An Environment Artist from the PUBG team Carlos Sánchez talked about creating buildings for the game's ninth season and taught us how to add personality to each building.
My name is Carlos Sánchez, I’m a 3D Environment Artist from Spain, currently working at PUBG Seoul.
My first contact with 3D was when I was studying Graphic Design at the School of Arts of my hometown, Talavera, where I learned Cinema 4D and, from that moment on, I knew that 3D was exactly what I wanted to do. After that, I ended up working as a Graphic Designer for almost 6 years, working mostly on the packaging and taking the smallest chance I had to open Cinema 4D and model every new product we designed.
I quit my job after saving enough money to move to Madrid and study for a Master’s Degree in 3D Imaging and Videogames, where I finally got into 3D properly and I could make my first personal projects that allowed me to start working with a couple of small game studios, creating small environments and vehicles, mostly for mobile games. These are some of the first professional 3D pieces that I created for a shoot 'em up that unfortunately never saw the light:
Joining the PUBG Team
It wasn’t too long after I started my career in games, in 2017, when I was offered the opportunity to come to Korea and join PUBG, which had been released a couple of months earlier and was still in early access. I remember how the entire project had around 100 people when I joined. It's crazy to think where we are now, with studios all over the world and over 2,000 employees.
I joined back then as a Junior Environment Artist for what I thought would be an adventure of 6 months in Korea with the goal of improving the art quality of the buildings mostly.
Our team was formed by around 15 people, most of them Environment Artists in charge of developing the entire map, including props, vegetation, buildings, level design, illumination, etc. So, even though my main focus was always creating the buildings, communication with the team leads is very easy, and everyone has the opportunity to move to a different task if they want to, like set dressing, level art, or texture creation, which is really cool. Having the chance to switch between tasks helps a lot to keep you updated and be aware of everyone’s necessities.
Forming an Idea
We have tried multiple approaches over the different projects we have worked on. Usually, the initial reference or idea comes from the art director or the team lead. For Vikendi for instance, the second map I worked on, we had the chance to visit Slovenia, where the map was located. We took tons of references on-site and, obviously, nothing compares to that, because you get not only to take photos of the exact details you need but also to experience the country, the towns, lifestyle… It helps a lot when creating a realistic map. Sadly this is not always the case.
When visiting the location is not an option we spend a lot of time on Street View, looking around and selecting those buildings that we like or that we think can be fun to play. After that, we create a simple blockout in collaboration with the level design team to determine the number of buildings, sizes and layouts needed gameplay-wise. We have very strict rules when it comes to interior layouts or window placement for instance. If you have ever played PUBG, you know how fast you always try to loot a building. Having a clear and simple looting path is key.
After getting the approval from designers, these blockouts are sent to the concept art team, who provide a paintover, references, and everything we may need.
We use the industry standards, mainly 3ds Max and ZBrush for the modeling part, but artists can freely decide what software they feel more comfortable with. Some members prefer to use Maya and they are free to do so.
For texturing we use a mix of Quixel Megascans and Mixer, Substance Designer, and Substance Painter. Again, this is a matter of preferences; if we are talking about a tileable material for a building, for instance, I usually start with a base from Megascans and then I use Substance Designer to make some tweaks until I get what I was aiming for. But some of my teammates prefer to use Mixer in this regard and some others prefer to create the texture using SD from scratch. As long as we achieve the goals, we have complete freedom to choose our way, which is great.
For reference gathering, PureRef is the most used among the team. We also have a couple of shared folders with thousands of references and resources that we all have been collecting over the years, as you can imagine, it is a pretty heavy folder.
The team is also gradually implementing Houdini to optimize our workflow. Some members have been using it to speed up the modeling process for instance. It is definitely a software that I think will play a bigger role in our production in the near future.
Building Assets In Time
I would like to mention 2 of the most important pillars when it comes to our environment production: recycling and modularity. We have pretty tight deadlines. It varies from one season to another but on average we have 3 to 6 months to work on each season, which makes time optimization a must.
We need to reuse as many assets as possible. This not only applies to props from previous maps, but it also affects buildings, we often take the base mesh of the building and simply apply other materials, roof, and set dressing to make it look like a different building. This is also due to gameplay, as I mentioned before, we want our buildings to be as simple and recognizable as possible to make the looting fast and smooth.
