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Anıl İşbilir talked about his spectacular environment art created with WorldMachine, Substance Designer, and UE4.
Hi, My name is Anıl. I’m a freelance 3D artist from Ankara, Turkey. I worked on some small game projects, most prominent one being No:70 from Oldmustache Gameworks as well as various non-game related projects, mostly architectural.
I started with architectural visualization. Being an interior architecture graduate I started working as an interior designer, mostly doing the 3D presentations and working on personal projects in my spare time. Sometime later with the release of UDK and realizing my ambition for creating game environments I left my job and started learning modeling and animation by myself. I later got another job which implied creating military animations. I still think it was much closer to what I wanted to do at that time. And finally, after leaving that job too, with the help of asset markets, I’m able to do this full time now.
Origin of the project
I’ve always wanted to do a deserted fantasy town or settlement. I remember playing Diablo for the first time and seeing that really atmospheric intro. You can’t see many examples like that nowadays. I’m also a big Elder Scrolls fan, especially the third installment and I really like the serenity that game had in its environments. Same goes for the recent Legend of Zelda game, although it has a much different graphical style. I started it without having firm design decisions apart from the reusing of the same materials and elements throughout the project.
I used WorldMachine to generate a quick and small landscape. It’s just a few template nodes for a generic mountainous landscape that I created before. I also used splat maps for different material layers first and I’m still editing the areas on top of that while I work on the mesh placement. I created the layers by referencing some of my earlier ground scans. I was not happy how they turned out and recreated them in Designer, referencing the old blurry scans. Having problems with hand-painted foliage in my earlier projects I tried to automate as much as I could for natural models. Small foliage meshes that don’t require collision can be assigned to the layers using Unreal’s grass type system and that saved a lot of time. Others including trees can be painted with ease with their limited count. I used SpeedTree for them while modeling a high and low-poly version for smaller foliage, baking and importing them as FBX.
Materials & Geometry
I figured that by having the minimum required material types and another material containing sculpted detail meshes I could create a masonry structure from any reference. That’s why I only have three stone wall materials and one for stone blocks and boulders combined. I also added a dithered moss material to hide the tiling walls and few different elements like iron and wood parts. I use some modular wood planks along with the stone blocks in the modeling phase, which helps in designing structures and saves time. So I don’t create new models from scratch but reuse both textures and elements.
I recommend both examining existing structures and experimenting with photo textures beforehand so that you determine what you need before starting actual production. After you have just the right amount of material (and meshes) you can easily mimic any similar structure in minutes.
Like I mentioned, I searched for different masonry textures around the web, and I figured that I need a fine stone wall for more luxurious structures, a more ordinary one, and one that looks broken and old with dirt and grass between the rocks. I used temporary photo textures for prototyping my first structures and swapped them with counterparts made in Substance Designer after that. That way I think I prevented losing time on a material just to be discarded later.
Substance Designer nodes were nothing special, I started with four and five-sided shapes, warped them a bit, overlayed gradients to make them face randomly and used the slope blur node at every step, which creates really cool organic and sharp edges. I also edited them heavily in Photoshop in order to add some surface details from photos. I had to match colors with the sculpted meshes in order for them to blend more. Combined with the slight parallax effect, steep normals, and matching colors those textures blend rather well with the actual 3D detail geometry. Most of the stuff is simple geometry with Designer materials. Just a bit of sculpted details and other natural assets like rocks, cliffs, trunks, and stumps are all scanned data with detail normals on top. I scanned one side of a two meters wide boulder and turned it into a cliff mesh while other medium-sized boulders are actually all small rocks that I collected and scanned using a turntable.
When the assets themselves work well separately it’s much easier to experiment with the scene. Most of the small details are already present in the asset, like the broken down doors or some of the rubble from the collapsed walls. I also used different rubble meshes to blend otherwise very systematic pieces together. Modifying the rotations of some of them helps break down the repetition. I’m currently trying out even bigger whole assets like this villa ruin where it’s all one big mesh with various materials. While it’s heavier poly count-wise, it’s easy to remove entire elements in the LOD’s, reducing the draw time and material count. For example, while the first LOD has six different materials, only the tileable one doesn’t have a large visual difference from the distance.
Lightings have always been a problem for me, despite the engines efforts to make all lighting solutions simpler and more accessible over the years. I found out that simpler configurations go a long way in terms of lighting. This scene has all moveable lighting elements and the distance field ambient occlusion. The only static element is the reflection capture actors, which takes like a second to recapture. I will probably make it more foggy, darker and gloomy later, but for now, a more neutral lighting helps designing rest of the settlement.
I will submit this to the Unreal Marketplace when I’m done, along with the rest of my works. I’m always happy to see other people creating better and bigger environments with my assets or using them for prototyping their projects, that’s why I’m aiming for more practical, larger assets in this scene. I would be happy to see someone create an entire fantasy world in few days with these.