Georg Klein shared a detailed breakdown of his stylized environment Lisbon Streets: composition, modular buildings, texturing and materials in Substance tools, scene setup in UE4, and more.
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My name is Georg Klein and I recently graduated from SAE Institute Cologne as a Game Artist. As someone who used to draw and paint landscapes, I always knew I wanted to get into environment art. During my studies, I became quite passionate about stylized environments as well as hand-painted art and the Overwatch style was always particularly appealing to me.
Lisbon Streets: Inspiration and Goals
After playing the demo mission of Overwatch 2 at BlizzCon, I was inspired to create my own environment in the setting of the game. The story of the sequel is about artificially intelligent robots (Omnics) which launch attacks on various cities of the world. My goal was to show the impact of the attacks on one of the cities that has not been part of the game yet. From the beginning of the project, I had a concrete image of the environment in my head that I wanted to realize. I wanted to convey the memories from my last visit to the city in the scene, most importantly the colorful facades, the hilly terrain, and the warm atmosphere. Therefore, I gathered some real-life photos of the streets in Lisbon, but the most important task was to translate them into the Overwatch style.
I needed to preserve everything that makes the streets of the city recognizable like the trams, the overhead wires, and the balconies while reducing or eliminating details that are not as important. To achieve that it was essential to look at references from Overwatch environments and constantly compare them to my own work throughout the course of this project. It was helpful to look up specific elements like how the plaster or pavement textures look in the game, but the references as a whole also served as a quality bar that made me keep in mind what I wanted to achieve at the end.
Sometimes it is also very helpful to look at well-made fanart because they tend to show more breakdowns and help you understand how to achieve the look with the tools you are using as well. I recommend checking out the Overwatch style environments by Shua Llorente, which were also a huge inspiration for my scene.
Planning the Scene
When I was planning the scene, I decided to make it larger than my usual environments to make it believable, but also not making it too large so I could focus on the exterior streets only. To achieve this kind of scale, I had to come up with different methods to save time. One way was to go for a symmetrical layout just like in the new game mode Push from Overwatch 2. This allowed the map to be mirrored at both ends so that initially I would only need to create one half of the scene. To prevent the symmetry from being too noticeable, I designed the street in a curved layout. That ensured that the viewer can never see the other end of the street completely and made the mirroring less noticeable.
By adding wreckage parts and smoke effects to block the view of the side streets, I would need to spend less time on those as well. Overall I tried sticking to a modular approach, where I could reuse house assets and props to build the street. Composition wise I did not have anything specific in mind until I laid out the street for the first time and found a few perspectives that were appealing to me. After that, I stuck to those views and tried to build the environment in a way that would look good from all those angles at the same time.
I tried keeping the modular parts as simple as possible, so I only set up three different houses that vary in their proportions, roof shapes, and door layouts. It is admittedly not the best method for modular environment building, but I was still learning at that time and it gave me the flexibility to quickly move and replace buildings. By creating multiple unique sides for every building, I could add more variations by just rotating them in the scene.
I used the same approach to make the skyscraper buildings in the background as well so that I only would need to make three skyscrapers in total. The wires in the streets were set up by a spline-based blueprint system which I made with the help of the video tutorial below. For the rest of the scene, it was just a matter of creating props and particle effects that could be reused to fill the environment.
Texturing and Materials
In my opinion, texturing is the most important aspect to get right to achieve the Overwatch art style. The basic stylized principles apply, like saturated colors or lack of micro details. But there is also a misconception that Overwatch style texturing means only having flat colors or making the textures as minimalistic as possible. That is not true at all, in fact, by observing the references I learned that smaller details and variation in color and roughness bring a lot of richness to the environment. For this scene I created 10 tileable materials in total, most of them were done in Substance Designer.
My workflow was to build the basic Height map first and then to create subtle variations in the pattern. After that, I used gradients as well as Ambient Occlusion and Curvature to generate the Base Color. To me, it was important getting the Base Color map to look good first before worrying about the other maps. Then I made the Roughness map by inverting the Height map and adjusting the levels. As the final step, I always added a grunge map on top of the Roughness and Base Color to create the richness I mentioned before. The best approach is to pick a grunge map that looks more painterly and blurring it a bit to give it a more stylized look. For the Normal and AO map, it is important to keep in mind that they can cause very strong shadows in the engine and end up being too distracting, so I tried to keep the values more subtle.
