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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!
Oleg Gamov talked about the way he created the amazing environments for Assassin’s Creed Origins.
My name is Oleg and I am currently working at Ubisoft Montreal as Sr.Level Artist. I’m originally from Ukraine, where I used to study CAD and software engineering at National Aerospace University and was actually supposed to become a programmer but on 3rd grade I realized it wasn’t meant to be my thing and I had to pursue my passion – 3d and video games, which I’ve been playing ever since I was like 10y.o when my dad bought me zx-spectrum back in 91 (I still have it, kept it as an artifact). I started getting into 3d on my own, spending all possible time digging into that, playing QuakeIII and participating in gaming tournaments, which eventually led me to be kicked out from my school. Being self-thought artist back then in early 2000s was tough one! We’ve had very little to nothing in terms of study materials etc. Having no such luxury as online tutorials or courses like Gnomon and so on, internet was ridiculously expensive and most people couldn’t even afford it. In early 2005 I finally started my career in gamedev as a Junior 3d modeler in biggest outsourcing studio based in Kiev, called Persha Studia (now Wargaming). Later on joined forces with 4A-Games where I spent the next 2.5 years working on Metro 2033 building my first AAA title. I moved to Canada and got hired by Gameloft early 2010 and worked for about 4.5 years on mobile titles such as Asphalt (as a car artist) and Modern Combat franchise (environment artist). After I went to work for Eidos Montreal as Sr. Environment artist on Deus Ex:Mankind Divided in DLC team and in 2015 got hired by Ubisoft and joined WatchDogs-2 team.
Here at Ubi most of the people have very specific positions and focused on either modeling or texturing, or level art or lighting etc. Basically being a level artist you don’t get to texture anything, nor you do any modeling, expect some specific cases. My main and most important task on the project would always comes down to 2 things – create composition and make sure it’s playable and nothing breaks. It was very important to work very closely with level designer (Cyril Ezcurdia), Donald Boivin as Technical Director and Art Directors Raphael Lacoste, and Patrick Limoges to be able to follow art direction and respect gameplay aspects at the same time. You may know how to deliver awesome looking art but it won’t necessarily fit with desired gameplay and art direction so team work was a big part of the process.
Long story short, on Origins I had access to enormous collection of 3d assets, props, vegetation, terrain and procedurals etc made by our local and international teams. Take it all and put it all together and compile it all into a final game location! In the meantime I’ve had enough freedom to implement my own artistic ideas. I just had to make sure it’d fit with art direction/gameplay and a budget.
Surely Level artist was an important role but it would be unreasonable and even cruel to take big credits for myself. ACO is an amazing team of talents here. Modellers, texture artists, lighting artists, tech artists… you name it. Everything you see on these screenshots are the results of a team work of people who dedicated themselves to create together something awesome and artistically stunning. And I dare to say we nailed it.
I cannot say it was a huge part of my work but inevitable part of artist’s pipeline. I would say my part was rather to adjust a terrain according to gameplay and polish it. Our procedural team, programmers, tech.art, modellers did most of the job in terms of creating a landscape. In big open worlds like Assassin’s Creed you can’t avoid dealing with landscape and creating the whole world without implementing procedurals would take years. I used a base terrain and then terraformed it using multiple brushes and masks to modify heights and shape and added any necessary details such as erosion etc. Then I’d do terrain painting. Terrain painting was a big one. Think of it as if Mari and zBrush had a baby! I could paint pretty much anything on the terrain, dirt, moss, sand, wet sand, pebbles, cobblestone, you name it! I just had to make sure it all fits and blends well. It’s a lot of fun!
Using our tools would give me perfect blending between natural elements such as rocks and mossy ground. Can’t actually disclose much about our tech and tools but can tell that same rock would look different depending where it’s being placed. If you play a game and pay close attention you’d see what i mean.
Vegetation and roads were procedurally placed. There is not really that much I could tell how it works. Splines are splines, it’s pretty much the same anywhere, whether it’s Unreal editor or 3dsMax. When it comes to roads I simply configure my splines the way I want, place it on the terrain where I want the road to be projected and manipulate points using x,y,z and that’s it is to it. It’s very straightforward. There is nothing much else I could tell, but what I can tell for sure is that considering world size it was absolutely imperative for some elements to be done procedurally. I guess that would be the main reason why using such way. It just makes sense!
Since we have our own proprietary engine I cannot talk much on the technical side but to give you a better idea of what I’m talking about you could look up at how road system in Cryengine or UE4 works. Different tech but basically similar approach.
