Check out a breakdown of a chapel scene with Diablo vibes made by Phil Stoltz with ZBrush, Maya, Substance Painter, and Unreal Engine.
Greetings everyone! It’s great to be writing another tutorial for 80.lv. My name is Phil Stoltz and I’m a 3D Environment Artist currently working at Blizzard Entertainment. I am in my 4th year of being a part of the game industry. I’ve worked on projects such as New World, Darksiders Genesis, Back 4 Blood, and now Diablo IV. Before landing my first gig in the industry I studied Game Art Design and obtained my BFA at the Art Institute of Portland, OR. I’ve been very passionate about games, movies, and art since I was very little; playing games like Goldeneye, Fable, Halo, and lots of Mario Kart 64 with my two older brothers.
Old Chapel Project
I like to start all my personal projects by doing a lot of research and reference gathering. This time, in fact, I didn’t use any concepts I just wanted to create an eerie scene that would fit within the Diablo universe! When it comes to looking for references, I have different categories I like to organize the images I find; depending on the project. For example, in this project, finding references like old churches/chapels to see what materials they were constructed of.
References of overgrowth to analyze how vegetation grows over buildings, mood reference, lighting references, etc. All of these different things I use to help reinforce the idea I already have in my head. Even though I have a pretty good idea as to what a typical, ‘spooky graveyard’ looks like, it’s always good to find a reference as a good visual reminder.
As far as the layout and composition of the scene, I didn’t really have any solid direction of what I wanted. So I hopped into UE4 first and started messing around with simple cubes and added some dramatic lighting to get a sense of what was working, spatially. And then I did a few very quick sketches on top of the blockout to start getting the ideas out.
The actual studying of the Diablo-style came from me playing through the games and paying attention to all of the unique details. And in this case, I love all of the cinematics for that world and I definitely was aiming for a more cinematic and dramatic look to the scene, so I did a lot of work rewatching those as well.
Modeling and Sculpting
The great thing about my approach to modeling and sculpting is that I’m not using any fancy tricks or black magic! For modeling, I like to use Maya and for sculpting I use ZBrush. Then for texturing, I typically will always use Substance Painter; I’ve recently started to dabble in Designer but I think I still enjoy Painter for the more traditional “hands-on feel” to texturing.
For the chapel, even though it wasn’t that big, I wanted to build it modularly and approach it how I typically build structures; with tiling textures. I know I can achieve good results with this method. As always though, I always start with a blockout and make sure that I have my shapes correct and the size of everything feels appropriate.
The rocks in the scene were actually just one rock that was duplicated over and over again. But in terms of how I sculpted it, it was actually different than what I typically do. I used a brush in ZBrush called the History Recall brush. Which allows you to place a pre-sculpted asset into, say, a blockout mesh, and then translate the higher-res sculpt data onto the new sculpt. I learned this fun technique from one of my good friends, Daniel McGowan.
The bridge, which was later cut from the scene, which I’ll explain why later in the article, was made the same way the chapel was. I started with a blockout and tested its length and width in UE4 by running across it a couple of times. I then took a tiling texture and mapped it over the blockout and then used the Height Map inside ZBrush to displace the stone tile texture on it to pop the stones in 3D existence.
The smaller assets, such as the gravestones, trees, and candles were actually quite simple. They all started as a simple blockout mesh that I did in Maya. From there they were taken into ZBrush to be sculpted on. As with everything else, there’s no crazy trick that I am doing to achieve the desired sculpting style. My favorite damage-style brushes are TrimSmoothBoarder, Trim Adaptive, Orbs Brushes, and HPolish. I always think about trying to maximize a single brush and get the most use out of it, that way I don’t need 5-10 brushes to achieve that one look. My rule with sculpting is less is more. A few cracks and broken edges can tell the same story of age and wear better than damaged every nook and cranny on an asset.
The grass was actually fairly simple. I initially tested out some Megascans grass in the beginning. The problem I ran into though is that the top-down camera angle I was using wasn’t really allowing me to see all the grass in its glory. I was having to place thousands of grass clumps around the scene but even then I could barely see it. So what I chose to do instead was sculpt the grass blades in ZBrush and use the Normal, Height, and AO, from ZBrush and import to Photoshop to create the final grass blades. Since I knew from using the Megascans grass that those clumps were a little too thin, I knew I needed to make the grass blades/clumps larger so they would read on the screen. So, overall I used very simple and traditional techniques to make the grass. And in the end, I used far fewer clumps to achieve a lush-looking grassy feel.
