Hi, I’m Stephen Honegger, a game artist based in Melbourne Australia. I’m an Environment Artist by trade but I have also branched into other areas of game art production during my career, including characters and animation.
While writing this breakdown, I accepted a new job as a Senior Environment Artist at Sledgehammer Games. Sledgehammer has just opened a studio in Melbourne and I’m excited to be part of their new team. Before that, I was working as the Head of Faculty for game art at the Academy for Interactive Entertainment (AIE), a fantastic game and VFX school with campuses across Australia and a couple in the USA, too.
My entry into game art is a bit unusual, especially by today’s standards. I’ve been doing artistic things for most of my life but only started taking art seriously towards the end of high school. When I finished school, I was dead set on becoming a painter and convinced my parents to allow me to study painting at university. In 1994, I moved from Singapore, where I was based at the time, to study painting at RMIT University in Melbourne Australia. The painting course was awesome, and I met so many fantastic and diverse artists. The teachers at RMIT were all practicing artists and they exploded my view of what art is and how you can express your ideas in using any medium you like, not just paint or sculpture.
By the end of the course, I wasn’t painting anymore, I was mostly working with video and installation art. After graduating, I started creating collaborative installation works with my friend, Anthony Hunt. We started incorporating video games into our collaborative work and I was also using footage from games to make weird video art pieces in my solo work. In 1999, I was introduced to Chad Chatterton, a likeminded artist, who was also working with video games in his art practice. Chad told me about modding and explained that if you had a PC and the game Half-Life, you could build whatever you wanted in the level editor. This blew my mind and inspired me to get a PC and start to learn how to use the Half-Life editor.
One of my favorite art projects that I worked on, was called Container, made in collaboration with my friend, Anthony Hunt. We built a life-size shipping container in the gallery space out of timber, that people could enter and watch a video projection inside. The video was made in the Valve Hammer editor, using the original Half-Life engine. We exhibited the piece in Melbourne, Sydney, and Seoul, Korea, remaking the gallery space at each location.
Below is a picture of the shipping container at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney Australia 2003 and the video made in the Half-Life engine from the Seoul Korea exhibition in 2004:
In 2003, a small group of game developers from Melbourne got together to make a video game putting the player in the shoes of a refugee escaping detention from Australia’s infamous Woomera detention centre. They were looking for an environment artist who had experience using the Half-Life engine. My friend Julian Oliver put me forward to the team and I ended up working on the project. You can read about it here.
Through the connections I made with people on Escape from Woomera, I was recommended to another studio called IR Gurus, later renamed to Transmission Games. I was there for around six years working on several titles for console and PC, most notably flight combat games Heroes over Europe and Heroes of the Pacific. After that, I worked at EA Visceral on an unreleased title and did a bunch of contract jobs for various companies, including doing projection design for Cat Stevens' musical called Moonshadow.
Eventually, I got into education working as a game art teacher at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment and later taking on the role of Head of Faculty for game art. In between teaching, I also co-founded a game studio with a group of 4 other game dev friends I’d worked with over the years. We called it Space Dust studios and in 2016, released a combat racing game called Obliteracers on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Obliteracers was the project that introduced me to UE4 and PBR materials.
Basement Scene: Goals & Concept
I’ve had an RTX graphics card for over a year now and wanted to try out UE4's ray-traced lighting. I also wanted to try out the Quixel Megascans library and see what I could achieve by using the library as much as possible in a project. I had a few scenes in mind and did some blockouts to test in UE4 but wasn’t happy with any of them. They just didn’t have the impact I wanted for my main shot. Blocking out a scene with primitives is helpful. If I can’t achieve good compositions and lighting at the blockout stage, I can abandon the project before going too far.
After trying a couple of ideas, I remembered a concept piece by Artyom Vlaskin that I always wanted to recreate. I love the details, colour palette, materials, and lighting in the piece and the scope seemed achievable to complete fairly quickly with the workflows I had in mind.
I started by breaking down the concept into various categories to plan the construction of the space and figure out roughly how many unique props I would need to build. First, I identified the primary tiling materials I’d need for the larger surfaces in the space. These are possibly the most important elements in the space, as they help to anchor the entire scene.
- (Red) Concrete floor
- (Green) Red tiles
- (Blue) Painted cinderblock walls
- (Yellow) Plaster wall
- (Pink) Wooden plank ceiling
I then highlighted the dominant repeatable props:
- (Orange) Brick pillars
- (Pink) Wooden beams
- (light blue) Stairs
- (Dark blue) Stair baluster and railings
- (Green) Lamps
- (Yellow) Door
Throughout the project, I collected additional supporting reference images to help guide the mood, materials, details, and lighting of the project.
The next step was to block out the space as close to the scale and proportions of the concept image as possible in Maya. I used standard sizes of real-world objects such as standard stair and door heights as a starting point. I also added a 182cm tall human base mesh from Maya’s content library as a scale reference.
After bringing an early version of the blockout into UE4, I realized that I would have to make the space deeper, to accommodate the camera angles I wanted for my final compositions and to make the footprint of the building feel more realistic.
Most of the props in the scene are from the Megascans library in line with my initial goal for the project. I also used a couple of free asset packs from the Unreal Marketplace: Construction Site VOL. 2 - Tools, Parts, and Machine Props by Dekogon and Industry Props Pack 6 by SilverTm. The objects I couldn’t find in the Megascans library or free asset packs were modeled in Maya and textured in Substance Painter. Unique props that I made include the door, chairs, lightswitch, lamps, and the staircase. These were all modeled very quickly, mostly using subdivision modeling and then converting to polys.
The main architectural structures were also modeled in Maya. I just used basic polygon modeling techniques. One of the most important things I’ve found when modeling basic geometry is to know where to spend your polygons to get the most bang for your buck. I will usually add bevels to the edges of structures wherever possible, creating a softer, more organic look. I also add some divisions to longer objects, to break up and warp the silhouette, adding a sense of imperfection to their construction. This can be pretty subtle but has a big impact overall.
The stairs were made from 4 modular stair sections and I used a material from the Megascans library as a trim sheet for all of the sections of stair geometry. I thought I would have to blend some extra wear in, but I was happy with the result of the single material. One of the most important props for the story was the chair. I had something very specific in mind. I’m not sure what the design is but it has all of the features of a Provincial Cross Back Chair without the cross back.
I also want to mention that I didn't focus on the story for this scene at the beginning of the project, rather on developing the space, mood, and materials. I decided on the story about ¾ of the way through the project. I wanted to depict the aftermath of a violent incident by leaving some breadcrumbs for the viewer to follow and develop their own narrative. My basic premise was a kidnapping or interrogation that had turned violent. While developing this project, I kept searching for inspiration for the story and came across this incredible concept piece by Richard Wright called The Godfather – Basement. It had all of the elements I was looking for, most importantly the chair and baseball bat. Even the materials and space were like what I had in my scene.
Once I was happy with the scale and proportions of the scene blockout, I searched the Megascans library for my five dominant tiling textures. I found some good candidates and tried them in the scene. Quixel Bridge made it super easy to get the materials into UE4.
After deciding on my base materials, I subdivided the wall, floor, and ceiling meshes in Maya so that I could do vertex blend materials on the surfaces and I also adjusted the UVs to scale and align better to the base materials. Getting your UVs correct is important, especially for modular materials like brick or tiles. You don’t want weird half bricks intersecting other surfaces and you want the scale of the materials to match as close as possible. Matching texel density in the past was done by eye, scaling checkers until they were the same size. With Maya’s newer UV tools, it’s as easy as pushing a button, using the Pixel Density tool. I’m not sure if many people know about it or if I’m a bit slow on the uptake but it’s a huge time saver.
I was happy with all of the base materials I selected, except the painted cinder block wall which just wasn’t reading as well as I’d hoped. So I made a decision to replace it with the same plaster material as the wall next to the stairs but vertex blend in a brick base. I then started experimenting with vertex blending secondary materials on the concrete floor and walls. Most surfaces have two materials except the walls, which have 3. I used 4K textures for the large surfaces in the scene and 2K for decals and some smaller objects.
I only used Substance Designer to edit a couple of the Megascans materials. For example, the red tiles. I wanted the grout to be lighter, so I masked a lighter grout in using Substance Designer. The only other texture editing I did outside of UE4, was tweaking the alpha maps for a few of the decals in Photoshop. It’s great having all of these powerful tools available, even if you are just doing little jobs in them. Because I know Substance Designer pretty well, I knew that it would be the perfect tool for the task. I later tried to do the same thing in Quixel Mixer to test out a different workflow and was surprised that it wasn’t as quick. Then again, I don’t have any experience using it. The bottom line is, use whichever tool helps you get to the final product the quickest.
I hadn’t worked with ray-traced lighting in UE4 before. The setup was pretty straight forward but was reliant on having the right information at hand and understanding the connection between ray-traced light settings and ray-traced post-processing settings. I found helpful a video from Leo Chou where he goes through the process of lighting a scene and adjusting settings and console commands as he goes:
Below are some of the commands I used to activate, toggle, and tweak some of the RTX settings. The Poolsize increase was to help with texture streaming.
I established the primary composition during the blockout stage which allowed me to light and assemble the scene according to a fixed camera position. This helped avoid spending too much time on elements that would be out of shot. I set up the primary lighting with a focus on emphasizing depth and light entering the scene from areas outside of the space such as upstairs and outside. Alluding to areas outside of the main scene was important because it can allow the viewer's imagination to play a role in the story.
I used rect lights for most of the scene lighting, apart from spotlights for the ceiling lamps. I started by only adding light from physical light sources, like the lamps, the stair light, and blue moonlight entering through the windows and door. I increased the Ray-Tracing Global Illumination and max bounce in the post-processing volume to 3, which brightened the scene substantially but also took a heavy toll on frame rate, so I settled on a max setting of 1. To compensate for the darker areas, I added a few rect lights to simulate some of the bounce light. This gave me direct control over the boosting of light where required.
The animated gif below illustrates the difference between my primary lighting and the addition of fill lights.
The image below is only the fill lighting:
The original concept had a fluorescent light on the wall by the staircase which I included early on but removed the geometry after getting feedback (it detracted from the composition and didn’t read well visually). I left the light source in though, as it added some nice cast shadows and helped illuminate the foreground.
The other important component was the volumetric fog. This helped create a better sense of depth as well as lighten up the scene and add volume to the lighting. The difference between volumetric fog and standard exponential height fog is huge!
Apart from blending materials on larger surfaces, I also added over 50 decals. This made a huge impact and added an extra layer of history into the scene.
As I was reaching the polish stage of the project, I started adding all the micro details, like bits of chipped concrete and stone, wood shavings, and leaves on the ground. I tried to find a balance of adding enough detail without making the scene too noisy. I also added a few smaller, detailed decals and tried a few things to improve the composition. I tried adding a bottle and stool close to the chairs but it made that area too cluttered and muddied the story a bit. The biggest improvement to the composition towards the end was adding props to the foreground to create a physical vignette. I placed several props, including cardboard boxes, shards of wood, and a workbench in the foreground. This helped draw more focus to the midground of the image. The workbench and woodcarving tools also added a bit more richness to the story.
I enjoyed working with real-time ray-tracing in UE4. Not having to wait for bakes to see GI made the whole process much quicker. Frame rate did get punished though; I think I was getting around 30fps towards the end of the project. Hopefully, with the impending release of UE5, performance will improve drastically.
I was skeptical whether I would achieve a unique-looking space filling it mostly with assets and materials from the Megascans library. I also had the impression that it was a bit like cheating because you’re not making the assets yourself. Both of those misconceptions have been squashed after doing this project. Although Megascans speeds up the process, you still have to put a bunch of modeling work into building a scene. What it does well, is free you up artistically. It was enjoyable to focus on composition, story, mood, and lighting instead of laboriously building every single prop for the scene.