Making Gameplay and Environments Work Together
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Those animations look amazing!! Great job!

Very cool review of the making of Spellbreak. Would be even more cool to see some videos inside UE4 showing how they do a few very specific things unique to them.

This was so helpful for me. I'm hoping to adapt your tutorial to pull off something similar comparing modern satellite imagery with historical maps. No topo, so my steps should be simpler, but I'm a novice with Blender and you've really helped. Thanks!

Making Gameplay and Environments Work Together
19 September, 2016

We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Hector Mateo-Pino, who woked on Halo Wars 2 and the amazing exploration title Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. He was kind to talk about his way of uniting gameplay and clever environment design, how to use color and tell stories through scene.

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Hello everyone, I’m Hector Mateo-Pino and I’m an Environment Artist at Creative Assembly currently working on Halo Wars 2.

Born in Tarragona, Spain, I moved to the UK to study my degree, 3D Games Art, at the University of Hertfordshire. I was incredibly fortunate to join The Chinese Room after graduating and worked on the PS4 title Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

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Building Environments 

The first thing I’ll do when I start a new project is to determine what route I want to take; either I’ll find a piece of concept art I really like (and ask for permission before I start), I’ll use photographic material to dictate my subject or I’ll design and concept something myself. It all usually comes down to how much time I have. When I was at University I tried every single method and came to the conclusion that the fastest way for me, personally, to produce good environment art in the shortest period of time was to start from an existing piece of concept art or photography. In this scenario all the elements are already laid out for you and you can focus on creating the environment. Concepting and designing are a beast of its own and are a career path themselves.

I like to create a list of assets and textures that I will have to create for the environment and roughly estimate how long I think it will take. Doing this allows me to have a visual roadmap of what I have to achieve in what timeframe. I will also try and break down the environment into any potential modular parts that will allow me to save time.

After this I create blockouts for my environments as the first step and then also make a basic pass on the lighting. In this stage I nail things like proportions and measurements to make sure that I don’t encounter problems down the line.

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I tend to create big boards of images for my projects which contain reference material of the environment at hand. This may vary from surface materials, to architectural elements, beautifully lit photography or even paintings. It’s effectively a master reference board that I assemble that allows me to make decisions that will help towards building the environment at hand in a cohesive way. Even if I’m working from a concept I’ll still do this step to give myself extra visual information.


My first step is to always create a block out of the asset I’ll be creating and place it in game. In this step I always try and nail down the proportions, size and shape of the asset in relation to the environment it sits in. It is much easier to make quick changes when you are at this part of the process than further down the line so I always spend enough time on this stage and avoid rushing through it.

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Once the block out is clear I proceed to create the high poly mesh working from general big shapes to medium, small and detail shapes. After this I’ll create the low poly mesh, UV, bake and then take my asset to Substance Designer/Painter where I texture now.

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My texturing process applies the same big/general to small/specific principle I use when modeling. I will start with establishing my material values to ensure I have an accurate material representation and once I’m happy with this I will start layering effects, grunges, scratches etc. into the material. I tend to extract as many texture maps from my high poly as I can, such as position maps or curvature maps, that can help me down the line with the texturing process.

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Throughout the texturing process I always have a reference board that I use to identify key aspects of the material I’m working on. On top of that I will research the material and try and learn how it behaves, what causes it to rust, how it does it and many more questions. I find that the more questions I ask myself and find answers for will result in a better understanding of the material at hand which translates to a better in game material.

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On the question of software, I think what really matters is not so much which one you use but that you understand the process and techniques. If you understand how to create high poly models you will be able to do it both in X and Y software as the skills are transferable. The same goes for texturing.

Having said that, Maya and 3DS Max tend to be the most used software’s at studios, with MODO also gaining momentum now. Any of these three would be really good to learn. For sculpting and organics, I have always used Zbrush whilst for texturing now I use Substance Designer/Painter both professionally and personally. These are at the core of what I do on a daily basis.

Composing Shots

Before I start composing my shots and aligning cameras I ask myself what it is I want to showcase. Something as simple as the camera angle can give, subconsciously, information about the environment to the player. The obvious ones are placing the camera looking down to empower the viewer and contrarily to place it low looking upwards to get a sense of menace and being overpowered. Examples of this can be when we see players about to enter some dungeon/castle/temple versus when you want to describe the space to a player you give them a big overview of the level.

In terms of compositional guidelines, a really simple but effective one is the rule of thirds. Another set of rules to look out for are Edgar Payne’s “Composition for Outdoor painting” where he goes over many different options to compose environments.

Due to the nature of games, where we tend to have free moving cameras, compositing shots can be a bit trickier that in offline rendering. Sometimes though we can align the camera and direction in which the player is going to craft ourselves a key frame type camera. An example of this is when the character walks through some doors to reveal a new environment, or as you approach a temple.

Balance of Environment Design and Gameplay

Environment design and gameplay are completely interlocked. They both complement each other and need each other to create a successful experience. Everything in the environment has a function to perform depending on the type of game that is being made.

In the RTS genre, for example, environment art can be used to aid the gameplay experience by visually defining the areas of a map. If the map is divided into three different visual ways, the player will have a way to orientate and understand their position within the map. The same thing goes with hero assets or landmarks that can act as guides and references for the player. In the same manner, we need to be careful on how we create and dress our environments because when we dress the environment we have to do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with the gameplay requirements of the level. If our intention is for a player to take a certain route, but we’ve completely neglected that area and instead have dressed another area of the screen, the player will most likely go towards the dressed area and consequently the one that wasn’t intended through gameplay.

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Something else we consider at all times is how the units read in the game. We need to ensure that every single unit stands out and reads well from the environment which leads us to having very clean playable space. Propping and details are usually pushed to the side of the playable space to reinforce the visual clarity and clearly signpost the edge of playable space. Due to the nature of the RTS camera angle we can’t do horizon line vistas or showcase beautiful expanses of land. Our solution to that is to think vertically as opposed to horizontally, so we build big negative spaces in the game which create those moments of awe and entice the player to keep exploring the environment. The challenge here is amaze the player but at the same time ensure that they understand where the edge of the playable space is and that they can’t go explore the negative space.Clarity and read are vital in the RTS genre so we create environments with that in mind. Even if you’re not creating an RTS, understand the core mechanics and gameplay aspects of it to make sure the environment enhances them.

Another very cliché example of this is the red barrel in first person shooters or the yellow ladder. The first is there to indicate to the player that the barrel will explode upon shooting and the latter that the ladder can be climbed; Environment art is there to inform the player that such mechanic exists. Effectively it becomes a visual cue for the player to associate X environment component with Y effect.

Ultimately, the gameplay and level design of an environment will determine how we create the environment, where we place the most detailed aspects of it, where we allow the player to have some visual rest etc. Similarly, the environment can help reinforce the direction in which we want the player to go through clever propping, lighting and colour application.

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Colors and Lighting

Both colour and lighting are tools that we can use to make the player feel how we want them to feel, as well as guide them subconsciously. The use of colour can take us on a journey throughout the game, where a colour script can be planned to match the emotional beats of that part of the game. A simple way to apply this is, as an example, to have a warm palette in lighthearted moments in the game, where we want to communicate the player a sense of tranquility, versus a colder palette in more heaver tense moments. When I say warm/cold palettes I don’t necessarily mean in the reds and oranges for warm and blues for cold but rather how we use colour saturation in the specific scene. I love looking at animated short films colour scripts because you can really see how they’ve thought out the entire film in terms of colour and what mood and emotion they want to express. (Ralph Eggleston’s work is a fantastic example)

This can be aided and used in combination with lighting where we can find a similar emotional application. I like to think of lighting in terms of contrast and softness. A brightly lit scene will express different emotions to a dimly lit scene so when it comes to lighting I usually start asking myself whether I want a high key or low key set up. This means that, for a high key, 2/3 of the scene will be a light value and 1/3 dark and vice versa for the low key scene. I tend to build up the lighting and then check my values in Photoshop so that I can spot areas of contrast, extreme values or anything that perhaps was harder to view with colour on top.

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What kind of set up you use in your scene will probably depend on the emotional beat of that part of the game so I always try to bear that in mind when I’m working.

Telling Stories with Environments

The environment is a reflection of the characters that inhabit, or interact with, the environment. When I’m trying to visually tell a story through the environment the first thing I’ll do is take a step back and gather as much information about the environment I’m about to create. In the case for Rapture, when we were creating the houses for the villagers, we had an extensive script to refer to where we could read about the character that lived in that particular house. What their personality was like would reflect in the environment in how we dress the area, the type of wallpapers we used, the decoration style etc. On top of that we could always ask our Creative Director any question we needed which helped with the process.

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However sometimes there is no script or Creative Director to ask so in those scenarios I like to come up with back stories myself in which I can set the environment I’m about to create. It doesn’t have to be anything too complex but I find that it gives meaning to what I’m creating. If I’m struggling with certain areas of the environments such as not knowing what to add it’s usually because I haven’t paid enough attention to the backstory.

As a little fun exercise, take a look at the room you are in right now. If you were a total stranger that had just walked in to the room, what sort of impression would you have of the room and the person that lives in it?

Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or want to talk about Environment art please contact me.

Hector Mateo-Pino, Environment Artist at Creative Assembly


Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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