Course overview Course overview
Build the world you've dreamed of in UE4
In this course, students will create a game level from scratch in UE4. The course will cover UE4’s object placement and layout basics, foliage systems, and lighting systems. The course will help students better understand level and environment workflows, as well as how level designers, game designers, and environment artists fit into the game pipeline.
Organic World Building in UE4 WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
The more you know, the better.
Real heroes don't wear capes they teach
Lectures by Anthony Vaccaro
Anthony Vaccaro is currently an environment artist working at Naughty Dog in Southern California. He started his career at Bungie working on Halo Reach after graduating and obtaining his bachelor degree in Video Game Art & Design. After leaving Bungie he joined the team at Naughty Dog where he has been for the last 7 years working on critically acclaimed titles such as: Uncharted 3: Drakes Deception, The Last of Us, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and most recently, Uncharted: Lost Legacy. While at Naughty Dog Anthony has specialized in creating the largest and most open organic levels from the ground up done by the studio.
Organic World Building in UE4 Student gallery
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Jul 29, 2019 - Oct 14, 2019
Excellent instructor. It was great to have someone like Anthony sharing his knowledge with us.
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Building an Organic Environment in UE4
Interview with Leonid Prokofiev
Hello, my name is Leonid Prokofiev, I started to learn 3D by myself at the university. First time I worked at Threedex studio where I created interiors, exteriors and sometimes assets for games. Currently, I am working as a 3D Artist at Gameloft studio in Kharkiv, Ukraine. In this company, I had a pleasure to work on several games such as Gangstar Vegas, Spiderman, Asphalt 8 and Asphalt 9.
Every 3D artist is a designer in some way should not only create good assets for the scene but also know how to harmoniously fit them into the scene in order to hook the player. The main goal which I decided to study CGMA course of Organic World Building for was to improve the skills of creating an environment: gain some knowledge in order to know the way to properly locate the objects in the world, learn how to make the environment more interesting. And of course, I wanted to study Unreal Engine.
How the Project Started
The main idea was to create a forest area somewhere far away, which would be captivating not only because of its natural beauty but will also include man-made objects. It’s also very good when you choose a place, time period and culture before you start creating your own scenes. I decided to make a place where the plane crashed (it determines the time period) and a survivor’s house in a location similar to South Dakota. I did not have time to do everything that I planned, but at least I did something.
I found a few references for my location and started creating a rough top-down map of my environment.
Then I started to block out my location in 3ds Max.
Also, I created a list of assets that I will need to create for the scene: this will help with planning the time. After that, I started learning UE. I exported some large block out meshes from 3ds Max and began creating my environment using the Landscape tool.
First, I started making rocks. I uploaded a block out mesh of cliffs into ZBrush and began to sculpt, guided by my references. Just for the sense of scale, it is very convenient to upload an additional human reference or something that will help you understand the scale. I needed to create large shapes and tried to get an interesting shape. It is not necessary to detail much since I will add detail on the normals already in the material in UE.
As for low-poly mesh for organic objects, I created it automatically using decimation. Usually, I do it in ZBrush. Then I go to 3DCoat and adjust my low-poly mesh and do UVs there. There are very convenient tools for editing and creating seams plus organic objects are unwrapped very well.
Normal maps, ambient and height maps are baked in xNormal.
Creating organic objects is not an easy task, it takes a lot of time not only to create the model itself but also to set up the material in UE.
It is necessary to constantly use the rule of PST (primary, secondary, tertiary) form, Anthony (the instructor) always spoke about this. In addition to the large rocks, it was also necessary to create smaller rocks that fell off the large ones for a good transition from rocks to the landscape. Boulders and stones were sculpted in ZBrush.
To make a rubble pile, I reduced the number of polygons of my stones, created a nanomesh brush and scattered them on the ground mesh.
This is very useful and can be used to create textures in ZBrush. For the convenience of texturing and creating material in UE, you should thesubtools of your stones and ground fill with color, so that later you do not have to paint everything manually. It’s easier to bake vertex color in xNormal.
When I create assets, I almost always work in a combination of ZBrush for sculpting and 3DCoat for retopology, unwrapping and texturing.
To created the foliage, I began with modeling high-poly grass to make a texture with good alpha and rendered everything that I modeled in 3ds Max.
In the same way, I created branches for the fir.
In order to add variety, I created several large, medium and small clumps of grass. The variation in color was made in the materials in UE.
Next, I started creating my trees. I made several branches and arranged them along the trunk. Just like with the grass, I made several versions of the tree to create a variety. In order to later adjust the swing of the branches in the material, you need to paint vertex color of the branches before the stage when you arrange the branches. The same applies to the grass.
I did not have enough free time to make a water shader from scratch, so I found a river water tool in the UE marketplace and downloaded it. In the material, I made the river a little calmer, reduced the displacement, made the foam not so intense, reduced the color saturation and added more opacity to the water.
I downloaded the textures of the ground and made them seamless in Photoshop. Then I created normal and height maps in Crazy Bump. For landscape, I used the material with LandscapeLayerBlend node. This allowed me to mix 11 textures for my landscape. As a blend texture, I used height maps, so that the materials are mixed more naturally.
Some textures such as the texture of the rocks were made in ZBrush.
In 3DCoat, I created basic textures that do not need to be tiled. For example, this is the basic texture of the airplane. I used vertex color for many materials in order to blend a few textures and make the material more interesting. Sometimes I added a slope texture in the material using the WorldAlignedBlend node, for example on fallen trees it was moss.
I also did the basic paint of vertex color if it was necessary. For example for an airplane, I made a base color for rust.
Before I started lighting, I found references and created a mood board to understand exactly what I needed.
As the sources of lighting, I had only DirectionalLight and SkyLight. Lightmass settings were not changed. I left the light source dynamic and didn’t bake lightmaps.
For skylight, I used an HDRI map, I made a sphere with inverted normals for the background and assigned the material with HDRI on it.
I also added AtmosphericFog and ExponentialHeighFog and slightly adjusted the settings. In addition to the fog, I used planes with the fog texture which I placed near the rocks and above the water. In order to add more sunlight I also used planes with sun rays. In post-processing I added bloom, lens flares, change contrast. I made the picture in warm colors, slightly changing the white balance.
After that, I added LUT in the camera settings. I found the pack with LUT presets, chose the most suitable for my references and changed its influence.
To adjust the night render, I reduced the intensity of DirectionalLight, made the HDRI map darker, removed the sun rays and changed the LUT in the camera. I made the night LUT using the standard Photoshop settings.
One of the most interesting things for me as a 3D artist was the UE Landscape system. I also found interesting the foliage tool: this tool really helps to plant your vegetation over the surface very quickly.
Of course, I do not consider UE4 as an easy set of buttons that allows doing everything right. The tool is very powerful and has impressive functionality, so one cannot learn everything at once. However, if you set a goal and get enough patience, you will succeed!
Lessons of Organic World Building
Interview with Christen Smith
Christen Smith showed how he created an amazing modular set, which allows building beautiful northern-like environments in UE4.
Looking back, I believe my last article with 80.lv was almost 2 years ago on the Dead Space Cockpit, which in hindsight was at a very high polycount, rendered in Mental Ray, and textured with Mari, being that at the time I wanted to work in the film industry. At the time of making that piece, I was a couple of months shy of graduating Gnomon, still trying to find my way in the industry. For a long time at Gnomon, I had the idea of being a VFX artist, then a generalist, to which I again transitioned from into environment art exclusively. After my contract with Naughty Dog working on Uncharted 4 with the environment art team, I think that job became the bar for me, to which I compared every subsequent job too. I worked at Lightstorm Entertainment as a Lab Artist and several other VR contract jobs, such as being lead environment artist at a really cool startup called 3D Live, working on a project called Flatline, a VR experience about well…flatlining and witnessing dying and then coming back to life (the game is available on the Oculus Store, it’s a good time), then a contract as an asset creator with The Third Floor, a previsualization studio in Los Angeles for 4 months, which was a ton of fun. Since then, I’ve found my happy place working on environment art for games.
I happened to work on a couple of Anthony’s levels doing LODs and shadow proxies during my stay at Naughty Dog and discovered CGMA after noticing that several Naughty Dog employees were teaching classes there.
The new project started during the first week of Anthony Vaccaro’s Organic World Building class with CGMA during week 1’s block in phase of the assignment, where we had to come up with reference and an asset list for what we needed to build after picking any culture we could think of to base the manmade portion of our environment on. Coincidentally enough, I had just watched a really interesting documentary on Ghengis Khan and needed a snowy terrain to add to my demo reel. I think my main goal for this particular piece was to get the most I could out of the class while wanting to revisit the scene later on after I completed it. I have this ongoing idea that I’ll make an RPG in UE4 at some point and that this snowy tundra will be one of the biomes for it.
