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Senior environment artist at Cloud Imperium Games Robert Stephens talked about one of his personal scenes, where he recreated a Fallout 4 vault with Cryengine. It would be interesting to see Fallout 4 build with a more technically advanced engine. Don’t get us wrong, the game looks great and it’s definitely more colorful than the original. But still, there’s something nagging back in our head, craving for better textures and detailed models. Robert basically did what a lot of the fans were asking for years – took Fallout to the next visual level. And here’s how he did it.
I’ve always been an avid gamer but I’d never really considered a job working in the games industry. I attended University, not really knowing what career path I wanted to pursue, and so ended up studying a general computing course that happened to include a 3D art class. I ended up working on small personal projects in my spare time, always trying to push myself to learn more. Looking back I didn’t really get a whole lot out of the course I studied but it did introduce me to 3D art and taught me the basics that I could then go and build on. After University I continued working on my own projects but it took me a while to land my first position. In 2008 I landed the role of Junior Environment Artist at Monumental Games in Nottingham (UK), working on a football MMO called “Football Superstars”. Unfortunately the games industry was taking a bit of a hit in the UK at that time and Monumental was forced to close. From there I moved to Madrid to work for a small developer called Virtual Toys and eventually applied for an open position at Crytek Frankfurt.
At the time Crytek had just started development on Crysis 3 which was the first AAA quality title I had worked on. I was given the task of working with a senior artist on one of the levels and I think I learnt more in that time than I ever did when I was teaching myself. It kind of opened my eyes to what goes into developing for AAA titles and how tight the deadlines can be! After Crysis 3 I briefly worked on a few of the multiplayer levels for RYSE providing some additional art support. Despite the negative reviews the game received, I think you have to admit that in terms of graphics the game definitely broke boundaries, and for an artist that’s always what we’re aiming for so it was a real pleasure to work on and a good introduction to the PBR workflow. Recently I decided to make the move to Cloud Imperium, I just really missed working on Sci-Fi stuff and felt that it was time for a change. Working on Star Citizen is quite literally my dream job! I haven’t worked on anything in the past that comes close to the sheer scale of what we’re doing with SC, and its very inspiring to work with a bunch of people who are all dedicated to realizing the same goal.
The Love for Fallout 4
I’ve always been fascinated with the post-apocalyptic genre in general. As a result Im naturally drawn to games like Fallout, Metro 2033, Underrail, etc but despite this I realized Id never attempted to do a post-apocalyptic scene. As Fallout 4 is nearing its release date, I thought it would be cool to do some sort of fan art, as a homage to one of my favorite game series. The reason I chose the vault entrance in particular was that I felt it was just so iconic in the games universe, the vault door opening being the last thing a player sees before entering the wasteland. The original designs for the vault door and its opening mechanism also intrigued me, I was always fascinated by its design and really wanted to recreate it in my own way, getting everything to look as though it could actually work, while trying to maintain the classic fallout design elements.
Building the Environment
I always start any project with some extensive reference gathering. For this scene those images included lots of military installations, bunkers etc. This always gives you a good basis to build on and also adds a lot of authenticity to the scene as the design is rooted in real world structures. The way I approached the actual production stage was nothing new, I always start an environment with a fairly detailed blockout. At this stage Im basically just throwing around shapes inside the engine that I find interesting, no normal maps or much texture work.
I feel that this way I have a lot of freedom to nail the forms and also get a good idea of how to break up a scene into individual components. I try to go into as much detail as possible at this stage, and also ensure that everything snaps to a common grid size. Without this “blockout” it can quickly become very difficult to predict if everything will fit together correctly in the end. I feel that this stage is one of the most important as a detailed, accurate blockout removes a lot of guess work and makes the whole process of planning and creating the scene much easier. I generally don’t move on from this stage until I feel I have a very good idea of how I want the finished piece to look. After finishing with the blockout, I then start actually modelling the geometry and baking out textures for the scene. I generally begin with the interior structure itself (walls, floor, ceiling) before moving onto fixtures (doors, pipes, railings, etc) and finally the props used to populate the scene. I like to also do a first lighting pass after I have the main structure finished just to get an idea of how I want the final scene to look.
I think for me the most time consuming part is always coming up with believable designs for the structures individual elements that both fit the Fallout style and also look as though they can actually function in the real world. The vault door opening mechanism was probably the asset that took the most time. I decided that I wanted some sort of track the mechanism would slide along in order to retract the door. I ended up looking at a lot of reference images of train undercarriages and hydraulic pistons and put together something that was hopefully recognizable as the door opening mechanism but at the same time was definitely something Id designed myself rather than just copied from existing Fallout designs.
