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Very impressive article Jake! You are very talented.
nice article! i love seeing the breakdowns.
3d artist Emek Can Özben discussed his approach to the creation of low poly environments for real-time projects.
I am Emek Can Özben, 30 year-old Art Director / Environment Artist, currently living in Vancouver / Canada, but I had been working in Istanbul / Turkey until October 2016. I’ve worked on game projects for PC / Console, Mobile and VR.
I have not studied art, I am an electrical engineer, but with my passion in arts I’ve decided to be a visual graphics artist after I graduated from university and self-thought to achieve this goal.
My career has started as a 3d artist, which I mostly made hard surface modeling and rendering like arch designs, interior designs. Then I moved on gaming, set myself up to the needs of gaming art. I’ve had the chance to publish many games in all platforms. Some of these games had success comparing to our countries standarts, some of them did not went so well. But here are my 3 projects that I love the most:
PC / Xbox game that we created in 2014 as Nowhere Studios. Monochroma is a cinematic puzzle platformer. It’s a game about being a kid, growing up with a little brother that needs your help, facing obstacles and solving unique puzzles in a dystopian 1950’s setting.
That was my first PC game project and actually the biggest one. It was extremely challenging to tell a story and learn a game engine at the same time. Game was developed with Unity and we got good scores on game art. I had started as an environment artist in this project and modeled most of the environments, props and side characters, also I created materials, textures, particles. I developed the general in-game look and lighting for achieving the right feeling on scenes. And lastly, in the last 9 months of the development I was responsible for the final art of the game so I directed the art to the release and coordinated the art team.
That was a mobile runner game that developed with Unity in 2015. I directed the art, also created environments, character designs, rigging & animations. This game is not a success story but has a strong place for me.
Energy Village Mobile Game
That was a mobile game about teaching kids saving energy in their environments. Game was developed with Unity in 2015. I directed the art and coordinated art team to the release. I built the world in Unity, modeled environments and props, created particles, textures and lighting.
Despite all of the projects, I’m making speed sculpts using Zbrush in my free time or when I need to refresh my mind. it’s a good way for me to replenish.
Lowpoly Stylized Environment
After working on mobile casual games in my full-time job during 2016, I felt myself creating the same things in every project and not improving, so I set myself new goals to reach and quit my full-time job.
If you are a visual designer, you have to create a great portfolio for achieving your goals. I have decided to go for new styles, bigger game worlds and I created Low Poly Stylized Environment for a starter project.
By creating this environment, I planned to
- check my environment-world design process & pipeline
- improve my unreal engine knowledge
- create reusable assets for making block out concepts & level designs or final designs in UE4
- make it simple but effective and charming, with an un-common color palette
- make this art for PC / Console quality (not AAA games but indies)
- send the package to Unreal Marketplace if the conclusion is good enough
Concept / Inspiration
Before I started to produce the environment assets, I’ve searched for inspiration and looked to nature. I decided to create a camping theme, so I collected some camping references to guide me, also Indie Games like Abzu, Firewatch, The Witness etc. are the biggest inspirations for me. I’m taking notes while playing these games to use in my games or concepts. I combined my old notes and the new ones in this research & analysis process.
After doing researches and analysis, I roughly set my general pipeline.
- Creating general style of the assets
- Creating general concept of the world / environment
- Setting color palette
- Back and forth to the notes
- General concept done
- Subtraction – imperfection
- Call it done!
For the modeling process, If I’m going to try something new myself, not with a team, I don’t usually make 2d concepts. It’s easier and faster to me making 3d concepts.
I started with modeling simple shapes in 3ds Max and searched for the right silhouettes of each object. I didn’t care about the whole environment in this process, I wanted these objects looks stylized enough to me, so it took some time to reach the style. After making approximately 20 objects (trees, rocks, grass and etc.) I criticized general look and after one or two iterations I found my style and kept going with it.
My roadmap while modeling a low poly stylized object
- Finding right silhouettes
- Finding right polygroups
- Shape done
- Proper uvs for lightmapping
- Color&Texture details
- Object done!
I made iterations between these phases but tried to stay in my time restrictions. While creating a low poly stylized project, hard part of this is catching a general consistent style. I tried to combine different styles in this project, which was using low poly stylized objects with the contrast of more realistic grass (using SSS), also spiky trees with a contrast of rounded trees. I created focus points / areas for better viewing by using contrasts & similarities without breaking the harmony of the world.
I modeled around 160 objects for future designs but I used 50 of them to create Low Poly Stylized Environment.
Materials are extremely important for achieving better visuals. I like creating materials in UE4 and this is the fun part for me. My key concentration on materials was to make easy tweakable and understandable materials.
Materials that I planned to create
Basic master material for simple objects and foliage
- 1 sided simple material + wind
- 2 sided material with SSS + wind
- Water (with waves – auto edge detection and coloring on shores – depth color variations)
- Wind option for all of the materials (I created this on a test object and imported to all materials later)
- Sky (clouds with the harmony of general polygonal look)
- Snow (auto snow cover by calculating the curve angles of the landscape)
- Spline material for shaping rivers or roads (I didn’t create this because there is already a spline tool in landscape)
- 2nd overlay texture option for all of the materials (I used noise texture for detailing objects)
Automated Landscape master material
- Landscape material that responds sculpting (auto coloring when sculpting by calculating the curve angles of the landscape)
- Automated grass material (auto generating grass while painting landscape layers)
Textures were created in Photoshop. I handled the texture details with the 2nd layer (noise) option in materials. No normal maps, no AO or specular maps because I don’t need complicated textures for this style. I tried to keep materials cheap. All objects have lightmap uvs and grouped uvs for better performance results. There are nearly 25 textures and their sizes varies from 512 to 2048.
Lighting / Post Process
I think lighting and post process are the most important parts for achieving better visuals.
The lighting setup in this project is one directional light and a skylight, which were movable (means dynamic in Unreal language). I’m really satisfied about dynamic lighting because I got really high performance results on PC.
I used directional light with dynamic shadows on, set the dynamic shadow distance to a reasonable scale. Shadows distance has direct effect on performance and best value varies on the scene depth.
I used skylight with no shadows, no cubemap, only color and intensity. Skylight provides me to adjust minimum light on the scene, it’s like a global light when no shadows casting. By using skylights intensity I tried to brighten darker areas, because darker tones was messing up my stylized look.
I used Atmospheric Fog and Height Fog to increase depth. By the result of that, I achieved more dramatic and more ‘technically realistic’ results. Using depth is a strong feature for creating focus areas to lead eyes.
I used post process volume for color correction and to get more believable result for shadowing. I used AO and Depth of field. For the color correction I did some modifications in post process settings.
UE4 is an incredibly powerful tool, has everything I’m looking for. UE4 has great content examples covered with their new features and marketplace is growing with lots of quality contents, also you can find this Low Poly Stylized Environment project on marketplace.
I really enjoyed working on this project, achieved my goals, learned too much while doing it and I’m looking forward to publish my next environment project!
And lastly, I have started to record a series of speed level designs. I will publish new level designs every week via Youtube. Check out if you like!