Hard-Surface Modeling & Game Art Tips from Emil Skriver

Hard-Surface Modeling & Game Art Tips from Emil Skriver

Emil Skriver talked about his hard-surface workflows used in a couple of projects and shared a handful of helpful tips and resources for game artists.

Carrer at IO Interactive

I landed an internship at IO Interactive in February 2018 and have been working there ever since. My primary responsibilities are asset creation for set pieces and props, weapon creation, and environment art/design. The internship has by far had the biggest impact on my growth as an artist. Working with professionals and applying my 3D knowledge in a game pipeline has been an essential step in becoming a game artist.

Practicing Environment Art

Besides that, I’ve been focusing on building full environments from the ground up, literally. It is important for me to make sure I know how to do all the necessary steps in creating a scene, from 3D and 2D assets to lighting and pre-production. While this is a never-ending journey, my project ‘Sunrise’ was a major step for me because I proved I could make a natural scene with my own trees, using my own scanned assets and especially setting up lighting and doing post-production at a level I’m content with (for now, of course). I can highly recommend doing this as it will help you learn so much about the entire process. Create a moderate amount of assets that are needed to do a basic scene - grass, trees, a few rocks and so on, - then learn how to make terrain, set it up in Unreal, find some nice camera shots, use the assets to make a simple and balanced composition, do simple but effective lighting, and post it! For me, it was essential that I took time for each step to achieve a quality I was satisfied with. This meant spending a lot of time, but it was worth it in the end.

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Locomotive Project

Black Dreadnought Locomotive was a startup project for me to have something I could always go to and just model away. Learning all the tools and workflows for doing game art was simply too much at that time, and I knew I had to be good at modeling before it made sense to try and go further with it. I see a lot of beginners pushing asset after asset out on their portfolios, but too often the progress is very insignificant because they don’t spend enough time at each step to get better at them. I can recommend spending the time to really understand what good and bad topology is and when they are applicable, how to do speed modeling, break down references, and especially understand basic design. Learning by doing is the only way to really progress here. Watching tutorials and studying design can boost momentum, but something is never truly understood before it has been done over and over. Building up a visual library is one of the major factors here. It is the reason why people like Tor Frick can speed model something amazing and credible in a very short amount of time.

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Initial Modeling

I would love to say it all comes from extensive planning, but because the locomotive was a modeling study, the approach was rather chaotic. While I do recommend this for learning, it’s not optimal since many small parts and details that were initially created did not add to the final asset. Also, with this approach, it's extremely unmanageable to make sure the design is balanced with primary, secondary and tertiary shapes.

Start with doing a blockout, figuring out the major shapes and their relation to each other. Then plan out the secondary shapes, make sure to have everything balanced out, do focused clusters of detail instead of scattering them all over. And look out for parts that can be reused. Don’t be afraid to redo parts, it’s often much easier with newly gained knowledge, and make sure to have fun!

How Modo Helped

Modo has a modeling tool kit like any other 3D software, but while Max and Maya are very rigid and rather simple for basic 3d modeling, Modo quickly becomes more intricate and complex. This is both good and bad. I love customizing, building up my own ways of solving problems and Modo is a whole different tier than other software when it comes to this. The community is simply amazing, filled with talented artists and scripters who modify and add new tools free to download and play around with. While it means that a lot of time can be spent learning and finding tools, it enables Modo users to work in ways that are not possible with other software solutions.

The rounded edge shading is one of its tricks that I love. Blender got it too and some other rendering software as well. But what I really find useful in Modo is the ability to easily bake it down to a normal map. This obviously requires an unwrap and fairly high resolutions for detailed pieces like the train, and it might not always be worth it. But when it makes sense it speeds up the process immensely.

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Geometry & Textures

There is a ton of geometry, and not too much is baked down. In a game pipeline, this train would be done differently and I would have had to cut down the polycount, but since it was a modeling exercise I did most details by mesh. In Substance Painter, I created masks to be used in UE4 for doing stuff like rust, edgewear and so on. I would apply tiling textures instead of specific texture sets because the train was so big.

Machine Gun Project

Modeling in 3ds Max

The Machine Gun project was created with basic sub-d modeling. It was important to show on my portfolio that I’m able to create a game asset using sub-d, as well as do realistic texturing. The design is based on Weihao Wei’s concept. When I do a gun like this the most important thing to begin with is getting the side view right. Here I work very loose not considering topology that much. When that is done I make sure that it works from all angles, especially from the top. I find that it’s easy to make it very flat so I find shapes I can push in and out to get variation. This also makes shading more interesting.

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For the project, I chose 3ds Max because that’s what we use at work and I wanted to improve my speed as well as topology skills. While 3ds Max is not nearly as flexible as Modo it is really simple to grasp and use the basic tools needed with custom keybinds. I highly recommend Arrimus’ videos on custom keybinds, he explains their importance and shows what tools are relevant to set up.

In addition, I use a couple of scripts to help me speed up. My three favorites are UniConnector by Nik, ​its alternative Super Smart Create, and Interactive Toolset by Maxi Vazquez.

