Senior Environment Artist at Blizzard Molly Warner has walked us through her artistic journey, discussed her first projects and environment art workflows, explained the advantages of Unreal Engine when it comes to creating digital 3D scenes, and shared some tips on landing a job at a AAA game development studio.
Heya! I’m Molly Warner and I work as a Senior Environment Artist on Overwatch 2 at Blizzard. Me and my team create the many colorful worldwide maps that players experience in Overwatch! I’ve been working in the games industry for 8 years on titles such as Marvel Avengers Academy, Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Tanks, New World, and Hogwarts Legacy, as well as other unannounced titles.
A new Overwatch 2 control-point map for Season 3 named Antarctic Peninsula
I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. I drew animals and anime in every margin of my notes in school. Being an artist in the entertainment industry was my dream from a young age. When the Star Wars prequels came out, I was blown away as a kid. So many fantastic new worlds, characters, aliens, visuals, and ideas! I got the concept art books from those movies and that really drove my artistic goals for the future. I asked for my first drawing tablet for my birthday after fawning over the Star Wars: Episode III art book, and my art improved rapidly from there.
Thanks to that, AP Art classes, DeviantArt, and ConceptArt.org (RIP), I was able to produce a strong portfolio for art colleges when the time came. I originally planned to major in Animation with a focus on Visual Development, but while researching colleges, I discovered a new major: Game Art & Design. I absolutely loved games, so when the realization hit that I could make them as a profession, I was astounded. Ironically, my parents had never let me have a console because I played too many PC games already. My first favorite PC games were Half-life at age 8 (my older brother snuck it onto my computer), The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Team Fortress, Age of Mythology, and Unreal Tournament. Those were some of my biggest inspirations from a young age, but at the time, it just seemed like games were mysteriously generated by game companies. Information surrounding game development wasn’t really out there. I wasn’t concerned about the technical aspects of game development because I spent most of my time learning at the computer. For example, I had taught myself HTML in 3rd grade by building Neopets guild websites for people.
Once I realized that Game Art was truly what I wanted to pursue, I pivoted 100% in that direction. After tons of research, I picked Ringling College of Art & Design as my top college, and that was where I got my start by majoring in Game Art and Design. Before that, my focus had mostly been on characters, however I had drawn plenty of environment studies and still-life prop illustrations before college, and as an avid writer I had a deep appreciation for world-building and creating fantastic settings. The Game Art major focused heavily on environment ideation and creation, but before getting into that, the first year at Ringling College was all about learning art fundamentals and traditional / digital illustration skills. That set the foundation for students so we would understand art terms, principles of design, and how to wield them.
Apart from the teachers, a huge amount of learning throughout college came from fellow students. Most students were excited to share techniques and methods they learned as we grew together. We often all struggled with the same pain points on a project, so there was a lot of collaboration to help each other. There weren’t many game development resources online back then, so we had to learn how to troubleshoot things ourselves.
The First Steps
My first 3D projects were all created in 2011 at Ringling as part of the curriculum. The first software I learned was UDK (also known as UE3, which was the standard game engine at the time) alongside Maya for modeling. Soon after I learned ZBrush, Crazybump, and xNormal for baking. Back then the standard workflow for assets that didn’t get sculpted was to download textures from what is now Textures.com and edit them in Photoshop to fit your asset’s needs.
My very first project in UDK was to create a simple level for a FPS using the default assets provided in the engine. For the next project, we made a graybox blockout with BSP focusing on level layout design for a small FPS level, then modeled our own modular kits based on a theme the class had voted for – space Egypt in our case. Then we used each other’s assets to set dress our own BSP blockout levels. This facilitated classmate collaboration from the start, because if you wanted to use someone’s model but they didn’t know what lightmaps were (so their model turned black when you built lighting) you’d benefit from teaching them that concept to help elevate everyone’s environments. Our third assignment was to create a modular kit of our own choosing. The modular kit could be anything, but had to have a clean version as well as a separate grungy look.
