Benjamin Roach shared a story about his path to a Level Designer and his work on locations for VR game Ready Player One: texturing, lighting, assets and more.
Road to Square Enix and Fromsoftware
I have always been fascinated with Japanese history, food and culture, and to be honest, a type of semi-weeaboo. This made the choice of living in Japan an incredibly easy one. I had been on a few holidays beforehand, but one day I finally committed and made the move from Canberra, Australia, to Tokyo, Japan. This was made easier by the Working Holiday Program my country and many others have with Japan. In Australia, it allows us to work and live in Japan for 18 months total. You do not need any proof of work to get a visa, so you can kind of use this opportunity just to get set up over there before you start looking for jobs.
I think my motivation was key here. I have always wanted to work in video games in Tokyo since I was a kid, so this helped me take the unknown plunge. Additionally, I knew living in Tokyo would be an absolute blast!
When I first arrived, I got a job teaching English, as it is very easy to obtain and helped me pay the bills while I worked on my very limited portfolio. After a few months had passed, I saw a job posting online for a small outsourcing company located nearby my apartment in Shinjuku. I applied, did the art entry test and failed miserably.
I was really upset with myself and thought that I had blown my one chance to break into the industry. I spoke with the company afterward, and they thankfully decided to give me a chance. Low pay, short contract and very easy to get rid of me, but it was a chance to prove myself. The fact that I was already in Japan with a visa made this possible.
This motivated and fueled me to do my absolute best. It paid off. Within a year I was a Lead Environment Artist and Project leader for some very cool projects. I was able to work with Square Enix on Final Fantasy 15 and the Kingsglaive movie. The only downside was that this company mainly dealt with film and cinematics, so I thought I was betraying my dream of the game and real-time projects.
As I was gradually realizing this, Dark Souls 3 was released, and it totally blew me away. The art direction, the feeling of the levels, music, and gameplay was just perfect for me.
This again motivated me to join Fromsoftware, which I had previously thought impossible. My Japanese has always been incredibly basic too, but this did not stop me from trying. I knew a company like this gets hundreds of applications from very talented people all over the world, so I knew I had to get their attention somehow. I then spent every spare hour, lunch break, evening and weekend working on a recreation of a level from Dark Souls 3 in Unreal Engine. This got their attention and that of a former lead level designer there. We chatted a bit on LinkedIn which really helped me a lot as he was still well connected with the company. I went through their interview process and finally landed a job as a Level Designer/Environment Artist. It was by far, the best, most educational, and exciting company I have ever worked for.
Level Design for Ready Player One
It was a very tough decision, but I decided to leave Fromsoftware after awhile to start my own small art outsourcing company Upsurge Studios, which meant moving back to Australia. I started as just freelancing, and through this made connections with very good clients.
I was fortunate enough to work alongside Directive Games on the Ready Player One: Oasis Beta VR game published by Vive Studios. The role of Upsurge Studios was for modeling, texturing and creating materials for a highly flexible set of modular environment assets. This included the whole Gauntlet area and the Oasis hub apartments. Unfortunately, because of time and budget constraints, The Gauntlet map placement was procedurally generated, so I was not responsible for the level design, just the assets themselves.
The main goal of this project was to create an immersive and highly optimized VR experience based on the RPO movie. It was a challenge, but I implemented everything I had learned back in Japan, and the client company also had a lot of talented artists, so we managed to pull it off.
VR Game Dev
The two biggest things you must take extra care of when working on something in VR are performance and scale. As you know, any slight lag can cause people to become nauseous. Every asset has to be really tight in terms of performance. Some things I implemented was texture atlasing to bring down the number of overall textures, have as few material slots as possible and reuse as many textures, materials, and masks as possible. The above can be tough because normal maps are not as effective in VR as they are on monitors or TV screens. To counter this, I used slightly higher poly models than I would a regular game, to give more silhouette to try and counter the sub-optimal normal map quality. LODs are essential too.
Anything static and organic in nature should generally be decimated into triangles to keep good shape for the budget. I often see a lot of people trying to keep rocks and broken pillars needlessly in tidy quads which always smooths out the silhouette.
The scale is especially important in VR because if it is off it really breaks immersion and makes people sick. Just make sure you test often and early with your HMD and double check your architectural elements and props.
Modular Assets Production
Working on the assets was another huge challenge to overcome because of the limited time we had. We needed to have a decent amount of visual interest and diversity with as few pieces as possible. The biggest help here was locking in rules for modular assets and their dimensions. For example, we always knew doorways would be X units wide and X units high, the ceiling would always be X units high etc. This means that we could make sure all pillars, trims, walls etc. would fit and snap together without gaps. Of course, this had to be tested and refined in the block modeling stage.
For visual variation, vertex painting in different materials, and making broken versions of assets was very helpful and cheap time wise.
Being an Unreal Engine project, all textures needed to conform to basic PBR principles. So that means flat albedos that are not too noisy or dark. I like to keep all textures pretty desaturated without many strong colors and prefer to introduce that color and tone through lighting.
For this project, I also used detail normal maps to get that up-close detail. This is a good way to cheat and make things look slightly crisper. Despite what I said about VR and normal maps earlier, fine tiling normal maps are fine, it is just larger baked edges that have issues.
I always use Quixel Suite for unique props with their own textures and UVs, such as the pillars, jars, and barrels etc. I really like the flow of Quixel and the fact that it is inside Photoshop. It also links quite well to Megascans, and a lot of the rubble assets in this map are optimized meshes from there.
For tiling textures such as brick walls, plaster, floor tiles etc. I always use Substance Designer. The flexibility of the non-destructive workflow is amazing. Also, the ability to copy and share sections of your graphs with other graphs is quick and powerful.
Lighting was, again, another challenge! It was important to use the Forward Renderer for performance in VR. Unfortunately, this disables a lot of nice features for artists, especially in post-processing. There was no way around this, so we just had to counter it with different strategies.
The lighting had to be static and baked for performance yet again. Dynamic lights had to be kept to a minimum. Apart from the technical limitations, there was no specific difference in baking lighting for VR.
Just to be clear, I did the lighting in a test scene, but not the actual game. The test scene does not appear in the game, it was just quickly whipped up by me to showcase the assets. The lighting could have been pushed a lot further. I just tried to contrast the cool, bluish light coming in through the archways with the warm, red light of the fire and torches.
It was a huge advantage to work with Directive Games as they are leaders in terms of VR/AR so we were able to learn a ton of useful techniques from them.