This tutorial was written by the amazing Doru Butz and appeared in issue 113 of 3D Artist. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!
Unreal Engine 4,
When working on games, concept art for environments is a necessity, but in many cases there isn’t the time to generate specific concept art, so you have to create from imagination.
The way to approach work where you have complete freedom over the work, or perhaps just a general idea to go from, is very different from when you have to create something from a concept that already exists. To help you tackle such a scenario, we are going to look at an approach for getting the most impact from your environment. We will run through the whole process of creating a steampunk diorama, from scratch, without relying on any specific concept or guidelines.
We will also take a look at solving problems on the fly, examining what works and what doesn’t and how to recognise the difference between the two!
Step 01 – Block out
This step is probably the most important one. If the initial blocking out of areas is weak, the whole piece will look weak, no matter how much detail, FX or PBR textures you throw at it. This first attempt is a more traditional gate. It was completed in Modo using just cylinders and bevelled cubes. We start adding pipes and gears, which has the immediate effect of giving it a steampunk look, but it is hard to justify them from a practical standpoint. All the bevelled and rounded corners start to make the scene too mild. We want a more menacing look. For the next pass, we focus more on the silhouette. We raise the sides of the gates and give them a more angular shape, which we contrast with a round taper at the bottom. We add some cables to break that vertical composition and also add some visual interest.
Step 02 – Move to Unreal
After each block-out step, we move to Unreal Engine 4 in order to check how it looks in-game. We add a few basic lights in order to have a general impression of the blockout – just a couple of point lights and a directional light. The shapes and silhouette tend to be more obvious with lights and basic ambient occlusion.
Step 03 – Composition iteration
The piece is progressing, but it feels like we are losing some of the steampunk feel. The large gear in the middle adds a lot of visual interest and the large pipes from the sides help cement the steampunk look, but we need to make the large gear feel useful. We’ll tackle this issue later, when we have a clearer idea of what we want it to do.
Step 04 – Texture blockout
After we are happy with the general look of the piece, we can start working on textures and decide on the materials for each part. We jump into Substance Designer and make quick concrete and brick textures, as well as a few types of metal.
We only used tileable textures, since it is faster and at this stage texture detail, like edge wear and dirt, is not that relevant. We focus mainly on material definition and scale. Since Substance Designer enables the user to iterate really fast, we can modify the materials to our liking. One of the biggest issues we encountered with such a small night scene was that all the reflective materials, and especially the metals, had really dark reflections. There was a lot of tweaking of metalness and gloss until we were satisfied. One of the other things we should do is to increase the intensity of the reflection probes.
Step 05 – Fix problems
The gate was tricky because it looked too noisy and flimsy. We decided to remove it and replace it with a fully metallic one, with decorative elements that reinforced the Victorian/steampunk aesthetic.
We also revisited the gears above the gate. Rather than it just look decorative, we tried to give them some sort of mechanical plausibility. We also pushed some asymmetry, since the rest of the piece is mostly symmetrical.
Step 06 – Texture polish
We go back to Substance Designer and start polishing the block-out textures. The small props can be textured in Substance Painter, but we don’t do any texture baking. We can bevel the important edges and add normal details in Substance Painter.
Step 07 – Vertex painted materials
Because tileable textures are so easy to use, we should use them as much as possible, but they have two big downsides: obvious repetition and the inability to add local details, such as dirt or puddles. We can create a custom material in UE4 in which to use vertex painting as a mask for adding a few different tileable textures together, which makes it possible to paint some dirt and wet spots.
Step 08 – Add signage
To make a more believable piece you must think of a story for it. Why is it there? Who are the people that would live/work there? One of the easiest ways to convey that is through signage. Things like graffiti and warning signs or other information of that type, make the world look lived in. The ‘Gate 11’ sign was a decal to add more personality to the piece, but it became distracting and felt out of place, and as such was removed. Don’t be afraid to test out things to see if they work.
Step 09 – Tweak lighting
Even though we have some basic lighting, it is time to start refining it. The spotlights on the walls are too strong, and the combination of spotlight and directional light on the cobble street is creating too much noise. First, we should increase the tiling on the road texture and that immediately improves the problem of noise. We can reduce the intensity of the vertical spotlights and add a custom skylight cubemap that is warmer and a bit brighter, which helps the materials read better. It also contrasts nicely with the blueish background.
Step 10 – Particle effects
Atmosphere is extremely important for environments. The easiest way to add it is through fog and particle effects. The ones used here are extremely simple; just basic steam from pipes and the sewer grill. They are all simple particle emitters with a basic alpha.
Step 11 – Happy little accidents
While trying to improve the lighting on the cables, we accidentally moved one of the point lights above the two sides. We liked the way it looked, creating a nice long gradient on the sides and making the silhouette read better. As Bob Ross would say, it was a “happy little accident”.
Step 12 – Silhouette final touches
While the piece is starting to come together, we still have some issues to fix. The biggest one is that the diorama ends in a very straight line and the silhouette isn’t as good as it could be because of it. We can add a few concrete structure pieces to give the feeling of some sort of foundation.
Step 13 – Cable blueprints
A smaller issue is the cables running down the sides of the gate: they need more variation. We can also add cables on the large concrete parts on each side of the road, but to make them in Modo would be tedious, as each modification would require new exports and tweaking. So we make them in UE4 using blueprints. The time saved and ease of use is substantial and we would highly recommend anyone doing a scene with cables to try making them via blueprints.
Step 14 – Lights blueprints
Blueprints are extremely powerful tools. For instance, we want to achieve a blinking light effect and link it to the glow intensity of a few materials. This is done using blueprints. The first step is to make a material with a blink parameter. We then create a blueprint in order to make the light blink. This is achieved by making a timeline, then adding a float track to it that controls when the point light is on or off. A parameter is created from the light blink frequency to be used to determine the intensity of the glow of the material.
Step 15 – Post-process and finalise the look
The whole piece is starting to look good. We can do a few material tweaks, some light intensity and position fixes and add light cones. Ambient Occlusion is achieved with distance fields so we can tweak their values. We want to have a nice contrast between the background and the structure so the silhouette stands out. We can tweak the sky and fog values to a blueish colour, to complement the warm red and orange values of the structure.