Hello, my name is Tobias Koepp and I am an Environment Artist and recent graduate from the NHTV University of Applied Sciences Breda in the Netherlands. During my four year education in International Game Architecture and Design I specialized in world building and with my graduation project I wanted to explore the possibilities that Unreal Engine 4 can provide when creating a large, open environment.
The following blog post will break down my workflow, the utilization of UE4 for this project and how I got to the final product, which I called “Riverfall”. The whole project took me about eight months to finish and all the models, textures and world building was done by me alone. My teacher and supervisor (Neville Marcinkowski) gave me feedback on a weekly basis to ensure the project is heading in the right direction and can be realized on time.
For this project I wanted to explore and learn the ways of creating a stylized environment by using hand painted textures while broadening my range of skills with new techniques in model and texture creation. While a lot of games these days are trying to look as realistic as possible, there are still many games that use a more cartoony look to attract an audience. I am a big fan of the Blizzard style and used it as an inspiration for this environment. After having an intense look at their work (and others), I set up a few guidelines for the creation of my models and textures like blown up proportions and strong silhouettes while keeping the polycount low and painting the detail on the textures.
When I started this project in early 2014, I decided to create a stylized environment inside the UDK. Unreal Engine 4 wasn’t as openly and freely available as it was today and I was very comfortable working with the old editor as I have been working on other world building projects before. Because I was going to create a hand painted environment, a realistic and physically based rendering engine didn’t feel necessary for the project (yet).
I split the project into two major parts and started with the block out of the environment first. I used Maya to create the models and already had a modular approach in mind when creating my building blocks. This would come in handy later because the whole scene was always going to be a lot bigger than anything I had ever done before and saving time wherever you can is very valuable.
I had a rough idea of where I wanted my scene to go and decided to create a gritty, medieval environment which lead to this first layout of a city.
It was very important to me to start blocking out the environment as early as possible inside the engine to get a good sense of scale from the start and to be able to further decide what other elements I would need for this environment to be more convincing. As I was the only person working on this, I had to split my time efficiently between the modeling, concepting and world building to keep the project going, which on the one side gave me a lot of freedom in what I was going to do with the scene but on the other hand left me a bit in the dark at times where a few more creative heads were needed. Luckily, friends and teachers pointed out that from a level design point of view, a more vertical approach to the environment is much more interesting to the player.
Within a few days I created a very rough but more vertical design for the environment. For this I used some very simple models that I created with Maya and combined them with BSPs and some default objects from the UDK library to get a very quick feel for where the environment is going.
After adjusting the scale and doing a bit of cleanup, I was left with a blockout that offered enough interesting and different locations for the player to explore while constantly climbing the mountain. I used this foundation as a benchmark for the level design that I could expand upon if needed and fill it with art.
Communicate through the Environment
While this project is not meant to be a game in itself, I still wanted to make sure to communicate to the potential player that this is an environment that is meant to be explored. As an Environment Artist it is important to not just make a pretty scene, but to always let the world tell a story and guide the player through it by giving visual clues. I don’t have any gameplay, cutscenes or dialogues available for this level, so relying on the skills as an Environment and Level Artist is the only resource I can fall back on to get the player to the intended places. I made sure that this happened already during the blocking-out phase of the project.
The first thing the player is probably going to see is a massive bridge that connects two pieces of land with each other. This is your goal. There is only one way to reach this bridge and that is by getting up the mountain. There are no hints as to whether whatever lies behind this bridge is good or bad for you, but you know it will be rewarding to get there. Maybe you as a player might find out more about the other side of the bridge on your way up. All these thoughts motivate you as a player to start exploring.
The bridge and other landmark structures are purposely scaled up to give the player a sense of where they are in the world as they can re-orientate themselves in cases where the level design opens into larger areas or alternative routes. Big, arch-like structures help remind the player that the only way towards their goal (the bridge) is by going up the mountain and they help to bring the player back to their original path after they are done exploring. If this is done repeatedly throughout the environment, you have subconsciously taught the player how to find their way without ever having to explain it to them. As a creator you can take advantage of that and introduce more complex environments to the player without having to fear them getting lost in your world.
In the example above, a large structure that breaks the horizon reminds the player where they are headed even if the environment around them becomes a lot more complex and features a lot more intersecting and alternative paths. By following these rules and knowing the influences of lighting, silhouettes and other art theory practices you encourage the player to be more of an explorer and it makes them feel a lot smarter. If done correctly, the player doesn’t even need a map or other supporting techniques to navigate through your open environment.
The transition to Unreal Engine 4
The scale of the project required me to split it into two major parts during my education. For the end of the first half of the assignment I was required to block out the entire world inside an engine and have most models in place and created a general mood for my environment. Once that was done, other courses and an internship required me to take a break from this project for more than half a year. The scale of the environment needs a certain commitment and I was not able to work on this in my sparse free time, so I let it rest for the time being to come back with a fresh mindset and additional experience from the industry that can be applied for the final stretch of the project.
