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Tobias Koepp did a breakdown of his stylized real-time environment. Here’s the full description of the asset production workflow, material design, and lighting setups.
I was very interested in diving a bit deeper into Substance Painter and applying it to an environment. I have worked with it before but only to create single assets, most of them more on the realistic side. As I do more stylised work in my free time, I wanted to see how I can implement PBR texturing into my environment workflow. I have some folders full of pictures and concept art of environments I really love and found this concept art by Florian Dreyer and used it as a base of what I wanted to do. I really liked the desert temple setting and wanted to create something similar.
When I was looking for style reference the first thing that came to my head was the “Sky Temple” map from Heroes of the storm, which has a really strong colour scheme and overall a great shape language. I was looking at the work of Michael Vicente and tried to come close to their sculpting style. To practice I tried sculpting a few pieces that are very similar and then applied what I learned to the rest of the environment.
I always collect a lot of reference from video games, great artists and real places. I think it is important even for stylized work to look at examples from real life. It helps you create a more believable world. I started by staying very close to the original concept and always try to have something in engine as soon as possible as it helps me fix any proportion errors early on. That is also a good time to figure out what kind of camera you are going to use. I know I was going to create a flythrough video for this, so I am building the environment more with a FPS view in mind.
My blockout is never set in stone and will go through a lot of iterations but it helps me visualizing the space early on and if you compare it to the final scene you can still recognize it.
Peculiarities of Heroes of The Storm
I think the main peculiarity for the assets of their game is that they need to read very well from a top-down camera angle. Also the distance from the camera doesn’t require a lot of small detail as it would only read as noise. Also the assets are very tapered so that they read nicely from that camera angle. Most of this doesn’t really apply to my environment as it has a different camera angle in mind but I still applied some of that style into this work. The blue accent color is inspired by the red vs. blue aspect of the game and the whole layout of the environment could be interpreted as the starting point of the team with the 3 lanes leading into the desert. My main intention was to create a peaceful oasis that has been abandoned by an excavation team.
To achieve a similar soft mesh style for my assets I tried to only sculpt large details onto my objects. I sometimes get lost into detailing an asset for a long time which slows down my sculpting process and can’t even be seen in the final game ready model. So this was a good practice, less is more sometimes.
I worked with Substance Painter before so I knew the basics of how to create simple realistic models but really wanted to try and see how it fits into my environment pipeline. Most of my assets in this environment are made of the same stone material so I wanted to find a way to save time on texturing these. Substance painter is very procedural and after finding the right settings and materials for my assets, I can just apply them to every piece. I do the work once and let the program do the rest for me. Before I would go into other programs and paint in my dirt and details manually because I didn’t want to lose control over them. With this project, I wanted to find a way to stay in control but also be faster.
The setup itself isn’t even that complicated. A tweaked concrete material combined with a few edge modificators to get some highlights and cavities and a layer for the blue paint that I can apply manually usually does the job for most assets.
This environment is mostly rock and sand which have a similar colour, so the biggest challenge here was to make the world look consistent but also have the architecture stand out from the sand which is hard when the materials are very similar. Some accent colours like the blue paint and green vegetation help break up the colour scheme.
Getting the stylized look mostly comes from the sculpting in this case, because most texture information like edge and cavity details come from the normal map information.
The scenes I create are usually quite big, so I try to keep my assets very modular while trying to have the scene not look too modular at all.
These are all my assets I have created for this scene and mostly these are just different sized blocks of sandstone. Some areas require bigger blocks and you can only scale up the small ones so much until the resolution gets bad. Some assets are unique and only get placed once while others are placed hundreds of times. I also like to assemble my assets in Unreal because I can experiment right in the scene and see what works. A few wooden planks create a wooden walkway.
A few stone blocks and plates create a temple wall. I just create a few variations of it with the base assets I have so you don’t see them repeating.
I like working that way because it gives you the freedom to create new assets from what you already have instead of having to create new ones from scratch which takes far more time.
The lighting went through a similar amount of iterations as the environment. From the start I wanted the place to feel hot and bright, like an actual desert with blue clear skies. But I also experimented with other settings over time and worked my way to the final lighting.
I started out with a very flat lighting that was way too foggy for the time of day. It helps to set up the lighting as soon as you have something in engine so you can play around with the mood of the scene.
I sticked to the foggy setting for quite a while because I liked the early morning kind of mood. I wasn’t very happy with the readability of the scene though as everything in the distance got really flat and the fog itself was way too strong.
Later in the project I had a look at some of the colour corrections and tested out some late day settings but that left the scene just look very red and yellow and lost all its contrast.
In the end I simplified my lighting a lot by just having a very strong sun light, a bright blue sky, and some slight bloom on the scene. Find reference images for the lighting you want to create as well, because it also takes a lot of work to get it where you want it to go and is a lot easier when you have something you can compare it to.