Altar of Kings Production Breakdown: ZBrush Workflow

Altar of Kings Production Breakdown: ZBrush Workflow

Introduction

Hello there. My name is Artem Ridnyy. I am a 3D artist in the Mystery Tag studio in Novosibirsk, Russia. My journey as a 3D artist started when I was just a student. For the first time, I opened 3Ds max 2009 in 2011, and I would like to say that I jumped in the world of 3D in an instant, but I can’t.

I opened the 3D editor only once a week at that time and only some years later it became my hobby first and then a profession. In 2017, when I came into a small studio that develops mobile games, I met really experienced artists and their advice and feedback helped me improve my skill much faster. I did not take part in the development of large game projects during my career, but everything is still ahead. Although I made some assets for an AAA game as a freelancer, no title can be called, because of the NDA I’ve signed.

I did not take any courses but taught myself. However, now I am at the stage when I need to get more serious knowledge and skills for further professional growth, and I'm thinking about CGMA courses or mentoring, but that’s a whole different story.

Gathering the Reference

This scene was made for the challenge organized by Sergey Panin on his discord channel. The topic was dedicated to the release of World of Warcraft: Classic. It was necessary to make props, material or a small location from the World of Warcraft universe, but on one condition – everything should be done in a realistic style, using PBR materials. I like the unique World of Warcraft style so much that I decided not to make it in realism, but still using. Fortunately, I was not thrown out of the challenge for this decision.

As the main reference, I’ve chosen the awesome work by Shem Dawson. I really liked the shape of the altar itself, it promised me a lot of sculpting work, and I wanted indeed to get out of my comfort zone and finally master my ZBrush skills. I started making the scene two weeks after the beginning of the challenge and was not sure if I manage to finish it on time. Therefore, my idea was to make only the altar itself without any environment. But it happened that I did not have time to finish it before the challenge deadline. At this moment, I received feedback from Sergey. He liked the work and recommended keeping on working and not giving it up. At this very moment, I decided to make the whole location as I had no time limit.

The main point was to plan everything properly. In the original reference work, I did like the color scheme - the stone altar with gold elements worked great with the green color of the vegetation. I focused on this combination of colors. However, the altar in the game was not a separate element. There was a large location with many points of interest, but I would not be able to cope with such a workload. I decided to keep only the altar and make it as a heroic prop and a focal point, add walls to limit the location and arrange the plants to give the desired final look to my work. In the process, I received feedback from friends and community members on the discord channel. So, in the final version of the scene, banners, flags and a burning castle in the background appeared.

Modeling

All the assets for the location I made using 3Ds max and ZBrush. As I wrote above, initially, I planned to make only the altar, so that’s what I started with. This phase took me about three days since I was constantly making some changes trying to achieve exactly those forms as in the original one. I liked this altar precisely because of its forms; there are almost no straight lines. If you look at other buildings in World of Warcraft,  you will understand what I'm talking about. I don’t know if artists from Blizzard deliberately avoided straight lines, but the effect is amazing. The silhouettes of buildings look great, even straight beams and columns get a completely different look if they are slightly bent. All these give World of Warcraft the visual style we all know and love. I took note of this and also tried not to use straight lines. Steps, handrails, towers, roof, columns… I tried to give a curved silhouette to every part of the asset, although maybe it can be noticed not everywhere.

Сurves in World of Warcraft

The altar is based on the shape of a cylinder, it was this primitive that was the first. I added loops along the cylinder and extruded the steps out of them. I made the sidewalls and curved ornaments on the top of the altar initially on the same level and then, using the Bend modifier, bent them at 90 degrees and added symmetry. It worked out as I planned. I did not have any limits in the number of polygons, so I was not afraid to add some to make the lines look smoother.

I originally wanted to make as few unique textures and as many tile textures and trims as possible. 90 percent of the textures and 100 percent of the trims I made in ZBrush. I also made a sculpture of a lion's head, an eagle and banners in ZBrush. I will tell you more about this.

SCULPTING

I practically did not use ZBrush till then. It’s easy to explain - I was afraid of it. Its strange interface and principles of working with Subtools were unusual for me. But since it was a challenge, I had to overpower myself and start learning ZBrush. Spoiler! I’m no longer afraid of it; on the contrary, I think it is very convenient and responsive to users. If you want to use ZBrush for the stylized environment I truly recommend you to observe the working pipelines and lessons by Fanny Vergne.

