The Lost Temple of Nacon: Building a Modular Environment in UE4

The Lost Temple of Nacon: Building a Modular Environment in UE4

Victoria Zavhorodnia talked in detail about her first UE4 scene The Lost Temple of Nacon: modular architecture, background waterfalls, vegetation, work with colors, and more.

Introduction

Hello, my name is Victoria Zavhorodnia, I am 28 years old and I am a Level Artist from Kyiv, Ukraine. Games have always been my passion. My first game was Lineage II Chronicle 3 and that was love at first sight. I finished university with a master's degree in graphic design and thought that the video game creation process was something complicated and unreachable for me. I am also passionate about board games and Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying games, so I started creating my own adventures and games and somehow I began to work as a game designer.

When I wanted to apply for a game designer position at Artificial Core, they suggested that I tried to complete a test task for a level artist position. I tried it and realized that this profession was made just for me and level art was what I really liked. For the last 3 years, I have been working at Artificial Core on Corepunk and I also contributed to Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous at Owlcat Games. But half a year ago, I understood that I wanted to dive deeper into my profession and become an Environment Artist.

My story is about studying. To become an Environment Artist you need to know a lot of different stuff: sculpting, modeling, texturing, different engines, programs, etc. It is a huge amount of knowledge and it all works in tandem, so you can't learn everything step by step and need to study everything together.

At first, it scared me and I didn't know where to start. I decided to begin with learning Substance. I took a procedural texturing course made by Anton Ageev and XYZ School. While studying, I also started to learn Maya in the course Super Maya from VideoSmile and ZBrush in the free course Intro to ZBrush from XYZ School. This continued for 2 months until I felt that I was ready to learn Unreal Engine and create a game scene from scratch by myself. I found the course Game Location in Unreal Engine from Sergei Panin and Smirnov School and thought it was an ideal moment to try it.

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The Lost Temple of Nacon: Idea

Before I started working on The Lost Temple of Nacon I wanted to create an alien environment with a big valley and some houses. I found many interesting references, but after the first rough blockout, I felt that it was hard to design things on my own; even references didn't help. The second problem was that I've worked on a top-down project for the last 3 years. The first-person composition has other rules and it was hard to make everything look beautiful. So, I realized that I needed a main reference with well-established composition and design and not a very high level of details. I started searching on Pinterest and ArtStation and found Shusei Sasaya's concept art. I liked it so much – it reminded me of Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, Uncharted... that spirit of mystery, adventure, and beautiful wilderness.

Modeling the Temple

I divided the concept into parts: architecture, waterfalls, foliage, supporting elements, and FX. I didn't create a classic blockout inside UE4 because I had everything in the concept already. I visually separated the temple into parts and imagined how to turn the building into a modular constructor. The UE4 Mannequin model to scale the temple. Then, I started to create draft models of the temple parts in Maya and minimize their number. Initially, I had 36 details in the constructor but after revision, I removed 8 elements. I decided to design 4 unique sides of the square column and stick only to 2 versions of them – tall and small. I also didn't make any half-broken parts and other variations. The rotation of the columns helped create the feeling of something new because we can't see columns from all sides at once. For all the unimportant and repeatable parts like the arch under the main temple entrance, I decided to use simple geometry forms and sculpt a tiling old brick texture for them. After that, I changed their colors by tinting and tweaking the scale of the texture on different parts inside UE4. 

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The stairs were assembled from the biggest number of elements. I created a set of stone steps with size, length, and damage variations. This gave me a lot of freedom, so I created unique stairs everywhere, decorated unimportant parts to add volume to flat shapes, made broken ruins near the temple, etc. For the bridge, I used simple planes and added some bumps on them to add variation to the flat surface. I also found a Roman stone floor and some root assets on Megascans and used them to make the surface more interesting.

I didn't set a task to optimize everything as much as possible, so all modules of the constructor were created unique without using trim sheets, etc. I had only one goal: make the location beautiful.

