Bart Grzegorzewicz gladly shared the lessons he learned as a level artist and talked about his general workflow in Unreal Engine 4 using the Mountain forest scene as an example.
Hi, my name is Bart Grzegorzewicz and I come from Poland.
My journey into Unreal Engine 4 started when I worked at Madmind Studio a year ago as a tester. Now I’m a level artist beginner. I’m still going to school and in my free time, I mostly create small environmental scenes, such as a part of the forest or mountains, and playable demos with mechanics sometimes.
Preparation to the Scene
The first thing I do before even turning on the engine is collecting references. Ask yourself: how should my level look like? In what mood is the player supposed to enter it? Maybe you have a vision of what you want to create, but you can’t remember how exactly some of the parts from the real life looking like, so if you want to make your scene ‘realistic’ you have to take the real environments from the photos as a base and always keep an eye on it during the process. If you want to make a Japanese forest, look for photos of the forests in Japan. If you want to make mountains in summer, collect photos of the mountains in summer. And so on.
I also always create a moodboard which is a collection of references on the background showing me HOW my level should look like and WHAT is the mood. The second thing is collecting references of Lightning and Color Palette. Is it a bright or a dark scene? Should the main color be green and blue or yellow and red? Remember that your lighting and color is a good way to keep the player in the expected mood. Thirdly, grab screenshots from other games which remind of what you have in your mind.
* the image is taken from the Polygon Academy Youtube channel
Based on the moodboard, my PostApo game is similar to The Last of Us, so I looked for screenshots from this game and investigated how they created the world and placed the meshes, the lighting, mood, etc. These screenshots can be also put on the board. I created my boards in GIMP. It’s up to you what to use, it can be Photoshop or simply a folder on the computer. My best suggestions for searching for references are Pinterest, Google Image and ArtStation.
After the references are ready, draw a top-down layout of the scene to know what you want to create and how you want to set the environment. There are two different types: a scene without gameplay where you have only the main outline or a playable level where you have to be more specific and define the player’s path, the areas from where the enemy arrives, what they guard, where are the collectibles or secrets and which buildings the player can enter. To look at some examples, just type “top-down layout” in the google search.
When you want to create a playable map I recommend you to start with blocking out your level with BSP or simple meshes which you can create on your own, and only then when you’re sure that your level satisfies you and works well, you can fill it with grass, trees, final meshes, etc.
Laying Out the Scene in the Engine
Now, when you know the mood and the look of your scene, you can go the into engine. I’ll use my scene Mountain forest as an example.
When I want to make a level without gameplay, I don’t care much about the player’s path and collisions. I created a new default level with lights, atmospheric fog and the rest. Then deleted the default floor and created a new landscape with section size 31×31 quads. I didn’t change any other settings.
You may ask why so small? What if I you decide to make a big open world? Well, if you want to make an open world, you better use height maps which you can create in TerreSculptor or World Machine, However, I recommend to start with a small level (31×31) and just expand it by new sections. This way you will have more control over it and avoid being under pressure that appears when you are thinking about a huge world that will take you weeks to finish.
For a mountain road, I had to sculpt my landscape to go up so I made 3 levels of terrain and then smoothed edges. On the flat spaces, I used the Noise tool in order to get a bumpy, irregular terrain. Then I assigned the landscape material which you can do on your own (you better learn how to do it because it’s a basic skill for the level artists). After that, I painted the road (dirt) and ‘stains’ (needles) on the grass material which was a default material of my landscape. This helped to bring variety to the whole look.
Then I was back to the Sculpt tool and made holes on the road to bring a more bumpy look. Secondly, I set the biggest objects, in this case, those were the trees and rocks. I put every tree which I wanted to use in my scene and changed the settings of the foliage: density (1), radius (300), scale (0.5-1.5), Z offset (-15). I turn off the Align to normal (if it’s a playable demo, remember to turn on the collision of your foliage) and changed the brush’s size and paint density to 0.1. Then I just painted on the areas where the grass had to be and tried to avoid my the stains of needles to make the level more visible.
I didn’t put the rocks on the foliage to have more freedom. Instead, I set them where my terrain is changing and on the empty spaces.
When I had the main foliage, I set the sequencer to fly through the map. This way I could fix and improve the areas where the camera will fly and avoid wasting time on improving the place that nobody will see. It was the time when I saw that my level was too small, so I added a few more sections.
For the background, I added some mountains. The closest one to the main scene was filled with the trees in order to add more realism and the further ones were left without trees. I adjusted the grass, set the right density (there is no general method, you just need to try it on your own), went back to my sequencer and flew through the scene again. I checked the places that need to be improved, fixed them in real time and watched the scene again.
When everything was finally done, I set the lights. In the case of this project, I opted for high noon so I lowered the sun and changed the color of the light. Then I set exponential height fog (blue one to give the level more contrast), wind effect in materials (to give the scene more life), set post-process, skylight, atmospheric fog, BP sky sphere, and lightmass importance volume.
Since I’m a level designer, I don’t make meshes on my own, my most important task is to make the levels playable. I bring my meshes from the marketplace, and in this case, I used Environment Set, Backgrounds Landscapes, and Animal Ultra Pack.
In my opinion, if you want to become a good level designer, study the real world, practice, join the groups or forums with indie developers, show them your job to receive feedback, improve and practice again. Watch speed level designs, play the games, watch how they are made and make your own worlds (i.e. practice again). Move forward and never stop.
Bart Grzegorzewicz, Level Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
If you found this article interesting, below we are listing a couple of related Unity Store Assets that may be useful for you: