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Lead Environment Artist Eric Beyhl and Lead Architect Karen Segars discussed the technical aspects of the production of Bethesda’s recent immersion sim. Huge thanks to the team for finding the time to answer our questions.
Thank you very much, I’d be happy to! I don’t want to date myself too much, but my introduction to modern game development was in the modding community in the early-to-mid 90’s. First with map editors from the original Doom and Warcraft, then with 3D engines that came with Quake, Half-life, and Thief: The Dark Project (a game that inspired my entire career.) Modding allowed me to reverse engineer what the “pros” were doing, and once I had that figured out I could start building my own ideas. I self-taught myself all the relevant software: Photoshop, 3ds Max (I actually started with Milkshape 3D), even audio and web design. Back then you had to do it all.
In the late 90’s I joined a team to work on a mod/total conversion for the original Half-life and I eventually took over the project. We released it to moderate success. It was after that when I decided I needed professional training to get to the next level, and that’s when I went to art school. I was the first person to ever graduate with a Game Art & Design degree from the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, which led me to my first job at (formerly) Day 1 Studios in Chicago.
Now I’m the Lead Environment Artist at Arkane Studios in Austin, a place that holds similar game theory values to past studios like Looking Glass (makers of Thief: TDP which I mentioned earlier) and others – but with our own modern twists and additions.
Organizing a team of artists
I feel like we are in the golden age of Digital Art. Everywhere you look you find exceptional artists, and it’s really exciting. But what some artists don’t realize – especially younger ones – is that making beautiful art isn’t enough. We don’t put assets on a pedestal – we put them in a game with other assets and surround them with gameplay mechanics, objectives, and story.
At Arkane, we look for artists who can speak the language of design in addition to the language of polygons. Emphasis on creative environmental storytelling and history is also another thing we look for. They need to be able to have conversations about it and they need to be able to show it through their art.
We certainly value all the things you learn in art school: fidelity, composition, color theory. And technical things like high poly bakes, clean normal maps, and efficient geometry are also a must. But we equally value things like player experience and gameplay clarity – for even the most mundane assets. Does your asset look interactive when it’s not? Is it clear how your asset functions if it is? Does the asset have a visible history (such as personalization, or the amount and location of wear matching how someone would have actually used it in this world?) And so on. Not everyone thinks of things like this when they are going to town on the sweetest high poly render you’ve ever seen or plugging in all the new Substance Designer nodes.
As far as our hiring process, it’s not any different than any other studio. We post job listings on various sites including our own, and people apply. Sometimes we seek out artists on art community sites if someone catches our eye with something really special.
Building the new pipeline
The decision to use CryEngine was made just before I came onboard, but I know it came after a careful evaluation of other engines available at the time.
Luckily, CryEngine is very easy to pick up and learn. For starters, it’s got a pretty straightforward workflow so the learning curve is pretty low. But for me it was even more so because the proprietary engine I used for almost 6 years at a previous studio was remarkably similar – and virtually identical at times. This gave me the foresight to anticipate some problems (especially performance related) before they happened which is invaluable!
One of CryEngine’s great strengths is the speed in which you can iterate. This is critical for us, as we spend an unusually long time in grey box, play testing and refining systems, level layout, and visual language until we are genuinely satisfied.
One challenge we ran into was the introduction of Physically Based Rendering partway through production. When we started on Prey, we were creating textures the classic way. Then PBR functionality came onboard in an update and we had to completely adjust the way we were creating textures. (Not to mention learn it.)
Ironically, the thing CryEngine is known for most – it’s terrain and vegetation system – really had minimal use on a fancy space station. We did get to use it in the Arboretum, our lush park at the top of Talos I, a level that I think is one of the most iconic in the game.
The level art process at Arkane is different than a lot of studios – at least in my experience. Here we have Architects as well as Environment Artists. Architects are more than just world builders; they are also 3D concept artists. Once the level layouts and visual designs begin to solidify, the Env Artists create the final shipping art.
Before I get into further detail about the Environment art process, I think it would be important to explain the function of Architects a bit more. To do so, I’d like to bring in Karen Segars, our Lead Architect.
Karen has a degree in Computer Animation with a minor in Photography from Ringling College of Art and Design. She has worked on multiple games over the past 13 years including Metroid Prime 3, Blacksite: Area 51, and DC Universe Online.
[KAREN] Once the specific locations or levels have been identified (Crew Quarters, Cargo Bay, etc.), the Architects choose a couple of hero rooms in their level to research. These researches are grayscale 3D concepts of the space – starting with just a composed camera view. These are reviewed often, and the strongest/most visually compelling parts of each research is flushed out further. Once these key rooms are solid, the rest of the level layout begins (secondary rooms blocked in, hallways/alternate pathing implemented, etc.). Each Architect creates their layouts while taking into account story needs, side quests and Level Design requests. Color is also added.
The modeling fidelity throughout this process is pushed high enough to convey style and function. For example, a chair proxy is not some boxes smashed together – it has shape and details to convey exactly what type of chair it is. Architectural elements are the same. Polygons are used very liberally at this point to show intention. The final art will be remade from scratch and have all of the details baked down properly.
As the level progresses and the identity is solidifying – architecture sets and props begin to be requested from the Environment team.
[ERIC] That’s where we come in. Sometimes we have detailed proxies to start with as Karen mentioned, and other times they come in as requests for us to make. These requests can come with photo reference or just a description of what they need for their level. Sometimes we make suggestions ourselves. It’s all very collaborative.
Once the asset list starts getting generated, I make sure to coordinate with all the Env artists to analyze the best way to create modular sets that work across multiple levels, as well as to identify the necessary unique assets and hero props.
Here are some examples of Architect researches that gets handed to Env Art (after many revisions and feedback notes) followed by the final shots after the Env Art and lighting pass has been completed. You’ll find that some visual choices were altered for the final game, sometimes including materials, colors, and composition. These changes can come from Env Artists or Architects, and are always an open conversation.
Many of our small props get created by one of our collaborating outsource teams, and 2d concepts are created for those. We find it’s best to have a target image to work toward to maximize their accuracy.
Internally, our artists focus on the larger, more complicated assets like modular wall sets and unique props, especially things that have gameplay ramifications. Because we are so iterative as a studio, things change all the time which means we have to stay flexible, and that is easier to manage in house.
[Karen] Lighting is something that gets blocked in pretty much immediately. It’s important, from the very beginning, to be able to drop in levels and see the space. Lighting helps showcase volume, highlight pathing, and illuminate points of interest. Since we were solely using dynamic lights – we were able to iterate quickly and not be slowed down building lighting and tweaking light maps. As the levels were flushed out further (character interactions set up, cinematic sequences added in, mission objectives updated) lighting continued to be polished to set the mood for these encounters and to highlight pickups, etc.
For the Architects, lighting was also one of our heaviest performance considerations – so we had to be mindful throughout production. Something that was unique to Prey is that certain aliens and weapons interfere with lights and electronics (Phantoms, EMP grenades). This required additional consideration – a room may have more lights turned on or a few more fixtures added to showcase a Phantom’s path through the space. Also, since even off fixtures can be disrupted by Phantoms (spark FX play, the light flickers on and off) – performance had to be evaluated in multiple scenarios.
[Eric] Our rich look can be traced back directly to our very talented Lead Visual Designer Emmanuel Petit. Manu was an Architect on the first Dishonored before moving to Austin to work on Prey. He brought a lot of the culture and techniques from our Lyon studio, with help and support from Dishonored’s Art Director Sebastien Mitton.
Early on, their explorations and influences ultimately defined some of Prey’s iconic looks – especially the style we call Neo Deco: our retro-futuristic interpretation of art deco which can be found throughout the executive offices and suites aboard Talos I. This set the tone for the rest of the station. Knowing that a company like Transtar would spend so much money shipping mahogany and gold plated bannisters to space, let us make informed decisions about what the labs and industrial areas could possibly look like.
Color choices are initially defined by the Architects after the Grey Box stage. CryEngine allows material overrides on meshes, and the Architects are able to easily create or request color variants for anything. Even if the Env Artists have created final art in a default/desired color, they are built with that in mind so it’s easy for us to accommodate requests.
[Eric] I make sure to allow my artists the freedom to be most comfortable in their own techniques. I always tell them, I don’t care how you get to the finish line, as long as you get there on time and at the quality we expect. Because of this, everyone works slightly differently. Some artists prefer using Substance Designer, others prefer hand painting everything.
The challenge with allowing this freedom is ensuring consistency throughout all assets and levels. Since completing Prey, we experienced the flexibility and speed that SD provides, and we are working to implement it much more into our pipeline with a more robust library. The nice thing is that I don’t have to require its use – my artists have voluntarily started integrating Designer and Painter into our workflows. We are always looking to stay current and on top of tools and trends.
If you would like to see a detailed breakdown where I explain our texturing process, check out the interview I did on Allegorithmic’s blog.
Optimizing the production
[Eric] Earlier I mentioned that once asset lists start getting generated, I analyze it to find where we can consolidate into reusable sets, especially on the architectural side. For example, on Prey we only had a few wall sets to build the entire station. We started with 4 robust sets: Executive, Lab, Industrial, and Exterior.
Each of these sets were vastly different from one another visually, yet they were all developed to work interchangeably with each other, so you were able to switch from one style to another seamlessly, like if there was an executive office tucked deep within the labs somewhere.
With just these 4 sets we were able to build so much! Over the course of the project we added more sets for variety and flavor – such as a less intricate version of our Executive wood wall set, or additional “space” themed panels and fabric walls which found their way into crawl spaces in the interior of the station.
[Karen] One thing that helps optimize production is staying in grayscale for a while. We are constantly dropping in game to review the maps – getting a feel for the space from the player’s perspective as well as how the AI can navigate. Pushing and pulling walls and ceilings to open up or enclose areas, adding in elevation changes, cutting in maintenance tunnels – all without having to adjust UVs or updating textures. This keeps us super flexible and speeds up early prototyping. By the time final art starts getting made, many of the problems have already been solved, so there is little wasted work.
[ERIC] Learn a game engine. Any engine, it doesn’t really matter. As I said earlier, we live in an era of amazing digital artists who make art that is great to look at on websites, but we’re in the video game business and I think people either forget that or under value it. Showing your art in a game engine (in addition to your beauty shots) shows that you understand how to put your assets through a production pipeline and optimize it into a playable state. It also shows you understand engine specific techniques that will make you more valued. Many are free for personal use these days. And between the online documentation and online tutorials, there is no excuse to not learn one of them.
A great way to get game experience is to participate in Game jams. You can usually find some in most major cities or online (try Meetup.com). You’ll learn a lot in a short amount of time, and it’ll help you to have relatable conversations about problem solving real game dev scenarios. And you never know, maybe you meet someone that you really mesh with and create something awesome that you can turn into a real project of your own!
[Karen] Network. If there is a local game community in your area – get out and meet people (check if there is an IGDA chapter in your town). Join forums. There are tons of online resources – and as an artist, there are several specifically for giving and receiving feedback as well as for participating in 3D community competitions. There are also several tutorial sites, both free and paid.