Matthew Trevelyan Johns shared some things he learned during the production of amazing environments for the latest installment in the popular series.
I’ve always had a passion for video games, however it wasn’t until I first played Uncharted 2: Among thieves that I really believed that a video game narrative could be just as engaging as a film or book. I was completely lost in the storyline and the beautiful environments that the game takes place in and it was during these late night gaming sessions that I realized that to work for Naughty Dog, perhaps even on an Uncharted game would be a great thing to aim and hope for.
I had previously worked at TT Fusion on various Lego titles, before moving to Foundry 42 when it first opened its doors to develop Star Citizen. Both were incredible studios to work for and I loved the content we were creating, however after usual working hours I would always return to studying the techniques and subject matter that might benefit me, should I ever make it to Naughty Dog. Eventually I took the plunge and applied for a position…following the art test, two phone interviews, an on-site interview and my obtaining an O-1 visa to work in the US, I was able to make the big move. I left England, the land of tea, biscuits and cold, rainy days and embarked on my long awaited journey to Santa Monica, California. Though I certainly miss the tea and biscuits of my home country, I absolutely love the studio, the people and of course the weather and so yes, I love it here!
Working on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
Working on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy was for me, the best game developing experience of my career so far. I am a texture and shader artist and so I work closely with a model and layout artist to create the environments seen in the game. Edgar Martinez, the amazingly talented model and layout artist that I worked in partnership with, would model and compose the playing space; working closely with design to ensure it not only looked great, but also adhered to their fun gameplay designs. The level would then come to me and I would work to create textures and shaders, turning the ground mesh into wet, slimy mud or the rock formations into mossy, jagged cliff faces. Edgar and I would then work together to set-dress and do any further refinements to the environment, placing foliage and props to help make the environment believable and interesting to explore.
Moving to Naughty Dog, I needed to switch modeling packages as well as the texturing programs that I was previously using. I had used 3ds Max and done most of my texturing work in Quixel Suite, which lent itself well to our mostly metallic, tiling trim based surfaces on Star Citizen. At Naughty Dog, the primary modeling package is Maya. Substance Designer and Substance Painter also work very well with the type of assets and textures we work with and so many artists like to use these programs too. Substance Designer is something that I have used for a while however; previously using it to make a variety of organic textures in my personal time, however Substance Painter is something that I had not previously had any experience with, always having used Quixel suite previously. Thankfully both programs are very similar and with a quick lesson from Christophe Desse, our resident Painter expert I was able to get to grips with the software quite quickly. The main changes in my workflow that I have experienced actually relate more to the way we use textures in the shader editor, our shader editor can support many more layers per shader than the CryEngine and these layers blend over one and other using a variety of controls. Within the Cryengine, I was used to using two blends per shader and so mostly this would simply be a clean version of metal, blending with a dirty version using vertex alpha. However at Naughty dog, I am able to blend using multiple vertex colour channels, multiple textures, as well as other awesome world space techniques, like an objects height within the world, or its orientation, etc…the shaders are far less limiting in this sense and this also affects how I approach the creation of textures. Rather than packing all details into one texture for example, limiting its use elsewhere in the game, using the layering system we can create more generic, reusable textures, but stack and combine them together to create incredibly diverse and interesting results. It’s a very liberating way to work and I really enjoy it!
Textures and shaders
I joined Naughty Dog 6 months before we shipped Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and so production was in full swing. For the levels that I worked on in the beginning, my personal priority was to learn the shader editor as best I could before creating any new textures. Naughty Dog already has an extensive library of excellently crafted textures and while I would still create my own where necessary, as sometimes a bespoke look might require it, often I could use, or rework some that already existed in order to achieve the look that I wanted. Another advantage of the shader editor is that we can also edit each texture input to a degree within the editor itself, applying levels adjustments, hue changes, normal map strength adjustments etc. Using the roughness map as an example, often I could use the same one, but with different levels adjustments within the shader for different material types, thereby saving the cost of loading an entirely new roughness texture into the shader. Finding ways to work efficiently whilst still retaining the highest quality is one of the most important skills you can have when working on a video game.
This aspect of the shader editor allowed my workflow to become much more organic, often the texture creation stage would either be incredibly quick and rough at first, or I would simply borrow something that looked roughly similar to what I was after from the library and plug into the shader…from there I would perform a variety of adjustments within the shader editor, all extremely quickly, watching my materials update in real time. When I was entirely happy with the look and had approval from Tate Mosesian (the brilliant Art Director on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy) only then would I begin to refine those textures, taking the time to re-create them if necessary or taking the adjustments that I’d made in the shader and applying them directly to the textures themselves. This would allow me to then update the textures and remove the additional controls I had added to the shader, thereby reducing the shader cost once more.
With all of the Uncharted: The Lost Legacy work that I’ve showcased in my portfolio, probably the most important part of the process was the level of communication between myself and Edgar. Often all it would require was a brief ‘hey let’s try some foliage here’ or ‘maybe these rocks should feel more wet’ or ‘can these walls be destructible?’ and then we would both set about our work. Sometimes the way we might communicate our intentions for the level wouldn’t require words per say either, Edgar might create a rocky outcrop and roughly paint in a grass shader on the tops and place an arrangement of foliage, then he’d pass the level to me and move on to another area for a while. I would know that with his vertex painting suggestions, I should then refine this area and continue the thought process. I would create more complex shaders with puddles, moss, erosion, mud/soil transitions and add additional edge loops to support my vertex blending. I would then perhaps adjust the foliage placement to support the shader blends, as well as adjusting plant shaders to ensure that colours and shapes all felt harmonious when placed together. Often for each level, this passing back and forth would occur quite a few times, with each of us adding to each other’s work where we needed to. With frequent reviews and critique from Tate, we were able to continue to refine and develop the look to a point where everyone was happy. It was a really smooth process and again, communication played a vital role.
Moving form hard surface modeling to natural environments
Working on Star Citizen required me to be in a completely sci-fi head space, I would listen to sci-fi inspired soundtracks, watch sci-fi movies, research sci-fi and hard surface mood boards and basically surround myself in as many things that related to the genre as possible. This really helped me to understand the aesthetic I was working with and to align myself better with the direction of the project. However, prior to my time on Star Citizen and during the period in which I completed my art test for Naughty Dog, I had maintained similar practices, with the focus being on more epic, natural environments, landscapes, vistas and movie scores. My personal research during these times also focused more on texture and shader creation of natural surfaces too and so in a way it was less about having to adjust to something new and more about adjusting to leaving the sci-fi genre behind.
One great thing about art however is that certain fundamentals apply no matter what genre you are working in. Composing a scene and understanding the space that the player will explore, knowing how to tell a story with your modelling and texture work and applying a deeper level of thought to the theory behind your choices are all things that apply, whether you’re creating an airlock in an intergalactic spaceship…or an ancient temple guard room.