Similarly had to use splines to designate areas on my landscape where I want vegetation to spawn. This is done mostly in open worlds areas. Within living areas it’s always better idea to exclude procedural zones and simply handplace everything. That would take me much longer but no bugs with grass and trees growing through the houses. I had to keep in mind is that handplaced are more heavier for resources. In fact I actually handplaced most of vegetation. But not because I’m unhappy with the way procedurals work but because it gives me more artistic freedom. In general tools are insane on Assassin’s Creed. And that makes your life so much easier.
I’m scared to imagine making this game with no procedurals. That would have been a nightmare to place every tree manually onto such massive world. Especially taking into account the fact we were quite a small level artists team in Montreal.
Building kits are simply a library with all types of houses and modular elements for them, such as balconies, roofs, different windows and facades etc. There is no secrete tech behind. All houses by default are basic models and come in big variety which are done my modellers. At first they were all placed by level designer according to a gameplay. In all AC games there are a lot of parkour as you might know, so creating houses is a tricky one, starting from modeling it to using it in game. Every little collision on 3d model needs to fit with very strict and precise metrics so the player can navigate properly. Otherwise all those climbing wouldn’t be possible. Ones houses are placed this is where I step in. My job was to dress them all up inside out by adding tons details such as and all sorts of decorations. I had to learn quite a bit about how ancient Egyptians preferred to decorate their living spaces.
We’ve had a real historian working in out team. With whom I unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to meet. Since we were dealing with ancient world it was absolutely crucial to have someone with solid historical knowledge in order to make everything look as authentic as possible. And yes, Assassin’s Creed series is very well known for such thing.
Mixing natural landscapes and human-built settlements
Well, basically everything I was doing was done within our editor. No external software was needed. Once my particular map section is loaded I simply start adjusting terrain with building structures, basically sculpting terrain and painting it afterwards to be archive nice blend. If there is a doorway – paint some footsteps or different type of surface to show people walk there all the time. Or maybe I have a unfinished fence made of stone blocks, I’d definitely add maybe some broken pieces, dust etc. If there are some vegetation maybe would be a good idea to add some decals with fallen leafs etc. If it’s a shore, then logically I would paint some wetness on the sand and maybe place some lilies etc. I can’t place random elements like amphora anywhere I want.
Almost each and every prop and piece of detail has to have it’s own story. When I place something on the map I always had to think this way “ok! looks good! but what it is for and how did it end up being here?” If everything seems logical then I’m good to go. The key here – a story telling and attention to little details. I had to do my best to give a life and meaning to every rock on the road side or an ancient amphora beside someone’s house. Details and story telling helps things blend together and archive natural look. It’s very important! Sure thing, it’s a lot of thinking but it’s a fun process at the end it’s a time well spent and the outcome will please my eyes. And once again, we’re dealing with ancient world where there are no modern architecture, so things can’t be too clean. There were also basically no technologies back then:) so purposely creaking imperfections makes a good blend between things. Having clean plaint flat surfaces is no go.
Or for example, when I was building Alexandria’s port I had to create a few big piers which were mostly made of stone blocks I had to ask myself a question “were those stone blocks be affected by water? Well, apparently stone was exposed to water for a very long time, so simulating that would be a great idea” Just adding some decals and make it look more green’ish would make a difference.
At this particular example decals would be overkill for hardware so we had to duplicate few assets and create material derivation for them. Thing is, if there is something odd and unnatural your brain will always spot it. You might not even realize what exactly the problem but you’ll feel that something is out of place. Everything have to make sense and needs to be logical, that way I can get all things blend together nicely and make it all look natural and believable.
Making spaces believable
And again, this is all about team work. Each of us makes his/her own contribution to it. It’s all about collaboration of passion, knowledge and technical skills put into one big snowball and so the outcome is pleasant. We all had to study in one way or another how ancient Egypt’s world used to or might have looked like. I’ve spend quite some time watching documentaries, talking to people, browsing encyclopaedias and concept art (which always been off the hook at Ubisoft!) I had to keep in mind this ain’t sci-fi, so you I couldn’t really make things up as my imagination would tell me. There rules to follow and all this needs to be backed with real data gathered from historical side along with game and art director’s vision.
At the end of the day this is art. You need to invest your love into it, otherwise there is no results!
Oleg Gamov, Sr.Level artist. Ubisoft.
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.