Creating the Steps of Isha

Total War: WARHAMMER II

Michael.Whelan
February 15 2018

As part of the 5th annual Make War Not Love promotion, we’ve released four maps free of charge for multiplayer and custom battles in Total War: WARHAMMER II. The Steps of Isha Map Pack showcases some extreme topography and stunning vistas, but we’ve asked designer Oscar Andersson to show us the thought process behind these maps and how they came to be created.


The Steps of Isha map-pack offered us a unique opportunity to create a series of maps that were focused on a theme and maintain that theme through the visual look of the four maps. Normally when we create a map, it either needs to match the look of the campaign map geography or it’s designed to work with the narrative and structure of a quest battle. When we were faced with the task of creating a new map pack for Make War Not Love, we had none of the normal constraints. Instead, we needed maps that would feel totally unique. We knew we had to make the maps visually impressive, tactically interesting, and somehow tie into Valentine’s Day in the process, while feeling like they belong in the Warhammer world. Below we’ll discuss how we got from a single idea to full implementation.

At our first brainstorming meeting, the idea that quickly took hold was to make a map that looked wonderful and romantic, for which the lands of Ulthuan felt like a perfect setting. On further consideration, this idea of a singularly wonderful landscape alone might be boring. We needed some contrast to make it really interesting, and to bring the two extremes of the map to the forefront. We needed the polar opposite of a Valentine wonderland, so a place of shadow, decay and corruption felt like the natural fit. Once we had the idea of two opposite landscapes, we needed a way to fit them together in a believable way, and that required an emphasis on transition from light to dark, from life to decay. The Steps of Isha found its four-tiered shape as a way to make that transition feel concrete and natural. So after our first brainstorming session we knew we wanted to make a set of four maps situated on different elevations, with the wonderland at the top and the darkness at the bottom. Our environment artist got to work and created the rough topography of the Steps, which can be seen below:

Now that we had the basic shape of the landscape designed, the next stage was to figure out the shape of the playable areas. We knew the maps would have to offer more than just a flattish area with a bit of hill and forest, so the goal became to offer a set of tactical challenges and opportunities on each map. The top tier, our Free-For-All map Shining Summit, offered us a chance to explore how urban combat would work in a Free-For-All battle. Our previous maps for the mode have generally been more open, so this offered an opportunity to try something new while situating the players in the middle of interesting terrain. The next map, Heartlands was meant to feel and look like untamed nature, and with the shape of the map we wanted to explore curved ridges and how they could offer both strong defensive positions and easy attack routes. Broken Hills was inspired by chokepoint battles and we wanted to explore how a chokepoint the width of an army would influence the gameplay. Would players look to contest the chokepoint or would they let the enemy break into the wider areas beyond it? Finally, with Pit of Thorns we wanted a map that looked like death and decay was spreading into the map, creating tendril-shaped low ground that looked dead and high ground that was still resisting the dark influence. For gameplay we wanted a strong central defensive position undermined by good flanking approaches with a lot of cover.

Visually, we quickly recognised the need for a central focal point to really bring the maps together. The massive central elven tower allows us to do just that, giving players an easy way to quickly understand on which tier they are playing. You can already see the first of the great statues on the summit as well as the massive bones jutting from the pit. The red colours on Heartlands highlight the rough areas for the semi-circular ridges. As we worked, we realised that we’d have to emphasize the linked nature of the maps and what started as a single statue on the summit became a series of increasingly decrepit statues. We also wanted to bring back the Valentine’s theme to the fore by adding a heart-shaped visual effect that degraded with the state of the statue. Below you can also start to see the shape of the Pit of Thorns emerge.

As we continued working on the maps, the two extremes of the Pit and the Summit changed the most. The Pit of Thorns was initially intended to not have any forests on the low ground, but testing revealed that forest in the ravines would really transform the gameplay of the map. So the challenge was to find a type of forest that suited the look of the map. We ended up with the dead forest that you can see below, which offered a great contrast to the lushness of Heartlands and the urban beauty of the Summit. You can also see that now we’ve added the final statue to really tie all four maps together.

As for the Summit, you can see how while the key features are present, we’re still far from the complete map. You can see the heart, the rainbows and the grand pavilions, but a lot of the features that are required for the area to feel like a city are still missing. We also had to do several iterations on elevations and building placement so as to improve the gameplay flow of the map.

As a whole, with Steps of Isha we tried a different approach for level design and environment art. We focused heavily on combining a strong visual theme with interesting tactical terrain features, taking some risks with the design in the process. The end result we have to offer is a set of maps that position the players in the middle of interesting terrain, offer new tactical challenges, and look absolutely stunning with a widely contrasting landscapes