Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
Doru Butz from Evozon Game Studio, who has previously presented amazing scene called Cybepunk Alley, published a breakdown of a production process behind the Africa Fantasy Environment. The artist talked reaching for a savanna look, using modern tools and working on post-production.
This month was spent creating a new environment. We chose an African theme, based on the savanna. Vlad made a few concept sketches but eventually we settled on the one below:
Taking into consideration what I learned when making the Cyberpunk Alley, I tried to have more variation and exploration from the block-out stage.
Since this needed to be a highly atmospheric piece, I also started to block out the lighting and mood.
After I got to a result I thought was looking good, work on the foliage began. At first, I used meshes for grass and some quick trees, but I didn’t like the result.
Using some textures, I had lying around, I remade the foliage and started work on the ground texture. For the sandy rock texture, I used Substance Designer so I could iterate fast and keep the texture flexible as the environment evolved.
The next step was to make proper grass textures. This caused my original ground texture to be insufficient, so I remade it into a grassier/rockier version. By this time my references began to have more and more Uncharted 4 images in them. Their level of work was something I strived to achieve. The downside was that I started to stray away from my original vision of a savanna. After more work on the vegetation and textures, the whole piece began to look too green and lush.
By this stage I had replaced most block-out assets with more refined and textured versions. I also remade all the foliage textures. The grass was made in Zbrush using fibermesh, and then baked and textured.
The rocks were also sculpted in Zbrush, but for the texturing process, I decided to make one main material node in Substance and texture all my rocks with it.
When I reached this stage I realised my scene had become way too green to be called a savanna.
I did more work on the grass colour, trying to capture the savanna look. But the scene needed a focal point. I decided that the whole mystery of the scene would be increased with a foreign object that would add a lot of contrast. So I made an alien artefact-looking ball, surrounded by vines.
I think this made a huge difference as it fixed some scale issues by adding a much needed central piece. I started to add more colour variation in the grass and remade the trees (I did this a lot throughout the project, it was one of my main time sinks). Since I added the main focal point I felt that the large pillars on the sides were becoming unnecessary and distracting. I also changed the composition of the vines and of the henge in the middle giving it more flow and creating a nice curve for the eye to follow the metal ball.
The grass was starting to look better, but it was becoming too lush, losing some of that savanna feel I was looking for. I removed a lot of the grass and redid the ground texture adding a more reddish colour in order to add more contrast to the whole scene.
This had a more savanna feel to it, and I felt I was going in the right direction. I remade the trees (again) and worked on the final composition and colour scheme. I liked the blue and brown contrast between the ground and sky, but it felt like it was splitting the whole piece in half. The trees also look too green so I added smaller bushes/trees to showcase the scale better.
This is the final shot. I reduced some of the contrast and pushed the atmosphere some more. I added more fog and some particle effects, to create the feel of an incoming sandstorm. I added some variation in the grass size and made a few variations of the ground texture so I could blend between them.
Overall I feel satisfied with how the piece turned out. I do feel that vegetation is hard to do and could use improving on. I have learned a lot while making this, but I feel that the main takeaways are the same with the ones from the Cyberpunk Environment:
– composition and lighting are key
– a good block-out will save you a lot of time
– feedback is very important, get as much of it as you can