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Thanks to great guys from Ubisoft we now have the honor of presenting an amazing interview with Darren Horrocks. Darren is a Level Artist, who worked on a number of huge projects, including Far Cry 4, Far Cry Primal, Bioshock 2 and Ryse: Son of Rome. In this post he discussed his work, the main tasks of Leve Artist and his search for the visual harmony in the level.
My name is Darren Horrocks. I am a Level Artist at Ubisoft Toronto. At Ubisoft, I have worked on Far Cry 4, Far Cry Primal, and am currently working on an unannounced project. Before joining the studio, I also worked on Bioshock 2, Ryse: Son of Rome, and Devil’s Third.
The Role of Level Artist
At Ubisoft as a Level Artist (LA), your role can vary drastically depending on what stage of a project you are in. From brainstorming, gathering reference, making mood boards and prototyping in pre-production, to working with a Level Designer to create layouts and setups in production that are gameplay and metric compliant, entertaining, and visually appealing through context and composition. As an open world LA you create pleasing reveals that guide the player through by using in-game assets, while including composition, lines of sight, and other techniques. All can play a large role in leading the player in certain directions. All of these elements are typically focused around a variety of gameplay and narrative beats, but can also be used for creating non-gameplay points of interest.
You’ll notice that the role of an LA is a more focused position than that of an Environment Artist. Your attention as an LA is on the big picture, and working from a much broader perspective, constantly keeping the whole environment in mind. Because the role is more specialized, you have a team to help support you, who all contribute to the vision set out for your level, and ultimately its success as a great gameplay experience. For example, you may have a Lighter to handle the mood, and create contrast through lighting, and an asset team of Modelers and Texture Artists to support your levels specific needs or visual themes with meshes and materials. Whereas an Environment Artist is typically tasked with all of these job families throughout the duration of the project.
I think visual harmony comes from a clear and well communicated set of pillars and visual themes. Something that each member of the team can get behind and use as a guide to ensure a coherent look is achieved throughout the world. All elements of which should complement or contrast one another in such a way that exemplifies the look or feel a director is trying to pinpoint. This can be initially set out by identifying key tenets or principles to use as guides for the team. Such as color palettes for mood or factions, and forms or shape language for their architecture, objects, and garb.
I think the process becomes more complex if the title’s goal is realism. Even though you can lean on real life references for things such as time period, styles of architecture, objects and their function or role in that society. Ultimately you have to absolutely nail that look and feel of that time period if the general public has any recollection of how it should look. If the time period is not well known, like that of Far Cry Primal. Then you are able to take more creative liberties.
I believe that in order to keep the level visually interesting, you have to set the stage for the player to have moments of awe, which are full of emotional appeal or charged with excitement. Working with a great team to create a fantastic reveal focused around a narrative beat that trails off into a stunning background vista. Package that with context and function, to tell a story of how that space came to be. Then you are hitting a lot of the keys to keeping a space interesting to a player. But you may only have a few of these moments throughout any particular level. Other non-essential / non-golden path areas also deserve love and attention, and while you work on those, you are constantly keeping in mind all of those principles I’ve mentioned already, they just carry less wow factor, but still hit on all the key pillars set out by the Art Director. An LA’s goal at the end of the day is to have a consistent level of ‘pretty’ across the board.
How do the scenes in games usually work? Is there always a central object? Is there some kind of connection between the positioning of enemies and the treasures at the map and the design of the visual component of the level? What are the main things that you keep in mind while building environments for big games, where the player can discover the scene from any level really?