The first thing I started working on was the tile texture of stones for walls and the floor of the altar. I used standard brushes Standard, Dam Standard, Flatten, Clay, Smooth, Move. If you get confused with something below, then there will be a GIF file later, where I clearly show how I’ve made it.

First of all, I added Plane3D to the scene to understand the size of my tile. Then, I made the first brick from Cube3D, placed it in the corner of the tile, duplicated it 3 times and using the Offset tool I placed it in each corner. It’s better to start working from the corners, so you immediately set the border and you can be sure that the texture is seamless. After that, I added some more bricks to the border and using Offset I moved its copy in the opposite direction. This way, I created a draft version of our future texture. However, we do not need to make all the bricks, so we can remove those that are located along one of the corners.

Each of the bricks is a separate subtool, therefore it is convenient to work with them not being afraid that you will ruin nearby bricks. Using the Flatten brush, I added a chamfer for the bricks. It’s very important not to make them straight; you can safely change the pressure of the pen to get rid of straight lines in the texture. In this case, straight means boring. Now, cracks can be added. In order to make the brick not perfectly flat, I added volume to the surface of the bricks using a Standard brush. The DamStandard brush helped me add extra lines to the relief. I have no idea why I decided to add them there, but I did, and it turned out pretty well. With the help of the usual Clay brush, I added some small holes on the bricks’ surfaces to make some variations to their texture. With the help of Move, I bent bricks, thereby completely getting rid of straight lines.

Now, when this part of the texture is ready, you need to duplicate the bricks at the edges and use Offset to move them to the opposite corners. Your tile is ready. But when baking AO thereafter, I faced one obvious problem. AO is baked differently on opposite sides. This is because Highpoly’s ends on each side appear to be different after baking. My first tile remained with this unresolved problem, but for the next, I added one more point. After the base tile was ready, I duplicated it and placed it on each side and every corner. After that, the AO was baked perfectly.

Tile texture creation process in ZBrush

In addition to the textures in ZBrush, I also made statues of a lion, an eagle, a central ornament and a banner. There were a lot of smooth lines here, so the Lazy Mouse tool helped me a lot. Also for organic forms, DamStandard brush is great. I have very little experience in sculpting, so I'm not sure that I can give more useful tips. More importantly, don’t make my mistakes – don’t start working with a large number of polygons, that’s really won’t make your life.

Some assets from Zbrush

Vegetation

Vegetation was also part of my work which I’ve never deal with before. So I had a lot of questions. I decided to start with the trees. I made a bark of trees without any problems in ZBrush and then got a tile texture from it. But I did not know how to make branches of trees. I had several ideas: to make basic geometry in ZBrush, then bake or to use the Substance Designer

Pine texture pack

But I found a way out in the classical approach - I drew branches in Photoshop. First, I drew the base of the branches, then using Overlay and Multiply overlays, I highlighted the center and darkened the edges and corners. Then I drew needles using two layers. The first one was lighter; the second was darker, so I hoped this would help me to achieve a depth effect. I really liked the result, so I decided to make the rest of the vegetation in the same way. I made an atlas texture with leaves and used it to create ivy, bushes, and fallen leaves. For ivy, I had to draw another atlas with roots. I wanted it to have more volume, so I arranged the leaves from different angles.

Ivy texture pack

The grass texture was made with the help of breakdown by artist Bram Z. The grass and flowers for the scene are from the pack. Not everything in this scene I could do myself. That’s why it was a big coup to find the shader in this pack, which created the illusion of swaying. After that, I replaced materials for all the vegetation, and this added some more life to the location, although, of course, it is not visible in the static image.

Texturing

The process of creating textures took me a lot of time and effort. In total, I made about eight tile textures and five trims, as well as several unique textures. Nevertheless, it was a very interesting experience, and I am glad that I managed this. For this scene, I made four smart materials to facilitate my work - wood, fabric, metal, and stone. Despite the fact that under the terms of the challenge, it was necessary to work in PBR, I decided to pay tribute to World of Warcraft and make hand-painted textures. Textures made this way could be seen even in Unlit mode. I do not draw very well, so the generators in Substance Painter helped me a lot. I will show you the texturing workflow using the stone wall as an example.

