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Environment Design Tricks & Tips
22 August, 2016
Interview

We were happy to talk to Bartłomiej Galas from NatureManufacture. Most recently his company launched a new ‘Graveyard’ environment set. In our interview he discussed some of his most faivorite projects and discussed how he builds complicated and beautiful levels with PBR textures.

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Introduction

I’m Bartłomiej Galas and I’m the owner, system designer and level designer at NatureManufacture. I started with game development at Neverwinter Night 2 with its aurora tools. I won the competition for designers which was addressed to NWN2 community and I created mod and world for Polish Platinium Collection of this game. This also means I have created world for Polish official server for this game. Next step was my own game, everybody’s dreaming about it. I started with Gloria Victis MMO – yeah I also wanted to make my first game as MMO. Unexpectedly, despite all obstacles and ridicule I made it, so it’s possible. I fought 4 years at Gloria Victis MMO as owner, system designer, level designer, at later time also as character animator (from the tree animation side). I also made optimization and managed the team. I left my child 1st January 2016.

I have started NatureManufacture with my wife, 2 years ago, we decide to create some nature assets for Unity AssetStore. At that moment I’ve worked developing the Gloria Victis game and also creating Unity assets independently. During the first year of parallel working I met Pawel Homenko (Indago and NatureManufacture). I designed and created few systems for Unity Engine with Pawel. Mostly advanced math operations for unity terrain objects and memory streaming system for whole unity objects. I have studied geodesy and cartography at Warsaw University of Technology so that I have no problem with the advanced mathematics. Pawel is also after math studies. We spent many long weeks on mathematical equations for those systems. 1st January 2016 I left my own company Black Eye Games (Gloria Victis MMO) and I handed the management and whole company to the co-owner. From that day I focused on technology and 3d/2d assets as NatureManufacture. That is also the time when very talented 3d artist from Witcher team – Tomasz Ochalik joined our team and we started to create bigger and more advanced 2d/3d packs. We have learned Unreal Engine and now we support both platforms.

In the meantime I was involved in the World Creator terrain generator . This tool generates on GPU amazing terrains with foliage. It has standalone and unity version.

At the same time we are also working at mysterious VR grame. Uh… that’s all about this, as you see we are working at many things at the same time.

Projects

Here are some products that we are really proud of:

World Streamer (Unity)

It is a powerful memory and assets streaming system for Unity Engine. While you are building your scene you can forget about CPU, GPU, RAM, VRAM usage. If you just put prefix (signature) in your asset’s name, system will recognize them and stream in correct distance. As an example you could stream from the disc, independently and parallel, small objects in close distance only, big objects in far distance, detailed terrain objects in close distance and replace them by low poly mesh at far distance. You are able to stream building interior only when you enter the house or correct floor. This powerful tool also supports floating point error fix for HUGE worlds and you could loop your world if you want to create planet or looped endless world. This 2 functions are available by clicking 2 buttons. System supports lightmaps, namvesh, everything that could be saved at scene. Size of the streamed area could be changed with 2 buttons click and it’s dynamic, so player during gameplay could easily adjust this to his CPU/GPU memory sources. Performance improvement resulting from using world streamer could be even 600%.

Here is the presentation video:

Multiple Terrain Brush (Unity)

With this tool you are able to work with multiple terrains as they became one. This is very useful at unity engine. Many times I was mad when I had to work at terrain’s borders. I could’t handle this anymore so we have created a tool that solved that problem forever.

PBR Graveyard (Unity)/ Graveyard and Nature Set (Unreal)

Huge pack with huge amount of assets that were sculpted. Pack contains 128 prefabs, 225 textures, 152 models! Almost everything we have made from our photos! As you can see at the photo below, the pack contains graveyard models but also it’s a big library of nature/enviro assets. We just released PBR Graveyard and Nature Set at Unreal Marketplace.

