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I've been doing environment design for Project Spectral since 2010. I've designed interiors, exteriors and things in between. Recently I have been working on a forest scene and I was asked if I wanted to share some thoughts and techniques involved in the creation of it. Since it will require me to do some introspective analyzing of my workflow, I decided to give it a go. First off I want to show you the actual level I designed:
Level will start from top-left corner and finish to bottom-right corner. I used only polygon editing (edit mode in Blender) to create this. I know many of you are tempted to say now that I should use sculpting because it is faster etc. I do use sculpting too, but only to finalize stuff and this time I didn't feel it was necessary. I like to create terrains in edit mode. Can't really describe why, I just do. Besides, creating this took me less than one hour!So, how did this terrain came into existence?
First off, envrionment design is for me only 50% modelling and creating. The other 50% is thinking, planning, researching etc. The actual creating is more or less a mechanical process. I just execute my plans. The part I like to call actual designing is when I plan and do research. I mostly do this in my mind, because I think faster than I write or draw or model. Only when I have some sort of solid plan I start sketching it out, for this case I created the first grid and started shaping it. First thing you need to consider is consistency: what was the previous level and what will be the next level. Previous level for forest is the Burrows. There are some high-altitude areas in that level, as you can see from this image:
For this reason, the beginning of the forest level has the highest altitude that player can reach during that level. The next level will be called lake and for this reason the end of this level is at the lowest point player can reach (there will be a height map a bit later). I wanted to create a smooth transition between these two levels. Next thing to consider is the shape of the level. My level could be square, quadrilateral, round or some other shape. Square usually works best so I decided to go that way. Then I need to think about the level of 'difficulty' I want to have. There are some extremes: I could create a straight level with no turns or anything, just running forwards, or I could create a maze that would take days to complete. Obviously I want something from between these two (there's gonna be a map indicating proposed path and borders a bit later).After all this I need to take into account the field of vision: how far player is able to see. In Project Spectral there's a fog surrounding the player so it will limit FOV. I can also block view by using terrain or other obstacles. So I might want to have something that reaches a bit higher than camera at the edges of my level. Another option, that I also used here, is to have ocean view that is completely open, yet empty. This way I don't need to model kilometers of landscape.
Now that I have considered these fundamental issues I can start planning how the actual map would look like. I need to keep constantly in mind that I don't want to create a pipe that player just runs through: there will be some alternative paths, even shortcuts. There will also be some dead ends, but I must remember to keep it relatively easy overall. On top of all this, I need to keep in mind that there will be stuff placed on this terrain, especially because this is a forest. There will be trees, plants and such, not to mention monsters! It also needs to be walkable, so there should not be too steep ridges all over the place.
Knowing how things usually form in nature could be helpful to achieve naturalistic results. If you know how rivers get their shape and where to put hills and how erosion would effect on different areas based on their location (for example, how windy it would usually be there etc.) can make your landscape look more lifelike and less generated.
In short: environment design is largely studying, researching, planning and thinking!
And these notes I made above merely apply to forest/nature design: interior design and city/town/yard/etc. designs are all subjects of their own! You will never do too much research.
Okay, so I created my map, what's next?
Your work has just begun. See that map posted above: it's just so plain. There's nothing in it. Not a single tree, yet this is called a forest, right? Next task will be placing trees and plants and such. Just as before, we can't just go ahead and start adding them there. Not especially because this is a game level. We need to keep in mind the poly count. Always. But before that, let's sit back and think about our forest a bit. This forest is not just any forest, it's a bamboo forest. So, there will be bamboos. We can decide that this forest has bamboos everywhere, from beginning to the end. But for other plants, we need to think where they will grow. They will not just grow all around the place. One area will be covered with one type of flower and other area with other types of flowers. I created a map indicating some my plans about this:
(check out the actual deviation to see who designed these awesome plants! This image also includes those two maps I promised earlier.)
I didn't want to include all the plants here because this map would be pretty messy then, these eight will give you a good idea of what I'm doing here. I must admit that I didn't do much research on where these plants actually grow naturally. But it's not important to mimic nature 100% (unless that is the goal). Only thing that really matters is that you make it look like they grow there naturally! That is why placing stuff randomly here and there would not yeld optimal results. Doing this also gives different places more unique look.
Most of the plants listed above are plants that does not block player's path (except Draco and Green Bonsai). Plants that behave as a collision object has a special purpose. Not only they serve a decorative purpose. They will also shape the path player will take. This is why it is important that these objects are not placed randomly here and there. Technically, designer should be able to explain why is a tree or a rock placed at the location xyz. At least it is preferred, in my opinion. Once again, designer should do some research on how these things work in the nature. I needed some research here especially because I have never seen a bamboo forest in my life, yet I was about to design one!
One thing to keep in mind when placing small vegetation, is the game borders: you don't want to place flowers too far from the border because they will simply not be visible. They just create unnecessary load. Plants are only for decorative purposes, so they need to serve some aesthetic value in order to be justified.Final thoughts
There are many things to keep in mind while doing environment design. You can't just start creating. The important thing to do is research and planning. Only after you have done that you may start creating your level and even then you need to constantly keep in mind bunch of stuff. Despite that, I find env. design to be fascinating. Actually, the fact that it requires so much more than just creating makes it interesting