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!
3d artist Collin Harris gave a nice breakdown of his simple and pretty fantasy environment.
My name is Collin Harris, I am a Game Art student in Sarasota, FL. This was my first major project in Unreal Engine. I made an environment titled “Domicile of a Lonely Mage.” From concept to finished environment the project took only three weeks. I worked primarily in Unreal Engine 4, Maya, Photoshop, Substance Designer, and Substance Painter.
As with most environments, my scene started by going through piles of reference. Because I had very tight timeframe, I knew I wanted to focus on creating a smaller, but visually rich environment. I spent a lot of time in the concept phase laying out all the narrative and logistic elements of the scene. I started with a 2D top-down blueprint put together in Illustrator. After laying everything out on a 2D document, I quickly put together a 3d blockout with primitives in Unreal. Once I had the blockout working, I just continued polishing and iterating on the different pieces until I had my finished product. I have a tendency to get way too enthusiastic about an idea, which can often lead to over-scoping to the point of failure. So, keeping both my time and personal limitations in mind, I tried to keep the overall scope of the project small. I wanted to be able to tell a story and make the environment feel like a small piece of a larger world that I hope to further explore in further projects.
I made a conscious effort during the process to surround myself with my work. Any time I wasn’t actively in front of a computer working on my environment, I was watching tutorials, pouring through documentation, or watching live streams of other environment artists.I was completely immersed in my project at all hours. I sought out other artists and designers and asked them about their process and workflow. I became obsessed with my work, working tirelessly to polish and iterate on my concept, and I think that helped me produce something unique.
Aesthetically speaking, the environment’s simplified forms came from logistical and stylistic choices that appealed to me. When I began working, I knew that my timeframe was incredibly tight. Keeping that in mind, I found myself drawn to simpler visual styles that would allow me to more spend time iterating and polishing instead of troubleshooting UVs and shading errors. I knew I wanted to stick with a very accessible visual aesthetic, something that appeals to a wide audience. I was hugely inspired by the stylized art direction in Blizzard’s newest game Overwatch. I started studying the various ways they utilized simple shapes and stylized PBR textures and incorporated that into my own work. I wanted my environment to feel rooted in a tangible world, which lead to simpler shapes with strong silhouettes. The biggest challenge with this kind of a design decision is simplifying your shapes without losing critical visual information. Keeping my project in a middle area in between stylized and photo realistic was challenging, but I think it turned out reasonably well…
Because there are so many different approaches to texturing assets, I started thinking about materials very early in my workflow. During the pre-production stage I sorted through through my reference photos and picked out reference that matched the surfaces I needed for my scene. This helped me keep track of all the different materials I needed. Once I got to the point in my process where I started primarily focusing on materials and textures, I split everything into two categories: tillable textures and one-off textures.
For my tiling textures, I worked primarily in Substance Designer to create the texture work and then moved into UE4’s material editor to generate all my procedural tiling materials. I spent a big chunk of time focusing on building material functions to help speed up common functionalities within multiple materials like vertex painting and uniform world align scaling/rotating. For all my one-off props, I used Substance Painter in conjunction with Substance Designer to give these important props a bit of extra polish. Substance Painter is great for this kind of texturing because I was able to easily paint materials directly on my meshes. This allowed me to get an unreal (hah) level of detail onto my meshes in a very short period of time. What would have taken hours in zBrush, UE4, and Quixel now takes 45 minutes of painting and masking in Substance Painter.
As far as challenges go, one of the biggest obstacles I ran into derived from my own lack of experience with environment art. Spending an hour troubleshooting every time something doesn’t go according to plan adds quite a bit of time to your project. Learning, executing, iterating, and polishing all at the same time can be exhausting, and you constantly are learning newer, better, and more efficient ways to do something. Thankfully, it does get easier. By the end of the project I was pretty proficient in all of the software I had been using throughout my process.
Using Material Editor in UE4
The material editor in UE4 is super robust and easy to use, which means you can iterate quickly and efficiently. If you want to save time and optimize your workflow, material functions are your best friend. I used them in almost every material to automate and simplify a lot of the time-consuming repetitive actions I needed to create for my shaders. I used them everywhere from speeding up importing textures, to generating variation quickly within in my materials.
For example, near the end of the project I made a book material that uses an object’s world position to generate color variation. Because I made this into a material function that generates integers based on the position, I could easily plug that functionality into something like my candle flame material to vary the speed and size of the flame. This kind of function could be used in basically any material to generate some super quick variation. Material variation of any kind is great in a modular environment because it hides the obvious repetition of models.
I built my candle flame material by distorting a static candle texture alphacard by 3 different sine waves. Then, I plugged them into a particle system to add more size variation and smoke particles. It wasn’t particularly challenging to construct, but sitting in front of a screen tweaking variables and staring at the slight movement variation between an 0.06 and 0.12 speed sine wave might give you a migraine after a while. It sure gave me one.
Coming into this project with basically no knowledge of game or environment art, lighting was one of the most challenging areas for me personally. If I could start over with what I know now, I would establish a very clear concept of what I wanted from my lighting in the pre-production phase to make it easier to execute once everything else is finished. I’m a huge believer that continuous iteration and exploration is the key to making great work. However, when you’re waiting upwards of an hour for your lighting to build each time you set up a new lighting scheme, being inexperienced with lighting really adds some difficulty to the process. When it comes to lighting, save the iteration for either a blank scene, or paint overs in Photoshop. There’s nothing worse than staring at that “building lighting” popup over and over just because you don’t know what kind of feeling or mood you want from your lighting.
If I could give anyone any advice as to get started making environments it would be to surround yourself with your work. If you want to build mind-blowing epic environments, immerse yourself in other people’s worlds. Look at appealing work and deconstruct what you love the most. Get inspired by the world around you and embed that into your work. Seek out people who are similarly passionate and ambitious and get involved. I wouldn’t have been able to do half of the things that I did without the support and encouragement from the incredible artists and friends I surrounded myself with. I would love to extend heartfelt gratitude to some of the most incredible artists I know who helped me immensely throughout the span of this project. Jared Lewin, Steve Hong, Peyton Varney, Jason Chisolm, Sam Gao, Ryland Loncharich, and Hailey Williams. Thank you all for reading this! I hope it helps you on your own artistic journey. If you have any questions, or dog pictures feel free to follow me on twitter at @grossbloy.