Level Design. Building a Stylized Druid’s Sanctuary
My name is Nicholas Balm and I come from a town in the United Kingdom called Cheltenham. I am a 3D environment artist and I specialize in stylized environments. I am also the proud owner of the art studio Tiny Talisman Games and through that and personal freelance, I have worked on games such as the recently released GRIP Combat Racing game as a level designer and the anti-gravity racing game Formula Fusion, tasked with environment art optimization. I started learning game art at around the age of 15 and graduated from Sheffield Hallam University with a degree in Games Design.
Approach to Stylized Art
The most important thing for me when achieving stylized content is first coming up with your own unique style. The brilliant thing about stylized game art is that a simple brush change in ZBrush can literally change the entire style of the project you’re working on, there are countless styles that haven’t been discovered. The best way to achieve your own style, in my opinion, is to go and explore using weird and wacky brush combinations in ZBrush, include this with weird and wonderful model silhouettes and some exaggerated lighting and you’ve got a pretty unique aesthetic. The other great thing about working with stylized content is that there really are no boundaries. With realistic game art you really have to make things look as close to real life as possible, and are somewhat constrained to real-world shapes and values, but with stylized you have the option of creating worlds nobody could have ever imagined.
Stylized Druid’s Sanctuary
I had some ideas when brainstorming at the office one day and once the idea of this environment came into my head, I set out making a small Pinterest board. I knew I wanted some sort of fantasy looking realm hidden away in a mysterious mountain pass so I found similar looking environments and concepts and made a mood board. Pinterest served a great purpose in helping me achieve what I would probably say is the most important factor in any major game art piece and that’s composition. Although Pinterest can, in fact, be a great tool for finding asset designs and art styles, personally I find it best used as a way of discovering the great angles of composition that can be achieved.
I then moved onto working onto a basic block out in Unreal. The most important thing in my opinion when creating a block out is to not think too hard about it and allow your imagination to run wild. Just throw boxes into a scene, duplicate and move them around the scene until things start to take shape. Very similar to how a concept artist creates quick and simple silhouettes with simple brush strokes and eventually it starts to evolve into something that can be visualized. If I think too much on my block out phase, I generally get something that looks very neat and clean looking, which, in a lot of situations especially with outdoor environments, is not ideal due to the informal construction of the natural world.
I realized that the area I was working with was still very much open and I decided this would work a lot better as an enclosed area, which I knew could utilize an awesome light shaft shining through onto the main entrance. From this point, I moved onto closing the area off a lot more.
Finally, I came up with this. I always establish my lighting in the very initial stages of the block out so that I know exactly what I’m dealing with throughout the project, as this would heavily influence the texturing process.
The rocks play quite a huge part in the end aesthetic of this scene. The rocks are extremely modular. I designed them in such a way so that they can connect with one another easily, meaning that big cliff faces could be made from them and they would look seamless in every aspect. I have a lot of experience making rocks for stylized scenes but with this scene, I wanted to try something with a less smooth stylized aesthetic and have rocks with a lot more noise to them but maintaining a cube-like shape. I typically use a trim dynamic brush in combination with an h polish brush in ZBrush for making rocks faceted from a sphere, but for this, I took a slightly different approach.
Starting in Maya, I made a load of cubes and blended them into loads of different shapes and sizes then combined them into single models. I brought them into ZBrush and separated each cube into individual layers, then sculpted each one using a Trim dynamic and using a planar brush with a square alpha specifically to start chipping away at it but making sure to maintain the cube-like structures. Once I had finished sculpting, I used the subtool master to bring all the subtools into one, and dynamesh to combine it all into one final object. I then saved the high polygon model and then used zremesher to improve the topology and lower the polycount mixing it with the decimation master for the low poly model.
Once I’m done with ZBrush, I move over to 3DCoat to retopologize and unwrap the low poly model and then use marmoset toolbag to bake it from the high poly model. For texturing, I again used 3DCoat. I used simple beige and orange colors and mixed them with noise masks and edge highlighting to produce a clean and simple result that suited the stylised look I was going for.
Although this isn’t a playable game environment, I still feel it’s important to produce game ready optimized assets, otherwise, you’ll end developing bad habits that will set you back a long way when you do eventually work on a game that requires well-optimized scenes.
