Hey Nathan, welcome to Beyond Extent! Could you introduce yourself?
First off I want to thank Beyond Extent for giving me this fantastic opportunity to write this article, it means a lot!
My name is Nathan, I’m 23 and I’m a student going into my third year of studying Games Art at Staffordshire University in Stoke-On-Trent, England.
What got you started with video games and wanting to make art for them?
Video games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, all starting from a Game Boy bought as a birthday gift! I mostly enjoy single-player open-world games like the Elderscrolls and Assassin’s Creed franchises or the Witcher 3. Fantasy is a genre that has always been dear to me with stories of epic adventure being my favourite - this likely stems from a childhood obsession with The Lord of The Rings trilogy.
I’ve been interested in 3D art, environments in particular since starting to study Games Development at college; pursuing it further at University. I find there is something absolutely magical about 3D art. The ability to create something from nothing is mind-boggling and the challenges that come with a 3D game pipeline often make the experience more fulfilling.
With "Attikan Farmlands", What was the idea behind this environment and how did the scope for it change over time?
The module briefly summarised was to create a building based on a piece of concept art that utilises a trimsheet; however, I didn’t want to just create a building. I wanted to push myself to give that building context in the form of an environment with multiple types of foliage, trees, rocks, landscape and props so that I could have it as a portfolio piece. With Assassin’s Creed Odyssey being one of my favourite games, making a project based on it sounded really fun.
For this project I really wanted to learn and work towards a more professional understanding of the games pipeline by utilizing modular kits, iterative shader work, learning to use material attributes and functions, clearer folder structure and the use of sub-levels.
The scope of the project most definitely took a journey. Due to a lack of experience with both the workflows and larger project management, I initially overscoped the project. Pressure to match the scope and quality of past student projects on the module led to this grand plan and it eventually backfired. Every project’s journey is different and I definitely battled with constant self-comparison with the projects of my peers. The image below shows the original blockout of the project.
With the project having direct reference in the form of artwork that teams of veteran artists worked on, it was especially easy to be overwhelmed by the scale and quality bar. To tackle this I decided to drastically downscope. Taking it back down to one building was the best choice I made for this project as it allowed me to focus on bumping the quality of the building up to a manageable level that I was comfortable keeping when expanding the scene.
Learning to balance scope is a key skill that perhaps isn’t as discussed as much as it should be. It can make or break a project, I’m just lucky I had good people around me to help me see the mistakes as they came.
"...I didn’t want to just create a building. I wanted to push myself to give that building context in the form of an environment..."
You've used second UV channels on this project. How does this work and what are the benefits of using this?
The second UV workflow is one of the most powerful newer workflows that artists can use to their benefit. It essentially allows artists to add extra detail pairing with tileable materials very well. For example, my modular kit utilizes a UV channel set up to a correct texel density to work with my tileable materials; then a second UV channel is used exclusively for my paint band shader. This in conjunction with vertex painting produced the result seen in my scene.
An RGB Mask is essentially 3 grayscale masks packed into one texture via the RGB Channels.Here you can see the green is the main band of paint with two different noises that I could use in-engine to add noise or remove sections of paint. You could argue there’s a better use for one of the channels such as specific leaks under windows, however it’s always contextual to what you need and the idea was new to me at this point.
You used Unreal Engine 5 for this project. What did you learn with using Lumen?
Attikan Farmlands originally started out in UE4 but a number of weeks into the project, I decided I wanted to do a test migration to UE5 to see what the new Lumen global illumination system could do to the scene. I was absolutely astounded by the result, instantly giving the scene a more natural and realistic feel.
Getting used to the new UI after transitioning didn’t take long as the aesthetic of the engine is similar. Although ultimately different from UE4 it is still very much based on the Unreal Engine ideal of functionality. The use of different workspaces in the modes section is hidden in a similar fashion, most things are found in roughly the same places as UE4. Something I found annoying though is that the icon sizes in the content browser are too big when medium and too small on small - rather frustrating!
Something that was difficult to adjust to was the lack of tessellation in material shaders. It's something I've relied on in previous projects but no longer having that option meant I had to come up with inventive solutions, particularly in the groundwork. The creation of a gravel clump mesh was incredibly useful in filling out the ground and giving it a physical feel/silhouette. Importing a rounded plane into the engine and using the new UE5 modelling tools to displace the mesh via the gravel tileable height map worked to create small piles of gravel really well. This in conjunction with a quick selection of low poly gravel meshes really helps the ground feel real.
Nanite is unfortunately not something I touched on much in this project as I felt learning optimisation workflows would be more useful for the project rather than relying on the new system. It does look really cool though.
"...I was absolutely astounded by the result, instantly giving the scene a more natural and realistic feel..."
How did you go about matching the style from Assassin's Creed Odyssey?
