Nathan Alderson discussed merging the Old with the New in the latest City at the Gates project, talked about blocking out the environment, and shared some thoughts on texturing in both Substance Painter and Designer.
My name is Nathan Alderson, I'm a UK-based artist who has been working in and around the games industry since 2010. I studied at the University of Derby on their CGMA (Computer Games Modeling and Animation) course starting in 2008. Before graduating, some positions had opened at the local studio, Eurocom. At this time they were working on a few games, one being the Goldeneye remake on the Wii. I was successful at landing a job as a contract UI artist on Rio: The Game. After my contract was up I was invited by the course leader of the University of Derby's CGMA course (David Wilson) to come and be an Associate Lecturer on the course to teach the UDK to students in the Second and Third years of the course. This included teaching some level design, environment work, as well as lighting.
I eventually moved on from the position and started work at another local studio named Strawdog Studios. A small studio that had a brilliant team and I was extremely grateful for my time spent there.
Eventually, I went back to the University of Derby to be an Associate Lecturer and was then invited to guest lecture and assist students at Sheffield Hallam University on their Games Course which was being run by the previous University of Derby CGMA course leader.
After these positions wrapped up I started working freelance for a while before applying for a position at Psiclone Games. Which I've been at for 6 years and 6 months! Within the role at Psiclone, I'm responsible for 2D, 3D artwork, UI design, 2D animation (using After Effects), 3D animation, render, translation work, and more! It's a very busy role that has taught me a lot over time.
My latest environment piece came along after completing a recent project which was a stylized take on a Star Citizen concept piece made by Sheng La. I took a look at my artwork on ArtStation and I noticed I had a lot of fantasy stylized environment pieces, but lacked a good mix of modern work as well as more hard-surface environments. The idea for this piece was to mash the two together! Nailing two in one you could say!
What inspired me to create this level was the idea of division in the world. I looked at games such as Overwatch – a game that was designed at its core as bringing people together. A world that was accepting. And I thought what happens if that is flipped around? A world built on division, putting barriers around cities but also the rejection of new from the old world. This idea was extremely important for me, it set the groundwork for what the final piece would be.
Firstly, with this idea in my head of merging the Old with New, I went into Photoshop to quickly plan a top-down level layout. It was extremely simple, with a few lines showing the general layout. I approached this more like a functioning level rather than a preset camera position environment piece.
I then went to play Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. The teams who worked on these games are inspiring to me. From the story to the worlds built. It was fascinating to see older and modern architecture merged together in a way that made sense without it being too overpowering. A game like Cyberpunk was too far in terms of what I wanted to create but Overwatch and the Deus Ex games strike a great balance of Old vs New:
Taking a lot of screenshots, I had an idea how the technology of new could fit with the architecture of old. Built a few moodboards and next up was checking out Google Maps and touring the streets of Busan, Tokyo to get an idea of how these types of streets looked in the real world such as the feel of the environment, the lighting, and the clutter on the streets. Grabbing screenshots as I went for moodboard reference.
With this being an original concept idea, I had to block out in generic shapes inside of Blender to get the feel for how I wanted the streets to be laid out, however, this was a process I kept restarting as I couldn't settle on what I truly wanted.
I decided on the art direction for the project early on. I wanted to keep with my strengths which are stylized pieces and work with a bright, vibrant world. Drawing inspiration from Overwatch's art style I set to work figuring out how best to set up the lighting for the level. I normally start with a base block out and a simple light set up inside of Unreal Engine 4. Getting a rough idea of how the lighting might look early is something I enjoy doing. It's an art in itself and it's something I strive to be better at doing. I took a look at Henric Montelius' 80 Level article on his Overwatch Style Visuals with UE4 and used his settings as a base. The lighting for this level was super important to get the style locked in so I wanted to get on it early. However, I was still not 100% happy with the initial level blockout.
During the initial blockout, I went through several revisions as I was slightly concepting on the fly other than a simple level top-down drawing and an idea. Which led to a few failures and bouncing around of ideas. This caused me to rethink my approach to the project as I couldn't lock down the feeling I wanted. I eventually blocked in a rough area containing simple architecture and base materials from the failed attempts and this area eventually became the Customs Entranceway for the scene – this became the main focal object to the level.
With this area feeling strong visually, I was happy to move on with the project. Sometimes you need to take a step back and start fresh!
At this stage, I needed an asset list. This always helps give you a scope of how much really needs to be made. It's very easy to underestimate how much needs to be done for an environment. It also helps with figuring out what can be reused. I knew this was going to be an asset-heavy scene, so I had to figure out how to approach this.
Every building and road in this piece had to be modular for it to work. I decided to create chunks for the buildings. This was done to help prevent having too many modular parts whilst still being slightly modular themselves. I was mainly focused on vertical modular pieces rather than wall kits and such. This allowed for quick design work rather than spending too much time in the engine trying to come up with interesting building shapes with many modular pieces. This worked with the road as well so I decided to join the pavements and the roads in modular chunks/clusters to save hard work with aligning roads and curved pavements down the road. I then used small modular paving pieces to fill in the gaps between buildings and the streets.
The main Customs Entrance structure was designed as many different pieces. It can be very easy when tackling larger environment pieces by feeling overwhelmed due to how complex the piece can look and feel. I remember back to my teaching days when some students made large environment "Hero" assets as one object. But breaking down the object into pieces helps remove that feeling of being overwhelmed by how complex something can be.
With this in mind, I used some tiling textures, trim sheets, and decals for most of the environment. Combining this with the Face Weighted Normals approach that Star Citizen uses for its environments and ships. This made constructing most of the environment very easy as I wasn't reliant on the unique baking of assets and UV Maps.
