Creating an Immersive Japanese Environment in UE4
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Creating an Immersive Japanese Environment in UE4
5 July, 2019
Environment Art
Interview
Level Design

Benjamin Stefanyszyn and Jack Gathercole talked about the production of Takashi’s Curse, a final year project at the University of Hertfordshire, and covered UE4 blueprint and master material, asset creation pipeline, level design and more.

 

Benjamin Stefanyszyn

Introduction

Hello, my name is Benjamin Stefanyszyn. I am from Stafford in the United Kingdom and have just completed my final year studying Games Art and Design at the University of Hertfordshire. I first started getting into 3D software at Stafford College in 2014 where we used Maya and Mudbox to create simple models. This is where my passion for 3D started to flare. I have always been fascinated by video games and films but more recently I have realized the potential for great storytelling and incredible experiences. 

As a student, working to create a memorable piece of work can be difficult now that the 3D industry has taken off in multiple directions. 3D art is not only used in production work for clients but is now widely used for pleasure. This for me is one of the most important parts of this industry. Enjoying what you do is a vital ingredient in a fulfilling career. A benefit of experiencing a surge in creativity in areas like Artstation and other social forums is inspirational. I regularly use Artstation not only to post my own work but also to be inspired by others work too. Being an individual can be important however knowing what works for you and what you love is equally crucial to producing great art.

I was Environment and Lead Prop Artist for this project but my responsibilities also covered managing the schedule of the project and making sure that everything was on track. This was a challenging but fun role to have as I was constantly creating assets as well as keeping in touch with the core members and freelancers. I enjoyed this position as I always had something to do and it gave me a variety of tasks to perform.

About the Project

Takashi’s Curse is a final year project created by a team of 4 students at the University of Hertfordshire including myself. The core team consisted of myself, Jack Gathercole, Sharon Lauand Juraj Maruska.

Takashi, a disgraced warrior returns to his home town of Entori after years of isolation. He was neglected and mistreated throughout his childhood and grew envious of his brother as his father preferred him due to his superior strength and intelligence. Takashi’s jealousy and spite grew and after his younger brother then inherited his father’s sacred armor, the desire for power caused him to lash out and murder his brother to claim the armor for himself.

We saw this project as a fantastic opportunity to work on existing skills we have learned throughout our University course but also to learn new disciplines to help us branch out our skillsets when we ultimately look for work in the industry. As Environment Artists, Jack and I both wanted to expand our knowledge in the creation of worlds and optimization in the engine. We focused our attention on capturing the culture and style of Feudal Japan in this project, which I feel definitely made the project more memorable.

As a whole, we feel the project turned out really well and we are honored to have the project showcased at the University of Hertfordshire Annual Digital Expose, as well as being recognized by The Rookies community too.

Creating the Town Buildings

As the Lead Prop Artist, one of my main tasks was to populate the town with assets and props, the biggest being the creation of a modular building pack. This allowed us to create many different types of buildings which could then be used to easily generate a town. As important as it was for the buildings to look good, it was essential that everything ran smoothly inside the engine. Our freelance Technical Artist Ben Ashcroft helped with the optimization of our scene and almost all of our UE4 blueprint work which this building generator runs from.

Modeling and Texturing the houses really taught me that focusing on storytelling in my assets really help to make them more believable. One of the biggest challenges for creating something like this was the initial design phase where I was experimenting with so many prototypes to see which areas will fit and which do not. I had to think of the pieces as Lego which I could fit and slot into each other to make lots of designs. After much trial and error I finally managed to reach a design I was happy with which would work in the engine, from then I proceeded to model a detailed version, sculpt the asset in ZBrush then texture it using materials I made previously in Substance Painter.

Focusing on optimization for these building pieces, I essentially made 2 unique houses (limited to 25K tris) made up of 4 parts each. This made it possible to easily swap out pieces for others. These pieces would be consisted of; roof, base, second floor, and front. Using this method made it easy to make extra piece designs such as the roof and add it to the blueprint generator, which is something we did do. In total, this generator had 9 mesh assets to swap and switch to create unique houses. We could then use more texture sets or in-engine parameters to adjust the textures of the pieces, resulting in even further unique designs. As a whole, we could not have created such a large town without this blueprint so it has taught us that working smart pays off greater than just working hard.

UE4 Generation Blueprint – Ben Ashcroft:

Finished Building Pieces in UE4:

Prop Creation

As well as creating more time-consuming assets like the buildings I also had the task of creating smaller and larger props which either would be a unique asset or could be replicated dozens of times. I find prop creation to be enjoyable so I can tackle quite a few assets at once with careful planning and this was essential as there was so much to do in a reasonably short space of time. When working on these props I had to consider tri count, texture sets and distance from the intended character, I did not want to work on an asset for 2 weeks for it to be too far from the character to see. Thinking ahead and planning where our character will walk and which areas are most important, I could decide which assets deserved more development time.

All assets I made for the project:

 

Jack Gathercole

Introduction

Hi, my name is Jack Gathercole. I am from Suffolk in the United Kingdom and have recently finished studying Games Art & Design at the University of Hertfordshire. My passion for 3D Environment began during my studies at West Suffolk College where I explored Cinema 4D and the realm of 3D Modeling. Since then I have become fascinated at improving my skills within the modeling and texturing software solutions. I worked alongside Ben on the environment for this project, having only two environment artists for a project of this scale and time restrictions, we knew it was important to manage our time effectively. I was the Lead Environment Artist for this project so it was my responsibility to provide art direction whilst consulting the group for major decisions. Communication became a huge part of this project and the constant engagement with several freelance and core members ultimately lead to a project we are all very proud of.

Also, I am currently looking for an entry-level position in the industry.

Greybox Blockout/Level Design:

We began with a very ambitious greybox blockout to try and plan where the player could walk through the environment and experience the world around them. Ben then further developed the blockout to contain a lot more of the important elements in the environment. When trying to check for scale, I strongly recommend using the UE4 mannequin or an exported mesh from ZBrush to ensure the size of your assets is relative to an average height human figure.

After some progression, we began to add in some initial assets and tweak the lighting.

We then decided that our intended scale was too large to achieve for our final deadline along with other projects that had to be completed, so we came to realize that we had to scale down our environment. After cutting down on the size of our scene, it was a lot easier to focus and improve upon what we had already created rather than creating new assets that we might not have finished in time. My approach to level design was to make a clear but detailed path that was always present on the screen, using large shapes that created a strong silhouette was important along with trying to incorporate some large veins of light to brighten up each area.

Towards the final submission deadline, we decided that the final area needed some work, so I changed the final section to feature a courtyard. It took 2-3 days of work that lead towards the gatehouse hero asset where the game trailer would end.

The main challenges of the scene as a whole consisted of developing an environment that felt as if it was actually living and breathing around the player. The NPC’s by Sharon Lau became essential during the latter stages of development, but the varied architecture definitely played a role in how believable the world became for our final submission and showcase. The positioning of assets became a challenge initially as the layout of the coastal town never had a definite shape when placing background assets. We knew that sharp silhouettes and height differences were a feature that would provide a feeling of depth, but we ultimately experimented with all kinds of assets and found places where they suited.

Asset Creation Pipeline

During the planning stages of Takashi’s Curse, we decided upon an era of Japanese architecture which was called “Kamakura”. A period of architecture that began when power was transferred from the imperial court to the Japanese Shogunate. We developed strict rules that applied to assets for our environment such as ensuring that all architecture ties in with surrounding elements, using repeatable parts that can be duplicated around the scene, etc.

Modularity was an essential component that led to achieving the scale of this project, we organized our asset list by how much each model could be re-used without being extremely obvious on the screen. I was responsible for the gatehouse hero asset along with some pieces of architecture and a fair selection of props.

We streamlined production primarily with the use of modular assets that could be used in a vast amount of locations, but also with the materials that were developed. Ensuring that materials can be used as tileables for simple assets became a fundamental part of the texturing in the environment. Tiling Terrain, Stone and Wood textures were used throughout.

  • Modeling

When modeling assets for Takashi’s Curse, we decided upon using a High>Low poly workflow when necessary, but for background/midground assets a simple bevel would suffice to fix any harsh, rough edges. As always, each asset was modeled with the intention of the lowest possible tri count. I also used a 5.12 Texel Density for my asset contributions.

  • Texturing

I predominantly used Substance Painter when texturing assets, it was useful as I could use height/normal details to create parts of a model that would be seen as unnecessary geometry. A good example of this was using height layers to fake the roof tiles and just have the long struts as geometry. When texturing, I first build up 5-8 layers of height to get a good variation in the textures. Then add color layers followed up by hand-painted grunge layers with dirt and moss etc. Below is a render of my Gatehouse asset in Marmoset Toolbag 3.

  • Unreal Engine 4

The UE4 scene was in development for the best part of 7 months as this project was split across two university modules, the first was to develop initial concepts during Pre-Production and then we progressed onto a constant flow of asset creation and level design. One aspect of this project’s development that I am particularly proud of looking back, I am extremely happy that we had a pretty solid blockout quite early on in the project, which carved the path forward so that further assets could be implemented.

Once any particular asset was modeled and textured, it was just a case of placing variations of them all over the scene but creating different compositions so that the modularity was not very obvious. 

  • Further Asset Examples

We also used a Master Material inside of UE4 to keep the unique materials to a minimum as there would be a very large amount of bitmap textures imported into UE4. Having each material instanced and parented to one material with all kinds of channels to use was very beneficial as it allowed us to not only save memory inside of the engine but also maintain good organization with our textures and models.

  • Master Material

With some help from Ben Ashcroft (our freelance tech artist), our Master Material was made which consisted of multiple texture inputs including Base Color, RMAO (Roughness, Metallic & Ambient Occlusion) and also some Static Switches for grunge passes if desired.

A closer look at the material inputs shows that we used just a block color texture sheet made in Photoshop at 2048x2048px. Then, once the parameters were configured, we were able to instance this material and plug in each asset’s unique bitmaps into the individual texture channels and apply the instance to the model.

It was fully customizable with a slider to create a roughness map if you didn’t have one along with simple options such as UV scaling and SimpleGrassWind options.

Software & Links

A full list of the software used on Takashi’s Curse is listed below:

  • Autodesk Maya
  • Unreal Engine 4
  • Substance Painter
  • Substance Designer
  • Substance B2M
  • SpeedTree
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Marmoset Toolbag 3 (For asset renders)
  • Adobe Premiere

For more information about the project and its progress, you can visit these forums:

Finally, check out our Artstation pages if you are interested in our other projects:

Credits

Team:

  • Art Director/Lead Environment Artist: Jack Gathercole 
  • Environment/ Lead Prop Artist: Benjamin Stefanyszyn
  • Lead Character Artist: Juraj Maruska
  • Character Artist: Sharon Lau

Freelance Work:

  • Lighting Artist: Harry Biggs 
  • Technical Artist: Ben Ashcroft
  • Texture Artist: Nick Wheeler
  • FX Artist: Kidman Lee
  • Lighting Artist: Harry Biggs
  • Riggers: Katherine Padley, Josh Crew
  • Animators: Marco Privitera, Mitchell Lyons
  • Prop Artists: Clarence Munji, Luke Youngman, Robin Bartsch
  • Composer: Kit Varny
  • Foley Artist: Tanaka Mutaviri
  • Concept Artists: Chloe Britchford, Emily Britchford, Vilte Bendziute, Sam Zeleska

Jack Gathercole & Benjamin Stefanyszyn, 3D Artists

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

Abandoned Post Apoc Apartment Game Props by Dekogon is a bundle of high-quality assets and includes all meshes, maps, materials, Blueprints, and effects created in the Unreal Engine. Each asset was created for realistic AAA quality visuals, style, and budget. Additionally includes RAW files (Obj, Fbx, and Textures) for use in other engines or software.

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