The science of creating 3D environments

With the advancement of 3D graphics, it was a matter of time before digital artists would be able to create highly detailed environments in games. Some modern 3D environments are almost indistinguishable from what we see in real life, while others take a step away in the fantasy direction with unrealistic but still fascinating art designs. But what does it take to create them, and how does this magic happen? We will be finding that out in our recent blog entry!

How 3D environments in video games are made?

3D artists have many different specializations in the game industry. Some work on textures, others create various objects and assets for 3D games or focus on visual effects. However, today we want to talk about one particular category of digital creators and their craft – 3D environment artists. They focus their skills and channel their creativity on constructing stunning landscapes, locations, and scenes. You shouldn't underestimate the impact of their work as it is one of the main pillars that uphold every modern video game.

What is a 3D environment?

Before proceeding to art creation for 3D games and discussing its details, let us briefly clarify the basics. In order for an environment to be called "three-dimensional," it must have visual depth. Players need to see that all objects around them have volume, that the world itself is not flat. So, naturally, 3D environments are much more believable and realistic compared to 2D ones.

With the tools that developers and designers have today, it is not a problem to achieve outstanding levels of realism. With the rapid evolution of 3D graphics and their mass adoption in all industries, it has become possible to build unique fantasy worlds that appear in games, on big screens, and in advertisements. Behind every successful project that utilizes 3D graphics, there is always a team of talented 3D environment artists who create the scenes where the action takes place.

Who are 3D environment artists?

Building a truly mesmerizing and highly detailed 3D environment takes hours of combined efforts from experienced digital artists. Their job is not limited to drawing sceneries and landscapes – they also have to visualize buildings, vehicles, objects, and other assets that complement the environment. On massive complex projects, 3D environment artists usually work exclusively in their narrow niches, while in small studios, they must be proficient in multiple specializations.

Apart from the scale of the project and team size, there is also another important thing to consider while assigning tasks to the 3D environment design team. We're talking about the level of expertise – junior, middle, or senior. Junior 3D artists usually work on small portions of the scene or complementary objects. At the same time, more experienced middles and seniors take on more complicated tasks and oversee the process.

Good 3D environment design has several crucial conditions to meet:
  • It must be in line with the game's lore;
  • Locations should be atmospheric and immersive;
  • The world must be interesting to explore.
A piece of the environment from the Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4 (by Andres Rodriguez)
Creating a level or location that meets these requirements is not easy for beginners, so you can only rely on experienced creators (preferably with knowledge of architectural styles or landscape design) to direct the process.

The main task of 3D environment artists

Creating a cool-looking environment is just one side of the coin. The global task for 3D environment designers is to support and enhance the gaming experience with their art. Everything within the game world must be in its place; all elements must have reasons to be there and convey a certain feeling or perform particular functions.

There are certain rules to follow when building 3D environments. For example, if the game uses a first-person or third-person camera view, designers have to put extra effort into the details and create complex geometry. This is important because players will be able to see all models in the immediate vicinity.

It is crucial to consider level composition and artistic expressions when constructing environments for 3D games. This involves paying attention to the world’s history, main zones, and other key aspects that players will surely learn. Clever environment designers understand how to utilize even the smallest objects and details to explain the story of a certain place or put accents in the narrative.

Some designers prefer to boost the number of details in central locations and leave less important areas a bit less decorated. However, you need to keep the balance right. An abundance of objects, textures, lighting and other assets will make even the best scene look overcomplicated and incomprehensible. In other words, total chaos without any signs of artistic significance.

Creating a 3D environment from scratch

As you can imagine, this process involves lots of planning and preparations apart from actual drawing and sculpting in 3D. To give you a better understanding, we will go through the 3D art development stages from the very beginning to the point of importing materials into the chosen 3D video games' engines.

Collecting references. It is a good practice to start a new drawing project with brainstorming followed by an intensive reference hoarding on Google or Pinterest. Almost everything from old historical photos and videos to concept art and presentational clips will do the trick at this stage. Sometimes you can include images that are not connected to your particular job but can bring inspiration and improve your initial 3D environment design.
Almost anything can serve as a reference for your 3D environment design
Concept and initial composition. Now it is time to work on the concept art prepared by your fellow concept artists. Improvise with colors and various assets to create new original combinations that can be used to improve your 3D environment.

Blocking and assets creation. To understand the scale of the environment in the game world, you need to make its basic version with a few simple shapes. The assets to fill the locations can be created by following the concept lists.

Texturing. Dedicated teams of artists usually create textures, but still, they must be included in your 3D environment and placed on the pre-made low polygon models.

Importing the assets. When all pieces of the puzzle are complete, it is time to import them into a game engine and do some digital magic. It is a lengthy process, as it requires linking the assets to the textures, working with shaders, adding lighting, etc.

Of course, before saying that the job is done, you will have spent hours polishing and finalizing the environment. Even the most experienced artists cannot complete such complex tasks in one easy sweep.

What software is needed for 3D environment design?

The arsenal of tools of seasoned creators that produce art for 3D games is immense. It includes programs for drawing, sculpting, modeling, and much more. Apart from that, each 3D environment artist should know how to work (at least at a basic level) with popular game engines such as Unreal and Unity 3D.
This is how a finalized 3D environment can look on Unreal Engine (by Moses Saintfleur)
There is also a starter "modeler’s package” you should be familiar with as an environment artist. It consists of the most common software for the job: 3DS Max, Maya, and Modo. Needless to say, that the king of digital art – Photoshop – will be extremely useful for creating textures and assets. Alternatively, you can use Substance Designer or Painter. In addition, it will not be superfluous to throw some 3D modeling programs like ZBrush or 3DCoat into the mix.

Finals words

3D environment design has changed the appearance of video games and elevated them to a new level. Modern 3D graphics allow artists to create beautiful environments with a wide variety of highly detailed objects that enhance immersion. Any indoor/outdoor scene can become a breathtaking masterpiece if done by experts.

Producing compelling 3D environments that back up storytelling and let players dissolve in the gameplay can be difficult and time-consuming. That is why outsourcing this type of artwork is always a smart choice. Here, at Argentics, we have a team of skilled artists ready to take on any job and any scenario you may come up with! Our 3D environment design services are affordable and variable, so we can give you guarantees that no matter the difficulty, your project will be done on time!

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