The fourth project was the biggest one by far – concept, design, and create a complete side-scrolling platformer game by yourself. This included concepting the world, making all the models, set-dressing the levels, scripting all the game mechanics and events, designing working puzzles, drawing a turn-around sheet for the main character, sculpting, retopologizing, and rigging the character, implementing a working weapon, scripting AI enemies, and bringing it all together into a polished game deliverable .exe with box cover art. It was grueling, but so much fun to go through the whole process!
Alongside these Environment Art-focused projects, we had Game Design projects where we learned Kismet, the node-based system that UDK used for scripting. We were given prompts and from that, designed and scripted a variety of game mission events. This was where some students realized that they wanted to focus on scripting and Tech Art. In this class, each person also did in-depth analyses of existing game environment layouts and how they worked gameplay-wise. It was wonderful to learn different aspects of game creation, and that knowledge made me better prepared for working with other disciplines in the industry.
My biggest motivations were my passion to create beautiful game worlds and my dream to work for either LucasArts (that was shattered in my Junior year when Disney shut them down), Valve, or Ubisoft – all companies whose games made an enormous impact on me.
Game Design: One of my multiplayer map analysis images of TF2’s Badlands
Things often don’t turn out how you’d expect. Landing my first industry job was an incredibly tumultuous time. Unfortunately, my whole environment art portfolio that I created throughout school felt immediately invalidated because Unreal Engine 4 was releasing and every company suddenly wanted artists who knew the brand new PBR system. Besides that, every company prefers people who have industry experience, and I only had a few months from a summer internship at an indie mobile game studio. I applied to over 200 job positions after I graduated and completed a few art tests, but wasn’t offered any positions. There had been massive industry layoffs that year, so hundreds more game devs with experience were also looking for jobs too.
At the time, I was staying with my boyfriend (now husband) in San Francisco, CA, a well-known game dev hub, hoping that the location would help my candidacy. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, my mom landed in the ER in critical condition, and my dad called to say get home on the next flight to say goodbye to her. Amazingly, she pulled through, but I lost a few months in an emotional blur of waiting in a chair next to her hospital bed. My boyfriend (a fellow Ringling alumni from the year ahead of me) happened to be laid off from Maxis the day before the ER fiasco occurred. With rent in San Francisco being astronomical without work, he drove down all of our stuff to my parents’ house in San Diego and we stayed with them while my mom slowly recovered. When she was well enough that I could ease my hospital visits, I started remaking my portfolio with new environments created in UE4 and Substance 3D using the new PBR pipeline. After finishing some fresh portfolio pieces, I finally got a lucky break.
Another Ringling alumni from years before had created an outsourcing company named Neko Productions, and they were looking for 3D modelers and texture artists – ironically for characters, not environments. However, I wasn’t worried about making characters. They had been my focus for most of my life, after all, and I also loved to paint stylized textures. I applied through an internal alumni network, received an art test, and passed it with flying colors. Even better, the game they were working on was Marvel Avengers Academy (a game by TinyCo), a dream come true for a Marvel nerd like me!
My art test was to create a hand-painted texture set for their Loki model (his level 2 upgrade skin) based on their 2D concept, and I completed it using Paint Tool Sai and 3DCoat, then implemented the texture into the Maya model file and adjusted the UV’s. I was so happy that the job was remote because I could stay home, save on expenses, and keep making hospital visits. Over the next few months, I continued to paint textures for dozens of characters in the game and became a pivotal member of the team. Frequently there would be in-game special events where a bunch of new character skins were released, and I was the go-to person to crunch on the additional skins and get them in on time. It was exhausting but satisfying work.
This job taught me to always do things right the first time, don’t make something sloppy expecting that you’ll have time to come back and fix it later. I also realized that some studios have very specific niche job roles that I wouldn’t have expected.