Using RizomUV for UVs

RizomUV is an amazing software that has sped the unwrapping process for me a lot and increased the final UV map quality, especially when working in Max where the unwrapping toolset is far from acceptable. With the free bridge that makes it a one-button click to export and import the asset in and out of RizomUV, it was a no brainer for me. For hard surfaces, I still usually prefer doing auto mapping by angle and quick planar mapping from polygon selection in Max just to apply seams. But from there, I take it into RizomUV which handles unwrapping, relaxing and packing extremely well. For soft surfaces and organics, I take it straight to RizomUV and use the edge selection tool to apply seams. If you hold shift it finds the shortest selection making it much faster than in Max.

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Challenges Game Artists Face & Recommendations

The biggest challenge is that there are always new challenges. No project is the same, especially when it comes to creating VFX versus game art. With that being said, it can be broken down to these elements:

Topology

Here we are concerned with the fundamental polygonal structure of our mesh. The confusing part here is that rules change and we have to consider the best way to get to where we wanna be. The final result for a game asset has to maintain a very constrained polycount but with the final use in mind. A character's face or accessory would need more polys than a background rock. In VFX, polycounts matter much less, but here we are more concerned about the polygonal setup. If our asset has to conform or look very smooth and reflective up close (like a car), it’s essential that you keep your topology clean, using only quads with a few exceptions.

For SubD studying I recommend The Pushing Points Topology Workbook by William Vaughan, it contains all you need to know.

To learn game topology better, make sure to study whatever sources you can. Engage with communities and ask for guidance, look at the assets professionals upload, get feedback! One thing to keep in mind for game art is that if you are creating something for your portfolio use the polys you need to make it look good and realistic. Remove unnecessary geometry and don’t be afraid to add what you need, it still has to look good. For learning topology as well as design these two sources are very valuable:

Unwrap/Baking

This step is very technical and requires some research, luckily there’s plenty of resources to find.

Here’s a few I can recommend:

Design

It’s essential to know design fundamentals to be able to create anything from the ground up, but also to replicate a concept in 3D. With that being said, I don’t recommend spending too much time learning design before you know how to do basic modeling. We all learn differently, but I prefer to study references and try to replicate them as close as possible before I dive deep into the books. Books are essential to reach the next level, especially if you want to create your own designs. But when starting out, it is not a necessity and might slow you down.

Yet, using design websites and books to gather inspiration is very valuable and you can learn a lot just by looking around, finding shapes, forms, patterns, architectural solutions that you had never thought of. Studying the world of art and design and learning the visual language to break down and explain what you see helps one grow as a designer and an artist. For sci-fi, I can recommend checking out Alex Senechal:

For sci-fi inspiration, I can recommend these two people:

If you are more interested in fantasy go check out concept art/illustrations from movies and video games you like. I especially enjoy Horizon Zero Dawn designs that combine genres.

Realism/Style

This is where we ask questions like how do I want this to feel? What is the asset used for, what materials is it made of? Is it worn-out, new? Who used it, where was it used? Does it belong in a realistic shooter or in a Disney movie?

Gather references and figure out how the materials behave, make sure there is a balance in the details. Make sure to break down the steps required to achieve what you find in your references. Realism often lies in the feasible color and value choice, realistic roughness values that match what we are used to seeing, small variations in color, specks of dust, dirt, wear and tear. But make sure the realism doesn’t come from overusing these techniques. Being very specific and committed to your details often makes for a more pleasing and trustworthy piece. The same goes for stylization - take a look at Fortnite guns. The artists are very committed to the shape language, big forms, flat colors, nice round edges, huge dedicated dents. There aren’t too many details, and the few they add are very prominent. They use gradients a lot as well, to add visual interest without making it noisy.

The article Physically-Based Rendering, And You Can Do It Too! is extremely useful for understanding PBR rendering.

Vision/Goal

This is a fuzzy term that means what you want to end up with. This doesn’t mean you need a clear idea of what you want to get, but rather a motivation towards a certain goal. If your goal is to improve modeling, your vision should restrain to that. If the project is meant to be the next big thing on your portfolio, envision something grand that is achievable. Consider your resources, your knowledge and make sure the vision is working for you and not against you. For most projects, the vision should be to have something at the end, a final product that you are proud of and you want to show the world. Make sure this is what you are working hard on and it will pay off!

Getting inspiration from movies, video games, comics and so on is a really good way to know what to strive for. I can recommend checking people like Jean Giraud (Moebius), Ralph McQuarrie, Karl Kopinski, Eddie Mendoza and many more. Make sure to surround yourself with great art and it will inevitably inspire you.

A Couple of More Resources

As a final note, a shout out to the DiNusty Empire community. Go join their discord and check out the resources they’ve been working on. There are some amazing people there who have helped a lot of people including myself. They also have The Empire Command, a great resource collection.

Additionally, as general good resources of professional knowledge, I recommend these three on youtube:

Emil Skriver, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Hard-Surface Modeling & Tips from Emil Skriver