The last part of your question is key. We focus on Open World gameplay, and everything we create is done with a 360° approach. You can never know for sure which direction the player may approach a set-up from. With that in mind, we do create a “Golden Path”. Again back to guiding the player through the different visual elements we place in our levels, we are fairly confident that the vast majority of players will choose this path. So you are able to approach your visual elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background more focused towards the Golden Path. There doesn’t always have to be a central object or focus. In Primal for example, the player could be wandering through a fairly generic dense forest, following the base of a steep hill. The density of the brush might dissuade them from veering off this path, or the angles/shapes of a rock formation or spacing between formations could suggest they choose to move in a different direction. I believe the key to doing this right is by constantly playing the level, approaching things from different angles and perspectives. Experimenting and constantly getting feedback, and then iterating to make it better.
Set dressing a POI (Point of Interest) does create a connection between an area that holds a player reward, and the challenges involved in acquiring that reward. But in essence the way it is dressed should help subtly communicate that information to the player. For example, in the Mammoth Epic Hunt in Primal, there were three distinct gameplay zones that the player could utilize the environment to help hunt the mammoth. Dressing the environment so that each zone was very distinct was essential. The transitions were important, and allowing the player to recognize those ingredients to aid them was important as well. So the combination of all these elements had to be considered.
Using Dynamic Objects
Dynamic objects that have movement, or effects, and sound, all contribute to the realism and immersion of the environment you create. They create a more believable space. Imagine if you will, standing on the street in your neighborhood. The trees are static, no trash, or leaves blowing in the wind. The street lights don’t change, the clouds don’t move, the sun is always at high noon. It would feel so odd, so out of place. Those are the types of things we take for granted on a day to day basis, and truly add a lot of realism to a game.
When using dynamic objects you always have to keep in mind optimization and frame rate. Cloth simulations, physics objects, breakables, alpha card vert movement for leaves, VFX sprites with significant overdraw, decals with displacement etc. All of these things quickly eat away at an allotted budget for your level. So you can’t put them everywhere, they should have a purpose, and support a particular objective. Used sparingly they can still have a massive effect on the realism of your environment.
Building Beautiful Scenes with Rocks and Trees
The team did an amazing job creating rich and diverse environments in Far Cry Primal. I think the ability to have a rich, lush wilderness that is composed of a small amount of assets overall really comes down to planning. Creating a variety of biomes that have distinct visual features to differentiate one biome from the other, really gives contrast to the environments. I can’t emphasize enough how important planning is when it comes to environment assets, especially biomes. You should always consider low, medium, and high aspects of a biome. Within those, considering shapes and silhouettes of the foliage, the colours and density or coverage. Then experimenting with a variety of combinations to see which recipes best hit the flavour you are trying to create.
A good Level Artist is able to get a lot of ‘mileage’ out of assets by using them in ways that they may not have been originally intended to be used. This type of creativity allows the artist to create a multitude of those beautiful scenes, while minimizing the strain put on an asset team to produce extra assets. As always, you have to keep in mind those core principles too.
I love rocks.
Procedural Asset Generation
I personally feel that procedural tools are great. If they have an excellent set of rules to do first pass asset placement, and that placement requires minimal cleanup, feels natural, makes sense and allows me to spend the majority of my time polishing to increase overall quality and visual fidelity in production. Imagine being able to create a system that can generate an entire world. Now I can focus on the gameplay spaces, and put lots of love where it’s needed most to make our games even more fun to play for the fans.
Procedural asset generation is a bit different, and a lot of tools that do this are extremely effective. But it takes a really skilled user to create a procedural asset that doesn’t feel procedural. I wouldn’t say they can only create basic assets anymore, the complexity is being ramped up fast. But it is definitely interesting how far it has come when you compare the workflow for asset creation now, to a few years ago.
What’s your take on VR? Have you experienced it? How do you think VR will influence the way you’re approaching the environment design in games?
I love the idea and fantasy of VR. My experiences with VR have been limited, but pretty awesome so far. I love the emotion and reaction it elicits from me while playing! Much greater than playing the same game non-VR. I believe it fits certain genres, experiences and IP more than others and that a great VR experience requires a high level of visual fidelity in order to be successful. Companies that tap into interactivity using VR will fast become the leaders in my opinion.