I painted the textures for all the Marvel characters based on concept art
Most Memorable Projects
For me, every project I’ve worked on is very memorable for different reasons. I’ve been really lucky with the projects I’ve been able to work on because I’ve enjoyed all of them, even my least favorite ones. When I worked at BioWare on Star Wars: The Old Republic, I saw that as a dream job, because I was finally contributing to the Star Wars universe. Apart from the many environments I worked on for the expansions, I was given really cool opportunities to create concept art and include my own ideas into the game, which was incredibly rewarding.
As for memorable moments, on Hogwarts Legacy, there was a hilarious series of events I always recall. I was working on the whimsical hamlet houses that are right outside of Hogwarts castle, and there’s a main quest that happens there. I won’t spoil it at all – the player approaches this woman who is hysterically crying in the garden outside of her house, to ask what’s wrong. Well, to fill out the garden, we had just placed a bunch of these cute daffodil flowers around her. I hadn’t played through the quest that day, so I didn’t know, but apparently these were the new Honking Daffodils and they made an obnoxiously loud dissonant orchestra of constant clown honking sounds. So when you talked to the woman, they honked comically over all of her heart-wrenching dialogue as she sobbed her woes out to you. Hence, the honking daffodils were replaced with more quiet flowers, so the dramatic quest lines would hit as intended. I still can’t stop laughing about it, though.
Hogwarts Legacy – The Lower Hogsfield hamlet
If I had to name one thing I’m most proud of, it’s probably the Antarctic Peninsula map in Overwatch 2. That was my first full-cycle OW2 map, and I really tried to own it. I was responsible for a large area (the Icebreaker ship), and additionally worked on almost every model across the three levels of the map. It felt like a big stepping stone for me to finally create and own a part of Overwatch after being a huge fan of it for so long. Even though many of my favorite games had been FPS games all the way back to Half-Life, surprisingly I didn’t get the chance to work on any FPS' until Overwatch 2.
The Icebreaker capture point in Antarctic Peninsula
How to Become a Part of a AAA Gamedev Team?
When it comes to landing a job on a AAA title, it’s hard to give blanket statement advice that can fit everybody, since everyone comes from different places with varied experiences. However, there are some things that’re pretty universal. If you’re struggling to find work, there are several factors. Luck and timing are unfortunately always a part of it, but you don’t have much control over that. Focus on what you do have control over. Ask yourself: Does your portfolio showcase what that team is looking for in style, theme, and skill? Are your portfolio pieces of a high enough quality to fit right into their game? Could you fit seamlessly into the team with your software knowledge? Are you showing enough work that caters to that position? Do you have too many pieces in your portfolio, including ones that aren’t your best work? If you think your portfolio is ready, ask people in game dev communities on Twitter, Discord, and Facebook for feedback on your portfolio. Take advice from people with more industry experience, and act on that feedback when it seems right. A big part of working in the industry is being able to accept feedback politely and iterate quickly to make the result better.
I’ve also noticed that most people trying to break into the games industry – including my younger self – often set a lofty “AAA dream studio” goal for themselves, hoping that they’ll get a job at that studio right out of the gate. I’ve had friends give up on getting into the industry altogether because they couldn’t get into their dream studio. Don’t hold yourself to an unattainable goal like that when you’re just starting out. Sure, you may get incredibly lucky with timing + connections + portfolio etc. and it could feasibly happen, but most of the time it’s highly unlikely. I’m not saying to not apply if you see their positions, but don’t let yourself get overhyped with expectation and then heart-broken. It’s totally normal to work at a studio that’s not well known to get your foot in the industry door and gain the valuable experience needed. Work at other places first to learn what you like to do most, what you’re best at, level up your skills, see what the industry has to offer, and you may fall in love with something unexpected along the way.
To help with this, instead of setting specific goals that aren’t under your control, like whether a certain company will hire you, set personal growth goals that you can achieve yourself without having to rely on other people. Goals like, “I want to get better at stylized textures,” or “I want to learn how to model believable architecture,” and then go for jobs that align with those goals. These types of personal goals are something that you can work on in your free time unhindered, and they aren’t determined by the whims of a company. This ensures that you’ll level up on your way to your next job. Set yourself up for success, not discouragement.