Снимок экрана 2016-08-22 в 18.21.14

Landscape Ground Pack (Unity, Unreal)

Group of ground/landscape textures and optimized tesselated terrain/landscape materials (unreal). This is solid pack of textures that were made from my own photos that were very carefully tilled! It contains 24 tesseled, optimized materials. 3 Materials were dedicated to landscape/terrain. They could use 4-8 layers, moreover by copy and paste few functions you are able to expand it into 16 layers.

Winter Ground Pack (Unity, Unreal)

Last winter was hardworking and during it we have made group of textures. It was difficult to make textures from snow photos but after many attempts we have made it:

Снимок экрана 2016-08-22 в 18.21.31

Снимок экрана 2016-08-22 в 18.21.45

It is difficult to choose which asset is most popular, because all our assets are selling quite evenly, despite of that I think World Streamer, PBR Graveyard and terrain/landscape textures are these the most often bought. More assets and info about them you could find here:

  • Unreal
  • Unity
  • Skechfab (not so advanced as rendering engines but also helpful in presentation)

You’re focusing your efforts on the production of high quality 3d materials for landscape scenes. Could you tell us in general, what are the main issues that developers have with natural environments and how do you manage to solve those problems with your products?

Bartłomiej Galas: If we talk about landscape ground textures, the main issue is that it’s really hard to create natural tilled texture. We have to spend a lot of time to kill repeatability of details and give textures the natural look. There is hard work with brightness and contrast, texture must be aligned. If we step into tesselation, we also have to make smart adjustable LODs system for materials. People don’t need tesselation in far distance. We spent a lot of time in unreal engine tutorial, but at the end we decided to create our own, faster material construction. We have limited calculations to the minimum. We put few parameters that are handful to change LOD distance in each material. At the end we get good performance at our materials, so they are not only good looking but also clean and fast. Before we started working with Unreal we didn’t suspect that there is so much math in material and rendering area.

We also have to mention that not many developers want to create landscape environment assets. It’s very difficult, because trees, bushes, grass ground texture are very ungrateful subject. You have to get very good quality photos from all needed sides, next step is very long treatment. In many cases when you finish, you look at it and you say: no… We rebuilt our trees many, many times before we were happy from them. Our solution is to be patient and never create LOD’s, texture tilling and additional maps before checking basic model and texture prototype.

During your production how do you usually work with the assets? Do you manage to make all the assets unique? Interchangeable? How do these assets work within one scene and within different scenes? 

Bartłomiej Galas: We always create all assets from zero so all of them are always unique. We start from collecting inspiring photos, like views from our trips. Then we make photos directly for the assets, we choose what elements we would like to include and we focus on them. We design presentation scene with neutral basic light, it’s very important because we want to create assets which will fit any kind of scene and lighting. PBR idea is to fit any environment, we always should have this in mind. When all assets are ready, we adjust light to screens, scene and video. Here is an example, PBR Graveyard (Unity) or Graveyard and Nature Set (Unreal). You could see at the image below our packs with different lighting and rendering.

Снимок экрана 2016-08-22 в 18.22.15

How did you work on the materials? It’s very interesting how do you manage to work with high-quality materials, which look so organic in the 3d space? What’s your take on producing natural environments? Is there some kind of trick with them?

Tomasz Ochalik: It’s very important to gather big base of photos of each encountered object, terrain. In our base we have few thousands of photos which are very high resolution. I bring photos from each trip. It’s good to have good camera matrix with over 16MP and APS-C type. Good lens is also important, we use Samsung NX3000, it’s small and it creates 20mp photos. Most met people don’t understand why we take photos of trees, grass or old wall, so they are asking and wondering what the hell we are doing with this camera.

Снимок экрана 2016-08-22 в 18.22.30

Sometimes it’s very hard to get good photo, for example ceramic church roof, there is no chance to take direct photo of this. In this case we use ZBrush and Substance Painter. With these tools you could simulate natural old roof’s shape and its stains from rains, dirt and erosion. Instead of using photos or building material in tools, it is very important to catch natural changes that overlap in nature and how they affect out material.

Снимок экрана 2016-08-22 в 18.22.39

So dirt, stains, moss are interesting, not the synthetic, symmetrical and ideal material. The more we could simulate imperfections the better and more natural it looks.

