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Who is an Environment Artist by Massive Entertainment

What exactly are the duties of an environment artist? I asked the question from Chad Chatterton, lead environment artist of The Division and got a very great answer and also now we now how things work at Ubisoft.

Hamidreza Nikoofar, Blogger

September 5, 2016

10 Min Read

What exactly is the duties of a environment artist? I asked the question from Chad Chatterton, lead environment artist of The Division who works at Massive Entertainment and he replied to me with a very interesting answer.  

Also, ever wonder how Ubisoft manage to make games with so many teams involved? I think we got that covered too.


What exactly are the duties of an environment artist and what is the job of the lead environment artist?

" I discuss and disseminate the needs and wishes of Directors, help determine the overall game playable world, how it will be built, where our focus should be and I define what my team can deliver. I ensure we deliver by tracking work, removing obstacles, testing the game and giving feedback and generally trying to be helpful. I coordinate new hires, mentor interns, attend a lot of meetings, coordinate with co-development studios and if time allows, I take on some of the world building. I also speak with other departments on Environment Art issues.

 As for the duties of an Environment Artist on The Division, there are 2 areas you can focus on, either building the open world or building Missions. Missions are dedicated large scale encounters that are usually indoors. So while your skills are generally the same as the Open World Team, your experience as an Environment Artist is different overall.

 The Mission Team at Massive sit in pods of 4 people that work together very closely, 2 artists and 2 Level Designers. Their tasks are really too many to list, but I'll try and describe something of the experience of creating a Mission:

 To begin with Directors will define the Mission outline in a very brief document outlining basic narrative, visual themes, player goals, and any particular physical transformations to existing real world locations. These wishes are developed in line with the overall vision for the game. Once this proposal has been discussed and approved a larger document going into more detail is created, which is again discussed and reshaped until everyone is happy and there is a general belief that we can pull it off in time and that it will be fun.

 From there another document is created, this time by the pod assigned to the Mission, and this is where the Environment Artists and Level Designers collect and organise their research, adding new ideas to enhance the gameplay and visual experience, and make changes where needed. As part of this process the team will start to block out the spaces in the editor to get a true understanding of scale (ie. relative to other Missions), potential optimization issues (ie. view distance too large), as well as visual reveals, pacing and so on. If we are able to test any gameplay ideas at this point then we do so.

 This document is more image heavy and Concept artists also contribute to help nail down the art direction and overall feel, and also to help solve specific realization problems (ie. How do we make a Fire Truck converted into a war machine look realistic?). Once this document has been approved by Directors and Tech Art, and all agree on the content, only then do we start to move at full speed on the creation of the Mission. 

 This pre-production process could take a few weeks at least, but it's very important to be thorough, anticipate questions and difficulties and to use this time to bring clarity to the next 3 or more months of work. It also helps provide autonomy to the content creators, meaning the Environment Artists and Level Designers can now be left alone to do their thing as everyone's confident that the Direction is clear and understood. So fewer people looking over your shoulder.

 Now that we know what we're doing the team focuses on fully blocking out the space with simple colored blocks and whitebox structures. We try to avoid using existing polished assets at this early stage. If Level Designers are placing finished assets it becomes unclear if it is a temporary test or is intended to stay in game. Ultimately the Environment Artist is responsible for the placement of visual assets. These simple blocks however represent metrics and have cover and vaulting functionality so we can experience the gameplay.

 At this initial stage the Environment Artists are compiling an asset request list. Most of these assets will go to outsourcing or be made in-house by dedicated Prop Artists. Sometimes the Environment Artist will take a few of those assets to completion, but usually they are too busy doing everything else. They will though create simple whitebox versions of all the requested assets as part of the asset creation pipeline. So instead of spending a week creating a new portable generator asset, they spend 20 mins creating a simple model to scale with cover and vaulting systems attached so they can get on with creating and managing the rest of the environment.

 You can think of the environments we create as being made up of many layers. As Environment Artists we are mainly concerned with structural layers, some technical systems layers and the visual narrative layers. Level Design, AI, Audio teams and so on are concerned with different layers.

