Insight into Environment Design for AAA Games

Insight into Environment Design for AAA Games

Sarah Wang, Senior Environment Artist at Respawn Entertainment, shared some details about the production of game content and level design for AAA titles such as Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order™.


80lv: Sarah, could you introduce yourself to us? Where do you come from, what do you do, what projects have you worked on? How did you get into the world of 3D art? What was your journey like? 

I am a Senior Environment Artist currently working at Respawn Entertainment. During the past several years, we have shipped Call of Duty—Infinite Warfare, God of War and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order™. It has been 4 years since my previous 80 Level interview on one of my personal projects, the making of a Victorian Room environment, and it has truly been an amazing journey for me since then. Originally, I came from China with a Bachelor’s in Architecture Design, and I will just say it required a lot of effort to get to where I am now. I am glad that I was brave enough to make those decisions to get myself here and I certainly enjoy the feeling of having one of my dreams come true!

Before getting into the game industry I was working as an Architecture Designer and Architectural Visualization Artist. However, my true interest has always been game art (I started playing video games as early as I can remember). To achieve this goal, I took some selective classes at Gnomon, and also learned daily from my husband who works as an Environment Artist in the industry. Coincidently, when I needed to take time off and work part-time at the architecture design studio, at which I was employed at the time, my boss was very understanding and let me take two days off per week to take classes at Gnomon. Several months later, the architecture company split into three smaller companies; I saw this disruption as my chance to fully focus on learning game art and decided to leave the architecture design job. After leaving the architecture company, I still occasionally took remote contract work with one of my former bosses while mainly focusing on my game art portfolio. During that time, I was able to become familiar with a more game industry centric workflow as it relates to 3D art creation. 

Now, having had some experience working beside and learning from a variety of professionals in both architecture design and video game studios, I find I am able to adopt certain techniques into my workflow that I would never have known to use had I not had the architecture design background. Having graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) through the Master’s Architecture Design program, I was able to grasp a clear understanding of surface rendering and lighting while also developing a strong sense of realistic measurements and space. I am very grateful for those 7 years of studying architecture as it has proven to be very useful in creating my 3D environments for games.

Game Asset Production

80lv: Could you tell us a little bit about the current approach to asset production for the huge blockbuster titles? Do modeling departments still create stuff from scratch or do you start with some already pre-made pieces? 

Recently, AAA game content has been getting bigger and bigger but the workflow certainly varies depending on the studio. In Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order™, the Environment Art team was not very reliant on using outsourcing companies as a resource.

Take the two levels I worked on as an example. My teammate and I modeled all of the 3D assets, created all of the materials and assembled all of the parts of the level with said assets and materials. It is somewhat rare for an AAA game studio to do this now and I really appreciate that we have the opportunity to create a “hand-crafted” level while having full control over the quality of the art.

In terms of model creation, I usually start from a grey block-out mesh to make sure pieces will fit in level design or cinematic space. From that point on, it is pretty much the basic workflow of making a 3D game asset from start to finish and replacing the grey block-out mesh. In the past two studios I have worked at, I had done a bit of cleanup modeling on top of the existing pieces, modifying models from previous iterations of a game to reuse them, or making a new material to replace one from an outsourced asset. There were a lot of tasks involving the creation of a new physically-based material to replace one not made for a PBR lit game engine.

Modeling Software

80lv: What would you say were the biggest improvements in the “geometry creation” and software for it over the years? ZBrush obviously contributed quite a bit, but maybe there are some killer features added to software like Max or Blender? What’s your take on it?

There were many new software releases and major updates to existing software that had been released in the past few years. I started using MODO, Blender, 3D Coat while at work, but I mainly used Maya. Using new software is a great way to learn what new features are out there, however, it also requires a lot of time and effort to adjust my current workflow that already works for me very well. Personally, I find it better to stick with one widely used software that everyone in the studio is using, such as Maya, but I like to set up my hot-keys so that they are similar to functions in MODO. Learning about new software features and finding Maya scripts or plug-ins that can do similar functions as MODO or Blender seems to work best for me. Thankfully, there are a lot of very talented people making scripts for Maya or Max that make working in those programs much better depending on what the environment creation calls for. Sometimes, a small plug-in can really change how you use certain software. Now, my Maya set-up feels more like a combination of MODO and Max.

Level Production Workflow

80lv: With the most recent areas in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order™, you’ve done some colossal interiors, and we guess this is where your architectural background really helped. Could you talk a bit about the way you’ve approached it? In what way did you build these stunning spaces? What would you say were the biggest challenges here? 

