Game Environment Modeling: A Comprehensive Guide

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3D modeling is a very wide field, back in the day it wasn’t very branched off like nowadays where you have environment modeling, character modeling, prop modeling…etc and you can divide all of those into either the Games industry or the Film and movies industry.

The search for specialists is very common and 3D generalists are less and less needed as the quality bar has increased significantly in the past decade.

Game Environment Modeling

In this article, we will explain what Game Environment Modeling is and how to plan and create environment assets for your game.

What is Game Environment Modeling?

Environment modeling by itself is the process of creating assets to be used to build environments, these would span from terrain to buildings to foliage…etc.

If you add Game to it then it would turn all these assets into Game assets meaning these assets have to be low poly and optimized to work on game engines like Unity or Unreal engine.

Not to be confused with Map creation, game environment modeling is the actual assets whether it’s 2D or 3D that will be the building blocks for the environment of the game.

Planning Your Game Environment

Every Game environment that you will make needs to pass through the planning stages below, you can’t simply go into Blender or Maya and start modeling something that you don’t know otherwise you will be throwing lots of unwanted assets later on, these steps are as follows:

  • Researching and gathering references
  • Creating a concept art and style guide
  • White boxing and blocking the environment in 3D

Researching and gathering references: Creating mood boards is essential for every new environment that you will make, these mood boards consist of a series of images that would show the art direction and style of what you want to achieve.

Creating a concept art and style guide: from the mood boards we head into creating our first key art that will be used by the 3D modelers to create our final game environment.

White boxing and blocking the environment in 3D: White boxing or in some studios called grey boxing, is the process of blocking out the environment based on the concept art provided, using cubes and cylinders, and spheres (3D primitives).

This will give us a sense of scale and unlock other departments like game design to start testing with Camera positions and level design.


3D Modeling for Game Environment

When we talk about environment modeling lots of things come to mind, from terrain to landscapes to buildings and vegetation…etc, all of those are building blocks for environments, and modeling all of those have certain disciplines related to them.

Let’s take some types of environmental assets and discuss more modeling approaches used these days.

Modeling terrain and landscape

Terrains and landscapes in games takes up a big chunk of space and memory this is why it’s very important we choose an optimized and light way to produce terrains.

Terrain Model

Unity terrain system does a very good job of producing big terrains at a low-cost performance wise but texturing the terrain can be somehow tricky as you only have 1 texture to paint for the whole terrain.

Related Article: Singletons in Unity

Other methods are modular, creating building blocks of chunks of terrain that we can instance and put together so we don’t have to create more unique parts of the terrain that would be very good for performance but can be limiting in terms of visual variety.

Modeling Buildings and Upgrades

Building assets take more of a traditional modeling approach, low poly models are created in software like Blender or Maya directly and this depends on the art style of the game, some take the buildings to brush to add some sculpting to its stones or wooden elements and some just stick to flat vertex paint like the example below.

Building Upgrades

Building upgrades are very straightforward and my advice to you guys is always to start from the highest tier building, for example, if a building has 5 levels, start by creating Level 5 and slowly take away elements of the building until you reach level 0.

Creating props and small assets

Props from small rocks to weapons and barrels these elements add a lot to the final look of the game and these are part of our game environment assets.

Shortcuts should be taken in these assets as they are small and just add to the general look of the game that’s why some artists use auto retopology like Zremesher to get a quick retopology made for these assets.

Texturing and UV mapping

Having a clean and optimized UV layout not only helps with the optimization and performance of the game but also makes texturing a lot easier. We know that fewer UV islands mean less calculation in game engines that will help make our game FPS better which means that our game will run faster.

Mirroring and texture atlasing are essential for texturing large game environment assets, wherever you have similar-looking meshes these should all be stacked on top of each other, any mirrored assets should be mirrored in the UV layout this makes texturing easier as you only have to texture one and the other is instantly mirrored.

Best Practices in Game Environment Modeling

Importance of consistency in design and art style

Consistency is very important and essential in any art style, and it’s a problem present in most games, you see one tree texture in one way and another textured in another which breaks the visual language of the game.

It’s very important for any game to teach the player what is what and without consistency it’s very hard to do that.

Collaboration between artists and designers

Collaboration between all departments in a game dev team is critical but here I wanted to stress the collaboration between the art team and the design team, as it’s a very close collaboration.

You have the art team trying to visualize what the design team has written in words which means lines of communication should always be present and running so that the art team doesn’t create assets that don’t relate to the design team’s vision.

Continual learning and improvement

Game environment modeling is a learning process there is no finish line, you learn something new every day and you get more knowledge and experience with every asset you create, so don’t stop keep on creating and keep on learning.

Tools for Game Environment Modeling

Popular game environment modeling tools

There are lots of software nowadays for 3D in general but there some software that just ring a bell when it comes to 3D environment modeling and these softwares are the following:

  • Substance Designer
  • Zbrush
  • 3Ds Max (modeling tools)

Of course, there are more tools like Blender, Maya…etc, you can achieve the result wanted with any tool because as its always not about the tool but the process and the person using the tool.

Pros and cons of different tools

Substance Designer: Great software to create tileable textures for your game environments that look very vibrant and appealing.

Zbrush: Sculpting and detailing our environment assets

3Ds Max: the reason I put 3Ds max here is that it has the best 3D modeling tools, most artists know this besides 3D modeling tools I wouldn’t recommend 3Ds max for anything else.

Conclusion

Game environment modeling has specific workflows and tools connected to it, in a world where specialists are on the rise and we have jobs like Senior Environment Artists, and specialized softwares for environment modeling like Substance designer, game environment art is becoming a world of its own.

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