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Software for Game Environment Artist

Category: Game Environment Design
June 11, 2013 (updated: June 26, 2013)
Full Text Tutorial and Notes:

What software/applications do you need to create game environment art?

The following article is a list of software you would need to know and use to create game environments.

I narrowed the list down to essentials few to get you started in the right direction. After you've gone through this article you should have a strong foundation of what software you would need. From there you could choose to explore alternative applications. This is not a complete list of software and it is subjective, based on my experience and what I've seen environment artist use majority of the time.

In this tutorial you will learn:

  • What software you will need to create game environments with
  • Software for various production pipelines such as Modeling, Texturing, Sculpting etc
  • Essential list of software you would need to get started
  • List of free alternative versions of software
  • Updated with new software and categories

I also included 'What I Use' section, to see what software I use and recommend.

I've split software into pipeline categories. From visual development to modeling to rendering your work inside a game engine.

I've also listed free alternative applications that you could use.

The categories are split into following pipelines:

  • Concept Art and Visual Development
  • Modeling
  • Sculpting
  • Retopology
  • Normal Maps and Baking
  • Texturing
  • UV Unwrapping
  • Terrain Generation Tools
  • Rendering Your Modeled Assets - Game Engines
  • Video Recording and Showcasing Your Work

ESSENTIAL SOFTWARE FOR BEGINNERS

Before we get started, a quick note for beginners. You do not need software in each category. If you are just starting out, here is the minimum you need to get started creating 3d game environments. Focus on the following categories.

Modeling, Texturing, Normal Maps/Baking and Rendering (Game Engines).

If you have one software from the above 4 categories, you should be set to get started. As a beginner, limit the amount of software you learn and use to the core essentials. Once you get more comfortable using the toolset within each software, then you can begin to explore additional and alternative tools.

For example: If I were to start all over again this would be the software from the four basic categories that I would recommend to myself.

Modeling: Maya or 3dsMax
Texturing: Photoshop
Normal Maps/Baking: xNormal and nDo2
Game Engine (Rendering): UDK (Unreal 3), CryEngine 3 or Unity

This would be the basic core I would start with.

Ok, lets get started...

CONCEPT ART/VISUAL DEVELOPMENT

Although concept art is not a requirement for environment artist, it is a very valuable discipline to be familiar with. Color, value, composition, design. At some point you may want to create your own concept designs to work from. Concept art and visual development often involves digital and matte painting. Adobe Photoshop or Painter are primary tools you'd need. Free alternative is Gimp.

Software:

What I Use: Photoshop

MODELING

Essential piece of software for any game environment artist. There are a lot of 3d modeling applications out there to choose from. But the core two are 3dsMax and Maya, these are the industry standard software. These are complete 3d packages that include an extensive modeling toolset. If you can learn to be very proficient with 3dsMax or Maya, you'll be at a very good place in your 3d modeling process. Free alternative to Max or Maya is Blender.

There are a few additional alternatives such as Softimage, Modo and Cinema4D, but they do not have a very strong user base for real-time game engine work. Some artist do use them but they are not as powerful as Maya or 3dsMax.

Software:

What I Use: Maya

Alternatives: few other suggestions for alternative 3d modeling software

3D SCULPTING

Digital sculpting is a process of creating a high poly models. End result would be to acquire normal maps through baking high poly onto a low poly model. Sculpting is primarily used for high poly organic models but hard surface models can often be seen through a 3d sculpting pipeline as well. 3d modeling and 3d sculpting go hand-in-hand. If you are a beginner, focus on 3d modeling first before you start learning 3d sculpting. Two primary sculpting applications are Mudbox and Zbrush.

Software:

  • Mudbox ($) powerful and works fluently with other Autodesk products such as 3dsMax and Maya
  • ZBrush ($) very powerful sculpting package that many prefer over Mudbox
  • Sculptris (Currently still Free)
  • 3DCoat ($) cheaper alternative to ZBrush and Mudbox, uses voxel sculpting; in additon to sculpting also includes retopology, uvlayout and texture painting

What I Use: Currently Mudbox, but I've been looking at switching to ZBrush

RETOPOLOGY

Retopology allows you to rework polygon flow of your model. Topology flow is very important when creating characters or objects with deformation and for animation. You can model with topology flow in mind from the start using your 3d modeling software, but you can also use additional application to help you with topology later on during your project. This way you can model more freely in the beginning and fix your polygon flow later on.

  • 3dCoat ($) very good for retopology, also includes texture painting, voxel sculpting and uv layout toolsets
  • Topogun ($) another very good retopology application that many 3d artist prefer

TEXTURING

Texturing (texture mapping) is applying a 2d image (photo or hand painted image) to a 3d model. Texturing environments requires few things. Unwraping and uv layout, access to photography to use as base for textures, photo manipulation and digital painting.

Unwrapping and laying out uvs will require a 3d application such as Max or Maya. Or a stand alone application such as Roadkill UV or TexTools.

