Environmental Art: Concept to Execution Part 6

Finally, it’s time to add some finishing touches to the scene.  It’s been about 8 months since I began this scene (yes, I started the original white box way back in January 2013, finished around September).  So you can imagine how good it feels to wrap this project up after such a long time.

Today we are going to add a few elements to provide even more depth to our composition.  The first is fog, and no we are not using fog in a Silent Hill kind of way where we are trying to get back framerate, we are using fog here to simulate atmosphere that would naturally occur outdoors (have a look at the mountains, the further they are the more they are in haze.)

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Environmental Art: Concept to Execution Part 5

When it comes to building an environment, lighting is one of those aspects that can make or break a scene.  You can have the best looking assets, but poor lighting can destroy all the time and effort you put into your props.  On the other hand, a scene composed of mediocre  assets can look great with proper lighting.  This is because lighting will create the overall impression of your scene to the viewers’ eye at a quick glance.  Because of this you want to push your lighting to define the shapes and silhouettes as much as possible, using light and dark to give the illusion of depth.

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Environmental Art: Concept to Execution Part 4

Now that most of the immediate play space is decorated, we can finally have a step back and look at the background elements.  Keep in mind that the player will never reach that area so we are going to stay fairly loose and try several layouts.  The background’s main purpose in this case is to immerse the player to make them feel as if they are part of something larger.  As a level designer you always want the player to look in the distance to reveal other parts of the world and make them want to go there.

Vistas and backgrounds should have strong silhouettes and be readable from afar.   If you squint at the backdrop you should still be able to make out the shapes.  Each of the following images has a depth pass accompanying it.  This is to show that you want to build your background in layers to give a good sense of depth and parallax.

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Environmental Art: Concept to Execution Part 3

We previously ended off our scene by refining our blockout with custom meshes, and did a quick pass on integrating medium details into the level.  At this point the overall layout should be set and now it’s time for the nitty gritty.  I only get to doing finer details once all gameplay spaces and layouts are finished, that we can keep our focus on the task at hand.

After having played The Last of Us I was inspired to have an overgrowth through the level.  After all, this level takes place in the mountain tops and having some vegetation would give the sense that the area has been around for quite some time, nature slowly re-claiming its place.  Not only that, I had to find a way to break up the ground surface, since this is the player’s immediate view I did want to invest time into making it interesting.

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Environmental Art: Concept to Execution Part 2

Last week we had a look at whiteboxing out the major details of our level.  We then brought that mesh into a 3d package and started to refine the meshes.  Today we’ll look at bringing them back into the game engine and replace all the primitives with some refined models.  I’d call this the medium detailing portion of the level, so things like structural supports and landmarks should all be placed with first pass meshes and materials.

 

The modeling process at this point is nothing too complicated.  Simple shapes and basic texture sheet for a majority of the assets.  As you can see on the prop screenshot I try to keep things modular as possible, this way I can try different looks out by piecing parts together.

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Environmental Art: Concept to Execution Part 1

The whole idea about creating a level from scratch, is to always gather reference, design on paper and begin white boxing.  So let’s say you are a level designer that wants their vision fully fleshed out once it gets passed onto the world art team.  It’s really up to you to lead them to ensure that all the ideas you had from the beginning come across in the game.

What I’m going to show you is my progression in creating a scene in UDK (the image above).  Before set dressing an entire world, it’s wise to create a “visual target.”  In this case I will be using a small section of what would be part of a larger world and fully build it from the ground up with custom models, textures, lighting and finishing things off with a touch of post-fx and screen overlays, to get the unique look I am going for.

I had this idea that I wanted the player to traverse through a roman castle hidden up in the mountain tops.  I am a big fan of Cecil Kim and his work on the God of War series, and I really wanted to capture the feeling of being in an epic environment, after all, level designers want players to feel immersed as if they are part of a living world that extends the gameplay space.  Other than that I did not really have any solid ideas for the level, so it was really up to me to experiment and try different things with size, scale and lighting to convey what I wanted the player to feel.

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Level Up: I Got My Job, Now What?

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So you’ve just graduated VFS and landed your first job in the industry.  All those late nights and hard work has finally paid off and you’re set to enjoy your first pay check doing the job you love.  Time to cruise along and work 9-5 right?

