Senior Environment Artist at Ubisoft Massive Johannes Böhm described the production techniques, which helped the studio to build Manhattan for The Division.
After the release of The Division in March 2016, I was reading articles, forum posts and reviews and one of the things that came up as one of the most positive aspects of the game was it’s atmosphere and the detail of the mid-crisis New York.
In this article, I aim to give you an overview over workflows, thought processes and tools that we employed to achieve those along with the most-realistic mid-town Manhattan to date.
The example I will be using is a street that I created for the Incursion “Clear Sky” which was released with the 1.2 Update.
Before level design and environment art start working on a mission or an area, directors and leads sit together and create a mission design document. It entails things like general art direction, story, intentions for combat situations, involved factions etc.
In this case, the story is focused around a JTF (Joint Task Force, a coalition of the remaining former NYPD, Firefighters, National Guard etc.) convoy being ambushed by one of the enemy factions, the Rikers.
The Rikers are a group of criminals that escaped from the prison on Rikers Island during the outbreak of the Virus. They revel in the chaos and are hellbent on making the most of it, which in their case means first and foremost taking over power and exacting revenge on their former captors and in general everyone wearing a uniform, which in the world of The Division is primarily the JTF.
The street that I was responsible for was the back end of that convoy. The Rikers killed all accompanying police officers and started hanging them on light poles and construction cranes as a display of their hatred towards the authorities.
Overall, the atmosphere was supposed to be very dark and violent, showcasing the brutality and ruthlessness of the Rikers.
One of our Concept Artists Daniel Törngren, directed by our lead artist Benedikt Poddlesnigg created a mood painting encompassing all the important elements such as the the hanging bodies and the general chaos of the scene.
The purpose of it was not to be used a direct reference, but to showcase the general look and feel of the area.
What I liked the most about it and tried to recreate in the environment was the sense of scale, making the player feel small between the towering wall of the Dark Zone and the extended construction cranes.
A moodpainting created at the beginning of production.
One important aspect of the production at this stage is that Techart is already involved in the planning. It ensures that we don’t start building scenes that will be impossible to optimize to run at the target frame rate later.
The first step when creating an area for The Division is always to jump into Google Streetview and look at the actual real life location. In this case, it is W 57th Street between 8th Avenue and broadway in midtown Manhattan.
W57th street in real life
One of the major fantasies of the game is that it takes place in a realistic, mid-crisis New York that matches the real world as closely as possible.
Therefore, I started with blocking out the streets and buildings with the proper scale and proportions.
When blocking out the buildings, things I pay attention to are the width of the buildings, the number of floors and the distance of the building to the street (i.e. how wide the sidewalk is). Once those are correct, it is just a matter of choosing the right building kit from our library and assigning the right window shapes and wall colors.
The Building Tool
Manhattan features a wide variety of buildings, both in style and size. They range from big skyscrapers such as the Empire State building to small residential houses to the warehouses around chelsea piers.
To be able to create all of them, the Snowdrop Tools Team came up with the building tool.
It allows us to define a footprint for a building, then specify which building kits (collections of models of wall panels with windows, doors etc.) it should use and then to select from those for each of the wall tiles.
It is a rather quick and flexible way of creating the kinds of buildings we needed to recreate Manhattan.
Snowdrop’s building system
In the case of the street we are talking about, the buildings were rather simple. On the northern side we have a high shoppingcenter with lots of big glass windows with thin metal bars, while the west side was supposed to be covered with Dark Zone Walls that are in construction and beneath it a rather generic brick building.
We always pay attention that the building entrances (even if they were purely visual) are in the right positions and that they are the right kind of doors (such as shop entrances or residential doors).
Once buildings, roads and sidewalks were in place, I started looking at the infrastructure of the street, meaning light poles, traffic lights, bus stations, traffic signs, newspaper stands etc.
One thing to keep in mind during this phases to pay attention how well the environment will be for the players navigation. A lot of the time we need to adjust the spacing between objects and they need to be either moved closer together so it’s obvious the player can´t go between them or to move them further apart from each other to make sure the player can traverse the space without getting stuck or it feeling sticky.
In the same pass, I also worked on the road, placing roadmarkings, manholes, tarmac patches etc. again staying as close to reality as possible.
I also made sure that the roadmarkings matched the surrounding streets and created a traffic flow that made sense.
When I was happy with this, I started working on the shop fronts. There isn’t a lot of shops in this particular street, but in the rest of the game world, getting them right was one of the most important things for matching the feel of an area.
The scene in one of the first days of production
During the production of the game, we created hundreds of shop signs and a lot of actual brands for everything from fast food chains (Kobys), clothing stores (GUY Neith) to Banks and manufacturers of Energy drinks.
Some of them were just quick one-off Signs that we would put over a shop, dress the shop window appropriately and be done with it, but in others, the Brands had an actual description, such as which colors to use in the stores, which products they would sell and what areas they would primarily be located in.
Doing those initial passes may not seem very interesting for an Artist as it is simply recreating what already exists in the real world, but they are the basis that the scene is built on and I realized time and again that the more attention I payed to it, the more it helped me further down the road and the more believable the end result would turn out to be.
During this early blockout phase, the Level Designer for this Area, Jenny Kupka Wennberg also started working on the area, starting to place orange boxes as covers and general level geometry as well as beginning to script the combat beats.
She wanted to provide higher cover positions on the southern side of the road and to completely block off the three roads in the east.
Having level design work on their blockouts at the same time that the Artist works on infrastructure and buildings has the big advantage that LD can test and iterate a lot without having to worry about destroying some already done art. It also gives the artist opportunities to feedback on LD blockouts since they are also already working on the scene.
In this case, I started thinking about how I would contextualize the covers and how they would work with the composition I had in mind and made some initial suggestion for changes.
Some of them were not a problem for Jenny, some of them we found a compromise for (such as spacing the high covers in the south differently and having other positions to climb onto) and some of them I took back because they would have made the combat feel worse for the player.
Composition, as I understand it, is the use of different elements (such as lines, shapes, colors, details, movement) in a picture to guide the viewer’s eye to where the artist wants it to go.
It’s an incredibly interesting and extensive subject and it goes much further than the rule of thirds or the Fibonacci spiral.
A lot of the rules of classical composition were developed for static mediums such as paintings, photography or even film and are hard to apply to most video game because the camera is not in the artists, but rather in the player’s hand.
Therefore, we often have to work with a lot broader strokes and be less precise than we could be in a still image.
Knowing your Areas well helps with this. If you can anticipate from which the direction the player is likely coming and where they will be looking (such as enemy positions), you can set up your compositions to work best from those positions and with those camera angles.
The Composition I was thinking of for this particular street was using the high, dark buildings on the sides to create a more vertical image (despite the monitor or TV that he player is playing the game on being horizontal) and to emphasize this with the cranes to create high triangle shapes that would guide the players eye down the road to where he or she is supposed to go.