Detroit Decay: Environment Design Study

Detroit Decay: Environment Design Study

3d artist Ash Thundercliffe did a beautiful talk on the production of the super detailed environment ‘Detroit Decay’. Great example of UE4/Quixel SUITE combo.

We’ve had a chance to chat with Ash Thundercliffe about his amazing experiment with Unreal Engine. Being a Technical Content Artist at Rockstar Games, Ash likes to explore new software, techniques, and ideas. This new project ‘Detroit Decay’ taught him how to use Unreal Engine 4 and Quixel SUITE 2.

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Hi, my name is Ash Thundercliffe, a 3D environment artist with 3 years experience in AAA and mobile game development. My most recent role was a ‘Technical Content Artist’ at Rockstar Games. As well as working on games environments professionally I also like to explore new software, techniques and ideas on environments in my free time. My most recent project is a scene I call ‘Detroit Decay’ which makes use of the real time rendering capabilities of Unreal Engine 4 and is fully textured using the Quixel SUITE 2.

The Idea and Inspiration for Detroit Decay

Before creating the scene I knew I wanted to create a semi lived in interior. Too often I see environments that have a very ‘The Last of Us‘ feel where the building is completely destroyed and plants are growing all over the room and through the windows. Instead I wanted to create something similar to the buildings in Detroit that in their time had beautiful interiors and grand designs but have recently been left to rot and decay. After the Ubisoft game ‘The Division’ was released it gave me a clear idea of the mood and story I want to set this scene in.

Gathering Reference


the professionals screenshot

Bradbury Building Reference

Tom Clancy's The Division™2016-6-1-2-58-24

Dying Light Screenshot

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six® Siege2016-5-22-0-12-21

Making Full Use of the Quixel Suite

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One of the main things I wanted to tackle with this scene was the Quixel SUITE. Prior to this project I’d not really used any of the texture software available and mainly just used a standard photoshop approach. After doing my research on the various texture packages available I settled on Quixel because of how it looked to integrate seamlessly into my current workflow. I didn’t really have to learn any new software because of how it works along side Photoshop so was very intuitive to use. The large quantity of free tutorials also made it super easy to learn the more complex parts of the software. What made this software so useful was the ability to create a custom material that I could use across multiple assets and using the same parameters to get a consistent amount of dirt/damage throughout the scene. The main example of this is the wood sections in the scene, the reference I gathered showed that all pillars, trims, doors and paneling used the exact same material throughout. In Quixel I created a new lacquered wood using the smart material settings from the existing Lacquered wood materials already in the Quixel SUITE, this ensured I had physically accurate materials and meant I didnt have to waste time creating my own smart material, I just adjusted a few setting and added an extra dirt layer to suit my desired results. Because of all this time saving it meant I could spend more time creating the high poly models and adding my own zbrush details. In a few days I managed to have all my wood sections complete and used this same technique on the ceiling plaster and even the cardboard sheets and boxes. For the most part my workflow was creating the high poly in 3DS Max for the main details and then adding the smaller details in Zbrush such as the floral patterns, surface noise and even adding text and embossing using alphas, but later on I started to rely more on Ndo to extract normals from images for the subtle wood grain and also creating all the text and branding on the fire extinguisher. All the sliders and variations available in Ndo made it super quick to create all the variation I needed in the text and boarders on the extinguisher with very little effort. Now I wouldn’t recommend you just throw images in there and expect perfect normals because thats not really what it is for but if you really want some subtle surface noise or to create normals from a height map you have created in photoshop then this can save so much time rather than working with a heavy sub divisioned mesh in Zbrush.

Making Use of Displacement

Check out the changes in the materials!
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One thing I love doing in my scenes is making use of displacement to add an extra level of detail and depth to my scenes. The most obvious use of this is the wall panels, without the parallax occlusion mapping the wall appears very flat, even with a normal map. Making use of the height maps I generated from the high poly bakes I can create all these extra details without having to add any extra polys and the results look great. I also used this same technique on the floor tile and used vertex painting in UE4 to blend between the parallax damaged version and the normal mapped clean version.

Using Weighted Normals

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Something cool I came across when working on this scene was a technique called weighted normals, its something a lot of video games are starting to make use of and basically reduces poly count, improves normals and even improves high to low poly bakes. The easiest way to showcase this technique is with a simple box, all 3 boxes have a single chamfer and all 3 boxes have a single smoothing group. The difference between the 3 is how the normals are being controlled. The left box is the standard result you get with 3ds Max, notice how there is that nasty shading appearing on the bottom left. The middle box is using the traditional method of eliminating the issue by having supporting edge loops to to control the normal blend between the faces, although this does a pretty good job the triangle cost can soon mount up with all of those extra edge loops. Finally the right one is using weighted normals, notice how the faces appear flat but also has that smooth chamfered edge we wanted. For a comparison of a much more complex object here is the extinguisher asset I created for the scene, the left has weighted normals and the right is using the default produced by max. The issue is most noticeable around the hose, handle and the clasp. For more information on this and for a download of the script I used in 3ds Max follow this link.

Don’t Forget the Little Details


Something that is so easy to forget when working on a scene for a long time is the little details. Just by adding subtle props like plug sockets and light switches will really help ground the scene and give it that extra realism we try to achieve with the latest generation of games. As well as this don’t forget basic fire safety. Exit signs, fire notices and alarms will appear around most exits and even having piping going around the scene for the fire sprinklers really adds that extra detail. Also if you really want to push the detail and realism further for those players that like to take in the scene rather than just run strait through then do some location research, all the newspapers in the scene are a local Detroit newspaper and all the phone numbers on the notice board have the Detroit area code, it may seem a little crazy but to some players this makes all the difference.

Final Words

If you would like to read more about interior creation and games art then you should check out my previous interview, where I outline the four stages of interior creation and also give a little more detail about some of the workflows I use to create my scenes. Also to see all my latest work and breakdowns be sure to follow my Artstation.

Ash Thundercliffe, Environment Artist


Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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