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Great breakdown of the process and optimization, thanks for sharing.
Cem Tezcan showed how he used modern 3d tools to build an environment from one of the older parts of The Elder Scrolls series.
I’m Cem Tezcan from Turkey and I’m a technical designer working as a freelancer on creating bridge between technical design and artistic visualization.
Actually my background is a bit of complicated. I studied Statistics up to masters degree, but in parallel, I worked for 10 years in a company by creating steel construction designs of GSM towers. It was a opportunity to advance on CAD modeling and technical drafting for me. After I left the department manager position, I go freelance to advance the skills that I wanted to. For 3 years, I’m freelancing on plastics molding design of electronic devices, parametric PBR material design, traditional and generative CAD modeling on product design. For binding up, studying statistics previously, helped me lot on understanding algorithmic, generative and parametric design approaches which have mathematical essence in them all.
Fantasy Role Playing games are the best part of video gaming industry for me. Bethesda Softworks released The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall in 1996 and it was a big hit on my high school years. It was very close to the tabletop FRP games we played, even better by combining first person gaming experience with realistic FRP elements and a huge world to travel in. I’ve played it for years.
After a while sequels come up, like Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim. They hit the market too with great success. For years I always wanted to create something similar to this game. At first, I decided to create a simple still life environment with several objects. But by modeling and texturing scene got complicated and bigger than what I have in mind.
I can say that I followed a hybrid workflow. I always wanted to start a scene by blocks and replace the items once they ready, but I couldn’t start as this approach. Main focus on this project was to mimic the objects in the low res illustrations of the game to catch people who played the Daggerfall before. And if objects don’t look like the same, project would have no meaning. So, I decided to model the objects first. After modeling half of them, I constructed the scene and placed the rest as they completed one by one.
I usually create my models on CAD softwares, like Solidworks, Rhinoceros or MoI. But on this project I decided to expand my workflows and tried to achieve my goals with unusual ways than I used to. Main idea on this scene was getting the result mostly with textures, not specific modeling or sculpting. So, I modeled less, textured lot on this one.
Main pipeline was like that: I modeled a basic geometry and make the object look complicated by advanced texturing. I created parametric PBR materials with Substance Designer to get geometric details by maps. SD saved so much time by using it to create stone wall, fireplace, melted candle wax, wicker and crystal materials instead of sculpting them in Zbrush or any other software.
After creating a parametric material, I applied that material on specific models in Substance Painter to get it varied.
Most of the accessories on the scene are simple models. I used lots of displacement maps and material IDs to variate the look on them. It is exactly the materials make them look detailed.
There is even a funny moment about this textured details. After modeling the dagger, I painted many ornament details on the guard part in Substance Painter. When I finished all the painting, I looked to the handle of the dagger and see that it has no geometric detail on it! Not even a grip geometry to generate occlusion or dirt.
Normally when this happens, I go back to Modo, add geometric the details by modeling, unwrap new UVs by not destroying the rest of the UVs because it is important for SP to transfer hand painted ornament paintings onto the new model. And texture again new set. Instead of this long recovery workflow, I tried to add leather stripes and wooden finish by layered materials with different masks onto the simple geometry using lots of anchor technology in Substance Painter and finally it resulted as an acceptable level of detail in half an hour without repeating or destroying the workflow.
First, I try to guess or assume what content artists referenced about that stuff back in game development days and second, I combine that guess with the imagination it triggered on me back in 90s. You know, old video games has lack of graphics quality in resolutions, polygon counts, textures and lighting. You see 4 x 4 pixels filled in your screen as a face of a person and you fill the pixels with micro pixels in your mind by imagination, like some kind of analogue filtering. You see a simple torch on a wall in a dungeon with a texture on but it doesn’t get you as it is. You feel the warmth radiated to your face (I hope it wasn’t the CRT anyway)
Most of the fill in the blanks type of generation in textures and models are realized that way. I consider myself successful on this approach actually on the fireplace and bottles.
Lighting the scene
Actually lighting was the easiest part of this work. I find it harder to generate fake reflections on reflective surfaces (like bottles) when there is nothing of an environment to reflect. So you need to create fake lights, fake environment images, complicated HDR lighting to rescue the scene from a studio look. But this scene has gone crazy as an half of the room is modeled in real. So, I didn’t need to cover blank or infinite horizons to get realistic reflections.
I distributed my torches and windows and whole reflections got very complicated by the rest of the room content (with fireplace and candles). I used additional point lights on torches for ideal tint on emitter color.
Candle lights are 3d models but material of them has a transparency channel reacts to camera angle for proper candle light visualization. Fireplace and torches create very nice warm light in the room and light from window creates a balance with it.
Most cases realism is related mostly with lighting quality of a render engine. But in my opinion, this scene’s realism is mostly related to how the render engine reacted to the PBR textures I created in Substance Painter and Designer.
These textures are handled very well by Octane Render which is an unbiased render engine. Octane Render creates amazing displacement reaction to the height maps I created in Substance Designer. And displaced geometry reacts all metallic roughness textures great by not losing any detail on deformation.
By combination of physically correct light computation and texture map-controlled specular and roughness, render engine created surprising results even for me. I couldn’t resist to explore the scene with a camera and create renders with different angles. It has no ending.
It took 25 days on calendar. I stopped the workout on most weekends and made 2 or 3 interruptions for commercial short works, but sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night or early in morning to paint or model assets. I suppose this was one of the projects I enjoyed the most while I’m working on.
Of course the biggest challenge was “when” to finish this project. I was aware that this will be a long run for a personal project, but cutting it early or stretching it long would affect the final quality of this project.
I believe in a balance between “mental energy” and “sense of fulfillment”. If I complete this kind of project earlier, I would have the energy but not fulfillment, and the otherwise I got fulfillment but lost all my energy for final touches. In both extreme scenarios, making final touches without fulfillment or energy is a possibility to ruin the project, it doesn’t matter how good we do in the middle phases of a project. I think I finished this work in the best possible timing and happy with the general result.
Cem Tezcan, Technical Designer.
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.