Mastering Hard Surface for Game Environments

Mastering Hard Surface for Game Environments

Josh Dina from Digital Extremes talked about his work on game environments and materials for Warframe.

Josh Dina from Digital Extremes talked about his work on game environments and materials for Warframe.


My name is Josh Dina, I am a Hard Surface / Environment Artist, residing in Ontario, Canada. I work at Digital Extremes as a Environment Artist and in my spare time I work remotely for Airborn Studios as a Hard Surface Artist. I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure to have worked on a wide range of titles including; Warframe, Overwatch, Halo 5, World of Tanks, and Ashes of the Singularity. I am a self-taught artist, starting off my professional career while still in High School, for a Microsoft Cloud Commercial. I am passionate about anything and everything sci-fi, which I have been lucky enough to have focused on most of my career.

As an environment artist in games, where do you think you stand on the production line? Are you somewhere between art director and level designer? How does it work?

Working at Digital Extremes as an Environment Artist, is a unique experience. Our Asset Art team is relatively small and we work with our Layout and Level Design departments to bring one of the biggest free to play universes that’s constantly expanding to life. This means, unlike other studios where a certain Artist might be highly specialized on a specific kind of task (E.g. props), we get to experience many different tasks as part of the game’s production. One day I might be making Trim sheets and another making one of the biggest structures ingame.  I focus on hard surface work, IE: props, structures and vehiclesThere is a ton of teamwork involved in the process that involves a lot of different departments and artists.

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Game Environments

Every task varies based off of multiple factors such as time-frame, size, concept, ect. A task usually starts off with a Concept/Sketch from the Concept Artist, that’s been approved by my Environment Art Director Mat Tremblay. My Art Lead Kary Black then assigns the tasks based on an artist’s skillset and workload. Once I get my task, I take some time to break it down and ask any questions I think might be helpful with the creation of the asset. If I am making a structure, for example, a block out is usually provided by the layout/design artist. However, if I am working on a smaller asset / vehicle, I usually have to make the blockout. Throughout any part of the creation process I am able to Contact Mat (Art Director) or Kary (Art Lead) for feedback and critique. The feedback is critical to bigger pieces that are constantly evolving to work with other parts of the environment. A great example of this is the Tower in Plains of Eidolon, where everything from the scale to art direction changed several times throughout its production.

Although the concept itself was really well done, there were still a lot of questions, such as scale, texture workflow, tri count, Etc. Andrew Wood (Layout Artist) created a very rough Tower blockout for the layout and exploration of the town. I then took it and developed a more complex blockout to answer some of the questions I had at the time. Later in the process, I was able to divert from the actual concept to make sure the model wasn’t a performance hog while giving me the artistic ability to give it my own flare.

Above gif shows the construction of the tower over time. 

Mastering Hard Surface

When creating Hard Surface pieces there are many factors that dictate my workflow. For Example: What kind of game is this for? Tri count? Texture requirements? Scale of the asset? Etc. The beautiful thing about Art, in general, is there is never only “one way” to tackle a task. Not to mention workflows are constantly evolving based off of Hardware and Software.

I start in 3ds Max with my blockout, then move on to the high poly. In the high poly phase, I spend most of my time in Max, but sometimes if required I will use other software like Zbrush. My reliance on Zbrush for line work or details on curved surfaces has decreased a lot in the past year, as I can do the same thing more quickly and efficiently in Substance Painter (Once baked).  Using Substance Painter for this part of my workflow, means I don’t have to worry about skewing and having a really dense mesh exported from Zbrush. 

When working on my high poly pieces I always try to keep my geo as clean and simplistic as possible. I use a script called “Quad Chamfer”, which Joao Sapiro has a great overview. An example of what is possible when using Quad Chamfer and how clean the base mesh is presented below.

After my high poly is finished and approved, I move to the low poly. As my high poly is mostly clean (Not many edge loops due to Quad Chamfer), my low poly can be easily created from the high poly base.  There are exceptions to this however, such as on curved or organic surfaces where manual retopo might be required, using 3ds max retopo tool or 3d Coat.

I then bake my assets in Substance Painter and Marmoset. Substance Painter and Marmoset have advantages such as really quick baking, name baking, clean UI scheme, Etc. Baking in Substance Painter also means all your maps will be setup and ready for texturing upon bakes completion. Baking in Marmoset however gives you the advantage of painting out skew errors on the fly. There are many more options for baking such as Knald, Substance Designer, XNormal, Etc, but Marmoset and Painter are my go to apps. 

As mentioned earlier, I use Substance Painter to add panel lines and other details at ease. Here is an example of a door lock I made for  Warframes: War Within Expansion:

Here is another example of line work done in Substance Painter:


Warframe has a great automatic LOD system making the process smooth and quick.  In very rare circumstances are we required to make a special LOD, but as luck has it, the Tower was one. To put it in perspective if I zoomed out from the tower, a player would be about one pixel. The tower is one of the biggest structures ever built in-game, this means EVERYTHING can be seen in the town and in the plains (Region players roam outside of the gate). To avoid any sort of errors or harsh LOD’s at far distance, we choose to make a special “Optimized Tower” for the plains. The tower model uses vertex colors to call out the tiling materials, making this process a bit tricky. Kary Black (Art Lead), used a software called Simplygon, making this process quicker than doing the entire optimization/bake by hand. 

Recommendations for Beginners

In general I personally always advise people to find a tutorial that suits their abilities. Start simple, from there try and find a concept on the same skill level and make it without hand holding. Eventually, with some time and practice you can move on to more complex tutorials/pieces. Don’t forget to FINISH the tutorials!

I can’t emphasize this enough: Put the time in and do the work. Practice Practice Practice! Watching one tutorial or paying a ton of money to go to school thinking something will click and make you magically good doesn’t end well. These are just tools to help you grow more as an artist. If you don’t apply yourself and aren’t doing the art, there won’t be room to evolve and become the artist you hope to be. 

When taking on complex model, always make a block out! Save yourself the headache of having to redo things down the road, do it right from the start. If the block out becomes hard to manage/understand, break it down.

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Sometimes looking at the entire concept at once, might be overwhelming, so break it into smaller pieces. For example, for the Halo Diving Suit, I broke it down into 4 major hardsurface tasks; Helmet, Chest Plate, Smaller Bits and Backpack Unit. I made each piece as its own task, once completed I moved on to the next. If one of the tasks became too complex or challenging, I broke the task down even more.  

For more hardsurface info/advice, check out my friend Joao’s article on the subject. Lots of great info for new and old Artists!

I want to emphasize once more; Put in the time and try, with practice you will succeed. Don’t talk about it, do it! Have Fun and Good luck!

Josh Dina, Hard Surface / Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.

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Comments 1

  • Alexander Alza

    Great read Josh - awesome work as well!


    Alexander Alza

    ·3 years ago·

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