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Environment artist Daniel McGowan talked about the key phases in environment production pipeline in AAA games, and explained the kinds of assets are usually created for these scenes.
Hey there readers, before we get into it, I’d like to start out by saying I’m honored to be doing an article for 80 Level!
My name is Daniel McGowan and I’ve been working in the video game industry for the last 10 years. Currently, I’m working as a Senior Environment Artist at Amazon Game Studios. But don’t be fooled, I am still a student, and you can often find me pestering other artists at my studio to teach me how they did something!
Most recently I was lucky enough to be part of the development teams for EVOLVE which leaned more towards realism, and Breakaway which had a more clean, stylized aesthetic.
Environment Production Pipeline
I’d like to discuss a general Environment production pipeline to give students and aspiring developers a clear idea of how levels are made. First we’ll identify the different stages of production and then I’ll talk about each in a little more detail. Although there is a huge variety of genres and engines, there are usually a few steps in the process that are similar to most projects.
Now let’s dig into each phase a little bit:
Level Brief – This can be a story from the writer or a description of the objective, that needs to occur during the level’s gameplay. Sometimes level briefs are as simple as one or two sentences. The level brief is typically presented to the concept artists, level designers, and environment artists during a level kickoff meeting. A good level brief is descriptive enough to get the team excited, but also ambiguous enough to allow the artists to explore some larger ideas. It also helps give context for the way this new level ties into the levels before and after it.
Key Art/ Map layouts – There are two main directions that can be taken after a level kickoff meeting. One is to have some key art created, and the other would be to have some high-level layouts created. Some teams actually do both if they have the resources/time. Key art are usually beautiful paintings that clearly define the mood and color palette as well as some design. They also get the team excited and help everyone move toward the same vision. A high level layout seeks to define the level beats and possible ideas for the gameplay. Below is a high level layout that I did based on the level brief I received from the head of story. I was trying to explore fun ways to traverse through the level and decide where the major encounters would occur. I also tried to plan in “Gates” that kept the players from moving backwards so that we could stream out all of the level geo behind them.
Level Design Blockout – In this stage, the level designers are creating the spaces and checking distances and angles to try and make sure the level is fun. They often try to make sure the path is clear and the collision is smooth so that players can move through quickly without frustration. Often times primitive shapes like squares and cylinders are used to mock up spaces because they are easy to manipulate and allow the designers to iterate quickly if they need to rework an entire section of the level. The best levels are created when the designers and artists collaborate during this early stage to bounce ideas around and help each other solve problems. Below are some examples of design spaces blocked-out (left) by Chris Holmes, the designer, and the design drawings I did over them (right) for a DLC map on EVOLVE.
Proxy Phase – This is the stage where the environment modelers really start to get busy creating all the unique and modular assets that will be used to build out the level. When I was new in the industry I didn’t realize how important the proxy phase was to the level’s development. For example, proxies can be used in outsource packets to help ensure that the final product will be more accurate. Additionally, doing proxies allows the team to start tracking how many assets they will need to take to final and stop modular sets from bloating up too big. If the proxies are accurate to the concepts, the world builders can also start to dial-in the compositions at this point. A good proxy focuses on silhouette, accurate proportions and clear material groupings. Below is an example of a concept for a brazier that I did and the proxy I created from it.
Production Concepts – This phase of development often happens before, during and after the proxy stage. These concepts are typically line drawings and the goal with these is to give the modeling team as much info as possible so that they don’t have to spend time finding the design while they’re modeling. It also helps keep the design language consistent across the game so that the players experience a visually cohesive world. A good production drawing will answer as many questions as possible for the modelers. Below are a few examples of production concepts I’ve made in the past, one is for an interior space and the other is for a single asset.
Final Assets – This is the fun part, and where it all starts to come together! Level iteration has happened, concepts have been approved, proxies have been made, and now it’s finally time to take all the assets to their final state. When creating final assets, the artist should always be thinking of the scene as a whole image and how that particular asset fits in and supports the main composition/focal point. If every asset is screaming for attention, then the player won’t know where to look. The pathway and the interact-able assets must be clear. Spending 3 days on a barrel that the players will never interact with or look at just isn’t practical in a production environment. In the end, the majority of the assets made for an environment must intentionally be subordinate to the focal point or hero asset. Some other things to consider when finalizing your assets are clear material groupings, material contrasts and adding story/believability. Think about it, if everything in the environment is smooth and reflective it becomes noisy and overwhelming, and conversely, if everything is rough and matte, there is no visual interest. The beauty comes when you have a reflective puddle on that rough concrete, or a shiny polished shield laying on some old rotten wood. Similarly, the assets need to have some wear and tear and tell a story. The scene would feel too fake if everything was perfectly clean and looked brand new. Below is a corner of a level at different stages in the production pipeline, block out, concept, and final.
