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.
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May 6, 2019 - Jul 22, 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.