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Very impressive article Jake! You are very talented.
nice article! i love seeing the breakdowns.
Thunderсloud Studio discussed the new tendency for a stylized look in video games and talked about the way they approach the stylized environment production.
Thunderсloud Studio is a game art and animation outsourcing studio based in Hanoi, Vietnam.
The company is founded by Mr. Dzung Phung Dinh, the winner of the recent Art War 2 contest, who has been around the industry for more than 10 years. Thundercloud studio has around 15 employees divided among 3 teams: Character, Environment, and Animation.
We focus on game art production and 3D Design. We produce breathtaking stylized art for games around the world and provide aid and support for developers from indie teams to larger companies, bringing the best of stylized game art to the world.
We are certain that with the success of the recent trend of stylized games such as Overwatch or Fortnite, more and more dev games are shifting toward stylized approach. We are expecting a really bright future ahead for stylized trend.
We expect that there is still a certain level of demands for stylized stuff, especially developers who want to add a new breeze to their games. Although the majority of the main market is on realistic stuff, our goal is to raise awareness for this type of content, bringing the community closer to the stylized trend. The package could also help the need for stylized visual referencing and library preference.
Currently, most of the stylized market is packed with unlit hand-painted asset mainly for the mobile platform. Our package is focusing on stylized assets for higher end PBR support with outstanding quality. Based on our experience and clients trend so far, we believe a lot of next-gen game dev are shifting toward stylized contents, realistic is no longer the only potent choice for a successful formula.
One of our best confidence in the package is while the package is super friendly for level builders, easy for assembling and creating the whole landscape from scratch, the overall design and visual still remains appealing with various types of assets to work with. All these elements help level design much more relaxing with. We believe that anyone even a newbie environment designer can use these assets to create stunning looking levels.
Stylized Environment Production Approach
When we decided to work on a stylized environment pack that looks similar to Overwatch, the first thing to do was to collect references to come up with the overall visual feeling. Then we worked on the concept to lock down all the visual design. While working on the concept, we planned ahead and kept in mind what kind of assets are possible for 3D production and how we would create the pack with current 3D tech.
Based on our previous experience in mobile environment games, we still keep a certain level of awareness of what possible and what not in terms of environment 3D art technique. As every environment will consist of terrain/tiling/modular assets, we had to find the most effective way to produce each element, considering our current tech, manpower, and resources.
When every design is set, 3D production department will pick up and start breaking down into details tech spec. Unlike building individual characters, for the environment, we have to deal with the management of a large number of modular assets with the complexity of combining them together.
We noted down and planned ahead every step needed for the production of every asset, what kind of technique will be executed, how we will model it, how we will texture it, with which software for which stage. This helped us to keep track whenever a problem appeared and saved time on the stage when you go back and forth between feedbacks and maintenance.
Our workflow and approach for the environment actually did not derive much from the character production. The technique still remains the same, the only major difference is that the breakdown goes more toward modular and tillable assets so that a reasonable amount of work would be enough to cope with a large scale project. Also, for environment assets, it is actually easier to translate between concept and 3D model with less loss in detail, look and feel.
Making Nice Stylized Rocks
For starters, we collect a bunch of most beautifully crafted stylized rocks that look and feel closer to our chosen visual style, from sculpts to finished texture to base our visual guideline on.
At first, we create a mid poly version which focused purely on all the silhouette and major shapes of the object, no topology concerned at this point. Then we bring them into ZBrush for further detail sculpts. We only prioritize large and mid details which could be visible from the concept.
Using some special stylized brushes and alpha packs (for example the Stylized Orb brushes from the senior artist Michael Vincent Orb) would help significantly in attaining the visual similarity in details as in our quality references, as well as saving lots of time.
To sum up, building the high poly meshes is the critical stage which determines 90% of the look and feel of the final assets as we model/ sculpt and poly paint all the visible detail in this stage. With this approach, we can control the final outcome of the assets at the very early beginning without worrying too much about tech part later like texture, UV, topology etc. thus focusing solely on the artistic side.