Polish/Set Dressing – This phase is the icing on the cake! Adding props, decals, and signage can really help to make the environment more immersive and believable. Props can help bring the scale of the world down if all of the structures are very big, and the more variety that you have in your props, the more believable a level is. If you look around right now wherever you are, you will realize that any given space you find yourself in probably has 200 or more props, and recreating that variety in 3D is what can really help to sell a space. However, in a production environment, the number of props is usually limited by the resources/schedule of the team. Set-dressing can really influence the way a player feels in an area. For example, by placing around piles of trash and debris and adding some neon signs of adult-themed establishments, you can make an area feel like the seedy underbelly of a city. Darker ominous lighting also helps with that feel, and we will touch on that next.
Lighting – The lighting artists are typically doing passes throughout the entire process, reacting to feedback, or refining and adjusting based on textures and materials as they come online. Lighting is one of the most important steps in the production because it heavily influences the compositions and mood of the level. I see many students that create scenes that have good assets and textures, but the overall image falls apart because the lighting is weak and doesn’t evoke a strong mood. Great lighting will make the scene look like a painting with strong dark and light stacking to push the players’ eye through the composition. Lighting can also be used to reinforce the aesthetic of the environment towards either realism or stylized. When I was doing the lighting in the image below I tried to push the stylized feel of the level by boosting the saturation levels and the intensity of the bounced light among other things.
When it comes to creating assets for an environment, there are primarily 4 types of assets: hero assets, modular assets, props and vista assets. You can have sub-groups within each of these categories like modular organic sets and modular architectural sets. But let’s just talk about the differences between the types of assets and how they each contribute differently to the level as a whole.
Hero assets are the dream task for environment artists, however there are less hero-assets than any other type. Because hero-assets can be interact-able or destructible, there are usually gameplay implications related to them and so they often have moving parts that must be figured out, rigged and animated before the final modeling/texturing can even begin. The typical environment asset doesn’t require resources from any other department, but because hero-assets require more resources to accomplish, the number of them that can be made is limited by the team size and schedule. However there are times when a hero-asset is purely aesthetic and doesn’t need to be rigged or animated, but even in those situations they are usually larger and still require more time/effort from the artist. In my experience, hero-assets almost always have detailed concepts done for them, whereas many other modular or prop assets wont.
Modular Assets are really the work-horses of your asset kit. They do most of the heavy lifting by building out the structures, sidewalks, storefronts, cliff faces and any other large volume that create the world. The idea of a modular set is to create pieces that are as versatile as possible so that the world-builders can achieve a wider range of possible designs and layouts. However, modular sets can get bloated quickly and some sets end up being 50 pieces or more. A good modular set has as few pieces as possible while still being able to achieve a wide range of variety. It is also good practice to have your modular pieces built to a grid for easy snapping and to have a variety of incremented pieces. Unlike hero assets, modular pieces are usually textured using trim sheets and tiling textures, with vert blending or decals to break-up any visual repetition. Below is an example of both trim and tiling textures:
Vista assets are on the bottom of the list for poly-priority, which means they often have the fewest number of triangles allocated to them. In order to make the level beautiful and convincing the artist needs to use most of their polygons inside the play-space itself, and the vista will get what is left in the budget. This is why it is important to plan out the vista early on in the process so you can begin planning around budget limitations and figuring out ways to pack as much as possible into the vista. Vista assets are usually cards or volumes with no back-faces on them. When I am creating vistas I like to think of them as a painting, focusing on composition. Vistas can be used as a great story-telling tool or even a reminder of the payers’ current objective. Adding movement in the vista is a great way to add life to an overly static environment. Falling buildings, erupting volcanoes and flocks of birds are all great examples of this. One thing I enjoy doing when possible is visually connecting a level to the areas before or after it. When we were working on the two DLC maps for EVOLVE, the other level artist Konrad Beerbaum and I got together and planned out how to work each other’s levels into our vistas, that way the players could “look into” another level they were familiar with and the world would feel larger than it really was.
A good environment artist will have a strong understanding of each phase of the development pipeline. Now that we’ve talked about the different stages in the Level production pipeline and the different kinds of assets we use to bring our worlds into existence, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read this article, and I hope you found it useful or informative!
Daniel McGowan, Senior Environment Artist at Amazon Game Studios.
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.