Advice for Building Great 3D Environments

Advice for Building Great 3D Environments

Morrissey Alexander talks about using all the famous tools of the modern game developer.

An aspiring 3D Artist, Morrissey Alexander, talked about his experience with using Marmoset, Unreal Engine 4, CRYENGINE and discussed the different ways to use PBR in games. Morrisey also talked extensively about Zbrush usage and the best way to use 3ds Max, and Maya in your game. What do you think about these tools? Do you think they are a necessity for game development, or do you think you can do without them?

About Morrissey Alexander


I am a 3D Environment Artist and a graduate of The Art Institute of California—San Francisco. I have been doing 3D work for about 3­5 years. The first tool I learned how to use was 3ds Max. My interest in character art developed from my love for the Final Fantasy franchise. It was the style, dynamism, and intricacies of the character designs that attracted me. However, I moved onto environment art in order to learn and harness all the skills of a 3D Artist. In the end, I fell in love with environment art and stuck with it. I learned about PBR texturing and I am currently pursuing it as my core profession because I really enjoy it and it’s based on real­world materials. As a self­proclaimed nerd I was always intrigued with light and how itbehaves, so it makes sense why I would move to texturing. It’s all about understanding how light interacts with different surfaces.


Physically Based Rendering

PBR gives artists more control over their textures and those texture’s behaviors in an environment. It bringsmore accurate lighting to the table. As game devs, we originally faked lighting by approximation and bymaking it “look” realistic rather than actually making them behave realistically and naturally. PBR is great forartists because we can make what we want to make.

Architectural visualization in realtime is starting blow up because PBR has brought realistic lighting to games. Previously, global illumination and final gathering couldn’t be calculated in realtime. Presently, they give scenes in games incredibly realistic lighting results. Now, if we want to make something gold it will behave like gold, metal will behave like metal, plastic like plastic, leather like leather, etc.


I think the biggest challenge for an artist who is learning PBR, is learning how a surface acts in the real world on an intricate level. Learning energy conservation, principles of light, how light is calculated, and how light photons are used, are just a few small examples of what an artist will end up having to learn to take full advantage of what PBR has to offer.

My biggest challenge with PBR was understanding the relation of the maps that were created in PBR (Albedo, Specular/Reflectivity, Gloss/Roughness). I have spent more hours than I can remember researching, studying, testing, failing, succeeding, and failing some more before I reached what I felt was a reasonable level of understanding. Even then, there is still much to learn before I can claim to be a full PBR artist.

There is merit to learning on your own, but if you run into a wall don’t be afraid to ask for help. I received help from many incredible artists who are far more talented and knowledgable than I am. I took what I learned from them and what I learned on my own, and tested away. The best way to understand PBR texturing is learning how real­world objects react to light and how to represent different materials.


When we see metal, what we are seeing is reflected light; light hits the surface and bounces off, rather than being absorbed. Non­metals on the other hand, absorb most of the light and end up having low reflective values. So what we see is diffused light from light penetrating the surface being absorbed and then released. This is just a quick example of some of the ways that PBR has changed how we think about materials.


Software for the Artist

When it comes to software I use Maya and Max for modeling and UVing. For sculpting organics, adding high poly details, creating complex tiling textures, texturing and baking of some models I use Zbrush. Xnormal is used as my primary normal map generator, and of course for texturing, sketching, and painting I use Photoshop. Last but not least, CryEngine, UE4, and Marmoset is used for presentation.

ZBrush is amazing, it gives me so much power and freedom to edit and add details to models that would otherwise be too hard to model in Maya or Max. ZBrush is used in a wide variety of ways. Some use it to make base models and then send those over to Maya/Max modeling packages to optimize, whereas others start in Maya/Max modeling packages then send it to ZBrush to adjust forms, shapes, or add organic/micro details to models. ZBrush completes these tasks incredibly fast. ZBrush stands out because it’s just so different. The Maya/Max style of modeling packages are used for edge manipulation, vertice manipulation, and control of micro elements.

ZBrush has tools that allow you to freely “sculpt” surfaces. What gives ZBrush its distinct feeling is the wide array of brushes you have access to, and how they allow you to manipulate millions of vertices at once and in very dynamic ways. In environment art ZBrush gives artists an easy way to make sculptures and destroyed/damaged objects. It’s a great tool for hard surface artists who may struggle with certain forms.

