Level Design: Working on Location from HALO

Level Design: Working on Location from HALO

Alexander Sharov talked about his approach to designing and creating a HALO fanart level. 

Introduction

Hi everyone! Before I get started, I want to thank Sergei Panin for his mentorship and valuable advice, my colleagues for feedback, and the CG community for materials and inspiration. I also want to thank Alex Senechal - his great design tutorials helped me to overcome a lot of difficulties.

My name is Alexander Sharov, I am an Environment and Level Artist at Pixonic, a mobile game development studio. I live in Moscow, Russia. I have been playing computer games since I was a kid; I loved to study and "live" through the story of my favorite characters, and I have always wanted to know what'd happen with them after the closing credits. 

However, the understanding of what I wanted to do in my life (and that is game development) came to me only in my senior year of university, during a 3D modeling course. This new subject changed my life. By luck and chance, I got my first job in the industry and it became even more clear to me that I was moving in the right direction. Digital art courses gave me a solid base and pushed me toward the final decision to become an Environment Artist. Before that, I contributed to a few small VR and mobile projects and took part in the production of the video for Shadow Fight 3.

HALO Fanart Level

HALO Fanart: Goals

I have always been a fan of sci-fi games: Mass Effect, HALO, StarCraft, DOOM, etc. While mastering my skills, I wanted to create something unique - a project based on my own vision as if I was the main character of the game.

Why did I choose HALO for this project? That's simple - I am a huge fan of its universe and I have a lot of wonderful memories connected with it and the game itself. The recent release of HALO: Infinite trailers gave me an additional push in this direction and the final choice was made.

One of the main goals for this project was to go through all the steps of the production pipeline. The location development is a long and iterative process, and the understanding of many its aspects usually comes to you only after a while. I wanted to improve technical and artistic skills, develop a better understanding of design, study color, lighting, and composition, and figure out how to naturally support gameplay with the visuals and lead the player in the right direction. I also planned to learn new software and techniques and practice all the skills required in the environment production in general.

References & Grayboxing

I believe the reference/concept phase of a project is one of the most important stages underestimated by many artists. I spent many days surfing the Internet and preparing a comprehensive collection of references in order to visualize the future location. Among dozens of pictures, I especially liked a couple of shots. Eventually, I decided to combine them plus add a few extra details, and that’s how the general concept was created. Now I only needed to bring it to life.

Location development, be it a small indie project, mobile game or a large AAA title, is always time-restricted. The concept you receive can vary from a very detailed one to a rough sketch of general shapes, so it is always necessary to study similar topics, games, art books, and movies. It will help to fill in the blanks in the concept. Keep in mind the type of game, too, because the camera position influences our perception of the location. As you can see in the concepts below, the scenes are drawn in the third-person view, while the game is first-person. The solution is simple: transfer your idea into 3D step by step, starting from the basic shapes that influence the silhouette. Pay close attention to how the feeling of the scene is changed when you alter the forms, make sure the changes don't break the gameplay and it is clear where to go at first glance and work like that until you finish the grayboxing stage.

Location Design

I decided to focus on the visual aspect and atmosphere of the scene, skipping some of the gameplay features. Otherwise, I might have faced too much work and would barely manage to finish the project. In the beginning, I drew a plan of the player's path and figured out the size of the general shapes that'd influence the scale perception - they set the standard for all other objects.

The more questions you ask yourself at the beginning, the easier your work will be during the next stages. What is the location? What is its main feature? What feeling does it evoke? How will it be played? How much time do you have to create it? How should you lead the player through the location? And so on and so forth.

One of my first ideas was that the player would come out of a narrow enclosed area into an open space with a wide panoramic view and a destination point in focus. Then, after walking through the main part of the scene the player would get into another narrow area and consequently pass to the next location. Such a contrast of scope would affect the player's emotions. Though later, I realized that this idea required too much time and I got rid of the cave. 

The main scene was divided into three zones: the landing site, the main building, and a section between them. Again, I gathered some references for each zone to understand what they will look like and how they will work together.

An important aspect you should keep in mind is the functionality of the objects in your scene. If the objects are functional, the player will "believe" the scene subconsciously. Let's take the landing site as an example - I thought of how the plane takes-off and lands, how the cargo is transported, how the signal lights are placed for the pilots, etc.  Don’t go too far into detail, but follow common sense and work out the basics.

