DRAGON QUEST XI S: how we built Heliodor in both 3D and 2D

A tale of two cities - how the developers of DRAGON QUEST XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition built a game in two visual styles
By Duncan Heaney

DRAGON QUEST XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition more than lives up to its name. It’s a dramatically enhanced version of the classic RPG that adds both new story, and new features.

One of the most exciting new features is the ability to play the entire game in two very different visual styles: 3D and 2D.

The former features wonderfully detailed, vividly colorful HD visuals, while the latter features expressive sprites that evoke the feel of classic DRAGON QUEST. Both are beautiful in their own right - and one good example of that is in the city of Heliodor.

But how do you create the same location in two very different visual styles? We asked two people uniquely qualified to answer: DRAGON QUEST XI S Director Takeshi Uchikawa, and 3D Art Director Yoshiko Hiyama.

Conception of a capital city

Heliodor is the first city you visit in DRAGON QUEST XI S. It’s a beautiful, sprawling location, full of shops, churches, houses and buildings, that begs to be explored. That’s by design, and the area is full of ways to let you do it. You can go into many buildings, clamber over the rooftops, find treasures and secrets - in short, it’s a richly realized location with a real sense of ‘place’.

Of course, in DRAGON QUEST XI S it exists in two completely separate forms: 3D and 2D - and before the team could start building it proper, they had to lay strong foundations.

“Creating a town begins with the staff involved grasping two things: what we want to do and the overall image we want to achieve,” says Hiyama. That’s done through discussions with the director.

“The 2D artists then expand on the general information obtained through these discussions and begin to develop concept art, showcasing things like a complete view of the town and its street corners. They also capture its facilities like shops and churches, as well as the townspeople’s’ livelihoods.”

“Through these visual representations, the desired direction for a town is communicated to all the staff involved in building it.”

Concept art for Heliodor

Of course, it’s not just how the town looks and feels that matters - the creators also have to consider how it plays. After all, locations in the DRAGON QUEST series are designed to be enjoyable for players to traverse, so the developers had to ensure that towns like Heliodor are structured in a way to support that.

“While the artists work on the visual design on the town, the map planners develop a blueprint for the town that incorporated things such as gameplay elements and flow, as well as the information obtained from discussions with the director” says Hiyama.

“These blueprints are required in order for the staff involved to have a shared understanding for the gameplay and structure that needs to be achieved in a given town.”

Concept art and blueprint of Heliodor's throne room

Heliodor Throne Room in-game

Once the 2D art and blueprints have been created, they are sent up the chain for review.

“The director and art director review the concept art and blueprints and provide feedback. For a complex town like Heliodor, it’s important that their viewpoints are properly communicated to the map planners and environment artists, so the general flow involves steering things in the right direction.

“The process is repeated, and the work refined over and over until we have fully solidified the kind of town the location should be.”

Making of a mini-metropolis

Armed with a clear vision for what Heliodor should be, work started on building it. The first version of the town to be constructed was the three-dimensional Heliodor - and it’s a process that took time and constant refinement.

Hiyama explains: “The staff had an understanding for the general framework and image the director hoped to achieve through visual references and blueprint designs.

“Using those references, we built out the town with temporary models and walked through it to repeatedly check and adjust aspects such as the scenery, playability, and comprehensibility.”

“When the overall structure was solidified using the temporary model, the detailed buildout was able to start. At this stage, we finally saw detailed models and textures being applied, as well as adjustments being made to the lighting in earnest.”

Tales of a two-dimensional town

With the 3D version of the town well on the way, another team of developers set to work on making the 2D version - but it wasn’t just a case of recreating it from an overhead view - it had to be redesigned for this new perspective.

“There was a need to devise methods to showcase certain things in a way that was unique to 2D,” says Uchikawa. “Take the interior structure of a building as an example - even if the structure didn’t pose any issues in 3D, there could be limitations when it was depicted on a flat plane.

“For example, having several floors that overlap in complex ways isn’t any particular issue in 3D - as long as the direction of travel is clear. But when converted into 2D, there were unforeseen areas that were either difficult to see or comprehend.”

Inevitably, changes had to be made for the 2D version of Heliodor - some of them more drastic than others. One that will be immediately noticeable when you play DRAGON QUEST XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition in both modes is the difference in the roofs.

Uchikawa explains: “A certain level of confusion could not be avoided if we were to keep the triangular rooftops, so we attempted to make the rooftops look like terraces, tried placing ladders, and largely changed the building structure.

