Breathing Life into Environments: Tips & Tricks

Environment artist Adam Dudley discussed modern environment production workflow and best ways to add more character and story to your virtual space.

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My name is Adam Dudley, born and raised in the North East of England, where I currently live. I was studying Law at University before deciding that I wanted to make art for games, so I then changed to study Computer Games Art at Teesside University.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of assisting People Can Fly setup a new studio in Newcastle, UK. Previously, I worked for Ubisoft Reflections as a Senior Environment Artist on titles such as Tom Clancy’s The Division and Watchdogs.

Modern Environment Production Challenges

As game environments become more complex, intricate and detailed, it generally means that it either takes more time to create them, or requires more artists. Quality, time and budget are three points of an ever-shifting triangle of importance when it comes to production. As our industry advances onward and consoles and PCs become more powerful, so the bar of quality is continuously raised, and it becomes increasingly complex and challenging to make sure you reach or push that bar.

As for the question of whether Introducing new tools into your pipeline makes it more complex? I would say yes and no; yes, in that environment artists working in the games industry need to understand more techniques and software packages than ever, and find new ways of working and creating artwork, and no, because more often than not, these new tools will really benefit the artists’ pipelines, making them more efficient and less destructive, perhaps even removing steps and optimising their workflow. Take Substance Designer for example; provided your material is setup correctly, changes in your graph are propagated to all your output maps, whereas in the past you would need to have edited each one individually. Also, it’s potentially way easier to action feedback from art directors in Substance Designer, as adjusting a few sliders can drastically alter your material – imagine having to change the pattern in a brick texture; in Substance Designer, you change a few inputs and you’re done.

New tools should be beneficial to the artist; the introduction of new tools should make pipelines more efficient, or improve the quality of the outcome. If they do neither, then they’re ineffective and will likely be replaced or dropped.

Getting Familiar with Substance Designer

I have been introduced to Substance Designer a few years ago, as I started to see artists using it in the industry, and on ArtStation etc. I started experimenting with it around a year ago, as my friend Chris Hodgson was really getting into it and I was inspired by his work to take it up, but I’ve only seriously put time into it in the last few months.

I started learning Substance Designer because I saw the potential it had to improve my texture and material creation workflow, and because it looked awesome. Initially, I followed as many tutorials as I could find; tutorials from guys like Joshua Lynch, Rogelio Olguin, Hugo Beyer etc. The Allegorithmic YouTube channel also has great tutorials for beginners. I also found some cool materials on Substance Share, downloaded the .SBS files and analysed the graphs in Substance Designer to figure out how they had been created. These steps helped me to understand the creation process in Substance Designer, and to move onto creating my own materials using what I had learned; my parquet wood material being the first of my own materials.

Moving from previous texture creation methods into Substance Designer requires you to think differently; as an artist, you know how to achieve something in photoshop but now you must figure out how to create that effect in Substance Designer without hand painting etc. It was initially difficult to rewire my brain but eventually it became second nature – although I’m still learning so I do struggle from time to time!

The way I usually approach material creation in Substance Designer is:

–       Reference – research the material you want to recreate, understand it, how it behaves, its material properties etc

–       Fine reference images and make a reference board, always referring back to it during the creation process.

–    Setup in Substance Designer – I would suggest setting up your graph with a mid-grey value plugged into the albedo and roughness output whilst you create your height. This help you to focus on the height without being distracted by diffuse or roughness. Also, elements of your height map creation process will act as a source for the vast majority of your other maps (albedo, roughness etc)

Differences between Organic and Man-made materials.

In a way, creating organic materials and creating man made materials share the same process – you establish your base shapes, then you progressively build up layers of information to create variation and break up uniformity, finally adding micro detail etc. The main difference I’ve found is that man-made materials are inherently more structured (bricks, tiles, etc) and so that provides a strong base to work from. With organic shapes however, they’re less ordered, more natural, so finding their form and subtleties can be more of a challenge.

Adding Defects into Substance Designer Materials

All the materials I’ve made in Substance Designer are 100% procedural. In the case of the detail and edge wear in the poured concrete panels, it was a layered approach, built up gradually. I started with the panel edges, running my panels through a Slope Blur at a very low intensity, using Clouds 2 as the slope input, then through another Slope Blur with Perlin Noise Zoom as the input. It then goes through a final Slope Blur using a custom input which kind of acts as the input amount and a mask at the same time. For the smaller pockmarks in the concrete, those are made using a simple three stage process. The first stage is a simple subtle noise for the less obvious micro surface variation – this is a series of different noises Directional Warped and Blended together to create a more natural look. The larger pockmarks are created by taking Black and White Spots 1, levelling, scaling and Directional Warping with a noise, whilst the smaller pockmarks follows the same process but using Black and White Spots 2 instead. These three are Blended with the main height map using Subtract, at various opacities as required.

