The Treehouse Ninjas team members have told us about creating lighting for CDPR's Cyberpunk 2077, discussed their technical and artistic approaches to environment art, and talked about the advantages of open-world environments.
Treehouse Ninjas is an independent studio made of artists coming from both games and movies industry backgrounds. They have worked on several AAA titles so far, one of which was Cyberpunk 2077. They worked side by side with CD PROJEKT RED throughout the building of Night City, creating more than 130 full locations from the ground up, both environment art and lighting, including the recently released apartments that the player can rent in different districts of Night City.
What technical and artistic approaches allowed you to deliver so many environments with such a high level of detail and narrative value?
Bojan Tomic, Senior Artist: On this project we had the opportunity – that not many artists have – to work on both the environment and lighting of our locations. This is what gave us the edge to fully integrate the two things, and create final environments with a unique look, conveying a memorable experience and, I would dare say remarkable artistic quality.
We would normally make the most out of the moodboards and concept art existing for each location, and the full storyline developed for every one of them. We’ve always been in constant communication with the extremely friendly people of CDPR, presenting our ideas and suggestions to empower the design, form, and mood of each environment.
We constantly kept in mind the feeling we wanted the players to have while exploring the locations. The main challenge was creating the same atmosphere from whichever angle the players accessed it. There were multiple approaches to solutions for each mission, and we had to accommodate for the fact that the player would wander and explore before finding the right way to go, so we needed to get very imaginative, creating variety and a unique feeling which gave our locations the characteristic stamp of the cyberpunk world (and hopefully also our Treehouse Ninjas’ touch).
We always tried to justify the decisions of decoration with "microstories” that the environment tells (such as broken pieces of glass, a half-finished painting, a disassembled vehicle) which give sense and a backstory to what the player is seeing. This gave every location the feeling of purpose and thickened the atmosphere we were trying to make.
After the central asset library grew big enough, the most effective approach turned out to be kitbashing the existing stuff into completely new prefabs we used in our locations. This way, we were able to craft new, unique pieces of the environment while using the existing models, thus keeping the environment as optimized as possible. This would require good planning and a good understanding of the location (one cannot just kitbash wildly), but it was the most fun part of making our environments. Our team was constantly checking out each other's locations, exchanging ideas and prefabs we made. We pulled inspiration from reference pictures and each other's works, as well as from the work and locations that were being built in parallel by CDPR. And we’re proud they also found reference and inspiration in the locations we built, so it was a mutual exchange of world-building solutions, between CDPR and Treehouse Ninjas.
However, if we felt like the existing library lacked certain elements which would make the environment richer or the story better, we always had the opportunity to change the appearances of the existing models, or create new ones, to suit the needs of our locations. Also, when the story of the location required something very specific, like brand unique architecture or precise pieces of equipment, there was always an open conversation with CDPR about queuing new asset work, while presenting them our ideas, creating rough sketches and suggestions, until we were all on the same page.
How did you tackle the lighting? Which ones were the main challenges inside of Night City in terms of the creation of its mood(s) and lighting tools?
Jack Hunter, Senior Artist: Night City has a very well-developed art style which gave us a fantastic starting point. Each district has a defined art direction in the form of color schemes, architecture, and the people that inhabit them, on top of that each location the player will explore had a certain mood that needed to be communicated succinctly. These ingredients, as well as any photographic reference or screenshots from films, were used as the motivation for the lighting.
We were very fortunate to be in charge of the environments which we were also lighting and this control gave us the opportunity to make any adjustments needed, enabling us to create lighting that was as harmonious as possible with the environment. An example of this might be that a grate or bars cast a shadow across the walls and floor, in this case, we might want to keep the environment decoration simple to make sure it doesn’t become too cluttered with detail and is still easily read by the player, it’s more than likely the player is focused on the mission objective and the lighting shouldn’t get in the way of this.
Once the lighting was underway the first challenge was to balance believability in how the environment was lit as well as using light and shadow as a tool to guide the player or influence the way they might progress through a level. Another important thing to consider was that in most cases the lighting solution would have to work for the entire 24 hour period, so the story purpose and mood had to be nailed under different sun angles as much as under night lighting, regardless of it being an exterior or interior location.
On the technical side, Night City is a large and very dense environment, because of this communication was key to make sure your lighting wouldn’t interfere with the person who was in charge of the area next to yours, this was especially important for the most packed and busy districts, and during the optimization pass.
Another challenge we faced was ensuring that NPCs that are in the world are realistically lit and don’t suddenly fall into darkness, lots of playtesting were needed so we had a good idea of where enemies might walk or climb to. It’s natural to light an environment with a focus on the player and the environment itself, but NPCs (primary and secondary, including the crowd) can sometimes wander in areas that might be too dark, so we had to achieve clear visibility while keeping dramatic contrast and nice gradients, definitely avoiding flooding/flattening the space with light.
What are the biggest challenges of creating urban spaces in particular? What are the important ingredients for making them feel alive?