For painting and creating textures you will need Photoshop. Free texturing alternative is Gimp.

Software:

What I Use: Photoshop

NORMAL MAPPING/BAKING

Normal mapping is used to fake object surface detail of high-resolution geometry to a low-poly mesh model. This is done through a normal map texture. When you apply a normal map to a low polygonal mesh, it will create an illusion of extra geometry and surface detail without adding additional polygons.

You will either bake your normal maps inside a 3d modeling app (3dsMax or Maya), or use additional software for baking such as xNormal (free).

Sometimes you need to add additional detail without having to re-bake your models or you don't have the time to create high poly to bake from. You will need additional normal mapping tools that will get the job done. Software such as nDo2 or Crazybump allow you to create normal maps from heightmaps, photos or simply hand painting additional detail.

Software:3d baking, requires a high poly mesh and low poly mesh to generate a normal map

  • XNormal (Free) 3d normal map baking tool, great for baking high poly mesh to low poly mesh, what you end up with is a normal map
  • Blender (Free) includes ability to bake normal maps using high poly and low poly meshes

Software: 2d texture (diffuse/heightmap) normal map generators, requires a photo or a heightmap to generate a normal map

  • NVidia Photoshop Filter (Free) plug-in for 2d normal maps in Photoshop
  • Gimp Normal Map Plugin (Free) requires Gimp which is free; this is an alternative to NVidia PS Filter Plugin
  • nDo2 ($) very good 2d normal map generator software for Photoshop
  • CrazyBump ($) stand alone 2d normal map software; in additona to normal maps, allows you to generate occlusion maps, heightmaps, specular maps
  • Mindtex ($) much cheaper and a very good alternative to CrazyBump; in addition to normal maps, allows you to generate height, specular, self illumination, and/or ambient occlusion maps
  • Knald (currently free and in beta) in addition to normal maps, allows you to generate occlusion, concavity/convexity maps and heightmaps

What I Use: nDo2, nVidia Photoshop Filter, xNormal

UV UNWRAPPING

UV unwrapping is a process of laying out your 3d model's texture coordinates in 2d; for texturing. Most of 3d applications have their own UV mapping tools, and many prefer to use that. But there are additional software, stand-alone or that adds extra functionality to the 3d application's UV mapping that makes the job a lot easier. UV mapping tends to be very time consuming so any help to speed up the process is a huge plus.

So you have an option of using 3d application's UV mapping tools or any of the software below:

  • 3D Modeling Application: most if not all of the 3d application software will have their own uv mapping tools
  • Headus UVLayout ($) a common favorite for unwrapping, UVLayout is a stand-alone application
  • Ultimate Unwrap 3D ($)
  • RoadKill (Free) is a standalone application that can be called from Maya, 3DS Max and Softimage XSI

There are also plenty of free and paid plug-ins for most 3d applications that give you additional functionality to unwrapping and laying out your UVs.

What I Use: I like using Maya's UV mapping tools.

HEIGHTMAP (TERRAIN) CREATION TOOLS

(World Machine)

Heightmap generator will allow you to procedurally generate large, detailed terrain heightmaps or geometry that you then can use to import into a game engine. It also allows you to create textures and texture masks. Instead of trying to create large size landscape by hand, you will have most of the terrain generated for you.

Software:

GAME ENGINES

To see your environment assets in-game you will need to import them into a game engine. Models you see in 3d application may not be how they will look in-game. The best way to see how your environment models will be rendered in-game is to import them into a game engine. You shouldn't be rendering anything in Maya, Max (except for wireframes) or composting your images using Nuke, Combustion or any other software. Final results you want is how your environment art looks in-game.

I wrote an extensive tutorial of recommended Game Engines here.

VIDEO EDITNG/VIDEO CAPTURING

(Adobe Premiere)

Solely for screenshots, you can use inside the game functions to grab a screenshot or simply just Print Screen. Then use Photoshop to resize and save the image.

To create a video environment fly-through or to showcase your work in a reel you will need to capture your video footage, then edit and produce that footage to a video file that can be easily viewed or/and uploaded.

Software Video Capture:

Software Video Editing:

What I Use: Camtasia, Fraps and Premiere

OTHER / MISC:

Few other additional software that doesn't fall into any above categories but important part of the production are for online file storage, back up and synching, writing notes, creating lists and looking up research online.

Some common software:

  • Dropbox (file hosting and synching)
  • Webhosting and Domain ($ for a website, free for many online blogs such as Wordpress)
  • Chrome/ FireFox / IE: internet browsers for research and image reference
  • Notepad or MS Word or Pen and Paper: notes, lists, to do
  • Image Viewers: irFanView, XnView, FastStone

What I Use: Dropbox, Chrome/Firefox/IE, MS Word, pen and paper

Updated & Revised - Preproduction Blueprint: How to Plan Your Game Environments and Level Designs

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