Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
Cyan Inc. environment artist Blake Bjerke talks about creating complex environments in games and explains how lighting, PBR, and good composition can blend surreal and real into one amazing game scene. The author described some of his techniques that allow him to build big and detailed game-ready scenes in short periods of time. Some of the middleware Blake uses for his works include 3D Studio Max, Zbrush, Photoshop, Bitmap 2 Material, xNormal, and UE4.
About Blake Bjerke
I’ve had an interest in art and video games from a young age – starting especially with Myst. I began experimenting with 3D Studio Max in high school. I received my Bachelor of Arts from the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Arizona.
While studying there, I worked on as many game projects as I could. I then worked as a freelance artist for a few years after graduating. In March of this year, I started work as a 3D Environment Artist at Cyan in Spokane, Washington. Our current project is a Kickstarter funded puzzle/adventure game called Obduction. It’s a spiritual successor to MYST.
The Role of The Environment Artist
An Environment Artist’s role can vary dramatically from project to project, depending on the type of game, and the size of the team. When you create an environment, you’re creating more than just a static image. You’re creating a full 3D space.
You have to take into account several aspects.
You’ll need to think about different camera angles – if you’re taking screenshots. If the player is able to navigate through the level/environment, you’ll want consider your points of interest as well as any place that the viewer will focus heavily on and try to get close to.
Environments should tell a visual story as well. It shouldn’t necessarily be an overly complicated backstory, but enough to make the area feel like a living, breathing place.
Furthermore, it’s important to create visual complexity and to make the area seem larger than it really is. You need to make the player want to explore beyond the bounds of the environment, even though there’s nothing out there. With all this being said, it’s very important to make sure that the visuals don’t interfere with the player’s navigation or flow of movement.
With my work at Cyan, the environment is the most important aspect of the game. The environment provides visual clues for puzzles, backstory for the world, and hints for navigation.
As opposed to shooters, the player isn’t running through the environment quickly, they’re stopping and examining every small detail. This prevents challenges for the art team. We have to make sure that the environment not only has scenic vantage points, but also holds up very well up close, without being too noisy or confusing. The role of the environment in Cyan’s games are to tell a visual story, and to create visual complexity. Since our games don’t usually have tons of characters to in every detail of the story, most of that responsibility falls to the environment itself.
I would say that all of these elements come together towards making a fully functioning and visually appealing level. Molding all of these elements together without sacrificing visual fidelity or playability is the ultimate goal of an environment artist.
Realism VS Fiction
There is a balance between realism and fiction in environment design; the two are very much interrelated. You can look at any example of fiction and if you look carefully, you’ll be able to see where elements of reality have inspired the final result.
Cyan likes to play with Juxtaposition. The worlds look surreal and sometimes alien, but at the same time, it’s mostly comprised of elements that you’ll be able to understand and recognize.
My personal toolkit is comprised mainly of 3D Studio Max, Zbrush, Photoshop, Bitmap 2 Material, xNormal, and UE4.
I’ve been using xNormal to bake my normal and ambient occlusion maps for the past several years and I’ve never looked back.
I’ve started getting into Allegorithmic’s software recently. I haven’t delved very far into Designer or Painter yet, but Bitmap 2 Material (B2M) has been a life saver. B2M is great for quickly converting your photo sourced textures into PBR ready albedo maps, quick tiling, image-based normals and ambient occlusion, etc. Allegorithmic has some very powerful software. It’s worth knowing, especially for environment creation.
For any asset that’s very ornate, or organic in nature (rocks, concrete, etcetera) I will use Zbrush.
For a few of the ornate designs in the mansion scene I used splines, since the designs were fairly straight-edged and minimalist.
About Unreal Engine 4
Unreal Engine has always been my engine of choice, personally. It was the first game engine that I used (UDK), and I fell in love with it almost instantly. It’s a great engine for artists overall.
While UDK wasn’t always user friendly, it did allow users to pump out great looking artwork quickly, without the use of third-party features or plugins.
Unreal Engine 4 empowers the artist to have complete control over their own complex materials, particles, construction tools. The material editor allows me to create all-encompassing master materials that take into account everything from instanced parameterization to texture packing.
The new Blueprint system is also powerful for artists and programmers alike, allowing you to do anything from event scripting to construction tool creation. With the release of UE4, the user experience has become more friendly and the tools have become more powerful. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store for the future.
About Physically Based Rendering
PBR is quickly becoming a mainstream workflow in games, and for good reason. The animated movies industry has been using PBR rendering for years, and it’s great to see it finally become heavily integrated into the game industry as well.
Realism is a tough target to hit, but PBR makes it a much easier target. PBR takes into account real-world material value, which makes the workflow more about taking into account the materials that you’re trying to replicate.
PBR is a very powerful rendering system. It works very naturally, and it works very well in all types of lighting situations. Even stylized rendering techniques benefit from PBR, just look at work from Disney and Pixar. It’s here to stay, and it’s a huge leap forward for the games industry.
Lighting & Reflections
Having proper lighting is key. If your lighting isn’t great, the scene will look flat. It can make or break the overall scene. If your lighting is too dark, nobody will be able to see what you’re trying to show off. If it’s too bright, everything will be blown out and/or flat. Proper scene lighting is important for creating an atmosphere and an overall mood.
When it comes to the technical side of lighting, I use a mixture of baked and dynamic lights.
On one hand, baked lighting will give you a GI bounce – but at the cost of reduced quality and no run-time specularity. On the other hand, dynamic lighting will give you nice and crisp dynamic run-time shadows and specularity, with no GI bounce and more runtime cost.
UE4 has introduced stationary lights, which combine the GI bounce of static lights with the runtime shadows and specularity of a dynamic light. In my environments, I’ve used stationary lights for all major light sources – especially when they come in contact with metal surfaces (to get the real-time specular). I use static lights mainly for extra bounce fill lighting. This allows me to have nice high-quality shadowing and runtime specularity with baked GI shadows.
When I start out lighting the level, I’ll start with the largest and most prominent lights first. I tweak the values and re-bake until I’m happy with the base level of lighting. From that point I go in and add in the other layers of lights – from large and direct, to small accent lights.
When you’re starting on a new level, you’ll first need to understand exactly what you want to accomplish so pre-planning is the first and most important stage. When I’m in the pre-planning stage, I like to create a mood board comprised of anything that inspires me visually. I’ve found Pinterest to be an excellent source of inspiration. It’s also a great way to keep a library of references and inspiration.
Before I start building, I’ll determine what the goals of my environment are, and what a manageable scope will be. From there I create a whitebox scene (sometimes in Max, sometimes in Unreal) and comprise a list of assets.
Having your modules prepared before you start actually building an environment makes the work more efficient. Before starting modules, however, you need to have everything planned out. Whiteboxing within the engine or in a 3D program gives you a great starting place.
No matter how well you plan, there’s always going to be something that slips through the cracks. Being able to adapt to that situation and build off the modular system you have will be your saving grace. It really all comes down to planning and still being able to adapt as the work progresses.
Modularity is key in my workflow. Everything from the models and textures, to the materials. I like to create a few master materials, which allows me to quickly swap out textures and parameter settings for individual assets.
For speeding up texturing I’ve found Allegorithmic’s Bitmap 2 Material to be an excellent tool for quickly converting base photos into PBR ready textures.
When you’re building out your scene, be sure to create prefabs (or Blueprints – UE4) with your repetitive assets. When I’m doing my lighting pass – I always dial in the most prominent light source first, and then move on from there.
It gets faster and easier as you get to know the tools that you’re working with – you’ll learn shortcuts, develop hotkeys, and develop a routine that you can call your own.