to finish the caverns kit pieces. With a dedicated Height map I would displace the geometry giving it some shapely support. With a little bit of clean-up the pieces would be ready. It wouldn’t be long before more pieces would be added to the kit. This would include large non-grid constrained rock meshes, rubble piles, and columns. These would support the basic interior kit, adding more shapes allowing it to feel more organic.
These more organic meshes would be created using a similar process. I would take the generated height map from Substance Designer and use it to displace various shapes of geometry. With a bit of tweaking and cleanup we would be able to achieve the creation of various rock assets. Some would be more successful than others, however, they all see decent use throughout Undermountain. It would also help me to keep a designated style for all rock meshes created. With a looser visual goal, this allowed me to keep the range within acceptable parameters.
After their initial creation, I would test our newly created Vert Blend material. This would allow us to paint three separate materials on the same asset, allowing for greater visual interest and flexibility with the assets. The shader was created by Patrick Poage, a talented artist & a fine developer. Working beside him has been an exceptional highlight in my career as a developer.
The kit meshes would be created with a triangle density large enough to support the Vert Blend shader, yet low enough to maintain a decent budget level. Each rock could be vertex painted to allow multiple materials to come through, allowing us to vary them throughout the environments. Below is a single example using one of the Vert Blend materials.
Left has a single material & the Right has our vertex blended material
Vert Blend example using floor meshes
With the kit coming to completion I would set my eyes towards Twisted Caverns, our second playable zone in Undermountain. Working closely with John McIntyre (Content Designer) we were able to craft something we hope would catch the attention of our players. Once John had created his initial whitebox, I rapidly set dressed the desired spaces and handled any layout changes that happened from then on. Since this would be the first zone to rely heavily on the new kit it would also act as a testing ground for its usability.
Due to the tight knit nature and layout of the tunnels there were a few obstacles to overcome and our occlusion room system would be pushed to its limits; or so we thought (to be continued in Vanrakdoom).
After our first initial playtests it became evident that players were getting hopelessly lost within the map. This was not good for playability; we wanted people to feel lost not actually be lost. The immediate step to give each location a unique visual, path lighting and playable experience were taken. The intent was allow players to feel lost without actually being lost. We attempted to keep it subtle enough to only be noticeable if you were actually looking.
With a little elbow grease we were able to bring the Twisted Caverns to life and create one of our largest interconnected caverns to date.
Upon finishing Twisted Caverns we would re-enter a short pre-production period in which we would document our vision of Vanrakdoom within Undermountain. Again, working closely with John McIntyre, I created an Art Vision Page to support his Design Document. Once they were signed off we would jump head first in crafting this monstrous beast of a zone.
We both wanted something grand to help end the newly created leveling content. John and I really wanted to give the player an experience of exploration, able to traverse these large halls within an even larger cavern. We really wanted seamless travel from interior to exterior sections of the map, a challenge that would be no easy task and one that would produce its own problems throughout the creation of the zone.
After a few pencil sketches and brainstorms with John, I put together a quick whitebox of the environment in which John would test population for combat encounters & quest flow. We put together quite the ambitious layout and with the feedback of our peers we started cutting down. We cut roughly 50% of the initial whitebox, and the size of the map would still come to haunt us.
With so many systems interconnected, the desire for the map layout would push various systems within our editor to what would feel like extreme usage. It quickly became apparent why previous map creators strayed away from this type of design, however, it has been something I’ve pushed for during my time on Neverwinter.
With the restructure of the whitebox, we started upon the huge task of bringing Vanrakdoom to a playable and completed state. It wasn’t long before Vanrakdoom showed me just how much work would be required to take this zone to a completed state with a quality bar we were happy with. On top of the amount of time it would take to World Build, the Interior to Exterior transitions within the map were bringing up their fair share of issues. From audio volumes to occlusion errors to the mini-map, it was definitely stretching our current tech. And when it came to our occlusion room system, it made Twisted Caverns look like a walk in the park.
To no surprise, the amount of editor crashing errors I would run into while stretching the various systems were frequent. While I knew they would be coming, they slowly built frustration within the creation process. Thanks to the timely support of our truly dedicated Engineer team, these were mere stutters in the larger timeline. Their reaction time is truly something to witness, and their ability to keep cool under the countless number of bugs that flow there way is something to behold. Even when they are shaken it is an enjoyable scene.
Elliot Minner (Content Designer) took over as dedicated Designer and help me tighten up and tie off the remainder of Vanrakdoom. Elliot would also take over any iterations that would come for John’s previous content. While I only got to work with Elliot shortly, this module, I can say his dedication to the project surely shows. Without his hard work and perseverance Twisted Caverns & Vanrakdoom would still be a work in progress. His ability to keep his calm while working tirelessly is something to be envied. With Elliot’s help, we were able to finalize these zones.
With Undermountain coming to completion we would enter a more reactionary phase of development. While we do our best to remain errorless during creation, the number of bugs that slip through vary with the speed of production. At the pace we were moving, you can be sure they were bound to add up. Without the help of our dedicated QA team we would definitely be unable to launch a smooth product. Their keen perspective in functionality, game knowledge and hard work ethics is hard to come by. To a team that often gets overlooked in our industry, I give my humble appreciation for your talents. Thank you for your support.
Vanrakdoom has been one of the most challenging zones I’ve had the pleasure of crafting in Neverwinter. It was quite the undertaking, teaching me many lessons as it poked ever so gently at my sanity. I might’ve even felt a little bit of Shadowfell on this one. All jokes aside we were able to craft something giant & unique to Neverwinter. It was an absolute pleasure to contribute my small piece to Neverwinter’s Undermountain, and a joy to know the team. May its halls be filled with the enjoyment of my fellow players. May your travels within Undermountain be grand Adventurer!