"What does a World Builder do?" is a question I get asked pretty often.
Well, for starters World Builders/World Designers/Exterior Level Designers/etc... are a hybrid designer/artist. The job is close to a traditional Level Design position (of course what a Level Designer does from company to company varies greatly); though World Builders tend to be a little more specialized in the art of exterior terrain. The position of World Builder is becoming a more common job listing in the industry lately thanks to the success of World of Warcraft. Like most design positions, it varies from company to company what exactly it is you are responsible for.
For instance, at Blizzard, my job was to create the exterior terrain of the zones I was assigned. My official job title on the project was "Exterior Level Designer" and we were part of the Art Department (although as I understand it, Blizzard has moved these guys to the Design Staff now). The Creative Director (Chris Metzen) had already given us a rough map of the world he had created based on the previous Warcraft games. The approximate size, atmosphere, denizens and "feel" of the zone was already done by the time I began work. I was given terrain textures and static meshes (Blizzard calls them "Doodads", btw) from the Art Department and a piece of concept art for the zone. From here, I would create what we called "Demo Zones" with a few trees, bushes and the ground textures; I would mold the terrain to my liking, lay down the textures (grass, rock, sand, dirt, etc...) and throw in some foliage for good affect. The Art Director (Bill Petras) would then approve (or disapprove) this area and give feedback. From there I would begin propagating the entire zone with the style that the Art Director was happy with. Later, the Spawn Team would come in and populate the zone with Mobs, then the Quest Team would hit it with quests. Internal feedback would be given, changes would be made and then it would be pushed to the Alpha/Beta for more feedback and testing.
On Stargate Worlds we are starting from scratch with most of our work and the World Building Team is more involved from the ground up of the zones (worlds). We are working closely with the Content Department to get the feel down of the zones, the level flow, and the major (and not so major) P.O.I.'s. In contrast, on WoW most of this was done by the Design Department and by the Creative Director. Half of my job revolves around laying out zones on a 2D map (pencil and paper, then onto Visio) and then moving into UnrealEd 3 and laying out the zone in the editor. One of the big challenges I am faced with this time around is laying out cover for players. With WoW, we just gave enough room for a player to maneuver in a melee encounter; with SGW we are doing ranged, modern (and scifi) ranged combat. This requires a lot more space and a lot more thinking in placing cover objects in the world (its also a lot more work).
A lot goes into creating a zone. So much in fact, that it would definitely require multiple blog posts to even scratch the surface. The wife is bugging me to go to dinner, so I guess I will wrap this up for now and go into more detail later.