Exteriors Feedback

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Cicero's picture
Lead DeveloperDeveloperExterior DeveloperInterior DeveloperQuest DeveloperReviewer
2016-01-25 21:01
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This post is made to help in future exterior work that points out flaws in Vanilla and in TR, and also shows what are some things both do well, so that developers have a better understanding when it comes to exterior work. We want to make it feel like it is part of the same world as Vvardenfell, yet can give it some more detail, or expand on ideas that TR uses that the vanilla game does not. Hopefully this will achieve three goals I have in mind with the mod.



- First point is Coherency with the vanilla game, so that players don't find things are much different on the mainland (at least in the immediate area when leaving vvardenfell).


- Second is navigation, vvardenfell is easy to navigate, you always can see where you can go, or if you want to walk off the path, you can at no penalty. The mainland tends to use cliffs and mountain meshes a bit too much which means that the player has to find another way, or needs to levitate, and the path rarely is so easy to find.


- Last is performance. Frame rates drop a lot in certain areas around TR, the two areas in particular are OE and Roa Dyr due to the building meshes and city detail needeing optimization. But it is no coincidence that the exterior around Roa Dyr is quite densly packed with detail, that it most likely contributes to the slow down also.


After gathering feedback from many people including some folk over at PT. Reading over the notes and looking in-game to try and find examples of the good and the bad, this is what I managed to find. (I'll be including quotes from members of these projects as well as picture examples and a summary at the end).


The first section is feedback for TR, which makes sense. TR is in development. Vvardenfell is not, so the one in development can be open to some changes, and given that we are not professional game developers (not saying Bethesda are perfect mind you), there is some things we can learn from Bethesda in helping us make an equally great world to explore. Feedback starts here (from devs and general followers of TR):


One of the more common forms of feedback was rock groups. There are too many of them on the mainland used as easy detail. It looks good in some places, but too much in others. Some quotes from our devs on this issue: 
Playability and in-game testing. This can be one of the real issues with using rock clusters too liberally, as players can easily get stuck in them. - Gnomey
Never really got the appeal of people just throwing a bunch of rocks out there. I mean, I get the goal, but usually you'd need custom rocks meshes to get the effect. It just looks busy right now - Jani
Sloped rock groups look better when used on slopes, instead of just as variety for the round groups. - chef
Less rocks everywhere for Aanthirin and such. With plants that usually works okay. Rocks and cliffs start to look very odd though. - Kevaar
Rock groups I don't really care for that much - though I do think not every square meter of terrain has to be interesting - Why 


Another common form of feedback was sinking the roads. It is very important to do this, it creates a visual blocker, and it is how detail tends to be most prominant, as roads are areas where the player will be majority of the time. So the detail alongside the road should be made in a way that makes walking along that road enjoyable, and give the feeling of "you don't want the road to end". This is what was said for the roads:


Overgrown roads, when playing the last release and walking through ai i was thinking "why dont we have more of this"? - chef
The lack of anything to obstruct the view, so when you're actually playing the game you end up looking at the same piece of landscape for 20 minutes (yes, I like walking, don't judge), and that's not fun. This mostly applies to roads. - slepana
Finish detailing around roads and make sure they're "sunk" - Nemon
Generally I feel that often times exterior modders work strictly from within the CS with little regard for how things look at eye level
if you compare it to vanilla, vanilla uses a lot of minor height variations to make landscapes interesting - and it works well, especially with regards to sunken roads. For TR that somehow hasn't been enough and people try to like fence their roads with statics and stuff instead of just giving places some believable character-scale relief- Why
Vanilla does a lot of influencing the player's movements with its terrain height; It can be really grossly unsubtle at times, like the mountain ranges that cut up the regions, but places like the northern ashlands do it exceptionally well, most of the time guiding your path to certain roads while allowing freedom, but also closing in to a chokepoint, at Zergonipal. It's always good to have an idea of how your landscape is going to force the player to travel, and even to plan around it where you can. - C0dacan0n
The small rock groups that get bled into terrain are quite annoying to jump through as well. Also, I hope the new areas of TR do have little paths (maybe not even full ones) added in to terrain, just for an interesting shortcut or a way to make simple things feel a bit more unique. I've noticed that Map 1 and Sacred East focus on adding a lot of those so I never felt like the world was particularly empty, even if there's less quest content - Kayla
Roads not having the sides of it up a bit like in vanilla is something i feel tr misses often - Leyawynn 


