Games have allowed us to journey to thousands of beautiful locations. We can visit lush forests, desolate space stations, Escher-esque kingdoms, or even completely imaginary places, like Los Angeles. If you have an interest in building your own journeys through captivating worlds, then this is a video you won’t want to miss. Alright! Run the intro! So, what is environment art? Well, it’s basically 90% of the screen. I mean, in most games, if you took away the environment, you’d just be looking at an empty void with some characters and UI. I mean, it’s really the whole world that a game takes place in, and every piece of it needs to be created by an environment artist. I mean, an artist made this tree, and that tree, and this tree, and that tree, and that rock, and that plant, and that plant, and that house, and that rock, and that sky, and that tree, and that tree, and that tree, and that tree, and this rock,and this tree, and that tree. This is so much work! How do you do all this? Environment artists need to be really good at prioritizing. Because there’s so much to do, we need to prioritize things that are most important to achieving the overall game experience. But how do you know what to prioritize? There’s, like, thousands of trees and rocks and stuff. Well, it’s not exactly about which tree or rock is the priority. We work with game designers and concept artists to determine what’s most important to work on. Let’s do a quick process breakdown. First, concept artists come up with the theme and tone of the environment. Then, game designers will create a blockout just using grey blocks. They decide things like where the obstacles are, where the player needs to go, and where enemies come from. With that information, we as environment artists can start to rough out art that represents both the concept artist’s vision, and the game designer’s constraints. Then we start refining the models, adding textures, adding color, and of course, playtesting the game a lot, and getting feedback. And then at the end, when it’s all been playtested, and it’s working, we’ll add lighting, post-processing effects, and any kind of polish notes that we might have. And that’s the enviroment art process in a nutshell. Woah! That was an awesome breakdown…but… in the beginning, you showed how the game designers just give you grey boxes. game designers just give you grey boxes.
How do you decide what those are gonna be, How do you decide what those are gonna be, and what they’re gonna look like? Well, we work closely with the concept artist to capture the essence of how the environment should really look and feel. There’s a lot of back and forth that happens. Constant paintovers, jamming on ideas to push the design. There’s a ton of ways to solve for game constraints. For example, a gameplay boundary could be a wall, a building, or a cliff overlooking the ocean. All of these examples serve the same gameplay constraint, but we’re trying to solve it in such a way that makes the game as beautiful and believeable as possible. Okay, so environments have to communicate a believable setting, as well as the gameplay critical information. So if environments could talk, they’d say something like… Hello. I’m obviously a rocky cliff. But I also have very clear ledge climbing gameplay. Ouch. Or… Ooo! I’m an eerie hallway! Try shooting my sack of goo for a tactical advantage! Hooray! Or… Hey, I’m a refreshing pool of water. There’s no danger here– or is there?! Let’s move on. Environment artists have to guide the player, and establish a clear visual hierarchy to maintain clarity in a game. Check out our first video to go over visual hierarchy! Let’s look at some of the ways that environment artists maintain a clear visual hierarchy. At its core, an environment is a collection of shapes that lead the eye, just like any image. You can lead the player by designing and laying out these shapes to support a clear hierarchy of focus. When I was at Insomniac, I was very fortunate to work on “Ratchet & Clank,” and one of the first things we would do, we’d usually start with an establishing composition at the very beginning of a level, and that helped players understand where Ratchet was, and what he was about to do. Light and shadow play a huge role in the beauty and believability of an environment. They also create clear focal points to lead the eye. The materials of the space, and how the lighting interacts with those materials, is key to establishing the overall mood of the environment. Lighting also creates contrast through spotlighting and shadows, which become key compositional elements to help lead the player. Yeah! And using a bright light as a focal point is also a great way to distract the player from something you want to surprise them with. Hello… Careful application of detail is especially important in an environment. Shifting between large areas of rest, and areas with more detail, is a great way to guide where the player is looking. Alright. It’s time for…storytelling? What can tell a story in an environment? Everything from the overall layout, to the individual props of an environment, has a huge storytelling potential. Things like climate, age, and culture, are reflected through the environment, and are key to reinforcing the fantasy of the overall game experience. Oh yeah! Like the huge collapsed robots in “Horizon Zero Dawn” implying some sort of war in a forgotten age. Or the incredible attention to detail in “Kingdom Come: Deliverance,” where military camps have remnants of food, and boarded over potholes, and bandits even hang their laundry! This gives you a sense that it’s not just a dead level but someone definitely lives here. And that’s what gives it an even more interesting tone. But how do you even know which details to add, and what kind of things to put in the environment to make it feel so lived in? Do environment artists do…research? We’re actually doing research all the time. We’re always observing