Artists Blog: Map Environments
While working on Halo Wars I focused on creating the initial environments used throughout the skirmish maps and scenarios.The early phases began with our concept artist to get the look and feel of each world and working with designers on how these would be a part of the overall storyline. Also, brainstorming with programmers for terrain tools and understanding aspects of the new game engine to develop something we had never achieved before. Here are three of the major steps I would go though in creating our environments, although there were many more along the way.
The first step of creating a world would start with the terrain textures. This process was a definite change from the work I had done on the previous Age games. Halo Wars was a totally new game engine and our blend system had much more flexibility. Less textures were needed but the end result was much more dynamic and even the normal map generation had improved greatly. The number one obstacle for creating terrain textures was the vast difference in hue/saturation and compression from the PC monitor to the Xbox 360. What you see was not what you got. In an RTS game there is a fine balance in the complexity of textures and how the game units will read once placed on them. You have to make sure they are just the right brightness and saturation that add to the game experience and not distract from it. This part of the process is my favorite, because I enjoy making textures. Other artists like to make fun of my image files for having dozens of layers but I know what they all do. When I need to change the color of a single rock on the texture or the length of a grass blade I know just where it is at... well most of the time ;)
The second step was sculpting and using the tools to manipulate the new powerful terrain mesh for the game. Before our games only used displacement on the Y axis, in Halo Wars we could move terrain vertices in all axes. While this gave us more freedom to create overhangs and more complex canyons and mountain ranges it did add more time to the sculpting. This step took the longest in our schedule and sometimes was the most difficult. To help us with the initial roughing out of the map we used a terrain generator that would create a displacement map and give us a nice starting point. Now that we had a mountain range or canyon we would go in with the finer tools and add the detailed characteristics for that particular environment. There were limitations though, and with all the new complex sculpting and higher tessellation we had to be efficient and optimized for game performance.
Some of the final steps were tweaking the lighting to create the mood of the world. Lighting for RTS games can be an ongoing hair pulling ordeal. As an artist you want to have the most realistic, colorful and dramatic lighting. But also as a game developer you have to make sure people can tell what the hell is going on. Some units that appear smaller on the screen could come out looking unreadable black blobs if your sun direction, inclination, ambient light and shadow darkness settings were not correct. The big difference in an RTS and other genres of game lighting is trying to pull off a night time scene, we always want to do them, but have to pull back a little. Player color and unit recognition go out the door when you turn the sun off. Scenario 2 was probably the closest we did to a night time setting. I had to add a lot of local lights but that would hurt performance. Sometimes without anyone looking my artist instincts took over and I would add a few lights here and there to get it just right. Whether I created a bright and vivid mountain valley or a dark and cold wasteland, with the lighting done right, it pulled in the player that much more into our environments.
Artists, programmers and designers all played major roles in creating the Halo War environments from look, tools, layout and storyline. I feel these environments are some of the best in a console RTS that have been done.
Bryan "bimbosoup" Hehmann