Northern Architecture for Game Environments

Brooke Olson talked about the modeling and texturing of her most recent navigable environment, inspired by Vikings.

We’re excited to start 2017 with an awesome breakdown from Brooke Olson. She’s a very talented soon-to-be environment artist, who’s been recently exploring modular design for environments. Great to compare some of the stuff she’s building with the procedural 3d architectural elements from Anastasia Opara. Excellent work


My name is Brooke Olson and I’m a senior studying at Ringling College of Art and Design to become an Environment Artist. The Game Art BFA program at Ringling College brings our feature film aesthetic to games and is focused on providing students with the professional artistic skills necessary to create compelling and believable interactive experiences. I grew up in a small city in Wisconsin. This past summer I interned at Insomniac Games as an Environment Artist Intern and was lucky enough to contribute to the new Spider-Man PS4 game.

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Viking Village

This project was part of my senior thesis and part of the requirements was to create a navigable space with gameplay as well as making beautiful images for our portfolio. In the end we will come out with a “Trailer” for our game. I worked with two others to make a cohesive project. We each created our own environments so when you look at the screenshots, it’s all my own work. Same applies to my group members. The trailer will combine our work and when you play the game we stream in each other’s levels. The main tasks of creating this environment for me was to create a storytelling image as well as making it as appealing and realistic as possible.

The production started with preproduction where I created concepts for each of my area’s as well as drawing out some of the props I wanted to create. I also gathered a lot of reference for viking architecture and the materials they used. My scene has definitely changed a lot from the original concept. Once you start making the environment in Unreal, you start to realize some of the concepts you created don’t work as well in 3D. I did still want to retain the mood and feeling that I had in my concepts. From my concept, I created a blockout level. After block out, I started to model a majority of my models and make them to a second pass.

After the modeling phase, I started to make my main materials in Substance Designer. I’m new to Designer so I used this opportunity to learn it by starting off with creating simple materials. I created a base wood that I was able to easily adjust with set parameters. I made a plank version of wood from that and I also created a stone wall and stone floor material inside Designer. It served as a great tool for me and definitely helped me create exactly what I envisioned. I made my base material in Designer and then parameterized it unreal to be applied to models. I adjusted the parameters as needed for those models. Once I created a good amount of my materials, I started to apply them to models. I set up some master materials in unreal, that could easily be instanced off and adjusted with more parameters. I did a lot of vertex painting to my meshes for finalizing the project. I also made a snow pass on a lot of the houses and props as well as some post processing effects.


The majority of my models started out in Maya, I got the base of the mesh and then went into ZBrush and broke up the harsh edges on a lot of the models. One thing I noticed with a lot of Viking houses and props was the heavy use of carvings. My solution for the carvings was to create tiling trim sheets with the patterns on them. I then UVed the props to the trim sheets. This helped me get much higher resolution normals and masks on my meshes and saved on the amount of texture maps. All models in these scenes were created by me from scratch.

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Assets that gave me the biggest problems were those which lacked real world reference. I ran into that issue for a good amount of the houses. I ended up trying to gather as much reference as I could and make compelling houses from different references. With the interior I tried to create my own version of what I believed to be a Viking dining hall while still following what reference I gathered. In the interior, I tried to add more visual interest by adding a hole in the ceiling. This allowed the snow from the exterior to fall in and let some contrasting light in. I used a mod kit for the structural/architectural elements in the interior, and one-off props for the set dressing.


The majority of the texturing was done with Substance Designer, but I also used Substance B2M and Photoshop. I decided to use Substance Designer for the materials that took up the most screen space because I believe it is becoming much more known and used in the industry and I wanted to familiarize myself with it. I also found that it makes a big difference in your materials, you don’t have limits when creating the textures, you can output whatever map size you want, and you get much cleaner normals. Using Designer is much more personalized versus using a photo texture. I made the stone and wood in Substance Designer by first making the normal and height.  I created the roughness map from that and then the diffuse. I spent a good amount of time getting the correct colors for my wood. I wanted the wood to feel aged and faded from the sun and weather. I recommend importing your HDRI from your scene into substance because it is important to understand how your scene influences your materials.

My materials in UE4 had a lot of parameters set up, so I was easily able to instance them off and change the parameters as needed. This made production a lot faster for me, I was able to switch on detail normals if I needed, swap out texture maps, adjust saturation, normal map intensity, adjust rotation of the maps, and much more. For my landscape material I created a material that would allow me to do
landscape painting to achieve variation where I wanted. I heavily optimized my landscape material to guarantee there would be no cost in performance. I named my meshes with the correct format so I was quickly able to re-import them when I made any changes in Maya.

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The interior lights are a mixture of dynamic as well as baked. The directional light shining into my interior is set to static. The directional light in my exterior is dynamic, and the additional lights I have near the fire are baked. I like to use temperature for all my lights to get the desired color; it feels much more realistic to me. My interior has light shafts that I created from cards and a panning material. I set the number of indirect light bounces, for both the interior and exterior, to 6. I did a lot of the coloring for the environment by using post processing.

Advice that I would give to someone creating a similar scene would be to create a few good base materials, and then build on top of those to make a master material that you can parameterize and instance. I would definitely advise using trim sheets; It saves a lot of time when creating assets.

Brooke Olson, 3D artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 1

  • Talkies Village Talkies

    Informative blog! it was very useful for me.Thanks for sharing. Do share more ideas regularly.


    Talkies Village Talkies

    ·a year ago·

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