The art of Torchlight III
Dmitriy Golovinov at Echtra Games takes us behind the scenes of this action RPG’S level design
What’s it like building levels and environments for an action RPG?
From VR to next-gen consoles and beyond, the gaming world has undergone a huge amount of change over the past decade or so. However, if one thing remains constant it’s the incredible popularity of action RPG series like Torchlight, which has at last gained a new instalment – Torchlight III.
Released October 2020, Torchlight III is a light-hearted and fast-paced dungeon crawler for casual and hardcore gamers alike. Developed by Echtra Games and published by Perfect World Entertainment,
Torchlight III is set in a high fantasy world filled with epic weapons, magic spells, monsters, loot and landscapes.
Environment artist and level designer at Echtra Games, Dmitriy Golovinov, guides us through creating the art of Torchlight III – from storytelling to scale and playability.
BUILDING FROM SCRATCH
Dmitriy’s first course of action in development was to decide an aesthetic style. His team wanted to stay true to the established Torchlight series, but also use reflections, lighting and new technology like Unreal Engine to introduce high-fidelity art and bring this beloved franchise into the 21st century. This meant creating most environments completely from scratch.
“When building an environment from scratch, you first need to gather some reference materials,” says Dmitriy. “This helps you build a basic idea of what the scenery should look like – whether that’s a bustling medieval town, a picturesque beach or a rugged mountain top. After you get the reference, you’ll want to talk to the concept team, who start making loose sketches. Then we’ll start up a back-and-forth, iterating on those sketches, then we pick certain sketches and build a full art piece.
“At this stage, you’ll make a block-out to make sure everything lines up in game. Essentially, this is a grey, to-scale outline of the environment which testers run around in. It’s important to assess at scale, because some assets might look really great in concept but won’t work as a practical element in game. Now, you can slowly start putting in details and textures that bring the environment to life. Everything goes from biggest to smallest. Start working on the larger pieces of the environment first, such as terrain and towers, then you can fill in props and tertiary details. Finally, there are lighting passes, quality checks and constant iteration based on tester feedback.”
Torchlight III’S development typically involved a lot of discussion and iteration. When trying to make an excellent new entry point into the Torchlight universe, as well as the spiritual successor to an established game series, you need to be open to feedback from developers, publishers and fans alike. In short, the creative team were reviewing each other’s artwork constantly to meet expectations of the game.
“One of my favourite levels is one I didn’t even work on,” recalls Dmitriy. “It’s called The Goblin Caves – a huge system of caverns that descend further and further below ground, with lights dimming as the player progresses into its depths. That ominous atmosphere is the exact kind of artistic achievement that can only come from feedback, iteration and teamwork.”
Altogether, the process of building a game environment might take about four weeks for a single map. A key concern for Dmitriy was to optimise time and processes wherever possible, being mindful of tools to save time and money. This is often the case when producing games, TV, film or any kind of long-form visual content.
“In development for Torchlight III, my biggest success was introducing a more efficient artistic process, using Substance Designer and Substance Painter to standardise some of our materials and ways that we work,” says Dmitriy. “With the Substance suite, I was able to look at materials that other artists on my team have made and apply them across different scenes. These smart materials understand edge treatment, ambient occlusion and more, so they instantly work when applied to a new environment. In this way, we were able to make assets at high quality, but also at a reasonable speed.”
Now that we’ve covered the ‘how to’ of building game environments, it’s time to discuss how that art is brought to life. As an environment artist and level designer, Dmitriy was engaging with the player in a very unique way. Gamers have the freedom to run around a location, rather than follow a linear story. Therefore, artists and designers need to weave lots of subtle references into the environments.
“There are so many interesting little storytelling pieces integrated into the environment if you just know where to look,” explains Dmitriy. “For an action RPG in the style of Torchlight III, we might add a monument into a landscape – the area around it overgrown with foliage and the skeleton of a warrior nearby – all of which adds up into a story all its own.”
Trying to work game lore into any environment is a very in-depth process, especially as many props foreshadow events later in the game. A whole set of environments need to flow together creatively. In Torchlight III, there will be actual lore books you can pick up in the game that will play audio description as you run around. It’s a design choice to help players truly understand the vast new world
The game is based in Novastraia, and requires the player to traverse the wilderness and battle through dungeons, collecting weapons and armour to aid in battle against invading forces
The action roleplaying adventure is available on Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch
“FORTS ARE LIKE A BIG SANDBOX WHERE YOU CAN PLAY WITH ALL OF THE ART”
Dmitriy Golovinov, environment artist & level designer, Echtra Games
they are exploring, to supplement the story and art.
“Torchlight III will also have customisable forts – a big area where players can collect various items throughout the game,” says Dmitriy. “All of the beautiful props that we’ve made, some of which only appear once in the story, can be brought into this space. That’s the best part of forts – players can combine a huge range of assets to create a space that’s unique, interesting and personalised to their gameplay experience. Forts are like a big sandbox where you can play with all of the art that we developers have spent so much time on.”
BALANCING ART AND PLAYABILITY
Game artists have a great deal of scope to bring a whole new world to life, but they don’t have endless creative freedom. They must also consider game balance – adjusting game elements in order to make a coherent and enjoyable gameplay experience. Mechanics, aesthetics, story and technology must all support each other.
“A key priority for our team was scale,” says Dmitriy. “Everything in the environment needed to make sense in ratio with the player’s avatar. This is a good rule of thumb whatever genre of game you happen to be working on, whether that’s a dungeon-crawling action RPG like
Torchlight III or a simple 2D platformer.
The perspective of a gamer is very different to the audiences of film or TV – any discrepancy in scale can take them right out of the immersive experience. Therefore, being conscious of scale is always vital to the artists. It’s our job to ensure the game is actually playable, as well as beautiful.”
Another thing to consider when balancing the art and playability of your game is the hardware limitations of your audience. “In development on Torchlight
III, I’ve been blown away by the power of Unreal Engine,” Dmitriy comments. “It’s so versatile. You can quite literally make a film with this game engine, which is what a lot of Hollywood studios are currently doing. However, because the scope of artistic possibility is so wide, you have to really reign in creative decisions. You don’t want to make a game unplayable by introducing painfully long loading times or graphics that a gaming console just can’t support. You need to think about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and hardware limitations.”
By utilising the latest technology – and by keeping in mind key rules for scale and storytelling – Echtra Games was able to create a new instalment in the Torchlight series that all ARPG fans can truly become immersed in. Art, animation, musical score and the whimsical nature of the game itself all combine to make Torchlight III a breath of fresh air in the action RPG genre.