The main goal for the modular assets was to make something that could be easily rotated, scaled, and translated in many different ways to get a lot of reuse out of that particular piece. The hero cliff can be rotated around to get a lot of variation from each of the sides, as well as any of the rocks. There’s another mid-sized boulder that can also be rotated or scaled to squeeze a lot of mileage out of it as well. Since the class was only 10 weeks, we pretty much made one or two variations of each but were highly encouraged by Anthony to make more variations after the class was over to vary it up even more. For each different asset, I drew inspiration very heavily from my reference sheets we made during the first week and tried to come up with shapes that the hero cliffs and rocks could be for the purposes of modularity, kind of like Legos. For the hero cliff, I actually used my block-in geo (also mostly modular) for the basic shape and scale that could be brought into Zbrush for the sculpt. Even after the sculpting phase, it’s a good idea to bring the piece back into Maya to duplicate it around and make sure it works as a modular piece, then I continue with decimating the sculpt back down once I’ve checked to make sure it works.
Grid and scale
The grid in Maya, when set up properly, is a must for locking in scale and proportion. As an added measure, I like to bring in UE4’s default mannequin to further check scale and proportions of assets, or other meshes to further compare scale. The key challenge is creating an asset that complements the other assets in that they work in harmony with each other while thinking about primary, secondary, and tertiary roads. For one, the asset has to add purpose to the scene. For another, an asset can look amazing on its own but doesn’t flow well with other assets, as was something I learned the hard way when sculpting multiple iterations of the hero cliff, an asset that takes quite a bit of time to create. The 2 cliffs looked great on their own, but had very different directionality, so when placed side by side, they looked terrible. Adding to the gameplay is the most crucial part of making a pretty environment as well. If the asset detracts from or hinders the gameplay in any way, then it isn’t working and should be quickly removed. Establishing a good block-in with the gameplay as a top priority is what the assets are based on.
I’m in the process of teaching myself Substance Designer, so most of my textures are made through trial and error and skimming through tutorials, or through sculpting them in Zbrush and basing the rest of the material from the height map created there. As for the rock material for the bigger hero cliffs and boulders, I really wanted to get those deep cracks found in sheer cliffs, and am not great yet at making convincing ones in Designer, so I ended up sculpting those in Zbrush. To save on texel density, it’s a good idea to make even your materials modular, or getting as much reuse from them as possible rather than having one to one textures for every single asset in your scene. The cliffs, boulders, and small rocks all share the same material, as a result. Obviously, this also saves a lot of time, as you aren’t sculpting out a unique material for everything.
In games, it’s all about doing things the best way possible, but also the cheapest and fastest way as well. To get the snow on top, I used the World Aligned Blend node in UE4 and made scalar parameters to be able to edit these values on the fly. I think the biggest challenge, for me at least, is making a tileable texture where the viewer can’t tell that it’s a tileable texture. You really have to watch out for unique bumps or details in your texture that the eye can easily spot and see it being repeated over a large area, so finding the right balance of catchy but not standing out is the key to making the repetition subtle.
The dirt material was made in Substance Designer, mainly to add some nice break-up to the white of the snow.
The snow shader was made entirely in Substance Designer, which was a challenge since snow inherently doesn’t have a ton of detail to it, plus it’s white. The challenge, therefore, is in making a snow material that’s interesting, so I wanted to make the snow look as though it had been pushed along by the wind, making small dunes. A variation of the soft snow was created afterward to break things up. As a final detail, I added shinier snowflakes using a roughness map that sparkle when perpendicular light glances over it. I then created a landscape auto material with transitions and hiding tiling textures in mind. When the landscape material is a certain distance from the camera, a distance fade is applied to lerp into a “Far” texture with bigger tiling, which masks the smaller tiling pattern.
I think the main thing that sold the look of the landscape was in varying things up and having good soft transitions between the different materials that taper into the others, rather than harsh transitions that didn’t make sense or feel natural. I think the most important thing though is constantly referring back to your reference, which I used to be really bad at during my time at Gnomon. You really want to have that look and feel locked down early on and to stay true to it, and your reference has all that information in front of you. I think I mentioned this last time with my Dead Space article, but “an artist is only as good as his or her reference.”
I think the two biggest things that I took away from this class, on a conceptual level at least, were the value of your PST’s, or primary, secondary, and tertiary shapes, and the importance of good transitions. Your primary shapes are the biggest and first reads in any composition. The secondary shapes are the slightly smaller ones, where the tertiary shapes can be thought of as the little details. These also create nice blending and transitioning in your scene rather than harsh ones that can break immersion and really take you out of it. I also think this was Anthony’s overarching theme throughout the entire course, and he did a fantastic job of reinforcing the idea time and again. I learned a great deal in this class, as the teaching and delivery of it was outstanding, but if I had to take away anything from the class, it would be those two concepts.
Approaching Organic Environment Building
Interview with Casper Wermuth
My name is Casper Wermuth, and I currently work as a Lead Environment Artist at Ubisoft Blue Byte in Germany.
I was born in Denmark and took a Bachelor of Arts at The Animation Workshop, which is directed towards the film industry, animation, and VFX.
After working with VFX in commercials for a year, I got a small job in Copenhagen doing real-time dinosaurs for a museum which wanted an interactive experience for their visitors. That lead me to games, and I moved to Japan working for Shapefarm and Valhalla games on a title called Devil’s Third. I was sitting at a group of desks where everyone was a much better artist than me, so it was a great learning experience. It also opened my eyes for how interesting environment art actually is. After we shipped, I got hired at Ubisoft Blue Byte, where I helped wrap up Champions of Anteria and have now been here for 3½ years, currently working on an unannounced title.
The first time I did real-time environments was working as a freelancer for Shapefarm.
I was paid a flat rate per package, and I would get the money when the asset was approved.
My skill level was far below anyone else on the team, so I was working really hard, just to figure out that my approach had been incorrect and not optimized enough from a technical standpoint, and then having to redo everything. My hourly rate was therefore not exactly impressive on the first few deliveries, but I quickly caught up, and the overall experience just taught me a lot.
Making environments is interesting for several reasons. One of them is the variety of tasks involved in creating one. I rarely feel it’s a grind. Cliffs, boulders, grass, trees, terrain height, and terrain textures. It can of course also be indoor environments and sci-fi hallways, but I haven’t done those in a while.
It’s fun to work on so many things, although at times a bit frustrating, as I have a feeling I will never get good at any of it.
Another fun thing is bringing a certain mood or feeling to a scene, and trying to reflect that in each asset. Their shape language, colors etc. Something as simple as a grass asset will look different, depending on the general setting of the environment. Is it a happy place? A scary place? Does the player feel safe here, or is it a place where every living thing could potentially kill you? A wooden plank also looks very different depending on who made it. How new is it, how was it used? Even when the entire scene is made, some quick changes in lighting and post-processing can also dramatically change the feel of the entire scene.
All of this combined is why is find environments so interesting. There are so many small things that all come together to create a place, a mood, a setting, which may or may not exist in the real world.
This specific environment is very generic, and probably conveys minimal emotion, but it’s something I think could have pushed it to the next level, and something I am trying to become better at in my work in general.
I’m full-time employed as a Lead, which means I spent the majority of my time writing emails, instant messages, outsource managing, in meetings or talking to people. There can be several days in a row where I create zero content for the game, or where I only get to open up the engine those 45 mins in the morning before the others come in, and the day starts.
The goal of this course was to brush up on some skills and make sure I stay sharp, at least in terms of knowledge. I knew the 10-week course wouldn’t be enough time for me to deliver a stunning art piece, but I reached the main goal of updating my knowledge, and refreshing some things I used to know, but had forgotten.
The approach to this course was, therefore, to follow Anthony’s course completely, being a newb for 10 weeks, and asking as many stupid questions as possible, and failing whenever possible. The great thing about these courses and personal work, in general, is the lack of consequences. I can be stupid, trying out things I have no clue about, and generally fail all I want, without endangering a deadline or a project.
There was initially a setup of 6 cameras, also looking in the other directions, but it turned out I didn’t have time to do enough level art to make them work. Towards the end of the course I therefore only worked on these 3 very identical shots, focusing on the same focal.
In hindsight, I think this was a mistake. I tunneled myself into something more of a single shot, instead of an actual environment that would be interesting to talk around in.
During blocking out of the scene, I tried making a lot of leading lines towards the focal.
I overdid it, and the scene became extremely cluttered and impossible to read. I, therefore, had to tone back, deleting a lot of assets, to free up some space both for the eye to rest, but also for the scene to even read in the first place.
