Environment Artist at Striking Distance Studios Kevin Le has shared a comprehensive breakdown of the asset creation pipeline behind the studio's recently-released The Callisto Protocol, explained how the interactive fusebox was set up, and discussed the nuances of working in a AAA team.
Hi, I'm Kevin Le, a 29-year-old living in the Bay Area, California. I am an Environment Artist for Striking Distance Studios, working on The Callisto Protocol.
Born and raised in the charming coastal town of Nha Trang, Vietnam, I was captivated by the magic of Star Wars at a very young age. Even though I couldn't fully grasp the language at the time, I remember vividly watching Luke Skywalker taking down the Death Star with proton torpedoes. That adventure sparked a passion for art and storytelling in me that has stayed with me ever since.
After one year of developing my portfolio, I was accepted to join the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Games & Animation in Los Angeles, US. I chose to become an Environment Artist for games to tell stories by creating the world that it lives in. It is fascinating that everything in the environment has its journey, just like real life. How was it created? What is its function? Who is the owner? Did they accidentally drop this item once or twice before? Did their sweaty palms leave fingerprints on them? These are the questions confronting me whenever I start working on an asset. Answering them helps me develop the prop from an inanimate pointless object to become a storytelling piece, now part of a wonderful world and a grand story.
Restraining cage in Doctor Mahler’s Lab
Joining Striking Distance Studios
When I graduated from Gnomon in 2020, it was a turbulent time, and finding a job in the industry was an even more challenging task. Fortunately, I was able to join a design studio working in Hollywood, acting as a 3D Designer for several TV shows. However, my passion still aligned more with the game industry, so I kept my eye out for new opportunities. After a couple of months, I was reached out to by the team at Striking Distance Studios.
I joined Striking Distance Studios in the summer of 2020 as an Associate Environment Artist and slowly built up my skills in a creative and passionate environment. My main responsibilities include modeling, texturing, importing, and applying shaders to assets in The Callisto Protocol. I was very excited to work in a professional video game studio for the first time. Our Environment Art Director, Aasim Zubair, provided me with guidance and extremely helpful feedback.
Crates and containers in The Callisto Protocol
The Environment Art Team
At Striking Distance Studios, we have Environment Artists working alongside Lighting Artists, Level Designers, Gameplay Designers, Animation, Audio, and so on. I was performing my tasks with three other Environment Artists in our group. The advantage of this system is that we can focus on the level to which we were all assigned and have a really strong sense of teamwork. If anyone has any questions, we will know who to reach out to, get together and solve any problem quickly.
The environment team also organizes learning sessions where we share and discuss methods to tackle the many challenges we encounter while creating assets for The Callisto Protocol.
This area, in particular, was created at the last stage of development on the level Habitat. It acts as a buffer traversal area before players descend further into the hellish chaos of Black Iron Prison:
Entrance to Habitat
Being tasked with creating the structure and set dressing the environment, I discussed the area with Lead Environment Artist Zheng Wang and developed a plan to tackle it. The intention for this area was to have a claustrophobic feeling, squishing your body through lifeless pipes and metal structures until you reach the main room, where this giant three-eyed monster stares down and welcomes Jacob to the "Belly of the Beast".
During this time, the lighting team and audio team were looped in, and we helped each other develop the area. Throughout the process, we kept giving each other feedback, adjustments were carried out to make sure we delivered the best result.
Working on Props
Most of the time, I begin with concepts provided by the talented concept art team. The best concepts not only depict the shape and material of the assets but also provide a detailed story and highlight their function. To capture the futuristic, sci-fi environment of The Callisto Protocol, the concept artists aim to create grounded yet moody and imaginative renderings of the environment. During this phase, I focus on the overall silhouette of the assets and evaluate any unique features or appearances before proceeding.
After examining the concept art, there is a list of questions and tasks I need to complete. For static props in the environment, this is usually just straightforward information about the sizes, age, utility, and color schemes. For more intractable props, extra precautions are needed, including requesting an information sheet about the exact size of the prop, the height of the area it is located in, and how far away it is. I also work in tandem with the animation team to unify the props with the animation that the characters will use.
Elevator shaft – The Below
Different projects require different workflows. I tend to do a mid-poly for a hard surface asset and then push it a little further. Maya is a perfect place to start a block out, even with a more complex organic shape. For more organic assets, ZBrush is the tool of choice.
I also utilize Marvelous Designer for projects that require cloth simulation, such as the bloody bag in the laundry area in The Callisto Protocol. Sam Juarez created the bag model, and I rigged a simple character to pose it. I then tore the bag apart in Maya and simulated the cloth using Marvelous Designer. For more complex models, I may need to work with up to four or five applications. Having versatility in workflows and being aware of the tools at your disposal is a significant advantage.
Bloody laundry bag in level Escape
Designing the Fusebox
Since the fusebox is an interactive prop, I need to measure the height of the fusebox and how high it is on the wall and make sure the movable parts align with the animation. I then created the rest of the fuse box that the panel is on.
