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Senior environment artist Fanny Vergne shared some very interesting points on designing great stylized worlds for games. Fanny has been working on environments for World of Warcraft for a while, so she knows what she’s talking about.
My name is Fanny Vergne and I’m currently a senior environment artist at Blizzard Entertainment on World of Warcraft.
Coming from France, I started my career at Ubisoft Studios Montpellier in the south of France just after graduating from a school that specialized in animation and VFX. There, I learned a lot as a junior artist—from how a game is created to more practical skills in art along with game and level design.
When my contract was over a year and a half later, I moved to Paris and worked for a small company where I met a lot of young, talented, passionate people who made me believe that no dream is too big. I have played Blizzard games since I was a teenager, and it was my dream to be able to work at Blizzard someday. But being so far away in France, it seemed impossible at the time to believe that that dream could become a reality.
My partner at the time got an opportunity to work in the US in 2011, and his success was another factor that motivated me to believe that it was possible, bringing me one step closer to my dream job. I couldn’t really speak any English at the time, so I took classes in the US and continued to work on a lot of personal projects that I posted on different forums to raise my online presence. Fortunately, Blizzard contacted me one year later to work on World of Warcraft!
Since then, I realized that it’s not about where you are on the planet but how passionate you are about a specific style or game. Nowadays, the internet makes it a lot easier for people to get noticed by big companies if they show enough passion through their creations and get them out there for the online community to see.
Challenges of Building Stylized Environments
One of the biggest challenges of creating a stylized environment is to not cross the lines of realism or cartoonism. Blizzard’s art style is a fine balance between these two, but human nature always pushes us to go one way or the other. It requires some practice to feel the shapes that work right in this style.
Keeping this in mind, every piece of environment art or building in World of Warcraft has a very strong silhouette and shape language that helps to represent the lore of the area and their habitants. For example, the pandaren are funny, round, and joyful, while the demons from the Legion are scary, imposing, and sharp.
What is true for the silhouettes is also true for the overall ambience. Stylized games generally have a colorful palette, but that doesn’t mean you can use too much saturation or brightness everywhere. At the same time, you can make your environment dark and moody without going for dull and depressing.
If you want to create a stylized environment, the choice of your textures is extremely important.
Ideally, you want your modeling and your texturing to complement each other. What I said previously about shape language and silhouette works the same for texturing. The shapes on the textures themselves can completely change the tone of your environment. If you add too many little noisy details, for example, the environment will have a more realistic accent.
With hand-painted textures, we actually create the illusion of materials by painting in the way light interacts with the surface. It is very challenging and takes practice to make the player feel that a texture is made of metal, stone, wood, and so on using only a diffuse map.
Also, it is very important to keep the values of your textures neutral. You to be able to reuse them in different kind of environments. Use your lighting and scene ambience to do the heavy lifting of the environment mood. If you go too high or low in your diffuse value it can either crunch the texture information into the blacks in lower lighting or blow it out in bright lighting. This way allows you to have a full control on your environment’s mood without painting too many texture iterations.
Combining Zbrush and Photoshop
I started in this industry as a 3D artist, doing principally modeling in 3ds Max or Maya. A few years later I discovered Zbrush, but I was still using it in a “traditional” way to create normal maps for current-gen games. In parallel to that, I always loved stylized games and comics and my modeling became more and more oriented toward that.
When I started on World of Warcraft, my brain was more trained in 3D rather than 2D and digital painting, so I decided to use what I knew best at the time and created a process to use Zbrush to create hand-painted textures. Since then, I’ve tried to become more and more efficient with this process but also continued to improve my digital painting skills.
Zbrush will give you a perfect canvas to paint over with the maps you can generate from your sculpt, because the information is coming from a real 3D element. However, keep in mind that it is still very important to keep that painterly look as if it was made fully by painting.
Nowadays, I use a compromise between the two techniques to be as fast as possible without compromising quality.
I use Zbrush on the most detailed textures or to create quick basic shapes for my tiling textures, but I also digitally paint full trims and more simplistic maps, too.
The Strings of Environment Design
I think a lot of people underestimate the value of details. One isolated detail can seem pointless, but all together, your environment can become cohesive and create a sense of meaning. Usually, players are unlikely to pick each detail that you created, but they are going to feel the overall mood achieved by these extra elements.
On stylized environments, these details can represent several things—for example, putting a little bit more modeling on points of interest to have the lighting creating a nicer effect, having some nice blending between your textures, tuning the values, color, and saturation of your different textures to make them work better together, creating a lighting scheme that is going to be more dramatic, and so on.
My goal is always to create a distinct art story that the player can feel.
I think moving elements can be powerful to create your story, but you have to use them sparingly because human eyes are attracted to movement. If you put too much movement in your environment, you might actually be killing the effect you intended. I usually keep the most animated assets for my points of interest because they’re a great game design tool to lead the player in a particular direction or to show them what should matter in the environment from a gameplay perspective.
As with everything else, lighting for stylized environments should be well balanced so it’s not too realistic or too cartoony. While you can usually get away with a little bit more bold lighting than a realistic environment, it still has to look credible for the player.
Always justify a strong lighting point of view by an actual source of light—like a torch, brazier, spell, or hole in the wall. The colors you put in your lights and in your ambience are really important, because they will help determine the overall feeling of your scene.
For example, one classic go-to that often works well is to make your ambient color and the dominant color of your lights complementary or close to each other. For example, if your lights have an overall warm yellow-orange tone, putting your ambient as a blue-purple could work great, or vice-versa.
Usually, you want at least one of your dominant lights to be saturated enough to remind the player that it’s not a realistic environment. You can even use the saturation as a game design tool to lead the player somewhere.
Overall, scene lighting can be an extremely powerful tool to support the gameplay of your environment, or to detract from things that the player shouldn’t care about much.
Before starting an environment, it is important to take some time to collect references about mood or ideas, technically and artistically. Spending time in this part of the process is often something that gets rushed through by a lot of people wanting to get onto the making part, but never underestimate the power of good planning and idea gathering before you start. Measure twice, cut once!
Once you have a better idea of what you want to create, a good goal is to organize your ideas in a quick, unique way for your project by either creating concept art if your painting skills are efficient, or by creating a quick 3D blockout and experimenting with different ideas in real-time. You can also do a mix of both and do paint overs.
There is no right or wrong way to do this—focus on whatever method gets your ideas out so you can start realizing them in an environment. During this step, you can also think about modularity and which assets or textures you could reuse and which ones you want to be unique.
When it’s a personal project, it is important to keep the amount of work reasonable in order to not overwhelm yourself later on. Usually you can start by defining the point of interest of your scene and create more and more elements around it as long as you still have the time and the motivation. That way, you are more likely to have a finished piece at the end.
The main question you should ask yourself at every step of the creation is, “What is the story of my environment?” and work in this direction to make people feel that story.