New Babylon

Environment Breakdown

Miha Maruško

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Miha Maruško

Environment Artist

Introduction

Hey there! I’m Miha, an environment artist from Maribor, Slovenia, currently working in the gaming industry.
I got here by uploading environment art projects to ArtStation, and I ended up accepting my current role at Disruptive Games, where we’re working on our internal project.

Project and Inspiration

It all started as a hobby back in 2012 when Far Cry 3 came out, I was addicted to the amazing map editor and its community. After posting dozens of maps in both Far Cry 3 & 4 I decided I want to chase the “real deal”, so I started to learn various programs that would enrich my knowledge of environment art. After I learned all of the basics and expanded my knowledge even further, I focused on creating enormous environments that are full of life with my primary objective being composition and balance.

In the past, I was mostly focused on creating small but detailed environments, so I always desired to create a scene that would represent immense scale with impressive architecture. it was a lifelong dream of mine to create an environment that would feature a dome-like structure.

Because, what’s more grandeur than a dome present in architecture? That way I developed the concept further in my head and I later sketched it up in my notebook. New Babylon was a project where I left my comfort zone, especially with the desired deadline. I finished my previous project at the end of August. About 3 days after finishing and publishing “Unresting Watermills” I started to model my first modular pieces for at the time called “Project: Paradise Lost”.

As for the deadline, I knew I wanted to finish and publish the project right before December, so I set my goal on the 29th of November. That way I can focus on my university tasks later in December when I’m not skipping school and making environment art.

References/Inspiration

Since I was little, I always adored the so-called “adventure movie” formula. Franchises like Indiana Jones, the Adventures of Tintin comic book series, Uncharted, Tomb Raider, etc. showed me how much I like, and cherish good adventure stories. That way I always wanted to create something to capsulate my love for those franchises.

In my past work, I was focused on creating small but detailed environments, so New Babylon presented itself as a big challenge. I knew it would take a long time to complete but I was excited and highly motivated on working on my project. I also wanted to challenge myself and I focused on creating the environment as I go. I was also careful not to include any other references over time since I didn’t want the style to suddenly change.

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Here are the key concepts and goals I held onto:

– Create a palace in the middle of the desert/canyon;
– The palace must feature a dome;
– It lays abandoned in the canyon which was overgrown with various flora, creating an oasis;
– The palace must feature loads of architectural styles giving it a unique look;
– When the workers abandoned the palace they left the wooden frames, giving the impression

That the palace is still under construction. I was very fortunate in life since my mother likes to travel, and she always took me with her. I had the pleasure of seeing the Pyramids, various Egyptian and Middle Eastern temples and Stunning North African architecture which gave me enormous amounts of inspiration. Besides traveling I always liked looking deeper and discovering the rich history behind ancient ruins. Before creating and assigning the name “New Babylon” to the environment I even borrowed and later bought 2 history
books which helped me a lot with developing certain parts of the palace.

 

Blockout/Modelling

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At first, I started planning on how I’m going to use modular pieces in both the dome and the rest of the palace. At First, I deliberately made them both sided. The original plan was that the whole environment is going to feature a breathtaking inside shot at the ceiling of the dome. The dome would be lit up from the inside from the incoming sunlight, that way it would create a bright and varied inside of the building.

Sadly, I cut that whole part of the plan and decided, it would be for the best if I demonstrate my abilities only on the outside of the dome. That being said, I didn’t let the dream die completely and still featured an inside shot from one of the lower balconies. But on the contrary, I had the liberty of having 2 sides on each modular piece, which meant I could reuse it much more efficiently and without notice.

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Shortcuts like these were more or less crucial for completing New Babylon until December and I’m glad I got some insight on how to work more efficiently and quicker with the same level of quality.

The whole concept revolved around balconies and progressive elevation towards the palace. Just general progressive erosion of the architecture allowed me to really play with the lighting and shadows with the sunlight direction I choose. I aimed for the “sunset atmosphere” but at the end, I landed somewhere in the middle of noon and sunset. That way I took the liberty to feature nice and orange light bleeding that’s usually present in both morning and evening.

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Sculpting

For sculpting rocks, I mainly used Blender and I later refined the details in ZBrush. Since I have a vast and varied library of brushes at disposal there, I made sure to look at desert cliffside references as much as I could.

My low poly version was created by decimating the high poly version. Since program generation doesn’t always work the way you want, I ironed the messy areas of the assets in Maya where I also optimized the core asset. I made sure that all of my objects maintained a reasonable tris count.

