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Aleasha Ford, ex- Senior Environment Artist at Telltale, talked about her experience in developing stylized games, workflows, common mistakes and more.
I am Aleasha Ford, I have been an environment artist for about 8 years now. Gaming and art have always been a big part of my life, so it was an easy choice to make art for video games.
I went to college at Full Sail University and studied Game Art. Having a good foundation in traditional art helped me a lot with my skills as a 3D artist in college. My first job in the industry was as an entry-level environment artist at 38 Studios. That job taught me so much about art and collaboration. I am very fortunate to have worked there with so many great people.
I got to work on the unreleased Project Copernicus at 38, an MMO that had really great lore and amazing places to explore. I then worked at Trendy Entertainment for a few months on Dungeon Defenders 2. The next great project I got to be a part of was Wildstar at Carbine Studios. It was awesome working on a game that had so much personality and a fun art style. My most recent job was as a Senior Environment Artist at Telltale.
I started at Telltale February of 2015 as an Environment Artist and I was promoted to Senior this past year. The first project I worked on there was Minecraft Story Mode Season 1. Other projects I worked on were Walking Dead Season 3, Guardians of the Galaxy, Minecraft Story Mode Season 2 and Batman Season 2.
Environment artist can mean a variety of things. At Telltale I modeled, textured, set-dressed, and sometimes lit my environments. That includes the structural elements (buildings, walls, floors, etc.) and props for the scene. Sometimes I would work closely with design to make action scenes. They would pitch different ideas and I would mock up what we needed quickly so it could be tested. We would normally do a few iterations, it was a lot of fun and a good challenge at times.
Peculiarities of Developing Stylized Games
With the rise of PBR (Physically Based Rendering) I had to look at how to achieve certain looks a little differently. All your basic skills and art knowledge still apply, but it was a new way to look at making stylized games. After testing different techniques I really liked PBR. It can give you a lot more control over your material quality. Using Substance Painter made the switch to PBR a lot easier too. Being able to see all your texture channels working at once helps speed up the testing.
The biggest hurdle for making a stylized game is deciding what stylized means. The meaning of stylized could be anything except realistic. Having a strong foundation in what your art principles are is key. You have to ask yourself a lot of questions early in development. Are we pushing proportions? How much noise is too much on a texture? Etc. Once you have a good roadmap you have to stick to it, otherwise, it will not be cohesive.
My preferred modeling software is Maya, they have really improved a lot of UV tools. I like to bring most of my stuff into ZBrush. ZBrush has so many great features, even for hard surface modeling now. In ZBrush, I sculpt as much detail that is required for the art style I am doing then export out a high poly and low poly. I UV the low in Maya and bring it into Substance Painter. Substance Painter has really good high to low poly baking tools. I try to do a quick pass on all channels so I can test my first pass in the engine. For personal projects, I use the Unreal 4. From there I do a lot of iteration until I am happy with the product. Most engines today can handle a lot of polys, so now it’s more about making sure your edge flow and silhouette geo looks good.
Developing Game-Ready Assets: a Common Mistake
Not checking your object in the engine early can cause issues, or you won’t know about issues until late in your process. Your proportions might be off, there could be an issue with the geo rendering, it might not fit the style of other assets. A lot of issues can be avoided if you get your work into the engine early. That way you can work on it knowing how it looks and if it works in the engine.
I have been moving a lot of my pipeline into Substance Painter. That said, there are still things that Photoshop can do that Painter can’t. In a game that has a painterly look, you want to be able to see brush strokes in your texture. I like to have more control over the brush strokes so I will often use Photoshop to make my albedo map. I always use Painter for metal/roughness and baking high poly normals. Painter is such a powerful texturing tool since you can see all material channels working together.
Achieving a Comic Book Look
It can really help to study the comic book style you want to achieve. Are there a lot of hash marks? Do you notice anything unique about how they handle different material surfaces? It’s the number of hash marks and style of them that can really sell the piece. Adding lines to edges of material changes can really help sell the pieces and give them more depth. One thing to always remember when doing those black comic book lines is that sometimes less is more. They can be fun to add and it’s easy to get carried away.
The best way to check your asset is in the engine as I’ve mentioned before. Most engines now give you warnings if there is anything wrong with your object. Maya has a cleanup tool that can also help with finding any bad geometry and it’s good practice to use it. In a studio setting, it’s super easy to test your assets in the game without messing up since you use source control. If everything is broken, you just don’t check in your changes. If you’re doing a project at home without the comfort of source control you can always have a test scene and export your asset with the name Test. That way you are not overriding any of your work and it’s easy to delete once you have tested.
Advice for Learners
If you want to learn something – for example, game-specific modeling, – there are so many videos out there that can help a lot, even just watching a speed sculpt can give you new ideas. I try to watch new techniques all the time to keep my skills fresh and find new techniques. There are often many different ways to achieve the same end product. So don’t be afraid to experiment. Something I think people forget about is that you can often download free object packs for Unreal. This can be huge in helping you learn how to build objects for games. I like to deconstruct materials that way, it’s so helpful to be able to see it in engine working. Look at geometry edges, how they are placed, the density of it.
Once you have a basic understanding, doing an art challenge can teach you a lot. After I graduated I did a few and it helped me identify where I needed to improve my skills. I think some people might feel intimidated by this, but you shouldn’t. We all have to start somewhere. Often people cheer each other on, post in-progress work, and you can ask for help or advice. Finding a community to join and grow with can be invaluable.
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