Maya and 3DS Max

I’ll talk about Maya and Max together since I use them interchangeably. Maya and Max are software packages that are used for modeling, texturing, vfx, animation, and rendering. Maya and Max are incredibly robust tools that are great for my purposes. I primarily use Maya and use it for modeling, rigging, and animation. I use Max occasionally because it’s incredibly powerful and covers a lot of what Maya often misses. Maya and Max are great for control when modeling giving you the ability to manipulate individual vertices, faces, and edges. They both work really well for creating optimized models for games and film.

Now the area where ZBrush excels is creating incredibly detailed models. Maya and Max is where you have the most control over edge flow, model silhouette, UV’s, UV channels, and scale. 3ds Max was one of the first big popular modeling packages and it was originally used for architectural designing and planning.

However, those tools transferred extremely well into game development because of its ability to build buildings, scenes, and environments. Those things are just as important to games as they are in the real world, so to me it seems like a fairly logical choice to make. Although 3ds Max is one the biggest modeling packages in the industry there are plenty of others such as Maya (obviously since I wouldn’t shut up about it), Blender (which is free), Softimage (provided by autodesk as well), and Modo (another popular tool). All of these packages have their strengths and weaknesses and it’s worth trying them all out.

The best way to use 3ds Max is to abuse the modifiers. 3ds Max’s modifier stack is so powerful it allows for intricate, complex, and dynamic modeling while being easily non­destructive. Master the modifier stack and you will soon find yourself with virtually limitless modeling capabilities.

Maya has become especially popular out here in the bay area and California as a whole. I think we can attribute that to Pixar, Disney, and other major film companies using Maya almost exclusively. Maya stands out from Max in that it’s more user­friendly I would say. Max has so many tabs, knobs, levers, tools, the huge modifier stack along with the separate modeling panel, and so many editing tools that it can be very overwhelming to new users. For experienced users, Maya also has a very intuitive shortcut setup allowing very easy and simple­to­load shortcut customizations. Maya’s rigging system, in my personal opinion, is also a lot more flexible and easier to work with than 3Ds Max’s. When it comes to modeling, both Maya and Max have strong toolkits so I’ll just say I prefer Maya for modeling because it’s very straight forward even though I lose a lot of the power of a modifier stack. However, I do get to tear forward a lot more aggressively and I definitely like the UVing in Maya much more.



Marmoset is a great tool for previewing or showing off textures and models. It was the tool that basically introduced the concept of PBR texturing to me. Marmoset is a great for getting a look at what your assets look like in­game without having to open a game engine and build complex shaders or build lighting. It is a realtime rendering tool that gives fast and beautiful rendering results for game assets.


What makes Marmoset so amazing is that artists can test their textures immediately. You make your texture files, open marmoset, import and attach everything and bam it’s done. All that only takes like 1­2 minutes to get your textures in the software. After that you get access to several HDRs to test your textures in different lighting environments, make small tweaks, and test all your maps. It’s all so fast and intuitive you only need to know how to read in order to use it. The benefit of that is that it’s a huge time saver and the work looks great and makes presentation ready. What makes it truly powerful is its ability to allow you reiterate on lighting, mesh, and textures super easy and fast.


Unity 5, UE4, CryEngine


Game Engines are really hot right now. With Unity 5 and UE4 released, the industry is being flooded with games made by indie devs trying to create their ideal experiences. I am personally a huge fan of CryEngine3 because it has true realtime lighting. CryEngine is also just a gorgeous renderer of lighting. The way it renders materials is virtually unmatched, and editing lighting and texturing is so easy it’s really disappointing when it comes to getting assets out of Maya/Max ­ it is such a hassle, but once you have everything properly exported it is a really incredible engine.


I’ve been using UE4 more than CryEngine lately because I wanted to take some time to learn UE4 and it’s a very powerful engine. It’s definitely changed a lot from UDK and it’s looks amazing. What I think makes UE4 and Unity so popular (especially in comparison to CryEngine) is the vast amount of customization that is allowed from materials and shaders, to the amazing open source coding that also comes with an immense amount of learning material.
UE4 has stepped up big time and adapted PBR amazingly well along with incorporating GI and Final Gather for great lighting. The incredible freedom and limitless power to customize shader and materials really makes UE4 stand out as one of the best game engines out there. However, for Unity 5 I can’t say too much on because I haven’t spent too much personal time in Unity. I worked on a few projects in Unity and all I can really say is that even though they did step up the quality of the lighting and materials, it still doesn’t quite satisfy my artsy desire.