The next thing to bring attention too is cliff mesh over-use. Cliffs are good, and is something TR can make something awesome with that gives it it's own identity that vanilla doesn't have (but wanted to according to the west gash concept art during the games development). Though, because we have cliffs, that also brings about the issue of depending on them way too much, which makes things not look coherant with the vanilla game, and also forces players to use magic to navigate rather than giving a little more freedom by having the terrain do the work. Here is some feedback on the matter:


Proper use of the heightmap rather than overreliance on cliffs and rock clusters; except where necessary (cliffs) don't completely cover the terrain with assets. Even where cliffs cover the terrain, make sure the heightmap roughly conforms to them. - Gnomey
Overreliance of cliffs mainly, it stands out too much from the vanilla game. - Leyawynn
Roth Roryn: Evaluate cliff mesh usage but retain "feel". - Nemon
There are definitely a lot of cliffs even in map 1 and many rock arches. - Kayla
I hate that TR decided to use my small cliff meshes like that. - Wolli
Absolutely make use of terrain wherever possible, never create hills or mountains that consist entirely of stacked rocks or cliff pieces. Make the terrain poke out and leave some space for players to walk around. Large rocks are wasted space, and wasted opportunities (unless they are used to block off areas on purpose). Create little natural alcoves and balconies with hidden secrets. Give a feeling of depth using vertex paint. Use space to your advantage. Never just put a bunch of rocks/cliffs and call it a day. - Scamp


Along with cliff meshes comes the topic of using the terrain in intersting ways. There was a lot to be said about this, and given that terrain allows you to paint and vertex anything you want without having to use a custom mesh, it makes the detailing more flexible to the developer. Quite a lot of TR is big and has no visual blockers which makes it shine in MGE XE, but it doesn't give a good effect for a few reasons if it is for exploration and not for taking screenshots: Vanilla was not made with it in mind, so this causes issues in continuity between it and TR. It means that there are no visual blockers so it makes travelling the regions feel like they go on a bit too long when using short fog settings. It forces people to use MGE XE distant lands or OpenMW distant statics to expereince the landscapes to their fullest. And lastly it creates performance problems, as open areas in TR tend to have something I like to call "nervous detailing", where the developer doesn't know what to put in the empty space, and due to no guidance, they continue to follow thier feeling to put something there instead of assessing the area and seeing if something can be done in a much simpler way...the terrain. This does take the most amount of time to perfect, but it is what makes a good exterior a brilliant one at the end of the day:


Groups of large rocks meshed together, instead of landscaping. - Nemon
One note I've taken from vanilla Morrowind (and Oblivion, too) is to make good use of travellable vertical space. Sure, we've all seen those big smooth cliffs on the coasts or cutting apart regions, but what about switchbacks, and roads sitting on the edges of sharp hills? It doesn't have to be incredibly dramatic and colossal, it just has to make the player feel like they're not trapped in a tunnel or standing on a flat plane. The ability to walk along a road and look down a hill is incredibly rare in morrowind, but happens a few times in Sheogorad and rather often in tesiv's Cyrodiil, and it's very satisfying, even with tesiv's level of detail. - C0daCan0n
There's many beautiful vistas in TR, but mostly accidental. Vanilla does a lot of smart small-scale things. Classic being of course the giant silt strider you see just as you get off the boat. But a lot can be done with terrain and rocks to obscure vistas that suddenly reveal as the player travels. Almas Thirr to Roa Dyr is a great one in TR. Big featureless hills like in vanilla work because they clearly signal that the player just isn't expected to go there - Why
I seem to think that exterior devs in particular work too much in the CS and not enough in-game, so they miss opportunities. I was actually talking to Why about this not that long ago in that I believe there's a lot to be said in a "less is more" approach. We don't need every last single bit of land to have some static or decoration around it. - Not
Once you get outside of towns, regions do blend together a lot. The number of places that don’t show up well with vanilla view distance is rough. - Vern
Overusing a single texture over a large area isn't the best. - Leyawynn


