Ognyan Zahariev and Georgi Gavanozov from Ubisoft Sofia talked about the function of light in The Division and ways to achieve realistic lighting in games.
Celebrating the release of the Survival Expansion for Tom Clancy’s The Division, we’ve decided to talk to the team of 3d artists, who are working on one of the most iconic elements of this project – light! Ognyan Zahariev and Georgi Gavanozov from Ubisoft Sofia talked about the function of light in The Division and ways to achieve realistic lighting in games.
OZ: My name is Ognyan Zahariev and I am a senior lighting artist at Ubisoft Sofia. My career started with freelancing and working for small studios. Then I studied Game Art at Escape Studios in London and after finishing that course I started work at Codemasters where I had the chance to work on Operation Flashpoint: Red River, Dirt Showdown, Grid, and others. I decided to go back to Bulgaria and started working at Ubisoft Sofia where I had the chance to work on Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and Tom Clancy’s The Division.
GG: My name is Georgi Gavanozov and I am a senior lighting artist at Ubisoft Sofia. I’ve studied Stage Design where I was first introduced to 3D software. In 2006 I entered the film industry and gained experience in 3D Art, specializing in modeling, texturing, animation, and rendering. My portfolio includes more than 20 movies including Conan the Barbarian and Expendables 2. Technology innovations in the area of real-time rendering inspired me to start exploring the new AAA gaming titles, and later to join the forces of the video games industry. Right now I’m part of the team of Ubisoft Sofia studio where I’ve worked on several game titles of the world-renowned franchises Assassin’s Creed and Tom Clancy’s video game series.
OZ: Light has always been a key component in every form of visual entertainment, and games are not an exception. I feel privileged to work in the industry at this point in time as the development in both hardware and software gives us much more freedom to unleash our imagination as artists and achieve more believable results. We can rely on different forms of Global Illumination solutions, improvements in materials behavior, with the introduction of PBR, and many other rendering related advancements.
The core idea and function of lighting in video games hasn’t really changed. Its two main aspects – gameplay and aesthetics, remain pretty much the same but the rendering quality has definitely made significant progress over the last years.
GG: In spite of the advancements in rendering, we notice growth in players’ high demands of general aesthetics and lighting in particular. This could be due to the fact that lighting has become one of the main tools for affecting the player which makes our job even more complex in terms of artistic and technical skills.
OZ: Urban environments often require a lot of attention to local lighting especially during the night and in interiors if they are accessible. With natural exterior environments the key component is a good setup of the sun/moon directional light, indirect lighting, fog, sky, and finally post process settings. All of these are just as important in an urban setting but as I mentioned, there is the added workload of local lighting details. This workload is optimized by setting up a wide variety of lighting props that work under different conditions. Many of these can be distributed by level designers and environment artists while they’re working on a specific area or they are integrated in a group of props which has its own variety of lighting setups to choose from.
GG: Urban environments give us the opportunity to tell stories through light. We need to convince the player that all the light props were once placed, moved, damaged or even destroyed by people or events that occurred in the game world.
In addition I’d say that the job of a lighting artist is to add that final touch to a scene, define the targeted composition by adding, removing, and tweaking light props.
Less is More
OZ: I do believe in simplicity when it comes to composition. In many cases the “less is more” statement is true both in terms of aesthetics and performance. Lighting shouldn’t turn into a distraction (except in rare gameplay related occasions), and it should simply enhance both the environment and the characters. It should help to show the player key areas and paths in the game world, and create a joyful experience both in terms of gameplay and visuals.
GG: Less lights – definitely yes, less light – no. I always try to keep things simple while working on a scene. Less light sources usually work better both in terms of composition and player orientation. A high number of lights usually creates visual noise and low quality lighting.
OZ: With the introduction of PBR, working with materials and light has become even more exciting. As lighting artists we should always take into consideration the roughness qualities of materials in the scene and make the most out of them. Often times the best way to bring out the relief or even silhouette of an object or a scene is through the specular value of surfaces.
GG: Reflective surfaces look much more appealing when they are lit properly and I take advantage of this by using light props with big emissive surfaces such as neon signs, vending machines, fire, etc. Normally I limit the direct lighting on the reflective surface and leave it fairly dark in order to get contrast in the reflection.
A good example is one underground corridor. Here I left the scene fairly dark and in order to allow the strong reflections to define the silhouettes and details on the floor and the ceiling.
Guiding The Player
OZ: Certain lighting conditions often cause a specific reaction in people both in game and in the real world. Generally artists should strive to direct the player’s attention in the most subtle way possible as most people don’t enjoy being led by the nose. For example colder tones could create a sense of urgency especially when combined with darkness and contrast. The more we take advantage of these instincts built into our DNA as humans, the more immersive a game world becomes, without relying on a player’s experience or some sort of tutorials and color coding. All we need to do is mimic these real world conditions, adapt them to the gameplay and tap into the player’s emotions. With all that said there are projects that rely on obvious color coding which is part of their art style and that is ok too. It all depends on the level of immersion and believability a specific game is going for.
GG: When it comes to guiding the player I have three basic rules – contrast, color coding and direction. Through contrast I guide the player’s attention in the direction of the light sources. I use color coding in order to provide information about the place and the events that might occur.
In order to guide the player in the direction of a certain event, I normally use strong light sources with well-defined focus and sharp shadows. I often combine these with light props that have bright emissive and elongated shape like luminescent lights.
OZ: The dependency between fog and light is built into the engine, and lighting artists control different parameters of this interaction. We can manipulate the way sunlight scatters through the atmosphere, the impact cloud cover has on direct and indirect lighting and so on. We could also decide whether or not a dynamic light has any influence on the fog which is a powerful tool for putting an emphasis on light’s direction. The behavior of particle effects such as smoke, dust, etc. is defined in their shaders. This can ensure consistency of the visuals under different lighting conditions.
My advice is to always start simple and nail the basics first. Make sure that the light intensities are correct, your fog settings are good and basically get all the essential ingredients right, before you delve into polishing and details such as color grading, for example. This is a rule that applies to art in general and it is a great timesaver which inevitably leads to more solid results.
OZ: Begin with a solid foundation and then use it as a starting point for experimentation and polish. Observe your real world environment every day and look for inspiration and reference every time you get a chance. Strive to achieve variety in your lighting work and stray away from clichés whenever possible.
Light is what fuses all the elements of a game world together, so put as much effort as possible into achieving a result that enhances the efforts that went into the rest of the art and gameplay ingredients. Tap into your own experiences and do your best to make the players live through the emotions and mood you projected into the game world.
GG: Lighting is a key part of the vision of a game so it requires solid planning and efficient approach. My advice to developers is to start building the lighting from the beginning of the project without going overboard in terms of polishing. Mess around with colors and contrast but keep the color palette simple. Add more lights and details at the end.