Environment Building for World of Tanks
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Environment Building for World of Tanks
16 March, 2017
Interview
3d artist Craig Mesaros talked a little about the ways he builds epic war-torn environments for World of Tanks.

Introduction

Hey there! My name is Craig Mesaros and I am an Environment Artist at Wargaming in Chicago. I’m from Ohio originally, and studied architecture for a couple years at the University of Cincinnati before heading to SCAD in Georgia to earn a Bachelor’s of Interactive Design and Game Development. After school, I worked for a year and a half as an artist on the indie game, Heavy Gear: Assault before moving to Chicago to work as an artist on Saints Row: Gat out of Hell at High Voltage Software. Afterwards I landed an environment artist position at Wargaming in Chicago and have been working on maps there for the past two and a half years!

World of Tanks’ Environments 

For World of Tanks console, I feel that variety and detail define the environment art. We have a wide range of maps that span from sandy deserts to cities buried in snow, each featuring a wide variety of foliage, architecture, and other supporting props. All of these things however, are rooted in the World War era allowing each map to have a distinct personality while remaining from the same time, in the same world, in the same game.

The environment artist’s job on World of Tanks maps includes:

  • Working with design early on to define the blockout
  • Deciding when to reuse props and when new asset creation is necessary to set a map apart
  • Set dressing and converting the designer’s intended hard and soft cover points into appropriate looking foliage and rock/cliff formations
  • Setting up the map’s lighting, fog, and vfx placement
  • Setting up level scripts and animations to add ambient activity to the scenes
  • Reacting to and making adjustments for feedback from weekly playtests

The biggest challenges that tend to arise during development usually involve traversability and collision. It’s important to make sure player tanks can easily maneuver the map and not become stuck on rocks, cliffs, or eroded terrain. For props and set dressing, this means learning over time what sort of shapes and angles tend to cause problems and becoming familiar with how the tanks interact with these shapes. Eventually it becomes pretty easy to just look at a rock or two and know that it will cause a problem unless rotated or moved a bit. Similarly, when working on the terrain I use masks to protect important areas from World Machine erosion and definitely make an effort to clean up any rough geometry after pulling the terrain back into the engine.

Thiepval Ridge

Thiepval Ridge was special in that it had two design goals and needed to support two gameplay modes. Its initial release was for our 100 years of Tanks celebration and featured a trenched battlefield in which players piloted the original Mark 1 tank against one another. It was also released as a full map featuring that trenched battlefield as but a small portion of the full gameplay space. I think it’d be best to look at in pieces!

Trenches

The trenches had their own focus during the blockout and design phase since a whole game mode depended on them. My initial prototypes involved shapes that closely matched real world trenches. However play tests with the modified Mark 1 tank quickly found the tank either getting stuck bridging the gaps, unable to climb over them, or unable to climb out once in between. As a result I ended up forming the bulk of the trenches with the terrain itself and capping them with destructible walls, sandbags, and barbed wire. While a bit larger than real life, it resulted in a fairly smooth climb up and down the trenches for players, while still maintaining the spirit of a dug up, trench-lined battlefield.

Terrain

I started with the usual blockout terrain shape from design. From there I made some masks, tracing out the main roads and river before heading to World Machine. World Machine tends to be great for smoothing out some of the rough, handmade blockout shapes and making the terrain as a whole feel a lot more natural. I used the road and river masks along the way to protect them from too much erosion and avoid having to reshape them again later. The World Machine pass left me with a height map to take back into engine, a variety of masks for first pass terrain texture painting, as well as a level-wide diffuse and normal texture for combining with the terrain’s tiling materials to combat obvious tiling.

Hard and Soft Cover

With the terrain back in engine, placing trees, bushes, rocks, and buildings was the next priority as these are the minimum requirements for useful playtest and gameplay feedback. That said, beyond the trenches in the middle of the map, I wanted to do something else unique for this custom map. After gathering references I decided that special “something” would be several densely forested regions within the map. This required some especially optimized tree models to support the density and took some back and forth to find the sweet spot between a thick canopy and a good frame rate. In the end I was able to balance the look with the perf and it resulted in our most dense forests yet as well as some really cool gameplay moments where an enemy hidden in a distant forest might be given away by their careless toppling of large trees.

Culturals

Culturals in our game refer to all the non-colliding items on the ground such as grasses, weeds, flowers, stones/gravel, twigs, debris, and so on. For Thiepval I made a variety of new ones to complement the muddy trenches and environment. The most important part was having a decent variety to work with when covering the map. I started on just a small portion of the map (pretty corner) that could showcase most of the models. This allowed me to see them all together, align the color pallette, and get feedback on the culturals as not individual assets but a final composition. This is important to determine early so as not to spend too much time covering a 1.4km map with something that may need massive edits later.

