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We’ve talked with Rogelio Delgado (Monolith Productions) about his approach to environment design, optimisation and PBR. Rogelio graduated only 4 years ago, but he had already helped to build such games as Destiny The Taken King, Infinite Crisis & The Secret World.
Greetings! My name is Rogelio Delgado and I am a 3D World Artist. I graduated from Full Sail University in February of 2012 with my Bachelors in Game Art. Since then I have been a Lead Instructor at iD Tech Camps, Have gotten a Disney credit working on The Little Mermaid 3D, and have had game jobs at Turbine, Funcom, Bungie, and now Monolith Productions. As a World Artist I help create environment models, create textures and materials, help to set dress and world build, as well as a whole bevy of tasks included with being an Environment Artist like blocking out/Grayboxing, Architecting, Level Finishing/Polish, and Lighting. My roles were slightly different at each game company but I am happy to do whatever it takes to usher a game through production. There is a lot that goes into creating an environment from start to finish and helping wherever you can goes a long way!
Creating a working level in a game is a collaborative process between the Artist architecting the space and the designer designing the space (as well as many other things to take into consideration, but I’ll focus on this aspect). Through this process there are many things to take into consideration. Naturally, some things are more important to the artist and others more important to the designer. It is essential to find the right balance between well designed and pretty art- which is sometimes easier said than done. When a designer blocks out a space, it is essential that the artist take those specifications to heart. It is very easy for an Artist to get too eager and want to make the level so pretty that they completely ignore the design specification of the level, or the design “footprint”. Depending on the type of game you are creating, this design footprint can literally make or break your level.
Logic of the Environment Design
Creating a cohesive langue in your environment is very important. One of the most important obstacles when creating a game environment is creating proper “shape langue” that is consistent throughout your game or project. “Shape Langue” can refer to a few different ideals, but in this case “Shape Langue” refers to the idea that all objects break down into a few different basic forms, and these basic forms help to tell story and convey the mood of your environment. On the one hand, too much clutter and noise can confuse the player and stifle progress. But on the other hand, not enough things in your environment can make it barren and lifeless. It is all about striking a proper balance and providing enough “tells” to the player that they feel immersed yet are not overwhelmed. All of this plays into the theme of Environment creation and is a huge part of the job.
I have a very high opinion of PBR. PBR really has changed the way we build Environments in both realistic and stylized formats. There is really no extra work that goes into making PBR materials; it is more about nailing the theory behind it and really understanding all of the key methods and ideology. Authoring content for PBR really is about as easy as it was for Diffuse/Specular/Normal workflows but now you are getting the benefit of physically correct values. Because of PBR, workflows for a lot of studios have been improved in the sense that instead of materials being specific to the level you are creating (and lighting conditions) now materials can span entire games/worlds and look correct *if* authored correctly. This is a huge boon to game development because not only does it look better out of the box, the amount of reuse you can do is almost unlimited. This is further expanded upon by having a pipeline that supports Material layering as there is a reduction in the amount of draw calls per model when you use a material layering workflow. The biggest issues I see with PBR are usually with the artists who don’t understand it fully or make common mistakes like baking AO and lighting information into their Albedo, using mid-gray values in their Metalness map, etc. There are exceptions to every rule to be certain; but you first have to understand what those rules are doing before you can properly bend them.
Optimization is something that is not an easy topic to broach. I generally find that proper texture packing can really cut down on memory footprint. Utilizing model instancing when possible always helps as well as material instancing. Just generally keeping an eye on your polygon counts help; but with that said, geometry these days is fairly cheap. Nothing ruins the immersion for me in an environment like faceting of rounded objects or hard edges. Optimization is great, especially in a game project, but when creating portfolio art, I personally think it is okay to take a few more liberties with geo. Focus on making your art pretty first; then you can optimize.
Lighting for me is a very important topic. No other task you will do in your environment will have a single bigger outcome on the final quality than lighting. Pixel for Pixel, lighting can be the biggest “bang for your buck” in your whole project. I generally like to approach lighting in different passes. Using UE4 as an example, First, I set up the infrastructure of my lighting. This means getting in your world Post Process Volume (set to unbounded), Your lightmass Importance Volume, Base Box Reflection Capture, Your Skylight, and Fog. Once I have those in there, I get my scene to look pitch black. From black, I like to get my base black ambient levels going using my skylight as well as lock my exposure settings to preference. On top of that I’ll add my Sun Directional light if exterior. Then I will decide which areas will get local lighting (Point/Spot lights). Once all of that is tuned, I then can start to play around with the settings on my Post Process Volume. The last step is to create a Color Look-Up Table (LUT) which can be hugely impactful to the way your scene looks.
Color and Lighting as I mentioned is extremely important in how your Environment is perceived. Different colors evoke different moods and feelings. It is extremely important to always be mindful of the color of your lights, the intensity of them, as well as the dark areas of your environment. Color and lighting can be key in framing important parts of your scene, making less important areas fall away, or just be key in making sure the hard work you put into your scene is seen. The two biggest mistakes I see in game art lighting is Fully lit environments that have 0 contrast and make the environment feel flat and boring. The other huge mistake I see is Environments that are incredibly dark to the point where you can’t see anything. Getting a good amount of contrast while still having your work be seen is the perfect medium in my opinion. Of course there are exceptions to the rule but generally I think those are good guidelines to follow.