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I couldn't identify the architectural style of the temple in the concept, so I improvised. I found wonderful references of the Mayan architectural ornaments and they inspired me so much that I decided to set my imagination free, create unique designs, and sculpt them by hand without using alphas. That was a good opportunity to practice my ZBrush skills, plus everything turned a little bit random and not straight creating a feeling that those elements were made by real people. Besides that, I added some damage to different sides of columns to create variety in their design. All ornaments on the roof parts were sculpted the same way. I also added a big amount of stone pores to all parts and made the sculpts a little bit noisy – this helped to make the stone look more expressive after texturing and create some aging effect.

Texturing the Modules

For texturing, I used Substance Painter. At first, I textured one column and exported it to UE4 to check the colors. For the main temple texture set, I didn't use any additional content. The base is a standard Dusty Concrete material. Then, I added different smart filters, created some color variations, and sharpened the texture a little. After that, I created my own smart material and added it to all modules. There were also some sky-blue parts that I paint in a chaotic way. I thought that it could be some cult building and during meditation, they painted the walls of the temple in god's colors. I wanted to add some handprints as well, but I abandoned this idea because such a small and insignificant detail was not readable at a distance due to the scale of the temple.

When all parts of the constructor were ready, I exported them to UE4 and rebuilt the main temple and bridge, making sure all proportions were good and parts matched perfectly. Then I built the side part of the temple, added some vines, a few trees, and water to the scene. But the space was still looking empty. I realized that I needed to add more stuff that wasn't shown in the concept, so I decided not to follow it strictly. As a result, the legend of the hero Nacon was invented.

Adding Story Elements

“The legend of the hero Nacon tells of the great calamity that befell the world. All the lands were densely covered with thick and huge vines, there were famine and death. And then Nacon came. He found the place where the vine sprouted and began to cut it at the very root. But the vine continued to grow, again and again. So Nacon sacrificed himself and locked himself in deep caves with the root of the vine. And again the earth saw the sunrise, and the new day brought the harvest, and people lived happily. And they built a temple to pay tribute to Nacon. But as time passed, the temple was forgotten, and the vine began to grow around the world again.”

This story gave me inspiration, and I started thinking about what I could add to this unique place. First, I thought it could be fire! All strange ruins need fire, it brings mystery and colors to the story...  but why and how the fire appeared in this empty place? Where and how to place it? I started thinking about some guards of the temple or Nacon statues. Eventually, I found a strange statue of an ancient god, recreated it, and put the fire on it. I also needed some middle-value objects on the bridge so... huge vines were the perfect decision.

For the statue, I first made a draft model in Maya, then exported it to ZBrush and started adding details to it. For all sculpting in this scene, I used the same brushes: Clay Buildup, Smooth, TrimAdaptive and TrimDynamic, OrbCracks, OrbRockNoise, DC RockPores, and StoneDamage by Igor Golovkov. In the end, I added my smart stone material to the statue and painted Charcoal smart material inside the hole in the statue's head because I needed to put fire there. Since I had two symmetrically placed statues near the entrance, I didn't want them to look the same, so I crashed the face of one statue by adding damage decals from Megascans.

Foliage

I enjoy working with foliage. I know that my temple was built in jungles, so I searched for some jungle references. I also used some plant assets from the following packs found on the UE4 Marketplace: "Meadow Flowers", "Banana Plants", "Ground Foliage" by Project Nature, and "Tropical Jungle Pack" by PolyAsset3D. Real nature has a huge variety of vegetation and I wanted to add that feeling to my scene. I also wanted to achieve the maximum variety of shades of green so that they worked as one. That's why I corrected the colors of the plant assets by adding tinting and playing with the Translucency parameter.

I could create my own foliage for this scene but I decide that it was not necessary because I already got all I needed from Megascans and the UE4 Marketplace. However, I couldn't find pretty vines anywhere and I decided to create them myself. At first, I made a blockout using root assets from Megascans to measure the scale and shapes. I realized that I could make them in a modular way and I needed only two parts – a thin end of the vine and its main root. I found a fantastic tutorial Creating Modular Trees for Games by Daniel Castillo and made my vines following it.