Object placement is important and does require some planning. Typically you would want to have majority of your terrain planned out and made before doing the fine detailing stages that doesn't include large statics that are needed as much to base the detail around too. You would want to place that statics around the form of your terrain, and avoiding raising the size of these statics as much as you can:


One thing I should put forth is to mind the scale of objects; rarely go above 1.3 for rocks, aim for an average size of 1.00, and don't be afraid to scale rock clusters down to as low as 0.5. Put rocks close to one another in formations, playing with scale and using low numbers to create more detail. Leaving gaps between these formations will create empty spaces such as can be found in vanilla. Don't clutter the entire space with rocks and flora, but group things together in interesting, varied and meaningful ways. Use different scale values to your advantage to make rocks look less alike. Use shady smugglers as references for scale. - Scamp
don't space stuff too evenly. Have clusters both in small scale (single flowers in the middle of a field rarely look good) and in the large scale, and vary the distance between clusters. - Gnomey
I can only speak as a player as I don't work on exteriors. One thing some TR exteriors suffer from is gigantism, things are made needlessly big and clunky and it only looks good on screenshots from the sky. It got much better in newer exteriors, but it's still there. - slepana
We could have larger groups of container plants too. - chef
Sometimes rocks and trees are scaled way too high. Leyawynn


This next section is on general region feedback. It isn't such a big topic, but it was brought up by more than a few people:


What I dislike most are the monocolours. The orange in Thirr Valley is very samey, and the Deshaan colours tend towards "white" too much. There should be some more different colours in parts to liven it up. - Atrayonis
The multitude of snowdrifts in Velothis also looked weird last time I saw it, but I think Nemon was fixing that. TR does intentionally change up palettes for their zones, which I think should continue. It's more the "more statics is better" thing that is not to be recommended. - Kevaar
Armun Ashlands: Still some signs of obvious old claim borders (but not nearly as bad as it was). - Nemon
I feel like mountains with a lot of rocks assets are.. wierd? We have flat aanthirin on one side. And kind of flat parts of RR thats not too deep on the other. We have these big rock boulders as "walls" in them, with rocks dividing them. In my personal opinion smooth terrain transition would be more logical. - Zadroter
Region boarders, specifically ones that change landscape/weather drastically. Those changes need to be handled carefully, subtely and I do believe that first and foremost when creating those areas, people should walk around in game, test it out and see how it looks from the player's view point. Not levitating with 1000 points, but strolling along from one place to another as a typical player would. I think simple things like that would create better results. - Not


Some other things to note. The tunnels in the exterior do create issues of daylight lighting in the tunnels when they should be dark, Rock arches tend to be a west gash thing, and above 0 water statics and waterfalls tend to be a bit on the ..... too much side of things. Now I do think that they have a place in TR, vanilla has waterfall near Khuul and of course in Vivec and Mounrnhold. Vivec palace has water statics. So these are not breaking convention. They just tend to be used it bit too much. It would be nice to have these lead to rivers instead of pouring into a pond that stays that way forever. : 
Obviously rock arches need to die and so do waterfalls and above-0 rivers. - Why
Fake interiors have been galling me for ages now.Small ones in mountains can be interesting, but Hlan Oeks just made the actual interior work for the town more difficult and cases like Abansurand or the Velothis Sink-hole are just ridiculous. - Vern
They look pretty, but it's also silly when you go pass a massive set of cliffs with rock arches among them to only find something similar to that elsewhere
Vvardenfel did have some rock arches and some rock groups, but it also tried to keep a theme consistent among different regions while also considering geographical factors (as much as 2000's Bethesda could). I'd say it should still use them, but with much bigger restraint. In a way things like this also serve as a waypoint for the player. It's easier to remember an area because you know some particular landmark about it. - Kayla
I think bleeding grass is generally OK - as long as it's bleeding into other grass or flora. grass bleeding into branches, rocks or terrain, however, is bad. - Scamp


That was all the feedback I have gotten at the time, anymore that I do get in the future I will be sure to add it to this post when I can. The next part will cover examples in game of what works and what doesn't work as well as it could. This is not just TR, this is also for the original game too. Starting with our first two examples; Roads:



These first two examples were meant to show some really good design that the original game does, which majority of its roads are well designed. Detail on the side that puts a focus on the path is amzing game design and looks natural, yet fantasy-ish. Makes walking down it look like something you would see in a painting. This is what makes walking on the roads enjoyable. The terrain is above the players sightline which means that long view distance was not the focus as it wasn't possible back when morrowind was being developed. This tech limitation actally forces Bethesda to be creative with the terrain which is why you get intersting landscapes like this that don't feel like a drag when exploring.