The Working Process
If I don’t have a main concept to work from, I always gather references first, because knowing what you’re going for makes the rest of the work so much easier. I often do a paintover or quick mockup to see if it’ll look good, which saves time invested into making and re-working the final 3D scene. I model everything in Maya, and when I’m not at work, I use UE5. I think it’s important to get all assets represented in the level as soon as possible, even if they just have basic flat color textures. That way you can check the scale, level of detail, proportions, composition, if it needs adjustments for gameplay, etc. You can’t determine most of that when the model sits in Maya, and you want to get feedback along the way so that you don’t have to totally rework everything when it’s almost done. I try to avoid having to throw assets into ZBrush and then bake them, and instead rely on the Maya model as well as textures either painted in Photoshop or created in Substance 3D Painter/Designer. If I have to bake assets, Marmoset is actually way more accurate than Painter – you’ll find the bakes come out nearly perfect every time with very little tuning.
The time it takes to finish a personal project varies enormously based on the scope and type of project. For small scope projects like my sci-fi hallway blockout level, it only took me a few hours from start to finish because I already had all the assets modeled from a previous level I had made. That was a satisfying, easy win – use what you’ve already made when you can to help save yourself time!
A sci-fi hallway blockout I made in a few hours in 2017 using UE4
With large-scale projects that take much longer, there’s an aspect of battling exhaustion over time and balancing working on the personal project with taking care of yourself and other hobbies you want to do as well. For large projects like that, I find that it helps to set long and short-term goals to help keep you on track. Things like “I want to finish this one building by tomorrow, and finish all the plant textures by the end of the month.” Having a set plan in mind like that keeps you accountable, especially if you leave yourself sticky notes or Google Calendar tasks to remind yourself of your plans.
Another common challenge for long-term projects is keeping to the same style the whole time. If you don’t have a style guide of sorts to start off with, or only have a general idea of what you want the environment to look like, it can be easy to get lost along the way. Sometimes, if a project goes on really long, you may find yourself wanting to shift direction in style over time as you find new influences and inspirations. The best way to avoid this problem is to create an inspiration image board using PureRef, Trello, or Miro, and gather your reference images before you even start on the project. Make sure you include examples for various textures in the style you want, and mood / atmosphere references. If you’re going for stylization, also include shape design examples for proportions, overarching techniques you want to use (like utilizing object space gradients), and color palettes you’d like to use. With all your references gathered in one place, you should have a great resource to return to and know what direction you’re going in.
Using Unreal Engine for Environment Art
I absolutely love Unreal Engine. Out of all the engines I’ve used, it’s still my favorite. It’s so easy to make some models, set them up in a level, and quickly get a beautiful render. I feel like the engine is super intuitive, but maybe that’s just because I’ve been using Unreal for so long. It’s extremely robust with features, but doesn’t feel overwhelming, and it’s very well supported – if you ever encounter an issue, it’s easy to find resources and communities online to help.
After using UDK throughout college, I knew the engine very well, so transitioning to UE4, and later to UE5, was pretty easy since the controls and fundamentals stayed mostly the same. For both UE4 and UE5 the big differences were how lighting worked – the way materials were created completely changed with PBR in UE4 (especially with new software like the Substance suite and Marmoset), and lighting made a huge leap forward with Lumen in UE5. Nanite has also been a welcome addition to UE5, though I haven’t played with it too much yet.
For level design, Unreal is fantastic for iteration – you can organize assets easily with the layers system, quickly make changes to a space, then instantly drop in and playtest it. With the pre-built project templates, it’s easy to hop in with a first-person or 3rd-person setup ready to go. I like to drop in-game often to check that the scale on everything is correct, collisions are predictable, sight lines are working well, and the points of interest are evident.
