Designer of Borderlands Pre Sequel and Gears of War Judgment talks about building quick and beautiful landscapes in Unreal Engine 4.
A former member of Epic Games Poland, Krzysztof Teper, shared some of his thoughts on environmental design in games and building quick scenes in Unreal Engine 4. Krzysztof has a lot of experience working on big budget games like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! and Gears of War: Judgment, so his advice will definitely be of use to those who are just starting their work in the game industry.
About Krzysztof Teper
I’m originally from Poland. It was a pleasure working with Epic Games Poland where I developed Gears of War: Judgment and 2K Australia where I worked on Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!. I’m currently not employed, as I decided to focus on exploring new workflows, refreshing my portfolio, as well as planning next big step in my career.
On Modelling Speed Landscapes
It all started quite innocently. I came across craters macro for World Machine (WM), experimented with it for a while and then imported the result into UE4 just to check how it looks with proper lighting. After that, I’ve done some work on materials, copied the terrain mesh a few times to add some depth to the scene, and added foreground rocks on top of that. It turned out that I created a visual prototype of a lunar surface in just 3 hours. I wanted to try similar workflow on a wider variety of environments.
It all starts in World Machine, I usually don’t have a very specific idea of what I want to create, so I spent some time on exploration and trying new combinations each time. WM is quite powerful out of the box but GeoGlyph (GG) adds a whole new layer to it. It is a set of hard-coded macros that you can use as a substitute or along with standard WM nodes. One of its most powerful features is NeoFlow. The thing about it is that it breaks up artificially looking sediment flows that WM is known for, hence making the erosion much more natural. Gwendeith was the first project for me to actually test GeoGlyph in action. I used Earth Spine, which is one of my favorite generators that comes with GG, and went from there:
I generated a color map just to desaturate it and mix it with snow mask in Photoshop to add more variation to the texture.
Slope mask is one of the most important maps that you can generate inside WM. When you multiply it by tiling rocky normal map in UE4, you receive detailed peaks and cliffs that provide nice contrast for soft grass or snow.
For the very far background I used flat terrain with a bit of noise and WM’s layout generator with a fractal breakup to add the river.
In order to texture the distant lowlands, I used satellite photos of a forest located somewhere in Idaho. I usually do rough screen grabs from Google Maps and mix the images together in Photoshop.
Gwendeith © Krzysztof Teper, krzysztofteper.com, 2015
Once I have the terrain meshes ready, I start by opening an extra copy of viewport in UE4 and locking a camera to it. It helps me to block out the composition and focus on areas visible to the camera only.
Similarly to previous speed landscapes, Gwendeith is just a snapshot of an environment and would require significantly more work to turn it into playable level. I think this technique is nice for pitching environment to your lead or art director, as it’s incredibly fast and may serve as a good base for starting proper production ( including more detailed and optimized art assets). In particular, it could be a good solution for small studios or situations where concept artists are not available.
Beauty Pass is basically a final frame including textures, lighting, and post processing that the player will see on a screen. Color and translucency passes are included just to help show how the scene is constructed.
In real-time rendering it is important not to have too many overlapping translucency layers, as they make the shader complexity too heavy and thus, slows down the FPS. That was a big thing to look out for while developing for last generation consoles.
The Speed Building in Unreal Engine 4
UE4 is probably the strongest real-time renderer on the market right now. It can run a scene with thousands of GPU accelerated snowflakes (a few millions of lit geometry triangles and complex shaders without any choking).
Having a handful of tools and utilities helps a lot too. For example, mesh painting brushes allow you to cover any surface with a lot of mesh instances quite quickly. This becomes your bread and butter when it comes to populating a large scene with foliage. Having said that, I’ve spent a total of around 20 minutes placing all the pine trees in the Gwendeith scene.
Tools of Trade
However, what I always recommend is to find polygonal, sculpting, and texturing packages that you feel most comfortable with using and then start learning alternative software. You will find that a lot of your knowledge is transferable but the new software opens a lot of workarounds that you have not thought about before, thus making you much more efficient.
For example, I prefer using Maya for most of the low poly modeling and unwrapping uvs, but I like Modo more when it comes to more advanced modeling.
Another example can be Zbrush and it’s amazing dynamesh feature which allows you to retopologize and unify geometry with a single click but when the mesh is very dense it’s better to use voxelization in 3D Coat and go from there. You will get a much better resolution of your mesh in a shorter time span.
As for terrain art I prefer to use World Machine, as it’s accessible and relatively easy to learn. It has lots of super helpful user generated scripts to choose from – including powerful coloring macros which will turn your base terrain into beautifully textured rocky peaks, cliffs, and grassy valleys. If you are interested in creating landscapes for VFX or concept art, you may also want to check out Terragen and Vue. These have much more robust visual development capabilities, as you can create whole eco systems and weather effects along with the terrain.
Do you need a lot of programming experience to work with Unreal Engine 4 and to do environmental design for games? I know some people would really like to do something in this field but they think they won’t be able to work with UE because of programming issues.
You need literally zero programming experience to do environment art in UE4. With all the improvements and support from Epic Games, the pipeline for creating environments is easier than ever for newcomers.
Even if you are after triggering events in your environments, creating the dynamic time of day or weather systems, you can use Blueprints which serve as visual scripting that do not require C++ knowledge.
Assets for Unreal Engine 4
I think that free game and content examples that are available at Unreal Engine 4 Marketplace for free, provide a lot of variety and possibilities.
If you are thinking about level artist career path (building environments with existing models), you will find more than enough free resources in UE4’s library to build a strong portfolio that will land you a job in the industry.
And by the way, Yoeri’s Modular Rocks And Caves package is now live at the Marketplace! He’s the guy who helped me with the assets for Gwendeith.
While browsing through various art references, I stumbled upon Albert Bierstadt’s work and paintings from other old masters of Hudson River School. I was simply struck by the composition, details, and romantic atmosphere that these artists were able to capture. That was a starting point for my stormy landscapes.
I also pull a lot of inspiration from meteorology phenomena photos including super cells, hurricanes, and intense thunderstorms. In fact, I often blend these together in Photoshop to create sky back plates for my scenes.
On top of that, I’m a big fan of the Dark Fantasy genre. Game of Thrones and The Witcher series influenced my work quite a bit as well. I think what makes the cold Northern sceneries so evocative is the feel of mystery, distress and beauty being present in one place.
Environmental Design and Art
Painting and environmental design are similar in some aspects. However, traditional art takes a lot more time and effort to learn than 3D. This is perhaps why concept artists learning 3D get much better results from the start whereas 3D artists are more likely to struggle when it comes to painting.
As far as the entertainment industry goes, digital tools are definitely the way to go these days but it is important to study the work of old masters regardless of whether you are a texture, 3D, or concept artist.
I sometimes think that it would be scary and exciting at the same time to see what old masters could do with today’s tools.