I played with the vine colors a lot, going for a green tint first. After a few iterations, however, I decided to stick to the color palette used in my architecture and gave vines a sepia tint. To add some accent in the scene with dominant sepia and green colors, I created flowers on the vines. I wanted them to be big and different from other foliage, so I sculpted them and made them thick and voluminous.

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At first, I had another shot composition in mind and water was an important part of it, so I added many details on and under it. I used BP_TranslucentWater from the UE4 Marketplace, the lilies and algae were taken from Megascans.

Adding big pink flowers was a good decision, but this accent was not enough and my mentor Sergei Paninadvised me to create little groups of red flowers. I liked this idea and decided to add tall pink flowers and small white flowers on the moss too. I also added some yellow bushes for a better color transition between the sepia architecture and green plants and they worked very well. The last touch was bright and very small groups of voluminous moss.

Background Waterfalls

The final part of the work was the background waterfalls. At first, I created a huge straight wall of rocks right behind the temple but it made the picture look flat. My mentor suggested that I should show more sky in the shot, so I deleted the background and made it from scratch, starting with the cubes to understand the flow of shapes. When I added the first waterfalls, the composition became much better. I downloaded a few Mossy Rock assets from Megascans and replaced cubes in the background, but the result still didn't look believable and I started searching for waterfall references. 

Free educational scenes in UE4 became a revelation to me. They have so much interesting and useful stuff that you can research and use in your projects. There I found fog BP sheets, waterfalls and other FX, birds, etc.

To create believable waterfalls I used 3 types of different waterfalls. In nature, all waterfalls become wider at the bottom, and I found that in one educational scene they created a mesh that repeated real-life waterfall shapes. Also, to add color variation, I changed the color and wave intensity of different waterfalls. In nature, we often see stones sticking out of the stream along the entire length of the waterfall, so I added those same to mine.

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To create an effect of a bigger distance between the temple and waterfalls, I used a second skysphere. To separate planes in the composition, I used a lot of fog sheets. As my main sky, I used “Matte Painting Skybox Pack” from the UE4 Marketplace.
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Lighting and Post-Process

The lightning had a considerable impact on the scene. I wanted to create a sunny environment but I had strange shadows on the bridge. I didn't want to turn off cast shadows for trees because I liked the shadows under them, so I added a lot of point lights on the bridge. Also, I added a point light above the water to make the water surface more interesting. I found interesting BP God Rays that I used twice near temples to fake sun rays.

For final color correction, I used Color Lookup Tables. I took a screenshot of my scene with merged default LUT and color-corrected it in Photoshop using Levels, Color Balance, Curves, and Photo filter. After that, I cut the LUT and exported it to UE4.

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Decals

Decals helped me to achieve the final believable look – swamp mud in the places where architecture contacts water, cracks on the steps and other parts of the building. In the end, I felt that the scene looked too symmetrical, so I decided to drop the left column a little and change the angle of the broken column in the right water section. All decals were taken from Megascans, I just changed their colors and normal intensity. Before making the final shots, I sharpened the picture a little by using the tutorial “Crisp and Detailed UE4 Renders” by Dominique Buttiens. For the final shots, I played a lot with different cameras and angles. It was an interesting experience using cinematic cameras, they turn your scene into a real movie.

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Afterword

The Lost Temple of Nacon was my first environment created in Unreal Engine and I spent a month making it. Creating a location with my own assets was an amazing experience. When I worked on the first iteration of the temple and everything looked so beautiful I just sat in front of my computer and smiled.

Feedback from people around me greatly influenced my work. I want to thank my mentor, my course colleagues, and colleagues from work who gave me feedback every time I asked. Special thanks to my friend Nina Popovych whose feedback had the biggest impact on my work. I think getting feedback from people during the production process is very important, so don't be afraid to ask. One more thing I want to say, don't be afraid to use ready-made assets, it is not wrong. Working with pre-made assets is also a complicated process, but it can save you time. I wish everyone good luck and don't be afraid to start, it's never too late.

Victoria Zavhorodnia, Level Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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