Thank you for sharing your work process!!
I really like how you've articulated your entire process. This was a very enriching read. A Well deserved feature!
Great article! Thanks for the awesome read.
Joel Zakrisson and the team of DICE kindly talked about the production of Battlefield V and Star Wars: Battlefront II and gave some advice for those who are new to the industry.
I’m Joel Zakrisson and I’m a 3D Artist at DICE. Since we recently released Battlefield V and are in full production of new content for Star Wars: Battlefront II, we thought this would be a great opportunity to share some insight into the way we work on these franchises. The intent is to provide a glimpse of what it’s like at the studio while explaining our 3D workflows for beginners and experienced artists alike. I’ve also included advice from my colleagues at the end, which you don’t want to miss!
Arriving at DICE
I started working here in November 2016, when the production of Battlefront II was about halfway through. It was quite an experience, coming directly from school straight into Sweden’s largest AAA-studio. I expected short deadlines and high pressure from the get-go but was surprised by the calm and professional work environment. People were very welcoming, and it didn’t take long to feel at home.
I was instantly thrown into a brand new 3D team consisting of 15 artists specialized within architecture, vehicles, and weapons. We collaborated with all types of art departments, but mainly with the level artists who acted as owners of the various maps. They’ve lately been sitting with us in small “pods” spread throughout larger singleplayer/multiplayer areas during Battlefield V, but at the time we used to group disciplines into different parts of the office.
My new colleagues were extremely talented and experienced within the industry, and I’d say it’s their passion that’s behind DICE’s high graphical standards. There’s no magical game engine or particularly strict management here, just artists getting together to constantly push the visual bar. The work that’s achieved close to milestones is astonishing, but since most colleagues have families work hours are also highly respected.
Two Years at the Studio
I was selected into Team Takodana quite early on, and it was this group I’d be working with the most during my first year. My main responsibility would be the interiors of Maz’s Castle, while Daniel Rocque worked on the exterior.
Emelie Nilsson and Patrick Gladys were level artists on the map, with Emelie working on a bit of everything and Patrick diving deep into the woods. Daniel Henefalk helped out with the photo scanned nature assets and Erik Rönnblom with additional level art.
I also participated in several small “strike teams” that are put together when a level’s about to be completed. The longest one was during the month before E3, when we took the palace interiors of Naboo from pretty much whitebox to completion within weeks. Periods like these usually call for “focus modes”, which basically means served lunch and meetings removed for the whole development team, to ensure that we can put in that extra effort within our regular schedules.
For the past four years, we’ve released new titles every fall. When a game’s been done, most people have moved on to another one prepared by a smaller team. The plan was to do a similar switch to Battlefield a year ago, while the core Star Wars art team continued to work on the Geonosis and Kessel maps, but when the summer started Battlefield V needed our support as well.
After joining the Battlefield team I was tasked to create the art for their new main menu while working with the North African and French singleplayer pods. The French story “Tirailleur” was particularly familiar to Takodana, with its forest and castle “Chateau Vieux”. The chateau owner Carl Palacios had adapted the pipeline established with Maz’s Castle, and we’ve therefore compiled the following breakdown together.
Huge Constructions: Maz’s Castle & Chateau Vieux
Before we start our work on a level, a bunch of material is assembled in pre-production. In Maz’s Castle’s case, Lucas Film provided us with lots of original sketches, behind the scenes photos, and reference scans of the set. Since most of the castle wasn’t seen in the film, our concept artist Joseph Mclamb painted hotel rooms and breweries to fill in the gaps.
As the Battlefield levels are based on real-life locations, references are usually a mix of concepts and photos. Carl mainly used Chateau de Joux in France and art from Frej Appel and Johannes Palmblad as his source of inspiration.
The last step before production is to do an extensive plan with time estimates. To make the process more manageable, we broke it down into three phases. This would enable us to lift the quality of the whole construction gradually, without falling into the trap of having a few finished parts and whiteboxes for the rest late in production.
Phase 1 – Whiteboxing and Layout
In January 2018, Tirailleur was in a much earlier state than Takodana had been the previous year. While I and Daniel Roque already had a pre-made block out to build upon, Carl had to whitebox everything from scratch.
Both castles were split into large unique parts, with elements mainly reused inside of Maya instead of the Frostbite game editor. While we would’ve preferred to build Maz’s Castle with reusable modules on the grid, the odd angles of the film set didn’t provide us with any choice. For Chateau Vieux it was more of a design choice since the chateau was built for a short set-piece with limited level design.
Phase 2 – Base and Technical Setup
The second phase was focused on turning all whiteboxes into functional pieces. Our main tasks were to build new clean geometry, UV-map it with tiling placeholder textures, and setting up technical meshes to make it all functional. The tech-meshes included LODs, collision, raycast (collision for projectiles), and shadow meshes (casting shadow). Rough destruction is made here too if it’s required.