A few screenshots from an Art Deco sci-fi level I created in 2017 in UE4 (before the small sci-fi hallway project)
My current plan is to work on Overwatch 2 as long as possible, because it truly is my ideal dream project. I’ve put SO many hours into playing the game and I’ll never get tired of it. As for personal projects, I’m getting back into making 3D environments and characters for myself. Outside of work, I’ve been focused on character illustration for the last few years because I started an Etsy shop in 2019 where I sell keychains, pins, stickers, and prints of cute fantasy characters. The excitement for that has faded over time though, and now I really have the itch to make some aesthetic stylized 3D projects.
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time making tutorials for artists on YouTube. I started with illustration and character design, then I’ll be making videos for 3D Artists ranging from Maya tutorials (beginner through advanced), environment art workflows, how to create stylized assets, quick modeling tips, and recording my process as I make assets and environments. I’m very excited to get to that! You can expect to find those videos in the coming months on my YouTube channel.
Advice for Aspiring Artists
The games industry is an incredibly competitive field, so you need to showcase an amazing portfolio for a recruiter to take a chance on someone with no industry experience. Your portfolio is the first thing that most people see, so it has to make a great first impression. You don't even need a bunch of pieces, I know plenty of people who have been hired with only 3-4 amazing portfolio pieces – but it does have to be aligned with the role and place you're applying for. Once you figure out your focus, then you should make portfolio pieces geared towards studios you want to work at. Find artists who work at the companies and see what their portfolios look like. Emulate the work that you want to be making! Don't copy their projects, but take inspiration on the kinds of things they were making, like the style and techniques utilized.
Have a focus on what you want to get better at and keep making new projects to level up your skills with each one. Only showcase your absolute best work on your portfolio – you can always post your studies and less refined pieces to your socials. Even if you have a bunch of projects that you've done for classes, if you don't enjoy doing tasks like VFX, characters, hard-surface modeling, etc. then don't put them in your portfolio. If you know what you want to focus on, only put projects in your portfolio for that.
Being a generalist is great, but if you're a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, your portfolio could suffer from a lack of direction. At the end of the day, if you want to be an Environment Artist, you need at least a couple of memorable and well-executed environments in your portfolio - that's your bread and butter. Other skills like showcasing animation might be a bonus if it’s very good, but most recruiters don't care about extra skills outside of your intended role. If you master Unreal, Maya, and Substance 3D Painter/Designer, then you have the skill set to get hired at most studios.
As I mentioned earlier, even if you might have a dream company, that doesn't have to be the end-all-be-all. You should apply to and work at other places first. Any job in the industry can be an excellent stepping stone to give you the experience and skills you need, and in your free time, you can continue to work on your portfolio. You may discover that you absolutely love working for a small company you've never heard of, and end up working there for years with amazing people. Be kind to everyone, always. You never know where people will go, so everyone is a good connection. Referrals also give you a huge advantage when you’re applying for jobs!
Make an ArtStation and gather inspiration, follow other artists, and post your best work on there. Probably around 85% of people will find you through ArtStation, and most of the rest will be through LinkedIn. Genuine connections are great, but having a fantastic portfolio is still your #1 goal. An amazing portfolio will get you seen and land you job offers.
Make awesome projects, ask for feedback on them, and don't be afraid to take online courses or mentorships with industry-experienced artists to hone your skills. There are a ton of resources out there now (YouTube, Gumroad, and individual online courses), so use them to your advantage. If you went through school but your education didn’t get you where you hoped you would be, or if you’re missing some chunks of knowledge, online courses for game art are plentiful and cheap compared to colleges now. You can pick your course and teacher to learn the exact skills you want, and end up with industry connections, know-how, and awesome portfolio pieces through them. Here are some excellent student mentorships and courses you can check out:
Remember to continue playing games to keep your passion strong, and always take care of yourself physically and mentally. Check your posture (you were slumping, weren’t you), stretch often, and stay hydrated! You’re going to do great!