Designing Assets for a Mars Colony Environment

Chase Richards shared the asset creation process behind the Mars Colony Outer Rim project, talked about lighting and rendering the scene in Unreal Engine, and explained how Vertex School's mentors helped him create the environment.


I’m Chase Richards, an Environment Artist living in Bozeman, Montana. Since graduating college in 2015, I’ve worked with everything from photo and videography to photogrammetry and web development.

With a strong interest in graphics software, I studied Blender and Unity through YouTube for a few years and was completely hooked. I have always been interested in game development, so once I discovered a passion for rendering 3D models and creating basic games, I decided to look into working in the game industry.

Joining Vertex School

I started off by talking to people in the industry and researching the best steps to take in order for me to seriously pursue this career. Vertex School seemed to offer everything an artist would need in a structured 9-month course. I really liked that I would be mentored by top industry professionals that would tailor my own design style to the school’s game art curriculum. I also like to surround myself with like-minded thinkers and was glad to find a supportive community of creative minds. At the end of those 9-months, I would have my own unique and innovative portfolio capable of advancing my career.

The Mars Colony Outer Rim Project

For my capstone project, I created a colony base on Mars. I began by gathering many science fiction references of various domes and sci-fi styles for space habitats. From those images, I started to formulate plans for a sci-fi colony base that showed organic models on one side and hard surface modeling on the other. I also developed a design with modular spacing in between columns for shops, residences, hangar doors, etc. 

My mentors at Vertex stressed the importance of storytelling. Whether it is the placement of objects in the scene, the tiny scratches on a particular asset, or the way the light shines on objects of interest, it all needs to relate to the narrative in order to be fully understood.

Before I started the course, I had no idea I would need to become such a storyteller. Then at the student introduction, I was given a glimpse into the power of current A.I. to generate an environment. Having new insight, I realized I would need to develop a strong storytelling ability so that I could advance in the industry regardless of disruptive technologies.

The reason I chose Mars seems to be a bit of a storyline decision in itself. With my previous portfolio piece containing a SpaceX-style rocket, I thought, "where might that rocket be going?" That destination is the opening scene in the video. Here, I used the camera moving toward the planet as if the viewer were on a long journey to Mars. 

The next scene shows the colony as if the viewer were seeing it from an orbiting satellite. This scene was created with the intention of showing that there is an outer rim to the colony base. It also suggests that the roads stretching out from the base were likely created over a long period of time since colonization was first established on Mars.

The video continues to reveal details of the colony's infrastructure. There is a pawn shop, letting the viewer know that there is likely a divided social class system throughout the colony. The details, such as the guns being sold in the pawn shop, are references to a need for protection or defense. The wires running across the floor are clues to the deteriorating living conditions.

In the final scene, a dirt-covered mars rover appears to have returned from an exploratory voyage. It references the rover that was seen making its way to the base in scene two.

Behind the rover, there is a wall and a door with restricted access displayed above it. I wanted to show that there is a reason for the wall separating the social classes, so I placed another sign next to the door. This sign shows there are also restrictions for water being enforced.

The two signs on the wall are divided by a blue pipe that runs into the area beyond the wall. On the other side, tall healthy trees can be seen through the glass. The camera slowly pans across the scene to show tents for basic housing. In the center of the tent community is a small water-deprived tree. What I hope the viewer concludes from the scene is that there is a conflict among the social classes, dependent on the availability and flow of water.

Asset Creation

For this environment, I started my blockout with the curved beam that functions as the support for the Mars habitat’s dome. I wanted to start with this complex curved model as it would be a crucial modular piece for this environment. The design replicates Dubai’s futuristic airport architecture and features emissive lighting along the entire underside, making it ideal for a unique sci-fi presentation. I was able to get this curved shape with carefully adjusted bend modifiers and lattice boxes. I then mirrored the entire column making space for modular pieces to fit in between them.

For the windows, I modeled one and then created a wall of windows using instances of that first model. I then used more bend modifiers to match the curved columns. The entire curved wall of windows uses tillable metal except for the trim around the glass. I wanted to achieve a look similar to triple-pane vacuum glass found on the International Space Station’s windows. I did this by unwrapping the window so that the area around the glass could include a section from my trim sheet. For this section of the trim sheet, I modeled and textured a long strip that would appear to form a vacuum seal on the window when mapped to the window’s UV space.

The vacuum glass was the smallest piece on my trim sheet. I followed a tutorial on creating an entire sci-fi environment using a single trim sheet. I used the tutorial guidelines for all the floors, walls, and ceilings along the right side of the level. The ceiling of the Outer Rim Pawn shop consists of pipes from the trim sheet with metal grates in front. The grate is one of a few mapped objects I placed on a decal sheet. It consists of rivets in order to see the metal pipes. To get that effect, I baked out the opacity mask in Marmoset Toolbag and plugged it into the masked opacity node of the Unreal Engine material. With the Height Map baked out on the trim sheet, the pipes along with the other pieces from the trim sheet appear to have depth with adjustable parallax occlusion mapping parameters.

