Blocking Out Wonderland

How Telltale built one of Story Mode’s coolest biomes!

If you’ve been playing Telltale’s Minecraft: Story Mode - Season Two (and you totally should be), you’ve probably noticed how similar it looks to the real deal. But did you know nearly everything in Story Mode is created from scratch by Telltale’s talented artists? It’s a lot of work, according to the series’ art direct Mark Hamer.

There’s a huge amount of back and forth as scenes and set-pieces are imagined in the writers’ room, fleshed out in concept, tweaked, approved, built out, tested, reshaped, tested again, tweaked again - and finally make it all the way to the shipped game.

In order to learn a bit more about how it all comes together, we sent Mark some questions about Episode 2’s massive, glimmering arena, referred to internally at Telltale as Wonderland. It’s an elaborate vertical assault course created by the fiendish Admin to put the world’s most talented heroes to the test - and it had to look both imposing and alluring in equal measure. No small feat! Here’s what Mark had to say about designing the tower.

So, what inspired the initial sketches?

Mark Hamer: The ice tower in Episode 2 was created by the Admin to showcase his god-like abilities and to test Jesse, so it needed to be epic and appealing to lure the player in. Kind of like Disneyland. You'll notice the ice tower has lots of shiny, sparkly surfaces to dazzle the eye, as well as an epic, soaring design. We even have fireworks at the main entrance! Your first reaction should be, "Wow, I want to go there!" But once inside, you discover there’s a dark side.

Is there a trade-off between designing something playable versus something that looks visually really cool?

Mark: It's a little bit of both. In the early stages, we're mostly concerned with establishing the look and feel of a place, but we're always thinking about how the design will work with gameplay. We try to work new biomes and locations into our designs whenever possible (Ice Spikes, Sea Temple, etc). We'll often try something just because we haven't done it before, that’s how the Admin’s tower came to be set in an Ice Spike Biome.

We also add a design motif to each environment to help unify its design. For the Admin’s tower, we came up with a distinctive symbol for the Admin, which we added everywhere we could. Next time you’re in the tower, see how many you can spot. There are dozens of them!

How does all that lovely concept art get turned into game geometry?

Mark: We build all our environments in Maya, a 3D modeling program, and then export them to our game engine. This method gives us the most control and flexibility. We often test ideas in Minecraft to see if they work, but the actual modeling all happens in Maya.

Once an environment is in the engine, we add a skydome, clouds, and a sun, plus lighting to set the mood and visual FX (fire, water, lava, etc) to bring it to life. You'll notice water and lava are in a lot of our environments. They add a ton of interest and movement. Plus everyone loves lava!

At each step of the way we do more concepts and sketches to guide the process until we run out of time and it’s pencils down.

Do the designs generally change much as development goes on - and why?

Mark: Sometimes they change quite a bit as new ideas are added or gameplay changes. We move elements around, carve up spaces where action takes place, and add geometry as needed to assist gameplay. The giant octopus in Beacontown was posed to help guide the player through the freewalk.

While the details and layout may change quite a bit, we rarely change the overall design of an environment after the early concept stage. The process is more about adapting a really cool design to fit the gameplay, and vice versa.

Thanks, Mark! You can read more about the series here, or head over to Telltale’s site.