3d artist Ainsley Langford explained how he builds complex environments and gave some tips on game content production.
Hi, my name is Ainsley Langford. During my life, I have lived in a lot of different parts of the UK, my family moved around quite a bit when I was younger which I think let me see and experience a lot more than someone with a more “normal” upbringing. I know that if we didn’t move around as much as we did then the chance of me working in the games industry would probably be much lower. I would most likely still be living in the same area that I first grew up in with a much different job than the one I have now so I am very grateful to my family for the opportunities and support they have given me. I have been working in the games industry for just over 2 years now. During this time, I have worked on and shipped two titles which are “Gears of War: Ultimate Edition” and “Gears of War 4”. I am currently working at Cloud Imperium Games as an Environment Artist for Star Citizen.
I have been playing video games for as long as I can remember however I only really made the decision to work in the video game industry when I was 19. I originally wanted to be an architect and whilst studying 3D Design I began using a program called Google sketch up. We used it mainly for designing our buildings in 3D; from there I really fell in love with the 3D side of things that my course offered. I knew a small part of me always wanted to work in the video games industry and felt that my knowledge of sketch up and ability as an artist would get me into a computer games course at university. After that I started using Maya, Unreal and Zbrush and have now expanded my knowledge to a lot of different programs. At the moment I like to play about with Substance Designer in my spare time.
Typically, world builders work in editor and focus on creating levels/maps with a library of assets. Some of the things they have to think about are Composition, Storytelling, adhering to level design, consistency, directing the player through asset placement and working in a way that lets you hit you’re performance goals. For example by thinking about how you place your assets you can tell a story that will add depth and believability to your scene/environment. Consistency can apply to a lot of different things, for example you want to keep the proportions of your meshes consistent within your environment. You also want to keep your materials consistent with each other, it’s very easy for the human eye to pick up on inconsistent things like this and for someone to know that something is off.
The Creation of 3D Environments
Every environment that I work on will always begin with blockout geometry. This can be done in engine with bsp or in a modeling program, the main purpose of doing this is to nail proportions and get a basic composition/ idea of where the environment is going to go. In a game production pipeline bsp blockouts will be created by level designers to create a solid and enjoyable gameplay experience. Blocking out your scene is also very important for modularity, if you block out the elements of your modular set you’ll quickly get a sense of how many pieces your set needs and how you can use that set to go about building your environment.
After the blockout is done I’ll approach the environment in passes, if you do a 1st pass, 2nd pass 3rd pass etc. on your materials/ lighting and models it’ll give you consistent and balanced results and allow you to prioritize the most important elements of your scene. If you focus in on the small details too early then I feel that this can cause a lot of problems down the line and may cause you to waste a lot of time on something that won’t be seen in the end result. Dressing the scene with assets, blending materials and focusing on smaller details usually come after I’ve nailed the larger more noticeable parts of the environment. A general rule of thumb is to focus on the big details first and work your way down to the smaller stuff.
Mixing Technological Elements and Architecture
A large part of this is due to the Gears of War art style; in Gear of War we pushed a more exaggerated look over realism. This includes pushing the scale of things for dramatic emphasis, mixing machinery and bulky metallic elements with architecture and trying to adhere to the visual style that was created and respected within the gears world.
Usually, each environment I make will have at least one modular set that you’ll use to build the level/ map. Instead of creating a unique building you would split the building up into modular elements and build it out of those instead. This will give you a lot more reuse when it comes to creating other buildings; it will allow you to quickly iterate and change the design/ layout of your environment and will also help with performance if done correctly.
For example, you could create several wall pieces in a modular building, these could be corners, straight walls, windows etc. If done correctly, you can easily switch out these set pieces with one another in engine for quick changes to your environment (switching out a solid wall with a window would be one example). This isn’t something you could easily do if you built everything uniquely.
Materials and lighting are the two main things that will have the biggest impact on the look of your environment. If these don’t look good then chances are your environment won’t look good either.
When working on materials it’s really important to have good solid reference that you can use. Gathering good reference and figuring out what you want your material to look like will help you get much more solid results than going in blind.
It’s important to focus on all the small things that make up a material such as micro surface details, roughness and spec breakup, maintaining correct PBR values and creating solid normal and height info for masks that can be used to build your material. Think about the storytelling of a material, how did it get to where it is? If there is a crack in a rock how did it get there? If you think about these and build your material up as if it had really aged that way then you’ll end up with a much more believable result.
Most of my material work these days is done in either Substance Painter or Designer, I use Photoshop as well when I need to but painter is usually my go to program.
Why do you need Skydome?
The skydome is very important for selling the lighting and feel of an environment, many maps in Gears of War were really brought to life through the lighting and skydome. If you take a map and give it an overcast sky and then switch that out with a sunset you’ll see dramatically different results for the mood and appearance of the same environment.
Don’t stop working, it sounds simple but it’s very easy to become complacent and idle. If you build enough self-discipline early on in your career it will set the foundation for you to succeed later on in life. When starting out focus on refining your knowledge of materials and lighting. Modeling is an important skill to master but it won’t matter how good your model looks if your materials and lighting are bad. Work on smaller more contained scenes, it’s easy to get carried away and want to create big and awe-inspiring environments but you’ll find its much more beneficial for you to focus on something smaller and easier to finish to a higher standard.
When you start working in the industry don’t be disheartened when studio work isn’t what you had always dreamed it would be like. It is a job and career at times. If you feel like work is starting to become a grind, then supplement this by doing some awesome work at home. Stay up to date on techniques and software so you’re always able to perform and keep up with industry standards.
Lastly be a nice person! Making a game is a team effort; if you can’t get along in a team environment then chances are you won’t make it in a game studio. The games industry is a pretty small place; if you’re a nice person who’s a team player then you’ll end up making friends in studios all around the world which will open all sorts of doors for the future.