Most of my environment used a single Trim texture and Tile textures for other buildings. I used a mixture of Substance Painter and Substance Designer for the texturing process.
Overwatch has a very clean art style with edge highlighting baked into the textures. I wanted to be sure to capture this in the textures. It also has a lot of dirt/grease spots on the textures and characters which I tried to replicate in the materials. I also created some materials inside of Unreal Engine 4 to change the colors of some of the textures. I also had some variations of my main trim texture for different colored panels. Even though this is a stylized piece, looking at real-life references is still important.
One main thing I had to do was make sure the textures are slightly washed out. There was some Baked Lighting from Substance Painter which helped with the style direction but most of the textures needed to be bright and slightly washed out as UE4 loves brighter textures for this I find. It helps with light bounces/color bleeding in the world!
A lot of the smaller assets in the game were unique, such as the mascots for the little take-a-way stalls. The fish I modeled directly inside of ZBrush and textured inside Substance Painter. Planning the signs out for the food stalls was a lot of fun. I looked at in-game references and Google Map Street View for ideas on how to make stall signs. I ended up treating each sign as a mini Logo. I wanted to design them to be simple, easy to read and stand out and catch your attention.
Putting Together the Final Environment
Moving into more engine work, when it came to more detail/clutter assets I decided to use a spline-based Blueprint to help me produce the draining pipes and some cables. I didn't want to create several assets for straight pieces of pipe and cable, and then alternate pieces for bends and curves. I wanted to keep it simple and easy to edit so I could position these fast around the world.
This helped save a lot of time and gave me more flexibility with how I wanted to lay out the pipes and cables. Allowing for more exaggerated bends/curves with those props.
The environment also needed a lot of ground clutter. I took full advantage of the Decals with this environment to quickly spread tree leaves, puddles, and grime around the world. For more scatter props such as cans, take-away boxes, I dropped some assets in places around the world and let physics take over. Inside UE4 I set these props to generate physics and let the world take care of them. This gave a more natural and fast way of producing waste around the city rather than placing everything myself and rotating them by hand.
Because of the environment setting, I used a lot of the Cable Actor Class inside of UE4. Cables were important to capture the location feel. As the areas I based this one on has a lot of street cables attached to buildings. This tool lets me position them quickly – though the Cable Actor can be quite expensive to use!
To help with depth in the level I used a few Fog Sheets to help with scale. Mainly to help set the size of the huge buildings in the background. This helps with the illusion that they are massive in the world.
I also use them to place around background streets to set them away from the areas of focus in the final shots. The materials in the final environment are rather basic. There are no real fancy materials going on in the world. I mainly used Panning Materials for the adverts created as well as a bump offset for the windows.
The most complicated material in the scene is the fog cards which use depth bias and change material tiling based on the scaled size of the asset.
Larger background buildings use a simple glass tiling texture and a constant material for the metal. They are positioned in a way to give the illusion of scale. But, really they are positioned and scaled far away from each other:
But this works with a bit of camera trickery!
Towards the end of development, I started refining positions of street lamps, cables, trees, and foliage. Just small changes which really helped bring the scene to its final closing stages. I wrapped up advert designs – these were very fun to create as well as 3D text signs, and clutter objects.
The final lighting for the scene I wasn't too happy with. It was very washed out originally. So, I took a screenshot inside Unreal and brought it into Photoshop. I created a LUT that helped with the contrast and created a bit more depth that was missing due to the washed-out lighting. It helped ramp up the colors and make everything pop without feeling too overpowering to look at. I then created a Sharpening filter for the Post Process effect and played around with the Global Illumination to help with the lighting some more.
With any project, it's easy to get overwhelmed by what you need to make. You can go on and on making assets for any environment. I found when working in this environment that I could spend many more months creating assets to make the city feel even more alive. More clutter objects, more foliage, more grime, more dirt... the list is endless. Which is the biggest challenge I had with this project. When do you say "enough is enough"? It's very easy to fall into this trap and never be done with a project.
I had faced a few complications at the start of the project on how I wanted the city to look, flow, and feel. The production of many blockouts felt like I was failing time and again. Then it started to fall into place when the Customs Entrance/gate was designed. Always keeping in mind the quote from Thiago Klafke's presentation slide made me refocus and set off planning everything in a simple way. Which made the long process of such a big project easier to iterate on.
I'm not a foliage artist, so I would say foliage in this scene was a challenge. Then I learned that Blender has a tree plugin which just made life much easier for that side of the project.
My biggest concern and I think one of the biggest challenges was creating a sense of scale in the scene. This is something I wasn't finding easy in my first few blockout attempts. But this came together and I overcame this once I tried a few different variations and positions. The fog planes helped a lot to overcome this challenge. The Customs entrance sets a nice scale to the scene with the background towers really giving the sense of a larger world behind the wall.
As a quick note: I avoided creating heavy Blender files. I split the buildings, entrances, and roads into different files to avoid bloating the Blender Files and slowing down the program.
This project was designed to be developed and edited easily and make iterations and challenges when required. I used a good balance of volumetric lighting and global illumination to help push the style I wanted in the end.
The project took roughly 2 months of work over a period of weekends. I don't usually have time during weekdays to do personal work so I leave all of it to the weekends and knock out as much as I can over 2 days a week. Roughly 5 – 8 hours per day on weekends.
I hope this write-up helps others in some way, never be worried about trying something new and different. Always push yourself but don't be afraid of failing. It's how we learn! If anyone has any questions about texturing, environments, or anything game-art-related, feel free to reach out! I will gladly reply with any help I can. You can check me out on ArtStation and Twitter.