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Former Rockstar Games technical content artist Ashley Thundercliffe talked about his way to approach high-quality environment creation. He talked about his approach to composition, production of unique assets and optimisation.
Creating Believable and Optimized Interiors
Hi there, my name is Ashley Thundercliffe and I specialize in 3D environment art, particularly interior design. I started out at Derby University where I received a degree in computer games modeling and animation. Since then I’ve been in the games industry for almost 3 years now, starting small with indie projects and eventually ending up at Rockstar Games where I worked as a ‘Technical Content Artist’. I’ve now left Rockstar to pursue another job and currently working on personal projects and taking on freelance work during the transition period.
The Process for Creating an Interior
Much like exteriors, the interior needs to go through various passes to achieve the final result. For this I break the interior creation down to 4 stages.
- Greybox Blockout
- Basic geometry, lighting and materials
- Completed geometry and materials and near final lighting
- Final Scene Polish
Its easy to undervalue the importance of the blockout, its such a simple stage and can be completed in a few hours but this is the stage where you plan your entire scene, get an idea of the scope of it and plan key points in the scene. If this isn’t nailed down then a lot of time can be wasted later on down the line trying to fix issues which could have been dealt with early on during this stage.
For the second stage you don’t want to worry about creating polished assets, its all about creating basic geometry and materials which will best represent the scene when its fully completed. Overall its about getting an idea of the style and mood you want to achieve with the finished environment.
At the third stage the scene is pretty much complete. All your models and materials are in and the lighting is all set up. In addition to this everything is optimized and running smoothly at the desired frame rate.
The final stage is all about pushing the scene a little further and critically evaluating what can be improved to really help sell the environment, this can be as simple as polishing up a couple of major props/materials that stand out or even adjusting the post processing and lighting.
Creating a Believable and Optimized Interior
One thing I love about creating interiors is that you have such a small space to work with but have so much more freedom with the triangle count, draw calls and texture budget because you aren’t having to worry so much about the rest of the world. With an interior the rest of the world can be drawn out.
A simple way to optimize an interior is through the use of portals and occlusion culling. Portals are used as a way of defining when you transition from one room to another or from the exterior of a building to an interior and so you can adjust what is loaded in game when you pass through each specific portal. Occlusion however is very similar but more automated, rather than defining specific rooms to load in, the game will remove assets which are not visible by the player camera
When these methods are applied very little is loaded outside of the interior and a lot of the games resources are freed up. This in turn gives the artist more freedom to create a much more interesting and unique interior. Rather than just populating a couple of rooms with repeating props and geometry I like to add unique meshes per room to not only break up the repetition but to also create a small narrative throughout the scene and to give each room its own identity. An example of this can be seen where I have crates stacked around each other to populate the scene, these are also instanced to maintain optimization. I then added a unique crate where the front boards have been badly damaged to create something more interesting for the payer to discover.
Creating Unique Assets
For unique assets I tend to take a lot more time on them, mostly this time is spent creating a high poly model to bake down all the details. For high poly work I tend to use 3ds Max or Maya to create the majority of the geometry using sub division modeling and then use Zbrush to add damage and noise or sculpt in details.
One of the greatest things about this industry is the amount of software available, all tailored at specific tasks. For the most part I find I can get most of my modeling done in max/maya and Zbrush but when working on the cloth in the scene I found sculpting it by hand was a hefty task and not as accurate as it needed to be and using Maya to simulate just wasn’t producing the results I needed. After searching around I came across ‘Marvelous Designer’, a fantastic piece of software aimed at creating clothing for characters.
After playing around with the software for a while I found I could use my existing props as the ‘avatar’ and drape the cloth over the top. Its a very basic use of the software but it produces amazing results. After completing the simulation I then took the cloth into Zbrush to add final touches.
Baking Down the High Poly Objects
I’m not a massive fan of the built in bakers within 3ds Max or Maya so I did some research and came across Knald. I found Knald to be a fantastic piece of software which bakes the normals, AO, height and other maps extremely quick and with great accuracy. The user interface is really simple and intuitive to use and is now a key part of my workflow.