Building Environments for Virtual Reality Games

Environment artist Sean Ian Runnels talked about his experience building amazing scenes for virtual reality game Lone Echo.


My name is Sean Ian Runnels, and I am an Environment Artist with Ready At Dawn (RAD) in Irvine, CA. My role at RAD primarily consists of modeling, set dressing, and layout of the environments. Prior to joining RAD and working on the development of Lone Echo, I served as an Environment artist for a few studios and worked on a variety of titles including Star Citizen, Sonic Boom and Armored Warfare. However, my earliest involvement with games dates back to modding for Counter-Strike and Call of Duty. As I recall, I received one of my first jobs as a result of modding for Red Orchestra 2. In my personal time, I am always working on side projects or learning as much as I can to improve in areas that I feel I need improvement.

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Belieavable Sci-fi Environments 

When setting out to create “believable” sci-fi environments I start with the real world. There are so many environments and machines that already have a touch of what we would consider sci-fi and using them as a starting point can be a great inspiration. Some examples of reference that I look at while making sci-fi include military planes, submarines, battleships, and helicopters. It is all the better if you can find photos of these references being built. I always try to think about how everything is built and I do not just think about what is on the surface but what is beneath the surface. For instance, if I need to create a metal wall I think about how I would have to actually build that wall in the real world using framing, supports, and paneling. Then I move on to what may be inside the walls – electrical wires, insulation, and piping. With these thoughts in mind I avoid having large single surfaces of metal. I try to design environments that mimic real world challenges – even in sci-fi settings. The great thing about working on Lone Echo was the extremely talented concept team that helped shape the environments. Still, if you find yourself without concept or needing to fill in blanks hopefully these suggestions prove helpful.

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My modeling process for creating sci-fi environments is pretty straight forward, I start with reference or concept and take it from a thought to a blockout. I try to spend quality time in the blockout phase to really nail down what works and what doesn’t work. When I’m done with my blockout phase, I start to refine the shapes, giving priority to the most important or most used pieces. When I have a few shapes that I am happy with, I cut them out of the meshes and keep them as floating geo that I can quickly insert into other meshes. Something else valuable is to have a character model in the scene you are working on. This helps with scale and if someone needs to get into the files after you they know how big the pieces are compared to the player. As for software, we use Maya at RAD but when I’m at home I use Max. At the end of the day though it does not matter what you use, what matters is the final result. To find more details about how RAD works check out the presentations online by visiting Hope that helps!


The most important first steps when creating a door is knowing the size of the door and then having a conversation about how the door needs to open and accommodating that need. Let’s say for instance the door has moving parts that pop outward, do you need to accommodate for that in the doorway or do those pieces need to animate back before the door opens? Having conversations early will help everyone get on the same page and eliminate any confusion when moving forward. The next step is blocking everything out and seeing what is or could be a problem. Personally, when I’m making sci-fi doors I create sleeves for the doors to socket into because it looks better than having the doors clip through geo when they open. Lastly, my favorite sci-fi doors happen to be the doors that look and function similar to submarine doors, they just look and feel believable.

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Models for VR

With VR it is very critical to get meshes in and tested because the scale of content feels different. In my experience, everything in VR tends to feel smaller than it did in Maya or Max, so I test and iterate early on to eliminate scale problems. A tip that might help others is I take the hand off the character models, then scale it up slightly until it feels appropriate in VR, then I use that as point of reference for scale. Probably the most important advice I can give though is to think about the player’s comfortability and avoid high frequency patterns and high contrasting colors. You might have to sacrifice some ideas you had for your environment but you keep your players happier and minimize nausea.

Navigation Markers

In Lone Echo your in a Zero-G environment and can move completely unrestricted, therefore navigation and comfortability was critical. Our primary aid for navigation are blue handrails which can be seen throughout the game. These handrails help direct the player but also keep them a comfortable distance from surfaces. The importance of staying some distance from surfaces is because people can become a bit sick when hugging a surface and their movement speed is significantly reduced. To avoid this, we encourage pushing yourself from handrails as well as surfaces for both speed and comfort. Other than the handrails, circular doorways were used in the station interior to help direct the player to different sections of the space station.

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The biggest challenge for VR is hitting that desired 90fps and the ideal comfortability for the player. My advice is work cleanly from the start this way you are prepared for any optimizations that may occur but ideally you will be able to add content in at the end rather than remove. Also, spend the time to create great LODs as they can really make all the difference. For Lone Echo we actually made all the LODs by hand with most meshes having a Lod0 through Lod3. To touch back on comfortability, remember try to avoid high contrast, repetitious patterns, and content being too close to the player’s face.


A huge thanks to 80 Level for the opportunity to share a little about my experiences with sci-fi and VR. For any further questions feel free to contact me directly. For more of my work visit Artstation. I hope to have the opportunity to share more in the near future!

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Sean Ian Runnels, Environment Artist at Ready at Dawn

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 2

  • Ali Hussain

    Super useful information for every junior and mid level artist out there and thanks for sharing your experience with us Sean and as well thanks to 80 level for making such platform where these critical information are easy to access.


    Ali Hussain

    ·a year ago·
  • Dre

    Great read, the results were incredible.



    ·6 years ago·

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