This might sound obvious and something that everybody does but it’s always worth mentioning, if you are a beginner, this is something that you need to keep in mind. Approaching any asset creation from a modular perspective will save you a lot of time of production, in most cases, it will also be cheaper performance-wise since all these shared pieces will instance across the entire map.
It has its cons though, it might make your buildings look too similar to each other and, more importantly, you need to take into consideration that a big modularization will drastically increase the number of assets in the scene and, therefore, might lead to an increase of drawcalls and collisions, something that you don’t want. The key here is to balance everything and study case by case.
Talking exclusively about buildings, we used to always have some modular parts, like roofs, trims, etc. But we never went as far as we did with the 9th season, where almost every building is 80% modular. We had roughly 3 months to work on this season and this approach was definitely necessary to meet the deadline.
This was one of the main issues we had when I joined the team and one of the first important tasks I was assigned to. The method used before to blend materials and add dirt was super simple, quick, and effective, exactly what they needed back then since they were a fairly small team developing a huge game. It consisted of tileable masks that offered some variation and damage to all walls and surfaces. But it was too generic and repetitive, it didn’t allow any customization per building.
To have the quality upgrade that PUBG needed I focused on giving each building a unique look, i.e. a unique mask per building since we decided not to use Vertex Paint. I’m pretty sure most of you already know about this technique since it’s very common nowadays, I’ve seen big titles using a similar approach.
I’ll make a quick breakdown without going too much into detail to illustrate this technique. We keep our texel density in UV channel 0, which is 1024px-3m for us, then we add a second UV channel where all the UVs are inside the UV space as follows:
This second UV channel is where we paint our masks using Substance Painter. Normally 3 masks, 1 per channel (RGB):
R channel is used to blend 2 different texture sets using their Height Map information, imagine plaster and bricks, for instance, we also have the ability to add a different color tint overlay and a normal blending between these two by using different grayscale values of this mask:
Paint edge with a color overlay:
Normal Maps blending:
G and B offer a color tint overlay, used to add things like dirt or variations over the diffuse texture:
This is my personal obsession, damage on walls, how materials break, and which layers are underneath. The only trick here is to observe and pay attention to these details when you walk down the street. If we set a broken wall as an example, focus on what the wall is made out of, try to understand why it was built that way, what type of debris there is on the floor, how big the broken pieces are… I think I have more photos of broken walls in my phone than anything else altogether.
Unfortunately, we don’t usually have neither the time nor the budget to apply all these details since most of them require unique textures, extra modeling, and quite some time. But I still try to push to have more of these every project if my schedule allows me to do so. Like these details in the factory I created for Erangel Remaster:
For this last season, Páramo, I had the perfect window to implement some extra details in areas like corners, windows, or the stone base in this case.
As I mentioned before, we were using a pretty aggressive modular approach for this project, which didn’t allow me to work the unique mask as much as I wanted to because most buildings were made out of these "shared modules". This translates to pretty poor corners with no detail at all and with no possibility to work with smoothing groups either since these modules were assembled inside Unreal. The solution I came up with for these buildings was to spend almost 50% of the time I had to create all the buildings on small assets that would give personality and a quality upgrade to them. The brick corners reused also for doors and windows, a ZBrush-sculpted stone base, and the job that my teammate Alex Treno did for the roof pieces I believe played a key role in the final outcome.
For the final touch, you can always add some decals on top of it, I reserve this technique for things like leaking, rust, or general dirt. These are not particularly expensive and add an extra layer of wear and tear that helps to sell the idea of an abandoned building.
Advice for Beginners
There is no shortcut or trick here other than working on your portfolio. As you can see, we create or at least try our best to create realistic, abandoned, or even post-apocalyptic environments. A portfolio focused on themes related to it can really attract our attention. It doesn’t need to be exclusively buildings at all, you can focus on level art, props… The key is to show your skills with things that motivate you.
If you want to know what really catches me personally, is everything related to damage on walls or buildings in general, as I said previously that’s one of my obsessions and always a tricky part of games. Showing that you have a good eye for details and how you can solve and explore further in this regard can open up more doors in the industry.
Lighting is also one of the most important parts when developing a realistic game. If you enjoy lighting you should definitely push towards that direction. Solving issues that most artists don't realize they have is a very valuable skill. Hard to find and highly demanded.