Creating Modules for Stylised Environments

Creating Modules for Stylised Environments

Johann William Löffler did a little overview of his modular stylized 3d environment.

Johann William Löffler did a little overview of his modular stylized 3d environment.

My name is Johann William Löffler. I am 19 years old and I live in Berlin, Germany. Currently, I am in the third semester of studying Digital Art at the Berlin Games Academy. I was introduced into 3D Modelling for games in 2013, when I did an Internship at a video game company. After that I did a little bit of modelling on the side while in school and since summer 2016 I spent most of my free time in 3dsMax, Zbrush or Substance Painter. So far, I have focused my 3D work on our student projects and my personal practice, but I also did an internship at a small indie studio, working on a mobile game. You can look at my work on my Artstation portfolio.

We had an assignment to create a modular building kit in school, but we were restricted in time and should only use photo textures. I decided I wanted to take that one step further by creating a whole town out of modular parts, but this time making all the textures myself and adding more detail and depth. This also was an opportunity to try out a new style. Before this point, I had pretty much only made realistic or semi-realistic assets and I wanted to see how I could achieve a stylized or painterly look with PBR tools like Substance Painter and Substance Designer without actually going through the time-consuming process of hand painting everything. Additionally, I chose this project to get into stylized sculpting in Zbrush and learn more about modularity, reusing assets and how to make them shine in Unreal Engine 4.

First, I looked at a lot of stylized games and scenes on Artstation to see how other people handled making stylized assets. Then I decided to just try out the pipeline of 3dsMax to Zbrush to Substance Painter for a small example scene and work on the textures until I achieved a style that suited me. I soon realized that I had to cut back on the small details and noise to create stylized textures and ensure readability, as well as to put highlights and shadows into your albedo to make it feel hand painted.

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By iterating that texturing process I put together a smart material that consisted of a base layer with a solid color and a certain roughness and metallness, with a couple of layers above it, adding highlights/AO dirt/blurred edges etc. I used this smart material pretty much for all of my props, simply changing the base layer and painting in some detail. In terms of modelling, I exaggerated the general size of things and the curvy shapes to create interesting silhouettes.

Also, all the houses get bigger from the bottom to the top to get some kind of over-hanging effect, then adding oriels and balconies resulted in a style I quite liked. In general, I tried to focus more on the bigger shapes instead of the small details. While it was important to get a consistent style and interesting silhouettes, I always had in mind to create my modules and textures so that I could easily reuse them so that I could get the most out of my work. This way I used my sculpted stones to create a tilable texture for my walls, but I also made a low poly mesh for them to use in my scene as a trim around the edges. Same with wooden boards, bricks, etc.

I created most of the small details and props for the scene by reusing things I already had. The crates and barrels, the well and the cart are all made mostly with tilables and wood planks I had already made, sometimes adding uniquely baked out pieces (like the cartwheel or the rope for the well). This way I could get the most out the things I had already done, while also maintaining a consistent art style. For the props I did fully unique like the food items for my marketplace, I first created a simple basemesh in 3dsMax, sculpted in details using an array of brushes from ORB and AJ`s amazing Brush Packs and then built a lowpoly in 3dsMax by simply modifying the basemesh I had already done. When doing my UV Maps, I tried to share as much of my UV space and not waste any pixels. I then textured the assets in Substance Painter, using my Smart Material I created earlier to get a consistent look and save a lot of time. For the haystacks, I created a hay tilable using Photoshop and Substance Designer, used that information for alphacards to place on the piles and to get a decal to put around them to ground the haystack and make it look more believable.

Like mentioned earlier, I used mostly brushes out of the ORB and AJ stylized brush packs to get a consistent look, adding some standard brushes for sculpting fabric and metal. Again, I tried to get as much detail as possible without making my textures look too noisy or realistic, but still enough to make the material easy to read. I usually did not want to spend too much time in Zbrush, to avoid being caught up in small details and to maintain a clean look and readable textures.

The basic idea of my modules is that I have 4 basic shapes (small house/big house/corner house/long house) and to add detail to them by putting doors, windows, oriels, dormers etc. on them. The Basic modules are built in a way so that I can easily switch out the textures to get different looks without having to model a lot of different bases. The houses do lack the ability to create anything other than two-story houses, but a module of that nature could easily be added. A good example of reusing my modules in an unusual manner is what I call the „Storage house“. It uses a lot of basic Wood Logs as pillars and platforms to put wares on. For that I also simply pushed a long house module into a big house module to create an interesting shape. Furthermore, the church is just a long house module scaled up a bit with a watch tower added and support pillars on the side. For the Church windows, I reused the Stone Wall Tilable and mapped it onto a fitting window frame. By having all these parts as separate modules, I could easily combine them to create interesting and unique looking buildings.

I am not by any means a lighting artist, which is why I decided to go with a classic: A warm and cold color contrast to create a cozy atmosphere. All the lights in the scene as well as the windows are a bright orange, in contrast to the cold dark sky and the grey stone. I focused on placing the lights so that the shadows would not be too dark and to create some nice reflections on the surrounding stones.

Overall, this scene took me two months of my varying free time to complete. To anybody who wants to use a similar approach to mine, I would recommend taking your time when planning everything. Do blockouts of your modules to place them and make sure the pivot is at the right place and it snaps right so that you will not have to deal with this later. I also strongly suggest having a „Master-Scene“ in your 3D-Program such as 3dsMax. In there, you can assemble everything from your parts as well as import all your props to check the scale.

This also makes the export more comfortable because you can simply export multiple assets at a time, using a script like the Batch Exporter for 3dsMax. Finally, I would advise everyone to join online communities such as Ten Thousand Hours, Polycount or in my case, the Dinusty discord. Good feedback is worth a lot (if you listen to it) and it can really help to look at your work with fresh eyes and motivate you to put in the extra effort and keep pushing. I would like to thank Jeremy Estrellado, James Lucas, Justin Emerson, Rick Greeve and Brian van der Vegt and everyone else from the Dinusty community for providing this valuable feedback.

Johann William Löffler , 3d Artist.

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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