Dead End: Stylized Environment Exploration Part 1

Dead End: Stylized Environment Exploration Part 1

Stephen Seress-Smith explored stylized art production utilizing industry-standard techniques within the production of the project “Dead End”. In the first part, read about the theory, visual research, blockout, the first lighting pass, and sculpting.

Abstract

The project “Dead End” is an exploration of practical environment art development with consideration of level design and emerging technology whilst following a stylized art direction. It demonstrates the professional techniques utilized within the industry and shows the application of those methods.

The key stages of development are discussed and critically evaluated throughout this article with a final conclusion at the end which reflects on what worked well and what could be improved.

Dead End (Figures 1.1-3)

Introduction

The entire premise of this project is to explore environment development with consideration of emerging technologies and neighboring disciplines, specifically Level Design and Virtual Reality.

The investigation of this subject matter should provide a more considerate and comprehensive understanding of game development now and in the future.

The project was intended to strengthen the portfolio by demonstrating an array and variety of work instead of a linear concept and approach.

The key considerations and learning outcomes for this project are:

  1. Research the stylized art direction
  2. Emphasis on world-building and narrative design
  3. Implement the basics of level design production
  4. Explore the correlation between modern production techniques and emerging technology
  5. Improve personal development techniques, specifically sculpting and lighting

 

Theory and Development

- Theme

Research of stylized art provided many inspiring titles that could help in the development of this project. What was important to learn was the breakdown of their development techniques and processes, world design, level design, and art style. Lots of games inspired this project but the most notable ones were the MediEvil remake and Diablo with its hybrid stylized look that I personally really like. MediEvil pushed forward the theme for the project which was “light-humored horror”.

Noting all the key stylizations of how the art is demonstrated within these titles helped define a clear set of pillars to use for consistency in the project:

  1. Wonky, offset assets – almost wacky (fence, gate, landscape)
  2. Chunky and exaggerated geometry to enhance the cartoony feel of silhouettes
  3. Saturated colors pulling out the contrast and exposure of assets
  4. Less noise and surface detail – bigger shapes
  5. The hand-painted look of textures

 

- Concept

The original concept was designed on top of the reference perspective that had previously been utilized for an art test. The goal here was to apply industry practices to the development of the project. Although the end goal was to create a level, utilizing this concept for scope, time and art direction was a great guideline for creative pre-production and any environment key considerations (props, color, lighting, and layout).

- Color Theory 

Color theory was extremely important for a project like this and it was something that needed to be introduced effectively through the environment lighting and design. Color Theory Fundamentals from Flipped Normals explains in great depth how to consider color to evoke emotions.

- Blockout

The blockout stage consists of quick and fast iterations focused on form development and asset creation. Having a list of assets speeds this process up. When building blockouts, it’s important to build assets fast and test different ideas spending extra time on the silhouettes and composition whilst getting a good idea of the overall theme. 

The tutorial series by Tim Simpson and Gnomon workshops with Brian Recktenwald go into great detail about this process when creating full-scale modular environments.

Creating key assets provides an opportunity to play and kitbash them together to construct interesting shapes. The focus was on a couple of grave types, some grass, a tree, a coffin, and a chapel. Once some basic assets were designed, they were then imported into the game engine for the first lighting pass.

- Lighting 1.0

Here, the color pallet is extremely important to consider because lighting an environment offers an opportunity to begin setting the mood and solidifying the theme. Game Art Institute has a great video with Marie Yue from Cloud Imperium Games that breaks down the theory behind this process:

- Level Design 

The mission narrative for this particular area was to have the player enter a new environment and get attacked by various enemies coming from different positions on the map like an arena fight. The idea of this style of the level came from playing classic platform games such as Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank. The takeaway from those particular titles was symmetry. With symmetry, you offer the player a fair chance in gameplay when it comes to the rules of engagement and play-style.

The Art of Game Design offers superior insight into the principles of designing interactive experiences.  The Ten Principles for Good Level Design was another useful resource that looked into some core game-specific fundamentals.

Project research

- Notable Artists

One of the most important aspects of a project like this is the understanding of the visual language used by notable artists and considering how that can relate to one’s own personal work.

Three projects really stood out during this stage of development and were part of the driving force when it came to world-building, narrative design, and asset creation.

Aurora Island by Dmitrii Mukhortov. In his piece, Dmitrii demonstrates a beautiful correlation of color theory, lighting techniques, and spatial awareness, bringing the original 360-degree panorama concept art by Simon Kopp to life.

Kraken Attack by Tobias Koepp. The artwork provides the viewer with an exciting and dynamic environment piece that pushes the creative workflow of a static scene forward.

Somerset Isle by Tomer Meltser. The final artwork is an extraordinary stylized piece that stands on the borderline of realistic art direction. What really stood out in this piece of work was the world-building and asset creation. There is a lot of attention paid to the placement and design of all the props that really bring the environment to life.