The answer to this is yes and no.  Yes, because you’ve earned it and deserve a bit of a break after an intense year of school.  But after you have settled in your job, I would say no to cruise control.  Just because you’ve finished school and earning a paycheck now, your education should not stop there.

The games industry is a very creative field and we as designers are creative.  We have to keep creating to keep our minds at ease; to have that outlet after work hours.  Not to mention the fact that technology keeps changing constantly.  New tools and techniques are continuously being developed to enable us to build our imaginary worlds quicker and more efficiently.

Unfortunately when you are in the midst of crunch in a studio environment, there may be long periods of time where you are stuck using the same tools over and over, only to find at the end of the project a whole suite of new dev tools have come out which you’ve never heard of.  You could dismiss them and keep with your old ways, or you can spend some time after work hours to do research and potentially learn the new software.

Sure this takes time and effort after work hours, but we work in an industry where studios are hiring people with skills in cutting edge technology.  This will keep you competitive in the job market when the time comes to renew that contract.

I always recommend graduates keep working on levels at home even after they have gotten their jobs.  This is a great way to keep your portfolio updated, as well as giving yourself a way to be creative building something that is personal to you.  We’ve all been there, after a day of work the last thing you want to do is sit back on the computer.  The process will take much longer when you are working full-time, but bit by bit, even an hour or two a week over the course of several months will yield something that is portfolio worthy.  Hopefully during this time you can learn some new tech along the way to help you build with the most current tools and workflows.

So don’t know how to use Zbrush? Never heard of nDo2 or dDo?  Have you used xNormal?  When was the last time you touched that level editor?  It might be time to get out of the comfort zone of 9-5 and be proactive, pick up some new skills and create your next masterpiece!


Victor Kam is a Level Design Instructor at VFS Game Design

Level Up: Planning the Vista

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When planning any level out, we usually think of pacing out our gameplay moments and intensity over time.  While both are vital, we can also do the same by pacing our scenery.

What I mean by this is creating visual contrast in the space outside of the gameplay area, so let’s focus on creating the vista point in our level and see what we can do to maximize it’s impact.  Keep in mind, any time you do the same thing over and over it will lose its effectiveness over time.  So we have to create this contrast, or in this case, a narrow space going to a vista back to a narrow space.

Uncharted is great example of this, here we see Drake standing admiring the view which is quite breathtaking to look at.  For the most part of the level you are traversing in a forest with no clear sightlines, and then as you turn the corner you get treated to this great shot of the world only to return back within the trees.

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Level Up: Flat is boring!

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As the title suggests, flat is booooring!  A game level with little to no elevation will bore the player as the constant threat is completely visible;  the player always knows what’s coming ahead of them.  So what we need to do is add slight undulations in our paths to create tension and reveals in our levels.

In this day in age we have superb game engines and level editors that let us develop 3d worlds at the touch of our finger tips.  It would be a shame to not take advantage of this.  I remember making maps for Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, it was nearly impossible to create overhangs and vertical gameplay due to the technical limitations.

Let’s take a look at our first example, oh the dreaded UDK hallway.  Being a player, traversing through this area requires you to press the “forward” button to get through.  This is fine, especially if it’s in a downbeat in our game level and we just want the player to absorb their surroundings after an intense battle.  But we can make this calm section much more interesting, not by changing what the player is doing on their controller, but by creating the illusion that the player is doing “something” in a flat travel section.

This is done here by adding a ramp up or down.  Keep in mind that all the player is doing is still pressing the “forward” button on the controller.

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Level Up: Showcasing your UDK maps

Well it’s that time of the year, you’re done presenting on industry night and finished classes.  What a perfect time to dust off the ol’ UDK maps and start screen grabbing those hard worked on levels for your portfolio!

When it comes to in game shots, presentation and quality matters.  Surely we can go into fullscreen mode, hit PrintScreen and paste directly into Photoshop.  But let’s make the most of our game engine and get a beauty shot that captures your hard work without the loss of detail.

Here’s how we do it in UDK:

Step 1: Get into the level

Jump into your level like you normally would through the editor.

Step 2: Bring up the console

Bring up the console (press Tab).

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