3d artist Alex Senechal talked about the way you can use tiling textures during the production of sci-fi environments for games.
3d artist Alex Senechal talked about the way you can use tiling textures during the production of sci-fi environments for games.
Hi my name is Alex Senechal, I’m from the Seattle area and I work at 343 Industries as an environment artist. I am 24 and started doing 3d in 2012. I like to practice traditional art in my free time. I have worked on Halo 5 and before that I was a generalist making content for the Microsoft Store video walls.
I am self-taught. I started with a digital tutors account for 6 months on 250 dollars borrowed from my dad. I learned a majority of what I know from Polycount and tutorials online. Originally I was wanting to do CG but accidentally got into game art working on a mod. I think that once you get in the industry you learn the most, my first job gave me exposure to being a generalist, giving me a well-rounded production experience as a beginner. I enjoy designing sci-fi art, and it’s mostly what I do, especially mechs. I never knew “design” was a thing really until 2014 when I started working at 343. There I met Jihoon Kim. He taught me a lot about design when I first started. Since then I have developed my own ideas and thoughts on design but he gave me a very solid foundation.
I think sci-fi environments are really important to give context to and apply artistic theory too. It is no different than making any other type of art. I see a lot of sci-fi with random 45 degree angles, beveled boxes and retro ovular forms, and random details. I think it’s important to try and find unique visual languages, instead of falling back on generic sci-fi looks. Pushing for more compound shapes aka breaking the box is important I think. One reason a lot of sci-fi feels generic is the “boxy” look of a lot of it.
There isn’t “wrong” or “right” in art but there is if you want to make marketable art, things that stand out. It’s like being a salesman, you must stand out from the crowd. There are a few ways to do this.
I believe there is technical and contextual execution and then there is artistic and visual execution. A portfolio piece is a show of skill, a way to tell the people looking at your art what you are capable of no matter your skill level. Pushing your modeling out of your comfort zone and making complex compound forms is a way to push your technical skill and show people what you’re capable of modeling. Then is the contextual, what is your environment? Is the idea strong, is it clear? What is the theme, the story, how does the space function? That is context. Last is the artistic execution: How well is it composed? Does it have cool shapes? Could it flow better? Are the details distributed well? Is it too busy? Can I divide things less evenly? These are my terminologies but it’s roughly how I divide these categories.
This is very relevant to sci-fi and commercial art. Maybe people learn these things in school, I am not sure because I have not attended but it is my opinion so take it with a grain of salt.
Sci-fi requires an underlying idea just like anything else, but that is different from the execution. Applying design theory: composition, good forms, detail distribution, balance, avoiding evenness, eyeflow, having rest area, using 70-30 (similar to avoiding evenness), good values, depth, proportion, echoing, rule of 3’s, grouping, etc. I think its important to explore continually new ways apply these fundamentals. I also found they inspire me when it comes to the main idea of a design. It helps me to make informed choices and have a vocabulary to figure out WHY something doesn’t work and that is invaluable to me. I go over these problems a bit in my tutorial as I encounter them but I am creating a design basics tutorial soon.
These are artistic principals but must be applied to sci-fi just as much as a painting or any other artistic endeavour. This is the difference between sci-fi that stands out and does not. It is not necessarily because the underlying ideas are bad. Form and function are a relationship, you can have the best ideas but without a good execution it doesn’t matter. I understand that this seems to deviate from the question but I think that artistic fundamentals and theory is how you make sci-fi work. I could go into why but I will be saving that for my next tutorial, as well as talking about all of these things I have brought up.
Here is an example of the block out I start with in my tutorial. I felt this was the right amount of detail needed to begin finalizing and is where the tutorial begins at:
When working on sci-fi environments I like to start with what is the main idea of this environment, the most basic building blocks you have to work with. Then as I block out I like to find ways to add the cool elements that make it stand out and establish the idea behind the space. It can be anything just try and find a way to make it unique. While you block out (and all the time) ask yourself many questions in your head and think about how someone else would interpret what you are making to check the clarity of your idea:
- How will people use this space?
- What will the player see when they enter the space?
- Does it look and feel functional even in it’s early stages?