different environments. We’re seeing how they’re laid out, and really finding those unique details in these places. My family actually gets really annoyed at me because a lot of my vacation photos are just of weird pipes, dark weird corners, dirty grates, and old kitchens. Are there easy ways to really mess up an environment? It’s actually really easy to mess up scale, which then messes up the whole believability of the space. Good scale cues are things like chairs, doorknobs, railings, stairs… things that the character’s gonna interact with a lot. I still have to watch for this a lot actually. I recently blocked out a whole room without putting a character in for scale reference, and ended up having him sit at, like, a twenty-foot desk. There’s so much thought and research that goes into making even a small environment. But what if you’re making a huge environment? Like, a whole world? Given the sheer amount of work involved, you would need an enormous team to custom build every piece of a huge environment. And not only is it a lot of work, but it also has to run smoothly in game, which means environment artists have to find creative ways to build complex environments using as few resources as possible. Yeah, and that means keeping the polycount low, reusing models, textures… anything that can cut corners and increase the development speed. A great example of this is using modular kits. So, how does a modular kit work? We build pieces of the world in reusable chunks, kind of like elaborate Legos, so it’s easy to build out whole huge worlds. These chunks are designed to have enough variance to create vastly different looks. But be generic enough to not be recognizable as duplicates. Here’s an example of a crate that we can just turn around to look like a completely different crate. And here’s a rock that can be manipulated a bunch of different ways to achieve new looks. So let’s recap. Game environment art is the world or background of a game. Environment artists are the 3D modelers that build the terrain, props, and set pieces of a game. They work with the concept artists and the game developers to create believable and beautiful worlds that clearly communicate gameplay to the player. They do this through composition, lighting, and careful application of detail. They strive to make their worlds tell stories, and do tons of research to inform how those stories are told. And finally, they work really efficiently, keeping the amount of textures and polygons low by creating reusable modular kits. But this video isn’t over yet! It’s time for advice! Other than the daily maintenance of practicing your art skills, one thing that you can try to focus on is just building relationships with other artists. They can be your peers, or teachers, or if you’re working solo, then maybe trying to join online communities. It’s really important to find other artists who share similar passion as you. You’re gonna be working with, like, a lot of different individuals, and be able to talk about your ideas is really key. I would advise you to go online, and look up for different tutorials, or how artists approach their pipeline, or the way they work. There are multiple ways and programs and tools that you could use to achieve a goal, so just finding whichever way that you’re more comfortable with. One thing I wish I would’ve learned a little bit earlier on in my career was how to, like, take feedback, and understand what I needed to do in response to the feedback. Oftentimes, people will tell you to do something and you might not actually need to do it. For example, I had someone recommend to me that I delete all the trees from this forest. I needed to understand what problem he was trying to solve, so I asked, and he said, “well it was just really busy and noisy.” Instead of deleting the trees, I went back and I redid the textures so that it was cleaner, less cluttered, organized the composition a little bit, and that solved the problem. It’s really important to understand that when people give you feedback, you understand the problem, and not the solution they’re giving you. One of the big things that they teach you in school is to make props, and make badass props, which is great, but a lot of people don’t take it a step further, and actually create full environments. It’s really important that people learn to like have the big picture view of what an environment is, and how to actually build an environment. Back when I was in school, and started modeling props, textures, environments, I didn’t really understand the importance of storytelling in the environment. I’d model things very flat, hard-edged, sterile. There was no love, and there was no real detail in these props and environments that I would be making. You have to start, you know, wearing and tearing edges. Being able to wear them where people’s hands would go, or around door handles with schmutz and grime and things of that nature. Anyone can make, like, a badass tequila bottle, but really, you should start pushing yourself and make the whole bar, and see how all of those pieces come together to make something interesting and lived in. You get to be an artist, and you get to tell a story within the props and the environment that you’re making. It’s something that brings the environment to life and really helps tell the story. When you go on to ArtStation, or when you look at game art, you tend to see something that’s already been polished to the point of perfection. What you don’t see are all the failed versions and iterations in between, so keep that in mind that it’s okay when you’re learning to sort of stumble and fall. More than eighty percent of everything I make is just absolute garbage, but that’s, you know, not necessarily for anyone else to see. That’s just something that you can chalk up to growing, and learning, and improving at the craft. As long as you just keep pushing and growing, eventually you’ll become a master of the craft.