First cliffs in the engine. As this was the first completed asset, I ended up spamming it everywhere, completely overcrowding the scene:
A great example of how NOT to spam rocks:
Trying to expand a bit on the scene, to give some more breathing room. However, I didn’t go far enough in this direction, and the scene was still too tight:
The final composition where there is more room to breathe, but the lines are still directing the viewer to the focal point:
When lighting the scene, I used Light Functions to create the illusion of light passing through clouds, thus lighting the environment unevenly. It’s an easy and fast way to tone down all the irrelevant areas of the environment and highlight the areas I want people to be looking at. As an afterthought, I tossed this screenshot into Photoshop, and by using a Threshold adjustment layer, I can check how the values hold up.
As you can see, the path is standing out between the darker grass and cliffs, and there is a hint of readability on the focal. It’s not exactly a perfectly readable composition, so I could definitely have improved in this area. Ideally, the focal point and the path leading to it would be readable like this, and the background mountain would be less of a mess. The focal could also have had more of a dark ring (trees?) around it, to better contrast to the light background.
The last thing I did for composition was the colors. During some early iterations, I had much more trees in the scene, but they were too dominant with their bright red colors. I then removed them all, except the ones just around the focal, but that felt too artificial.
Eventually, I put in a few trees throughout the scene here and there but gave them another material instance with a Desaturation parameter. This enabled me to tone down all the background trees to a more muted color, keeping the saturation for the trees around the focal
The terrain is simply Unreal’s basic terrain, with no bells or whistles. Using the basic sculpt tools with high strength and big brush radius, you can quickly lay in the base topology, and then just smooth it out to get something less “hand-sculpted”. All interesting shapes come from the 1 main rock I have, that are simply poking out from the terrain.
If the look was more realistic, I would probably have looked into a procedural tool like World Creator or the like.
The scene has the main rock, a boulder set, and a rubble set.
The main rock is sculpted in Zbrush. I wanted to keep it relatively flat on top, so I could use it for directional leading lines in the scene. It’s made using standard sculpting techniques and alphas, and then decimated down to a bit below 10k triangles and brought into Unreal with just the normal map.
I then set up a shader that would lerp between 2 tileable textures using an RGB mask. Obviously, it could have used more than 2 with such a setup, but I didn’t have time for creating them. I created one with structure, and one which is smooth, to try and bring some more interest to the surface.
I then exported a random mask from substance, which was actually just to serve as a quick test to see if the shader worked, but it held up fine enough, so I never got back and made a better one.
Now the rock would have a unique normal map, and the 2 tileable texture overlaid on top of it.
The last thing was then to add a WorldAlignedBlend to have some dirt or grass on top of the asset, independent of the rotation. This controls the alpha of the last lerp, where I simply input the same grass texture as I used for the terrain. The vertex color is for masking out this blend, in case I don’t want grass everywhere.
Problems with the scale
This is completely my own fault, and perhaps one of those funny fails I am learning something from.
Anthony kept reminding us from day 1 that the scene should be kept small and manageable, as 10 weeks of spare-time work is very little to create a big environment.
The scene in blockout stage was therefore relatively contained. However, I wanted to have more depth in the scene and started expanding it, but because all the original measurements were quite small, it never felt big. It did and still does, feel more like a smaller whimsical world than a big valley somewhere. Anthony was talking about some scenarios where he would scale down background trees to fake a sense of scale, so I thought I would use that, and cut down the trees to 60% of their original size, except for the 1 tree in the foreground.
My logic was that this would establish trees as being big near the camera, and therefore seeing the smaller trees in the scene would create a sense of scale. It didn’t quite work out, and the scene, therefore, has a slightly awkward feel to it. I always intended to make the scene stylized, so I decided it wasn’t such a big deal, and I didn’t have time to rework anything anyway.
I, therefore, kept it in and hoped it would all be fine and go unnoticed.
..It didn’t, lesson learned
First block in Max:
The vegetation is actually very simple, so I’m glad to hear it worked for you. It’s some basic leaves, stems and flowers set up in 3ds Max and Zbrush, and then baked down on a single sheet. I then cut them from the sheet and arranged the assets from that.
The texture setup is also very basic, as these details are so small on screen, that it’s more about how it works in a mass, rather than how each asset looks up close. Each of these groups is therefore just a few different flat colors with a random mask, to create some color variation. To get a bit more large-scale color variation, the shader has an Absolute World Position driving the UVs of a mask, which I used to tint everything to a slightly different hue, just to get some soft large-scale variation.
The grass and tree canopy is done in exactly the same way, except they each have their own sheet.
Because of the time constraint, all of the graphs are very simple and unsexy. I did get time to come back and iterate a bit on some of them, but most of them are just bashed together in the most simple way possible and left like that.
As an example, the pebble texture I use around the rocks, to visually blend them into the terrain a bit:
A shape which is warped a bit, then getting some planes from a gradient
I duplicated this part 5 times, and just changed the random seed on the perlin, to have them warp differently, and then plugged them all into 3 Tile Sampler nodes.
1 for large shapes.
1 for medium.
1 for small.
The large Tile Sampler node got a few Slope Blurs to break up the shape a bit, and then I blended those 3 together using height blend.
This is literally the entire diffuse. A random grunge into a gradient map to get some overall color variation, and then a few Uniform colors to get some more deliberate colors in specific areas. Using a histogram select to get the lower crevices, and some of the default dirt masks for further variation. That’s it!
The other textures, for example, the base dirt\gravel texture is done in exactly the same way. The base shape just has less of a bevel, and therefore becomes flatter and trampled looking.
Again, the same for the grass put just putting in a splatter circular to get more of a grass clump look.
Once I had the pebble, the grass, and the dirt, the other textures are just height blend between those. So when I needed to transition from grass to dirt, I wanted a texture with dirt and just a little grass.
I then simply blended between these 2 graphs, using a mask to cut away from grass, and an HSL node to tint the grass in a slightly different color.
I’m aware these are not exactly mindblowing graphs, but perhaps it can help someone out there to understand that even basic simple graphs can still go relatively far when the focus is a scene in its entirety, and not the quality of each texture. I’m also a big fan of iteration and generally work like this anyway. Getting something quick and dirty into the engine, and then iterating on it until it looks good.
I’m very new to substance, but I still chose this tool over Zbrush, as that would enable me to go back and iterate on the textures later if time allowed. I didn’t get more time closer to the end of the project and ended up just closing the project as it was.
Advice from Anthony Vaccaro
Anthony was very thorough and covered everything anyone would need to know to make an environment like this. During the feedback sessions each week, he offered advice on many things and gave special attention to the topics each of us preferred to dive more into.
Something we talked a lot about is how the primary, secondary and tertiary reads are, and transitioning nicely between assets and between different areas of the level, using that principle. If I have to be very specific, then the importance of PST and transitions is what I would say is the biggest takeaway I have from the course.
However, if we are talking about something less specific, I think the most important lesson I’ve (re-)learned from the course was, that there is no secret technique, no hidden magic button, to get a good end result. It’s all about composition, color, design, leading the player. It’s all about art.
I was yet another student back in school, who was neglecting this, and I focused more on the button-pressing than the actual art. During my career, I’ve learned several times that the technique you use is not the deciding factor for creating an emotional response in the audience. It was good to see that even the workflows behind Uncharted 4, which is one of my favorite games in terms of visuals, is not doing anything special or anything that I am not aware of. They are simply great artists and spend time iterating until they get it right.
It, of course, depends a lot on the game it would have to be used for, and how much resources would go to characters, weapons, effects, sound, UI etc etc.
If this scene had to be production ready from a technical standpoint in a more generic way, I would need to create some more custom LODs for the vegetation, and have them cull much quicker. I also used some fairly large lightmap resolutions on trees, and would probably have to reduce the lightmap size to half, and actually do some proper lightmap UVs, as they are now all automatically generated.
But again, it would very much depend on what game it would be for, what the focus would be on.
Setting Up a Tiger's Nest in UE4
Interview with Yulu Xue
Check out a little writeup from Yulu Xue, where he shared some of the techniques he learned during the recent CGMA environment production course.
My name is Yulu Xue. I’m a 3D artist living in Toronto, Canada. I’ve been worked on various types of games on multiple platforms in the last couple of years. Titles I worked on including Fragmented, Snowboard Party 1 & 2 and BBC Top Gear: Drift Legends.
Before I took the course, I mostly worked on hard surface models and city scenes. I really want to step out of my comfort zone and expand my skill set.
Special thanks to my wife who paid for the course as a birthday gift to me. Best gift ever!
The project started from gathering a bunch of references and broke them up with the PST method Anthony Vaccaro introduced during the first week of the course.
