Long life to Embark studio and its fabulous procedural artists dream team !
truly excellent and inspiring to read. Would have loved to read some on the texturing since that is top-notch.
great environment with a lovely serene sense. Thanks for the write-up!
Alexandra (Peer) Fedkina did a super detailed breakdown of her awar-winning scene. It’s got modular architecture, scary matryoshkas and great material design!
Hi everyone! My name is Alexandra Peer Fedkina, and I’m 22. Currently, I live in Saint Petersburg, Russia. I entered the game development industry through a bootcamp program offered by Sperasoft, where I worked for a little over a year. Right now I’m looking for new opportunities to gain more experience in environment art.
Recently, I took part in ArtStation’s “Ancient Civilizations: Lost & Found” challenge from the Game Environment / Level Art category of the website. My entry took second place! This work summed up my full year in the game development industry. It was my first contest and my first fully made in-game environment, from which I learned a lot. There were some tricks that helped me make the production more efficient—I’ll cover some of them in the text below.
I struggled with planning this project. I spent too much time on the early phases of the production, leaving me almost no time (two weeks out of two months) for actual work.
This is how my production pipeline looked like in retrospect.
The contest itself was divided into two parts. The first part was for concept artists who each developed an idea into a finished concept that was judged separately. The second part was for production artists who either shaped their own idea or simply borrowed a concept from the first part and concentrated solely on production. I didn’t want to take someone’s concept as I had my own idea that I wanted to bring to life. And that’s how my work started, where my idea for the main feature was Matryoshkas!
Somehow I find this thing very funny, crazy and just cool. You can invent tons of cool ideas with them, especially for the environment. Many ideas didn’t make it into my final entry, and I want to get back to them some day. Alice: Madness Returns became an existing prototype of the atmosphere of madness while Dishonored 2 heavily inspired the in-game visual style.
It seemed to me that early Russian and Eastern architecture styles have many shapes in common—they are simple but also saturated with details. It was interesting to experiment by mixing them and see what happened.
I did a few fast sketches and the idea began to evolve, eventually becoming what you see in the final image.
My first stage in production was creating the blockout in UE4—I had approximately five different variants. Unfortunately, I spent too much time on this part chasing the “perfect” one. I wanted to make it better and more interesting; but, in the end, I combined two blockouts that each contained different elements I found pleasing. This became the base for my entry.
I had a lot of questions in my head but was pressed for time, leading me to make all the houses on the street consist of a very simple module.
For modules, I used only tiled textures and trims so there are no unique baked textures. My trump card, however, became the material shader, which you can see on the buildings’ walls. It allowed me to blend materials and use color tint for each.
The wall paint material had four materials for vertex blending—the main was just paint and I also used two additional colors for cool and warm variations as well as the base stucco material. This let me create a sort of watercolor effect on walls as well as add areas where paint was missing. The simpler variant of vertex blend shader can be seen on the roof of the destroyed houses.
The painted wall texture was the only one created in Photoshop as I wanted it to have brush strokes and it was easier for me to simply draw those as time was a precious resource.
The rest of my materials were made in Substance Painter. I made tiled base models in 3ds Max, added simple details in ZBrush and then put baked maps into Substance Painter.
For background needs, I made two simplified versions of the houses and embedded them with existing modules to create variations here and there, mostly of roofs and windows.
I postponed this important thing until the last moment simply because I didn’t know how I wanted them to look. Yet eventually, I had to take care of this so I made a sketch. And I ended up liking it’s silhouette and line art so much that I wanted to preserve it exactly the same while creating its 3D model! Here’s where the magic Projection function in Substance Painter came in handy.
When the main part was assembled it became clear that I lacked small details, especially some broken house pieces. How does one create a broken wall piece without sculpting, baking and texturing to save time? Easy!
I made two simple shapes and then let the decals do the rest of the work. I duplicated some edge polygons so that they floated a bit above the main mesh, made all edges soft (one smoothing group) and applied a stone rubble material with vertex alpha blend—this acted as the chipped stone side.
The stone rubble material was generated in Substance Designer using a cell pattern with some normal gradient to compensate for all soft-edge shading. The floating chipped geometry was UV mapped into a straight line for this purpose.
The mesh now had two materials—the main chunk had my painted wall material and the floating geometry had a chipped edge material where I vertex-painted the transition between them to give the edge a more natural look.
There are two moods in my entry: the bright, sunny street leads into cold, dark madness. To me the cold and warm lighting combination looks spectacular and the contrast between them makes the impression even stronger. Lighting contributes to the mood of my entry more than anything else. While the sunny part is mostly lit by a simple, direct light source, the dark part uses some fake tricks, like one-sided polygons, to cast additional shadows where I needed them.
Polygons with blurred emissive spots add more light accents. The part of the sky dome above Matryoshkas with stormy clouds is a simple plane with texture. I placed additional light sources around Matryoshkas to make them stand out from the rest of the background and to have some nice rim lighting.
The final stage of my work was making a presentable submission. I wanted to make a 360° video for the final submission so much, but I didn’t have enough time to fix some lighting issues that occurred in my last lighting build. Hence, I left this idea for later.
I did a 360° video of a polished version of my entry after the challenge was over. I used the Simple Panoramic Exporter plugin for UE4 for this purpose. It was hard to use because it doesn’t support most post effects, like color grading, and captures 360° video with seams when used with light shafts or approaching particles and ambient occlusion.
Those were two crazy weeks but at the same moment an absolutely amazing period of time. Contests are such a rush of energy for finishing a scene! My one last tip to all you artists out there? If you have an idea—don’t be afraid and go for it!*
*But make sure to have a solid plan laid out in your head 🙂