- What can I add to make it better explained to the viewer?
- What could be cooler and make it pop?
- Does it have good composition?
Asking yourself questions continually while you work is key, and listening to yourself when you are unhappy with something. I often get a nagging feeling when something isn’t working visually and have learned to listen to it more and more. The real struggle comes from finding the solutions to your artistic problems but also the most growth. Put in the time to get it right or good enough to work. I often block out in great detail so that I can flesh my ideas out as far as possible before putting the final touches on.
Yes, tiling textures are crucial for game development, they are the basis of game art and ironically I feel one of the least explained aspects of it. At least that was my perception when I was learning 3d and why I created this tutorial.
Tiling textures are important because they give you the flexibility to add a lot of high texel density and detail to an environment without requiring unique bakes thus not wasting time and memory. Your tiling textures are going to make up the the whole environment ideally so think about all that you will need when creating your trim sheets.
When I am approaching tiling textures it’s first important to make the trim sheets, these are key to your environments, so put time into them and you will get it back. First decide if you are going to do a floater style system, with 4 way tiling textures and a trim/floater sheet. Or standard tiling trims with no floaters or 4 way base textures. Neither is right or wrong but both have benefits. I chose the floaters and 4 way tiling textures for my tutorial.
Choosing method is important because the structure of your trim sheets depend on it. You can also choose to do both ways in the same environment of course.
The way that I go about tiling textures in my tutorial is essentially using a minimal amount of smaller trims to give me edge detail around objects and then using normal map floaters to add unique detail. This means I am no longer restricted by the shapes on a trim sheet. I use the second UV channel to tile a 4 way texture across the different materials while retaining the rubbers, metals, and plastic materials across my tiling textures. This aids in making it feel more like a baked asset. I have the shader setups included in my tutorial as well in Unreal and 3ds Max.
When making trim sheets it’s important to think about how you plan to use them and ask questions such as:
- How does this look when I tile it?
- Whats the scale that this will be used at?
- Where will I use a specific detail or trim and what will I use it for?
When making trim sheets its important to model them onto a plane with the high poly above it. The edges of the texture are where things will repeat. Try tiling the texture in the viewport every now and again to check how it looks when it tiles and if you can make adjustments to make it less repetitive. It all depends on intended use.
This a viewport of an environment using the same technique as my tutorial, you can see how I am using some of these trims and floaters:
The Biggest Headaches
I think the biggest headaches people will struggle with are more basic things related to using tiling textures. Edge flow is crucial especially the more complex things get, you need your geometry to unwrap in strips of quads to make your life easier when you UV your trims onto the model. So having good edge flow makes that process less work and faster. Over time and with practice this becomes easier. In my tutorial I go over the entire process and idea behind using tiling textures before going into the actual modeling. I go over all of this in during the introductory videos to my tutorial.
The other thing I think people struggle with in sci-fi is how to get your tiling textures to look close to baked with tiling textures. Its important to put the time into the geo and not just rely on the textures. When you model ad korean bevels on edges, or use the normal map to give hard edges some normal map edges and avoid the look of “raw geo”. This takes practice and will depend on your trim sheets and how you use them. Often times I see very simple shapes that rely only on a large baked textures for a wall, this often looks flat and repetitive as well as expensive. Putting the more work into the geo and using more granular textures can help with this. In my tutorial I show how I prefer to do this. This does not mean you will get the same quality as a baked asset but its the next best thing.
A close up of from another environment I made using this same technique:
Working with Materials
When I am at the blockout phase I usually do a few basic materials, dark rubber, basic metal, light metal, accent color, glass (can be anything). Usually I do this to get my value breakup and get an idea of how much I will use of a specific material such as rubber or metal before I actually get to making the trims and UVing. It also gives me a better idea of how the scene will look earlier on.
