I really like how you've articulated your entire process. This was a very enriching read. A Well deserved feature!
Great article! Thanks for the awesome read.
Wow, this is so cool! Nice job!
3d artist Daniel Rose talked about the production of his fantastic environments. He gives some advice on the creation of various materials, meshes and general composition. Nice piece if you’re just getting into the wonderful world of environment production.
My name is Daniel (Dan) Rose. I’ve previously worked at Sony Bend (Uncharted: Golden Abyss) and WB Games Turbine (Infinite Crisis, LOTRO, DDO). For the past few years I’ve been a self-employed freelance 3d artist, working with a lot of different clients (Motion Logic Studios, Two Bit Circus, and a ton more) to make art for or to provide general consultation services to clients. In addition to freelancing I teach a few classes at Drexel University. They are mostly 3d art focused but occasionally I’ll do some intro game design as well, it depends on the needs of the Media Arts and Design department.
Oh and I shouldn’t forget to mention that I write blogs for the GameTextures.com blog page! That’s how you found me after all. I mostly do “game reviews” where I’ll talk about the art of a game I’ve played, but I also do some lifestyle articles and more technical works too, like the Anatomy of A Texture article.
Environment Design Advice
Spend plenty of time in pre-production to plan out your scene, kits you’ll need, and the base material library you’ll use. Taking the time to clearly define goals, find suitable concepts, and gather real life reference is much underappreciated when doing personal work. The more work and planning you do before you start your environment, the easier it is to maintain momentum and really hit on a beautiful piece with minimal re-work.
Of course, you’re still going to have to spend a lot of time working and then throwing that same work out. I tend to do that all the time. Nothing is sacred!
I personally will find a photo or concept piece online that inspires me. From there, I’ll look for other references from photos of real life to add to the concept. I’ll look to other video games too for a technical “how did they do that” point of reference than for something I want to copy right from them. It was thanks to studying the cliff faces and rock walls of Metal Gear Solid V that I tossed out some work in Desert Falls for something that worked much better.
Once I’ve gathered all this reference I’ll write out a technical outline. This outline covers tons of content, from what the backstory of the scene is to what the season is and what specific flora are in the region this environment would be in. I also add technical specifications, like naming conventions, triangle counts, and what new technology I want to use. You can actually check out a copy here.
That’s another thing I think personal work should stress. When you’re working on a project, you often won’t be using all the tools in your tool box (goes double for freelancers). Your personal work is YOUR time to spend building up that toolbox. For instance, I had specific goal to mimic a Naughty Dog texture style and workflow on Ancient Pool. I re-did the floor and wall textures two or three times before I was relatively happy with the result (I also had an art test in the middle of production on that project that helped a lot too). With Desert Falls, it was my first Unreal Engine 4 environment and I wanted to mix in as much Substance Designer work as I could since I don’t get to use it a ton on my freelance projects. It’s important to keep learning. I also try to share my success and failures in personal pieces through Post Mortems. I’m pretty honest in them; none of the work I’ve done is perfect in my eyes. Here’s a link to the one for Desert Falls.
Textures and Assets
Zbrush Sculpts for the Ancient Pool. These were all hand authored. Very pretty, but very time consuming. Now I try to use as much Substance Designer as possible.
That varies from project to project, but for the past few months I tend to use as much Substance Painter and Designer as I can for textures. Painter is great for more unique assets and for painting materials on tiling trims. Designer is far more complex. I’ve only used it for terrain type assets. It’s perfect to create detailed tiling textures that can be hooked into Substance Painter and re-used there if needed. I’m still working on learning the fine points of Designer so I have no doubt that my material work in the entire Substance pipeline will improve. As it stands, I’m doing better work faster with Substance.
Sand with fine stones-100% Substance Designer. I try to make most tiling textures in this way now.
When I’m building an asset for reuse, I try to keep it locked to a fixed measurement that can snap to a grid. This is less important for stone or cliff face assets since they are more organic and placing them in a more disorderly fashion creates a more pleasing scene. For less organic assets, I (or a client) will define the size each piece needs to be and I’ll make sure that the footprint remains consistent for each asset. I might have a few different floor pieces but my goal is to make sure they stay in the same defined footprint. I like working in Meters personally too-it’s just easier to think “this floor piece is a 1×1 meter square” than thinking in centimeters. That’s just me though.
An example of my most complete asset kit to date. The basic walls, floors, and ceilings are 8m x 8m.
As far as efficiency goes, it’s about taking a step back and thinking about what’ll get you the most mileage out of. You can make a handful of rocks and kit bash them to make even more combinations of rocks. Just rotate and scale them (within reason) to have them feature different parts of the mesh with each different combination of stones. It’s much faster and easier to make 3 different cliff or stone meshes, apply a good shader that makes smart use of texture blends, and to kit bash them intelligently so that you have what looks like one really cool asset. The same principle can be applied pretty liberally to other environmental assets as well.
Adding the Details
Water to me is equal parts pretty and technically challenging, which is why I try to use it in my scenes! I love a challenge. Water and foliage are about three things to me; color variance, movement, and leading the eye. Desert Falls was my first scene to also have a video, so I wanted movement to be in it. Unreal made the foliage movement easy (you can do better with fancier shaders), but the water required a lot of work to get it to work correctly. Also, desert scenes without hints of color are pretty boring. Most deserts have some sort plant life in them, no matter how limited it is. Considering there was a water source in the scene, I had an excuse to infuse a lot of color into the scene.
When it comes to leading the eye, or the player, foliage can help tell the story of where others had been before. Paths that are worn have little or no foliage on them. When you’re playing a game and you see that, it’s almost an instinctual reaction to follow the defined trail. Water can do the same if it’s used in a similar way.
While Cabin in Woods is an older work, it still works as a good example of setting a mood through the use of fog and color.
Everything else you asked about helps set up the mood of a scene. Do you want an early day sunrise in a desert valley? Have some steam rising off of the river. How about discovering a cabin tucked in some woods? Have a night scene with key lights cutting the fog to light the way to the cabin. The mood is established by the lighting mostly, but adding fog and helps bring an atmospheric quality to a scene.
To tell you the truth, I am not much of a skybox artist! I did a skybox for Cabin in The Woods, which was just an image of a night sky I tiled and added clouds to. It’s something you’d see in a mobile game from a year or two ago. Desert Falls is a tweaked version of the default sky in Unreal 4, with some SCRIM mountains in the background using some tiling textures. I don’t think I did a real skybox for any of my other work either!
Instead, I think I want to talk a bit more about not being afraid to restart projects and toss things out. I tossed out a lot of work for both Ancient Pool and Desert Falls. Ancient Pool work was tossed because I kept learning better ways to sculpt and paint in Zbrush, and it lead to a really nice piece that took months to do. Desert Falls was scoped way down after I was unable to find time to work on it initially. I then went through numerous revisions of the actual stone/cliff meshes until I found something that worked. You learn a lot when you are critical of your work and aren’t afraid to toss work out.
The first Version of my Floor for Ancient Pool
The Close-if not final version of the same texture. Much better in every way.
An early version of Desert Falls. I was about halfway finished but at the time I was feeling good about some things and bad about others. I got feedback from friends and tossed out about 70% of what you see.
Like I said, nothing is sacred! Toss out anything that isn’t working.
Daniel Rose, 3D Artist