I didn’t have any specific goals in creating this environment; I simply aimed to develop a compelling portfolio piece centered around my own concept set in a desert biome. I wanted to imbue it with sculpting elements and potentially infuse it with the stylistic essence of God of War.
However, given that the creation of this scene spanned a considerable amount of time, including a year-long hiatus due to my relocation to Sweden, my objectives underwent several changes as the core concept evolved.
Eventually, my perspective shifted from sculpting to utilizing the UE5 modeling tool. This transition was prompted by the tool’s immense promise, and I yearned to challenge myself by exploring its capabilities.
Ultimately, my goal transformed into completing a visually pleasing environment that would satisfy my own artistic sensibilities.
The journey culminated in success!
- Unreal Engine 5
- Substance Painter/Designer
- Quixel Megascans
As previously mentioned, my initial aim was to craft environments characterized by intricate sculpting, taking cues from the style of God of War.
I amassed a collection of screenshots and concepts that aligned with my project’s objectives and visual direction. I embarked on an exploration of diverse ideas.
However, as I recognized that the God of War concept wasn’t quite aligned with my artistic vision, I ventured into other sources of inspiration. This led me to the world of Black Myth Wukong, which presented a captivating depiction of Chinese mythology.
The astonishing landscapes and exceptional content quality captured my attention, prompting me to shift my focus toward an Asian-style environment.
Concept and Blockout
My initial task was to develop a composition that would capture the desired concept and frame depth.
Without a specific idea in mind, I began creating multiple versions of the composition. I allocated 20-30 minutes to each one, manipulating cubes and sculpting shapes until I achieved what I deemed as worthwhile results.
Upon settling on the first option, I grouped and merged certain shapes. I then exported them to ZBrush to create preliminary sculptures, which would serve as a foundation for further shape exploration.
I repeated this process several times, realizing that the original idea wasn’t working for me. This led me to contemplate my next steps, ultimately inspiring the concept of an Asian desert scene, with significant influence drawn from Black Myth Wukong.
Sculpting and Drafts
Initially, I aimed to generate a variety of environmental sculptures, encompassing elements such as stones and architecture.
My workflow involved sculpting, followed by baking and texturing using tiles and masks. This workflow adhered to the straightforward and prevalent methods of our time.
Below, you’ll find some examples of my work, which include different options for rocks, stones, ancient architecture, and an Asian-style gate.
These are primarily draft options, with each asset requiring 30-60 minutes of work.
My sculpting technique isn’t particularly unique; it involves refining the shape and subsequently applying alphas and polishing.
This process mirrors the tutorials of the talented Dannie Carlone. https://www.artstation.com/danniecarlone
Shift and Change of Idea
Once I solidified my ideas, I engaged in more meticulous planning. This included outlining areas where I’d utilize Megascans. However, this phase coincided with a challenging period in my life, resulting in a one-year hiatus—though the duration of the break wasn’t entirely within my control.
Upon relocating to Sweden, establishing myself, and joining a new team, I felt the impetus to resume, even completing the scene.
Upon reviewing my prior work, I recognized a lack of satisfaction with both the concepts and the outcomes.
Foremost, I found issues with the scale and size, as they failed to achieve the intended visual impact.
As a remedy, I decided to amplify the architecture’s size while eliminating the framing from the cave.
Subsequently, it became apparent that the architectural scale lacked sufficient supporting details. This prompted my exploration of various options for enhancing these details.
Assets and UE5 Modeling Tool
At that moment, I was very interested in the modeling tool, and I decided to explore what I could achieve with it.
To my surprise, I found that you can take any object— in my case, it was Megascans— and bend it, boolean it, and perform simple modeling operations to achieve incredible results.
For instance, you can take a Japanese pillar, cut it, bend it, or even create stone rubble from it. You can make even more complex creations!
I took roof tiles from Megascans and used booleans to create more variations. I generated damaged tiles by cutting off pieces from other assets. By assembling them together, adding sand and dry leaves, I created a tiled roof module that could be baked and used as a textured asset.
In my situation, I constructed a module and used it as a basis for creating all the roof pieces I needed.
From there, it was just a matter of assembling the necessary roof variations.
Following a similar method, I produced several house variations that I utilized throughout my environment.