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Uving

After modeling, I always manage my UVs manually. In the past, I tried using other external programs that handle UV unwrapping for the artist. But I find it important that I gain experience and learn the fundamentals of Uv-ing and the correct ways of shell placement.

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I personally do all my unwrapping internally in Maya, but I occasionally use Blender to map objects that I deliberately created for my Trim sheet, since I know I’ll be faster and maintain the same efficiency this way.

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Materials

Every material and texture for the modular pieces was created in Substance designer as well as in Substance painter. The trick was really to create one universal material and use it throughout all my modular pieces. That way I avoided unnecessary color correction on separate modular pieces.

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I’d also like to point out that creating materials was pretty much a process that I executed right after the main blockout.
For this project, I made a “Babylon trim sheet”. It was inspired mainly by the scenes from the movie Alexander (2004) when Alexander finally arrives in Babylon and conquers it. It was super fun and exciting making this trim sheet and I made sure that continuation is present on all sides.

Texturing/Substance

With fundamental materials made I set on creating textures for my modular pieces. It was important for me to include as much detail as possible. Maintaining quality throughout all my props was a must.

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After making the base brick material I started adding various details that would enrich my modular pieces. Since it’s been ages since New Babylon stands abandoned, I made sure to include various damage to my modular pieces.

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I used Marmoset Toolbag 4 for all my baking. It’s extremely quick, highly efficient and it allows you to test the result in mere seconds. That way I could discard and correct my mistakes as quickly as I can change and adjust settings incredibly quickly in Marmoset.
A common factor on abandoned structures is Water ingress, which I implemented with the liquid generator. I made sure that each modular asset is generated correctly and according to reference.

Shaders/Technical

For my landscape material to look as best as it can I make sure to use various tessellation techniques combined with parallax occlusion. I primarily use tessellation if the pattern of the material isn’t as detailed as rocks. For instance, sand is the perfect candidate since it features space between every small dune, which means that it will be hard to spot the edges of the tessellation. I also mapped tessellation to the movement of my viewport since I wanted to save performance.

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Polish/Final pass

Polishing and the very final stages of creation are probably the hardest and the most intense parts of creating a game environment. I won’t lie, the last few weeks were full of self-doubt and incredible tension which continued to the very moment I pressed “publish” in the Artstation post.

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The most difficult and time staking task was probably color correction. The hardest part was balancing and finding the sweet spot in the post-processing temperature tab. In total, I took 260 screenshots of the main scene and in around 100 of those, I was just experimenting and balancing the temperature.

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Having perfect color values in environments so big is of utmost importance so I reckon there were quite a few days that I spent only in color correction and adjusting colors in photoshop.

Another piece of advice to help with color values is to turn your scene to Black and white.

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Lighting

A lot of people were wondering how I achieved the look of lighting in my main shot. In terms of technical terms, the lighting is baked. I felt like baked lighting offered me greater freedom to achieve my desired look. Even if the environment is insanely huge it would be better to include dynamic lighting, but I decided to put my artistry in the first place. This was also a big plus since I don’t have a state-of-the-art PC.

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For the final render, it took my PC around 6 hours to compose and build the lighting on the production quality preset, which I didn’t find so long. It also helped a lot that I optimized my objects and assigned them correct lightmap resolutions judging by the distance and visibility of individual objects.
It was especially difficult to combine soft as well as hard contrasts between shadows and still maintain visible silhouettes.

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The difference between soft and hard lighting was of utmost importance since I wanted to create a composition that’s equally balanced but still focused on the middle of the shot towards the dome. A lot of shadowing was achieved artificially by placing simple planes.
I also created a simple light propagation volume to get the desired cloud shadows. That way I achieved a soft transition between sunlight and shadows and achieved the final look with the help of placing planes creating artificial shadows.

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As a student and someone who’s constantly seeking new and exciting knowledge, I highly recommend Peter Tran’s explanation of his creative process.

Final Thoughts

Creating New Babylon presented a massive but fun challenge. I learned a ton of new techniques and managed to maintain my discipline which is a fact that I’m most proud of. I fully devoted myself to the environment with the help of my motivation towards the scene and the history I discovered with the help of the borrowed books. I guess the true lesson I can give here is to create environments that you like to create the most and the rest will follow. I’d like to thank Games Artist for providing me with the opportunity of writing my breakdown, it means a lot to me.