Turning Levels into Environments

Turning Levels into Environments

Game artist Chris Durso talked about his approach to 3d production, environment design in games and shared some tips on building levels.

We’ve had a chance to contact Chris Durso – a game artist with 10 years of experience and some amazing games under his belt. He worked at 343 Industries, helped to build MAG & SOCOM 4. During those years he did a ton of different environments. In this post he talks about the functions of game environments, his approach to modeling and design of complex 3d scenes.



My name is Chris Durso and I am from Seattle. I have been in the Game Industry for about 10 years now. In the time I have worked for companies such as Zombie, Zipper/Sony, 343 Industries and various Indie Developers. I have worked on Socom 4 and MAG as an environment and vehicle artist. 343 as an environment and lighting artist, and various indie developers as a concept artist and environment lead.



Functions of Environment

Environments in games serve to set the stage in games, as much as they do in our lives. I believe that environments are essentially characters as well. They have a history, they can tell us a story and we can interact with them. Within the context of games, the purpose of a successful environment to me, is to sell you on these ideas, immerse the player within the world, and hold a playable space that enjoyable gameplay might be achieved.



I treat game environments much like I would in a camera, or in a painting. I think about the story, about composition and lighting mostly. I dont concern myself much with details until much later. I rely mostly on big shapes and lighting for most of the work I do, and only detail where it makes sense to do so, and to set up environments in such a way that it engages the player or viewer and leads them or invites them to explore. I like to be a bit abstract at times, I take much influence from impressionism for this reason. I like other people to make their own interpretations of what they are experiencing. In many games I have worked on however, it is very important that successful environments contain all these elements, while telling a story.

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Applying Modular Approach

With advances in software now, these has become much easier. I have adopted a kitbashing method for most of my modeling workflows now where I essentially reuse assets as much as possible ,after I have built them to a meter grid space if needing to be modular. Later, details can be covered as another layer over modular walls for example, to create deeper levels of depth and parallax.



I think this depends but essentially a base library of shaders is established. You have your organic materials and metallic materials for example, and work it from there depending on what you need. These days I work with physically based lighting and materials so everything is exact in its science and data so there is no longer much guess work on how it should be. Shaders become more complicated however when you are trying to balance art with memory withing the game which is why its important to hit the quality you want first ,then discuss with engineers on optimization so that it can run in the game. Engines like Unreal 4 make it incredibly simple to make complex shaders however.


Environment Design and Level Design

When working on Halo4 I worked closely with the designers to first establish the gameplay space from a very loose blockout. Once I had that then I was mostly free to do whatever I wanted to fit that space. Its important however when working with gameplay, to consider how your art could impact the gameplay. For example, if its an FPS game, and the player is working their way through a level, does the lighting and modeling help to guide that player or is it confusing? Its important to work with the gameplay for these reasons.


Tips and Tricks

I dont have any specific software advice, use what you have. It doesnt really matter. And in approach I would say, experiment, find what works for you but consider what your goals are. I dont believe there is any right or wrong way to approach art in general but I would say that overall. Studying true and old forms of art helps alot. Photography, drawing, painting…understanding composition and lighting and all these things can help far more than any software ever can.


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