 In building up an existing location we first aim for an infrastructural layer. So imagine picking the environment up in your hands and turning it upside down and giving it a shake. All that doesn't fall out onto the floor, all that is left is the infrastructural layer. The buildings, roads, sidewalks streetlamps and so on, these civic elements comprise the base layer upon which we build other narrative and visual layers, and in the case of the Mission team, it's this infrastructural layer that Environment Artists usually create themselves, and comprise simpler, larger surfaces that can be made quickly and will often need to be updated as spaces adapt to ongoing gameplay needs. 

 Thinking in these terms is also important from a workflow point of view. We don't aim for the final look from the outset, instead we build up in layers, even if we know we are going to replace some of those elements along the way. This approach also forces you to take your time and think things through, which allows for new ideas and adaptation while creating a solid base.

 On top of the base layer we start to create the visual narrative layers where we tell the micro and macro stories. Let's say you want to tell the story of a particular building in a neglected part of town, so you might dress a building up to look more worn, add hanging laundry on the fire escape as well as some kid's toys, board up one of the windows, add graffiti to the billboard on the roof to show that someone has climbed up but that nobody has bothered to clean it, and add a broken drainpipe that has left a stain on the side of the wall. 

 And then on top of that layer you could tell the story of an Enemy Faction having been, they've graffitied the building with their gang sign and smashed a store window leaving some of the goods on the sidewalk. Bullet holes and blood on the painted brick wall show there was some gun play and someone got hurt. A light is on in the alleyway and there you find a body. You could keep adding layers like this, but too many layers will muddy the story and will eventually become noise. A couple of layers should be enough. 

 The more the space progresses the more feedback is required, and this is what I spend much of my time doing. The challenge is developing the visual language, unity, rhythm, balance and so on, so that it supports and adds to the gameplay experience. Level Designers often like symmetry, boxes, clean paths for example, while Environment Artists don't, and so we have to find ways to maintain a natural, interesting look. All the while artists areensuring the scene is in budget and that it's smooth to play through.

 Some other aspects Environment Artists work on are a footstep detail layer to help show where people have been and where players can go, a dynamic object layer ensuring that these expensive assets are not missed by the player, a branding layer that ties in appropriate advertising, and a signage layer covering things like parking, fire alarms, traffic signs, trespassing and so on. There are many other aspects that Environment Artists work on, especially things you don't see that relate to optimization and other technical systems like destruction that need to be managed for example, but this covers some of the major aspects. "



But how to get inspiration from real world in order to make a realistic universe. here is the answer:

Creating a world in a game is like a mirror in mirror job, how do you use the real world in order to understand the logic of another world inside of a game and how do you use it to create a fantasy word like Age of Conan?

" Many decisions are informed by considerations of cause and effect, how surfaces react to time and weather, how things got the way they are and so on. For instance if you're adding leaks and stains to a wall for detail and interest, then add some vents and pipes as a source for those leaks and stains. If you have a convenience store in your game world, then strew some related packaging in the area and place some shopping baskets nearby. If a car has ended up on the sidewalk, show what it crashed into getting there, add skid marks, damage the car. Did someone break into the car and steal from it afterwards? Show that with a smashed window and an open door. Maybe there's a rag in the fuel tank where they siphoned the fuel. Just being logical with your story building in this way will deliver richness and stability to your world. 

 In Age of Conan the outdoor environments I worked on were informed largely by time spent in Norwegian forests, as well as research online. I spent a lot of time observing and taking photographs, and some of those photographs became textures used in the game (we might not do it that way anymore). We tried to employ logic when placing rocks and vegetation. Plant life tends to thrive in sheltered indentations in the landscape for instance, rather than on the peak of a rise where they are more subject to the wind. So this tells you where to start planting your trees and bushes. Rocks may have at some point broken off from larger structures and rolled down to finally rest at the base of a slope. Create those larger structures. Create clusters of things that have some reason for being together.

 When creating clusters of trees and rocks I would think of the group like a family, say 2 larger parent elements of similar but different sizes, and then a handful of smaller child elements nearby. Perhaps one that's strayed from the group a little that looks a little weird. This approach can deliver a stable pyramid structure that feels grounded and natural and interesting. The same thinking can be applied to small clusters of objects, and well as larger structures like villages and so on. Clustering things together is also a way of stating their presence in the game world more strongly, and makes a scene easier to read."


Chad is a amazing person who has taought me a lot, and if you're a environment artist or a level designer, you can follow his work via his website: http://www.chadchatterton.com/

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