Overwatch environment designer Thiago Klafke gave advice on building awesome environments in Unreal Engine 4.
Thiago Klafke is an old friend of 80.lv. We first talked to create a breakdown of the awesome Throne Room environment, where he worked. This time he’s providing something absolutely unique. He’s created amazing Unreal Engine 4 environment creation tutorial (you can purchase it here) and shared some of this thoughts on the topic with us. If you want to learn more from the master, who created the arenas for Overwatch, this is your chance!
Hey all! My name is Thiago Klafke, I’m an environment artist in the games industry and I have been doing it professionally for over 8 years now. I originally come from Brazil, where I started my career making Counter-Strike maps at home and slowly built a portfolio. I currently work at Blizzard Entertainment as environment artist on Overwatch where I get the chance to work with incredibly talented people.
My previous companies include Ubisoft and New World Interactive. You can check out more of my work on www.thiagoklafke.com.
For those who are not aware, I started this tutorial series to document the entire creation of one of my environments. I recorded everything, from the day I started working on it, to the last finishing touches.
The initial drive for this came because this is something that I always wanted to have available, especially when I was learning. I have written other tutorials before and got a hugely positive response from them. So this time I decided to take a really long time and make a full walkthrough. You can watch my whole process, with no cuts.
I tried to make this environment as varied as possible, but I focus mostly on interior modular building. I cover a bunch of varied topics, like modeling in Maya, creating simple materials in Maya, making simple Unreal 4 materials, lighting etc…
I think a really good idea is to simplify whatever you are trying to do down to the basics first. Every artist works differently, so this isn’t really a rule, but I like to start simple, working on the basic stuff first and then work my way up to the big props.
If you follow my tutorial you will see how everything I made is super simple, however the final environment looks complex enough. This is something that I want to show other artists, that you don’t need incredibly complicated assets to have a nice looking environment. Of course i didn’t polish this as much as I would a personal piece for the sake of time, but I think given the time frame that I set to myself (I spent about 30 work hours on this) the environment turned out much better than I expected. It’s really a testament to “trusting the process”, solve one problem at a time and in the end you will have something good.
For this environment in particular I started with a few simple modular shapes, played around with them in Unreal and tried to see cool spaces that would come out of them. The way I like to describe my process is, I throw a bunch of rough shapes together and I see what “speaks” to me. Most of my personal projects came out like this. The environment really came through me, through persistence, rather than me having a grand vision early on and just executing it. Every artist works differently though, and this is just my personal story.
Working on a professional level is another story though. I can share a few tips:
1) Simplify the level design blockout. Try to snap areas to the grid and move stuff around to make it easier to reuse pieces.
2) Standardize. Make sure every door has the same dimension, every stairs follows the same footprint etc… the more you standardize the more you can reuse existing pieces.
3) Research. Grab a few reference pictures or concept art that describe what you need to make and keep them handy.
4) Pick your battles: Know when to make unique POI pieces and when to get away with reusable modular pieces.
It really depends on the style. These days a lot of people use Substance or Quixel. For this environment in particular I only used Photoshop, because the materials are so clean and simple it wouldn’t be worthy to go through the trouble of exporting them to another tool.
For PBR materials I’d really recommend reading about linear lighting and how it affects the look of your materials. I see people using a lot of contrast and old techniques that simply don’t work anymore. Try to keep your textures as bright as you can so the lighting really shines!
I only work with static lights because they give the best results visually. They are also much much cheaper too, and with the baking times being pretty good these days it’s much easier to bake your map and test frequently. When I’m working on a personal environment I’m always playing with the lighting as I make the piece. I experiment a lot, look at references and try to find cool lighting situations. Honestly lighting is something that I still have a long way to go to fully grasp, but one can get pretty far by keeping things simple and the visual read above all. Avoid contrasty or too saturated lights, unless you know what you are doing.
Lighting is a very complex subject and I’m always researching about it. I think we can learn a lot from other art fields, such as photography, movies and classic paintings.
That old saying, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts is something that I always try to remind myself of. It’s very easy as environment artists to get boggled down on a material or a wall without thinking of how they are going to affect the whole.
What I learned is, imagine that when your objects work well together you score combo “beauty” points. When everything works well together and nothing stands out the viewer tends to feel more comfortable. Always take a step back, look at your work from a distance and try to pick what’s standing out negatively. Then iterate on getting your elements to blend together as many times as you need.
This is something that I only started to take into consideration more recently. In the past, I only focused on making “cool” environments, but now the next step in my career is to try to give more meaning to them. I want to introduce ideas and food for thought. Our environments can be much more than just pretty pieces of art.