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Environment artist Maximilien Dehove talked about the way he approaches open world environments and shared different tricks that help center the attention of the player on certain objects.
Hi! I’m Maximilien Dehove, and I’m an environment artist from France, which is also where I studied Game Art while at school. After graduation, I started my career as an environment artist by freelancing on various games, such as Divinity: Original Sin 2, John Wick: Chronicles, and Syberia 3. In addition, I started doing UE4 workshops as a consultant for Game Art students.
I’ve been at Ubisoft for a year now, and I’ve worked on Watch Dogs 2 and its DLC.
The Main Task of an Environment Artist
In short, bringing life to a “new world” by creating something beautiful and coherent to the player is the main goal of an environment artist. In doing so, the environment artist allows players to fully feel a game and enjoy their in-game experience!
Clearly, this need to be done while respecting the gameplay, technical budget, and various other aspects of the video game itself.
How do you turn a level into a game environment?
It differs slightly depending of the type of game but all levels generally follow the same workflow.
First of all, I work with our level designer to establish a greybox layout. Communication at this stage of development is key.
Then, I replace these boxes with blockout meshes. The shape needs to be simple—it just indicates the space it takes and the overall look.
After this step, there is an adjustment pass from the level designer. Then, I begin the main “art pass,” which involves creating meshes, textures, and updates to the whole scene while keeping in mind gameplay, level design, technical budget, composition, etc.
At this point, I start playing the level more frequently to better grasp the player’s perspective and to ensure the mood of the level is done right.
The final step is the polishing phase where I place minor and last-minute details throughout the environment. This is a very time consuming phase and one that is mentally taxing. However, while the main phase is more about “art following the design,” this phase is really great because I can be more creative and bring another layer of life to my environment!
Open World Place
An open world is one large, continuous space making it really different from a typical linear level.
For example, I can take a car in Watch Dogs 2 and drive through an entire city at a high speed without worrying about a loading screen interrupting my gameplay. Even when we implement techniques to restrict what is visible or not visible from the player’s perspective, we’re still restrained by strict rules because we have to maintain a solid frame rate.
For a game that takes place in a real city, like Watch Dogs 2, we had to fit as much as possible within that space. We couldn’t create a 1:1 scale map, but we did create a shorter version of the city where the player can still experience and feel its mood. Selecting landmarks and points of interest helps to build our base map as well.
While working on an open world, keep in mind that anything can happen. One player might just walk around the city and take in the sights while another might shoot everyone and everything in a storm of chaos.
At the end of the day, all spaces within an open world need to be created with both players in mind. And like I previously said, work hand in hand with level designers to ensure both types of players will have a good experience! It means doing the “art pass” while considering different aspects of the gameplay, such as escape possibilities, parkour possibilities, covers, cars, and much more.
It depends on the type of game, but—as always—there needs to be a good balance between art and design.
If there’s a key gameplay item, the level designer will build the layout to lead the player to this item.
In terms of visual design, I’ll guide the player to the item through composition, size/shape, color, lighting, and many other aspects of the environment.
For example, I can create a hero asset or a landmark and build an eye-catching composition around it with cool lighting (god rays with dust particles) that will attract the player to this spot.
Hero assets are more detailed—colors from a hero asset will stand out from the environment most of the time.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 (Larian Studios)
Talking about colors, the choice of colors matters within an environment as it helps with gameplay too.
First, creating contrast within an environment helps an asset visually stand out.
Color coding is another strong aid to gameplay because players will consciously or subconsciously follow certain colors.
A classic example is a red barrel near a wall with cracks. Players will understand that they can progress through the level by shooting the barrel and creating a passageway at that stage of the game.
In Assassin’s Creed, there is a white sheet that marks a free run start. And in Horizon: Zero Dawn, developers use yellow to indicate a climbing spot, a robot’s weakness, and other important pieces of information to players.
Another good example is Mirror’s Edge wherein developers marked ideal freerunning paths for players with the color red.
Mirror’s Edge 1
Considering Movement and Animation
Games aren’t a still-life entertainment medium or a movie. They’re both dynamic and interactive. Making a good level, this extends to a good game as well, only happens when everyone works together. It may sound like a cliche, but it’s the truth!
Yes, animation and testing levels are really important. Especially with Watch Dogs 2 and the main character’s parkour skills. It would be really sad to mess up a cool animation by placing an asset at the wrong spot, right?
How do you make your production faster?
Each company has its own set of internal tools that helps artists become faster and more efficient in terms of production. It depends on the game in development but one can easily think about a specific tool that only creates dungeons/buildings with modular assets as a helpful way to hasten the production process.
With respect to softwares, Photoshop is somewhat dying while Substance and Quixel are becoming more standard in the video game industry.
Personally, I’m working with Substance Painter & Designer. It’s a clear “wombo-combo.” I can create tileable textures and substance files with awesome controls and variations. Everything is tweakable depending on what I need and it’s a non-destructive pipeline as well.
At the end of the day, the video game industry is evolving fast. I recommend staying aware and up to date about these tools and softwares to ultimately make your production process faster!