A plethora of online information will walk you through the technical skills required to create environment art for games. These guides include creating models, applying textures, and so on. But do you know how to make your creations engaging, memorable, or even fun? Whether for your portfolio or an ongoing game project, we're here to help you get the best out of your environment art. Read on!
When it comes to creating a memorable experience that compliments the narrative and helps the player to orientate themselves within the game, a firm grasp of environment creation is necessary. The key is to establish landmarks that impress the player and show evidence of history and function. The environment is part of the storytelling of your game. Without suitable backgrounds, players will not connect emotionally to the game.
Try to treat your environment as a character. What are its traits? What are its most significant faults? Does it have areas of beauty?
Be mindful of what the game is trying to achieve. A game revolving around Pixel art doesn't need sweeping, natural vistas, while the latest crop of MMOs needs exquisite artwork, with landmarks that make a player pause in wonder. More than anything else, the background often helps ground your player and give them some sense of direction.
The way you choose to use landscapes in a game will vary, depending on the overall game design. However, landmarks are one of the main ways to have your world tell its story to the player.
If you have played any major releases, from FPS games like Call of Duty through to MMOs like World of Warcraft or New World, landmarks carry a tremendous burden in the game to make it a fun environment. Such games rely on 3D modeling to create the scenes, whether it's a stadium to fight in and around, a town to visit to relax, or a hulking monolith that raises questions about the zone's history.
Example: Player outside Windward Capital – New World
Landmarks are the prominent area on which to concentrate. At its best, the level design is a collaboration between design and art that affects the level design and subsequent gameplay. The best environmental art follows a distinct look in each area, helping to build the game up thematically.
In single-player games, landmarks guide a player from A to B, with game sequences or exploration in between, which helps move the story along and show progression. Landmarks keep the players' interest peaked as they explore the world.
Landmarks as storytelling are familiar in the world of MMORPGs, where classics such as Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot were brimming with an impressive array of ruins from a bygone era. This design trope continues in current releases, including World of Warcraft and New World. Landmarks help the players navigate, arrange meeting points, or have encounters with specific creatures of NPCs.
In fast-paced multiplayer games, such as Call of Duty, locations allow players to call out areas of interest or hideaway waiting for their competition. One of the most notable examples in recent games was the Stadium in Warzone, seen below.
Example: One of the Iterations of the stadium in Warzone
Landmarks prevent the level or map from looking bland and act as identifiers for specific areas for the players to go to or hold. It benefits the players to be able to declare what is happening on the fly, rather than to try and describe one area from another on a poorly differentiated map.
As shown in the example below, you can easily call attention to an area you want the player to explore. In this case, the grating stands out from the scene's natural beauty, contrasting with the textures used for the rest of the location. The player will instinctively know that this is somewhere worthy of exploring.
Example: Puzzling Pillar Ruins – Skyrim
Once the player identifies the area they need to go to, the only problem is establishing how. This challenge/reward structure is familiar in linear games.
For open worlds, such as the MMORPGs mentioned previously, the maps are more extensive and need to be cohesive. As players reach one landmark to explore, the ideal design for the landscape surrounding them will leave them with hints of directions they can go to find other areas of interest. Being able to see a slight hint on the horizon works well.
Avoid having landmarks coming into conflict with each other for the players' attention. Each should feel like a different destination, not crowding in on each other. Smaller areas should have just one landmark, as seen in the iconic Call of Duty map, Rust, where a single structure dominates the center of the map.
Example: Rust focuses on a single structure – Call of Duty
Of course, a landmark stops being interesting if the whole level is nothing but structure after structure – it becomes homogenously "the background." Instead, spread the landmarks out to ensure that players are treated periodically to exciting places while trekking across other areas of more regular landscape, such as plains, tundra, etc.
As we touched on above, landmarks should help build the history of the world that is your game. What happened here? Why did that happen?
Understanding the game world history helps players to lose themselves in the material. Setting up the best narrative for the game through the landmarks and surrounding environments helps players immerse themselves and can be the trigger that causes the player to want to hunt down more game lore.