Example number three is things to avoid in TR's design. It is pretty self expanitory. Cells of no refs or jagged terrain aren't nice to look at. Open spaces are okay, but not a mass amount like seen in the picture above.



Would be nice to see more roads/paths that are above other paths, sheogorad and northern west gash are great at this, creating overlooks. Why keep roads just on the low ground you know? TR does do this in places too but I can't think of any place that does it as good as West Gash. Just something to consider in the future as navigation and intersting terrain are very good things in the game. Fields are always sunk, and this is something that TR does replicate aside from in Roth Roryn, which is an easy fix. So no complaints there for both TR and Vanilla. Just posting it here for new devs to become familiar with the idea.



Morrowind is good at making detail densly packed, but not over doing it, meaning you can still navigate around it or possibly through it with no trouble. Densly detailed area in TR tend to be a little harder to navigate I noticed (and others have noticed), but the trouble is it spans a large area. Feels like the player is not supposed to go there, when it is clear that the developer put a lot of effort into and wants you to see it. Easing up on the vast area of detail could help make detailed areas shine and save time in the future as the developer doesn't have tot try as hard to fill every inch of a claim with stuff. Also interior exteriors are really hard to pull off that are cool, but some with a lot of issues that probably aren't worth it. Lighting issues and performance come to mind.



Rock groups on mountains are not necessary in such a large number. The mountian meshes do it for you already and hides the terrain even more. Not to mention performance. Flat terrain is something that is quite common in TR which is to be expected as non of us are professionals. So hopefully this can be brought to the attention of everyone, to recognize why flat terrain is quite an issue. As the description in the picture says, flat terrain forces the developer to fill it with content as they don't know what else to do. I have even seen this happen in real time on Discord. This is a common thing that needs to really be addressed. Flat terrain is bad. So the solution is to make it not flat. If the terrain has hape to it, it gives you a much better idea what to do with your detail. You would use less of it because you can't spam objects on slopes for example. The vertex and textures twill handle that for you.



Another example of cliff meshes that either look a bit stange or just hinder the terrain completely and force lazy terrain work. Rivers flow constantly. Think that smoothing terrain here and removing the cobbled cliffs would give this river a more natural and real look.



As I had pictures early on of flawless design on Vvardenfell. This is a picture of some parts of Tamriel Rebuilt that accoridng to the feedback, would have no problems. If they do, they are very minor.



Rock groups have already been established at this point as being something to use not in excess. I also wanted to show a part of TR that everyone likes, and that is Almas Thirr. The outdoors aspect of this canton is great, and I am always happy to see old concepts come to life on the mainland.



More interesting terrain could helped this area out a lot, and removing some of the rocks and placing more vegetation too. And in the final example, doing away with the solstheim single use burrows and opting for custom made natural caverns is a very nice apporach, and is something that TR can succeed at doing over the base game which only has caves with doors. Though don't make all your caves natural ones in your claims after reading this. This is still something that should have a balance.


Before recapping everything from earlier, I first just wanted to say that I am open to adding to this some more in the future based on feedback on the post. I hope to make something that is clear for everyone and to act as a aid for our exterior developers and as something that people can look forward to that love the original games charm and aesthetics, and wish to see that on the mainland. Just to reiterate that I am not advocating for any large scale redo's like 2090, but something that can be used for making the exteriors feel a little bit more like the base game, still with the TR twist, and keeping in mind that performance is important. I do see people saying that openMW will fix a lot of these shortcomings. One thing do want to say is that a new engine cannot fix a clashing direction in design choices; and brute forcing area's that have an uneccessary amount of references is not a good idea. Not sure if the openMW team appreciate the idea of everyone banking on them. openMW is a long way off and performance still is not there, so they would probably appreicate the idea of not being pressured into fixing everything when we could of handled it ourselves with some nicer design choices in the exteriors.


