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3 Ways to Create the Best 3D Scene in a Budget Crunch

There will always be a project budget, whether it’s money or time. And no, this doesn’t just apply to renovating your kitchen. Resource limitations are an occupational reality that all artists experience. However, this doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the quality of your work. Instead, you need to optimize your process. Creative Director, Environment Artist, and CGMA instructor Clinton Crumpler provides three ways to deliver impressive modular environments on a budget, including:

  1. Leverage Resources Available to You
  2. Understand Your Limits Before You Push Them
  3. Optimize Your Scene

1. Leverage Resources Available to You

“Is it okay to use megascans or similar resources while building an environment?” Clinton often hears this question from his students. While the desire to be original and potential fear of borrowing ‘too much’ does make sense, you actually limit yourself quite a lot when you decide a resource is off limits.

In Clinton’s eyes, it’s absolutely okay to use other resources. Every asset in every scene is created by an environment designer, whether it’s you, an outsourced designer, or a megascan. Creating every asset from scratch would likely blow through a project’s budget in two weeks. Leveraging the resources available is something that will help your work, not harm it.

Clinton sees this concern conflating around technology advancements, but just because tech moves quickly doesn’t mean you can’t use it. “It would be like if I said  I’m using Photoshop, so I don’t want to use Painter because that’s cheating.”

"You want to get the best environment in the least amount of hours possible and make sure it can run on any engine."

Using resources for something like a chair or another small prop keeps you on budget while you focus on the assets that really count. As Clinton said, most studios don’t want you to build a 200,000 chair; “They want you to build the really important aspects of the scene that sells the character of the game.”

For example, one of Clinton's students Vitaly Zhdanov added a character piece in his Soviet warehouse. This one asset was unique and set the perfect tone. Do you know which assets carry the weight in your scenes?

f you want to see Vitaly's full process of creating the bunker, explore How to Create a Modular Environment Design: Abandoned Soviet Warehouse.

2. Understand Your Limits Before You Push Them

No studio expects everything to be made from scratch. And although technology has come a long way in removing and reducing limitations, they still exist. Clinton breaks it down like this: “Any kind of thing, any kind of resource you’re bringing to the engine to display visually to have rendered, it’s always something that’s pulling resources away from the computer.”

By thinking of your work as taking away other resources, it’s easier to adhere to limitations. For example, polycount. While advancing technology makes highpoly assets seem more obtainable, that will not always be the reality of your studio project. You should always aim to lower polycount where you can manage it.

On this note, Clinton said he tries to take tech demos with a grain of salt, because these demos promise advancements that won’t be a reality for most artists for years to come. “I remember back when Unreal 4 came out and they said ‘oh, we’re not going to have to bake lightmaps ever again,’” he laughed. “Here we are, still baking light maps.”

So when the Unreal 5 demo came out with the promise of infinite polycount, Clinton said you probably shouldn’t count on this. Work with the limitations on your project and in your studio. Enforcing restrictions early will prevent you from over-promising and under-delivering, and will also keep you producing great work at the budget you’re working with.

3. Optimize Your Scene

Many of Clinton’s students in UE4 Modular Environments actually come from working in film rather than games. Clinton says that while they like it and tend to do very well, their biggest struggle is optimizing their workflow and keeping polycount low. These two steps are the secret weapon of game designers, since they help you stick to your budget.

Cutting down on materials and optimizing the scene is a huge part of Clinton’s weekly feedback. He also does live demos in the feedback sessions to show how you can lower a 200,000 poly chair to something more reasonable.

“All the processes we talk about, including trim sheets, tileables, all those kinds of things - modularity in general - it’s always to optimize workflow so you’re doing the least amount of work in the best way possible,” Clinton said. “You want to get the best environment in the least amount of hours possible and make sure it can run on any engine.”


CGMA provides comprehensive instruction for concept art, illustration, and entertainment design in a variety of courses for a range of students, from 2D and 3D artists looking to supplement their college studies to industry professionals looking to stay up to date on emerging trends and techniques in the field.


If you want to see Vitaly's full process of creating the bunker, explore How to Create a Modular Environment Design: Abandoned Soviet Warehouse.

Watch CGMA Jam session with Instructors Clinton Crumpler and Kurt Kupser.

Read Clinton's breakdown of tone in Five Ways to Elicit Emotion through Environment Design.

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Unreal 5 Modular Environments

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