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Álvaro Carreras kindly talked about his experience of working at Elite3D on Hitman 2, environment and materials production for it.
Hi, my name is Álvaro Carreras, I’m 27 years old and I’m currently dedicating all my effort and passion on the environment art field for video games.
Many years ago when I was 17 I attended the FX ANIMATION 3D & Film School in Barcelona, Spain. At that point, I learned many things and basic knowledge in some software solutions which allowed me to deal with future projects and challenges that I would face in a not too distant future. These software solutions were the old and beloved Softimage, ZBrush 3.1, Unity 3D, and Photoshop. And I will be honest with you: at that age, I knew that video games and VFX would be my future job, but I wasn’t sure if my field was going to be characters, props, textures, environment, animation or something else.
So, once I finished my course at FX Animation, I started my career working for some indie studios. One of them was developing a project for virtual reality platforms with Unreal Engine 4 and another project for Android/iOS with Unity.
Two years later after that period, 8-Bit Studio hired me to work on Skara The Blade Remains, a multiplayer online game for PC, Xbox One and PS4.
During my work at 8-Bit Studio I was side by side with other guys from the art department creating all the environments, lighting setups, props, LODs and so on, and being inexperienced artists at that point was great because of all of the knowledge that we gained.
Before the end of that year, while working on Skara, I received an offer from Elite3D to join the team. That was a great opportunity to focus on materials and environment art stuff along with IO Interactive for Hitman 2. It was the best experience of my professional life and I mean it. Shout out to IO’s team! Amazing people right there. The whole process took more than a year and a half. After that, I had the chance to create props with my other teammates from Elite3D for Call Of Duty: Black Ops 4.
About Environment Art
I consider that building worlds and environments are way more interesting and sophisticated than creating characters or props. Once my “environment light bulb” turned on I was focused on the environment art production from that moment on. Of course, I was also inspired by other well-known teams and companies who produced the titles like Uncharted, God of War, Gears of War, Tomb Raider, Battlefield, Batman Arkham, The Witcher, and many others.
The best part of the environment production process is that sooner or later you will deal with other areas involved such as materials, textures, props, lighting, procedural content, modularity, – all those parts that once united make up a beautiful functional world, no matter what type or style of scenario is implemented. It also helps you to discover, enrich, and push yourself beyond your goals.
Environment Production for Hitman
Every street, alley, interior, underground we crafted was literally the measurement of how important the storytelling in the environment really is. We wanted to avoid doing the same environments typical for other games and to give them a unique look. So, we were sketching and discussing the process with the client a lot, and people from IO gave us freedom to bring in new ideas.
We spent a lot of time side by side, discussing with IO the best idea or option for each corner of each level and how it should be built. So, we put a lot of hours into the production without sparing any detail and tried to keep the visual quality level to the maximum of what our possibilities and talents could afford.
A great challenge was to maintain good performance with a very high visual quality knowing that the game would come out for platforms like PS4 and XBOX, consoles with a limited capacity if we compare them to PC.
We were very rigorous in the texel density, materials, LODs and the silhouettes of the models at every moment, so there were no visual errors. In a scenario like this, any carelessness of an artist was quite evident.
AAA Game Development: Behind-the-Scenes
Something that every little, medium, big or huge company has to keep in mind is that organization, task management, and daily feedback is no less important. These aspects influence everyone in the team and allow them to contribute to the project in a better way.
Speaking about the art techniques we used, a few of my favorite ones that distinguish our work from other AAA titles are the use of decals, edge decals, alpha blending techniques, and the LODs management. We also got the chance to speed up our work with 3ds Max and the IO’s game engine: the communication between these two software choices is very quick thanks to the internal tools that ease the process and update the results almost instantly. That workflow is absolutely necessary to speed up the whole process in daily work. I can’t specify more than that but well, mostly we used the techniques that this generation came up with, like custom normals for certain cases, decals, etc.
About Material Production
The main tool for me and the rest of the team was mainly Substance Designer and Painter, but I was generally focusing on Designer. I think nowadays it is mandatory and indispensable for the environment artists to know a specific tool for creating textures in a non-destructive way. For me, such tool is Substance Designer, and I think it fits perfectly the texture creation processes.
Of course, being efficient is also a necessary skill in order not to end with a million nodes graph because the need for realistic textures and great visuals goes along with tight timing, especially in a project like Hitman 2. I discovered that thinking about the optimum choice always helps you to achieve better results.
Jumping into the tech stuff, for me working with realistic textures means that in the end, they need to look as they are intended to look like no matter what. So don’t be afraid if you’re not 100% loyal to the PBR guidelines. I often fake many things for my albedo map like some shadows and occlusion for some cavities and such. In this case, looking at the textures from a flat 2D perspective without considering how they will look in the engine and getting rid of any type of shadows or lights added to the map itself helps. This means that sometimes you will have to give subtle touches to intensify that realistic appearance in your materials.
Also, shout out to Allegorithmic for bringing us the “Flood fill” nodes right on!
Adding Details to the Materials
For the damaged materials, the nodes I used the most were the Slope Blur Grayscale and lots of grunges. I try to get rid of the default ones that come with Designer and craft my own grunges mixing many noises, then distorting them, playing with some scatters, warps and that kind of stuff. For the stones, I also use Slope Blur, for pebbles – a Dirt node (not the Dirt Mask Generator) and then connect this node right to both inputs from the Slope Blur.
A trick that works really well for this is the following: in the “Slope” input, connect the Dirt node to a Blur HQ node with low intensity, then play with the Slope Blur values to make the pebbles look as you want. But there are many options to get a similar looking result.
In general, don’t be afraid to exaggerate or add too much dirt and broken elements since the more variation in large, medium and small details you have, the richer your textures will look. Also, try to find the nuances that will give your work meaning and coherence.
Lighting & Testing
Lighting depends on the project, but I mainly try to have it as flat as possible with a classic skylight and so on. In Toolbag, I usually use the classic three-point lighting system as well as add 2-3 skylights for my own works. Then I give them different colors, mainly whites, yellows, and blues.
If I create assets that need to be checked within the engine, I import them right into it without hesitating. For models like props, buildings and such, I recommend you to spend no time on other viewers rather than the engine you’re gonna be using for the project. That’s all.
Álvaro Carreras, Environment Artist at Elite3D
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev