Welcome to this new dev blog and installment of ScreenshotSaturday,
Thanks to deep improvements in the worldbuilding workflow, the goal of building immense environments with great explorability, great density of decor and a complete hand-built feel (as opposed to the "no personality" feel common with regular procedural generation) has been achieved. This set of screenshot featuring the Morra Valley, first play region that will be made available for the game, will give you a bit of an overview.
Can you spot Aorsana on the above screenshot? Hint, she's by the middle, to the left
The Morra Valley is modeled after something between regular alpine valleys, Corsican subalpine forest, and a bit of a grand-scale epic fantasy environment. It is a landscape of vastness and extremes, where giant mountains tower from the vantage of great cliffs supporting wide glaciers. Beneath such heights, vast plains and deep forests of straight pines cover the lower altitudes. Whether you journey through such places or over the cold snowy moors or rocky layered hills, you will find all around you a dense landscape rich in features that must be navigated with some care and foreknowledge. It is no innocent flatland where one may run unfettered.
The valley, whether in its upper or lower region, has several lakes. Snowmelt filtered by densities of ancient granite produce the freshest, purest waters. Streams abound also (although they are not yet present in the scene).
Walking up through the hills surrounding the forest, we reach the snowy moors leading up into the upper valley:
Walking on from there, we attain higher, snower altitudes, and the upper forests await.
Those forests are probably the best showcases for the new environment-building workflow recently put in place. In them, you get a sense of "organized chaos" as you will typically find in the wilderness:
So... It has been said several times how we want to deliver immense environments, and quantities of them, so that the world of Winterfall can truly feel endless. This isn't merely a wild-eyed declaration fueled by complete craziness, it's a deliberate, pondered design choice that would be core to the game experience. One that we have finally rendered feasable, with lots of opportunities for further optimization and playability.
One of the most senior inspirations for me as a creator has always been Middle-Earth, because to this day, there is simply nothing remotely like it as a fantasy creation. Such care and concern went into the creation of that world that personally, I'll play anything that allows me to walk a character around some rendition of the place. While Middle-Earth-based games so far have been of really unequal quality (and there still isn't one that is a truly great game), for me they always have the virtue of connecting with the Middle-Earth that's in my head, so those games end up being more portals to something far greater than the standalone experiences they otherwise are. The scale and attention to detail of Middle-Earth as a land (not to mention its history, languages, cultures, etc), is in no small part what accounts for its unrivaled greatness as an immersive place. As a result, I have been a LOTRO player for 6 years and have about 200 hours clocked on War in the North simply because it's Middle-Earth. It's pretty much guaranteed I would never have played those games if not for that (although both titles of course have merits outside of being in the M-E franchise).
LotR War In the North's Ettenmoors, a personal favorite in terms of game environments
I've lived most of my life in a place (Corsica) where many rural regions are accessible within less than a couple of hours' drive. Each of of those small regions has its distinct character. The Niolu Valley isn't the Ascu Valley. The Restonica Valley isn't the Casaluna Valley. You always know you are in a specific, distinct place and that even if it's geographically small, relatively speaking, it's rich, dense and unique enough that you would have to spend a lot of time exploring it to begin to get a good grip of it.
The upper Niolu Valley, one of the main inspirations for Winterfall's landscapes
In open-world video games, that aspect of "density" is generally entirely missing as areas are often implemented for the sake of primary visual/environmental variety. In a sense it is exactly as in the old days of Stage-based games, where you had 6 stages until the end boss and they had to be really different from one another as a way to keep monotony at bay and maintain a sense of discovery and progression.
Thus, the choice in Winterfall of immense, deep regions to explore is a really important component of the overall game experience. Each region must be its own thing, and you have to get a sense of mastery for having spent enough time in a place that you know it well, and at the same time you have to have a long-lasting sense of novelty and discovery for venturing into a new place.
This poses a few key challenges, most notably in terms of the effort it takes to build those regions. Most games go by the understandable notion that it's better to have a smaller number of small, carefully-built regions rather than a really big one that would be more difficult to organize and maintain.
The thing is that when you go out there in the wild, you experience something very different than what open world rpgs offer. It's not about small, specific places right next to one another, it's about something almost fractal: every small specific place is contained within a greater specific place which itself, next to other greater specific places, makes up a small region. A bunch of neighbouring small regions make a greater region, a bunch of regions make up a country, etc. Everywhere is different and everywhere exists as though it's just there, as opposed to feeling like a stage for you to enter so that local things can happen along the carefully set up structure of environment props.
Procedural generation has sort of become a thing recently, as it allows to build large worlds with a modicum of effort. The problem is that there is a sense of "organized chaos" in the wild that you never obtain through procedural generation. It's plain enough at some point that the game is just repeating single environment props according to its generation patterns. Procedurally generated worlds may feel big and wide, they never feel dense and rich.
As always, the solution for me lies in-between two ways. Between hand-placed, carefully built stages and wild procedural generation. It's about mixing the two in new and creative ways to end up with massive environments, full of local detail, that will provide a perfect setting for wilderness adventure. A few things still to solve (I'm looking at you, streams) and we'll be exactly there, in those rarefied heights where there really aren't many others and where the view is absolutely incomparable.
A good way to measure the progress is to look at how the scene has come together overall. First, with a Before/After of the scene: