3d artist Yannick Gombart talked about his work on the production of the amazing content for the new immersion simulator from Arkane Studios.
After school, I joined ELB games, a company focusing on outsourcing for video games. At that time the processes were much less technical than today. I was hired on without any 3D knowledge, but because their modeling software was homemade, I had to learn it anyway.
I started with a PS1 title: “Need for Speed Porsche challenge”. 250 polies for 250 meter road sections with textures sizes from 16×16 to 64×64.
Next, I worked on many different projects:
In 2002, ELB team met Arkane Studios and we collaborate to make most of the environments in “Arx Fatalis”. That was a very nice experience, and that game was terrific.
After a few years, ELB started to make its own games on PS2. They were all licensed titles:
“Asterix XXL”, “Spyro the dragon”, “Arthur and the invisibles”, “How to train your dragon”,etc…
In 2009, I quit ELB to finally join Arkane’s team.
One year later I was working on Dishonored. It was my very first time to work our own studio’s creation. We had a great time on it and the game was a commercial and critical success. A few years later, Dishonored 2 started.
To build cool stuff you need cool creative ideas! That’s the main point. At Arkane, we are lucky because we have the strong art vision of Sebastien Mitton, and many talented concept artists.
Each member of this team participates in finding inspiration from many art mediums including classical painting. The Environmental Artists also spend a lot of time researching documentation. We like to explore antique shops on the web to find crazy old objects! Every single asset as his own special design and that makes the particularity of Dishonored’s world. We almost don’t have generic random props.
That’s why, when you have to start a new asset, it’s always a pleasure and also a challenge. Because, even following a concept, you still need to remain creative to add the little details and find the materials which are going to fit to this early vision.
Observation is important to create great materials Even when you’re not at work ,you can find interesting details in the environments surrounding you… When I’m on vacation, people must think I’m kind of crazy when they see me taking pictures of details of the ground or the walls…instead of the main touristic spot. It’s very motivating to think you’ll maybe use all these references to generate cool assets!
We like to give love and pay attention to all these props we’re creating because we always want to transcend a basic version and go further.
Story Behind Assets
You’ve probably noticed that many objects have a brand written on it and some have their own ads displayed on the walls of the city! When environment artists receive a concept, there’s already the beginning of a story inside it. Our job is to give life to these drawings: like if they were coming from a real world.
We need to feel that theses object have been used by people. We need a storytelling even in the smallest details, even inside gloss reflections… The atmosphere you find in dishonored is a culmination of all these little details. They give life to this world. We don’t want the players to feel like this world was built for them to play inside. We want them to feel like these cities have their own story and have existed long before their adventure started.
We have different solutions to twist a little reality, and not only modeling! Lighting can help to do it. Materials play a huge role in bringing things to life. We work very hard to imbed a painterly look into the art to avoid noise and obtain something a little less photo-realistic.
But the design has the greatest impact. A good way to get style is to play with shapes. That is the direction given by the art director Sebastien Mitton. The word he always use in french is “fou-fou”. That means something like “crazy”. Because he’s a design lover and he loves crazy shapes. He always wants us to take things further, to create a world we haven’t seen before.
We work with two Russian guys: Piotr Jabłoński and Sergey Kolesov. Their illustrations gave the general mood. Many other concept artists also helped design shapes for all the little pieces consisting of that world. When you’re completely emerged in the art framework, modeling all these elements and dealing with crazy shapes becomes routine. It’s not much more complex than building generic assets…it’s just more fun. But it also takes more time. Because I’ve worked on different games before, I know we’re lucky to follow such a specific art direction.
On Dishonored 2, we’ve taken a global approach in our textures, working traditional hand-painting workflows in Photoshop. Because we started it this way, we didn’t include a complex procedural process. However, we worked with Substance Designer to generate mask and selections, and that was helpful.
Because we were always using the same kind of textures, I helped create a material library.
These materials were stylized. During a period, at the beginning of Dishonored, we were searching how to get that style. The main goal of Sebastien was to remove noise (at that time, many games were using photo texturing, sometimes with a big amount of visual noise).
I remember spending time on one of my first tiling textures (Dunwall cobblestones) to find a way to make it special. Sebastien wanted our visuals to looks like an 18th century’ painting.
We were also thinking about creating a painting sensation similar to Ghibli’s movies. We found a way to do it manually and then we created a tool to make a starting base for every texture. But we also kept painting them manually all along. We shared the same brushes to unify the visual look.
When Dishonored 2 started, the material approach became a little more realistic. We didn’t change how we painted that much, but the PBR render gave a different look in the shaders. Texel density also increased a lot, and that gave a “more realistic” feeling: our painting patterns became much smaller. So, the biggest challenge was to transform these stylized materials to some more realistic PBR style without betraying our original aesthetic tone.
What I love in environment work, is the possibility of jumping from an asset to another fairly quickly and explore different pipelines. One day you’re working on a tilling ground and the other day you’re making a machine, a tree, a whale or a statue…
I’m not an expert organic sculptor like character artists are, but I enjoy it sometimes.