“We devised many creative workarounds in the design and layout - our priority was to allow for easy comprehension rather than ensuring its visual appearance aligns one-to-one.”

While differences were inevitable - and necessary - the team worked hard to make sure that the 2D version of Heliodor kept a similar spirit to the 3D version. They wanted to ensure that it was recognizably the same place as its polygonal counterpart.

“The placement of standout buildings and the presence of staircases affect the overall impression of Heliodor, so we tried to align them with the 3D version as much as possible,” says Uchikawa. “Elements that were more focused on adding to the environment or atmosphere in 3D were removed as much as possible since the focus was simply placed on making the area easy to navigate around.”

Hurdles of a multi-dimensional Heliodor

The process of building Heliodor was not without its challenges, in both 3D and 2D - although the nature of those challenges differed.

For the 3D version, the team encountered a number of problems due to its size and intricate design.

Hiyama says: “Heliodor was a town that had been created earlier in development, so it also served as the touchstone in measuring a town’s sense of scale. That said, the town we were initially pushing forward was a bit too expansive, and given its complexity, just walking around the entire area felt tiring.

“To deal with those problems, we placed locations that players may access frequently along a relatively accessible path. Quite a bit of consideration was made so that players wouldn’t need to walk around every corner of the wide and complex town each time.

“Areas like back alleyways and backyards were used for hidden elements or side roads, and their roles were clearly distinguished. We made sure to address things so that the town doesn’t look more open/expansive than needed from a visual standpoint.”

As well as navigation issues, the density of Heliodor also caused the team a headache on a technical level - it was really pressuring the hardware.

“Heliodor is a town with many buildings, and a variety of people live here, so our initial builds were exceeding our capacity and processing loads,” says Hiyama.

“I think this part may have been the most arduous issue to tackle, and to deal with it, we took detailed measures for various data.

“Let’s look at background environment data as an example. We went through and investigated whether there are any LOD (level of detail) models that weren’t as effective or necessary as others and deleted them.

“As a countermeasure to lighting load issues, we placed a simplified dummy model over the entire area to drop shadows. So when you play DQXIS, the building shadows you see in Heliodor aren’t the shadows from the buildings you actually see - they’re the shadows cast by the dummy model!”

The developers working on the 2D Heliodor also faced issues with navigation - partly as a consequence of the unique overhead perspective.

Uchikawa explains: “This isn’t limited to Heliodor, but given the map structure is based on a top-down perspective, we did run into a challenge where the map felt confusing unless the entrance to houses were always facing forward.

“But if the entrance to all houses face forward, the overall impression of the town would veer too far from the original map, so we made entry possible from either the left or right on select houses, finding creative workarounds by adding a fence or something that would act as an indicator.

“Furthermore, we tried to make it easier to identify by also displaying the position of the door on the in-game map.”

Echoes of what could have been

The teams’ work brought Heliodor to life in vivid detail in both 3D and 2D, but is there any part of the city that didn’t make it into the final game? According to Hiyama, there was one DRAGON QUEST staple that could have been present.

He recalls: “This is merely one idea that was brought up during the concept art phase, but there was an idea to include a well that connects to an underground area - an element that follows traditional gameplay found in DRAGON QUEST games. Although the idea is adopted elsewhere, we did not incorporate it into Heliodor.

“The area aboveground was already quite voluminous, and given it already incorporated a similar type of experience - where you head downtown to infiltrate through a secret passage - we felt that the gameplay element utilizing the well just wasn’t necessary.”

Contemplations on a completed city

As DRAGON QUEST XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition releases on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox One Gamepass and PC (Steam, Epic Games Store), Hiyama reflects positively on their work on Heliodor.

“Production took place under a tight schedule, but we were still able to capture the lively nature of the town from a visual standpoint that reflects Heliodor’s position as one of the main towns in the game. I am especially grateful to the environment designers for the hard work they put into building this area.”

His feelings are echoed by Uchikawa, who adds:

“I’m pleased we were able to retain a level of playfulness unique to 2D maps.

For example, we were able to create a secret room hidden in the shadows of a building. Although it’s an old-fashioned method, we’d be satisfied if this puts a grin or a smile on your face and you feel a sense of nostalgia - that’s exactly what we were aiming to achieve.

“As for the exact location… please try to find out for yourselves!”

Many thanks to Hiyama and Uchikawa for taking us into Heliodor’s many nooks and crannies. You can experience this amazing location for yourselves by playing DRAGON QUEST XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition, out now for PS4, Xbox One and Steam (and fully playable on next-gen systems too).

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