Coming back, a lot has happened since then and Unreal Engine 4 became a lot more accessible for everyone as they announced it to be free to download at GDC in March 2015. At the same time I have seen a lot of artists and friends doing the switch to the new engine and I felt it would be a good learning experience to get used to the latest tools available. As an artist you should never stop learning new things and sticking to the UDK might have given the environment an outdated feel since I was still about half a year away from completion.
At that time Unreal Engine 4 for me was always showcased as the go-to engine when it comes to realistic rendering and with the newly introduced PBR workflow I was a bit concerned if I could use it in a way to visualize a stylistic environment. In the end the tools shouldn’t stop you from realizing your vision and I was going to find ways to use the software to my advantage to display the product I visualized in my head from the beginning. As an artist, it is my job to use the provided tools to my best ability and find ways and solutions to make it work, so I decided very quickly that I was going to make the transition to achieve a better final product.
Never having used UE4 before, I quickly came to the realization that you cannot just import your old UDK files into the new engine, but my mind was already set on making the transition, so I had to live with the compromise to do the whole world building again with the hope that the work will shine a lot more than it would have with the old development kit.
Thankfully, my experience and knowledge with the old toolsets transfers very well to the new engine. The improved asset library is very easy to use and the navigation within the editor is very easy to anyone who ever worked with any 3D program. Unreal Engine 4 still accepts .fbx files and I could import all my previously used assets, including light map UVs and collision models into my custom libraries. UE4 makes it very easy for you to store and find your models, textures and materials and before I knew it, I had everything ready to start building the world again.
It paid off to do all the preparation work for the first half of the project. Even though I had to build the environment again, I already had a pretty good layout available inside the UDK that I could always use as a benchmark but also had the freedom to improve problematic areas as I had to rebuild them anyways. It made me feel more comfortable about the final product as I had all the space I needed for eventual changes and I wasn’t restricted by my own work that has been on hold for over half a year.
Very early in the project I defined what modular pieces I was going to use and to what extent. Being the only person working on a large environment like this required me to make some smart choices about my building blocks, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to ever finish a scene this size.
Knowing these limitations, I made some choices about the amount and sizes of the building blocks. I knew I was creating a whole village filled with various different houses. So instead of building them out of individual planks and walls, I created a few big key pieces that I could connect in several ways to create variations of buildings without having them look too similar next to each other. Once the large pieces of the buildings are in place I could dress them up with smaller pieces, like windows or chimneys to further differentiate them from each other to give the player the illusion that all the houses are different.
The same approach applies to the organic environment pieces. Vegetation and rocks however are much more forgiving in terms of repetition as they can be rotated and scaled a lot more randomly than solid architectural elements. It only required me to create a small library of rocks, trees and plants to create a convincing and alive environment.
The time you save using modular assets can be invested elsewhere while allowing you to create more unique pieces where they make sense. Of course, depending on the size of the team and project, the balance between modularity and individuality can differ greatly.
I have done some tests to what extend I wanted to use the PBR system but came to the conclusion that for the art style I have chosen it was not the right choice to recreate real life material settings. I have sculpted and hand painted all my textures myself and didn’t want to rely on photographs of materials for this scene. As I have most of my material information already in the color maps, I have chosen a very simple solution for most of my materials which usually only consisted of the diffuse and normal map.
If some models featured any metal or reflective parts, I usually masked out the area and gave all of them a consistent metallic and roughness value to have them feature a little bit of specularity and reflection but being subtle enough to not disrupt the hand painted style I was going for.
Of course some models require a little more attention because of their complexity. Luckily the material node editor is very easy to use and it features special nodes like “wind” to easily apply movement to parts of your model that you would like to see wave.
The terrain creation within the Engine to me is one of the most powerful tools Unreal has to offer. Especially for blocking out my environment again, it has proven to be a very fast way to lay out the terrain. As I already had my UDK blockout, I used it as a reference to recreate the paths and mountains and then used the vegetation tool to apply the trees, plants and rocks. This process is very fast and interactive and if you make changes to the terrain, the models placed by the vegetation tool reposition themselves automatically. This way, changes made later into the project were a lot less destructive and I could focus on the bigger picture rather than to worry about the details.
For the textures of the terrain I created a landscape material that allowed me to paint the materials right onto the ground. This way I created cliffs, pathways and grassy areas so the player has a better understanding of the surroundings and follows the right path. I decided to go with a very simple setup for the material and passed on the normal maps this time, because they were adding quite some noise to the ground which only distracted from the rest of the environment. Depending on the area of the scene I added about 3-5 different textures to the various landscape materials and started painting onto the terrain inside the editor.
For me, switching to Unreal Engine 4 turned out to be a great learning experience and I learned that there is nothing to be afraid of when making the transition into the next generation of content creation. The whole project was surprisingly doable for a single artist and the engine proved to be stable, very responsive and sped up a lot of world building and production workflows which allowed me to create a very large open world without too many problems. I am very happy with how the visuals turned out. I have gained a lot of knowledge of the engine that I can build upon in the future. Of course, there is still a lot to lean :)
I hope this blog post gave you some insight into my experience and the process with the engine as an environment artist and student.