I made a blockout scene in Maya with some very simple geometry, based on a very simple (nasty) 2D map I drew. With the help of the blockout scene, I had a rough idea of how big my scene would be and how many assets might need to fill it up. An asset list was made to help to track the time used on each asset and the progress of the project.
Modularity is king. It applies to the organic world as well. Given the time we had for the course, I made 1 hero rock, couple smaller boulders and set up rubble piles. The models were done in ZBrush and brought to Maya and Substance Painter for UVing and texturing.
I worked on the “land” space after placing the blockout meshes into the UE4 scene. The landscape system in UE4 is powerful and easy to use. Anyone who has experiences with sculpting software solutions will get used to the tools within UE4 very quickly.
I tried to keep the scale of the scene relatively small. To get the scale right, I used a human model as my scale reference when I make my blockout scene. Therefore, I didn’t need to worry about the scale in UE4 too much later on.
I used a plugin for the water called River Water Tool with Flow Buoyancy by James Stone, since crafting a running water material could take me days (months).
I created all my terrain textures in Substance Designer. With the power of Designer, I can adjust my textures and create variations very quickly. Within UE4, the powerful landscape material system helped me blending all the materials I made in Designer. I used heightmap to control the blending with the Landscape Layer Blend node. To make a cleaner graph, I created material functions for each layer.
I also used vertex paint to blend materials on static meshes, so that I can have 3 different materials on one mesh. The alpha channel of the vertex paint was used to adjust darkness and roughness level of the surface. In this way, I can paint the wetness area of the surface base on the placement of the mesh.
I used only a skylight and a directional light in the scene. When I was constructing the scene, I set my main directional light at a neutral value of 3.1415 and kept everything else by default, based on this article by Alireza khajehali.
After I finished populating the environment, I started playing with the lights. I ended up with a sunset light condition that created contrast on the rocks and a nice reflection on the water surface. I also adjusted skylight intensity to brighten up the shaded areas a bit.
I love the feeling of pushing myself out of my comfort zone and learn stuff. This course contains stuff that I wanted to learn all the way from the conceptual to the technical level. Luckily, Anthony gave us a lot of useful pieces of advice that helped to overcome these challenges. By dividing references and concepts into PST, primary, secondary and tertiary, I got a better idea of the scene that I was making. I should also point out that the weekly Q&A sessions were extremely useful to iron out the questions students had during the course.
Snowy Village in UE4
Interview with Yuko Yokoi
Hi everyone! My name is Yuko Yokoi. Currently, I work as a Senior Environment Artist at DigicPictures in Hungary, Budapest. DigicPictures is mainly involved in the production of game cinematics. Recently, I was involved in the production of cinematic movies such as Call of Duty: WWII, Destiny 2 – Forsaken, League of Legends – the Climb, and the latest movie is League of Legends – AWAKEN.
When I was in college, I studied graphic design and wanted to work for a game company ever since I was a child. So, after I graduated, I learned 3D software and I started my career as a 3D artist. At first, I started working for a small company, then transferred to Kojima Production at Konami Digital Entertainment and was involved in the Metal Gear Solid series as an Environment Artist and Technical Artist. After that, I worked on the TV series “Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter” as a Character Supervisor and “Street Fighter V” as an Environment Artist at Polygon Pictures Inc. Thereafter, I also worked at SQUARE ENIX.
As an artist, I love studying to improve my artistic level as well as get involved in great works of others. No matter how busy I get, I always find time to study. While studying on my own, I discovered CGMA and decided to take Anthony Vaccaro‘s Organic World Building in UE4 class because, at that time, I was just getting interested in studying UE4.
The theme and the concept of this work was a snowy village in the Japanese countryside. The course lasted 10 weeks, so in order to finish every task, time-management was extremely important. I am a full-time worker, so I spent around 3 hours after work and weekends to complete the tasks. I made a to-do list as I was limited in time.
I work efficiently utilizing my past experiences. Basically, I re-use various models. Even when producing singular assets such as houses, ground textures, cliffs, trees, plants, and rocks, I produce these works efficiently by re-using various works.
The thing to be careful when re-using models is not to exaggerate its uniqueness, otherwise, it’ll be obvious that you re-used something. It is best to approach re-using easier (moving, scaling and so forth) and also to create shapes that don’t look obviously repeated by focusing on the overall balance.
It is most effective if you block the model of a house in advance and have each texture and material assigned, organized and ready to go.
First, prepare textures such as a wooden wall one. Then, in ZBrush, create a large model which would be the basic wooden board. Lastly, overlay it with grain texture.
Once the materials are completed, you can easily proceed with texturing in Substance Painter.
The cliff model was sculpted in ZBrush from scratch. First, I choose the basic concept and then analyze the picture. During this step, I think of the possibilities of re-usage and sculpt silhouettes and details that will be the easiest to use.
Avoid making the ratio between the plain surface and the surface with detail equal for all the surfaces. Just like the one in the picture, make the ratio to be 50:50 for one surface and 80:20 for the opposite surface. You can select them for later layout.
Although it is easy to get carried away and create many details during this stage, it is best to keep the details on the mid-level.
It is most efficient to place a fine subnormal on the surface in UE4. This also helps to reduce LOD.
Finally, remesh the polygon with Decimation Master to create the final low polygon model. Bake from low to high model and create a necessary map such as a normal map.
I also made two kinds of seamless textures to be used on rocks and cliffs that I mentioned above. One is for detailed surfaces such as rocks and stones, and the other is for a basic ground surface.
A rocky mountain by the riverside was also sculpted from scratch in ZBrush. I decided that I would the re-usage there, so I produced it in the same way as the cliffs. To make the production more efficient, I first made several kinds of rocks that I’d re-use. The textures were created using Substance Painter.
At the final stage, using the above mentioned fine seamless textures as subnormal, I have assigned them on top of the rocks in UE4.
In this project, I have created a type of conifer tree and a withered tree, both with snow, and reused them in the layout.
The important aspect of this work was how to put withered weed on top of the snow. I have made several kinds of weed. I have created several kinds of weed different in length and applied them on in UE4 while being conscious of the compositional balance.
For the conifer tree, I have created one tree trunk and three types of basic shape branches with low polygons. The combination of them ended with ten different kinds of branches in total. High polygons were used for the lowest part of the tree which is the closest part to the player. For the section that is the furthest from the player, I only applied one layer of low polygon branches. This way, I was efficiently arranging them to reduce the number of polygons. Always be conscious of the height and perspective of the player, it will allow you to approach the assets efficiently in terms of polycount. This is the fundamental aspect of game production.
I saved production time by reusing the withered trees I have already created in the previous project. They were created with ZBrush and transferred to low poly with Decimation Master.
The withered weed model was created out of a texture from Quixel Megascans. After that, I checked the behavior of wind in UE4.
As for tips when applying grass, it is best to consider the player’s perspective and to think about where you would like to lead the player to. This way, you can narrow down the specific area where you need to apply the grass. It’s also best to consider storytelling. For example, you can apply bushes in areas where you think the players won’t go as often or reduce the amount of grass where you want to exaggerate the snow. What is also important is to balance the positive and negative spaces.
Snow & Soil
The snow and soil were created procedurally with Substance Designer. Here, I referred to the tutorial by Daniel Thiger for making the snow shader. I learned the basics from it. created my snow shader and arranged it.
I used a winterly landscape that’s full of snow as a reference, but the surface is made with a bit of exaggeration. Knowing that in later stages, I will be making adjustments for the lighting. I adjusted the volume of surface information using NormalMap. I have also utilized SpecularMap to apply glittery white particles on the surface. Without this step, the finished work would be very different.
I made the conscious decision not to work too hard on arranging the soil since I knew that the main focus would be the snow. Using the soil, grass and snow layers I’ve created, the paint was applied with a mask in UE4.
I created this kind of lighting because I wanted to express the atmosphere of the morning in the winter time. I also wanted to express the icy coldness in the air and the beautiful view of the morning sun.
The lighting process was very simple. I used Skylight and Directional Light and later used Post Process Volume. The snowy landscape with plenty of snow on the ground is full of white color which often has little information thus creating a feeling of loneliness. I have added the shadows on the ground which increased the amount of information.
The things I especially focused on while creating the winter scene were shadows, bounced lights and fog. If you take a look at the reference image, you can see that the color of the shadow is reflecting blueish purple colors of the blue sky. It’s possible to create and express a winterly atmosphere by adding a tiny bit of blue to the lights and shadows. To do this, I first selected the area I needed to adjust and used the post effect to do the readjusting. In this work, I was also dealing with sunrise so I have added a few warm colors to achieve a more complex coloration.
The usage of light bounced off the snow was also very important. For this, I have made adjustments in post effect as well.
