Stanley Barrett shared his thoughts on stylized low poly art and the way he approaches this kind of style.
Stanley Barrett shared his thoughts on stylized low poly art environments and the way he approaches this kind of style.
My name is Stanley Barrett, I’m originally from Auckland, New Zealand but live in Australia currently. I’ve been playing games from a very early age; even now it’s an easy way for me to connect to my friends back in New Zealand. My father was an architect so I was naturally drawn to environment creation and decided to blend my two interests and pursue 3D Art. I studied at Media Design School. During my time there I also worked as an Event Coordinator where I ran Hearthstone, Fortnite and Overwatch events. Interestingly, this experience led to my current full-time occupation as a Social Media Account Manager.
While working full time I also complete freelance 3D tasks and have begun creating a game with my close friend, Scott Murray, who is a software engineer – he codes for the game, I create everything art-related, and we work on the game design together. We’re now working on our first title which is a throwback to the old games we used to play together in Warcraft 3, mostly inspired by Wintermaul and other Tower Defense games.
You can follow along with the production of our game on my twitter.
Working in Low Poly Style
Stylized artwork is such a broad category, there are so many different things which could describe or define it for an individual. For me, the most crucial elements for creating stylized game art would be in cohesiveness, color, storytelling, shape-language, and liveliness which all combine to sell a reality. Using composition, contrast, color and other techniques to lead the players’ eye can help create a setting which supports gameplay and clarify different areas.
Low-Poly artwork introduces a unique challenge of how to create dynamic interest within areas but also has some advantages: fast iteration, low barrier of entry and the ability to easily use areas of low detail to draw the eye and create detail contrast. I also find the transition from the blockout to the final model to be more seamless which allows you you to slowly ‘hack’ in an area and develop it over time.
Another quick way to iterate on low poly design is to remove uniformity and add some randomness to the objects. Things aren’t perfect in real life. By changing the rotation, moving the scales, playing with the shapes and creating more dynamic silhouettes things become a lot less blocky. You can also play around with normal displays, using soft edges and hard edges to help define the shape more (for example, I used this technique on some of the trees).
Modeling & Sculpting
Each asset I create usually starts either from a standard 3D modeling software (Maya/Blender/3ds Max) or a sculpting software – whichever I believe would be the easiest to create the shapes I have in mind. For the majority of the environment presented, most assets were created in a standard 3D modeling package and the characters were created in a sculpting one.
When approaching these scenes I usually focus first on creating a focal point, considering where the camera is placed and defining the initial structures. One of the most important aspects of creating visual interest in an environment is varying degrees of size. Having assets which range from small, medium and large clumped into groups helps create an interesting dynamic.
In some environments, I use large bevels that are more obvious from further away and create smooth edges to create more interesting silhouettes that are more life-like. For this environment, I was creating a very crisp, hard-edge style – creating a lot of edge damage and removing the uniformity of objects really helped increase the amount of visual complexity.
The topology is incredibly important to optimize and I generally like to make things as efficient as possible. I generally re-topo during the modeling phase either while modeling or after completing each object to help save time later. Using the vertex weld tools allows you to quickly close wasted triangles while keeping the geometry the same.
For this project, in particular, I used a workflow which was very iterative, moving slowly from the blockout and adding more as I developed the scene. The material flow kind of mirrored this workflow in a way. I initially broke down faces into material groups and defined a set of material colors so I could quickly iterate on the color as I developed the lighting and post-processing. I eventually textured most of the objects and started using gradient textures and simple colors to help develop the color pallet further and some smooth transition os some objects into others. An advantage of using simple colors and gradients is in texture size sine many of these only require a very small amount of texture space.
The foliage I create has been done from the high poly and baked onto a plane then either textured or painted directly. Foliage can really help liven a scene and create contrast from strongly defined shapes. To move the foliage in the wind I’m using a fairly simple shader which uses a noise texture to move the top of the foliage, making it seem like it’s moving in the wind.
When creating from the high poly it’s easy to iterate on multiple different shapes and create groups of leaves quickly. To keep a strong crisp edge style for the painted foliage I mostly used the pen tool to draw different foliage elements.
Lighting is one of the most crucial elements of a scene, it creates a mood, leads the eye, and perhaps most importantly, heavily affects the color of a scene in combination with post-processing. I generally experiment a ton with different lighting setups and often use fake lighting which wouldn’t really make sense in the real world, adding more color and highlighting or brightening certain areas of an environment. For the low poly scene, in particular, I also used a number of fake god-rays which are just transparent gradients on a flat plane to help emphasize some of the lighting elements.
Adding Subtle Visual Effects
Visual effects in the environment design can be one of the most powerful tools you have to help create a lively world. Mixed with animation of ambient creatures and moving props, they can really help sell the world as being real. Some of the things I used previously to help sell the mood include simply butterflies, glowing dust (this is especially useful in highlighting lights in close-ups), moving foliage, and falling leaves.
In general, if something has weight and blows in the wind (especially when outdoors), it can be animated or a shader could be created to help support its physical mass in the world. Creating ambient creatures and other living elements really helps sell the world as a real space which I mentioned previously as being a core element in creating a strong environment design.
For the water, I found an amazing free asset on the Unity store which I highly recommend. Tweaking a few of these elements enabled me to get the look I have in the game currently.
When you’re creating a stylized art piece for a game there are no real rules. If you find something that works, can create an interesting image to look at and supports gameplay, it can be effective. Bridging a gap between reality and stylization, there are so many ways you can go about creating a world that is believable in its own way. A lot of the time when I first start creating things it can be disheartening to initially start from something that might look quite bad, but you have to trust yourself and continue to iterate and develop it further until you are happy with it. Creating small sections which you can be happy with can really help push you further and inspire the other aspects of an environment.