Planning – The Key to Environment Design
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Those animations look amazing!! Great job!

Very cool review of the making of Spellbreak. Would be even more cool to see some videos inside UE4 showing how they do a few very specific things unique to them.

This was so helpful for me. I'm hoping to adapt your tutorial to pull off something similar comparing modern satellite imagery with historical maps. No topo, so my steps should be simpler, but I'm a novice with Blender and you've really helped. Thanks!

Planning - The Key to Environment Design
13 July, 2017

3d artist Dave Miragliotta shared the way he creates bright real-time environments.


My name is Dave Miragliotta. I’m 33, and from Derry, New Hampshire. I live in Oxnard, California. I am currently an Artist at Zynga. I moved out to California in July of 2004 to go to school for Game Art and Design at The Art Institute of LA in Santa Monica. When I started school I actually wanted to be a character artist, but when I took an environment building class that was all it took to realize that I wanted to be an environment artist. Soon after I discovered that the game art department had a game production team called “Game Wizards”. This is where I really learned a lot. It taught me what it was like working in a team environment with deadlines to create a game.

We made mods with the Gears of War Unreal Engine. After I graduated, I interned as an environment artist at Pandemic Studios where I worked on a game called “The Saboteur”. It was a third person open world shooter. I worked at Pandemic from June to August of 2008 and then got my first full time game industry job later that year at Zindagi Games. I was at Zindagi as an artist for eight years. We worked on Playstation Move games for the PS3, and our biggest title was Sports Champions. We then moved to be more of a mobile game studio in 2013. We released our first mobile game called Crazy Kitchen for IOS and Android which was a pretty big success for us.


As an artist at Zindagi I was pretty much a generalist. Artists needed to be able to wear many hats. I modeled, textured, set dressed, lit environments, and did some light animation work. We were then acquired by Zynga in 2015. As an artist for Zynga I have been creating 2d/3d assets and implementing them in the Unity engine for various different games. Looking at my portfolio though you will see I am really more in to 3d modeling and creating environments. A lot of my portfolio pieces are personal projects.

Creating Environments with UE4

I actually like building single props just as much as building environments, but recently it has gone hand in hand. I’ve been trying not to build a random prop here and there, but make props that I can use in an upcoming environment. I love UE4. I would say that I decided to use Unreal because it has everything I could want in a game engine to build environments. I have experience using CryEngine and Unity, but I don’t feel like they have an advantage over UE4. Also they are always updating the engine with cool new features. I always look forward to what is in the next update.


I always start by getting reference pictures. Whether its concept art or a real life images. Once I have the reference I need, I start with a block out. Depending on the situation I will use Maya or Unreal BSP to layout the block out. I like to get the block out assets in UE4 for scale and then replace with final art later. For the final art I use a variety of software. I use Maya or 3ds Max for modeling, the Substance suite and Quixel for texturing, and Zbrush for high poly detail. Once I have the blockout, I usually start getting the first pass lighting in.


I always try to reuse assets where I can, unless there really needs to be a new asset created. Environments that I create today can actually come together pretty quick, because of the amount of assets that I have already made. I always look back at the other projects I’ve done to see if there is something I can reuse. Usually small things can be reused like wood boards, small crates, bricks, boxes, grass patches etc. I just feel that it would be re-inventing the wheel to always make a new wood board for every new environment that needed wood boards. Of course there are always exceptions. I would rather spend more time making hero props.


I usually try to have some kind of story conveyed in the environment. Having a good balance between foreground, middle, and background is key for sense of depth. I can’t really say that I have a hard rule for foreground elements. My “Camp” environment is an example where the sign in the foreground tells a story about what kind of camp it is. The sign says “We don’t warn we shoot”. It conveys the message that this camp is probably not friendly. The objects in the middle are the meat of the environment. The background objects in the “Camp” environment like the mountains, trees, and water tower. They give a sense that there is more outside of the Camp.


I’ve been really into Substance Designer lately. I’ve been trying to make a good library of materials I can use in my environments. I really like using the Substance plugin for UE4. It creates an instance material for you when you import your .sbar file from Substance Designer. The .sbar file from Designer is the archive package file that gets exported out for use in Painter and UE4. What is nice is that you can expose certain parameters in your Designer file that you can adjust in real time in the engine. For example, in my “Camp” environment. The material for the terrain is a grass material, but a parameter can be adjusted to clear some of the grass and expose some more dirt. Also the Substance materials I make in Designer can be imported for use in Substance Painter which is very useful. A lot of times the Painter materials are good enough, but sometimes you need a custom material. It really just depends on the asset.

Wear and Tear

Nowadays it is really important to put as much detail in your high poly as possible. This is because the maps that are baked out are heavily used for the texturing process in Painter or Designer. I use Substance Painter almost always for baking. I have used Marmoset Toolbag 3 as well. After you bake out your maps from your high to your low poly mesh you can use the generators in Substance Painter to create some really cool wear and tear. For example they have a metal wear generator that takes in account a variety of maps to figure out where the wear and tear should go.

This is just the base, I always go back in and add my own wear and tear on top of what the generator provides. Whats nice is that if your going to stamp in some extra normal detail in Painter there is a damage filter that will add in the wear automatically as you put in the new detail. The wear and tear on an object can definitely tell a story in your environments. That is the fun part about creating assets for environments. When making assets Im always thinking where its going to be and how it is being used in the environment. Pretty much everything in the real world has some kind of wear and tear. Although having wear and tear in the right places is very important. That is why its good to have that base that the generator gives you from your baked maps.


Building lighting in UE4 is pretty straight forward, but its the settings on your static meshes and your BSP that really matter. The lightmap resolution is a setting where you have to be careful to not set too high. For most static meshes I set the resolution to 64 or 128. For bigger props I might set to 256 or higher. If you have a lot of assets with high resolutions your lighting build time will take longer. Also I always use the preview setting when building lighting in the beginning. I will switch to the production setting towards the end of the project to get to better quality for final renders. For the lighting itself I start with the directional light and get it to a position I like. Then I add a skylight and some fill lights where needed. If there are windows in the scene I will use a spot light with a wide angle and no cast shadows shining through the windows. This combined with the directional light and skylight usually give a cool bounced lighting look. Also I mess with the indirect lighting intensity of the lights as well to get the look I want.

The Most Important Elements

Overall I think environment production comes down to good planning before you start. Planning what assets need to be made is key. The more modular pieces you can make the better. Also once you’ve made a few environments you will have some smaller assets that you can probably reuse in other projects. It will allow more time to spend on hero props or set pieces. Telling some kind of story and adding depth to the scene is important. I think that the combination of story, lighting, and composition are things that make an environment shine.

Dave Miragliotta, Artist at Zynga

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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