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Lost of Civilization: Organic Environment Art in UE4

Le Guo talked about the way he worked on The Lost of Civilization project made during the Organic World Building in UE4 class at CGMA.


Hi! My name is Le Guo which means “river”, so my friends always call me “River”. Fl social channels such as ArtStation and Facebook, I like to use “fantasyasmuscle” as my artist’s name.

I am from China and just graduateв from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Before I started studying in the USA, I had worked as a 2D concept artist in the game and animation industries for almost 5 years. Now I am working as a Senior 3D Environment Artist at NetEase Games.

In SCAD, I choose to take the game and interactive development major. I like the process of making my imagination come to life. Since I am a professional concept artist, I have a lot of great ideas – and I couldn’t wait to implement them in games, so I decided to learn how to do it by myself. Sometimes, this idea seems naive because there is too much stuff to learn, but my imagination makes me stronger and I feel powerful to encounter any new challenge. That’s why I called myself ”fantasy as muscle”.

Studying at CGMA

I am a fan and supporter of CGMA. I have taken more than half of their 3D environment art classes and just finished Fundamentals of Houdini for 3D Artists last month. My first CGMA class was Intro to Environment Art with Peyton Varney and it helped me to land my first internship. Then I took UE4 Modular EnvironmentTexturing and Shading for GamesWeapons and Props for GamesFundamentals of Substance for Environment ArtOrganic World Building in UE4ZBrush for Concept & Iteration, and finally Level Design for Games. You know, there is nothing better than college life that allows you to study along with so many excellent game developers who give me new ideas and stimulated me to make my dream come true. I feel so honored and lucky to be able to do that.

The Lost of Civilization: Goal & Inspiration

The Lost of Civilization project is a part of the Organic World Building in UE4 class with Anthony Vaccaro. When I finished the class, I spent almost two more months finishing it and making it better because this is a huge project. Its main goal is to show the culture of my nation, Mongolia. Out civilization is great and old but for some reason, I feel the culture is lost nowadays and it is sad. Some video games (such as Ghost of Tsushima) might make my nation look very cruel and cunning, but in fact, we are peace-loving. We all grew up with a lot of songs about loving our mother and hometown – those songs are very elegant and if you have the chance, you should try listening to them. That’s why I hope that through my works, I can present the glorious history of my ancestors and at the same time raise people’s awareness to protect those civilizations that are getting lost.

In the beginning, I tried to find some information about my ancestors’ culture and even took a very difficult course on Medieval Architecture history in my university; however, that class did not include Mongolian architecture, and I couldn’t believe it. To tell the truth, there are very few relics left from the Mongol Empire. It is difficult to find relevant literature in the library or shops and even if I find something on the topic, it still has a lot of mistakes.

The main references come from the photos I collected and the memories of living in my hometown in Inner Mongolia. I also tried to find inspiration in some of the iconic Mongolian elements such as beautiful shapes seen in our traditional costumes which could be applied to some decorative elements of my building.


For the landscape, I collected a large number of pictures of nature which broadened my horizons and inspired me to create an open world. References from games are also very important for me – they help me to feel what kind of scene I want to achieve in the end. Besides that, I still paint a lot of sketches because I want the scene to have its own character and original features instead of being just a copy of something else. Last but not least, I can find some inspiration for composition and colors in some classical oil paintings.

Like other artists, I find the world-building process full of changes. In the middle stage, I reversed a lot of my original ideas and remade the scene. This was a hard time for me because I began to doubt whether I could achieve my goal. I found out that I spent too much energy on the design of the buildings in the foreground and lost myself in those infinite details. When I understood that I couldn’t fulfill all my ideas in a limited amount of time, I simplified the terrain,  filled the prairie with the ocean, and made the shapes of the architecture simpler and clearer. I paid more attention to creating the foreground and middle ground and also redrew the map and changed the style of the lighting.

For the landscape, I used the Sculpt tool in UE4 with a texture channel to create the undulations of the ground. When I needed to draw the hard surface like stone, I chose the hard shape texture channel and so on.

For the mountains and middle and small rocks, I used ZBrush. You might not believe me, but I spent nearly a week on carving those stones. After sculpting, they still had many problems, such as having different styles as if they came from different scenes. But now, I think Houdini can help me significantly in making such work more efficiently.


In the construction of landscape and the placement of objects, I followed some basic principles of composition and visual guidance, such as creating leading lines and using them to guide the eye through the picture. In fact, you should always remember there should be primary, secondary, and tertiary (PST) relationships in the picture. The direction and location of all elements should allow for visual guidance based on where the author wants the player’s sight to end up. For example, I used those roadside torches to emphasize the guideline and highlight the path movement, helping the player’s eyes move towards the main body of the picture and find the key point without losing the direction.

Of course, there are many other ways to help your work look better. For example, I used different vertical interspersed elements (such as trees) to enhance the sense of hierarchy in the whole scene and create links between different layers. The golden ratio is also an important element in the composition of a picture. I deliberately placed some key items in the golden section which played an effective role in cutting the picture and keeping various elements balanced.