Example: New World Shattered Obelisk – What happened here?
The history and lore of your game can be a vital part of the gameplay. If players choose to spend hours fighting each other or a horde of monsters together, why are they compelled to do so? What is the story behind the situation?
As the environment designer, you should ask yourself why does the world or level exist? What backstory does it have? Who are or were the characters that live here that the players have joined? Areas should make sense to players as they pass through, so they know why they see that particular landscape.
Call of Duty's Warzone Verdansk map was a great example of this, with players able to see earlier and later versions of the map as the sessions (and versions of COD) progressed. The Stadium was a center point from day one, yet players could not get inside it. When the map was updated, with damage explained in a cut scene, the Stadium refocused the changing history of the map and remained an intense central location to battle.
History and function may seem straightforward and obvious, but an environment becomes believable, immersive, and memorable when executed well.
Making an emotional connection with the players is tricky, but it can evoke feelings in the player and make your game memorable and immersive when done well.
Providing players with a strong memory or the haunting idea of something beautiful or tragic can profoundly affect them. In practice, this means creating an environment that adds someone else's story, even if that story is never explored further. Imagine, for example, a zombie-orientated game, where the players seek only to survive. They may pass an area with a blood smear and a teddy as they travel around the map, provoking an emotional response. Likewise, readable notes resting on counters, dropped food, spilled backpacks never carried, etc., evoke feelings of loss or despair. Imagine what you want your players to feel as they play across your game.
It can be tricky to achieve the emotional element in a games level. Other physical things, such as lighting, camera work, believable dialogue, can be enacted to improve the connection with the game.
Your landscape needs to have a personality, much like in films, where a good set will have a certain feel to it that you can almost touch. Think, for example, of the safe and cozy atmosphere of the Shire in Lord of The Rings, with its bright and saturated colors rounded shapes that feel homely and safe. Mordor, by comparison, is rocky, sharp, and dangerous, with clouds of toxic smoke.
Sometimes, just like some people, your environment can mask a lie. Again, looking at films, there are numerous examples of safe, relaxing locations where the main character suddenly realizes they have been lured into some form of trap or hazard — the entire concept of the Matrix springs to mind.
Assuming that your environments are not deliberately misleading, the player will usually discover that the function of that game area matches the environment's personality. Safe feeling areas are inviting, warm and friendly. Dangerous areas are darker, sharper areas of risk. The setting tells its story through its personality.
We briefly touched on this topic above. Buildings, monuments, and other such creations can stand for eons in-game and, therefore, should bear the marks of their age. Whether they have been pulled down by a people long ago, ruined by natural disasters, or have succumbed to the creep of plant life, these zones should show the ravages of time.
It is a common book, film, and game trope, but it is always interesting to see what came before in world-building in contrast to what exists now.
Consider how the material you have used would weather. Textiles, if still present, will have faded if exposed to light and been partly eaten by moths. Bricks may flake and crumble, while monoliths may shift on their foundations and end up at awkward angles or collapse to the ground.
Sometimes, the years of countless human (or other race) activity will show their mark. Inns may have smoke-stained ceilings, worn tables, maybe even the odd bit of vandalism here and there. Below is a simple example from Cyberpunk 2077 that shows the layers of graffiti on the exterior of the building. Check out the metal canopy above, which shows stains from water oxidizing the material.
Example: Exterior of a building in Cyperpunk 2077
Connection with the player
After all the world-building, you need to ask yourself – Why is the player there? How did they arrive there? What is it they need to do?
A simple approach to having players arrive in the game is to have them stranded in the location, forced to interact with the strange world they encounter. Pillars of Destiny and New World have both used the idea of shipwrecking the players on an island that needed exploring to level up and find out more about how you came to be there.
Keep the starting point fun, and then build upon it with layers of environmental storytelling. Remember, although you could have NPCs explain everything to the player, it's always better to show rather than tell.