The lighting as previously discussed relied on UE5’s Lumen system, but it still required a fair bit of tweaking. I spent a good number of hours playing around with angles, skylight intensities, etc to see what worked for the scene. Capturing a summer midday angle for my directional light whilst still keeping shadows where I wanted it proved to be a little finicky. I ended up using both raleigh scattering and mei in conjunction with subtle saturation tweaks in post process.
One of the main things that instantly links the project to ACO is the blue paint band on the buildings. When exploring ACO it becomes kind of iconic on the housing architecture so I knew capturing it would really help the scene feel more like the game.
Using blur checks to test the readability of the scene as well as value checks (removing the distraction of saturation) to check lighting were very useful tools that assisted me in trying to match the feel of the game.
Your ivy kit seems very versatile, how did you create it?
A comprehensive Ivy kit was one of the main things I wanted to achieve with this project. I find it often helps to make architecture feel more grounded and it’s used fairly frequently throughout Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, plus it would be another interesting workflow to learn.
Utilizing an Ivy atlas together with the pieces of the architecture modular kit helped to create pieces that work specifically with certain pieces so it allows the ivy to feel more natural and part of the environment.
Tell us a little bit about utilizing tiling textures to create unique modular geometry
The process of modelling from a tileable material was new to me with this project and after some research, I felt it was the most optimised approach to tackling my roof kit. Starting off with a plane, aligning edgeloops to appropriate edges on the material and extruding sections to make physical geometry pieces worked brilliantly. Because the roof tiles could be mixed and matched too, it was very easy to avoid tiling as I could just take a section of roof tiles and place them differently.
Personally, the use of extra geometry to create interesting silhouettes always looks better. The Soulsborne games are a prime example of games that make exceptional use of extra geometry. For open-world games a number of years ago this just wouldn’t have been possible; limiting this extra geo to linear games. However, as shown by Elden Ring’s release earlier this year, technology has taken leaps to allow for extra geometry. This is especially so with Unreal Engine 5’s new Nanite system, geometry has never been cheaper to process!
"...For open-world games a number of years ago this just wouldn’t have been possible..."
Any advice for fellow students?
There is a bunch of advice I’d like to offer to fellow students but I will keep it to a few key points that I feel helped me personally.
Networking - It’s a word that feels disingenuous and personally when I first heard the term I felt out of my depth and lost. The image I had in my mind is going up to random people and forcing an uncomfortable and unnatural conversation about who you are and what you do. It really doesn’t need to be as formal as all that and if you are to approach it in that way it will become evident to people what your intentions are very quickly. Simply getting your name out there by joining and being active in communities like Beyond Extent is an excellent way to meet awesome people. The games development scene is really a lot smaller than it seems so having a positive but honest friend group that helps push you to be your best will go a long way.
Utilising Industry feedback - It really is a must. Who better to learn from than those that are doing what you want to do? It can be super difficult and frankly, at first, it was hard to not see people in the industry as intimidating gods who I looked up to… but they really are just people. The worst that could happen is that you may not get a response to your message, but the best is that you can get some awesome feedback that you can use to really push your project - providing you listen to and act on the feedback; remember that someone is investing their time to help you better yourself and your work. Industry feedback has proven time and time again to be a considerable factor in elevating the quality of work from students, be one of them.
When you do feel ready to get feedback from people, keep it concise. A bit of self-analysis will go a long way to help someone that is giving feedback. If you are looking for feedback on the composition of your scene for example, ask about that specifically. Approaching people with a feedback request that is too open-ended can be off-putting for someone. If your project is based on an existing game, reaching out to the developers in my experience has been super helpful and they are more than happy to advise, be aware of NDA’s though - certain things simply cannot be talked about.
It’s your journey - I’m very guilty of obsessively comparing my work to others and it is such a hard habit to break away from, especially if you are constantly reminded of it. Trying to break away from that habit will open you up to explore your full potential. Browsing through Artstation there are so many intimidating posts, but learn to realize they all had their own journey, they show what they want to be shown and I guarantee there were many learning opportunities in the form of mistakes for every single one of them. People have been on their journeys for different time periods and encountered different obstacles along the way!
What excites you about the future of games and your future in them?
The world of Games Art is ever-changing and I think the use of AI will be an interesting thing to see take direction, though it’s certainly a hot topic. I find procedural tools quite interesting and though I have a very basic understanding of creating tools in Houdini, seeing the procedural tech advance and be used actively in games is super cool. I think I’d like to experiment further with creating tools to help create art in my upcoming final year of university, alongside more environment art projects.
My current plans are to get a few more portfolio pieces out of my time at University to build skills and to show that I am capable of getting a role as a Junior Environment Artist at a game studio.
My ultimate goal is to work on an epic fantasy title. My heart has always been with open-world fantasy games so being able to say that I worked on a title of a game similar to the games I love would be a dream.