When doing the lighting, it is best to study the reference image and analyze what and how much of the elements are missing. I believe that narrowing down these necessary elements should be arranged and applied appropriately rather than simply guessing.
This project gave me a great opportunity to learn UE4 functions as I had a chance to work through up to lighting in it even though I had some experience at work. Also, I created the expression of snow and cold season for the first time, and that was very challenging. Since I could learn various things, I enjoyed creating them very much. Anthony has taught me the fundamental methods to use and gave tips on what to be aware of when creating a game project, I learned a lot from him. There’re different engines, but UE4 is easy to get started for anyone and it would be optimal for studying the basics of game production.
I’ve noticed that in recent years, the boundary between cinematic and real-time movies was small. Real-time technology will continue to evolve and receive attention and, personally, I would like to get involved in real-time projects in the future. Therefore, I would like to keep studying this field.
Temple in the Mountains
Interview with Emily Henderson
Joining a CGMA Course
The Up Top project was made at CGMA course Organic World Building mentored by Anthony Vacarro. My main goal was to learn how to build a world on a larger scale. I made small scenes and environments before but didn’t try anything large. When I play games I tend to really get into the organic levels so I was quite interested in learning more about the production.
Choosing a Concept
I often look at works by concept artists to gather ideas and inspiration for new projects, and I came across a project by Stanton Feng that really inspired me. It reminded me of the floating mountains in China. The scale in the concept piece was far too large for me to replicate during Anthony’s course, so I decided to make my own rough concept based on Stanton’s work.
Blockout & Modularity
This landscape starts as a very blocky blockout. Generally, I’ll use spheres for rocks and cylinders for trees. Using these blocks I build up a general idea of the space and the player path. I set up a foreground, middle ground, and background. Unreal has a pretty good landscape tool that I use to build up a base ground in these areas.
Modularity is very handy for making larger scenes. The entire level is made with just a few different shaped rocks. The key is making each rock look very different from all the angles. That way they can be repeated in the level several times without the repetition being very noticeable.
I always build levels from largest to smallest details, so naturally, after I make the rocks I move on to the trees and foliage. I sculpt and poly paint a high poly branch and leaves in ZBrush. ZBrush has a handy tool (ZGrab) that allows me to grab images from the viewport and export them as a Photoshop document. From Photoshop, I edit and make the needed texture sheets. I actually explained my whole process in the previous 80.lv article that featured me! It’s a very useful technique I learned at CGMA. After making these sheets I form my geo in Maya starting with the smallest branch and working my way up to the large branches that get attached directly to the base trunk. Making the trunk “live” in Maya allows me to quickly attach each branch accordingly.
Color is generally added at the beginning during the ZBrush phase, but I have also created some shaders in Unreal that allow for very quick changes and iterations for just about anything in my scene. Unreal, like many other engines, has a very nice foliage tool that allows me to quickly populate or reduce trees through painting. This allows me to make very fast changes to the level if I want to.
The water plane and shader actually come from one of the free sample scenes in the Epic Games store (“Water Planes” and “Particle Effects”). I am currently trying to learn VFX in my spare time to make a water shader and waterfall particles of my own.
Lighting was a huge hurdle. This is the first large scale level I’ve made and there were a lot of technical challenges I ran into. The direct light takes care of the main shadows, allowing for new shapes to be formed by shadows and negative space. Spotlights are the next step, I highlighted the important areas in the level like the red tree and the temples above it. My last step in lighting was to place lights in the areas that wouldn’t exist in real life, such as mysterious lights appearing from behind the trees.
The biggest challenge was getting done as much as I could in just ten weeks. I have recently gone back to it to sculpt some new background mountains and change some of the fog and lighting settings. In order to overcome the challenge of time, I relied heavily on the help from my peers. By the end of ten weeks, I had spent more hours looking at the level than I had slept so it was important to have a fresh eye to spot things I couldn’t notice. Art can always be improved but at a certain point, it’s good to move on to the next project. I am going to come back to this level later to improve it, though!
Rural Chinese Environment
Interview with Jiaming Chen
My name is Jiaming Chen, I am an environment artist and currently work at Netease Games in Hangzhou, China. I graduated from Jilin Animation Academy in 2013. After graduation, I joined Snail and participated in the production of King of Wushu working in CryEngine 3. In 2016, I entered Netease’s Thunderfire Studio and took part in the production of Justice Online.
I spend most of my time working as I like my job. I’m always looking for a chance to learn new things and develop further, so I attended the CGMA course Organic World Building in UE4 and definitely learned a lot during the studies.
Reference & Inspiration
Some time ago, I was very obsessed with Ryuichi Sakamoto. In his documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Cod, he talked about the inspiration he drew from the forest sounds to compose music. His compositions stunned me: I could feel the earth, the insects, the birds, and other natural sounds. I wanted to make a scene that would evoke the same feelings.
At the same time, I didn’t want the environment to be composed of organic elements. Once, I saw an article about earth structures (I think it is a very distinctive type of structures in China) and decided to implement them in my scene.
I collected some references for earth structures, bamboo forests, rivers, and vegetation and moved on to the production.
I only had ten weeks to finish the scene, so I had to work efficiently. In the first week, I drew sketches, made a blockout, placed it in Unreal, and adjusted the layout of the scene. At first, I wanted to create a terrace but Anthony told me that the scene was too big to finish it in ten weeks. So I narrowed down the walkable area, removed the distant terraces, changed some rocks, and decided to make one of the earth structures bigger, marking the center point that would help to guide the player’s eyes.
I chose to use World Machine to create the mid-range of the scene.
In World Machine, I used a lot of layout nodes to recreate my blockout. After the large structure was set, I added a slope because I wanted my scene to be a bit slanted.
The surface map was created with the help of the b&w image generated in World Machine.
I made two large sets of rocks for the cliff in ZBrush. During the process, I mainly paid attention to the main shape and secondary forms to ensure that the rocks are large enough, I did not pay much attention to the small details because I was going to achieve those through the Normal map.
I made a simple mapping which would give me a better blend between the rock and surface textures.
Making Mixed Materials in Unreal
My earth structures use a mix of materials, and there are many ways to mix textures in Unreal. I use Lerp node to mix 4 textures and add a heightLerp blend to make different textures produce different heights and edges.
In total, I made three versions of the bamboo. At first, I made several sets and each group had three different heights. However, when I placed them in the scene, I found out the bamboo area was beyond my budget. Therefore, I split them just into three types: a tall, low, and bent bamboo.
I made leaves in 3D software and then imported them into SpeedTree to generate the foliage.
I used physical force to make the bamboos have different degrees of curvature.
Similarly, I made a lot of grass and plants.
I aimed at giving the plants strong highlights so that they could look very shiny and have a transparent effect. At the same time, I wanted to animate the bamboo in SpeedTree, so I used two sets of materials for bamboo and the rest of the plants. In the materials, I added the effect of opacity and self-illumination so that the light could be adjusted.
Here are all my organic assets:
In terms of lighting sources, I only used DirectionalLight, SkyLight, and Lightmass, and turned on dynamic lighting. I also added AtmosphericFog and ExponentialHeighFog. At first, I used a very strong fog effect as I like this visual effect a lot but it made the scene look very gray, so I reduced it.
In post-processing, I used a LUT. First, I downloaded a LUT from the Unreal documents, then made a screenshot and adjusted the color tone in Lightroom. I went for the movie-like colors, but later on, I lowered the intensity of the LUT.
Winter Environment in UE4: Assets, Plants, Lighting
Interview with Evgeniy Vegera
Hi, everyone! My name is Evgeniy Vegera. I am an environment artist and currently work as a lead compositing and modeling artist at an animation studio. When I was a kid, I played around with CryEngine 1 – it was an interesting but hard experience as I didn’t have enough materials for learning. Later, I went into graphic design and started learning 3D by myself in school years, then completed a course on compositing at Moscow Film School. In the next 4 years, I had been working as a compositing artist in movies and advertising and at the same time studying 3D and game engines. Now, I returned to environment art again and this time I am not going to change the path.
Courses help you to grasp the basics of the industry and lay a solid foundation for future work, that’s why I wanted to take one. I was born in a small town by the sea where nature is very close and it became an inseparable part of me. Probably, it somehow influenced me when I chose the Organic World Building course with Anthony Vaccaro.
Approach to Natural Scenes
I like to create nature down to the tiniest details and blend materials in Substance Designer to make them flow one into another – this helps to create a believable landscape. It so cool that nowadays we have all these game engines like Unreal Engine 4 which allow seeing the results without long rendering: light, raytracing, plant movements, and particles are calculated in real time.
At the very beginning, I decided to make a rocky landscape. I found a place called The Cirque de Gavarnie, in the central Pyrenees, Southwestern France, and made quite a big reference board. There were environments, rocks in different seasons, with snow and without, with plants and without; references for rivers and waterfalls, different color schemes, sunsets, a dense fog, and snow storm.
