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.

I initially found some good interior shots to work off of, and came up with my first whitebox of the scene.  I felt the layout was quite impressive, and I was under the impression it would be a good start.  Unfortunately as I started decorating the scene, it didn’t have that vibe I was going for.  I needed more height and depth as the player went through.  I went back to the drawing board, looked at some concept art and tried out something a bit different.

As you can see the layout is nearly the same, but with some added curvature and a better focal point that we can use to direct the player.  Also the extremely high ceiling and opening of the background gives the player a glimpse of the outside world they could eventually travel to.  This process took a lot longer to figure out than I hoped it would.  I attribute this to having a lack of direction from the get go, without any real solid reference to work off of.  I wish I had sketched out more ideas and tried more layouts. This is definitely a lesson learned; do not be afraid to fail early on, that’s what white boxing is all about.

Now with a whitebox that I was happy with, my next step would be to bring the scene into a modeling program.  At this point I break my scene up into assets that could be modular, I also try to play around with re-positioning some assets like pillars, and as you can see in the screenshot the roof got taken away, and I’ve experimented with having the scene nestled within the rock cavities of a mountain.  Keep in mind that we are still just refining the initial block in with some refined meshes; I am not going into the small details just yet, because there are still a lot of things that can change.  And for a quick pass I applied place holder textures for the time being, to get the colors across.

Once all the white box elements are reconstructed, we’ll bring them back into the game engine just to make sure everything is working okay.  This is going to be a great point to re-evaluate the scope of the project and experiment with some different looks.

All of which we will look at in the second part of the article.

Victor Kam is a Level Design instructor at VFS Game Design