Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach Designer Diary #4 - Building Stormreach One Brick at a Time

Turbine's Ken Brown tells us how the team overcame design and technical limits to create one of the most detailed settings yet for an online role-playing game.


Dungeons & Dragons Online

Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach will finally launch next week, and when it does, players will discover a virtual city unlike any that they've seen in an online role-playing game. That's because the game is set in the fantasy city of Stormreach. You'll adventure in, around, and under the city, and while you can go off for quests to other parts of the continent of Xen'drik, you'll always return to Stormreach as your home base. Since you'll spend so much time there, a lot of time and effort went into making it as unique as possible. Of course, that's a lot easier said than done, as Turbine's Ken Brown tells us in our latest diary.

We Built This City

By Ken Brown
Associate Worldbuilder, Turbine

I'd like to let you know a little bit of what it took to bring Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach to life. Passing through many hands, the city of Stormreach--its ultimate in-game look, feel, and atmosphere--became my main responsibility. In time, I became the main "city guy." I hope I can shed some light on how this city came to be.

The Turbine artists are constantly pushing for higher standards and raising the bar wherever and whenever they are given the chance. So when the Stormreach market was undergoing its third (or fourth) overhaul, we said, "That's enough." We then sat down and made a concentrated effort to come up with a plan to whip Stormreach into shape based on what we learned in all the previous attempts. Eventually I was told, "OK, go take a section of land and see what happens based on our new plan." I won't lie: I had never done something like this before. It was no small undertaking, and, honestly, the task seemed too big for my inexperienced hands. Even now it seems a little insane to me. "This is impossible," crossed my lips more than once. Maybe that's why I loved it.

The design team wants Stormreach to be more colorful and detailed than the average online role-playing game.
The design team wants Stormreach to be more colorful and detailed than the average online role-playing game.

If you've read previous diaries, you know Stormreach is divided into several wards. When I look at the revision history of just the harbor, there are areas that have gone through more than 100 changes, touch-ups, and iterations, ranging from scootching a non-player character three nudges left, to bulldozing an entirely developed area because it just wasn't feeling right. I'm pretty sure people don't think about it when they play the game, but making an entirely populated, living and breathing city, on the scale that we are attempting, is something that doesn't really have an established precedence. Here are just a handful of things that need to be taken into account just to make sure the city performs properly.

Textures. Since a city will be full of many people with unique armor, weapons, characters, and so on, potentially totaling hundreds of different textures at a time, the city is under a strict texture budget. It sounded crazy, but guess how many textures we were allotted for all the various buildings in a given ward? One. I won't go into the specifics or how everything else fit into that budget, but hopefully that gives you a sense of the challenge.

The ever-present polygon count. Our characters have some of the highest numbers of polygons in the game (compared to other things in the game, like trees, buildings, and even monsters) because we want them to look really good. Now cram a few hundred of those in one space, and you've got a pretty limited "budget" with which to build an entire city around, let alone some nice scenery. There's a reason so many online role-playing games have very simple geometry and characters: It's hard to fill a game otherwise.

Animated life. This one was a tough one. To make the city feel alive it needs living things (human, creature, or otherwise). The hurdle here is this: As soon as something animates, it needs to have a skeleton. As soon as it has a skeleton, its cost to performance more than quadruples. As soon as that skeleton begins to move around the city, the cost is almost the same as if an extra person were running around the city. As you can imagine, we'd rather have 20 extra real people running around than 20 rats or tumbleweeds, but we tried to get movement in wherever we could. Blowing paper, moving cranes, animated water, flocks of birds--anything we could squeeze in.

Finally, we had to make the city feel wide, full, and open, but not allow players to see so far that they can look down long alleys of buildings or over the entire city at one time. Seeing too many things at once eats into something called a "batch count." Every single item in the game with one texture counts as "one" batch against the total. Items with multiple textures count as multiple batches. A character can potentially have batch counts into the teens. Any given ward (without players) is literally thousands of batches. Want to know how many will make your computer start to cry? Less than a thousand. In short, "Make this city feel big and expansive, but make sure it's small and contained so it performs well."

After taking all this into account, the really fun part starts: making Stormreach come to life and look good. This is actually a really tough formula to get right. Once you get the foundation of the structures set, fine-tune the color palette of the city countless times, create skies that make the areas feel unique, adjust the lighting, paint roads that vary from solid and maintained to small worn pathways, place NPCs, check the city's composition from as many angles as possible, nitpick everything from the color of magical orbs to the material the barrel is made out of, then you let the characters in.

Get your +3 hammer ready. D&D role-playing goes online next week.
Get your +3 hammer ready. D&D role-playing goes online next week.

Enter the most important part: You guys. We've armed our players with the best arsenal we could to let you make Stormreach a rich, varied, and lived-in city. Instead of making a small set of premade faces to choose from, we opted to give you as much customization as possible. Dozens of eyes, mouths, hair styles, facial hair styles, eye colors, lip colors, facial markings, and piercings. When determining what skin colors we wanted, instead of making a few custom textures to choose from, the team developed a way to allow for an entire spectrum of colors. Once we allowed for so many colors, our character guy worked nonstop to make it so that every character will look as good as possible no matter what the color. Add to that every single shield, robe, armor set, and weapon we could imagine over the past year, and you've got yourself a community. And the good news? There's more to come. We squeezed out as much as was technically possible for us in time for launch. However, you should know that we always want more, and if there's something you want, we probably want it three times as much and are constantly working to make it happen.

Put all those elements together, and you have a small glimpse into why Stormreach is the city it is and what brings this world to life. Now get in there and play it! Have fun!

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