When making an environment, it is important to put first things first and meet the deadlines. Your time for each task is limited. Many artists begin to create an immense open world but aren’t able to finish it because filling such a large space requires way too many assets. That is why we have to limit ourselves. The smaller your location is, the more time you can devote to each asset, aiming at an AAA level. I had this mistake, too, and later reduced the size of my location by half.
Assets & Scale
My main approach to natural level designs is to create a level from assets ready for multiple reuses. Making rocks and mountains in 360°, you will be able to get versatility without many efforts by simply placing them at different angles. It also greatly helps to build the immersive gaming experience by improving the performance.
A lack of assets can be diversified by a few tileable textures with different level of detalization. Unreal Engine with its vertex painting gives the variety in textures via vertex color channels. All the textures were made in Substance Designer with Parallax Occlusion Mapping to make the landscape material more vibrant.
While designing a city, you need to understand the purpose and scale of the locations, be it a highway or a cozy park. While in case of a park or a city center you can rely on the size of the entrance doors or the width of the roads, how can we understand the scale in a forest or mountains? For this, I used a medium-sized character model from Unreal Engine 4 standard asset pack. You can also download this model from Clinton Crumpler absolutely for free. Use it to pick the right size for paths, grass, stones, and trees. Also, if you are going to record a video, don’t forget about finding a proper place for the camera. Always place it at the eye level of the character to show the scale to a viewer.
Vegetation & Snow
For the trees, I chose procedural generation in SpeedTree over sculpting. Before that, I had some experience with SpeedTree, so I did not have doubts about what workflow to use. This software allows quick creation of various plants according to the desired settings.
For the secondary plants, I used more traditional methods. Grass, leaves, and branches were made in Maya, from photo textures applied to the slightly bent planes. The textures are from royalty free textures.com and Quixel.
Movement is life, and I applied this principle to the plants in the scene. I used a standard approach: movable parts are colored with a color of one of the three channels, while in Unreal the shader is connected to the SimpleGrassWind via the corresponding Vertex Color node – that’s it!
Without snow, the winter landscape would have lost its authenticity. I took particles from the Particle Effects scene and slightly adjusted the speed, direction, and density.
At a certain point, I decided to increase the number of locations from 2 to 6. It is not a problem and will not take long if you have enough assets and materials. Light baking, however, turned out to be a pain as it took way too much time during the tests, so I ditched the static lighting in favor of dynamic. One more problem was the lighting schemes (unique for each scene). They consist not only of Directional Light but also Volume fog and Skylight. I ended up dividing the schemes into levels. There was one main level, a separate level for all lighting schemes and one more level with geometry. In situations like this one, such workflow works fine. In some shots, I added God Rays, in Unreal Engine they called Light Shafts and can be found in Directional Light menu. There are no special settings here – just keep adjusting until you get something cool.
CGMA courses are a great possibility to learn about right pipelines within a short period of time from professionals from AAA gaming studios (in my case, it was Naughty Dog). For sure, all of that can be learned from the Internet but you will not get professional feedback without which you might be trapped in a bunch of your own mistakes.
You will be taught the standards the whole industry follows. After that, you can be sure that you are doing everything right. Many thanks to Anthony Vaccaro and all CGMA team for a well-organized process.
For those who are reading this – never give up on the way toward your goal, practice a lot and you’ll definitely succeed.
Winter Scene: Environment Building Tips
Interview with Mauriccio Torres
Hello! I’m Mauriccio Torres and I currently work as a Level Artist at Ubisoft Chengdu. I was born in Lima, Peru, and I got my bachelor’s degree in software engineering by the age of 22. While my background was very technical I’ve been always fascinated by art for games and eventually became a self-taught artist.
Just before graduating I founded a small game studio called UNF Games with some friends to level up our game-production skills. Since the industry in our country is very small we found that was the best way to sharpen our skills. We worked on several projects using Unreal Engine 4 and I was always responsible for 3D art. Thanks to this experience, I learned a lot not only about 3D but also the technical side of game production.
After almost 3 years of working at that studio, I decided to focus on environment art. I enrolled in Ryan Benno’s mentorship program and then the CGMA course Organic World Building in UE4 taught by Anthony Vaccaro. It was certainly costly, but as a self-taught artist, I can say that this decision was key to get better faster. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
The main goal for me was to get the necessary mindset and skills for the production of large environments. It is definitely different from working on props and other small projects since you need to work smarter in order to complete such a big task. And nowadays, there are a lot of large projects that task the artists with the production of very big worlds, so I felt that Organic World Building was the best choice for me (and it was).
Start of the Scene
The main idea was to create a scene in a very cold environment during winter. During the course, we also had to introduce some man-made elements to add an interesting contrast to the composition and tell a story. I decided to add some Japanese architecture since at that time ArtStation was hosting the Feudal Japan challenge. I took advantage of it and worked on both the course project and the challenge.
When I do the research, I focus on the primary, secondary and tertiary elements that my scene will use. After that, I make a very quick sketch of what could potentially work in it.
Just look at my 5-year-old drawing! It doesn’t have to be perfect as long as it helps your brain to organize the ideas you have in mind.
While the goal was to create a big world, we focused only on a small part of it. The idea was to have a vertical slice and all the necessary assets to expand the area if we have time. It is easy to fail in estimating how big your world should be in order to be completed in 10 weeks. However, during the blockout stage, Anthony gives feedback and if he thinks the scale is right we can be confident that we are on the right path.
For the landscape, I used the terrain tool in UE4. I know many people like to use an external software solution like World Machine to generate the landscape but we were advised to use UE4 since we wanted to keep the project as close to a production scenario as possible and often, you will have to do some landscape sculpting inside an editor like Unreal. I was a little bit skeptical at first but I can definitely see the benefits of it now. Firstly, you have control over your forms and composition. Secondly, it is actually very robust if you look deeper: you can use alphas and paint with some placeholder textures to have a rough idea of the path that the player will see and the flow of the level. Remember that as an environment artist, you should first of all guide the player from one element to another.
For the river, I used a placeholder material until the end. During the course, we actually had a session dedicated to rivers and we were advised to shape the terrain thinking about the way nature would do it if the landscape had a river. For instance, rivers would usually go from a high to a low point and vegetation is more likely to grow alongside the river than other parts. As for the material, I used a free and very nice one from Unreal Marketplace called Water Materials. At that time, Unreal was giving some assets for free and it was one of them. Anthony also advised not to spend time on creating a water material since, at a studio, this type of shader will mostly be a task for a technical artist. I think this mindset is key to becoming a professional environment artist since at big studios the tasks are very specific and you should rather spend more time on other things like the composition and the creation of other assets.
Working on Rocks & Other Assets
To make the assets for the environment, we started by analyzing references and blocking out the required models. We focused on creating big, medium, and small shapes. The idea was to keep the quality over quantity since creating an asset takes a lot of time.
As you can see, there aren’t many assets in my scene. It is the way you use them in your composition that matters. Creating levels takes a lot of time so you want to work smart on them.
We spent 3 weeks on the creation of rocks since they were very important assets, and worked on our Hero or so-called “360 Rock” which was the main one. This asset needed to look different from every angle so that you could rotate and scale it to give the illusion that there are different rocks in the world while in reality, it is just one asset. The key to creating a nice rock is to look at your reference and find the main shapes. When sculpting the rock, we applied the same principles of composition to big, medium and small shapes. Starting in 3ds Max with the main shapes helped to avoid the “blobby” feeling you sometimes get when you start sculpting in ZBrush. Anthony did a great job teaching different rock sculpting techniques as it is a very challenging task for many artists and requires a lot of practice.
After our hero rock was done, we worked on creating some boulders for medium shapes using the same techniques and finally, a rock pile for small shapes. The combination of these 3 elements gives a nice and smooth transition in your environment. And as we learned during the course, transitions can make it or break it.
Speaking about the materials for the rocks, we tried to work smart on them. Anthony showed us several techniques to reuse textures and materials for all our rocks. Also, we took a look at how to create tiling textures inside ZBrush. At first, we used a simple tiling texture, but after a few weeks, we ended up with a very nice Master Material with features like vertex painting, bump offset and slope masks.
Two weeks were spent on flora which included the tree roots and grass to place in the level. I used Quixel Megascans for the alpha cards and arranged the grass planes inside 3ds Max. The tree roots were entirely made in 3ds Max.
Anthony showed us a few ways to create roots in Maya, and even though I am a 3ds Max user, I found it very informative. You can replicate exactly the same asset in any 3D modeling package. Sometimes, people are afraid of enrolling in a course because they use different software, but at the end of the day, those are just tools. And Anthony focused on techniques rather than tools.