As a side note, I think that learning some FX for games is also very useful for 3D environment artists. The torches created with particle emitters and the magic portal made with a shader played a very prominent role in the visual guidance of the scene. The special effects of the portal also enriched the scene and the storytelling.

Hero Props

The magic gate came from my first CGMA class, Intro to Environment Art with Peyton Varney. I put it in the scene, changed the style and tone of the original piece, and then reworked it, redesigning the pattern on the top of the gate and the surroundings and reinforcing the height. The new additions were aimed at integrating the gate into the new environment and adding more storytelling.

The design of the huge palace had many versions, but in the end, I had to make it simple so that I could finish my work in time. I think the key component of this project is the architectural style. As a world designer, I like to create my own style instead of just copying others’ work. I tried to combine traditional architecture and contemporary architectural style seen in many magnificent buildings in the USA.

Speaking of the material shader for the hero assets, I feel so lucky that I took the Texturing and Shading for Games class – the knowledge brought from it helped me in this project. I created and changed the auto vertex color material which can automatically identify the direction of the mesh, and I could also combine three more different textures when painting, which helps make the scene more vivid (by adding moss and cracks, for example).

For the sculpture of a centaur warrior, I used ZBrush. Mongols are a “nation on horseback”, so I thought this element could serve as an important symbol and improve the storytelling. I didn’t want to spend too much time on it though because it is a very weathered sculpture. I didn’t add too many details, just paid attention to the outline of the shape and added a layer of stone texture to finalize it.


The materials were made in a traditional way. At first, I made the high polys in Maya 2018, then baked them with the normal and ID maps in Marmoset, then added the original color and roughness maps in Substance Designer, and finally added the metal parts and first details in Substance Painter through the ID map. At the same time, I made two different types of material for each tilemap to enrich the scene. Some complicated shapes and patterns were made in Substance Designer with the help of SVG node.

I also tried to use scanning technology to create some stuff in the scene. Reality Capture can save a lot of time and energy if I need to add anything I have in real life in a game. The process is so enjoyable that I can not stop scanning all my toys.

For the ground materials, I created the landscaper material shader. Unlike normal vertex color materials which can combine 4 textures, the landscape material can combine many kinds of textures which gives me a lot of freedom to paint the terrain. These materials are all from the Quixel Mixer library.

Following my friend’s advice, I used the Dithering Node to make the rock and ground blend more naturally. This node is very simple, but very useful.


There are many ways to make plants. For some plants, I used ZBrush to sculpt the high poly then baked a normal map and imported them in the Substance Designer for final synthesis. Of course, I also generated various trees and shrubs in SpeedTree.

Due to a large number of plants in this project, I also chose to use the scanned plant materials in Quixel Mixer to create them quickly. The software cost money before, but now it is now free for all UE4 users, which is good news for every UE4 developer.

At the time, I spent a huge amount of money on Quixel’s stock of materials. I carefully selected the materials I needed, then cut and arranged them in Maya 2018. Remember that you should fix the vertex normal for changing the normal direction and vertex colors, and make sure they have the correct display and dynamic wind effect in UE4.

Open Custom Polygon Display, adjust the parameters, then select the plant the Vertex Normals, so that you can see the normal direction of the plant. Next, we need to get their normals all pointing outward. Then create a sphere that also displays its normal direction.

Next, you need to pass the normal. Firstly, let the parts of the normal lines they need to pass coincide, then select sphere and the plant, click mesh-transfer attributes, select according to the figure, and then start to pass vertex normal. After that, the normal direction of the plant will become yellow, and the normals will point outward like the overlapping direction of the sphere.

Then you can change the vertex color of the plant. Allow a green to black gradient from the top to the bottom of the plant. It can be combined with Shader Graph to make the plant move through the wind in UE4. In the production of rattan, I drew a Curve with EP Curve Tool and then created a 9-sided shape. First, I selected the Curve, then the 9-sided face, and then extrude Tool to extrude the rattan along the Curve.

Edit the model and make all kinds of roots and rattan. You can modify the shape after binding the skeleton on the rattan. The placement of plants requires a certain aesthetic and a lot of time which tests your patience.

Finally, I made a shader in Unreal 4 responsible for the translucency of plants and the effect of swaying in the wind.


Speaking of optimization, I don’t have a lot of experience with it. The scene is running at 20-45 frames with my computer’s configuration. The large area of the sea material takes up too much performance, and I think there’s a lot of space for optimization. Also, I didn’t turn on ray-tracing because I think it will crash my computer considering the size of the environment.


I just started to learn the lighting system in UE4, so I tried many ways to make this scene looks beautiful. I even accidentally changed the day into night and it unexpectedly gave a very nice effect.

I used a lot of photos as reference for lighting, they gave me the direction for lighting and style. I adjusted and rendered each type of light at least 6 times to achieve the result I wanted. Here, I want to mention that you can always make your work better by changing something over and over again.


There is nothing more exciting than making your dream come true. I love my current career very much and hope to have more opportunities to participate in game development in UE4 and continually improve myself in the game industry. Thanks to my family, friends, and CGMA. Keep up the hard work!

Le Guo, Senior 3D Environment Artist at NetEase Games