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Hello everyone, my name is Denis Akulov, I am 28 years old. Currently, I am working as a Lead 3D Environment Artist at Vizor Games. Also, I worked as a 3D Environment Artist at Wargaming for almost 5 years.
I decided to go deep into 3D when I was studying at a computer school called ‘’Step’’ which is located in Lugansk (Ukraine), specifically computer graphics. I liked it so much that I decided to connect my life with it. I studied 3D on my own for a few years with the help of tutorials.
In general, the process of getting into this sphere was rather difficult. I made a small portfolio and got several pre-employment tests thanks to it. Unfortunately, it was hard for me to handle them, so I continued to improve my skills overcoming failures and trying not to focus on mistakes I did. Later, I decided to take another risk (I had nothing to lose anyway) and sent my portfolio to several large studios located in Russia. I didn’t really count on anything, but as a response, I got a test from Wargaming St. Petersburg, the project World of Warships. That was my chance. I successfully passed it with maximum effort and got my first job in CG. I got the position of Environment Artist and it was awesome because I like working with environments the most.
Career at Wargaming
The work on the World of Warships project was interesting. Within a few months, I found out a lot of new things: I had to learn several new software solutions, understand the principles of working with the engine, etc. During my work on World of Warships, I participated in the creation of more than 10 maps, and this was a very valuable experience for me. I improved my skills in modeling, sculpting, texturing, working with lighting, creating vegetation, tiles, and modular content system. The maps in World of Warship, however, have their own specific feature, - since they follow a marine theme, it’s impossible to create something as interesting and full-blown as in a "land" environment. I wanted to challenge myself and decided to send my resume to Wargaming Minsk in order to have an opportunity to work on World of Tanks.
I received a positive response from their office, and it was a dream come true for me. I managed to participate in the production of 15 beautiful and diverse locations, which I am very pleased about.
Of course, it was more difficult to work on World of Tanks. Again, I had to learn a lot, - there were more technologies, the project's own specifics, diverse work with terrain, more objects on each map, but most importantly, a much more thorough and thoughtful elaboration of locations. In World of Warships, those islands that we created were seen by users from far away and it was important to work out the general view of the location, interesting forms of islands, harmonious composition, and general mood. In World of Tanks, everything is very thorough, every object is on the line of sight, every small detail can be seen, - therefore, the requirements for the quality of the content are higher, and in general, this is a different type of work aimed at a third-person view. I am glad that I was able to get such a diverse experience working on two seemingly similar projects at one company. Their approaches are fundamentally different and as a result, I got the skills to work with different types of locations.
General Level Production Pipeline
As a note, each company has its own approach to environments and its own pipelines. The structure of Wargaming is large and it’s difficult to mention every aspect.
When the map has passed all stages of testing in the Level Design Department and the supervisor, a plan and a description of the location are prepared (this includes general mood, a sketch of lighting, season, etc.). The map goes to the Environment Department in the draft form. One of the most important things is the selection of references for the location. I usually start by familiarizing myself with the location plan based on the description, looking for suitable references, and gathering a base for myself which I am going to work with. Another important starting point is to see what content can be reused and how suitable it is for the current setting. This content can be props, vegetation, materials for terrain, decals.
The most important point is to study the documentation from the Level Design Department. I need to study the information and comments that relate to the gameplay on the map, find out where the most important areas of the gameplay are, where there will be large crowds of players, etc. All these areas need to be handled very carefully and I spent on them more time and effort, constantly communicating with the Level Design Department. It is very important and at the same time difficult to think about the beautiful picture, its playability, and compliance with all the requirements of Level Design at the same time. This is one of the main challenges that stand in front of me as an Environment Artist. The feeling of a correctly solved puzzle arises only when the environment is both beautiful and fully satisfies all departments in terms of different game processes.
In World of Tanks, maps have different sizes, from 800x800 meters to 3x3 km. Most maps are 1x1 km in size. These dimensions relate only to the gameplay zone, and everything further than the red line can extend for tens of kilometers. After the map arrives at the Environment Department, it is divided into sectors. Usually, 2-4 people work on one map and everyone does their own job with its specifics. It’s great because you can get a chance to do different things: desert, city, canyons, passes, etc. Such a variety brings interest to the work and doesn’t make you feel burnt out.
Another important point is that Wargaming is a large company with great ambitions, and enough time is allocated to create locations worked-out to the smallest detail. If we talk about working with the landscape, the Encore engine developed specifically for the game World of Tanks has an amazing toolset for working with terrain and greatly facilitates the work of the artist. I personally use World Machine to achieve even better results. I just import the heightmap and create various masks for grass, stones, paths, cliffs, and so on. It helps me to save time and make a rough sketch for further work by hand. I admit, most often, I worked only inside the engine and went through the zones manually, trying to make a unique and interesting terrain and attract players by telling stories in as many places as possible. The detailing of terrain at a very high level is achieved due to the fact that the number of decals for it is practically unlimited (sometimes, that reaches 30,000) because they all are baked into a virtual texture. It gives some space for creativity, right?
