Approach to Environment Design in AAA Games
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by Jonathan Hemmens
1 hours ago

Hi Jamin, It's probably fine to ask this if they haven't mentioned in on the job posting. However, if you understandably feel awkward doing so, I would recommend checking out Glass Door for average salaries for the position. This might give you a better idea :) cheers for reading.

There's a reason why it's called a Beta ... or Release Candidate, but yeah, go blender community!

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Approach to Environment Design in AAA Games
23 April, 2019
Environment Art
Environment Design
Level Design

Artem Brizitskiy talked about the level production at Naughty Dog, techniques used in game dev, gave tips for beginner environment artists, and more.

Introduction

My name is Artem Brizitskiy, I am a 3D environment artist. I was born in USSR in a closed military town Sarov. It was the place where Russians had been making Tsar Bomba.

I tried to learn 3D software at school and decided to become an architect because there was no CG education in Russia those days. When I was in my second year of studying, I got my first job. The only place with the internet was a library, so I went there to discuss the project with my client. In my third year, I joined a small game developers team in my town and two years later our first game “Star Legion” was released.

Later, I also participated in Postal III production where I had to create a special kind of assets that can be hardly called props: the studio had been making a sex shop location and I was making… rubber tools and other accessories. Then, still being an architecture student, I was invited by Intel to work in the Larrabee team.

After scraping through the final exams and having a bearable job, I could afford myself my first gaming console with Uncharted 2. I was so impressed by the game that dared to write to Naughty Dog and they sent me a test assignment. It took a year to prepare all the documents and visa and finally, I moved to Santa Monica. That’s the story of how I got into the game industry, I just needed to accumulate 6 years of experience and a diploma in architecture to get a visa.

How to Get into an AAA Studio

When someone asks me how to get a job at Naughty Dog, I usually say that it is quite easy. Just open their site and apply to a chosen position.

But seriously… once, during an interview, a former Naughty Dog’s HR (and a nice guy) Jack Coleman revealed a secret of getting into an AAA game studio like Naughty Dog. An exclusive tip for 80.lv readers: when a project is nearly over, companies are looking for contract employees for some easy (or not very easy) tasks. The barrier to entry is comparatively low and you get a chance to participate in cool projects that will enrich your CV and maybe get a full-time job.

Check out 10 more tips from Jack Coleman here.

Another way to get into the studio is to create something that fits the setting of one of its projects. It could be something like an environment from The Last of Us or a character from Uncharted. However, the quality must be at least at the same level. Good artworks travel around the internet very fast, and you’ll be noticed. An article at 80.lv could be a good start, too. Sometimes artists teach good online courses, for example, at CGMA or Gumroad, and I highly recommend taking them. Usually, the price is fairly low and can be compared to the cost of a game CD. It is one of the best ways to invest money for beginner artists.

As for necessary skills – if you have an opportunity, get an art education. It is not vital and it does not mean that you can’t get into the industry without it. But people with appropriate education and a taste in art grow more quickly and achieve better results even in game design.

Blockout

At the studio, we usually start with a blockout and concepts. The concept of the level should inspire everyone and show the lighting and mood of the future game. It isn’t a reference for modeling yet, but rather general guidance. A concept artist is like a conductor for an orchestra: all other artists follow him. If you want to see great concepts, visit John Sweeney’s page.

A blockout is a game level made from primitive forms with as few details as possible. It is usually being created together with the concept. In the blockout, the game designer plans the level, refines the game mechanics and tests gameplay. At this stage, the level is already playable: you can run, jump, climb, and so on. When the playtests are finished, it is time for modeling, texture, and lighting artists. Together, they complete the first iteration with basic textures and lighting. There are no details yet, but the overall tone, lighting, and color become clear.

Let me digress a little: don’t forget that ideally, the blockout should look great at all stages, even with colors and boxes instead of textures and objects. That is where the taste in art helps.

Then comes a new playtest to check if the level is still readable, necessary corrections, a new pass and all over again. This process can last for quite a while. Below you can check a cool timelapse from Anthony Vacсaro demonstrating the development of the levels in Uncharted including the blockout.

Approach to Environments at Naughty Dog

I have worked at many companies but Naughty Dog’s approach to the environments is my favorite one. The environment department is divided into small teams, and each is responsible for a big piece of the game. A team consists of two people: a modeler and a texture artist. The modeler is responsible for geometry, outsource, composition, collisions (things that don’t let the characters fall through the terrain) and performance. The texture artist organizes the material library, works with shaders and their optimization (eliminates unnecessarily heavy effects and excess layers), material blending, and helps the modeler if necessary. Usually, the modelers are good at texturing and vice versa, and the task sharing is used for speeding up the workflow because the levels are really huge.

The polycount is up to the modeler, there are no strict limitations. However, when the levels are tested on a game console, they must work well at 30 fps (or 60 fps, it depends on the game). Besides, it should not be seen to the player how the textures upload and the LODs change. If these conditions are met, no one will bother about the mesh density, shader complexity, and the size of the textures. It is a big responsibility which at the same time gives creative freedom. I think it is one of the main advantages of the studio.

Here you can find some art created by Naughty Dog’s artists:

Storytelling

While creating the environment, we try to tell small stories. Even if the player doesn’t notice them, they make the game world more natural. Let’s say you have an island with a big castle in the middle. Ask yourself: why was it built and for whom? If it’s made from stones, where the quarry? If the stones were delivered from a different place, there should be a seaport nearby or its ruins, etc. All of that adds credibility even if you are making a fantasy game or a game for kids.

Scale & Camera Angles

Beginner environment artists often have troubles with scale. In this case, I would recommend putting a character into the scene to check the proportions. For example, one meter is too much for a table height or a doorway width. The standard size of a brick or a stair can be easily googled, too. If you want to test the proportions, build a full cottage with rooms from cubes, without any details. I think it’s a good testing method.

Each environment must have key viewpoints, i.e. where the location can be shown from the best angle. They are based on the general rules of 2D composition (remember my note about the importance of art education!)

Use of Houdini

Houdini can be a good tool in the right hands. It can’t make your game nicer but is able to reduce the production cost considerably. The content in modern games costs a fortune today. Tom Clancy: Ghost Recon Wildlands, Far Cry 5,  and Horizon Zero Dawn show a good example of using Houdini in the workflow. More and more studious start using it, but again: it can’t make the game more beautiful or fix the problems with the composition. Being quite powerful, it is just a tool.

One more interesting approach is implementing the neural networks for classification and placing the objects. One of my former colleagues from Naughty Dog Andrew Maximov now works on Promethean AI. I hope, in the future, we will see more systems like that.

Materials

In modern games, materials are more than just a combination of 2D textures now. Geometry and textures are becoming inseparable. To make a brick wall, you should create bricks, build a wall, assign clay and concrete materials and bake the result. This increases the cost of the texturing accordingly. Fortunately, today we have libraries of scanned materials, and I think they help game developers a lot. Big studious keep their own material collections but it is way too time-consuming.

Among the existing libraries, I’d recommend the following:

There is no common workflow for texture creation at the moment. Scans are the best decision for realistic ground, Substance and Photoshop are very suitable for modern interiors and metals, ZBrush works well in stylized games. It is also possible to mix all these techniques depending on the task and the target style. I think people now pay more attention to art than to the technologies, and it is great! It makes the industry more mature.

Lighting

Unlike the unified geometry and texture workflow, the lighting techniques used in modern games vary. Artists use different methods depending on the game genre, location size, game design, and the target platform. There are lightmaps, light probes/volumetric textures, IBL. An interesting fact: the chosen lighting techniques influence the way the levels, props, and textures should be made.

For example, with lightmaps, it’s important to adjust albedo or slightly increase the contrast to get additional bounce light. Due to the non-linear dependence, even a slight tweak of the material intensity can greatly change the light reflection.

What is more, lightmaps make it difficult to create large open spaces and integrate dynamic objects into them. With lightmaps, an empty white room with a white cube in the middle will look stunning, while Dynamic GI would require adding some details because the light probes resolution is significantly less than the lightmap texels.

Ubisoft games such as Division and Assassin’s Creed used prob lighting while Uncharted 4 and Last of Us were made with lightmaps. Thanks to the lighting artists and rendering engineers, all of these games look equally great. I hope, in the future, dynamic GI will reach the quality of lightmaps and we will have one common lighting system at least for large console projects.

Whatever workflow you choose, I recommend setting up lighting as early as possible. Think about it at the blockout stage as you might avoid adding unnecessary details in the areas that would be in the shadow and concentrate on the highlighted places instead. Add a lamp or a window if you see that the environment is too dark. Try to avoid fake lighting and invisible light sources. Since we often use PBR, an invisible light source can “freeze” or “dry” the materials. Therefore, plan the position of the main and secondary lights in advance.

Artem Brizitskiy, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Démoléon Jérémie Recent comment authors
Jérémie Démoléon
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Jérémie Démoléon

I really appreciate what you share in the interview, really motivating me to continue my studies in Level Design!

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