It’s a very classical pipeline:
To create animals or statues, I usually start with low poly shapes in Maya, trying to match as good as possible the concept (especially dealing with dimensions, ratios, posture..). Then I bring it to Zbrush. It’s always fun to work on creatures, because we mix animals together to obtain weird monster. We have mixed bird/rhinoceros, buffalo/crocodile, etc..
Most of the time, colors are already in concept, but sometime I have to make some research.
Because our models have a very particular style, some with very exotic colors can be a problem. When the asset is duplicated in the level, it becomes repetitive, not generic enough. So I have to work with a gray diffuse, create a mask and add a constant color in the material, in the engine. This way, the same bird can be red, blue or yellow, and that creates variety.
Making 3D asset needs the same requirements as drawing them. Observation is very important. If you want to make a functional machine, don’t try to make it as your remember it. You will probably be wrong. Get documentation, and try to understand how it’s working. Even when we’re making a machine that doesn’t exist, working with an unknown technology, things must still make sense. Then we need to find references and find out how our asset could possibly work and be functional.
Concept artist figure a lot of that stuff out for us.
Wear and Tear
It’s always the same logic: just imagine someone using your asset and guess what part could be damage and how.
I also love to include little details such as moisture, mold, finger prints, footsteps, pigeon shit etc… I made a library of all these types of effects. I made tilling texture with them and I use them a lot. Sometimes I turn them into alpha to use them as brushes in Painter.
It can be also fun to use them in an inappropriate way. For instance, I use paper’s mold to make dirty spots on carpets or plasters. Some textures, with soft light layer combination work almost on every texture. Most of the time, just working on the roughness and diffuse is enough. When I need to be subtle, to make a material pretty clean but not new, I just work in the roughness (to make something a little dusty and scratched for example).
Dust and dirt masks work pretty well in Substance but for scratches, I prefer to draw them or use a pattern from my library. For metal edge wear, I also get the mask from substance but it is often noisy: so I add a multiply paint on it to erase the parts I don’t want.
The difficult part is always making your asset blend into the scene without going too far by adding to many dirty details. And the details can’t be everywhere in equal quantity, or it will look fake. Some parts need to be noisy and contrast with other parts very calm.
Oh! A lot of game developers are already doing that so well! Maybe the choice of what you decide to make is going to make a difference! If you decide to work on a weapon, a babe, or a robot.. you’re going to have a lot of rivals!
Obviously, I’m speaking about personal work. When you can’t choose your subject, try and take pleasure in doing it. That will help in giving it a soul!
Challenges of Creating Materials
One of the main challenges is about the amount of details. When I work on tiling textures, if I add to much small details in the diffuse and the normal map, I lose the stylish part. I have to concentrate on medium size details.
Keeping a hand painting process is also necessary. In all these textures, we try to provide a natural look in spite of the artistic touches. Exactly the way, a painter would do, keeping control all along.
Painting is always our main inspiration. For example, when I worked on the Golden cat’s hammam, in the first Dishonored, I straight up copied some visuals of Jean-Léon Gérôme paintings. This 19th Century orientalist has been a great inspiration for me, like many others from the same period.
Sebastien, myself and many members of the team came from the same classical art school: “Emile Cohl”, and I think it plays a part of our special vision of game art.
How did you manage to make all of these materials tile?
Oh! There’s nothing really special about them I guess. It’s a classical process: baking in Maya and Zbrush.
One thing I can tell you is that we care a lot about the style of our patterns for the tiling textures.
When we have to make tiles, wood tiles, or stone… we don’t want to necessarily keep visible joints everywhere. Sebastien hates stones with big uniform joints and I agree with him. The same goes for wood tiles. We don’t want our walls or grounds to look like regular grids. We prefer to make something more subtle, playing with tile orientation in the normal map.
On the materials covering the walls and grounds of Karnaca, Sebastien had crazy ideas to create an original city. Some worked, like the wooden cobblestones we have in some districts. For others, that was a fail. For example, we tried to make buildings with wooden bricks.. and the result didn’t work.
How did you approach the positioning of objects in the materials.you’ve got rocks, some litter, dust – it’s all there in the texture and it looks great, but I still can’t figure how what was the workflow, behind adding all those details. Please share if that’s possible.
To obtain all these little dressing baked in the textures, sometimes, I worked in 2.5D in Zbrush. It’s fast but very destructive. It’s something I will not do in our next project. I prefer making height maps from ztools and apply them in Designer.
Another problem with using 2.5D process is that you can easily place a ztool in the wrong place without noticing. Because you can’t really see how far your ztool is from the document, you make a lot of mistakes. It’s something you’re going to notice when you get the height map rendered, but it’s already too late.
However, there are some advantages to using this process. You can place thousands of objects and you’ll never have any lag. It allows you to retry new textures as much as you want, as long as you have a ztool library ready to be used.
My Ztools were polypainted, so I could obtain my diffuse very easily, just by saving the document’s texture. It’s very convenient for complex visuals such as stickers on cans or bottles.
I baked these objects because they were pretty small and plentiful. Above a certain size though, you have to use an asset.