Lighting

Given the trench environment I knew early on that the map would be pretty muddy, messy, and wet. As the map was also supposed to feel pretty moody I aimed for a fairly overcast, just-rained look. Leaving in a pop of color on the horizon helped the level avoid being completely gray and added a lot of volume to the fog in the forests.

Polish

Decals, effects, and ambient action fall into this category. For Thiepval I made a variety of decals to help add more detail to the mud, roads, and embankments. A few good decals duplicated many, many times utilizing different blends, tints, scales, and rotations can go a long way! Also, as it was supposed to be a battlefield I wanted a lot of ambient action within the map – especially near the trenches and bunkers. I worked with the VFX and SFX artists to set up ambient machine gun nests with ground impacting tracers, planes flying overhead strafing the ground with fire, and triggered artillery explosions across the battlefield.

Assets

When we first moved to the Xbox One a year and a half ago, most of the HD prop art creation was handled by outsource through our Kiev studio. This resulted in some great HD art but did not come with a large Substance or Quixel Library to pull from. For each map I work on I aim to add some fresh content alongside any reused assets. This means I do end up sculpting and painting new assets myself right now, however as I continue to do that our shared, in-house library becomes more and more developed going forward.

Materials 

I use a variety of programs to get the job done.

For tiling materials, Zbrush is one of my favorites. I tend to sculpt up a base and several high res elements and then use the 2.5D mode to toss it all together in a tiling fashion. I also convert photo sourced textures to be PBR friendly now and again in a pinch depending on my schedule and need as well. Even 3ds Max‘s object painter has a use at times when laying down a large number of objects to bake down for materials or decals.

For props, I like to bring the tiling textures I’ve created for the terrain and environment into the Quixel library to paint with. That way, the colors, tiling, and style easily match between the props and the world they are placed in.

Composition and Gameplay

Communication and compromise with design are some of the most important parts of striking a balance between the composition I have in mind and the gameplay experience design has in mind. As I mentioned earlier in regards to Thiepval’s trenches, I initially wanted to represent trenches as they existed in real life while design needed trenches that didn’t serve as miserable traps for players. Through testing and communication we arrived at an end result that still has the general look and feel while also meeting the design goals.

This carries over into other areas as well. During my first few maps at Wargaming I had a lot of conversations with design about how steep slopes could be, how big bushes needed to be to serve as cover, what sort of rock placement or street widths were able to be navigated with ease, and so on. At this point, most decisions can be made on my own just pulling from past experience and conversations regarding what worked and what did not. That said things still come up now and then along the way and just require some creative solutions.

Lighting

The HDR sky is probably the most important part of any of our maps’ lighting. We have established values for sunlight color and intensity based on time of day which help to keep the various levels’ exposures within a reasonable range. As a result, the sky is what I have most control over as the artist. The sky directly affects the reflections for the map as well as the ambient lighting’s color and contrast. The quickest way to bring a certain color into a level is to put it in the skybox. As most of our maps are large, outdoor expanses, not a whole lot of extra lights are required. For the maps sporting fiery blazes or streetlamps at night however, lights are used to help pop parts of the scene and provide added visibility for gameplay.

Colours

As far as level colors are concerned it is up to the artist working on the level for the most part. I do tend to pick a color when I start a map and keep that in mind when working on the sky and lighting. We have some loose guidelines across the game but even these have some play now and then. For example, war-variant maps tend to fall into warmer palettes, being on fire and featuring more active ambient combat in the scene. Night time maps on the other hand need to be a bit brighter than real life for the sake of visibility but take on a cooler tone usually to help sell the “moonlight”. Texture color on the other hand is pretty uniform across the game given the PBR workflow. Lighting and sky color are the biggest tools for variation by far.

Challenges 

The biggest challenge is probably the sheer amount of space in a large map at times and filling that with art. I would recommend not trying to work on the full space all at once. It’s good to get important gameplay assets in, such as major props, cover, etc. however once the map is in a playable state for testing and design feedback it usually pays to zoom in for a while. Focusing in on the “pretty corner” and establishing your lighting, prop kits, culturals, textures, and decals early on really helps to get a handle on what you have, what you still need, and how it all will fit together to complete the composition. Bringing a small portion to completion also allows for early feedback from others and quick adjustments on your end. Once that corner looks perfect you can safely spread the art to the rest of the map without worrying as much about running into surprises or large-scale reworks!

Craig Mesaros, Environment Artist at Wargaming

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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