Once you have began on your journey to acquiring artistic skills it is now time to apply what you learned into a 3d digital package and a level editor.
I am going to cover the basics of what level editor to choose, which 2d package to work with, as well as 3d package.
All of these are based on my own experience and my opinion. You may want to try different things out and decide for yourself. It is ultimately up to you which one you choose and become a master at it. All I can tell you is to pick a few as opposed to many. Become really good at one or two.
LEVEL DESIGN EDITORS:
Ask yourself what kinds of games do you like and what kind of games you would want to make environments for?
You probably already know the answer to that question. It will help you make a decision of what to choose and what to learn a lot easier.
Asking the right questions will help you shape the right answers.
I am going to talk about first person shooters; because that is what I know and that is what I love playing and love creating maps for.
I would start off by learning one of the following level editors that are available once you purchase the game.
Unreal is a beast. The engine is one of the most popular and often used engines in the industry. It has a huge user base and is user-friendlier then a hammer; and I am not talking about the editor. It has intuitive interface and wide range of supported import/export tools. The shading engine is extremely deep and the new features that have been introduced are something to desire. Such as the new Global Illumination lighting is level designer's dream.
Unreal engine is widely used in the industry so it is a great engine to start working on. If you are looking for a job as a level designer in the industry, it will help you to know Unreal. Knowledge of Unreal engine is often listed as a job requirement, even if that studio does not use it. It just goes to show that if you know how to work with a popular engine, it will go a long way.
Some games that used Unreal Engine include:
Unreal 3, Gears of War, Bioshock, Bioshock 2, Mass Effect, Splinter Cell and hundreds more.
If you have Half-Life 2, Counter-strike: Source, Day of Defeat, Team Fortress 2 or Left 4 Dead. You have access to one of the most used and supported engines on PC.
Valve's Hammer Source has a huge, community. You will never run out of forums or support for the editor. If you have any technical issues it is most likely you will be able to find an answer on the many of the forums.
Here are some resources to get you started:
Amazing engine. You are able to create very realistic settings with CryEngine editor.
I have not had a chance to learn it yet, but it is on my to do list. I was amazed by Crysis and at GDC 2009 in March Crytek is unveiled their new updated engine. So this is not going anywhere.
I wish more games used their engine though.
These three have the largest user base and support, so you will not run out of resources. Learning any of these as best as you could will go along way. If you can learn all three even better but if starting out I would focus on only one at a time.
Extremely versatile 2d package is hands down, Photoshop. From texturing to digital painting and illustrations to creating normal maps and edit photos, Photoshop can do it all. With every version it keeps getting better.
Another application I used was Painter. Painter is a completely different package then Photoshop and it is great for digital painting. It mimics real brush strokes and real painting as close as you almost feel that you are painting in watercolor or oils digitally.
Many artists use both. Painting in Painter and working color and editing in Photoshop. Of course it is all personal and artistic preference.
I personally use Photoshop and I love it. So that is what I would recommend. I have had experience with Painter and it is a wonderful application, but I have everything I need in Photoshop. One stop shop.
I am a Maya user. I started with Bryce, moved to 3ds max and when I enrolled into Ringling I had to learn Maya. After 4 years of using Maya I have to say I love it and I recommend it. Although I do love 3ds max. When I enrolled into Ringling I was somewhat proficient with Max and I wished I could have kept on using 3ds max.
So when it comes down to either of these they are both excellent choices.
Here is the key.
If you are going to use one or the other, I highly recommend picking one and sticking with it. Master it. I use to read flame wars on fourms about which package is superior and which one should you start with. It doesn't matter which one you start with. It is all about how well you can use it.
I use Maya so if you have any questions about Maya feel free to drop me an email. I'll do my best to help you.
Z-BRUSH and MUDBOX:
Using Maya or Max alone is not enough anymore. In order to create hi-res geometry for games you need to know Zbrush or Mudbox. This is where you take your models and create hi-res models and then use normal maps to apply to low-res.
Knowing the pipeline production and how to import/export from Maya to Mudbox to Unreal and then work on textures and being able to work within these 2-3 softwares at the same time will help you immensely.
So my advice would be stick with a few packages and learn them. Learn what it takes to work within each one and production pipeline it is required to build a model and actually import it into a game engine and see it in the game. If you are able to do so you are above most.
I will talk about it more in-depth at later tutorials where I will take a model and create it in Maya then import it into unreal or source with step-by-step utilizing all the necessary software along the way.
So that is the break down of what to do and where to begin. Make sure that you spend one hour each day in doing something that brings you close to becoming the top-level designer and environment artist.
So pick one and stick with it. Don't try to jump from one software and game engine to another until you are comfortable with one. Avoid the mistakes that I did in the beginning, you will be further then most people out there.
Last but not least make sure to join a game level design forums. Few for your particular game you are mapping for and few for game-art and level design in general.
Here are a few level design and 3d forums I recommend: