Creating Buildings & Materials for God of War Ragnarök's Asgard

3D Environment Artist at Sony Santa Monica Jon Arellano told us about the environment pipeline behind God of War Ragnarök, spoke about creating buildings and streets for the game's Asgard, and explained how ZBrush's Create Alpha From Mesh feature helped him to set up 3D materials.

Introduction

My name is Jon Arellano, a 3D Environment Artist at Sony Santa Monica and an instructor at Gnomon School of VFX, Games & Animation. During my time in college studying game art and design, my passion for creating real-time game environments was ignited by my love for both art and, of course, video games. Over the past seven years, I’ve been able to feed that passion by working on a variety of titles, while also continuing to expand my knowledge of game development.

Joining Sony Santa Monica

My career began back in 2015, working as a 3D artist and creating environments for fantasy MMOs such as Ashes of Creation and Everquest. For three years, I continued to expand my portfolio outside of work, creating personal projects for the ArtStation challenges and taking on freelance for mobile/VR experiences. I later decided I wanted to transition and work on more well-known franchises. This led me to work at High Moon Studios, where I was able to contribute as a Material Artist for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Cold War. In 2020, I received an opportunity I could not refuse – to join the God of War team for the production of God of War Ragnarök. I began as a contract worker for the first two years of the project, and I am now a full-time 3D Environment Artist at Sony Santa Monica.

Work Organization at Santa Monica's Environment Art Team

At the peak of production, we were roughly around 45-50 Environment Artists in-house at Santa Monica Studios. That number doesn't even include all the incredibly talented artists from the many other studios that contributed heavily to Ragnarök.

In order to tackle this massive project's nine realms, we were divided up into numerous small teams consisting of 2-4 Artists led by a Lead Artist who would drive the artistic development of an area and oversee the delegation of tasks for the other artists within their teams. Task sizes for each artist would vary based on individuals' strengths and skill sets. A single artist would be given ownership of anything from a single asset to an entire area in the game.

The Idea Behind Ragnarök's Asgard

I was able to play a pretty impactful role in the interior look within Asgard, as well as some of the key buildings in the realm. The biome of the realm itself had already begun to take shape before I joined the project. It was made clear to our team that it was always the intention to make the realm feel grounded and unique from traditional mythology expectations. We wanted to emphasize that Odin's motivations were never focused on acquiring lavish possessions or the approval of his people. Instead, his primary focus was always on his personal agenda and relentless pursuit of knowledge. We wanted the level of extravagance of Odin's Great Lodge and the city of Asgard to reflect Odin's priorities.

The Pipeline

My main task in helping to create Asgard was to develop the look of the interior spaces within the realm. This meant creating sculpted kit pieces, materials, set dressing, and taking level blockouts to completion while working closely with Asgard's Lead Artist Timo Pihlajamaki.

It was a very collaborative process working with many individuals from all disciplines to ensure cohesive gameplay, narrative, and aesthetic. We began by creating versatile kits that focused on shape language. Later, we would texture and use these kits to replace level blockouts in order to get them to an Alpha playable state. In order to reach our next Beta milestone, we would expand our kits, blend our assets, and focus on resolving art dilemmas that might have arisen. We continued detailing levels before polishing, optimizing, and fixing any bugs that might interrupt gameplay until we were ready to ship. This process would be done across the entire game and would be tackled studio-wide in alpha, beta, and polish milestones.

Working on the Streets & Buildings

There was a lot of iteration while working on Odin's Great Lodge and the exterior areas surrounding it. I worked closely with our visual development team to bounce ideas and improve on designs I had implemented in my initial art pass. I was fortunate to pull from structures being created by Sukru Gilman and Timo Pihlajamaki for the city of Asgard. After finally landing on an aesthetic we were happy with, it was my job to take it as far as I could through set dressing and world-building. I found it very helpful to learn and understand the characters that inhabited Asgard, as that was a strong theme we wanted to portray with this particular part of the game.

Creating Materials With ZBrush and Substance 3D Designer

I was able to do a lot of experimenting with my material workflow on this project in order to get the desired look I wanted for both my sculpts and textures. For my materials, I found it easier to create some shapes in ZBrush and turn them into heightmap alphas, using ZBrush's Create Alpha From Mesh feature. This really allowed for a more personal sculpted touch that we tend to aim for with the God of War art style.

I would then use those heightmaps from ZBrush in Substance 3D Designer and place them in my material graph. I would even go as far as turning those finished tiling textures back into geometry in some cases. This is a splice mesh technique to get better geometry that matches our tiling surfaces. I also found the workflow from ZBrush to work in reverse as well. I created various designs and patterns in Substance 3D Designer and would use them in my sculpts.

For this technique, I used ZBrush's Create Mesh From Alpha feature. It was a learning process that stemmed from my knowledge of both programs and my need to create things in the most efficient way I knew how. All in all, I found the workflow flexible, and I will continue to use it in the future.

Main Challenges

The biggest challenge I had on this project was actually refining the materials. For this game, SMS had developed a new in-house shader system, and it was constantly being iterated and improved on as we went through development. This did cause a few issues, as the shaders would be constantly changing and required adjustments every so often. I was also new to the studio's lighting system and found myself needing to do a lot of material adjustments throughout the project. Thankfully, I had a very talented Lighting Artist Kevin Johnson, who was able to work with me and help make my areas look as well as they did.

Thoughts on the Final Game

I really enjoyed my playthrough of the game. It was amazing to see all the different realms come together and all the hard work done by the rest of the art team. It was such a massive project that there were areas I didn’t even know existed until I completed my own run-through.

I also did find it very personally rewarding during the playthrough of the final fight. This was an area I was given later in the project and was excited to alter for the final fight scene. It is still unbelievable to have contributed and played such a significant part in such an amazing development. I’m fortunate to be working with such an incredibly talented team here at Santa Monica Studios.

Conclusion

Some advice for any artist looking to one day work on projects such as God of War, I would recommend staying hungry and staying humble. Even with seven years of experience and multiple shipped titles, during this project, I found myself practicing outside of work. Trying to improve my skills and learn from those around me. I didn't just want to simply work on this game, I wanted to make a large impact and do some real damage. It pays to keep your desire to improve and an attitude people want to nurture.

For those looking for specific skills to improve on, I would say practice strong composition, create scenes with versatile kits, and improve on sculpting and blending techniques for both materials and geometry. These are invaluable skills that I've found to be beneficial for any project as an Environment Artist.

Jon Arellano, 3D Environment Artist at Sony Santa Monica

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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