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Scott Homer from Epic Games wrote a detailed tutorial on the production of small assets for online battle game Paragon.
My name is Scott Homer, I’m a video games artist from the UK. I’m currently working as an environment artist at Epic Games in Raleigh, North Carolina. I’ve worked in the AAA games industry for the past 6 years since finishing my bachelors in ‘3D Games Art’ at the University of Hertfordshire. During my career I have contributed to several AAA titles including the Crysis series, Homefront: The Revolution, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Paragon and Robo Recall. You can see my full portfolio here.
I began my career as a Junior Artist at Crytek UK in early 2011 working on the Crysis franchise. Over the course of almost 4 years I worked my way up to a Senior Artist role amongst a team of incredibly talented artists, many of whom are now scattered around the games industry. After leaving Crytek I worked as a freelance artist for a short period whilst I waited for my US work visa to be approved. After an agonising wait I finally made the transatlantic move to work for the industry leading developer ‘Epic Games’ on the (at that time unannounced) MOBA game ‘Paragon’. Two and a half years later I’m still a proud member of the Epic Games family and i’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Paragon team grow from a small core group to a fully fledged development team.
Paragon originally shipped with a single arena map known as ‘Agora’ (now called ‘Legacy’), it is composed of two expansive citadel s that face each other with ruins of a past civilization scattered between them. Players battle from each side meeting in the middle and try to push the opposing team back to their base and take their core to win the fight. Much of this map was comprised of collapsing structures and beautiful astrological carvings taken from sheer rock cliffs, in this tutorial I will explain the techniques we employed to create these structures.
Let’s get started!
To start out, we ensured each asset had a blockout, which then formed the basis of a basemesh. For this example I started with a simple subdivided block and then deformed it to the general shape I wanted to work with. To achieve this I simply used (inside 3ds max) an ‘FFD modifier’ and a ‘Bend Modifier’ to get the shape to where it needed to be.
Astrolabes formed a large part of the art direction for Agora, we used these ‘cigils’ to add high frequency details to areas that needed that extra pop and give the level that mystical feel that Paragon has become known for. Kevin Johnstone, Pat Jones and myself all created our own astrolabes and runic patterns, usually starting out with simple splines laid out in 3Ds Max which were then deformed to fit with our shapes. Below is an astrolabe I quickly designed as an example using circles and lines. On the far right is one of the final sculpts I made for Agora that started out with this same technique.
Scoring these into our mesh..
In this case I initially built my basemesh straight, so I decided to combine my astrolabes with the basemesh and then deform everything together so I could be sure that my astrolabe splines would align perfectly. Below you can see how i’ve taken these splines and subtracted them from my basemesh using Zbrush’s fantastic subtractive dynamesh feature (a tutorial for this technique can be seen here) .The first example shows the initial, thinnest and deepest astrolabe boolean and the result of this operation to the right of it. The third example shows a much shallower, wider boolean subtracted again, which resulted in a much more interesting double-stepped relief in my ZBrush mesh.
Rock and roll…
Next I created a base rock mesh to use in the process of creating this highpoly. I have a tonne of these; some that I made and also some others that fellow Epic Artist R ick Kohler made. Below you can see an example of one of the rocks I created and then used to build this highpoly. The basic principle for creating this was simple: I started out with a box and randomly sliced and diced it with the ‘Clay Tubes’ and ‘Trim Smooth Border’ brushes in Zbrush. The more random this looks the better, nature rarely grows with patterns and this is a dead giveaway that something is manmade.
Once I managed to get a nice organic shape I began to combine these together into various shapes by pushing and pulling them around, rotating my meshes and slicing away areas to create flat spots. I occasionally dynamesh these together to merge everything and then begin the process again. The goal here was not to create an interesting stand-alone rock, but to create something that has a nice interesting silhouette with a good balance of details and destruction.
Combining these together…
At this point I had my bash mesh and my rock mesh, it was time to combine these together to start forming the base rock structure. First I took the rock mesh and began to twist and rotate it to fit loosely with the basemesh, I duplicated this 10-15 times to get the look and feel I was going for. The far left image shows just how messy this is. Next I used to clipping tool to slice away the excess geometry, dynameshing each piece to prevent getting any artifacts. I removed as much as I could (crudely) and then began using the Clay Tubes brush to remove material from the basemesh, exposing areas of rock and changing the silhouette to make it look more interesting. I then went back over the rock meshes removing any excess geometry that was obscuring the astrolabe design.
Working into the design..
From here I began working into the basemesh, exposing more areas of interest and cleaning up the edges to ensure that I had a nice, soft blend between the rock meshes and the base mesh. To do this I used the Clay-tubes brush to dig away at the edges and lightly damage places in the transition that were feeling too smooth. I then wore away areas lower down the mesh to expose more rock damage and give a better overall silhouette.
Here is the final high poly for this mesh. At this point I had spent a couple of hours adding small details that bring together the mesh together, such as edge wear and cracks. These details helped the piece feel ancient and worn, whilst giving it a sense of scale. Finally I combined the mesh together and ran some very subtle surface noise over the whole piece to make it feel cohesive and unified.
I won’t go into the lowpoly too much, but some lessons I learned over the making of Agora are as follows:
- When creating the low poly mesh, decimation master is your friend, but make sure you’ve dynameshed your highpoly to prevent horrific rats-nests in your low.
- Don’t be scared to take this lowpoly mesh back into max and push and pull verts around to tidy it up.
- Face-weighted normals or double edges (see image) will prevent banding and gradients in your normal maps on flat faces.
- Due to the way we used shaders in Agora (optimized to hit our 60fps goal), it was key to keep our UVs to as few islands as possible. This ensures that our shader’s tiling textures have a minimal amount of breaks.
- Each UV island needs to have a separate smoothing group (baking normal maps 101)
And we’re done!
Here is my lowpoly model, baked and textured in Substance Painter, rendered in Unreal Engine 4. As you can see the mesh now feels like it’s composed of one consistent element rather than being the combination of several.
Myself and the team here at Epic are working hard to bring the new and improved map named ‘Monolith’ to Paragon players, with the goal to create something even better and more visually striking than Agora. Paragon is free to play, constantly updated and bigger and better than ever before. Find out more by visiting the official website!
Thanks for reading! Scott.