This screenshot shows the initial blockout to the final asset in medium polys, human for scale:
With the mood board, I moved on to the texturing phase. After UV unwrapping the model in Maya, I bake down the maps in Substance 3D Painter. Sometimes baking from high poly to low poly in Painter doesn’t provide the expected result, so Marmoset proves to be great as an alternative baking solution. Photoshop is also very essential for altering any maps if needed.
Working closely with the art director, I started exploring more grounded reference pictures featuring old electrical boxes in homes. This helped me create a futuristic asset yet still grounded and believable. To me, the individuals who designed these circuit boards were artists in their own right. Just like how artists draw inspiration from the greats who came before them, I sought to emulate the choices made by engineers and electricians. With their bright-colored fuses and neatly arranged wires, not to mention personal handwriting, these old fuse boxes are masterpieces that merge art and functionality seamlessly.
Working on The Callisto Protocol, I usually spend time looking up references and screenshots from sci-fi horror media. In the horror masterpiece Alien 1979, the environment creates a sense of doom and hopelessness, the world seems advanced, yet technology is still bulky and nostalgic.
For a standard texturing procedure, I started with a simple primary material the asset was made of. Here, we have a metallic base. Next, I added on top a paint layer and then varied the roughness of that layer by adding an additional old paint layer. Dents were then added by a Height Map with a mask. The final layers are rust and some rust cavities. Of course, it varies project by project, and sometimes more layers might be required to achieve the desired look. Moisture and imperfection are usually added on top of the base material. I usually achieve uniqueness by combining stacked masks and hand painted with an alpha brush.
The development phases of the interactable fusebox in The Callisto Protocol
After doing all the texturing of the base painted metal of the asset, I usually have a final folder with more layers that unify the whole asset. These layers add depth and characteristics to the asset, it could be a lot of things, from the dents caused by a careless worker, fingerprints, scratches, moisture, or even graffiti carved by someone using it daily. Imagination is the key here, give your assets a story, where they come from, who used them, and whether they were cleaned well. For the fusebox, adding some oil drips, specs, and fingerprints creates a story behind the asset.
Furthermore, game development is teamwork. During the asset creation and texturing, animation teams were often kept in the loop to adjust the interaction animation or modify the assets' metrics. At this stage, the lighting artist also adds emissives to the asset to highlight it in the level.
New and rusted fuseboxes
During this phase, I was also getting to do variants of the asset, a rusty one and a broken one. The decision of which version to use depends on the environment the asset is in. For Arcas, the old mining colony, we use the rusty texture rather than the clean sci-fi version.
To further explore the destruction of the asset, I created a burnt and busted fusebox from the inside, the corner of the panel bent, the red handle popped open, and the LED cover shattered. The next fusebox is broken with no panel, exposing the wiring inside.
It was a great experience spending time developing this asset. I feel like I did tell a simple story of a fusebox from its pristine stage to its destruction. Giving props a background provides a deeper understanding of them and helps you create better and more believable assets.
One of the main challenges in game production is to ensure a smooth workflow between teams. In a professional environment, not only do environment props artists need to model and texture, but they are also responsible for setting up the asset correctly to help other teams complete their tasks. These files you worked on could be passed to the rigging team, lighting team, and design team to get them into the engine. So being organized and spending time naming parts often helps a lot. It is not the most fun part of video game development, but it saves you tons of headaches.
The broken piece in the Tower level falling sequence
The falling sequence in the Tower level of The Callisto Protocol showcases excellent collaboration. As an Environment Artist, I was responsible for designing the damaged runway and creating the obstructions that would hinder the player's progress. This was one of the most challenging aspects of the game, but with the assistance of Senior Environment Artist Matt Smith, we successfully accomplished the task.
Hangar Destruction, I was responsible for the runway and all broken structure pieces:
The process was intense, requiring seamless coordination between multiple teams – environment, VFX, animation, lighting, gameplay, and tech art. Every team member had to be on the same page and communicative to avoid any hiccups that could delay the whole process. But despite the challenges, we persevered and delivered one of the most exciting parts of the game in record time.
In conclusion, the falling sequence of The Callisto Protocol is a testament to the power of teamwork and the incredible things that can be achieved when everyone is working towards a common goal.
Since The Callisto Protocol is my first AAA game project, it fills me with absolute joy seeing my asset in the level and the main character interacting with it. Working as an environment artist for an AAA game production is truly a dream come true for me. It was a long journey coming from a small city in Vietnam to joining the talented team at the Striking Distance Studio.
Although I had been part of development for a while, the first time I dropped into the full environment with proper lighting and VFXs gave me chills. The sound of the character's footsteps echoing through the dark and creepy environment, the subtle movements, and the creepy voices, all came together to create a nightmare straight out of a horror movie.
So, thank you for taking the time to read my post. This journey on The Callisto Protocol has been a wild ride, and I am grateful to be a part of Striking Distance Studios. I hope you're as excited for our next experience as we are, and I can't wait for you to get your hands on the game!