Working on level design for Heroes of Might and Magic was possibly the most exciting creative experience of my life. Looking back it was an honour - I am thankful I was able to work on the Haven/Life campaign. Haven is the first campaign users play through – and the art assets are vibrant and beautiful for creating game worlds with. On top of that, the designer used one of my screen shots as a press screen for PC Gamer – so I was proud of my work at the time. That screen shot is below.
In this blog post, I will explain my thought process in creating levels and maps for HOMM4.
First, I am a very geometric person. That may sound weird - but whenever I doodled as a child, I had strange symmetrical "OCD" design, that paralleled and reflected imagery off itself. The art assets and feel for Haven were perfect for me due to the regal nature of the art and vision of the story.
Similarly, you’ll notice on this scenario focused on Academy art, I attempted to have the architecture and nature almost “wrap” around the building assets. Even though the buildings are by and large power ups - I wanted it to look like more of a themed city or village area. I wanted each area to have unique focal points to break up redundancy in the levels that is bound to occur.
Even more, on the screen above, I used a majestic purple brick texture in a way that definitely wasn’t intended. By placing on the ground, making it appears as though it was an open courtyard that had been covered in sand over the years, it gave the scene an ancient and weathered feel. I don’t think that texture was even meant for land use, but I had the idea to try something different and it paid off.
I blended the painted textures to follow a general isometric type of shape, all the while following my mountains and paths. The goal was to create a more interesting angle to the maps, and give it a better flowing energy by taking cues from the angles present in the art assets. Especially, large and focal assets, such as castles. This was opposed to haphazardly placing assets from top to bottom in a “2D plane”, or left to right.
On the note of blending, I tried to create depth by combining a few similar painted ground textures, and layering textural art assets over them to provide sharper contrasted angles and perceived height. The above image shows how I raised the height of a hill (we couldn’t raise land geography very high), then layered sand dunes (which were not meant to be layered on top of a raised terrain, but I found a way to make it look cool), finally with a dual blend of painted sand texture to finish the side of the hill, giving depth and “shadow”.
Spatial order was incredibly important to me as an “artist” level designer. There are excellent pieces of beautiful art in the game. However, if the pieces aren’t placed with a delicate hand, it won’t look pristine and “natural”. A great example of this is the screen below which shows how I laid pieces of an iceberg together. Note how I artfully layered the mountain piece in the water to give it the look of a large glacier. If you look at the mini-map you can see how it “broke off from the land”, which at least was my intended result.
The image below was a pleasing one because I was able to place the waterfall so elegantly "above" the river-run, and layer plant assets in the river bed to give a sense of realism and depth. As I recall, the bridge was difficult to make look cool, because if you layered water (river) textures at the wrong angle, and didn’t lay the bridge asset down in the same angle (it had a fixed angle), it would look un-natural.
Finally, the screen below shows another challenge for level design on HOMM4. As great as the art assets were in HOMM4, it was more difficult to blend two ground terrain types than it looked. Blending one painted terrain with another was something not everyone tried. With all due respect, when utilizing maps with multi-terrain types, the aesthetic results were often mixed. Play the game and you will notice this. It’s because the paint brush auto -corrected itself and made the brush strokes kind of look awkward, splotchy, and difficult fix versus the two contrasting terrain types. This was especially the case with roads, which didn’t blend incredibly well with the grass and dirt textures. So, I had to guess-and check until everything fell into place and looked great.
I worked diligently to make sure the grass and snow blended together. Using large, snowy rocks to layer on the outer edges of grass - near areas that grass and snow texture blended, gave a more natural blend. Also, quite frankly it sometimes would cover the direct line (un-natural line) or when the paint tool auto-corrected and made a splotchy patch on the ground. Trees with and without snow were also crucial to give more depth to the blending I was trying to accomplish in these areas of the map.
I hope you enjoy the insight – I'll be posting more on game design at my new blog below. Please take a moment to check it out, and to hear about the new game I am working on, "RED 3030"!