Skip to content

DevBlog: Island creation

Hi, my Name is Simon Wolf and I am a Level Artist on Anno 1800. I joined the team here in Mainz roughly a year ago and today, I would like to give you some insights into my job- both what motivates me and how us Level Artists shape the world of Anno, one island at a time.

At its heart, Anno is about vast cityscapes, ships on high waters or citizens roaming through narrow streets. But at one point in any discussion about the series, you will be able to hear players talking about another really important element of the game: the islands themselves.

Islands are both the playground to let your creative energy loose and the challenge which stands between your goals, such as expanding your city’s population by just a few thousands citizens.

The importance of your game world
Playing a game is more than progressing in the campaign or advancing your city. Becoming an explorer of the game worlds around me, always on the hunt for hidden secrets and stories, fueled my passion and creative investment in videogames since I was a kid. Questions like, “is there something hidden behind that mountain?” or “look at that landslide, is there a story why it collapsed?” was probably even the driving factor for me to become a level artist.

That enthusiasm allowed me to experience games beyond gaming. I started to play around with level editors to create my own levels and with that, to become the writer of my own environmental stories.

Anno 1800 is in fact the first strategy game I’ve worked on. In the game, islands are more than just a blank space, islands have personality, add to the feeling of the game and even create gameplay challenges, as players have to work within the given space.

It’s a creative puzzle you need to solve as you alter and shape the game world surround you.

Islands in Anno come in various shapes and sizes, some of them making it easy to expand and to grow your city while others have a higher difficulty, challenging the player to optimize and deal with the situation at hand. The specific features and difficulty level of an island has a strong impact on the gameplay. We call that “Creative Constraints”, where limitations result in solutions and interesting designs in order to overcome that challenge. Overcoming that limitations feels rewarding and often results in a more organic and beautiful city layout.

The creation of an island
Okay, let us see how our level team actually creates and shapes that playground for you.

It all starts with a shape!

It usually starts with a shape: Ideas for the look and form of an island come often from different sources, sometimes just creative brainstorming in the team full of crazy ideas but we also spend time researching satellite data or photos from real islands as an inspiration.
We are always on the hunt for the right middle ground between interesting shapes, a good challenge and gameplay freedom.It also depends on the type of island currently needed for the game. Do we need a few larger but easier islands or are we talking about a design which should test the skills of our veteran players? Beginner islands should not have overly complex structures, mountains or other obstructing details as these terrain elements can determine the difficulty level.

The first concepts for island shapes often include color-coding, where we block out construction areas, mountains and other obstacles. When defining these areas, we usually check back with the Game Design team for their requirements such as the size of a beach or mining resources, but how we implement that is usually up to us. We always have to keep one thing in mind: from the beaches to mountainsides, the layout will have an impact on your future city layout, such as having the choice of two beaches allows you to decide where to build your harbor and start your city.

Tools of an level artist
When our shape got a thumbs up from game design or other stakeholders, we can start to work on the actual 3D model. In our daily work, we make use of various tools fitting the needs of the different steps we are working on. While we spend a lot of time in our actual engine, handy tools such as World Machine, allow us to create a basic preset terrain based on various parameters (ground land mass, cliffs, plateaus, mountains, beaches, erosion etc.). The resulting model is a perfect foundation for the next steps.

When we are happy with the three dimensional form of the asset, we implement the island in our engine. In this first iteration of our future island, we will bring it to a playable state. That means basic texturing, defining construction and harbor areas, placing obstacles, mining slots, basic vegetation and more. The next step is a feedback process where we will decide if everyone is cool with the design or if we have to change something
.
And here the final work piece, you can see blocked out areas and basic level of terrain.

Environmental Storytelling and future steps
And now it’s time to bring some individual character to our island in the so-called “visual stage.”
In this stage, we take our time to make it look natural yet interesting by texturing, placing decorative objects, vegetation and sculpting. While our engine does offers some neat sculpting tools, we often take a piece of terrain to a sculpting tool called Mudbox to work on the fine details.

With the visual stage completed the island is about 80% done, with further polishing work to be done for the release version of the game.

On average, a large island takes roughly 80 working hours to complete. In the polishing phase, which usually comes a bit later in development, we will add the smallest visual details and include even some environmental stories, such as landslides or other unique things to discover. Keep that in mind when examining screenshots or discussing the footage seen during a stream, as the polishing phase will have an impact on the final visual fidelity of the islands.

It is all about ideas, inspiration and handicraft
I hope this blog about the daily work of a level artist on Anno 1800 gave you some interesting insights. The next time you play an Anno game, you may want to hunt down all the handcrafted details and secrets we love to hide in a level.

I know that you started many discussions about your favorite islands types already. To shake things up a bit, I would like to hear your ideas about small visual elements, remembered from previous titles that could make up for great environmental stories in Anno 1800. You can share your inspiring ideas with the level art team in the comments below.