- Visual Research

The concept art created for the project provided a foundation for visual research that broke down the overall scope of the project into specified categories, props, materials, color, and lighting. With that, it was just about collating as many different resources that followed the same art direction as possible. 

Visual research also includes current games on the market to help understand modern-day development techniques used within a title. Diablo 3, MediEvil, Bloodborne, and Mutant Year Zero were the four most impressive titles.

Production

- Asset List

The MoSCoW method is a means of prioritizing assets for project management and a widely recognized technique in development. It stands for Must have, Should have, Could have, Won’t have.

By using this technique, one is able to list and rapidly decide the importance of each asset as seen below.

- Blockout

The blockout stage consists of quick and fast iterations focused on form development and asset creation. Having a list of assets speeds this process up. When building blockouts, it’s important to build assets fast and test different ideas spending extra time on the silhouettes and composition whilst getting a good idea of the overall theme. 

The tutorial series by Tim Simpson and Gnomon workshops with Brian Recktenwald go into great detail about this process when creating full-scale modular environments.

Creating key assets provides an opportunity to play and kitbash them together to construct interesting shapes. The focus was on a couple of grave types, some grass, a tree, a coffin, and a chapel. Once some basic assets were designed, they were then imported into the game engine for the first lighting pass.

- Lighting 1.0

Here, the color pallet is extremely important to consider because lighting an environment offers an opportunity to begin setting the mood and solidifying the theme. Game Art Institute has a great video with Marie Yue from Cloud Imperium Games that breaks down the theory behind this process:

Figure 8 demonstrates the stage light setup. It’s made from a Sky Sphere Blueprint with the sun height set to its lowest value, a skylight with no options changed and two directional lights set to sickly green and deep purple.

Green and purple are two colors commonly used together to create an eerie scene. They offer a sense of mystery and a ghost-like presence with the purple leading the main shadows and the green leading the highlights. This will later be combined with the primary shine from spotlights used to simulate the moon which will push the roughness values out from the assets and catch the edge of the normal information, forcing the props to pop out.

Figure 9 showcases some of the set lights. The orange spotlights are designed to work as secondary forms through the use of props (Candles and Lamps). The icy blue spotlights are intended to evoke a chilling atmosphere around the chapels/crypts. From the design perspective, these also serve as points of interest and force the player to observe them. This is where enemies will spawn, but they could also be used for chests and loot placement.

This primary stage map follows from the original concept art seen in Figure 2 and provides an opportunity to play with form, silhouettes, stage setting and world-building in a smaller, more condensed format, kind of like an asset playground.

- Sculpting

Dividing the blocked out meshes into their modular forms offers an opportunity to avoid sculpting repeated geometry unless absolutely necessary. It’s good to have variety in assets to avoid repetition but efficiency is important too when it comes to development.

A tutorial by Nikita Yashukov goes through the process of creating a stylized grave:

This combined with a couple of other rock sculpting resources provided the right amount of information needed to create an effective stylized look on the chapel and graves (Figure 10).

Brushes used:

  • Trim Dynamic - Rough up the edges of the assets
  • Trim Adaptive - Chip away small sections and add variety to flat surfaces
  • Trim Smooth Border - Break up the trim dynamic details
  • MalletFast - Add serious chips and breakups in the mesh
  • Cracks - Use a crack alpha to help break the mesh in parts
  • Slash - Add small cuts where the assets have been damaged
  • AJ Cracks - Make cuts and slices on the mesh (wood veins)
  • Clay Buildup - Add and remove additional form to the mesh

The props utilized a similar sculpting process. Again, the assets were broken into their primitive forms to avoid unnecessary repetitive sculpting and then imported into ZBrush. With most of the props being made from wood or metal, it was key to consider their structure. Metal, for example, should’ve been hammered and the surface should look accordingly whereas wood will have natural flowing veins and knots (Figure 11).

Sculpting meshes really aids in bringing out the overall design, shape, and form of assets. It allows an artist to add as much detail as they like to the props that will eventually make up the world. There’s no worrying about clean geometry, it’s a free-form workflow limited only by your imagination. What really makes this process enjoyable is the look dev aspect. Considering how an object works in real life is a challenge that requires practice to handle properly.

Figure 12 shows four candles at different points in their lifetime. The trick here was to understand how candles melted, which sides would have the most dripping wax, how those wax drops would react with each other and trickle down the side of the candle, where they would stop and how they would solidify. This kind of consideration brings believability to the existence of a basic asset and an aesthetic appreciation to the scene.

This is the end of the first part! In the second part, we'll cover texturing, level design, world-building, lighting 2.0, VFX, post-process, and more.

Stephen Seress-Smith, 3D Environment Artist

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    Dead End: Stylized Environment Exploration Part 1