Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
Today we have an exciting interview with environment artist Patrick Gladys. He worked in Crytek for a long time, doing stuff for Warface, RYSE and awesome VR projects. Right now he’s working with DICE on new great games. In this post he talks about his work as environment artist, discusses the creation of 3d content for VR. Patrick is a real master of his craft, so hopefully you’ll find some of his tips valuable.
Hey! My name is Patrick Gladys, from Cologne in Germany and I’m an environment artist in the games industry. The first company I worked for was Crytek where I have contributed to projects like Crysis 3, Ryse: Son of Rome, Warface, the Back to Dinosaur Island VR demos as well as The Climb. Recently I joined DICE in Stockholm, Sweden to work on Star Wars: Battlefront. My specialization is creating realistic vegetation and organic props or entire environments. Every now and then I give lectures in various schools like the SAE institute or the Games Academy.
Working as Environment Artist
An environment artists responsibility is to create the visual surroundings of a games level including the objects that are part of it. The tasks can be building entire terrains, cliffs, rocks, caves, forests and vegetation, architecture and other made constructions.
Level designers focus on things like gameplay spaces and player leading which can highly influence art.
While dressing the level with assets there is a chance that the artist might break design work by blocking paths or spaces entirely. Level designers on the other hand could potentially put more workload onto an artist by making a draft for a corridor section in the level that new assets have to be created for. There is a huge potential for both developers to either break each others creations or cause more work for one another. Being in sync and communicating changes from both sides as often as possible can prevent additional workload, bugs and undesired gameplay experiences. Going back and forth between the two frequently during production and compromising where necessary helps to have a smoother production.
When we started to work with VR we have noticed some very interesting visual differences in comparison to classic games. One of those things is the slightly different perception of scale and spaces. Most of the asset creation happens (obviously) on our screens which is more or less the same piece of hardware people would play a non-VR game on. But as VR headsets have a much larger FOV and factors like the game characters body height suddenly influence how players experience an objects dimensions and distances in general forcing artists to put on their VR gear every now and then to check if what we built actually felt right. Sometimes objects weren’t scaled properly and had to be adjusted and thus hurting the immersion for a player, which is more critical in VR.
When we started to work with VR we have noticed some very interesting visual differences in comparison to classic games. One of those things is the slightly different perception of scale and spaces.
The biggest challenge though was performance. The game has to be rendered twice at 90fps so the question was, how can we make beautiful and nice looking environments while keeping up the quality standards.
Picture a very nice looking and super well executed environment with all its objects. Everything is in place, super polished and really awesome looking. But actually there are things that can make a scene stand out even more, which is making the map feel more “alive”. Lets say you are standing in the middle of a level doing absolutely nothing, but there is stuff happening all around you. The tree branches are bending with the wind, particles are flowing with it, you see a waterfall crushing down onto rocks causing more water to splash making a noisy sound. You hear and see insects or maybe a nice animated windmill in the background as well as birds up in the sky. The sum of all those elements has a big impact on how players conceive an environment which will make it feel great.
General Production Process
I believe the most important and crucial part of the entire art production is the blockout. By defining out as much as you can in a very early stage of the production you can save yourself and other involved developers a lot of time.
Lets say you „blocked out“ your level with literally just boxes and other primitive shapes. Everything is grey and doesn’t really tell you much about what the environment you are building is supposed to be at all. That’s why I personally like to create geometry that somewhat resembles the silhouette of the final object as well as adding placeholder textures. That allows me to quickly build an abstract version of all the objects I need for the entire scene in a very short amount of time while enabling me to color tweak those placeholder textures in the very first iterations already. This way I can nail down the „big picture“ very early, see which and how many assets I really need and even try out some lighting. This approach allows quick iterations while giving an Impression of the final Image in an early stage of the production.
I do this for all kinds of assets; here are examples for solid objects and vegetation. Example for vegetation: Placeholder to final
Example for rocks: Placeholder to final
Tileable textures are what environment artists use most of the time to create their scenes. Even if there are very unique looking objects, those are most likely made up of breakup masks, a bunch of tileable textures and a normalmap to further enhance the objects shape depending on what kind of shader system you have available in your engine.
For vegetation there is another process we usually go through to avoid a ridiculous amount of texture work in later stages of our material creation. It would be hard work to build high poly geometry, bake it down and then begin texture work. Once we start building the high poly leaves they must receive correct uv mapping and their own individual albedo textures. This ensures that the entire high poly branch you build is basically textured immediately. The last thing to do is to bake down that color information along AO and Normals onto a plane. All the remaining texture work left would be tweaks or minor details added on top. You can obviously assign any texture to the high poly leaves and bake out whatever pass you like. It’s quite a common workflow among vegetation people.
Interior and Open World Design
Obviously the bigger a scene gets, the more assets usually have to be maintained and the harder it becomes to end up with a coherent image. With greater complexity there is a higher chance for objects, materials etc. not matching up. Especially when they come from different artists or even outsourcing, even though this is also valid for smaller interior environments to a certain extend as those can contain the same amount of objects in relation to a huge open level.
Natural and urban environments are also interesting to compare. Organic set pieces like vegetation or rocks etc. are more forgiving in the process of actually building the level as everything in nature appears to be a bit more chaotic and can be put together more freely, laying out large portions of a level. Architectural modular building parts like floors, walls or stairs follow stricter rules and mostly stick to a grid in a certain way to give a proper result.
Making a Better Game
There are some methods being used by artists and designers to make the player go where he is supposed to. Humans find certain visual structures very appealing and thus feel attracted towards those. This could be symmetry, an array of objects, various pattern or different types of groups and arrangements. Light is a fantastic tool as well. Highlighting certain areas will make them more interesting for players to explore. It’s basically subconscious guidance.
The Beginners’ Guide
Sign up and get a subscription for video tutorials online. There are multiple websites that offer nice libraries of step by step videos created by professionals. Then figure out what your goal is and just start to build stuff. But it is going to be an incredible amount of work and time you will have to invest, there is no easy way around it. Unfortunately game art is not a profession that can be mastered by just reading about it.