The Making of Unreal Tournament's Outpost 23
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Rick Kohler

Lead Artist at Epic Games

rick.kohler@epicgames.com

Josh Marlow

Environment Artist at Epic Games

josh.c.keller@gmail.com

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AI applications are only beginning to materialize. It's so exciting what neural networks will do to art workflows in the coming years.

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The Making of Unreal Tournament's Outpost 23
11 October, 2016
Interview

Outpost is a marvelous level created for Epic Games’ Unreal Tournament by Rick Kohler (Lead Artist), Josh Marlow (Environment Artist), Chris Perna, Anton Migulko (vista) and designed by Lead Level Designer David Spalinski (gameplay). We were lucky enough to talk to Rick and Josh about the way they managed to deliver jaw dropping visuals, making sure everything works well with the multiplayer dynamics. 

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Introduction

Rick Kohler: My name is Rick and I’m currently the Lead Artist on Epic’s Unreal Tournament. I’m originally from Aliquippa, a small town outside of Pittsburgh Pa. I’ve worked for Nintendo, Microsoft and a few other places before landing my dream job here at Epic.

Josh Marlow: I’m Josh and I’m an Environment Artist on Unreal Tournament.  I’m from Kernersville, NC which is a small town about 90 minutes west of Epic HQ.  I started out as a game tester here at Epic in 2007 on Gears 1 PC, and became an artist at the beginning of 2012. Don’t ever let anyone say that QA isn’t a good way to get your foot in the door, as I am proof!  😉 

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Outpost 23 

Rick Kohler: Outpost was very much a learning process for us. Not only was it my first UT map, it was my first time using some of the engine features in a practical sense . Before this my only experience using UE4 was the Infiltrator demo and the UE4 Reflections Showcase demo.

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Rick Kohler: Once a map was selected by the team to go into production we just started playing around with things, seeing what we could come up with. From the outset we knew we wanted something clean and bright. We started looking at a lot of older sci-fi movies like Outland and the original Alien.

I remember really wanting to make the level using a lot of concrete and pipes and so I was working on that when Chris Perna (studio art director) and Josh started kit-bashing together these really interesting pipe and doorway sets.

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Chris mocked up an in-engine concept that would eventually form the basis for the look of OP23. Once you saw it you felt that this was it, that he’d really hit on something fresh and different.

For a lot of the graphical elements (signage, decals, etc) I went back and looked at a lot of Ron Cobb’s designs for the original Alien and I feel these contribute to the level’s ‘retro’ feel without beating you over the head with it. 

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Chris’ concept

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Finding the right balance between aesthetics and gameplay

Rick Kohler: It’s a constant struggle to find the right balance between aesthetics and gameplay. In UT, I feel like the levels are essentially characters in the game. We want them to tell a story while enhancing, not distracting from, the gameplay. We try to embrace the ‘unreal’ part of the game but also make the spaces and characters somewhat believable.

Josh Marlow: The hardest part for me was coming up with the initial piece that would define the style.  Once Chris kitbashed a few random models I made into a doorway, it got us excited.  Once I made a proper model of it, we knew that was the direction we wanted to take.  After that, it was just a matter of coming up with what we would need to fill the space.

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Palette and Materials

Rick Kohler:Chris Perna really wanted us to go for something clean, bright and airy. The dominant color in Chris’ concept was white and so, along with looking at movies like Outland, we also started looking at images of old NASA equipment and model kits. Josh was really able to nail the feel of the chipped white paint in his master material. From there, I tried to offset all the white by strategically placing small but highly saturated pops of color in the form of decals and signage around the map.

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Josh Marlow: We knew we wanted to have a master material that we would be able to easily modify all assets with.  We used material layers that were blended using black and white RGB masks. Quixel’s second iteration of DDO had come out around this time, and it was a tremendous time saver when it came to generating masks.  At the end of the day we felt like we had a cohesive look to all the assets.  We have a community of modders, so we wanted to make sure there were enough exposed parameters to give people options to create unique looks using the same assets.

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Lighting

Rick Kohler: Lighting plays a huge role in how a level feels and plays. IMO, the trick is to not over-do it. I always try to limit the amount of light sources in a scene. Too many lights coming from too many directions just confuses the scene and makes your scene look less dimensional. 

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Balancing the map

Rick Kohler: The hard part, IMO, is knowing where to add detail and where to not add it. Aside from the obvious gameplay considerations your eyes occasionally want places to rest while not being overwhelmed with detail.

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In OP23 I tried to work in clumps of detail up into spots where they could add to the scene, hopefully without hindering game play. We intentionally left a lot of the floor and wall spaces relatively flat. 

At the same time, you don’t want the level to look like a gameplay shell. In OP23 we used a lot of hoses and pipes to soften hard edges and distract from inelegant transitions between meshes. 

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Meeting tight deadlines

Josh Marlow: Once Chris put together that scene mockup, it took around 6 months or so. Rick and I were the only environment artists on the project, along with Chris meshing/lighting when he wasn’t busy with other internal projects. We were definitely a small art team.  This was our first game level created using UE4. All other previous work on UE4 was for demos (Infiltrator, Reflections Showcase, Zen),  so there was a learning curve there.  Also our game has to run at 120fps on high end. That being said, its pretty amazing what we were able to get away with and still have it run so fast.  My biggest content creation time saver was definitely Quixel DDO. They were even kind enough to add a few feature requests that I had, which is awesome! 

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UE4 has some great artist friendly features that allow for quick iteration. The engine is constantly evolving and always getting better.  There are some game changing improvements to artists speed and workflows coming down the line that artist will be very excited about! 

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Rick Kohler, Lead Artist at Epic Games and Josh Marlow, Environment Artist at Epic Games

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev

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