It looks like this in blockout (or when making single assets):
And once I’ve begun production:
The next thing I figure out is all materials and textures you need beforehand. This will allow you to budget time and plan how much work you need to do. Starting with the minimum amount of tiling textures you need to create a majority of the assets and as you begin production what you had not accounted for will become apparent. These can be things like additional trim sheets, light sheets, decal sheets, metal gratings, etc. I often start with simpler trim sheets, often two for two different material types so that I can have a unique look to each material type. Though it is possible to reuse the same trim for different materials. Sometimes I make the trim sheets before I get far in my environment as it can help set the visual style earlier. How you choose to work is up to you.
Having different types of materials like plastics, rubbers, metals and different values of those is a good place to start. Easily 2-3 trim sheets can cover all of those material types. In unreal I typically make 2-3 base material types and then make material instances for different values and colors. This way I can keep things simple and get a lot of variety to work with.
As you can see I am only using main 2 trim sheets for all of these:
The way I like to model for different material types usually means I will use a different set of details and shape types, and edge treatments. Typically rubber is softer and has more soft compound forms and metal will be more rigid and mechanical. So I usually start with those two and expand on that if needed or more specialized texture needs such as metal grating or 4 way tiling metal texture. With my method I export and ID map or RGB mask into Unreal, I use this for controlling the roughness and albedo of the different materials on my textures. Using the material instances I can modulate these as I see fit.
When you are texturing think about specularity and how the value of your materials affects the overall look of the scene. It’s important to have a variety of values, in different proportions.
Think in primary, secondary, tertiary. This means try and have a material that covers a 70% or more of the environment and then a darker (or brighter) secondary color that is covers 30% or less of the environment. Finally having small bits of more drastically different materials such as colored paint, dark rubbers, super reflective metalsThe percentages are not important, all that matters is making sure you have more of one than the other. This allows your brain to understand clearly which is most important, second most and third most. This principle can be applied to almost anything in art.
A full color of another scene using the 2 UV technique, the full color is to show the color breakup:
When I am texturing I like to apply this method in many different ways. These go from the trim sheet ID maps for material breakup in Unreal, to the environment as a whole. My primary will often be a midtone metal, or a plastic, then I have a secondary accent material, such as a plastic of different value in order to break up the primary. Then I like to add a small high spec reflective metal or color around important areas and functional objects in the environment. This helps to group and draw attention to what matters on both a macro and micro level. Control and group areas of high intensity detail to make things feel simplified while still retaining a lot of detail.
As you can see I am going to reuse these as the materials that will be in the actual texture and creates my ID map. So in the modeling process I like to separate materials.
I use different materials as a way to control the values in my scene with more than just with lighting. Putting rubber between objects or panel lines, as seals or padding, having screws or shiny bits.
When two different materials are next to each other their difference is easier to see and exaggerates the variety. I also believe it is important to avoid having your materials be flat above all else. In real life there is times when stuff is very flat and specularity is minimal, but exaggerating a little this never hurts anyone.
When it comes to being efficient I find that over time I have switched from always going into the details, adding edge loops and polishing before finishing the blockout. Now I work almost entirely in blockout until the end. There is nothing wrong with taking a small part to finalize ahead of time. Creating a beauty corner to show how the rest of the environment will be finished and show you how long it could take is always helpful, in my other environment I made the floor first and then figured out the rest after.
As I progress I usually blockout, refine, blockout and refine until I am done, I try to model things evenly so that I don’t have finished and parts that I have barely touched. By making sure you do this it allows the idea to come out better because how things work together is more thought out at an earlier stage.
Here is a comparison on another project of a this process since I already showed the blockout/final of the tutorial on here. This is the front of a scifi gun I created recently. You can see the level of detail in the blockout is already containing the major shapes and basic idea behind it:
The reason for this is that you have to do less work in order to fix things that are not working and are less likely to screw yourself over in the end by having to redo work, or discovering that part you polished isn’t working well with the rest of the blockout. I talk about a lot of this stuff and give tips and work through problems in realtime so you can see how I solve them.
The most important time saver is of course hotkeys and plugins for your program. In max I have a few things that I have such as sub-object pivot, hotkeys for smoothing groups, hotkeys for many modeling tools allows me to spend less time clicking and wasting time and focus more on what I am making than how I make it. In my tutorial I go over all of my most important hotkeys and scripts that I find useful in 3ds Max as well as my workflow in it’s entity.