For the grass, I used Quixel Megascans to get my alpha cards and then arranged them in Max using some techniques learned in the course. Anthony showed us how to get the most out of a texture sheet and create enough variations to make the environment feel alive. While we didn’t focus on the creation of the texture sheet itself, we worked a lot on the arrangement of the assets which is sometimes overlooked.
Utilizing Quixel Mixer
In the course, we learned how to create our own textures in ZBrush. While I did practice those techniques, I wanted to use them in a different software solution, so I ended by replicating them in Quixel Mixer.
Quixel Mixer is great since you can import your custom alphas and avoid tiling issues. The results I got from it were super fast and iterative. I also learned that changing the textures in your level can greatly affect the way it looks – just try to re-import a new texture and see how the level changes.
I also used Mixer to create some custom alphas that were utilized during the rock creation inside ZBrush. Exporting them and creating a simple script in Photoshop to get an alpha saved a lot of time when I needed to add tertiary details. I highly recommend Quixel Mixer to every artist and nowadays, with its new version, it is even better. The future of 3D content creation is already here!
For post-production, I started looking for some reference to get some mood inspiration. I found that Battlefield 1 had some pretty cool snow environment shots so I tried to match my scene with the reference first. It didn’t turn exactly the same but I used that as a starting point to get the mood first. It definitely adds a lot to the scene and can change its look completely!
After I placed my Directional Light I started playing with Spotlights to get interesting highlights in the scene. It is true that in real open environments you sometimes will only have the sunlight, but in games, we might need to fake the lightning since we have technical limitations. During this stage, we were advised to spend around 80% of the post-production time on the lighting and add the post-process effects at the end. Since solid lighting can work with any post-process values, it is better to focus on the lighting first.
Last but not least, the presentation part. Anthony gave us a few gold bits of advice on how to present the work in such a way that it not only gives a great first impression but also makes it easy for any potential recruiter to understand your specialization and skills. This is often one of the most overlooked aspects of any work but the way you present your project hugely affects the opportunities you could get from it as a professional. Remember that you only have one chance to make the first impression!
If I had the opportunity to take the course again I would do it without thinking. There are many things that I would change now since the scene does not represent my current level of skills. But as Anthony told us: artists never finish, they abandon.
Making a Scene Inspired by Dungeon & Dragons
Interview with Ilya Pavlov (aka Elijah Pauls)
Hey everybody! My name is Ilya Pavlov (Elijah Pauls), I am environment 3D artist currently working as a Level artist at Sperasoft Keywords Studio in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. I came from Moscow where I first started delving into 3D (sculpting in ZBrush) as a hobby. After realizing that the 3D sculpting is actually a part of some great world of the game industry and feeling passion for computer games since the early childhood I entered Game Graphics faculty at Scream School in Moscow. At that time, it was the best opportunity for me to study many things I needed to know and get some basic skills to begin my path as an artist in games.
It was approximately four years ago. Since my graduation, I was working as an environment game artist on a few projects in Moscow which were a mobile FPS game in Unity and two VR games for full-body tracking experience in Unreal Engine.
It’s been a year since I moved to Saint-Petersburg to work with a great team at Sperasoft Studio on a couple of cool AAA projects.
About the Class
The first thing I learned when I became a game artist is that you shall never stop learning and honing your skills, that’s why I have taken the CGMA course Organic World Building led by Anthony Vaccaro. Being a fan of open world games and always interested in creating massive landscape environments for games, my choice of the course was obvious for me. During this course, Anthony covers almost everything you need to know to build a good piece of an outdoor environment, including the principles of game world building, landscapes, shaders, materials, vegetation – and all that with his great experience in the game industry came out really useful.
The theme for my scene Shattered Lands was chosen long before the start of the course, as I was always fond of D&D and the game worlds players create there. There is an official D&D setting called “Dark Sun” which is known as a “sword and sorcery” post-apocalyptic fantasy world where the mighty evil sorcerers drew their powers from nature itself. This led to the environmental disaster transforming once green and fertile lands into a burned lifeless desert. A part of this desert along with some hint on its remaining inhabitants was the main idea for my scene.
After the theme was chosen it was time for gathering references and making a plan on how many meshes and materials I would need to make the sandy desert look interesting enough.
During the initial stage of the reference research, I tried to gather as few images as I could just to get the understanding of how this scene should look like as a whole and what essential elements it shall contain. After some research, I found out that I really liked the photos from the Algerian Sahara desert with its reddish sand and dark gray rock formations which resemble the illustrations of Dark Sun deserts from D&D books. At that point, I decided that I would need an extra ground texture to make break sand and rock, and the cracked ground of the dried lake from the Namib desert reference did the job. I also decided to make a few types of desert vegetation and found some relevant references for it. Even though ancient deserts filled with large dunes typically lack vegetation, from the art perspective some plants, especially the grass, in the outdoor environments really add a lot of interest to the otherwise bare ground.
So at that moment I almost had the vision of what I am going to do and the destination was to make a dramatic post-apocalyptic fantasy feel in a sandy and rocky wasteland.
When the scope of work was determined I started with composition and blockout. I had a few difficulties trying to find the right composition and I drew some sketches to see what I could choose to start blocking the scene in the engine. For example, the image below was my first idea for composition and the structure of the scene and I even finished the block out based on that concept:
However, Anthony saved my life reminding me of the difficulties that lie behind making a scene of such a big scale and urged me to reconsider the scale which meant to change the composition and start the research and sketching again. Unfortunately, the final composition sketches were drawn on a piece of napkin and lost so I am not able to show them. But the initial blockout almost completely recreates the main idea:
To build the blockout, I first started with a few gray mat meshes of rocks, some basic shapes for tent, meshes of tree trunks from one of my previous projects, and Unreal Engine landscape system. The main thing here was to find the right camera position for two beauty shots and good direction and angle for the directional light source (sun), plus placing big rock grayboxes and sculpting the landscape inside UE4.
Once the blockout was done the content production began. First of all, I had to set up some shaders in UE4 Material Editor and even though I had some experience with that before the course, Anthony’s lectures were of great help to speed up the process. I needed two complex shaders – one for the landscape material with height-based blend for layers and one for big rocks with detail normal, vertex painting and mesh slope-based blending.
The pipeline for rocks was quite traditional for modern games. I started with sculpting in ZBrush taking my blockout rock pieces as a base for scale and proportions. I wanted my rocks to look heavily fragmented and eroded, not just cracked but built out of separate blocks. That is why I started the sculpting with replacing my blockout meshes with different simple dynameshed cubes with a little Crumple brush pass on them, scaled differently to have some visual interest. When I was satisfied with the basic shapes of the rock formations for the 360-degree mesh I continued with more detailed sculpting using primarily Trim Smooth Border and Trim Dynamics brushes with quad alpha. Sometimes, I applied the Crumple brush to separate pieces of rocks to see if I can get some interesting breaks in forms. For the biggest 360 degree rock formation I also sculpted a crumbling sand mesh as a separate subtool. The last step was to sculpt a few plane rocky alphas to make a quick detail pass for all the rocks I had.
I used decimated versions of the rocks as low-polys for baking after cleaning and UVing them in Maya. A little tip which I learned for decimating a high-poly mesh with large polycount in order to get the cleaner result for your low-poly: it is better to redynamesh the copy of your high-poly mesh at lower resolution first just to make it easier for ZBrush to decimate the mesh correctly.
After baking the unique normal map for the rock meshes, I proceed with creating three different tileable rock textures. The pipeline I choose is the combination of ZBrush sculpting on the plane with WrapMode to get nice hand-made tileable rock patterns and then converting the sculpt to heightmap to use it as a base in Substance Designer. There, I added more details and did all the texturing work to have finished materials for use in the engine.
Back in the engine, all three rock materials along with some sand material were blended together by slope blending system and by vertex paint in UE4. I actually included my baked color ID map from ZBrush as a black&white mask to separate the crumbling sand from the rock, because otherwise, it would be difficult to paint this section of sand material by hand.
Another great organic modeling experience was making the vegetation, particularly the grass. I had some previous experience of modeling grass and baking it on the texture plane to make an atlas but this time I wanted it to feel as realistic as possible. The first attempts were to simply model some straight grass-blades in ZBrush, then deform them and spread to make a grass batch. In the end, it didn’t look natural because I didn’t follow the logic of how the grass actually grows. Then I decided to model the grass-blades not from a simple plane but from the cylinders in Maya and this approach worked way better.
I also made a few additional plant types to fill the atlas and cover all my needs for vegetation in the scene, then baked the high-polys on the plane, painted it in Substance Painter and modeled the actual game-ready vegetation meshes to use as foliage in the scene.