When building levels the best way to do it, in my opinion, is to not overthink it as much as possible. Just make a palette of objects in your scene and start duplicating and moving things around, rotating and scaling them. I try to make my models look different from all sides so that you essentially have a different looking model from every single angle. Having the objects at weird angles also further supports the stylized look and feel whilst still maintaining that natural look to the rocks.
The key when building these environments for me is to work very fast and then clean things up at the end. If you’re building a scene out from your head and you have very little to go off, then this is the best way of doing things in my opinion.
When it comes to texturing models for environments like this, I tend to usually work with base colors with minimal noise masks and rely quite a bit on my normal map bakes and lighting. I personally believe that when it comes to certain styles, the texturing is probably one of the less important factors into what makes a scene look great. Obviously, this sounds absurd, but when working on your very own style, you tend to do things that are out of the ordinary. I spent the most time sculpting for the normal and AO maps. If you have good composition and lighting then you can get away with the textures being terrible if this is a weaker area of practice for you, and it can still look great. However, that’s not to say I didn’t spend a lot of time on the albedo as this helped push the entire aesthetic and quality of the scene to the next level.
The mountain was actually made using World Creator 2 as I prefer it to World Machine. I really wanted to make sure there was a distinctively far away background without drawing the eye away from the main centerpiece which is the cave entrance. As I have already stated, in my opinion, the composition is by far the most important factor when creating a scene and is generally the thing that alongside lighting, makes or breaks your scene. I wanted to make this scene feel like it was hidden away from civilization, therefore I decided to put in great towering mountains, to make it feel like someone would have to venture far and wide to find such a sight of interest. It’s important to me that my scenes tell a story to the viewer. Out of view but in the background is also a massively upscaled rock that is blocking the sun from entering that area. I wanted to keep that area completely dark. I spent some time making some changes in the project settings to make the lights that were further away in the background render less and appear more faded out and further away and didn’t take away from the main entrance.
This general area is assembled from 4 mountain mesh pieces, rocks, small trees, druid stones, and waterfall meshes. I wanted the viewer to look at it and see that the druid’s sanctuary isn’t just in the mid-ground but also continues down into the background. I wanted to make sure that everything leads the player’s eye to the main entrance. As you can see the waterfalls, trees and druid stones no matter where you look in the scene, all point towards the main entrance.
As stated before, the lighting is something that I generally work on and aim to get 90% done within the block out phase of making a scene. The lighting for this scene is made up of a directional light, a skylight and exponential height fog as well as some adjustments to the post-processing effects. For a lot of my scenes, the actual light source is the thing that has the least impact on the lighting.
In my opinion, the key to making great stylized lighting is putting the right colors into your skylight. I like using lots of blues and purples for my skylight usually, giving the shadows that nice stylized feel.
I then brought in an exponential height fog and changed the color of the fog so that it perfectly blends with the skylight lighting and made sure the fog was thick enough to keep the player eye focused on the mid-ground. Although the fog is not directly related to the lighting, it’s extremely important in my opinion to make sure the fog compliments your skylight and light source.
I then went into the post-processing volume to change the exposure on the scene. Furthermore, in terms of light placement, I made it so that the sunlight was pointing through a small gap and lit up the cave entrance. I added a big light shaft into the scene to compliment this also.
In conclusion for creating the stylized lighting, I would say that it is extremely important that you make use of the different values in the light source, skylight and exponential height fog and make sure they blend well and compliment one another. The best way is to just simply play around with different colors and combinations until it starts to feel right. A lot of people disregard their skylight but, in my experience, getting the right color on your skylight is what makes or breaks a stylized scene.
Honestly, for this project, the hardest thing for me was getting that rock formation for the main entrance to look good and blend well into the scene. This might be because I’m a perfectionist or I’m just Indecisive on what I wanted. I went through many different rock layouts and combinations before I was satisfied with what is there now. The other bit that took quite a bit of time was filling out the background area beyond the waterfall. It had to be handled very delicately to not lead the player eye away from the main entrance. I took a risk with the giant tree in the center and thankfully it was successful and still subtle enough.
If I had to choose something that would be changed, I would probably say making the waterfall more detailed and more believable. Water is a tricky one for me and it’s something that is heavily featured in the next scene I am working on.
The successful choices for this scene for me is definitely the composition and lighting. As stated before, if you have great composition and lighting in your scene then generally the scene will look good, as in an actual stylized playable game world the tone and ‘feel’ of the world is most important and the quality of the models and textures are simply a bonus in my opinion.