Enlighten meshes are also needed to bake lighting properly in the game engine. These meshes are our version of lightmaps and can be quite tricky to build, but it’s basically a separate mesh with UVs that the light is projected to. The data from the enlighten mesh is then in turn transferred over to the LODs.
“Building a solid base is what eats up most of the production time, i.e. making sure that the asset and the area is playable and functional. Since the production needs to be an iterative process with room for flexibility (with ideas and scope changing throughout development), it might not feel intuitive from an artistic standpoint until the later polish phases.” – Carl Palacios, 3D Artist
Phase 3 – Visual Polish
We began the final phase by replacing placeholder materials with high-quality ones. Normal and height maps were baked from ZBrush sculpts, while data from our scanned rocks was added afterward in Substance Painter with the projection tool. The height map was used to add extra depth with parallax mapping in the engine.
The sculpted bricks could then be reused as separate meshes, placed manually all over the castles’ various corners.
We also made a custom shader to break up the tiling bricks with masks for broken parts, dirt, plaster, moss, or other variations.
UV mapping of tiling textures easily results in overlaps and unoptimized layouts, so it’s common at DICE to create new UV sets specifically for masks. The masks are then painted in Substance Painter on the separate UV set. In this case, all corner bricks needed to be included as well, so we used “Transfer Attributes” in Maya to place them on top of the UV shells of their corresponding walls.
For me, the final polishing touches of Maz’s Castle’s interiors were to place hay in corners, small puddles on the ground and decals for leak stains on walls. Emelie helped a lot with set dressing which really made the castle come to life!
“One of many lessons I’ve learned is that no matter how overwhelming a task may feel initially; the key is to just get started. Block out the large shapes, proceed with placeholder textures, and go on to the next step from there. It is crucial that the progress runs iteratively throughout all components so that the quality is coherent without unfinished areas being left behind. Most of the concerns you might be worrying about will dissolve with time, as you get a better understanding of what is best for your team, the level, and the product you are developing.” – Carl Palacios, 3D Artist
While we usually build architecture by hand, we’ve made a few attempts to incorporate photo scanning into our workflows. The first time was with the chateau in Battlefield 1’s level “Ballroom Blitz” and the second was with Theed Palace of Naboo in Battlefront II.
Lionel Cregut – the man responsible for Theed Palace – went to Caserta in Italy and Plaza de España in Spain for scanning trips, together with our Art Director Andrew Hamilton, Naboo co-owner Tim McLeod, and the experienced Level Artist Pontus Ryman.
They photographed everything from pillars to walls, ceilings, and floors. Some of it was used as tiling textures and some as 3D assets.
Back at home, our concept artists worked on some great art for us, like these pieces by the super talented and friendly Joseph McLamb (who’s also our current art director on the Battlefront II live service).
All of the assets were scanned in RealityCapture and baked in Xnormal. The normal maps turned out pretty bad due to Caserta Palace’s highly reflective surfaces, so we had to settle with mostly color information. We got away with a lot of hard edges since angles originally were sharp, but Korean bevels could be used if necessary. Ornaments that really needed normal maps were touched up in ZBrush.
Even if our color bakes were alright, they still had to be cleaned up. Colors and values were adjusted in Photoshop, while broken parts were repaired with the clone stamp tool in Substance Painter. Roughness and eventual normal information were also added in Painter.
Several of the captured assets were reusable, but we needed a lot more to cover a whole palace. All missing pieces were therefore kitbashed with elements from already baked assets and tiling trim textures. This would be an efficient way of creating new high-quality content without creating more textures, which we didn’t have texture memory for (the level’s texture budget).
I created these corridors towards the end of production and relied heavily on kitbashing since no new textures were allowed. It was both fun and challenging to be creative with content that we already had!
What made the palace come together so well was the lighting by our Lead Lighting Artist Oscar Carlén, who pushed for incredible quality all over the game.
Photogrammetry-Based Nature Assets
Our nature workflows were already established with the first Battlefront game and have carried over to our succeeding projects since then. Two of our latest examples are the Takodana and Tirailleur forests; both based on scans from Puzzlewood in the UK but executed quite different visually. Patrick Gladys and Daniel Henefalk worked on the Takodana scans, while I worked on several Tirailleur ones together with Petter Sköld, who was a key part of the original Battlefront environment art team.
The cleanup process is usually quite straight forward in Photoshop, with shadow removal often being one of the first steps. Petter taught me one quick trick early on, which is to make an inverted grayscale copy of the texture layer that is set to “Soft Light” or “Overlay”. By adding a low gaussian blur value and adjusting the layer’s opacity, you can then tweak the result into something that’s not final, but a great start before more manual work.