Before ending the post, I just wanted to recap everything that was said from all the quotes earlier, just in case this is too much to read for some people. The points that were made are:


- Less rock groups (for look but mostly for navigation)
- Less reliance on cliff meshes
- Focus on terrain usage more (includes variation in height)
- Sink the roads
- Break up the vistas (opportunities to make some great ones revealed to the player)
- Carefully making the borders to regions to not be so sudden (terrain could be the key to this)
- Try to prevent scaling up objects too much
- Group things togehter such as flora
- Avoid spreading things out evenly or feeling a need to fill empty spaces


- Less rock arches
- Less waterfalls
- Less water static usage
- Bleeding grass too much is not ideal
- Monocolours in the landscapes
- Fake interiors have issues with lighting and to develop for
- Slope rock groups used on the ground for variation of the regular groups is not recommended


Thanks for reading, and like I said, if there is anything else people want me to add to the post, I will. This is a post for everyone, so feedback is welcome as always.


File Backup of the pictures in-case imgur dies.7.63 MB2020-05-17 06:38
Cicero's picture
Lead DeveloperDeveloperExterior DeveloperInterior DeveloperQuest DeveloperReviewer
2016-01-25 21:01
Last seen:
35 min 20 sec ago

These are the things that were mentioned for the meeting on June 7th 2020.

1) work on handbook to make things more clear (I'll do this)
2) claims with roads should start at the road and branch out
3 Mainland - dip the roads
4 Mainland - raise the terrain around veloths path so that it can remain flat for carriages
5) Causeway at Roa Dyr, bridge if that fails (to replace that road that is pretty much in the pond.
6) Beaches along cliffs at Ascadian Bluffs. This would help to not have the transition to the fort cliff be so awkward.
7) Have a clear direction for cliffs going fowards in future claims to avoid the Roth-Roryn and Thirr Valley issues.
8) Sea Floor edits in vanilla cells to make sea floor more natural for transitions between Vvardenfell and the Mainland (talk about this in the future)
9) Cluttering the exterior techniques (possibly handled in handbook)
10) Playtesting in exterior reviews. Have one person playtest the exterior looking for scale and visual issues, and the reviewer fix the technical CS issues.
11) Should work more on modifying the rough heightmap in the south. It seems like people are painting and cluttering the heightmap as is with a few changes and smoothing applied. It was created to give an idea of the height, and not to actually use as the basis of the claim.
Gnomey's picture
Lead DeveloperDeveloperExterior DeveloperInterior Developer
2015-08-10 20:50
Last seen:
2 days 11 hours ago

Ah, I forgot a very important point, which doesn't seem to have made its way in here yet: grid snap, angle snap and cardinal directions. Unfortunately in Morrowind CS, pretty much every tileset intended to snap — like walls, some buildings, cliffs — can only be snapped if the tiles are rotated to 0⁰, 90⁰, 180⁰ or 270⁰ on the three axes. As such, those angles should be kept while assembling snapping structures. Once the structures are assembled, though, you should almost always turn off grid-snap and angle snap and give the whole structure a final placement and rotation (generally a rotation just along the z-Axis, trying to rotate around all axes will mess up the relative object positions, though two axes generally work. Worst case, use undo liberally).

If the structure already contains multiple rotations you can probably leave it without a final rotation, but that makes it all the more important to go off-grid and off-angle when you can, so that it doesn't stand out.

(Might be too indepth, but note that you can cancel out these issues manually; let's say you have two instances of a plane, one right way up and one upside down. If you select both planes and rotate around the z-axis with angle snap off, they will turn in different directions. If you select the bottom one and rotate it, it will rotate along the same increment (5.7⁰ IIRC, for whatever reason) and can be aligned to the top plane's rotation).

If you look top-down at a lot of older TR exteriors you will see a sort of subtle grid formed by cliffs and settlement walls. It gets pretty distracting when you notice it, so maybe don't do that. And don't look at the Grazelands. Do press 't' and look down at your claim and see if you have a similar grid. If you have a square settlement or fort which doesn't have a very good reason to be square, consider grabbing one side and rotating it so that the settlement at least becomes trapezoidal, or otherwise break up the form to be more interesting and natural.