Since the moment I have chosen to do the desert environment I was sure that there would be a lot of work to make the sand material. I didn’t really feel very comfortable working in Substance Designer and of course, I had to watch lots of tutorials and buy some SD materials from other artists to study their graphs and understand how they achieved their results. Luckily as a starting point, I had this nice “Creating Sand” tutorial by Josh Lynch and Daniel Thiger’s tutorial on his Bedrock. I tried not to stick strictly to the methods I learned from the tutorials but to grab the main idea and try to make the materials according to my vision and references I had.
The interesting part was to make this windswept wavy sand pattern as I was going to have two types of sand material for blending in the landscape. I spent some time experimenting with different nodes and methods to get the waviness to my liking and I ended up with this (there might be some doubtful decisions in the usage of the nodes):
When all the environment assets where in place it was time to proceed with points of interest which were the tent of a desert wanderer and the skeleton of a giant snake. It took me some serious amount of time to establish the design of the tent first and there were several iterations of the detailed blockout to find the right proportions and interesting shapes.
To make the cloth of the tent look natural I created some simple internal structure which was used as an avatar in Marvelous Designer. It was then detailed in ZBrush just a little and baked uniquely on the hand-made low-poly mesh.
As for the wooden planks and staves, I decided to sculpt and bake them uniquely on a single atlas. The splintered wooden ends were also sculpted separately and then mapped on a few small planes, which were then put at the ends of the low-poly planks for some additional detail noise. All the painting was done in Substance Painter.
I’ve always considered lighting my weak spot so I wanted to prepare for the lighting work in this project beforehand. And for that, UE4 Lighting Academy was more than helpful. I watched every episode and tried to follow the main principles that Tilmann highlights there and used some nice tips and tricks to save time where it was possible.
I have chosen to use baked GI since I was going to make some static beauty shots, so I wanted to have as much depth and occlusion as possible without worrying about any dynamic assets.
The artistic idea behind the lighting was to portray this overheated but slightly evening light, make the whole image in the rationally monochrome reddish tone. I definitely didn’t want to use a classic orange sand/blue skies color scheme because, in my opinion, this would have ruined the atmosphere of the post-apocalyptic, dusty, overheated environment. The HDR sky that I used was found on CGskies.comand slightly edited in Photoshop. It was one of those lucky coincidences when something you find almost absolutely corresponds with what you planned. However, the sky I used is actually the late sunset sky and my directional light (sun) angle was way higher, so I had to fake the skylight and spent some time to find the right balance between the sky’s color, skylight intensity, exposure, sun’s intensity and temperature to get the picture that would look satisfying to me. Once I set up the balance and got that picture I was free to experiment with fake spotlights to have some additional nice lighting/shadowing breakdowns.
And at the end of all – the post-processing. In the earlier versions of UE4 we used LUT map for color grading, however, now we can set it up right in engine with quite a comfortable color grading instrument inside post-process volume. Personally, I like to use Photoshop to experiment with color grading instead of exporting LUT map just to be able to quickly tweak things back and forth. Once I tweaked the contrast and curves in the screenshot image from the engine (as said, in Photoshop), I then go back to the engine to recreate the desirable image in UE4 by means of post-processing volume only.
Crafting a Modular Greek Scene
Interview with Derek Kruk
Hello, my name is Derek Kruk and I am currently working as a 3D Artist at Wayfair in Boston, MA. I originally come from Columbus, Ohio. I studied at Ohio University, in Game Development. During my time at university, I interned at The Mill, and Jaunt VR as a 3D Artist. From there, I worked at a small company called The Soap Collective, working on a VR experience called Beyond Tokyo. My journey into digital art started in high school, when I was making some short video productions, and then steered more toward digital art when I arrived at University. My love for 3D only started to grow more while I was there, and continued as I interned for The Mill and Jaunt VR.
Taking a CGMA Course
I decided to join this particular CGMA course because I wanted to learn how to create organic environments. Up until this class, I had worked on hard surface environments and props, but I wanted to learn more about industry standards and practices when it came to organic environments. My goals were definitely met after taking the class. The class instructor was Anthony Vaccaro, he shared and provided feedback during the class that allowed me to understand how to make interesting and believable organic environments.
The way I started planning my environment was by gathering reference. It started by deciding the place, time period, season, and scale. My decision to choose ancient Greece was inspired by Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, that had just been released before the class started. Due to that, I used a lot of reference from Odyssey and looked up many photos from rural Greece and ancient Greek architecture. The start of the layout was first done as a 2D overhead view to get the idea of where key points of interest would be placed.
To start the block out phase it was starting with very basic shapes of different aspects of the scene in Maya. The idea was to first make sure that the scene layout would make sense to the player. It was important to make sure that the player would understand where to go within the scene, with so many different models and shapes it was important to make sure that the temple, and bridge, were key points of interest of the scene and you could lead the player’s eye to understand how to get there. In order to do this, the focus was on Primary, Secondary and Tertiary shapes within the scene. The blockout is extremely important when it comes to this scale of the scene. It was easy to get carried away in the block out phase without truly understanding the amount of work and time it would take as you grow in scale. With 10 weeks for the class, I only had so much time to get everything done and the blockout phase helped me understand the scale of the project. Ways to help with correcting the scale could be focusing on aspects of the scene that the player could relate to such as the bridge and temple. Considering those are the man-made objects, it gives the viewer the best sense of scale in the scene in relation to them.
The main form of the terrain was created using UE4 terrain sculpting tools. They were a bit difficult to get used to as they don’t have the greatest amount of control and detail. From there it was utilizing Unreal Engine’s landscape material to blend between each material using their height maps. In order to get the mountains, I used ZBrush to sculpt the high poly mountains and then used marmoset toolbag in order to bake out the normal maps and height maps for the low poly. The rock textures were created using a mix of ZBrush and Substance Designer. Once those were done, it was placing them within the scene and forming the terrain around them in a way that felt natural. It was using the terrain tools to build up layered terrain that felt as if it had been eroded naturally.
Reference, Reference, Reference. It was stressed so much by Anthony and there is a reason for it. It is so important to always be using the references for rocks that you had collected. The class helped you identify primary, secondary and tertiary shapes in rocks. It was something that I struggled with in the class, and after feedback and help from Anthony, allowed to better understand and create believable rocks. It is easy to get carried away in the details of the rocks, but really it’s the primary and secondary shapes that help get it across the finish line, and help it feel like a believable rock.
Approaching Modular Buildings
When it comes to creating modular buildings, the pre-planning is extremely important. If that part is not done properly everything starts to break down after that. Breaking down what needs to be separate pieces, the scale of those pieces and how they snap together is important for a modular piece to work. Breaking up the monotony of pieces are helped by variation in textures and if you can have variation in models that helps as well, but you have to weigh if it’s necessary to create a separate model, or if the variation can be achieved in the texture. To help with the modular environments in the scene is creating enough variation within each piece that they won’t be easy to identify as the same. Getting variation in silhouette from different angles can help with that a lot, as well as, utilizing blend materials to paint variation into each of the assets.
Most of the tileable materials were made using Substance Designer. I used Daniel Thiger’s material tutorials to help me create a lot of my materials within the scene, particularly for the terrain material blends. As for the texture on the temple, it consisted of a few tileable materials created in designer and a trim sheet that I created in ZBrush and then textured in Substance Painter. As for the gradients of the Temple stones, those were generated by blending between 2 variations of the stone material and vertex painting grunge on stones to help further break up the repetitiveness of it.
The lighting of this scene went through a few iterations to get to the point it is in now. I wanted to aim for the scene to be a warm and inviting scene. Somewhere the player would be excited to explore. The biggest challenge was trying to strike a balance between light and shadow so that the details and forms are not lost. For these environments, utilizing a directional light and an HDRI were the main points of lighting for the scene. This scene mainly uses the directional light as the key light for the scene. It gives the main sense of mood and directionality for the scene. I also utilized a few other spotlights to highlight the rock shapes and forms around the waterfall, as well as the temple.
Overall, the course was very beneficial in helping me understand all of the different aspects that go into making an organic environment. Not only the technical side but also the design and layout of what makes an environment exciting for a player to want to explore. The biggest difficulties faced during this project was creating a scene that didn’t get too cluttered and overbearing. It was very easy to spend too much time on one aspect of the scene, as the rocks or foliage, while forgetting how they fit into the bigger picture. Making sure you stick to your references and your original breakdown of the primary, secondary and tertiary, is key. It is easy to make too much of the scene tertiary and secondary shapes and lose the primary shapes in the composition. Yes, I would love to take another CGMA class in the future. I am not sure which one yet, but Advanced Substance for Environment Art looks like it would be a great class!