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Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
Environment artist Josh Lynch (Infinity Ward, Raven Software) named five rules, that guide him in his work. If you want to make great game spaces, make sure you follow these simple steps during production.
When I approach environment production my goal is to build a space that supports and enhances the gameplay experience. The following, in my opinion, are the most important things that contribute to that goal.
One method of doing this is to use lighting to not only create a visually compelling scene, but to use lighting to entice the player to go into a space and explore. Drawing the player in and through the space and getting them to explore is very powerful.
You need to make sure that the environment design feels grounded and functional. What I mean is that regardless of the aesthetic, the space feels natural. The player isn’t questioning what is going on, because it feels logical and emulates the world they know. If I can do that, then my goal has been met.
The space has to have a strong narrative and help to incorporate the overall story. Each environment, whether it’s an interior or exterior space is an opportunity to sell a narrative, an accent to the major storyline that is playing out. The space should feel like it fits in the world and serves a purpose. I feel that along with a grounded and functional design, having strong props to help with set dressing goes a long way to sell narrative and story.
Needless to say that a good environment should be beautiful. It should possess a strong aesthetics. Achieving this is not easy, since it’s basically a combination of several factors. The scene, props, and materials all work in harmony to create a pleasing and unified aesthetic. Layered on top of that are lighting, haze, and fx to add depth and mood to the scene.
In my opinion lighting and materials go hand in hand because they react and depend on one another for a great end result. If the material isn’t set up properly it just won’t show off well no matter what kind of lighting conditions it’s in.
It may be a bit overwhelming keeping all that in your head during production. To ease the creation of good environments always be prepared. Gather reference! Some of the strongest references you can have as an environment artist is to go outside, look at, and pay attention to the world around you. You are surrounded by environments created by nature or by man. By doing this you’re either going to learn something new or it will reinforce what you already know. Either way you can take all of that and apply it to your next project.