Levi Gajdos, Lead Artist: In my opinion, creating urban environments is one of the most exciting parts of our profession because it requires a broad spectrum of knowledge: from how different types of buildings are built structurally, to how to mix different architectural styles and make them diverse while still keeping the overall vibe, and supporting the way in which people, as single entities and as a crowd, move in a city in general.
In my opinion, there are a few key factors that the artist should focus on, to nail the plausibility of a city, such as playing with positive-negative spaces and contrast, finding the correct rhythm of busy and empty spaces, finding the right connection between different types of areas, in both architectural and set-dressing terms. Placing an element in the right place can solve the location beautifully, but the same element in the wrong spot can downright break the game. For example, placing a dumpster in a specific place could help a lot visually and also the gameplay, but the same thing in the wrong spot could unnecessarily interrupt the visual flow of the set dressing, or even block important NPCs.
To make an urban environment feel alive we have to follow some basic practical and artistic rules, like using real-world metrics: the proper placement of a window or a door for instance is unforgiving because the player’s brain naturally perceives if those don't fit plausibly.
From an artistic point of view, it is very important to pay attention to the scale of details, we always try to set up the right distribution of broad, mid, and hi-frequency details to help the readability of the environment. Sometimes this can be really challenging, mainly because in a crowded urban space it’s easy to fall on the noisy side, so sometimes we have to step back and create more space for the eyes to rest.
Avoiding recognizable repetitions is a key point too, along with creating nice connections between the exterior and interior areas. In general, we can say there are thousands of tiny details we have to keep in mind during the process of creating urban spaces, but that’s also the reason why it’s so exciting and a pleasure to tackle them.
What's your take on open-world environments in general? Where do they struggle? Where do they excel? What are your suggestions for making them better?
Szabolcs Matefy, Lead Artist: Open-world environments are a great opportunity for an artist that’s attracted by the challenge of building a living world: there are frequent occasions for you to create vivid, realistic situations where believable characters live and interact. For me, in Cyberpunk 2077 almost every corner of Night City was an opportunity to tell a story.
For sure, the size of an open-world game can be overwhelming for the environment artist. An open world is a huge area to populate: the artist has to keep in mind a lot of things about his/her location, and also be very aware of its neighboring areas while being careful of avoiding obvious repetitions, which becomes very hard considering that the world can be very huge. But in general obvious repetitions can kill the player’s experience so it’s paramount to keep your eyes open for spotting them.
When I build an environment, I establish the broad architecture and geography first, while keeping in mind the style and integrity of the broad world it is part of. Then I start adding a narrative: if I’m not given a backstory, I invent one making sure it fits the lore, and I start asking myself what’s the overall purpose of the location, who lives there, etc. This helps a lot in setting up the initial mood and theme.
After that, I usually try to come up with what Bojan defined as “microstories”: what was the desk owner doing before he abandoned that desk? Who lives behind the trash bins in the back alley? What did the guy eat before he left that workspot? What was the last shipment of the courier van? These small details are the building blocks of a living, open-world environment, and it’s always surprising how this way of thinking can branch out into interesting unwritten storylines and bring fresh support to the environment art.
Thinking about potential ‘struggling’ factors of open-world games, it’s hard to make a definitive list because there are so many overall great open-world games. They do come with their highs and lows though, like all huge-sized products. And probably that’s exactly the point: the risk of having the leading studios entering into a race for the ‘biggest’ open world, shifting the focus on scale and quantity rather than on the player’s experience quality.
Connecting Lighting and Scenes
You created the apartments that the player can rent and use in Night City, and also created the lighting for them. How did they come together?
Bojan Tomic and Jack Hunter: Every story we worked on had the same basic steps. First, we were given the greybox blockout of the location separating the main spaces, based on the level design. Then we went through the alpha stage, where we shaped the architecture of the location, adding possibly some decoration that marked the function of the spaces. After that we continued to beta phase and polish, creating the full decoration of the environment, elaborating on the functions of each room, inventing microstories that the players can experience while exploring the place, and adding the full feeling of purpose to the location. When these were done, we moved on to the lighting. In this regard, the approach to the apartments was not different from the other locations, maybe except for the fact that in terms of narrative the apartments are more of a limbo between story events, while the other locations we built served the purpose of delivering (or at least supporting) specific storylines.
What was certainly different, however, was that by the time we started working on the apartments, we had already created over 130 full locations in Night City. We were much more experienced with assets, pipelines, technical capabilities of the engine, environment, and architecture styles of each district. On top of that, we had done lighting for each of these locations and when the time came to tackle the apartments, we were ready to fully include light with extra confidence, almost only focusing on it as an art tool that would compensate, complement and contribute to the mood, idea and general ambiance of each apartment.
Another thing that separated the work on the apartments from the rest of the locations was that this space was supposed to be a private place for V. Each of the apartments is in a different district of Night City, so the architecture and decorations needed to reflect this. Keeping this in mind, we used the full extent of our experience on this project to make them fit perfectly in the location, while at the same time making them feel unique, cozy, and peaceful for the player – their own small piece of Night City.