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Environment artist Brian Recktenwald from Naughty Dog talked about the production of high quality scenes for video games. Brian did some of the coolest environments forUncharted 4, including the amazing Scottish levels. It’s incredibly interesting to look at his production process.
I’ve been learning and creating computer graphics since a young age starting with Alias Design Studio and 3DS Max version 1 back in the 90’s. I also spent many sleepless nights playing PC shooters and console games, and got hooked into gaming. I went to school for Visual Effects at Savannah College of Art and Design and upon graduating in 2006, I landed a position at LucasArts in San Francisco. The first project I worked on was The Force Unleashed. This was a great entry into the field for me and I learned a ton from seasoned game industry veterans. I’m still very proud of how that game turned out and it was generally well received. After completing The Force Unleashed 2, I went on to become the Environment Art Lead for the Star Wars 1313 project. This was an exciting opportunity to begin pushing game art for a new console generation with some very talented folks, including several from ILM. Before LucasArts was shut down in 2013, I moved to Naughty Dog to be a part of the most ambitious and talented team in the gaming industry and where I’m currently very proud to be.
Assembling of the Environments
The first step to any environment is working with the design and concept teams under a unified art direction. Many hours are spent researching and absorbing what the environment needs to accomplish, along with the gameplay goals that need to be hit, before any creation happens. After that, the next step involves building the LEGO kits of the various areas. It’s incredibly important to think in modularity/reuse for not only the speed of creation, but for the sake of performance and optimization of the game engine.
For nature scenes this normally involves creating the terrain, rocks, and foliage that can be configured to arrange environments. For manmade
spaces this involves creating the floors, ceilings, walls, pillars, doors, etc. and how they will be destructed/ruined. We also need to work with the foreground team to establish what will break dynamically or react to physics. If an artist comes on early in production, they can often be part of the look development process, but if they are hired later in production, chances are the artist will be reusing/repurposing existing assets as looks will already be defined. Creating environments is like photography in that composition and lighting are key to selling the space. The tricky part is that the environment needs to be appealing from all angles, and at the same time, must always lead the player subtly toward the goal. So in execution, it is a balance of both building LEGOS and photography.
Environment Design and Gameplay
Environment art and design go hand in hand. It’s incredibly important and it takes a lot of iteration to not only preserve the gameplay pillars, but to enhance and make the designer’s goals more appealing and fun. It’s also very important to make the environments friendly to the systems such as climbing, combat, locomotion and stealth.
Earlier in production on Uncharted 4, I often pushed the organic look too far, taking a hit on gameplay and traversability. Through iteration, feedback and playtests I was able to find a balance that still looked organic and played much better. I feel the key components are keeping level destinations clear and simple with clean reads, and keeping areas where the player directly interacts with clean and simple as well. Also balancing separation between the foreground, midground and background with the help of lighting and atmosphere are paramount for achieving complex readable environments.
In the early stages of creating a level there’s a dialogue with the game designer on how the macro composition is laid out. The main areas of focus at this stage are readability, creating clear player goals, and the “breathing” of the level. This breathing refers to various expanding and compressing the player goes through to make the journey feel more dynamic. After the foundation is established, more work is put into another layer of composition that includes arranging architectural details, ruins, rocks and trees that create pleasing pockets of destinations the player will seek. The final stage is creating/placing all the small set dressing details and storytelling elements that really sell the scene as a real space that feels lived in. All these stages have plenty of iteration with design, lighting, and visual effects until shipping.