I started my work with color, so first I made the roughness value equal to one. The base color I took from the reference. Then I added color variation using grunge masks. Here I would point out that the original grunge masks were not the best decision because of their original form, so I mixed two or three masks, and I got the result that I liked. In this example, in addition to the main color, I added green and purple to the bricks and brown between the bricks. After that, using the Mask Editor generator in Overlay mode, I highlighted the edges on top. But you should remember where the sun would shine. In this example, I show the texture of the wall, and the sun shines from above, and if it were the floor, then it would be necessary to highlight all the faces equally. Also, I wanted to highlight the corners from above only. To do this, I used the Mask Editor generator again and highlighted the edges on the Curvature map and subtracted the lower edges that using World Space Normals. After that, added AO and some sharpness with lower values.

Tile texture creation process in Substance Painter

The main thing to remember, working with stylized textures, is that you should avoid the noise. Unnecessary details may also not work. Colors should be saturated if you want the texture to be treated well. Therefore, it is highly recommended to use black for example for AO. I used a darker shade of the main color with Multiply mode.

When I started working with the head of a lion, I faced another mistake. I made the color of the metal too dark. I tried to simulate the behavior of the sun, so in places, where the cheeks were, I made a gradient. Due to the fact that it is a metal, color in these places has become almost black. Stylized textures are cool, but don't forget that this is also PBR. In the original World of Warcraft, they use only an albedo map, so all the characteristics of the materials are drawn on the texture. If you look at the references, you can see that artists were forced to draw glare from the metal to convey its characteristics. In my case, this was unnecessary since I knew for sure that the metal would shine in the sun, so I did not draw it in the base color map.

Unlit mode

Speaking about tile textures, you can find more information in the breakdown I did.

Lighting and Composition

I did not have to think a lot about lighting and composition. I definitely wanted one of the cameras to be near the altar thereby giving the viewer the opportunity “to be” there. The corner where the burning castle is now located was initially empty, but then I added a mountain and trees there, and in the final shot the castle appeared. This idea came to me by chance, but it worked great and now this place has its own story. In my future projects, I will be more responsible for making the composition. To my regret only is after the publication I noticed that the distant wall is located almost horizontally and now it catches my eye every time I see it.

The light is also quite simple. Since this is an open location, there is a Skylight and Directional Light, which are responsible for sunlight. I directed it so that it illuminates only half of the altar, and consequently, the second half remained in the shade. Such a contrast of light and shadow seemed cool to me, besides the metal had a cool glare.

The remaining light sources were needed to complement the vibe. I added two spotlights - one illuminated the head of the lion from below, the second illuminated the banner, which is located on the right of the stairs. I also added four point lights with warm color and a low-intensity value to simulate the light around the roasting pans. I placed two inside the braziers and two in the castle.

I still have a lot to learn about composition and lighting, but I am pleased with the result I’ve got.

 

Afterword

What can I say in the end? The challenge was amazing, even though I couldn’t finish the scene on time. I went through all the stages of creating a location, and I can be proud of it. It is small but still a victory. The hardest thing for me was to get started. For a very long time, I doubted whether to start or not? What if I won’t finish this project? Will I have enough time? But somehow I gradually got a taste. There were problems with getting rid of noticeable texture tiling. I used only one decal and the second material, which was mixed by the mask. In fact, this is not enough, and next time I will definitely use decals in the full.

What about the next project? I definitely will not do anything based on my own concept; I believe that I am not ready for this yet. I really love the visual style of the game “Life is Strange”, so I would like to do something in its style.

I would like to thank the editors of 80 lv for the opportunity to tell about my project, friends and members of the Leoluch community for their feedback and support. I especially want to thank Stanislav Vovchuk for his great help in writing this article.

You can find me in discord my nick Ridniy Disc # 9942 or via a LinkedIn page

You can also download the basic tile textures that I made for this location on the Gumroad website for free with the ‘80_lv’ coupon

Thanks to everyone who read this article and see you soon.

Artem Ridnyy, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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