Level designer Jeffy Zachariah talks about his experience building big complex environments that combine different types of lights, landscapes and assets.
Level designer Jeffy Zachariah have contributed an incredibly detailed technical breakdown of his dark environment, inspired by Skyrim and Dark Souls. The coolest thing about this image is the size and the combination of different types of assets and lighting. Majority of the assets in the game are provided for free by Epic Games.
My name is Jeffy Zachariah, and I’m from Trivandrum , India and I’m a game/level designer.
My entry into level design isn’t a story that is extraordinary. I used to play a lot of games, especially Dota. Spent thousands of hours into that game. And I loved making Dota gameplay videos. So with my video making skills back then, I went ahead and made a Dota music video (Video Here). The Warcraft 3 map editor was the first ever map editor that I’ve used.
I really did enjoy creating scenes for the video. And this is from where it all started. From War3 editor, then to Hammer, Cryengine, UDK and finally UE4. I spent time creating maps, playing those maps, regardless of how poor they were in design and learn from them. Spent time improvising on my designs. From then on whenever I played games, I began analysing the game and its level from a design point of view and learning by playing.
Underground Cavern Level
Sometime ago, I designed a map on paper, for a project that I was involved in. It was meant to be a multi player arena combat game. Sadly though that project still has not yet seen the light of day. The idea behind the map was to have gameplay space inside some caverns. So this meant huge rocks and some old/ancient looking architecture.
I’m not a 3D modeller and I did not want to trouble anyone to create assets for me for free :D. When I saw the infinity blade assets were given out for free, I thought of creating the map using these assets. There were some questions in my mind as to what direction to take the map in.
I had two choices primarily. I could make this into a playable map and then take it into Unreal Tournament, or go down the lane of Lord of the Rings or Dark Souls. I did consider making this as a map for UT at first, but then the dark environments would not suit UT’s style much. I decided to go on with a scene for cinematic purpose, as this would also give me the freedom to experiment with the scene further on.
The Structure of The Environment
At present, the environment is divided into 2 segments.
… and one exterior section.
The names for these sections don’t matter because both these are within the same cavern, it’s just for personal reference.
The environment is both open and closed at the same time. By open we mean, a huge space, but this huge space is also closed and limited within the perimeter of the cavern.
And getting such a huge space feel very atmospheric was the biggest challenge in creating the scene. I knew that lighting would be a huge factor contributing to the feel of the environment. I would have to be careful with my light sources and choices of colour and intensity and to get them right.
As I’m not following any concept art or any sort of artistic guidance, a lot of time would be spent on iteration and testing out things to see if they look right or not. This would also mean that the end result would be a collection of my personal preferences and may result in a disaster, so not letting it turn into a disaster is another challenge.
Another major challenge was to figure out lighting inside the cavern. Sometimes you might have some sun light creeping into caves through holes, but apart from that it’s usually dark. So coming up with some creative ways to light the scene and make the environment interesting was quite a challenge and this is where some influences from Lord of the Rings, The hobbit and Dark Souls, sort of helped out.
Caves means rocks. Rocks of various shapes, forms and sizes. Instead of creating one, I found one provided by Epic Games.
The entire structure of the cave rocks were made with just one rock piece. This is a fee rock that is available from the Particle Effects Cave Demo, from Epic Games. You can download the demo free from the Unreal Engine launcher.
I used this particular rock to shape my cavern.
This rock gave me couple of forms and silhouettes by just rotating it and has some interesting forms all over it which gave some beautiful highlights and shadows and seemed to be the best fit for my caverns.
I used this rock to create an enclosure.
The single rock was used in a couple of different scales to achieve this. You can see in the picture below that I used few scales from 2 and all the way up to 10 and placed them, rotating them around so that the rocks don’t seem tiled, to develop a cave. You can also see a scale comparison in the picture.
After this, I had to figure out my sources of lights for my scene. After placing my light sources I modified my rocks and their placements accordingly to achieve better visual aesthetics.
You can see some comparisons below.
The differences are not big, but they do make a difference.
Blending Architecture into Natural Environments
This was a little bit tricky, to get the architectural piece and the rocks to feel as one.
At the beginning of design, it’s usually quiet hard to come up with solutions to certain problems because of certain constraints.
In my case, I only had a few architectural assets and one rock piece to mess around with. But in the case of the rock, I was pretty confident in the model that it would provide me with some variations to create a seamless cavern. So I stuck with it and the decision sort of paid off.
The architectural pieces are free assets from the Infinity Blade collection, available via the Unreal Engine Marketplace. Having played the game, I had an idea of how to use these pieces and moreover it suited the theme of the scene.
Getting it to shape up was a little tricky though.
