Gnomon’s game environment panel (L-R): Joy Lea, Helder Pinto and Martin Teichmann.
1. Focus on the key tools, but be aware of others
It sometimes seems that a new software package for games artists is released every month. But how do you decide which ones are essential to your workflow, and which are just distractions?
If you’re just starting, stick with the basics. It’s easy to get a bunch of apps that do complex stuff you don’t even understand just yet. As you get more experienced, you’ll know when you need something else to help out.
For hard-surface modeling – the core skill for prop and environment work for games – that means an all-round 3D package for modeling (most AAA studios use Maya or 3ds Max, although often heavily modified with custom tools or scripts) and Photoshop for texture work.
Texture painting tool Substance Painter is now widely used at AAA game developers. Christophe Desse’s tutorials for The Gnomon Workshop provide a good introduction to the software.
As you gain experience, you can begin to broaden your toolset. Allegorithmic’s Substance tools (Substance Painter is a more conventional 3D texture-painting package, while Substance Designer uses a more technical node-based approach) are a good place to start.
I think Substance is the future of games texturing. A lot of studios have started using it, and it’s improving every day. There are also a bunch of great tutorials for it, like those done by my colleague Christophe Desse. (You can find Christophe’s free tutorials on his YouTube channel, and longer masterclasses through The Gnomon Workshop.)
Beyond that, it’s a question of what best suits your personal workflow. Among the newer tools, Joy Lea recommends Marvelous Designer as a quicker alternative to creating soft props like cushions than sculpting them by hand; and the Photoshop-compatible texturing toolset Quixel Suite for its library of ready-made real-world materials and advanced handling of layers.
I try everything once. Then it goes on a case-by-case basis. Once you’re in the trenches making games, you learn what helps you and when you’re just pressing pretty buttons.
It’s worth knowing what’s around [even if you don’t have time to try the software until a job calls for it]. For example, World Machine is great for creating landscapes. Of course, you don’t need to know about it if you never do a landscape, but if you do, it’s a really strong tool.
But remember: learning new software is only something you should do when you have already mastered the core skills.
No matter what programs you use, the quality of your portfolio comes down to your skill level and your eye for what is good and what is not.
Focus on developing your core skills, but be aware of new tools for when a job demands them. Joy Lea recommends Photoshop texturing add-on Quixel Suite as one to watch.
2. Don’t worry too much about game engines
Similarly, be aware of how game engines work, but don’t get hung up on the details. Different developers use different engines, some of them proprietary, so you aren’t expected to be an expert from day one.
However, you do need to understand in general terms how a game engine displays your models – in particular, the physically based shading and rendering (PBR) workflows becoming increasingly standard for AAA titles. Allegorithmic and Marmoset have good beginners’ guides.
When you do need to get up to speed with a specific engine for a particular job or project, trade on your existing knowledge. Game engines have node-based material systems, so the overall workflow should be familiar from node-based texturing tools.
It’s all very logical. Even if you know Maya’s Hypershade, you’re able to use Unreal Engine.
Helder Pinto advises breaking apart existing scenes created for the engine to see how things work.
It’s just math. Everything is connecting values. If you look at the syntax and replicate it in another engine, it’s going to work.
Break apart existing assets to see how game engines handle materials and shading. This UDK scene, Arbor Vitae, is available from Helder Pinto’s website.
3. Work on your key skills
Once you’re familiar with the core tools and workflows, you can think about building a portfolio. The links at the foot of this story have more advice on how to format your folio, but the most important thing is to focus on the core skills that developers need.
Really clean models and clean UVs are very important. You need to know where to put polygons and where to hold back.
But should those polygons be tris or quads? While some mobile games require artists to work with triangles, Lea recommends working in quads for console or desktop titles. “When the model is taken into the game engine, it converts it to tris anyway,” she points out.
And when you have to produce a lot of LODs [level of detail assets], it’s much easier to reduce the poly count of a quadded object than when you’re working with triangles.
Good materials are also important.
Now that everything is PBR, you need to show that you know what metalness is, that you’ve got the right smoothness, and so on. You need to show clean models with correct material definition.
One of Joy Lea’s own student models, created for Meni Tsirbas’s short film Exoids. Clean topology and clean UVs are essential in modeling portfolios.
4. Get the poly count of your models right
One question budding artists often ask is what the ‘correct’ poly count for a games model is. Sadly, there’s no definitive answer: the specifications of assets used in modern games vary between hardware platforms, and between game engines.
Every single game I’ve worked on was different. Some engines handle polys or textures better; others can’t show shadows at all.
Lea advises finding a model of the type you’re trying to create, from the type of game you’re hoping to work on, and replicating its poly count:
If you have to build something that hasn’t been created before [like a hero prop], aim higher, but use really clean geometry so that you can reduce the poly count later if necessary.
However, Helder Pinto warns that the poly count of most games assets is:
…usually way lower than you expect when you join the industry. Even nowadays, you can’t waste triangles. I have a rule that they have to support the silhouette [of a model], and that’s it. If there are triangles jumbled in the middle of an asset, get rid of them: it will look just the same, and it will perform much better.
An early paint-over for Helder Pinto’s Arbor Vitae scene. Painting over a screenshot of the 3D geometry is a good way to decide where to use color and detail within an environment.
5. Aim for balance when creating environments
If you’re creating environments rather than individual props, consistency of resolution between different models is also crucial.
Hero assets have to be higher resolution. If you have an asset that forms the center of a level, it’s worth spending a bit more. But otherwise, consistency is good. If you have really nice cups sitting on a table, but the room around them has to be low-detail because they eat up [the level’s geometry budget], you need to rethink.
The same applies to textures.
Consistency is more important than pure texture resolution. You don’t want a high-resolution wall with low-resolution plaster on top of it.
The need to balance detail also applies to the way that you distribute individual models around a scene.
It’s very easy for environments to become noisy; for there to be colors and details all over the place. You want fine details to be ‘pocketed’ in small areas around the level, leaving gameplay areas clean.
To find the balance, Martin Teichmann advises taking a step back – quite literally.
I like to take a screenshot of an environment and step back from the monitor, or really scale it down so I can only see the big details. If it looks good in the thumbnail, you did a good job. If you can’t tell what the scene is, if it looks weird or noisy, it needs another pass on the composition.
Helder Pinto also recommends painting over the screenshot in Photoshop as a quick way of working out what changes to make to the 3D scene.
If you’re stuck, particularly on a personal project, do a paint-over – or ask someone else to do one for you. If you create a thread on forums like Polycount and ask for advice, people will definitely help.