Environment Development - Ultimate guide part 1

Hey everyone! Welcome back to my blog. Today we are embarking on our journey into becoming better environment artists. This is the start of becoming an amazing environment designer/developer, if that sounds good to you read on!


Step 1: Everything comes from an idea.

The idea phase is what get's all of us to begin developing anything creatively. Generating ideas is a massive topic which I'll need to devote another blog post for. Right now I highly recommend watching this video: 4 steps to getting an idea I will briefly go over this now.

I believe that ideas are from all of our experiences, this means we are limited by what we have consumed. This can range from real life places we've visited, game environments we've explored, movies we've watched and so on. The more you've experienced the more you can draw from for inspiration and then you can begin to generate ideas. If you're completely lost at this stage pick something you enjoy, for me Studio Ghibli and get completely absorbed in that world. If I was to do this I'd easily be able to develop a Studio Ghibli inspired environment which is unique as it's my interpretation. 





Step 2: Setting and theme

Once you have an idea you can break it down into smaller sections which will help you turn it into reality. The setting and theme are important as by figuring these out you'll be able to find strong reference material. 

Theme is the subject matter of your location and setting is where it takes place. Here is a practical example of why this is important; I've decided to choose Japan as the location and small villages with shrines in winter as the setting. Now I have a very strong place to go from and find references for which will allow me to more clearly make decisions and also visualize what this environment will look like.

Step 3: Reference material

Find amazing references. You'll want to use all types of media for references, use movies, games, books and the real world to find references. Use your setting and theme as the filter during your search!

Your objective whilst looking for references falls under these 4 points:

  • Environment and location reference
  • Reference for the props you'll develop
  • Reference for the lighting
  • Color palette!! This is heavily under-utilized by beginners. Having a color palette will make a huge difference! Check out this image of Journey.

This is an extra point, I often research post processing image effects that games use ahead of time such as bloom, sun shafts, depth of field etc.. 


Step 4: Lore

You'll need to develop a form of story in order to develop a truly memorable environment. If you want people to say "Wow this is so well designed!" or "That weapon is broken from the battle here, I can see the bones of the warrior and a damaged shield on the ground" then invest time in story/lore.

Dark souls does this extremely well! Do a little research into it and you'll discover how much people get invested into these games purely from the amazing environment story telling.

How do you achieve this? We'll think about these two things:

  • What happened in the environment before the player arrived?
  • Why is the player going through the environment to get to this place?

The first question allows environments to feel rich. Players can use there imagination which is so engaging and much better then having a cut scene or hundreds of lines with dialogue of a character telling you what happened. Allow the player to be intelligent and figure it out themselves.

The second question allows you to figure out what type of mood/atmosphere and potentially what obstacles should lie in wait for the player. If the player is going through to see a loved one and you want to convey a warm feeling you can adjust the color palette, music and so on accordingly. If they are on there way to a boss battle have a consistent way you design/develop environments that are before boss battles to communicate to players that they should prepare themselves. Once again, way more powerful then dialogue.



Step 5: Objectives & obstacles

I like to think of it like this, Objectives give the player something to work towards while obstacles give the player a way to be engaged while completing the objective.

In a game, the way to complete an objective can not be too easy nor too difficult. If you can strike a balance between both you can keep players engaged.

Let's look at an example from portal:
Objective: Get to the elevator
Obstacles: Puzzles, sentries, lasers, water etc..

The objective is simple which is great! However to get to this elevator is very engaging as you have to solve puzzles and avoid the hazards. Think about what objectives you can have in the level and how you can keep the player engaged with obstacles. Make sure the obstacles suit the setting/theme as you can break the players immersion.





Step 6: Focal points

Focal points are have three important purposes.

  • They allow the player to orient themselves within the environment
  • Give more visual appeal to the environment
  • Draws the attention of the player so you can use them as points of interest

I'd like you to observe the image to the right and find the focal point. Once you've found it figure out how it benefits the environment.






Step 7: Top down level design


This is a very useful tool but it is not always required. When I'm working solo I prefer to be in the engine as it's so quick to move objects around and play test.

If I'm working on a bigger project I'll always do a top down and go over the design of it with a team. Once we're happy we'll convert that into a blocked out map and begin testing.

A top down level design should have a drawing of the map from a top down perspective, you can use other perspectives for more examples if you wish just like in the image on the right. You'll want a key that represents what each object represents. A top down is meant to represent how the game play fits within the environment.







Step 8: Visualizing the environment

This is where you define the visual style, lighting and color palette of the environment. You'll want to focus on building thumbnail sketches to start off with and then pick out the best ones.

After your thumbnail sketches you can convert these into bigger images with better line art and color. You're not going for concept art to sell your game, remember you are developing the visuals of your game. This should be a fast process with lots of reiteration, do not get precious about anything as it could all change the next second.

If you cannot draw or do digital painting then you can use concept art that existed to define the visual style. Focus on movies, concept art and screenshots from other games. A mood board is an extremely good use of your time.


Step 9: Developing goals and lists

Now that you know where to take your game environment you need to break everything down into smaller tasks and develop milestones.

I highly recommend Asana, Trello is good as well but I prefer Asana. The main reason is that I find it way more structured but this is a personal taste, try different project management software to find what best suits you. 

I use Asana to track my tasks. A task is a single thing which can contain sub tasks.
Task: Player movement
Sub task: Input
Sub task: Collisions
Sub task: Animation

These tasks I usually make sure they are either 1, 2, 4 or 6 hours long. You may have longer tasks but this is the standard that I use. I also use agile development but we'll discuss that another time. In terms of goals if you don't have your own objectives then you'll lack direction/motivation to get anything done. Figure out your end objective then develop smaller milestones which will be stepping stones to the big end goal.

Final words

I hope this was useful! Preproduction is a massive amount of work to get through but it's extremely worth it, everyone will appreciate your efforts and it's always noticeable. Please study Dark Souls & Bloodborne, they have some of my favorite level design :)

Thanks so much for reading my blog. In part 2 we'll look at how we can begin developing scenes within Unity. I'll also be uploading YouTube videos which will compliment the blog. If you want to know when I do anything new join my mailing list below!

If this post was of use to you consider checking out my free game Slime Slayer :) 

Matthew Palaje