So I went back to my map design and decided to begin from there. Block out pathways and then insert rocks wherever I felt a person would not be able to walk. So beginning with the inner-section of the scene, I did some blockouts, placed meshes and then added rocks so as to get it to feel as if these pieces were built over these rocks.
After a base lighting pass it seemed to me that my method was working. And I proceeded ahead in the same manner for the exterior section.
The top balcony-like portion was a part from my original map design which I thought would be useful in terms of final composition of the image. For example, if there was a torch or something there it would add some value to the over all visual.
After being done with the inner-section, I was a little confident proceeding into the bigger exterior section. It did not take me long to fill out what I wanted to be in this area. So following the same methodology as earlier, I blocked out and filled assets. This space would consist of a huge statue as a eye-catcher and a bridge / passageway to another structure. This space being more open and for most part would be a bridge, meant that I did not need to use rocks as structural support like in the previous space. And building the architectural structure was a little easier because of this.
Once these assets shaped up pretty nicely, lighting played the key role in blending these into one universe.
There are a lot of things that I want to do in this scene. I am not calling this complete at the moment. Material wise, I’m just using the standard materials that came with the assets with a little modification to the Infinity Blade assets, which is nothing but giving it a little wetness blend, like here.
I might be adding some dirt and other ruins to spice up the scene. Some broken tiles, etc.
I don’t need to use Quixel or Substance for the textures as of now. What Epic has provided are absolutely fantastic assets. Some material tweaks might be necessary but that should be about it.
Lighting is key to bring out the best in a scene. Sometimes to get the best result you have to fake a lot of things. Especially with this scene.
I usually start lighting up a scene by figuring out the light sources. These would form as the foundation for lighting your scene. Once you have your light sources figured out, things start to get easier from there.
I’ll try and break down this scene in two parts.
First I’ll begin with the inner section.
Here, I’ve figured out my source of light to be natural light from outside the cave and couple of fire torches.
So to begin on natural or sun light, usually in UE4 we use directional light. But in the case of this cavern this would not work because this light had to pass through a relatively small space between the rocks to form the majority of the scene’s lighting. So what was done here was, a spot light was used to fake this light. There is no directional light and skylight in this scene.
I used two spot lights at two points to create the natural light. These lights were given some relatively high intensity to create the glow on the rocks.
These lights had no indirect light intensity. I chose to go with this approach because, I did not want the light to scatter by its own and light up the whole scene like this.
So I chose to create my own fill lights to fake indirect lighting for the scene by placing these point lights.
Now my major source of lights were set up.
I was looking for some white-blue balance in color for the lights. I gave the spotlights a white with a little blue hue as the color and a light blue tint for the point lights.
Of these lights, only the spot lights cast shadows and the point lights does not, and because of this I was not investing too much in performance cost.
The remaining lights were for the torches for which I used a bright orange tint, just bright enough to get some attention and create a contrast to the scene and then I threw in one spherical reflection capture to the scene.
Now for the exterior section, first was the structure entrance / exit into the open space.
Here the only sources of lights were torch lights.
And only these lights were set to cast shadows in the scene. You will notice that the balcony area at the top, I’ve have not set them to cast shadows and this is because the shadow effects were negligible and could be ignored to save performance.
And throw in some fill lights
The final portion of the map consists only of one spot light, faking the natural entry of light into the cave. Similar to the lighting for the inner section with some fill lights, this area was set up.
The scene consists of a mixture of static and stationary lights and no dynamic light set up as of this point.
Another factor that contributes to the ambience of creating a huge enclosed space is fog. I used exponential height fog to scatter some saturated blue tint across the scene with very low intensity that its effect is subtle yet impactful.
Here are couple of screenshots of the scene without fog, notice how flat the lighting looks and this affects the scene composition very much.
The Challenges of Creating Mixed Environments
I find two major challenges when working with huge environments: scene organization and performance.
Even though it might be annoying at the start, organizing your assets from the very get go helps a lot later on when it comes to iteration and such things.
For this purpose I keep my assets in respective folders that I create within the scene outliner or Layers tab.
And whenever working on big levels, it is always best practice to stream sections of you level to improve performance even while working. I’ve streamed my scene like this for now
All levels are loaded for now, but whenever working on one portion..or when creating a cinematic in one section of the environment, I can unload any level that I find is un-necessary and save performance. Its good practise to do so.
This scene is not over yet. As shown in my levels tab, I’m planning to create an interesting cinematic with this project. Currently experimenting with some assets and the results will be out soon I believe.
Unreal Engine 4 is simply a beast to work with. Everybody should try it and go crazy with it. You won’t know what you are capable of doing with so much power in your hands.
Also shoutout to Epic Games for letting us use their assets for free!