It was very important for me right from the start that this would not look 100% the same as the vault entrance from the games. I just don’t see much point in copying exactly something that has already been done when its far more challenging and rewarding to try and put your own spin on something and do it in a different way. The struggle was trying to maintain that 50’s retro scifi style that Fallout is famous for. I still wanted people to look at the scene and recognize that it was from the Fallout universe so I spent some time looking at various concept art for the Fallout games and trying to pick out the common themes, also looking at old cars, buildings etc just to see what sort of design elements would bring that retro feel to the scene. I could have gone a whole different way and remade the scene in a totally modern way with high-tech stuff all over the place but I felt that wouldn’t really be a homage to Fallout anymore just another generic scifi scene. I’m not sure I achieved what I set out to do 100% but I’m still happy with the result!
Creating assets for the game was quite challenging as I wanted to design everything myself rather than use existing concept art or copy things from the actual games. Again I started out by gathering up as much reference as I could find of similar objects that exist in the real world. Then it was again a matter of using those references to block out an asset, and reiterate on the blockout mesh until I felt I had something that worked. From there my workflow was fairly standard, I created a highpoly mesh, made a lowpoly equivalent mesh and baked out the necessary maps before moving onto texturing them. I think the biggest challenge was trying to combine real world reference with Fallouts design language, and still making everything look believable.
I decided right from the start that I would try to create a vault that looked lived in and functional as opposed to run down or abandoned. I wanted things to be worn from use but not left to go rusty or degraded, I was kind of sick of doing rusty broken stuff for other projects so I wanted to go for something a bit different. Again reference images are key to nailing the correct look, getting the right amount of wear and tear, in the right places is only really possible if you have good reference to begin with. Pretty early on in the pre-production phase I decided that I was going to use Substance Painter for pretty much all the texture work.
I have used Designer before but I really like the way Painter works with its cool particle brushes, Photoshop style layer system, and the option to paint directly onto your mesh, its just a lot of fun to use! So after a few initial tests I decided to stick with it. Painter (as with Designer) also allows you to bake out AO, normal maps etc directly within the package which was a huge time saver and provided pretty much perfect results, fast, with minimal or no tweaking. Perhaps the biggest advantage I found using Substance Painter was that it allowed me to create material presets that I could then easily apply to other assets within the scene. Obviously much of the interior is constructed using the same materials ie painted metal, concrete, so it just made sense to keep all this stuff looking the same and presets were ideal for that. Also Painter has a great exporter that can be tweaked and calibrated to different engines, I found the standard CryEngine preset gave great results so making sure I got the right PBR values etc was easy as Painter pretty much took care of it for me!
Lighting the scene was definitely one of the most fun parts of the production process. Initially I knew that I wanted the interior to be quite dimly lit with some brighter patches of light highlighting important assets / areas of interest. I didn’t want the whole area to be super bright as I imagined that people wouldn’t spend all that much time in this area of the vault and so maybe some of the lights would be turned off / dimmed to conserve power. I guess you could say that the lighting setup itself is fairly standard, I tend to use multiple point lights (some with projectors, some without) to achieve the right look. Typically I have one light with a projector to define the “shape” of the light (in this case a rectangle as the light strips are covered). A second light provides the actual illumination for the scene (usually also with a projector, but with a much wider FOV), then a third light to fake some of the localized “bounced light”. Of course I also utilize environment probes for localized reflections and bounced light. Adding smaller lights to illuminated signs etc (in conjunction with material glow effects) also helps to “sell” the overall effect.
Picking up the Engine
Well this was really a no-brainer for me, I have much more experience using CryEngine and really didn’t want to start diving into a new engine and learn the whole production processes at the same time as producing assets for the scene. I think one of CryEngines biggest strengths is its ease of use, the material editor is very artist friendly with simple inputs for all your textures and material effects. I also like the fact that I can export a mesh or texture and see those changes instantly in the engine without the need to re-import the asset.
Fallout 4 Expectations
I’m expecting great things from Fallout 4! From what I’ve seen Bethesda seem to have raised the quality of the artwork quite a bit in comparison with Fallout 3, for example. I do however feel that they’re greatest drawback is the Creation Engine. The PBR improvements are definitely welcome but I still feel their engine has a long way to go in terms of rendering quality before it comes close to the likes of CryEngine3 or UE4. I think PBR in itself was a huge step forward for games in general and really helps to immerse the player in the world. That being said, for me games are always primarily about having fun and Bethesda in particular have proven time and again that they can create really engaging worlds that make you just want to explore them. Either way I cant wait to play it!