Why do We Need Details

As they say, the devil is in the details! It really depends on the kind of game you are working on, as well as the art style. Having this kind of focus on tiny details in materials is, in my opinion, absolutely necessary, especially in games with a realistic art style. First person and third person games generally require very high levels of detail as the player camera will be in close proximity to the environment; assets, walls etc. Other genres such as RTS and MMO where perhaps the camera is further away, will usually require less detail as the player will never see the objects at the scale required for such detail – in these cases, things like form, colour and silhouette become more important.

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As artists trying to create realistic materials and environments, attention to detail is paramount. These details tell stories; for example, is this concrete freshly poured or has it been there for some time? Has it been exposed to the elements? Has it been damaged in any way? If so was it general wear and tear, part of the construction process or from an external factor (i.e. bullet holes from bad guys)? Etc. All of these details, and the stories behind them, help to ground your art in the environment and in the game world, and in turn help immerse the player in the experience.

How to Work With Level Designer?

Usually when we begin working on a new level, area or mission, the artist and the level designer will work hand in hand from the very start. It’s a very symbiotic relationship; we have to make sure that the level plays as well as possible and looks awesome too, which usually means we will have to each make compromises for the other, so the relationship has to be a close one. But it’s always a conversation, not an imposition – we bounce ideas off each other until we find the one that works for our collective vision.

At the risk of sounding overly artsy, as you work on these spaces they really do take on their own personalities and vibes – all your ideas coalesce, and as they start to come together you just naturally find yourself gravitating towards ideas that would suit the space. It helps to have a strong vision of what you want to achieve; a well-defined art direction, a backstory or narrative to your space and so on. Once you establish these pillars, it’s way easier to build your environment within the logical framework you’ve set out. For example, in the Rave space in the tutorial mission for the Tom Clancy’s The Division Underground expansion, from a very early stage we established that this area would be a hidden ‘end of the world’ party, and would mix the neon craziness of a rave with the macabre realities of the world of The Division.

It’s important to consider the purpose of what you’re adding to a scene, for example, the large pieces of neon graffiti in the Rave Room served primarily to draw the player’s eye and guide them through the level and to flanking routes. But they also had to look cool, to make the player feel immersed in the environment. They also needed to tell a story – the pieces are wild, bold, artistic, frenetic – it tells the player something about the people who painted them, without the player even noticing. Hundreds of neon paint footprints surround the DJ/dance floor area, with several spilled cans of neon paint close by – this tells the player that people were here in large numbers, dancing, having fun, whilst dead bodies nearby show what happened next. All of these details are visually interesting when you first see them, but they also tell stories, and that is why they work.

There’s a lot to consider when you’re propping an environment! Composition, readability, focal points, guiding the player, prop distribution, areas of rest for the eye, lighting etc, all of which are huge topics in their own right.

When you’re at the propping stage, you will more than likely already have the structure or architecture in place; the larger forms which make up your scene. With prop placement, as mentioned previously, you want to make sure that you are telling a story. You also need to make sure your distribution of props makes sense; for example, you wouldn’t have 3 huge, different hero pieces sat in a scene with no supporting smaller assets, just like you wouldn’t have 20 equally sized small assets in an area with nothing else – it’s all about balance. I generally have larger assets or areas supported by a few mid-sized pieces, then many smaller detailed items. So, for example, a huge air conditioning unit, with a few interesting large/mid-sized pipes, with various smaller piles of trash or bottles etc.

This balance of prop distribution is one of the main considerations when it comes to ‘reads’. You want players to be able to ‘read’ your environment, or your area, as soon as they enter it; the primary read. After that you have your secondary and tertiary reads, as the player observes mid then smaller level detail. Without the correct balance of prop distribution in your scene, these reads won’t work as they should.

Advice On Making a Perfect Portfolio

There are a few key things to consider when it comes to your portfolio. First, focus on quality not quantity; five excellent pieces are better than ten average pieces. Next, you are only as strong as your weakest piece, so you need to be ruthless with your own work. If it’s not up to your current standard, jettison it. If you feel like you can’t be objective, ask friends and colleagues their opinion, get some fresh eyes on your portfolio.

Try to be original and interesting; it’s how you will stand out. If you really want to do a sci-fi corridor, try and think of an angle on the theme that no-one has done before

Specialise, to a degree; don’t try to be all things (Environments, characters, FX, etc). Yes, some people can do it, some are very successful at it, but if you’re trying to get into the industry it can make it hard for those looking to hire you to understand where you would fit into the team. It’s rare that you would have a job where you would be expected to produce work in many different disciplines too (unless you’re indie, or a very small developer). That doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with these things in your own time though of course.

The presentation is of vital importance. Poor presentation can kill a great piece of work.

Adam Dudley, Environment Artist

Interview performed by Kirill Tokarev.

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