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3d artist Thomas Meurisse discussed the creation of stylized low poly 3d environments for games.
First of all, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak here. Hello everybody, my name is Thomas Meurisse I’m a young environment artist from Belgium (You know the beers and chocolates?! Yeah you know). I graduated two years ago from ESIAJ and joined right after Rimlight Studios to work on the video game, Zheros, which was a great experience.
Back in Belgium, I’m now taking lessons in business management, while working on my side project which is a survival strategy game set in a cartoon world.
It all started last year when my brother and I were talking about the old times when we used to play Age of Empires series, and how much we love to play it and create different strategies. The discussion slowly shifted and we started talking about what we hoped to see as a new strategy game.
That’s how we started brainstorming for this project and started writing a game design-document . The game takes place in a wild environment where you will control a newborn tribe, trying to survive and protect it from all the deadly animals and the dangerous tribes living in the world.
As an artist, Unreal Engine 4 has always been my favorite engine, it’s very powerful, you can create astonishing graphics with ease, on par with the next gen AAA. It’s really amazing, it allows you to have a huge creative freedom. Lastly, I was amazed by what I was able to come up with, using the blueprint scripting tool and how easily I got my feet wet.
Talking about the project requirements, I really want the players to feel they are part of a whole living world, where their actions have actual repercussions in the gameplay instead of just visual feedbacks. For instance I’m working on a fully dynamic day and night cycle with weather elements influencing the player’s actions in the game. Imagine a huge blizzard preventing your characters from gathering resources, thunderstorms setting trees on fire, or a gigantic cataclysm killing all the nearby animals (making your tribe starve to death.)
As it started as a one man project, I carefully planned it to be human sized and put interesting constraints to avoid wasting time in unnecessary features, such as having too many different characters, buildings (which you see in many strategy games), animations. Fortunately, by now I have found some people interested in the project and willing to contribute. That’s definitely helping to shape the game.
I first started gathering inspirational resources, going to websites like ArtStation, Pinterest, and got some concept arts, real world images, game images, pretty much everything that gives me an idea or something that I could see fit in the scene. At that point I got a long list of assets to create. I then started planning and detailing all the assets features and how they will be used in the environment (the tris count, how they will be animated/ used, the textures size,…). Setting deadlines is also important to stay focused and motivated.
Once this had been done, I dove in my favorite modeling application. For this project, I mainly worked with Autodesk Maya for the modeling and animation part, some assets were sculpted in ZBrush (only for specific needs), I prefer to stay with sharp low poly edges and silhouettes.
For all the textures, I used Photoshop and 3D-Coat (as well as generated normal maps with xNormal plugin).
It’s a pretty standard workflow but it’s really efficient in that case. I modeled the trees keeping a low poly budget and using an alpha texture to create the leaves shapes. The trunk was separated in two for the dead animation purpose, where the tree have been chopped down, and the red vertex color was painted to be used as a mask, to hide the chopped part and let the stump visible. The green vertex color is used to move the tree leaves with the wind. The last part was doing a very simple rigging to create a falling animation as well as a shaking animation. Then the assets were sent to the Unreal Engine 4, and its material and blueprint were created: the tree is fully interactable.
After creating the tree’s blueprints, I realized I could not place them in my level using the UE4 Foliage Tool. So I started creating my own way of placing all my gameplay elements in my scene. At the moment, it works by using Blutility (running blueprint function inside the editor), and a simple blueprint that spawns the chosen actors on a landscape layer (using the given physics material). I use it to spawn my gold mine on rocky ground, my forest on grass, my dead tree on arid grass, etc. The possibilities are endless.
As you can see the spawning function is pretty simple: It casts box trace on the landscape, if it hits the right landscape physics material it will spawn an actor. In the end I wanted to have way more artistic and gameplay control of that function, by spawning actors at a certain distance from each other, or particular gameplay elements. In the end it will help me shape the world I want to create more easily, rather than manually placing all the gameplay elements.
For the water, I wanted something that was realistic enough while sticking to the colorful side of the game. In that particular case the water is so calm and clean that the fishes and the underwater plants can be seen. The white foam helps stick with the cartoon feel. The techniques used here are pretty basic : a translucent material with a wave normal map, some roughness and specular textures as well as setting certain parameters such as the water refraction index. I also used the distance field data with a flow map to create the dynamic white foam (which appears when the water and some assets intersect. With all these parameters I can tweak how the water looks like by increasing the wave speed/intensity, how much light is going through the water, etc. It’s a strong base to create different variations.
It’s important to find the right balance between quality, time and performance. There are so many ways to tweak and adjust the water that you could actually end up losing so much time trying to get “that perfect result”. Try to find a good balance between quality, time and performance.
The map features a rich environment with different biomes, for that purpose I had to use the landscape layer tool, which allowed me to paint a lot of different materials. All the materials were created independently using material function and blending them in one master material (using the material layer blend node) , in that way I was able to easily modify each material individually without impacting the other ones. Building the landscape with that manner helps a lot with the readability, the organisation and the reusability of the materials.
Well, all my textures and materials are pretty simple for the majority of the assets in the scene, except one or two materials which will need extra control in the shader. My materials are made of the four following conventional textures: albedo, roughness, specular and normal map. It does everything I need. The design technique I used for all my landscape textures is pretty elementary (cf. image), I start creating my texture map with a two colors cloud image and start blending layers with new details on top of the base one. I tend to keep my textures simple, and saturated to fit the mood of the environment : Flat color, simple and readable shape.All the normal maps are generated from a tweaked diffuse, to get some parts (like the rocks) to pop out of the rest.
Well there are no magic tricks, try to have in mind what your final result should be and adjust everything that you do with that idea in mind, for instance, know the camera angle you are aiming for, or the proximity of the camera to the ground will help you create your asset from a certain point of vue or distance and not loose time in barely noticeable details.
As you know I still have a lot to do with this project before completion, many assets you see here are still heavily in work in progress. If you like what I’m doing and want to support my project, feel free to comment, share and follow.
I’m currently selling some of this project assets on the unreal engine marketplace. Any purchase would be more than welcome to help me support financially the development fees of my upcoming work.