Speaking of the landscapes that are located beyond the playing area, those are created either procedurally or with the help of photogrammetry with rework. They are selected based on the mood of the map to create a more epic feeling, more interesting compositional solutions, and a variety of forms.
Almost all of the objects (except for fences) are arranged manually since it is very important to constantly think about the gameplay and the composition of the frame not to overload it and at the same time make it very artful and convenient for the player. Of course, there are tools that help you work faster, stick objects into groups, make prefabs, and so on, but still, I want to make each area unique, with its own interesting history. We truly love our players and our main task is to give them a beautiful picture with interesting gameplay.
You can read more about our complex work in the engine in an article prepared by the guys from the RnD department.
Different Types of Gameplay in One Location
When working on the location, it is very important to look for ways to avoid gameplay restrictions. It is not always possible to supplement the composition with an object or edit the heights of the terrain. Often, you have to build the composition and forms based on the gameplay, so it is important to place emphasis and seek compromises in order to find a balance between the gameplay and the beauty of the picture. Each location has its own zones, each zone has its own story, and a player in different game situations, depending on the type of tank he/she chose, feels the locations in different ways.
For example, a player selects a heavy tank and enters the Lost City map. There, he needs to go to the city, so it is important to create an atmosphere of military operations going on there to make the player believe that there is actually war. Another situation - the same player chose a light tank and again entered the Lost City map. This time, he will not go to the city but travel in open areas and try to find opponents instead, and here you also need to make a visually nice picture that does not interfere with the gameplay. It is very interesting to make one location for different types of gameplay and create a story for these zones.
To create the buildings, 2 UV channels are used and all the details are merged into an atlas, which is automatically created in the engine. The first channel is a tile, the second is UV (all detailing by type - drips, damage, worn paint, etc.). Tiles are mixed according to the Heightmap; because of this, mixing different types of materials looks very natural and realistic. Different brush masks are created (drips, damage, old paint, etc.) allowing for natural variations in the look of each building. Also, unique sets of objects are used: doors, windows, plates.
I would also like to note the important role of photogrammetry in the construction of houses that have a very important historical value and complex architecture. In this case, photogrammetry helps us to build models with correct dimensions. For these purposes, we use drones, and this greatly facilitates the development of many things.
Work with Materials
80% of the materials used in WoT are photoscans, the remaining 20% are Substance. A whole team of professionals travel around the world and capture everything they see. In addition to them, many people from the WoT team take photos in Minsk, for example, when leaving the city or driving to the nearest park. People can run around trees or find branches right on the street and bring them to the office to make a scan. But still, the bulk of the content is done by the photoscan team. They produce terabytes of content, which they process and add to the library that can be used by different departments for their own purposes.
If you are interested in learning more technical aspects of this process and photogrammetry in general, you can watch a talk from 4C Prague conference by Vitaliy Dzmitrakovich, a talented 3D Artist at Wargaming:
First of all, it is necessary to work out balanced colors and lighting so that the environment looks organic and natural without additional effects. The location, size, and direction of the effects should support the composition, so the largest effects are planned at the stage of prototyping the art concept. Often, large effects are guidelines for players, so their location has not only an art but also a gameplay value (for example, large areas of fire and smoke, tornadoes, dust storms, and others).
As a rule, the effects that are used locally support the plot of the scene and add realism and dynamics to the picture - burning buildings, appliances, falling stones, flying newspapers, fluffs, blades of grass, ashes, etc.
The effects of water surfaces are also adjusted (for example, a storm in the sea, seafoam, effects of water splashes, mud, foam at the edge of the surface).
There are also effects illustrating scenarios, - let's say a passing train or a shooting airplane.
If we talk about post-process in general, here, everything is the same as in many other engines: color grading, god rays, lenses imitating optical effects, etc. One of the important steps in post-processing is to remove the parasitic colors and bring the picture to one stylish palette so that everything looks like in a Hollywood movie.
A Challenging Aspect of Game Development
The most difficult problem in online session games, in my opinion, is the connection between the visual aspect and gameplay. I already said a few words about the fact that when you find a close connection between the gameplay and the visuals, you solve the puzzle. When there are good varied gameplay and a beautiful picture, you understand that you made something really special and cool. People who play WoT are often people who know and love history, and they are very demanding in terms of what they see. It is important for them to see something they believe in; at the same time, it is necessary to carefully monitor all the details so as not to wound the feelings of people because the Second World War is not a joke. You need to understand what you do and why, you must always keep the quality bar which is incredibly difficult but also interesting.
I would also like to note that, like in any game, creating a new map with interesting zones and stories is both a complex and interesting process, which includes discussions during which the team comes up with amazing things that millions of players around the world will see.
In the end, I want to say that Wargaming is a great place to work at, with professionals in the teams who are always ready to help you. Looking at them, you constantly want to grow and it only gets better. I haven't seen anywhere else such a love for details in the production of content and extensive documentation. Everyone tries to do their job best and it is very inspiring and motivating. I am glad that I had the chance to work with them!
I also want to say thank you to 80lv for the opportunity to share my experience with the readers, and I hope that this article will be interesting and possibly useful to some of them.