CHALLENGES AND APPROACH
When I get into creating a new game environment, I always plan it extensively first. With the Fairy Forest, I approached it from a believable fantasy angle; someplace you could actually picture yourself in, that doesn’t stretch the imagination too far. I based much of the environment from what I have experienced in New Zealand’s forests, being an interesting mix of temperate and tropical vegetation, with interesting rock formations and beautiful vistas. I spent hours referencing real world forest images, and spent some days traversing nearby forests here in Vancouver to further understand how light and color in forests work.
The challenges were keeping the realistic feel while still adding the fantasy element that would give the scene that extra appeal, while keeping the scene composition appealing as the player progressed through the level.
Most of the assets in the environment are made to be re-used, or be modular. The workflow I created for myself allowed me to spend my time very efficiently; a few hours spent making a tree with Maya’s Paint Effects meant that I could create infinite variations of the tree by simply changing the seed. I used this workflow for nearly all my vegetation, meaning that I could produce extremely large quantities of believable vegetation in a very short amount of time.
In creating the rocks and hero assets, most were quickly poly-modeled, and then taken into ZBrush for extensive sculpting. Each rock was created with a 6-sided approach in mind; being able to simply rotate the rock visually produced a completely new looking rock, allowing me to use a mere 15-20 different sized rocks to populate the entire scene, and even build entire cliff faces. All rocks were made and UV’d with the purpose of allowing tile-able textures and blend layers in combination with the normal maps baked from the sculpts.
The environment’s texturing was easily the most crucial aspect of creating a believable, natural environment. All of the trees in the Fairy Forest have branch cards instead of individual leaves to save polygons, while the bush, sprout, and grass textures were created with intent on allowing light to pass through with Crytek’s Vegetation shader, which fakes translucency.
All textures used rocks, ground, moss, and bark are tile-able textures made using a combination of Photoshop, Crazybump, ZBrush, 3DS Max, and love (the main ingredient). Parallax Occlusion Mapping was used extensively on ground textures and decals. Combined with appropriate Gloss and Specular mapping, the workflow I created for myself produced good results with most ground and asset textures. Only on hero assets such as the 4 Rune stones, the large Fairy Tree, and a couple other hero assets, did I have to actually go in and hand-paint the textures in Mudbox. Nearly all materials and textures in the environment are made with the intent of being re-useable in some fashion, making the environment much more game-efficient.
PARTICLES AND LIGHTING
While I don’t consider myself an expert on particles, I find they add much more life and emotion to any environment. With the proper application, even the smallest amount of glow, dust motes, or fog can take an environment from ‘meh’ to ‘wow’. I used many particle effects to make my forest come to life. I started with Waterfalls. Using Cryengine’s particle system, I spent hours experimenting and toying with the possibilities, finding one interesting attribute that gave me ideas on creating other particle effects. As with anything, reference was paramount for creating accurate waterfalls. Once they were at a level I was happy with, I moved on to creating custom particle fog (I was not happy with what Cryengine provided out of the box), as well as some fantasy particles such as glowing motes, rainbows, butterflies, floating cotton fuzz, and floating leaves for water volumes and rivers.
I knew the lighting would make or break the forest, so I set out to envision a mood and emotion I wanted to portray. I wanted the forest to be dim, with patches of light breaking through the trees now and then to guide the player on their path through the forest. I used color in my lighting to give each hero asset an inviting feeling, such as making the runes on my Rune stones glow the color of their respective element, and have the environment around that Rune stone complement its color and feel.
I enjoyed working on this scene thoroughly and learnt a great deal from the challenges it presented.