Making the different tiling terrain materials was a lot of fun. They were all done using a tiled 4x4M plane in ZBrush. That allows me to sculpt as much as I want and use whatever brush I want and it will tile, as long as I set my brushes wrap mode to 2. To get certain tiling elements into some of the sculpts such as little stones, I just sculpted a few different stones and then embedded them into the sculpt, and then used the slide feature in the deformation tab. That helps tile the stones. For things such as puddles; I would sculpt on the tiling plane and then place a smooth plane behind the tiled mesh and then I would treat the plane underneath as the puddled layer.
So, as I sculpted the mud up and down it would either reveal the puddle underneath or add a cover-up of that area with mud. This is how I achieved the rest of the tiling textures. I should mention that for more organic tiles I will just start in ZBrush, if it requires more complex planning, I will start in Maya first and import it into ZBrush. Once I am happy with the sculpt I will usually compile all the maps in Photoshop and then bring them all into Substance Painter for my texturing. Once all the textures are done I import them into UE4 and I have a master material where the blending is controlled by the Height Map. That’s how I am able to create realistic terrain blending.
Assembling Final Scene
The way that I like to work in UE4 is to tackle specific problems one at a time and then switch to other tasks. For example, when I work on a terrain, I make a list of all the tiled textures I know I am going to want, then I make them and specifically focus on making that aspect of the scene the best that I can; once I am happy with a couple of textures I move onto something else. Same with things like the chapel. I make sure that when I am working on one thing, I give it my full attention. That way I am bringing a bunch of the scene to a more complete state. The scene went through a bit of an evolution. Initially, I wanted to have this bridge going through it with a cool little stream with an embankment. But when I ended up texturing the bridge, I realized that the chapel and the bridge were competing for visual attention. And eventually, I realized that I still wanted to keep some sort of water element in there to break up just having rock and terrain.
I was also trying to make this feel like it was a part of the Diablo world. So, I wanted to create a little pathway that players would use to enter that space. I think it was a good idea to do that because it helped ground the entire scene into being believable and that a player could actually see themselves going here. And the path creates a nice S-Curve in the scene for extra interest. For the gravestones, I did want them to have some sort of planning behind them. A lot of times in games, you see gravestones piled on top of one another. That result looks cool but I wanted to still make the scene seem like it was realistic.
The lighting of this scene was a lot of fun. A lot of my knowledge of working with lighting in a top-down setting comes from my previous work on Darksiders Genesis. But since then I have learned some new cool tricks. As the scene was progressing I struggled with controlling the lighting in a way that would just illuminate the chapel. I was fighting the foreground being the same contrast as the background. Eventually what I did was set up “light blockers” in the sky. Those are basically just black boxes that were stretched large even to cover whatever portion of the terrain I wanted. You can even turn them invisible to the camera and still have them cast shadow. In this case, I didn’t need to make them invisible since the camera angle is top-down and we would never see them. I mostly just used a skylight to control the overall ambient lighting, Directional Light for my sun, and then a few different spotlights to simulate the sun poking through heavy clouds.
I used to have the habit of tweaking every post-production setting I could just because I could. But I’ve since been better about that since it can muddy up the visuals you are trying to create. I use it now mostly to help emphasize the overall mood I am trying to achieve with my lighting. I knew I wanted there to be a sickly green/yellow hue to the scene; those would be my warm tones. And for the coldness, that would come from the post-process shadows being tuned to be more blue and cyan. I thought that just having the chapel be the main point of interest was good but it was missing some cool mystical element. And after some experimentation, I ended up just placing a couple of blue point lights into the chapel. That ended up adding that really interesting and fun, dark-fantasy feel.
Advice for Beginners
There is definitely a different way of thinking when you are working on a top-down scene. For example, the textures don’t need to be as high res, you are limited to what you can see as a since the camera angle is fixed at all times. That was a big learning point for me when I worked on Darksiders. The sky is something the player can look at and give you visual feedback as to the time of day it is. So when that part of the equation gets removed, you have to use ambient light, and color to tell the player what time of day it is. My approach to composition and layout doesn’t change too much however, It’s the same workflow I’ve used when working on an FPS game. You are still populating a scene and telling stories that a player has to navigate their way through. Working in a top-down scene definitely has its own obstacles but it also has its advantages. But I would certainly recommend anyone to give it a try because it’s a lot of fun!