General Stylized PBR Texture Workflow
It is essential for all assets to have a consistent look and feel, especially for environment assets. To preview each asset as close to the final rendering as possible, we use ZBrush to poly paint in order to maintain look across assets as well as switching between two shaders to preview – Unlit and Modified Basic shaders.
We considered Base Color the most important element in SP and heavily focus on using baked Lighting node to bring our baking/subtle lighting info into the base color passes which is the fundamental basis of all stylized assets. Then we tweak the base color pass further by using extra nodes on top to control things like curvature, edge, cavity etc.
To control the color of individual elements, for example, curvature, we create a fill layer and fill it with the desired color, then a black mask and fill it with the curvature map. Then inside the mask, we use Substance filters such as histogram and level to control position and contrast, blur for sharpness and glow. Thus these steps allow us to control the exact color of the curvature glow around the asset. The same goes for other elements such as cavity color, ambient shadow or translucent color.
For weather, we build a separated Substance which covers the entire asset, pretending that the asset is purely made of that material (for example sand, moss, soil, etc.). Then we use anchor points to set up multiple modified mesh map, grunge maps and mix them together to come up with a mask to control the position of the weather where it shows up on the asset.
One of the tips is to invest our time into getting the base color right. Even if you only have the Base Color setting, the asset should already look beautiful. We tried to maintain the overall harmony and keep the value contrast among the details low.
After the base color is good to go, supporting maps such as roughness or normal maps will be created at later stages, using Substance Painter. While the key factor is still the base color map, supporting maps also help boost visual appeal in real-time rendering.
Visual Experience vs Optimization
We keep the tris-count at a reasonable amount to cope with our initial scale of creating high-end assets with PBR settings. We use mostly Maya to retopo meshes with complicated shapes (for example, trees or a cliff).
Right from the beginning, we already plan the UV to be as optimized as possible, same for the topology of the low poly versions. UV layout would be a crucial part here, and we tend to keep a clean and tight UV space for more Texel Density. For textures, we mostly used 2048×2048 to capture enough details when baking maps.
To achieve the most appealing result while maintaining viability for game settings, the mesh has to be both optimized and maintain a certain level of details. Common mistakes could be ending up with too low poly meshes that would not be capable of holding details from high poly, or meshes with too large tris count that would not work well in the game engine.
To avoid those pitfalls, already while planning, we have to detect which detail will be shown via texture, and which will be via model/mesh details. Balancing this spectrum was a little bit tricky. We often prioritize polygons to hold larger details and silhouette, especially with round or curvy shapes. Even when sculpting, we did not invest too much into micro details. Instead, we utilize procedural maps in Substance Painter with filters to achieve this kind of details.
Right now, we are aiming for the highest quality, and this pack currently is all at LOD 0 having the highest tris-count with reasonable performance for PC games. Within later updates, we can release a lower LOD version of these assets if needed. Reducing is easier than going up.
Testing & Assembling
For the visual guideline, with ZBrush poly paint and the right shader, we were able to preview the final asset from earlier stages. And in UE4, we were then able to put all the assets together for bigger picture overview.
The key visual plays a very important part. All assets need to look consistent and always match the overall visual key.
By using the foliage/grass system in UE4, we could quickly test out assets in a mass cluster assemble to find if they look harmoniously, allowing switching the assets for easier modification.
Moreover, after completing each asset, individual artists who do not have access to UE4 during early stages of the project will put them in a single Marmoset scene with simple quick lighting setup for a preview.
In the later stages of the production, engine artists will test them. We do test assembling and with some stress tests populate scenes with the mass amount of assets such as grass, bushes or trees, boulders etc. We also test various combinations of modular assets to see if they look good, for example, rocks and cliffs to build mountains.
We plan the optimization as a separate task as it is easier to strive for visual quality first and then, once we get the look right, go for optimization.
Current & Future Projects
Crimson Desert is one of our first steps in setting up and completing a standard pipeline with maximum efficiency for future stylized landscape packs. We aimed at constructing cinematic quality environment levels for games and animations. It is available for UE4 here.
We are also working on another ambitious project – our own internal cinematic animation powered by UE4: Waterworld. All the assets in this project are planned to be released, not only environment ones but also shaders, characters, blueprint, and concepts. You can check it here. Hope you guys will support us!