“When it comes to color correction, there are several ways to calibrate photos and textures. One way that’s been common for us is to run all raw photos through a calibration script in Photoshop, which will get you to a decent level in terms of white balance and color values. To refine the colors and values further we compared color samples and tweaked them with curves to reach a satisfying level. The method was also used to manually remove shadows and lighting information.” – Petter Sköld, Senior Level Artist
On Tirailleur, we would also reduce noise with noise filters and color correct assets between each other to make them consistent. Moss, for instance, was sometimes supposed to be orange, so we matched the original green moss with orange ones by sampling their average colors and adjusting the green’s individual RGB curves until they matched the orange’s values. The curve values were then applied to the masked moss.
If you don’t know how to mask out colors you can easily use the “Color Range” tool in the “Select” menu, but we usually add a grey luminosity layer to extract the colors, and then tweak the RGB values individually with levels/curves to get exactly what’s desired.
This technique is used a lot and even for manual shadow cleaning as Petter mentioned. The only difference is that you select a dark shadow and match it with a default lit area instead. There are multiple ways to mask out shadows, but a common practice is to use the AO that’s baked from the scan, individual RGB channels from object space normal maps, or a mixture of both.
“Lately, we’ve tried to use more in-house made Houdini tools in Maya, for tasks such as growing vines along meshes or scattering moss planes on rocks. On tree stems, there would appear a visible seam between the unique trunk and the tiling top, but with our tools, we could blend the textures together with ease. Technical Artist Björn Henriksson created many tools like these; all really helpful in the vegetation pipeline.” – Daniel Henefalk, Vegetation Artist
The last step is always to mask out detail textures with “slice masks”. This enables us to increase quality and optimize textures simultaneously since an assets’ texture resolution can be lowered significantly when high-res materials are tiled on top.
Hard Surface Assets with Slice Masks
As our games and maps have grown in size – with larger quantities of assets – we’ve been looking for new ways to combat our limited texture memory. The techniques with detail textures have therefore carried over to hard surface assets too, but for normal maps only. It was used extensively in Battlefront II, where all props had a low-res normal map with tiled details overlaid.
To decrease the size of the normal maps, a highly optimized separate UV set was used. Many parts were cut in half and mirrored, and cylinders could be cut down to less than a quarter of their actual size. Color, roughness, and metallic maps remained mostly unique.
Here’s an example of how this workflow can be used on a prop:
To choose where to apply which detail we used a slice mask with 10 different values representing different materials. White could be plastic, while black was bare metal, for instance. It was all painted in Substance Painter with our own slice mask tools by Fabien Christin, Lighting Director on Battelfield V.
The mask replaced the blue channel of the normal map since that channel doesn’t add much normal information anyway.
This new pipeline took some time to get used to, but it saved us a lot of texture memory. A 1K normal map would look the same or even more crisp than a 2K map made with traditional workflows. While slice masks were used for Battlefield V, it was never established for all props like in Battlefront II. A lot of time was instead spent on destruction, which is a whole other story.
Looking Back and Ahead
All in all, I’d say that my time at DICE has been an exciting ride. Battlefront II was an amazing project with so many cool environments being developed at the same time, by such a dedicated team. While the controversial launch broke many of our hearts, it’ll never take away the great moments we shared together. The live service that followed was a cozier and less intense experience, with its smaller tighter group. Leaving them was like leaving a family, but I’m still glad that I got to contribute to Battlefield V. While it was a rough road at times, I’m proud of what we achieved, and I’m sure that there’s a bright future ahead for both this new game and for our wonderful Star Wars department that’s finally back in full force. We’re currently working hard on some capital ships for an upcoming non-linear game mode, so keep an eye out for that in March!
Advice from DICE
I asked around the office for advice to those of you who are new to the industry, and I thought we’d begin with my friend Patrick. He’s a young artist who’s already mastered the art of nature in games and Takodana surely wouldn’t have been the same without him.
How to prepare your portfolio? – Patrick Gladys, Senior Environment Artist
“First of all, be aware of the current processes and techniques used in game development. It is an ever-changing industry that might do things slightly different every couple of years as the tech around games evolves steadily. Inform yourself and start from there.
Know what the studio you want to apply to specializes in. Are they using photogrammetry? Is physically based rendering relevant? What is the usual art style? Might any of the content be built procedurally? Have they integrated substance in their pipeline? Answering all possible questions beforehand will give you a good hint at what your portfolio should look like and will enable you to plan accordingly.
Make your portfolio show that you are capable to perform those workflows/techniques that the studios actually need and use on a daily basis in production. That’s what will be interesting to directors, leads or seniors who ultimately decide if you will get hired or not.
The portfolio is the most important thing when it comes to getting an art test or being invited to an interview. To land an intern or junior position, there is no need to show off a crazy amount of personal projects though. It’s quality over quantity. Two to four really well-done pieces or scenes should be more than enough to present the skill level that you are at.”
Tilmann lit some of Battlefront II’s best-looking maps, such as Death Star II and Kashyyyk. He’s incredibly knowledgeable in his field and also a great teacher in real life and online. Check out his Unreal 4 Lighting Academy if you haven’t already!
How to get the first job? – Tilmann Milde, Senior Technical Lighting Artist
“This depends a lot on the environment you are growing up in and what the industry there is like. To give you some perspective: I started my career in Germany, and at the time, Germany was mostly famous for mobile and browser games. We had like two AAA developers in the whole country, so in regards to that, it can be a very tough environment if you want to make AAA game art, but there are almost no opportunities to do so.
Once you got that sorted out though, it all comes down to your plan and focus. Since I knew that environment art was pretty tough, I also knew that I had to kinda be the best at what I do. So it made sense to define a clear goal and to work specifically towards it.
I started by doing the Art & Animation course at the Games Academy in Berlin, where I found out that I really, REALLY wanted to work for YAGER. They were also located in Berlin and cared about storytelling, so it was a perfect fit for me. My whole focus shifted towards getting a job there, so I researched what they needed, what tech they used, and what level of quality their artists’ work was at. This helped me tremendously to custom tailor my portfolio and application. I didn’t even prepare any other applications before trying this shot since I was laser-focused on getting that job!
I was then able to get an interview at YAGER! Usually, you have to try pretty hard to fail interviews… like giving obviously bad answers, blaming other people for things that happened on past jobs, or just being a bit hard from a social angle. If you can rule those things out, show a positive attitude and reply thoughtfully and honest to questions…you will have that job! Of course, there will be people equally suited to do the job, so it’s important to leave an impression as well.
What I think works best here is honesty and character. For example, I was once asked during an interview about how I would resolve a specific situation at work that could involve talking bad about someone. Luckily, I already had that experience from my last job, so I explained in all honesty how I tried to resolve the situation. Even though I eventually had to talk to a superior about it, I talked to the guy first and did everything very carefully to not offend anyone and keep people in the loop. They really liked my response on how I solved a difficult situation and they instantly offered me the job.
So yeah, I guess in the end, a lot of it comes down to focus and preparation, but also honesty in regards to answering questions. Also, be you! Don’t try to make yourself more attractive by trying to be someone else. Have trust in your abilities and give it everything you got, you will make it!”
Fabian was my 3D Lead on Battlefront II and the man who pushed the 3D team all the way to the finish line. Prior to that, he was DICE’s own “Mr. Destruction” on Battlefield with expert knowledge in the field.
What we are looking for at DICE? – Fabian Östedt, Studio 3D Director
“For the portfolio, we’re looking for an artistic eye and technical knowledge. Someone who knows what works and what doesn’t. This doesn’t just mean the assets themselves but how they are presented as well. Showing your process and why you’ve made something the way you have can also be a great way of showing the conscious effort that you’ve put into your work that might otherwise have been missed.
While the portfolio will get your foot in the door, the interview is what will take you through it. Remember, we’re all human and while we’re of course looking for talented and driven artists, we’re also hiring you to become our colleague. You may be a fantastic artist but that doesn’t matter much if you have a hard time working with your team or vice versa.
Different studios look for different things, but we tend to look for people who are good at communicating and we usually work in a way that encourages taking ownership and responsibility for your daily work. We don’t expect you to know and take care of everything by yourself as a junior, but we do expect you to seek input from peers, plan your work and push for quality together with your team. If you’re expecting to sit quietly in a corner cranking out assets by yourself, we’re probably not the best match for you. If you on the other hand like the idea of working in a team environment where we help each other push our work forward together, we’d love to hear from you.”
Anton’s also a recent graduate who started at DICE about the same time as I did. He’s super dedicated to his work and became a very close friend during the Battlefront II project.
What to do when you’re in? – Anton Kavousi, 3D Vehicle Artist
“After you get in the hardest part is past you, since you’ve already met all of the company’s requirements. Now it’s time to prove yourself; show them that you’re able to do what you’ve promised and can work in a team. Make sure to take your time to absorb all the new information as well, since there’s a lot to learn about the game engine and pipelines of the company. This knowledge will be useful in the long run!
Another thing I can’t stress enough is knowing the fundamentals in your line of work. It’s so much easier if you’re already comfortable with the software that’s used and understand optimization for games. Knowing some hotkeys (like Joel’s J-Keys for Maya) is also a big plus.
Lastly, I’d like to advise you to never be satisfied with just getting in. It’s important to set a goal for yourself within the studio (like a specific role or specialization), and that you show that you want it and can do it. Always challenge yourself to grow and guide others with what you know, so that people feel that you’re irreplaceable. 🙂 Good luck and may the force be with you!”