Glass refraction and reflected materials were very bugged initially because of the sheer quantity. I ended up switching from Lumen to raytraced reflections following William Faucher’s optimization techniques. For the glass, I disabled refraction entirely and sought more creative solutions.

The first creative solution was a simple dirt mask on an alpha layer with parameters for color, opacity, and roughness. The second creative solution was a material I call, "Forcefield Glass". This glass material has a hexagon pattern plugged into the normal and emissive properties. The emissive uses a subtracted hexagon alpha pattern that creates the grid. I found that before it could be subtracted, I needed to control the amount of light bleeding out of the grid. Multiplying the alpha’s strength worked well to control the hardness of emissive light escaping between the grid’s white and black values. 

Then for the moving cloud, I subtracted a circular gradient alpha with a panner node from that grid I just created. The circular gradient needed very soft values, unlike the grid which needed very hard values. I edited the alpha in Photoshop so that the center of the alpha didn't transition to pure white. This allowed me to increase the intensity to a high emissive value with a soft moving cloud form. The result produces a nice impenetrable-looking sci-fi glass with a blue that contrasts well with the reds and oranges of Mars.

The Forcefield Glass is located on the wall separating the different social classes. This wall serves a design purpose as well as a storyline. A wall like this in a large area creates a much more manageable space in which to work. Without the wall, I would have had to find a way to fill a very large level with assets that would take a team of people to create.

Some of the decals on the wall were created using a text-to-graffiti generator and the mural was photo bashed together in Photoshop. Its design symbolizes large trees that tower over the smaller one in the inhabitant’s living space. I also placed the mural’s sun in this particular spot as that is where the forcefield glass seems to radiate from.

I created many other assets for this project following traditional high to low-poly workflow as well as a mid poly workflow inside of Maya. Some assets were obtained from Megascans such as rocks and fauna and sci-fi items from other marketplace environments. With my assets, I like to add purposeful scratches, smudges, etc rather than covering them in recognizable alpha patterns. This technique really makes the asset feel like they belong to this particular environment.

The design of the mars rover is actually from the movie, The Martian. I was able to animate it with a simple script inside of Maya that says, "if the X-axis changes then the rotation of the tires changes." It’s a very quick and dirty way to animate a vehicle but served its purpose in this case.

I also created many super large assets including the dome structure with its outer rim and the Mars planet in the opening scene. The planet scene is composed of three large spheres. The first sphere is the planet and uses a texture from solarsystemscope. The second sphere is the atmosphere consisting of an opaque material with a fresnel effect. The tricky part was masking out the fresnel on the dark side of the planet. It required me to subtract a customized gradient node setup from the fresnel. The third sphere is actually the stars and has a texture from solarsystemscope with emissive properties to illuminate the stars.

Lighting and Post-Production

Lighting the inside of the mars colony was certainly a challenge. Directional Sunlight lit up most of the scene, however, I wanted the emissive sci-fi lighting to be a feature that stood out. To achieve this I increased the amount of atmospheric fog and included the use of a god ray blueprint in front of most of the emissive lights. This created a very atmospheric lighting effect and helped with the overall look I imagined might be on Mars. 

Post-processing layers played another crucial part in developing the end result for the Martian environment. I created one for each camera and changed the values dramatically to achieve an other-worldly atmosphere. Adjusting the values for an image is much easier than adjusting the values for an entire 3D environment so I used a Color LUT inside the layer. Dropping in a color LUT that had been adjusted based on a Photoshopped image of the 3D environment helped with the final look and feel of Mars.

I rendered the videos using the Movie Render Queue and brought it into Adobe Premier Pro for post-production. There I organized the clips, did some more color correction, and added the audio. Finally, I exported the video and used HandBrake to compress it before uploading it to my portfolio.

Vertex School and my Mentors

When I first started modeling, I could not have imagined the advances in new technology that are constantly emerging in the game industry. It is an evolving industry with unlimited opportunities.

One thing that hasn’t changed for thousands of years is the use of artwork to tell incredible stories. As an environment artist, I can now tell stories through interactive worlds. I hope more artists in the industry seek to tell stories through their own designs.

The Mars project was a challenging project and I am very thankful to have had guidance from my mentors at Vertex School. Special thanks to Ryan Kingslien, Kem Yaralioglu, Chico Spans, and Salvador Sánchez for sharing their game development knowledge with me.

Chase Richards, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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