13 Comments

  1. Anno1701Holic Anno1701Holic

    Dear Bastian Thun

    I am a great fan of the older anno 1701 in the anno classic series and I contacted support and posted on the official anno ubisoft forums already because I saw that and island editing utility was used in anno 1701 too:

    http://anno.de.ubi.com/devdiary.php?diary=devdiary_1701_3

    This old dev blog way 10 years back is also about island editing, quite ironically actually if you see how far anno progressed these 10 years 🙂
    Support recommended me to get in contact with the anno developers for better and more clear answers on if it would be possible that this old island editing utility for anno 1701 would be released, I would really love it to make my own islands in anno 1701 and since your the island designer for the newest anno series I guessed your the right person to contact 🙂

    Please let me know if it can be possible to release the anno 1701 island editing utility, because im making a new fanmade campaign about a apocalyptic scene as a twist to the sunken dragon where Diego del Torro wins 🙂

  2. diddle783 diddle783

    thanks for sharing, it looks awesome to see you working on the game

  3. banan1996.1996 banan1996.1996

    A very interesting devblog! I had no idea that creating a single island could take so much time.

    I wish we’d get at least a map editor for Anno 1800. Creating our own islands would be great but creating our own island world would be just enough.

    But one thing especially caught my eye… And that is the file’s and folders’ name from the video: we can see a word “moderate” there as a name of folder for group of islands… That means… there will be different climate zones! Just like in Anno 2205 – that’s great!!! >:)

    Show answers to the comment
  4. ruuti0 ruuti0

    Very interesting story again!

    I knew making islands take some time, but I would never imagined that it would take 80 hours to make one island, but on another hand I never had experience making 3D islands. I have to admit that islands in Anno series have always looked very nice.

    I have especially liked how nature looked in 2070. Especially moantains, “lakes” (where you could buil dam) and rivers looked really nice and I many times like to watch them more closely in postcard mode!

    I have one question, did this thing that it can take 80 hours map time become in 1800, 2205 or was it already in early games like 2070?
    If that time has changed, how long it took create big island in previous versions?

  5. Johnnymac34 Johnnymac34

    Very cool, thank you for sharing! Always fascinated to see the graphics come to live like that. Had no idea it would take up that much time for large islands.

    How many islands would be created for the entire game? Are any of them created via a scripting tool or is it all done manually?

    Some of my favorite small visual elements in the game are just looking at the life around the maps. From trees to animals, it is very cool to see the little details in place to make it feel more real. In Anno 1503 watching the hunter leave his hunting lodge and walk around and actually hunt the animals was cool to watch. I think that is the key to the anno series, all the buildings, the people, the animails, the water… it’s all just running together in harmony throughout the game.

    One aspect I would like to see more of is elemental weather changes. Snow covering the ground and perhaps when it’s cold out that is when the houses have smoke coming out of their chimneys and wood or coal gets used up faster in those colder months. Add a totally different layer to resource management and having to plan ahead and stock more stuff for winter when production slows but your people need more of the product at that point.

    Thank you!
    John

    Show answers to the comment
  6. Bombe172 Bombe172

    does we will be able to make island by a map creator ?

  7. Boldzmann Boldzmann

    Very interesting! So much work on one island!

    I want to share my experience from Anno 1404. I downloaded an unofficial tool on the Internet – IslandEditor Anno 1404. He was not very good. I could make an island of any shape. You can make mines and a river. But it had some problems. You can put mountains, but the troops passed through them. In addition, the enemy’s troops could not land on such an island. But in general, you can do not a bad island. I was making a huge island 416×416. Made a meandering river with a delta. Having a good experience doing such an island 4-5 hours. I made an archipelago from several islands. But they were considered as one island. You can build a pier between them. Despite some shortcomings, I liked to do.

    I liked one unusual island. Scenario_08 Infertile Edge. There was a barren island – scenario_08_n_l08.isd It is a pity that there was no such island for free play. I myself could not figure out how to create one. And I also liked the volcano. I would like to have a big island where my city is. And on the edge of the island would be a volcano.

    I noticed that you are not making a flat landscape of the island. He
    has heights. On which you can build. This is a very cool idea!

  8. AmpeImann AmpeImann

    Thanks so much for sharing! It’s really interesting to know how much work goes into creating an island.

    One question, as a Level Artist, are there performance constraints that go into what you can do with the design of an island? Is there a limit to the number of “features” on each island for the sake of engine performance?

  9. Swimming-Paul Swimming-Paul

    This dev-blog is sooo interesting! Thanks for your work! This may be your first strategy game but the islands already look gorgeous and you have completely captured the spirit of Anno in my opinion! I was a bit shocked to see that it takes so long to create one island, but after seeing the details of your work I can easily understand why. I´m impressed by your talent.
    My favourite islands in Anno have always been the difficult ones, with very irregular shapes. I always loved the rivers and the lakes in previous Annos, and specially the waterfalls that you sometimes in the mountains next to them. I could spend hours and hours in postcard mode looking at my buildings with such beautiful backgrounds.

    Show answers to the comment
  10. palemale53 palemale53

    I love seeing how a creator works. This was a very nice presentation. I loved how the detail was built up, one layer on the next.

    You talked about story elements, like landslides. How do mining sites work into this process? Most are on a mountain. Is there a special requirement for the geology?

    One thought has just occurred to me. How about swamp lands that are an obstacle, but which a higher level civilization can drain and exploit? I can think of some story lines…

Leave a Reply