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We’ve talked with Andrew Severson about his approach to sci-fi environment design. 3d artist was kind enough to talk about the composition of such scenes, material production, optimization of the geometry, as well as some of the most useful tools.
Hi, I am Andrew Severson. I grew up all over the US, my dad was in the Navy so we moved a lot, but I spent most of my time living in Illinois. I later attended college in Chicago. Since I graduated, I have worked on a few titles. I have worked at 343 Industries on Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians and briefly worked on Monolith‘s Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. For a time I worked at Valkyrie Entertainment doing outsourced 3D art for some unannounced AAA titles and currently I am at Highwire Games where we are creating the Playstation VR title Golem.
Sci-fi Environment Design
Creating new, interesting sci-fi environments can be challenging. Since theres so much re-use in games, be it reusing tileable materials and trim sheets or modular geometry sets.. its very easy to look the same.. There is also just a lot of similar art styles when it comes to sci-fi. I was super fortunate to have worked under amazing art directors such as Kenneth Scott and Nicolas “Sparth” Bouvier, an experience that no doubt has made me a much better artist with a much better eye for things. I learned a lot about proportion and composition, both in shape/silhouette and in terms of rest space and detail balance. On Halo, for the human stuff, we really wanted to be sure everything looked functional. This is such an important thing in designing environments and props. This helps with making environments differ from each other, you may have two rooms that share materials and some geometry, but when each room is meant to serve a different purpose they can look very different. What may be a wall panel in one room could be a metal housing built around a futuristic water pump or some other kind of machinery. The same kind of assets can seem different when used in an other context.
I think as long as the direction and level design is solid and you know where you have some wiggle room and where you don’t, things can be pretty straight forward. There are always chances to get real creative, you just have to find them. For example, if you’re working on a spot that is outside of the play space but still very visible, you can do a lot. My approach has been to try to get as much as I can out of geometry, knowing that I’ll be using tileables and trims to bring it to life rather than baking stuff down.
For sci-fi stuff I’ve mostly just made materials for hard surface stuff so thats super straight forward. Many variations of metal panels, some with paint.. some without and then bits of rubber and other types of metal. I found with stuff like this, the real magic happens in the roughness map.
But it comes down to context. If you’re going to use this material more outdoors, its obviously going to be dirtier, if its going to primarily be used as a floor you may want more dirt as well as some scuff marks and on the other hand if you make a material that is to be used somewhat universally you want it to make sense in different contexts. You wouldn’t want to end up with wierd things like upside down drip marks.
I really found most of my time spent optimizing was spent on geometry but that includes in how UVs are made up and how many materials are applied to that geometry. There are lots of ways to get more use out of materials through creative UV techniques and finding ways to hide some giveaways. Maybe you’d have a wall panel texture, but you want a larger, wider, panel.. you could fold over UVs to make it appear to be a longer continuous panel then use some decals to kind of hide where some of the symmetry appears. Or if you’re doing a prop that you know will always be placed on dirt, you’re probably going to want it to appear dirtier near the base of the prop.
Knowing your resources is very helpful. If I know what kind of tileables and decals I have at my disposal, I can have an idea in my head of how I will UV the geo which helps guide how I model things as well. You have to decide when the detail will come from geometry and when it will come from a normal map.
As I did more and more sci-fi stuff, I fell in love with Booleans. When I was in school I always heard to stay away from Booleans, but when making hard surface geometry, Booleans can be amazing. It can take some clean up, but you’re going to be cleaning things up anyway. As far as software, I pretty much use Substance Painter for all of my texturing, sometimes Designer too.
One thing I would recommend for Painter is a generator created by Forest Telford, who I worked with at Valkyrie Entertainment – Enodmi Generator. I use this on every single thing I do in Painter, It gives you so much control for masking using things such as cavity , AO, world space normals, thickness. Its really super useful. A friend and former co-worker, Shon Mitchell, has some really great Maya scripts available, he has some more buried around in his blog but these are (here and there) two that I recommend, he also has some good UV tools I believe.