However, if you believe that’s all there is to it, I’m here to tell you that there’s more. This modeling tool offers even more exciting possibilities!
I created a brief video demonstrating how to sculpt various shapes of stones and rocks using boolean operations. This process resembles what you might do in Zbrush, but it’s available right within the game engine—pretty cool, isn’t it?
Still, the question remained: how to texture these unique assets? Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to address this aspect. Thus, I opted for a shader that had been present in my project from the outset. This shader enables me to generate masks for edges and cavities based on screen space.
The core of the setup was influenced by Mark Serena’s shader for screen space curvature maps. However, I customized it to suit my requirements.
Since most of the unique assets were mid-poly and lacked normal maps (a compromise I had to make due to time constraints), the workflow remained the same: utilizing tile textures along with masks.
Here are a few examples showcasing how the shader performs on assets. You can choose the direction vector and adjust the thickness of the edge and cavity masks accordingly.
Sign the concept!
Once I had finished gathering the basic assets I needed, I began to flesh out the architecture. I didn’t have a complete idea, so I researched various designs and shapes during the creation of the gate.
After completing the gate and the decorations, I realized that the elements within the frame didn’t meet my expectations. The unity of the desert wasn’t evident, and there was nothing that could make this environment feel special.
After collecting more references, I came to the conclusion that I needed to incorporate more rocks. This led to the final concept of the temple gate embedded in the rock.
Next, it was a matter of adding more history and working on the background.
And, of course, adding some greenery! The notion of a lifeless desert had lost its appeal.
The structure was complete, but how could I make it aesthetically pleasing?
Now it was time to infuse life into our environment, to make it captivating. If a player or viewer were present, they should be awestruck.
Naturally, we required: effects, object animations, wind, drifting dust in the frame—anything that would lend vitality to the scene.
From the project’s inception, I kept this stage in mind, so I had already incorporated some effects into the scene. The task was to refine them, adjusting their form, intensity, and animation speed. Some effects were sourced from marketplace packs, while others were customized to suit my needs.
The visual effects I utilized were:
- Animated fog planes
- Falling leaves
- Flying insects
Of course, animated environmental objects as well—cloth, lanterns, foliage—all fell into place. All the objects below employ the same vertex shader, albeit with different configurations.
The primary function of the shader is to shift the vertices along the world coordinate axes—a straightforward yet effective approach tailored to my needs.
While many artists might conclude their work at this juncture, construction and lighting are not the final phases! The polishing stage remains.
I wasn’t content with the uniform color of the stones, so I decided to introduce some color variation. Instead of creating intricate materials for the stones or utilizing vertex paint or masks, I opted to incorporate differently colored Leak Decals. This injection of color added a touch of diversity to the overall palette.
Regarding this, all the main work was completed by me, and I was happy with the result.
All I had to do was add some final touches as details to support the storytelling, such as a flag standing in the way, a swaying fabric hanging from a wooden rod, some rope railings in the foreground, scatter some assets, and make it feel like people had a hand in what was happening.
All that remained for me was to work a little on the frame and color correction. I wanted to have as soft shadows as possible, as little contrast separation as possible (only splitting the foreground and background), and create a very dusty image.
A small touch for lighting, adding a bit of contrast to create a better frame – and you’re done!
To begin with, I want to say that I was happy to share my experience in creating this environment. Despite the fact that my idea was completely reworked several times, the final result has nothing to do with where I started, but I am very pleased with the outcome.
I was very impressed with the possibilities of the modeling tool in UE5 – how many things you can now create directly inside the engine and minimize the amount of software used.
Now I can say with confidence that the modeling tool’s potential and possibilities are much higher than what I achieved with this environment, and in the future, I will try more creative ways to create assets.
If you add up all the time that I spent on this work, I think it will be about 100-150 hours. In general, this is a standard time for creating an environment over 2-3 working weeks.
I hope this breakdown will be useful to someone.
To all artists, I can advise you to always plan your ideas and your time more clearly. Break your tasks into components – the fewer, the better! It is always better to create a small diorama than to spread yourself too thin over large amounts of content.
Of course, it’s best to work with ready-made concepts, especially if you are a beginner artist.
And, of course, you should always remember that the most important thing is your frame, not the logic of what is happening on the screen.