Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
We’re incredibly excited to present an awesome new breakdown of an incredible hotel environment, created by Alexander Alza. He was kind enough to talk about the production of this level and discuss some of the techniques, which helped him to build this incredible location.
My name is Alexander Alza, I’m an Environment Artist at n-Space based out of Orlando, FL USA. I’ve worked on a wide spectrum of projects for numerous platforms. Most recently I’ve worked on Sword Coast Legends (PC, Xbox One, PS4) and WWE 2K (iOS, Android). When I was young I noticed I was pretty good at drawing and my love for art coupled with my mom purchasing a Nintendo Entertainment System for me sealed the deal as far as what I wanted to do for a career. I’ve been fortunate enough to live the dream so far.
For my Hotel scene I wanted do something moody and modular in Unreal Engine 4. I used the concept piece below from The Art of Gears of War 3 as loose inspiration.
It’s not the most inspirational or well put together concept by any means but the composition and detail were enough to spark something.
I wasn’t certain at first if I wanted this scene to be more of a museum than a hotel. At one point I even began making it more of a train station but eventually settled back into an ominous hotel lobby. It’s supposed to be an elegant lobby so I didn’t want it to feel too lived in/messy but also didn’t want it looking terribly sterile and empty.
Typically on personal projects I would gather some reference imagery and pick and choose certain aspects that are effective for what I’m trying to create.
I would then block model somewhat simple modular meshes and properly place them in the scene so as the geometry gets more polish, their placement remains the same. Grid snapping is a wonderful thing.
At this point I do a decent pass on my skydome, lighting and fog. Even without any material definitions your composition should start to show some cohesion with just simple geometry and a decent lighting pass, at least that’s how I operate.
As I progressed with this scene I started to compromise on noisy detail as it was starting to become a bit distracting. Some of these edits I came to on my own and some were gathered by feedback from posting my work-in-progress on forums.
Here’s an older screen shot with some of those superfluous details.
Notice the details on the arches and the ribbon tornado sculptures and slight overuse of foliage. Most evident is that the scene started out with a sunset lighting scheme so not only was I getting detail noise but lighting noise as well.
I must give credit to www.textures.com for providing numerous great starting points to work from and to my dad for the hanging wall art textures I used. He does some trippy oil paintings so I used some of his art and colorized them to not be as distracting. Credit to runcimanart.blogspot.com.
When baking out lighting I try to do as much as I can with Preview Lighting and default 64 size lightmaps until I feel I’m getting to the final stages since Production lighting builds take significantly longer. As far as my Lightmass settings go I did do some experimenting and also researched what others had done. Below is the shot of my final Lightmass settings, found under World Settings.
The image below shows lighting only and my light actors. Most lights I used were point lights, some were just used as fill (no shadow casting) and then I used a few spotlights for the walls and the central chandelier. Lastly I used a Skylight to soften out some general darkness. I generally try to avoid really complicated lighting setups and aim to do more with less.
Lastly what I like to use as a final polish is Unreal’sPost Process Volume. There are numerous options to be found in it but I mostly tweak with the Scene Color, Color Grading, LUT (Look Up Table) texture. If you’re unfamiliar with this here’s a link directly from the official docs. It’s a great way to do some color correction and enhance the mood of your work.
*Pro tip* Sometimes what I do is take a screengrab of my work directly from Unreal, open it up on Instagram and play around with some of those filters, if I see something I like I go online and find a “how to replicate Instagram filters in Photoshop” site such as this one and tweak it to mesh well with my intentions. I then import that LUT into the Color Grading slot of the Post Process Volume and voila!
Using Quixel Suite 2.0 to Build Materials
I’ve been a big fan of Quixel Suite and look forward to diving deeper into 2.0. I primarily used Quixel for this project simply because I’m more familiar with it than with the Substance tools at the moment. Either one of these packages are great for the PBR workflow. I always find myself doing tweaks beyond the stock results however so there’s a decent amount of Photoshop texture tweaks that I do because I’m picky.
When it comes to small normal details you can’t beat the quickness of nDo in my opinion. I often end up with a nice mix of high-res mesh bake downs and nDo details overlaid. Below is an example of an atlas normal texture I used in Hotel, simple but effective for small details.
Approaching Environment Creation
On personal projects, you should know your goals and intentions. There will always be people that will not like your art because of whatever personal preference they may have but as long as you feel like you’ve given your work the due diligence and iterations that it demands and you’re satisfied that you’ve learned something from it then you’re a winner.
Obviously there’s a lot more freedom on a personal project, professionally speaking you need to be on the same wavelength as your art director and crew and adjust to the demands of the product.
Personally for me, a game with mediocre environments but excellent gameplay will always resonate more than a game with mediocre gameplay but excellent environments. It’s interactive entertainment after all, not a poster. Of course the ideal thing is to excel at both mechanics and visuals.
Storytelling in Environments
The biggest flaw I see from the fresh-faced kids trying to make the next awesome game is scope. Look I’m all for “the sky is the limit” type of mentality but unless you’re a proven giant with deep pockets I think game storytellers should tame their expectations. Start small, and polish the hell out of whatever that small is. I love playing games that use the most out of one particular scene or revisit an environment with a different purpose.
Naturally I’m a giant fan of games where the environments themselves become storytellers. Off the top of my head games like Dead Space, Bioshock, Journey, Limbo, Shadow of the Colossus, Alien: Isolation come to mind, I could name many more but we don’t have that kind of time.
Thank you very much for your interest. I hope everyone has an excellent and productive 2016!