In the Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order™ project, I was responsible for two Zeffo temple environments – “Push temple” and “Pull temple”. The way the environment artists build a level usually starts with working on a Level Designer’s block-out after the level design has passed the play-test, then we can start creating the art block-outs that better fit any art direction or concepts we may have. Part of our job is to turn this abstract gameplay space into something more familiar to the Star Wars story and galaxy. We have great Concept and Narrative teams that helped us to come up with ideas about what story events take place in the level, what the Zeffonian race looks like, what each character will have to interact with in certain scenarios. All this imagery and back-story will help a lot when blocking-out the level.

The next step is to try and find opportunities to reuse assets we have created. In some ways, this basic idea is very similar to building real-life architecture: you replace large block-out shapes with smaller modular pieces and make sure they fit together and look aesthetically pleasing. One difference when creating 3D models for real-world architecture designs is that we don’t have a rendering or polygon budget, however, there is always a monetary budget tied to our designs so using more modular assets is the key to reduce the amount of time and money it will take to actually construct our designs. Just as a game engine’s GPU and CPU budget relies on similar use of modular assets in order to maintain framerate, a client seeking design from an architecture design company will need the design to make sense for the construction budget. For example, finding a way we can build a room in a hotel lobby with the same kind of columns that use all of the same materials and tools to construct instead of having many unique columns physically constructed will save on the monetary budget and time.

After this "sketch phase", we start with applying materials that are going to be used throughout the level and making individual art assets based on the modular block-out, followed by assembling all of the new art and set dressing with details.

The biggest challenge was building the “beautiful room”. A “beautiful room” is the first fully “arted” room or area of the level meant to be used as an example of what can be achieved just using what we have to make something interesting. Usually, this process is a bit experimental. We will try to find out a good combination for the materials and other elements that have been created to decorate the scene. Also, because we are not limited to which software we render the final image for these “beautiful rooms” in, materials can act very differently from what will end up in our game engine. Many iterations are inevitable and it can be a lengthy process to find the perfect match of all the aesthetic elements and technical features we want to have in our final “arted” level, but in the long run, it saves a lot of time trying to figure out the overall look for the rest of the level.

Material Creation

80lv: Could you tell us a bit about the way you are working on materials? You’ve done an amazing job creating absolutely incredible textures for the scenes. What’s you process like? Are the materials created from some base in ZBrush? Do you rely on Substance Designer? Do you work with scanned materials?

In terms of material creation, I more traditionally use ZBrush but it always depends on the type of material I am making. If the material is kind of complex and has specifically defined shapes such as the "climbing material", I will create the height map through a ZBrush model. Then I put that height map into Substance Painter to finish the texture. If it is a generic material such as rock, stone, sand, etc. then I usually start in Substance Designer. Ultimately, I am not using Substance Designer’s procedural method 100%, especially when I can use existing height maps or grunge maps which can dramatically reduce the material creation time. I also like using Substance Painter to do final touches on my materials. It is easier to create quick variations by overlaying and multiplying existing materials but I need to be careful to hide tiling texture seams and reduce noise that will naturally build up through this process.

I also use Substance Painter’s “smart materials” a lot to make my final combined material quickly. For example, I had three tree assets the materials of which were created using “smart groups”. It allowed me to minimize my time spent texturing each individual tree. In order to get a photo-realistic quality, I made several base materials that resembled bark and moss using Substance Designer and then imported those base materials into Substance Painter. After creating the initial tree asset’s material group, I was able to copy and paste that group onto the other two trees. With “smart masks”, I was able to simply apply the materials to each tree with relatively accurate results and little manual touch-up needed to get the final polished result. 

What to Remember When Working on Environment Design for Games

80lv: Overall, what would you say were the biggest challenges faced during the production of these environments? We're wondering if you could give us some tips on efficient environment design.

The biggest challenge is always making sure my art works with the gameplay. Players are expecting a fun game and not a pretty game that lacks good gameplay. In that sense, it is very different from creating a background environment for a film or a conceptual pitch for architectural designs. Players will be able to see the environment at every angle so it is very important to work with designers throughout the initial stages of level design and the early art block-out phase to make sure every piece is working with the playable path.

All of these steps take time to build on your own, but if you want one tip, I would say "work as closely as you can with your designer and concept artist". By checking in with your designer regularly you will get the feedback you need on time and it will prevent you from going too far in the wrong direction and waste time. Working with the concept artist closely will allow you both to generate ideas faster and get your level built so much more efficiently. Brain-storming for a few hours and having a quick concept sketch resulting from that brainstorm is the fastest way to test out an idea. In the end, it is easier to get feedback and approval from the art director. Analyzing the proportions and shape combinations with a 2D preview will always be easier to get done than trying to achieve this first in 3D.

Sarah Wang, Senior Environment Artist at Respawn Entertainment

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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