Снимок экрана 2016-08-22 в 18.22.49

As an example these plants in our pack have been generated as 3d models, without photos. As we want to kill synthetic effect we use Substance Painter on their leaves. We add acid rains effects, dirts etc. After color corrections we add manually chromatic aberration effect in adobe photoshop. Paradoxically this effect is undesirable in photos it’s a sign of bad optic.

Bartlomiej Galas: In our materials, in most cases we use vertex paint. It really helps in breaking the monotony of the scene. Good moss and dirt are always helpful. We can accentuate some places, light access, humidity and much more.

Can you tell us about the general size of the pack that you are providing? What does the user find inside when he finally purchases the product?

Bartłomiej Galas: It depends, from asset. We try to give our customers big range of possibilities .

When we talk about our Graveyard it’s about 3,5GB, as we mentioned pack contains 128 prefabs, 225 textures, 152 models. We call this Pack PBR Graveyard and Nature Set because pack also contains nature assets like bushes, trees, ground/landscape textures, moss, detail maps. Our materials often use detail maps and vertex paint to keep them natural. We left some alternative additional textures which are not connected to materials at the beginning. They are useful to create few variants of the same model.

If we will take a look at our Landscape Ground Pack and Winter Ground Pack we give 50-100 textures with 15-21 tesseled materials. For unreal engine we also added easy, fast and adjustable tesseled landscape material with 4-8 layers. It could be even expanded to 16 layers, you simply have to copy and paste few functions.

We also have trees for unity, they were made by unity tree creator. We carefully prepared textures which are 2048×2048. This creator is not really advanced but we created 44 trees models, with 9 different barks and 8 different leaves types so all these give us 3168 combinations. You could easily change bark and leaves type and make your own tree variant.

We always optimized all materials and for bigger objects, we create billboard as last LOD. We include source files so you could modify content. In most packs we included scene that we used for presentation. If element of the scene is for example free on store or is a third party asset we put a placeholder there with info how to reproduce effect from the screen.

What tools would you recommend for people working with environment design? What licenses do you believe present the biggest value for the 3d artist?

Tomasz Ochalik: From our perspective tools selection is an individual developer’s preference, and his habits. It’s hard to tell what is best, each artist sooner or later builds his comfortable workshop. It’s good to take a look sometimes on news from this area and refresh hammers and keys. Our PBR Graveyard models have been sculpted in ZBrush but painting have been finished in Substance Painter 2, which in my opinion is revolutionary and it gives best effects. Workflow at Substance Painter 2 is very fast because it generates albedo, normal, specular, metalic, AO maps. Sometimes we use Quixel and NDO2, mainly for normals that are created from photos. NDO module has very powerful options which result in good normal maps.

Why do you think developers show such interest in game-ready assets? Why don’t they want to build them themselves and instead use stuff you can buy in the store? What’s the advantage of this?

Bartłomiej Galas: Everything is about time and money. To build such assets you have to spent few months or even half a year or few years. Nobody wants to spent so much time on one system or group of models. Developers want to make games instead of fighting with the streaming ideas, engine limitations or catching photos for good environment. In some earth regions it’s almost impossible to get sources without a foreign trip. As an example: it will be hard to get desert source at Europe, or green moderate forest at Africa. It’s not only about photos but sometimes it goes about feeling the place. So game-ready assets are not only sources and assets but sometimes something more like: proper climate, feeling. Summing up developers could easy build what they want and focus on gameplay, not the feeling, source data and technical problems. They don’t have to spend money on travels to get sources for their assets. Game-ready assets probably are more popular at smaller teams, indies or freelancers. They don’t have so much time and money to hire experts in some areas like environment or memory management. In big studios as we probably see, they often refresh old assets and sources that they have from previous. Indie studios in most cases don’t have so big source library and they buy assets much more often. People often say this is unbecoming but for a big group of developers it is the only way to create game of their dreams or simply good looking game without huge budget and team.

Bartłomiej Galas, owner, system designer and level designer at NatureManufacture

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