Tips on Game Environment Production

Tips on Game Environment Production

We’ve talked with environment artist SilverTM and discussed the way he creates fantastic scenes in UE4.

We’ve talked with environment artist SilverTM and discussed the way he creates fantastic scenes in UE4.


Hi. I got into 3D and everything related to it in 2005. I read the article about 3Ds Max in a magazine and decided to give it a try. Till 2009 working on different renders had been just a hobby for me, one of them was the watermill scene, which wasn’t a game scene yet, and it got me hired for my first job. Since then I have worked at many major studios like, Nival, Game Insight and each of them let me learn something useful for me. I also tried to use a part of my free time to take part in various game dev competitions, where you need to make a complete project of a character or an environment, it’s very inciting for learning. At the moment I work at home and mostly create assets for UE and Unity stores.

Working with UE4

I became acquainted with Unreal Engine at the time of its third version, namely with UDK. In our city there was a small firm which tried to create a game in this engine. It was there where I learned about actual game modeling, and although everything was developing rather quickly, I continued to learn UDK on my own. I created several game scenes and was included into the list of testers of the upcoming UE4.

The remaster of the watermill for the game engine was an experiment to check capabilities of UE4 on mobile systems. Back then I worked closely with Unity, and as we know, it perfectly works on mobile platforms and I wanted to prove that Unreal wasn’t any worse.

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In general, it wasn’t too hard. There was a good reference and it only needed to be transferred to the game engine. Of course, there were some technical difficulties. For example, we tried several options for landscape creation because the standard UE4 Landscape simply didn’t work on mobile platforms.

The most difficult for us was texture creation. The central idea here is to try and use as few textures as possible to reduce the number of DrawCalls. That’s why we used the texture atlas technology (mapping many different objects to one large texture). For instance, all vegetation shares a single 512×512 texture.

And the whole project contains a little more than 40 textures.

Red Desert

Here, as in any other project, we began with discussing the number of assets and searching for references.

Generally, I must say, planning is a very important part of a project. We, for example, use Google Sheets. Nothing complicated, just the name, number of the assets planned, and stages of work on them. When a stage is finished, it is marked green. It’s always useful to visualize approximate scope of the task.

When you begin modelling of a plant, it’s important to imagine, how exactly it should be done. Especially with such unusual plants which grow in Arizonian desert.

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For every plant here, a unique approach was taken. As a rule, when I started to work on a plant, I created a draft texture to have an idea of where to place certain elements. Then in 3Ds Max I mapped the texture to the geometry and assembled the plant from those pieces. Then I returned to the texture again. When a plant of one type was ready, I created 3-4 more smaller variations of the model to bring more variation into the final scene. Some plants I had to redesign several times from scratch, until I liked the result.

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Then the rocks and stones were created. It was pretty straightforward with them – initial modeling in 3Ds Max, then sculpting in ZBrush, then Photoshop.

When everything has been done, we began building the level.

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Oh, the lighting and creating the atmosphere are among my favorite parts of work on a project. I just want to say that I’m not a professional lighting designer and I’m sure that a pro can create a much better lighting. It’s enough for me to simply show the scene in the best possible way from my point of view, it’s not always successful, however, I like what I do.

Before starting to work I recommend to look at references, most likely someone before you has already worked with similar environment. Look through them and try to identify some elements which are well-made and think on how you can use them in your work.

It’s difficult for me to describe how I work on lightning. Usually it happens on its own, as a natural process. Using regular point lamps, First I set the general lighting of the room using regular point lamps, as a rule, in cool shades, and then place brighter and warmer lamps where they are needed.

Wall creation

As I’ve already noted several times, I begin with looking for references. For the dungeon we used Dark Souls and Legend of Grimrock as a basis, in terms of lighting I mostly tried to look at Diablo 3.

We begin designing walls and any other objects with initial 3d models, which then go to ZBrush. For walls we take cubes and every cube is an individual brick in the wall. Then these cubes a processed in ZBrush. Next step is extracting maps in xNormal. I extract a normal map, height map and ambient occlusion. The extracted maps are then moved Photoshop where Quixel and magic are used to give them their final look.

To get more volume in the texture I used ParallaxOcclusionMapping in the engine itself. The best ways to show volume on a flat surface is to use either Displacement or Parallax. Both can be used in UE4, but parallax showed better results in tests because, first of all, it doesn’t need tiled geometry to create volume, and secondly, it can be tiled without any loss in emboss quality, and thirdly, it showed more FPS. Of course, this method has its shortcomings – unlike Displacement it works only with static lighting.

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New features

Let me use certain scenes as examples to show what techniques we use to bring life to the scene and improve the way it looks.

Well, let’s suppose we already have some finished scenes with adjusted lighting and arranged geometry. The first thing to cross my mind, especially when I look at the right picture, is that the scene is too dark. In this case, mist helps me a lot. It gives depth and additional lighting to the scene, which is very important, especially for underground scenes without a global lighting.

The next item on my list is working with shaders. Namely, adding vertex paint elements. In the left picture it’s well-seen how you can add chips to the tiles or a puddle on the floor. This is especially good if you have wide spaces with one material, a long wall for example, then vertex paint allows you to add much more diversity and “liveliness”.

Then I add some dirt and garbage, and it could be done through a geometry, as in the right picture, or vertex paint, as in the left picture. In this case, I apply a mask of chips in the red channel in vertex paint, and a texture of dirt in the blue and green channels.

The next stage is decals. All kinds of wall inscriptions, graffiti, paint drips, puddles. Everything that helps to create the required atmosphere.

After that I add small details and objects. The more diversity there is, the better.

Next, I would use blueprints and particle effects. I use blueprints to design almost all moving objects (such a fans or rats) or things, which can’t be modelled in a 3d editor. The most graphic example here is the wires, I’ve had them running along the spline, which I set directly in the engine. This way I can create a great number of wires of different length, thickness and forms.

The last point on my list is postprocessing. I will not elaborate on it and will simply say that there is PostProcessVolume in UE4 and it has a great number of settings which can and should be used. It allows to make your scene look finished, to make it look the way you wanted it to.

SilverTM, Freelance Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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