Studios will usually have to make the decision between UE4 and Unity because they are easier to work with from a programmer’s perspective and they also are more robust in that they have VR and mobile support which is implemented very well. UE4 has incredibly easy­to­learn tools for game development designed specifically to support new up­and­coming game devs (Blueprints, Marketplace, Plenty of Learning Resources).


Creating Textures


Creating realistic textures/materials needs to be approached with a certain level of understanding and simplicity. What you as an artist want to do is decide what materials you are going to need before adding grunge, weathering, tear or anything that far into the texture. You need to make sure the materials all read appropriately. Along with this, understanding how surfaces behave is incredibly important. Highly reflective metallic surfaces will have a low albedo, and non­metal surfaces will generally be brighter unless the surface is darker ­ example of this are coal, dark leather, dirt, etc.


It’s good to understand that non­metallic surfaces will generally be what you see when you look at the surface directly. Essentially, material definition is key to making anything realistic. Wood looks like wood, metal looks like metal, and plastic looks like plastic. Before adding too much story or grunge make sure the base materials are right and then everything from that point on will look close to realistic. Always make sure that your surfaces are reflecting properly. Make sure that a dry surface doesn’t look wet, and that a rough surface doesn’t look smooth. These things are simple to control but easily overlooked when first approaching realistic texturing in this new PBR art world. When making realistic textures make sure you know which workflow you are using such as Metalness vs Specular, and then make sure that those and the roughness/gloss maps are as accurate as possible, after that you can go on with adding dirt, stains, and grunge details.


Out of all of this, the biggest thing to keep in mind when creating realistic textures as with all things is to always have your references in front of you when deciding what your values for your maps are. Nothing can make good textures bad like not know what you are making.


Useful Techniques for Creating Environments


There are three texturing techniques that are used in environment art: tiling, modular, and unique. These three techniques are used throughout each part of environment development and they are all very important to understand as an artist.


Tiling texturing is pretty straight forward, it gives you seemingly infinite details since you can tile the image infinitely. Tiling texturing also works really well on large set pieces like floors, roofs, walls, and non­unique objects that are duplicated very frequently (Stone floors, wood, wood planks, bricks, concrete, etcetera). With this method you model with the knowledge that the texture will be very repetitive and that the UV’s will have to be made to use the tiling the textures across the whole surface of the model.


Modular texturing is more complex than tiling texturing since you have to plan for the entire set of objects that will be used in the scene, so it requires a lot of planning and forethought. You will need to texture first and then make your models and UVs to match the texture sheet, and unique texturing is the most commonly used texturing approach ­ which is basically creating the model and texturing based on the model, which will usually require high poly baking. The tools standard for the process are the same regardless: Photoshop for texture painting/creation, Maya/Max/ZBrush for high poly model sheets that are baked into tiling and modular texture sheets, Substance for procedural texture generation, DDO for more procedural texturing, and Xnormal for baking normal, ambient occlusion, height, and cavity maps.


A quick tip is to not be afraid to model objects with separate geometry. If you have tiling brick walls, make a modular sheet for windows, doors, sidewalk, decals, and any other small thing you can think of and you will be able to cover the entirety of a small scene.



Well that’s my 2 cents, I hope you guys have enjoyed this little talk and I hope you all take something away from this article and that you learned something. I would like to give a real quick shout out to those that helped me learn what I currently know about art, design, and texturing. To Erin Susoev, John Hogan, Billy Burger, Christopher Scott Hassel, Chris Platz, Duylinh Nguyen, and Alex Dracott ­ thanks a lot guys. I hope people reading this will always remember to ask for help when needed. Feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions, thanks for your time.

Check out Morrisey Alexander on Artstation.

Morrissey Alexander

Join discussion

Comments 1

  • Rashmi

    Hello there,thank you so much for this post,really appreciated.I have a doubt about the whole pipeline of environment modelling like what’s the workflow? 1st modelling in maya thn sculpting in zbrush n thn importing in maya again thn uv mapping  n finally texturing? Will you explain me shortly?Thanks in advance?



    ·a year ago·

You might also like

We need your consent

We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more

Tools for Building Great 3D Environments