Naughty Dog’s environment artist Anthony Vaccaro talked about the secrets of his craft and the way you should approach open 3d spaces for games.
We’re incredibly happy to present our interview with Anthony Vaccaro from Naughty Dog. Anthony did a bunch of work on Last of Us, Uncharted series, Halo Reach. In this interview he talks about his production process, the way he blocks out the scene, builds huge open levels, uses color and hero assets.
My name is Anthony Vaccaro. I am an Environment Artist at Naughty Dog where we recently wrapped up Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. I have also worked on Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and helped near the tail end of The Last of Us while at Naughty Dog. I am from San Diego California where I got my degree in Game Art and Design. Before Naughty Dog I worked at Bungie on Halo Reach.
An Environment Artists’ roll is to create a beautiful space that pulls the player into a digital world all the while helping facilitate the design that is in place to move the player along through the game. An environment artist has to wear many hats to accomplish this job as there are so many parts to this processes of bringing a space from the rough blockout a designer gives you to the final art you hope the player has a strong connection too as if it were its own real world.
At Naughty Dog an Environment Artist typically works with design to create art around a given section of block mesh which must be turned into a living breathing world that still helps lead the player from one objective to the next. You model assets, create collision for the player to walk on, build optimized assets with LOD’s and cheap shadow casters, you must manage level budgets such as memory, work in tandem with generally a single Texture/Shader artist all the while trying to compose a beautiful space that feels like the characters actually inhabit a real place. It’s one of the jobs that deals with such a large array of different departments as every piece of the gaming puzzle lives in your environment
Vast Open Spaces
Creating the vast open spaces for the Jeep was a huge new challenge as it’s nothing the Uncharted series has ever done and poses many new problems that were both exciting and frustrating. Utilizing visual leading lines such as the flow of a river, the angle of rocks and eroded earth, the faint hints of an old trail can all help the player understand where to go without directly saying, “go here” in these large open spaces. Their eyes will naturally follow these lines and pull them towards there intended objective and goal. Level objectives should always be clearly visible or framed to help reinforce this, be it a bridge they need to cross or a tower high up on a cliff.
Madagascar’s overall goal was about getting to the volcano and throughout the level, it is clearly visible to the player to reinforce that. On the few occasions, you lost direct sight of the volcano we pulled it closer to the player to constantly give a sense of progression towards it. You start with the volcano far away and eventually are driving on it giving the illusion that you have traversed all across Madagascar to find this treasure.
Blocking out space is one of the most important steps in creating an environment. It allows you to see how well your art choices are working gameplay wise and if the player still understands the space and can navigate through it without too much difficultly. If things are not working right away in your artistic blockout phase you can easily change them without worrying about the loss of much work as it’s rare to nail things on your first shot.
For my blockouts I keep things extremely rough and loose as the feel and flow of a level changes a lot once art is added. I play through the level as a player would, to make sure it’s still fun, easy to understand and of course be visually interesting. It’s like creating the silhouette of a character or vehicle, if the main shapes are not striking and compelling, no matter how much extra detail you throw on it, it will still fall flat.
Working with Designers
Working hand in hand with a designer is the key to creating fun, engaging and beautiful levels. Gameplay is king as the saying goes and as an environment artist it’s something you always have to remember and help facilitate with your art. You want your art to help the design, not detract from it. It is very easy to want to just make some over the top gorgeous world that just focuses on art, but then that’s not a video game, that’s just a portfolio piece.
As an Environment Artist never forget that you are a video game designer just as much as the level designer themselves. All of us live and breathe video games, from design to art to sound. Any member of the team can come up with a great idea for a section of art or compelling gameplay design as long as you allow for collaboration. It’s an iterative process that requires input from everyone to achieve the best possible product.
Combat spaces in particular can be most challenging for an artist as it’s all about the moment to moment gameplay and thus you have to focus on easily readability over art. You might want to make a super awesome crumbling tower with uneven stone walls, broken floor boards and random sections of destruction. However, for a player this will just become frustrating once bullets start to fly. Clear shapes and easy reads for combat spaces help facilitate the gameplay while dense, beautiful story driving exploration spaces give the player a reprieve from the combat and time to enjoy their surroundings.
How do you work with the scenes with huge hero assets? Like for example with the scene, where you have a huge sunken ship? How did you arrange the whole environment around that gigantic piece?
There is a tendency to go overboard with wall to wall detail having every inch of the screen is filled with some type of asset or busy looking texture. Much like as if this was a painting, there is no place for the eye to rest, nothing becomes the focus and in turn, nothing stands out. Clumping assets and creating negative space enhances your details and can lead the eye to your objective/points of interests as there are areas of rest and focus. Always vary the size and distance of your detail clumping or that will also just become evenly clumped noise like a spotted dog.
To lead the player to the treasure on the ship I used two techniques: The straight man made lines of the broken mast in an organic environment which will draw the eye and the heavily coral side of the ship bathed in sunlight contrasting with the dark void of the interior of the ship where a section has broken away. The negative space in a sea of detail is what actually draws the player into that part of the scene. The negative space becomes a focal point and is a great way to play with creating more varied environments as your details are not necessarily what draws the player in, but it’s the lack of detail.
Color in a scene its much like detailing an area out with regular assets; clumping to create varying levels of solid blocks of the same color to create areas for the eyes to rest and focus. With an area like Madagascar which is a more natural landscape environment “less is more”. Colors fight for less attention and can lead to a more striking image. Colors are closely grouped together to create large sections of similar color which really helped Madagascar have such a nice pop.
Areas were defined as being tan/beige for the open plains section, green for the rolling grass hills and red for the eroded earth. A lot of this was helped by the color keys created by our great concept team. My texture artist, Genesis Prado and I worked really hard to give each section its own feel and a lot of that was due to the color we made a particular section. Color alone can give a whole new feeling and emotion to any one area within an encompassing level.
Modularity and reusing of tiling textures is such a massive part of environment creation and something so few students actually do in their portfolios. Too often do I see scenes with EVERY asset using a 1 to 1 wasting precious texture memory. Texture limits are the biggest bottle neck when it comes to environments nowadays. Being able to show you know how to create assets utilizing tiling textures to make a good looking scene along with some unique flavor assets is key because that’s what you will be doing in the workplace.
An example: Let’s say you have a wrought iron gate. Too often would I see something like that be high poly modeled out wasting a ton of texture memory for something you would never truly get the benefit from, it is after all just basically cylinders with some bent and curved sections if it’s a fancy gate. Instead, you could quickly model out the fence and UV it utilizing a tiling metal texture that could then be used in other sections of your scene. That metal for the gate could then be used on the fence, a storm drain, a light pole, a fire escape, or any number of assets.
Break up any repetition with some vert blending and you have optimized your scene a great deal in terms of the number of textures you are using. Updating the tiling texture quickly updates all your assets at once instead of needing to individually update each unique texture. Utilizing tiling textures shows you are ready to work in a production environment and gives you a leg up on the completion.
These are just a few of the many techniques used on Madagascar as well as many other levels at Naughty Dog that I was lucky enough to work on alongside Genesis Prado, one of the best Texture/Shader artists in the industry. The more environments you create the better your understanding of the processes becomes which leads to more free time to experiment with newer and bolder art choices that will hopefully keep players engrossed in your digital worlds.