Crafting Modern 3D Environments

Crafting Modern 3D Environments

Tips and tricks on environment art from Jason Hickey.

Jason Hickey, who is now working Spider-Man game for PS4, talked about the tasks of environment artists. Here is something you should know about this sphere of game development. 


I’m Jason Hickey Lead Environment Artist at Insomniac Games in Los Angeles working on the new awesome Spider-Man game – it’s really awesome!!! I am from Dublin in Ireland and I started off in film and animation before settling on games. I’ve been lucky enough to work on quite a few successful titles, the most famous being Ryse: Son of Rome for which I was Lead Environment Artist (as well as some other roles). Other cool projects were Kinect Disneyland Adventures and PlayStation VR Worlds – Actually the projects I’ve worked on have been in E3 keynotes for Microsoft/Sony for the past 7 years I think! It’s always really rewarding to see your work up on the big stage.

Tasks of Environment Artists

I think people expect environment art to be different to what it turns out to be. In fact for me that’s the coolest because making art in isolation every day and nothing else would actually be kind of boring. If I wanted to do that I would try to work as props artist (basically a career that’s dead end with outsourcing being as awesome as it is today) or perhaps even a character artist if I had the skills. The biggest task in my opinion is to make the game fun. That means working with level designers and the design team as a whole to make sure we are delivering a cool experience for the player. This is especially important in VR by the way. Anyway after that it’s making sure it looks great and tells a good story and of course it all has to be performant. I’m stating the obvious here but being a good artist is only one third of being a good environment artist. If you are not technical enough to get it to run or not design orientated enough to help improve game play then you are not up to the job in my opinion. You’ve got to love it all.

Crafting of an Environment

I always try to brainstorm with the designer, concept artist, level coder and story writer. They may not have those titles in the studio like the art director might be the story writer and concept artist but what you need is someone who can speak for the narrative, the look, the fun and how to do it. In this function I’m the bridge between a lot of the people as ultimately I’m going to be the one accommodating and implementing everyone’s needs. You really need pillars, simple one or two word themes/goals for which to help make decisions to push you towards – it’s kind of arbitrary but I find using 3 pillars force you to think creatively rather than having loads or just one. For example, recently working on a level one of the pillars was “cool environment”. I don’t like “cool” or “wow” as pillars because they are subjective but it was better than nothing. I tweaked it to be “memorable environment” and because of that I was able to negotiate the setting which didn’t seem to matter as much as it being memorable.

You can really start a level with nothing and make it great if you work with designers from the very beginning. I guess the only essential element is that you and your designer are both willing to listen to each other and help in areas that you might not have ownership of. On Ryse I worked really well with the designer Clement Mendelez (hire him, he’s great!) and we were constantly pitching ideas about art and design and then implementing them. It wasn’t that he could only talk about design. If he had art input I would listen, loads of cool stuff went into the level because of that. Also as an added advantage you start to see the world through designers eyes and that can only help you in your career.

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Essential Tools

Substance Designer. You have to learn this tool. Photoshop is dying (I love you old friend but you’re not needed for texturing anymore). If you can use an engine that’s also very useful but it’s not required. I would say, having recently reviewed a lot of portfolios, it’s very important that the modern environment artist does not forget how to make physical art. I’m not talking about shiny props or illustrations on Polycount and Artstation. I’m talking about drawing, painting, making non digital images, photography. Physical media – by the way it doesn’t have to be any good! just trying different things opens up your brain to new ideas). You also need an arsenal of reference so you should have visited a ton of countries and explored cities and countryside all over the world. It’s expensive I know but I’m telling you a trip to Turkey, staying in Hostels and visiting Istanbul and Cappadochia will give you so much more than buying a fancy new monitor or laptop.

People are getting so good at tools now that the whole “graduate artists are not prepared for the industry” soundbite has become untrue. But the quality of the traditional artist (someone who thinks creatively and draws inspiration from the world/their own emotions instead of only video games and concept art) has suffered a bit as a result.

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Organising Space

Organising space in a scene is completely dependent on the emotional response the player should feel – this emotional response is not the colour of the space or something like that, it’s how the player feels at that point depending on narrative, game-play, the controls, audio etc. Its a fuzzy answer but it’s the truth. I could talk all day about the different emotions in different types of games and pacing and all the factors that help you answer this question. The perfect way to make a space enjoyable is to have form and content match. If the game-play and narrative are sad then make the space sad. How do you do that? Well emotions are like colour in that they are relative. If you’ve got a very happy game then sad might just be the absence of happiness. If you’ve got a very sad game then it’s more of a struggle but I imagine creating expectation of happiness in the space but adding unexpected sadness would work best here.

A lot of this environment composition and storytelling is not just one space but the combination, pacing and pattern of multiple spaces. As I said it’s relative so building up to an emotional response that is pleasing and enjoyable is about fitting expectation or introducing surprise. Another element is avoiding cliche and repetition. I mean repetition in the sense of the same idea in the same project. Avoiding cliche is number one in any decision making for me.

For pleasurable visuals its the same response, a really awful looking game that needs to look awful for that emotional response is a success in my opinion (as long as every player gets that response!). I’ve worked on projects/levels that have been beautiful but not ultimately enjoyable. If it’s just for viewing pleasure and forgetting about game play (which you should only do if you absolutely have to!!) then there are some things to make sure of.

First off is rendering/lighting. Make sure you have a neutral setup – I call this an Asset Zoo since Crytek. This should be the place where everything is perfectly maintained. If you have that place which isn’t’ open to constant iteration like the game is, then you can always be sure your assets look great (you haven’t made mistakes). Don’t have level specific lighting here and make sure the Asset Zoo is built using a good mix of all the best materials from your library. Remember this isn’t to to replicate the game you are making, its to test your rendering code(and to compare when you make changes)/lighting setup (shouldn’t change after first setup unless broken)/materials.

Next is material quality: You absolutely have to get materials perfect. If you don’t you will have to over compensate with excessive prop placement. Then there is story. Add some level of story everywhere. I’ll probably write something about story soon enough as it seems that there isn’t a lot of specifics out there on what makes a good story. Story doesn’t mean something dramatic, it can also be the story of a wall or a patch of grass.

Learning Sources 

Sign up to Facebook groups like 10,000 hours, obviously get on Polycount, try out modding, show off your work on Artstation and follow your favourite artists for inspiration. Follow this site ( which has great content. There is really enough free content out there that you don’t need to go to university or night courses (for technical stuff like software). If you can’t afford university fees in the UK or USA for example, have a look at other countries like Germany which offers education for all. I would also have a Steam account and check your queue every week. This is a great way to see what games are doing without having to buy a ton of stuff and it’s so much quicker than looking for videos in your browser. If you want to read a couple of books then I recommend “Alla Prima” (but skip the nonsense about Modern art being an inferior way to paint), “Shaping Interior Space” and “Colour and Light”. I also found “The Skillful Hunstman” very good. Try to play table top games. By reading lots of complex rules and playing many board games and rpgs you will learn a huge amount about game design and critical thinking. Don’t stop at making props, learn about art and history and philosophy and religion and fashion and makeup. Anything that will give you an idea in the future, you never know when that inspiration will prove useful.

Jason Hickey, Lead Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 2

  • George

    Definitely inspiring. Jason was a guest speaker while I was studying and I can say that held true in person as well!

    Some interesting takeaways about how the role of the games artist seems to be evolving



    ·2 years ago·
  • Twink

    Very good article, interesting and inspiring



    ·2 years ago·

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