The rest of the props were textured in Substance Painter, where I would use the SoMuchMaterials plugin to quickly generate the Base Color and work from there. I tried to keep the textures simple while still following the same principles as in my Substance Designer workflow. The most tricky part for me was to find good Roughness and Metalness value when it comes to texturing metals and glass. For metals, I found out that the best way to achieve the Overwatch look was to set the values to Metalness 0.75 and Roughness 0.5. I achieved the glass reflections by setting the Metalness to 0.9, the Roughness to 0.1 and by picking a neutral grey Base Color 0.5/0.5/0.5. Even if these are not correct PBR values, I found them to be very useful to achieve a similar look in Unreal Engine just like in Overwatch.
Just like with modeling it was crucial to constantly look at references, but also to compare the textures the way they looked in Substance to how they look in the engine. By doing this I ensured they worked well in the scene and I could make the necessary adjustments if the textures ended up being too distracting or ended up looking strange in my lighting setup.
The backdrop of the scene was very important for storytelling and creating a compelling atmosphere. First of all, I created the skyscraper buildings using trimsheets I made in Substance Designer. Modeling them in a way so that they look unique from every perspective had the advantage that I only needed to create three buildings in total and could reuse them in the scene to create the skyline. I set up the composition of the skyline similar to a pyramid shape, leading the eye of the viewer from the street to the buildings. Apart from that, it was also my intention to create a separation between the more traditional houses in the foreground and the futuristic skyscrapers in the background. That way I could make the environment connected to the futuristic setting of Overwatch while still preserving familiarity with the real-world setting.
Since the standard skybox in Unreal Engine is not very stylized, I decided to paint my own skybox in Photoshop. I kept it pretty simple by only adding a few clouds to not distract from the main motives in the scene.
To fill the scene with details, I created various props, categorizing them into different groups like houseplants or props for the street, each group sharing one texture for the sake of efficiency. Some of these details were inspired by the real-life setting and I tried to translate them into the Overwatch style, for example, the clothing and plants on the balconies are a very recognizable feature of the streets in Lisbon.
After receiving feedback, I knew I needed to reduce the details which I placed in the scene to make it feel more organic and readable. For the Overwatch style, it is essential to keep it simple and focus on the props which contribute to the storytelling and make the environment recognizable.
At the beginning, I had no idea how to approach the lighting in Unreal Engine, but this is where this 80 Level article by Henric Montelius gave me a great starting point to know what kind of lights and setting to use. The lighting of his scene is very well done and feels close to the Overwatch style. That is why I constantly went back to that article and compared his light and post-processing settings with mine. Since it was so helpful having some values to reference at first, I would like to share my settings in case it might be useful to someone. Most importantly Lighting Bounces and Indirect Lighting will help you to get that stylized look.
Because the scene is only outdoors in the middle of the day, my lighting setup did not have to be very complicated. To use one Directional Light and a Sky Light with Distance Field Shadows was more than enough for a scene like this. If you have additional elements like lamps or fire like in my environment, then it makes sense to add Point Lights or Spot Lights at the appropriate areas, though It is important to make them not too distracting. I made sure the scene would receive shadows from the buildings to create darker areas in the composition, leading the eye towards the tram or some specific details in a particular shot.
When it comes to lighting stylized scenes like in Overwatch, it is important to avoid harsh contrasts and to only use soft shadows. Basically, everything should be clearly visible and readable, especially when designing a gameplay space. Previously I had the misconception that the Overwatch style requires a lot of Ambient Occlusion, but after getting some feedback I found out that reducing the AO will make the scene much more pleasant to look at. It is worth it to start as early as possible working on the lighting in your environment. It will help to identify problems early on and make sure that the assets and materials work in your scene like you would like to.
Constantly comparing the lighting with the references is also essential. I found the Detail Lighting view in Unreal Engine particularly useful to see if the light values are appealing or needed to be adjusted. As a last step, I used background fog as well as fog sheets to give the environment some depth. It was also beneficial to apply subtle Volumetric Fog to the whole scene, which helped to blend everything together.
This environment has been my most ambitious project so far on which I spent about 7 months while studying and working on other projects. It was first part of a submission for university, but after the submission was done I knew I wanted to spend more time on it to achieve my vision. After that, I took a break for two months to participate in the EXP + DiNusty Cyberpunk Challenge to learn more about Unreal Engine and how to build a larger-scale environment, so that I could use that knowledge to improve my Lisbon Streets scene.
When I returned to the project, I immediately determined I had to change a lot of things. The houses were too small, the assets too low poly, the textures were really low resolution, and the composition needed to be improved as well. Knowing that I needed more exaggerated buildings and more details in general, I decided to redo most of the existing parts of the environment.
To push the environment into its final stages, the feedback I received at Discord communities like Stylized Station and Experience Points was very helpful to me. In my opinion, getting feedback from other artists and always analyzing your references are the most important two things that will ensure to successfully create an environment in the art style you are aiming for.