As usual, the workflow went from general to specific. I moved from one part of the location to another until there were no gaps in the design. It was rather a long process as I sometimes missed the style and had to redesign and remodel many objects. I've always associated HALO with something immense and monumental that triggers the "wow" effect. The most important lesson I learned from the grayboxing stage is that before moving to texturing you have to solve all the problems connected with geometry first. Sometimes, I had no choice but to return to the previous stage in order to fix some issues.

Below you can see a few pictures that illustrate the location design process. In some cases, I hit the target at the first try, and some parts needed to be redesigned or put aside. The second image is an ideal result and should be obtained before going to the colors and materials. As you can see, the blockout helped me to test out a few versions and choose the one I liked the most. The focus was shifted to the landing site and the way to the main building.  

The final result exceeded my expectations. All in all, the location could be either a starting point of a mission (you land on the ground and get introduced to the environment) or the ending (after playing mainly inside the buildings you finally get to the open space and a cut-scene starts).

Modeling

The modeling workflow was quite simple. The final blockout was exported to Maya where I worked on the objects. I often checked the references and played HALO to get a better feeling of the forms and understand why the artists had taken this or that decision. Analyze, comprehend, test, correct - that’s how my approach to modeling could be described. Some architectural objects were made of modular pieces (arches, staircases, columns, etc.), others were single meshes. I also tried to adhere to the technical restrictions but in real-life, everything depends on the project and software. All the objects in the scene - from the props to the large architectural elements - were modified to fit the general style of the location. Just like in the original HALO, I paid a lot of attention to the big vertical elements and tried to use them as visual guidelines to direct the viewer’s eye. The contrast between the sizes of the objects also emphasizes these guidelines.

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Texturing

I used a few tileable materials: plastic, metal, painted metal. Some materials were taken from online libraries, others were made from scratch. I used Substance Painter, Substance Source, and Megascans. To detail some of the surfaces efficiently, I used trims and mesh decals. 

Lighting and materials are always strongly connected and you need to find a balance between them. Colors, for example, should be less saturated to get a more natural picture after the light baking. On the other hand, art unavoidably provokes a conflict of tastes, and my choices were based on what I liked.

Substance Alchemist is a great tool that allows you to get the results quickly and check them in the scene immediately. Basically, it is quick prototyping. 

I planned to make the section between the landing site and the building organic - ground, stones, and grass. I prepared the materials, uploaded them to Unreal, iterated a bit and then decided to replace them with something different. In this case, Substance Alchemist saved me a lot of time in comparison to making the same material in Substance Designer and finding out it doesn't fit. In the end, I abandoned the first idea and connected the site and the building by a road.

Background

Working on the background, I wanted to make it easy to read and clearly separate it from the middle ground and the foreground. I took ready-made mountain assets and just played around with them. It's not always worth it to try and create everything manually, plus my goals were completely different. I was looking for a way to get maximum results with minimum effort. Nowadays, there are many resources with high-quality content, take Epic Games for instance - they share great packs for free every month.

By the way, if optimization was my first priority, I would have replaced the mountains with an image probably, but I was looking for more volume.

Sky

The sky was one of my favorite parts of production. A while ago, I found Tyler Smith's tutorial that explained how to create volumetric clouds manually. Right at that moment, I got a wild idea to depict a huge ship against them and that idea was eventually brought to life. Then, I worked on the composition and layout. I used simple plains with transparency that were additionally affected by the main source and manually adjusted the colors.

Afterword

I am sincerely grateful for all the advice I got from my colleagues. In my opinion, any feedback is useful. Is it positive? Great! Is it negative? Even better! It's bad when you don’t get any feedback at all. Someone's opinion gives you an opportunity to take a fresh look at the things you might have got used to after several months of work. Though I think it's important to give feedback in the right way - this is a skill everybody should learn. 

As for mentorship, for me, it is more than just watching a pre-recorded tutorial, repeating the steps and getting some results. It is laborious work and time spent on solving a problem when a more experienced colleague of yours advises you on how to get the best out of what you currently have. Basically, mentorship means a development in a particular direction when you already know what that direction is but you don't know how to get there.

Nowadays, there are a lot of educational materials out there, but their analysis requires a lot of time. Plus, the result might not justify the time and effort spent. However, there is no such thing as a perfect result - there are things you are good at, and there are things you are not so good at. That’s fine. 

Personally, I realized that I should attempt smaller tasks. In the beginning, I was too naive to think that I was going to finish this location quickly, and the reality showed I was wrong. Besides that, I got a better understanding of design, lighting, and composition and proved to myself once again that there are no unattainable goals if you are stubborn enough and want to move forward. 

Alexander Sharov, Environment/Level Artist at Pixonic

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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