«А great looking environment can’t make up for bad playability» Interview with Martin Teichmann, Lead Environment Artist at Postcard Game Studio

Minute detais can build up into large and multifaceted worlds. Environmental artists know this is firsthand and work hard on making virtual worlds feel alive and exiting. The Inlingo team talked to Martin Teichmann, Lead Environment Artist at Postcard Game Studio. We learned what game environments are made of, what details in the environment help you find the right way and how to create a world that you want to explore again and again.

«Working with the latest tech makes me rethink workflows»

Environmental artists are in demand in the film industry, why did you choose games? How did you get into the gaming industry?

The big difference for me is the interactive aspect of games. It is great to create an environment, knowing the player can explore it in their way. I can tell stories, hide easter eggs in different ways than that’s  possible in movies. Technical limitations can be frustrating and difficult to overcome but on the other hand it is a very interesting aspect of games. It’s a very technology driven industry. That appeals to my technician, engineering side of me as well as the artist in me. 

You were a Sr. Dungeon Artist at Blizzard. Can you tell us more about what you were working on back there?

As a Sr. Dungeon Artist it was my responsibility to create the Dungeon artwork for Diablo 4. In Diablo 4 Dungeons are procedural generated out of bespoken tiles. Each of these tiles have to be built and made sure they tile seamlessly together. My main focus was “world building”. That means I used assets and materials created by the team and built each dungeon tile required for a Dungeon set. 

You are a Lead Environment Artist at Postcard Game Studio right now. Can you tell us more about what you do now and if your role is different from what you did at Blizzard?

Sure thing. Postcard Game Studio is a brand new startup in Irvine CA. As a Lead Environment Artist my role is not so much contributing to the game assets anymore but to enable my team to do so in a most efficient way. Even though I am still involved in asset creation and world building my new role now includes hiring, attending meetings, feedback and representing the environment teams needs and ideas to upper management and other departments.

Postcard Game Studio has united industry veterans that worked on staples of the action and shooter genres. Is it a sort of return to the roots for you? From Dungeons of Diablo back to vast action environments?

— It does feel a bit back to the roots indeed. Early in my career I was working on the Crysis franchise and now I am back working on first person shooter. It feels familiar but also very different as we want to explore a unique art style for our game. Also working with the latest tech makes me rethink workflows and requirements for tools and asset building. That said: each genre, game or art style comes with its own set of challenges, pros and cons. I feel like I am growing and learning each time.

Prior to the founding of Postcard Game Studio, all board members worked on staples of the industry

— You’ve worked on Crysis, Arkham Knight, Uncharted and TLOU2, what would you call the most challenging project in your career?

Each of the named projects came with their own unique challenges and I am proud to be part of each of them. Also These projects span from my early career to my more experienced years in the games industry. 

To pick one project I would pick Uncharted the Lost Legacy. It is a great project, built in a very short amount of time. My task for the project grew to be presented to the press early on. There was a lot of pressure to hit milestones and also to raise the visual quality as high as possible. 

«Art shouldn’t be in the way of gameplay»

For those who don’t know, what is a game environment and what key features a good game environment has?

As a Game environment you can basically count everything that the player can explore, navigate and traverse. It is literally the world the player experiences. An environment is built out of dozens or hundreds of small objects (assets). Depending on scope, style and type of a game there are a number of different expert roles that all contribute to creating a world. Props artists, lighting artists, world builders, material artists, designers and so on. Even characters can be part of the world – the environment. 

A good game environment is not only good looking and runs in a decent frame rate on your console or PC. It also helps the player navigate through the world, makes sure the gameplay is as smooth and rewarding as possible, and helps to tell the story of the game. 

What’s the difference between creating a 3D-scene and a game environment? 

That is more a question of definition. A 3D-scene can be a game environment while a game environment can be a 3D-scene. A game environment can also be a 2D painting or isometric pixel art. A 3D-scene could be a car sitting on a turntable and not really provide room for a player to navigate. 

Who and when chooses the appropriate environmental style for a project? 

To choose the right style for a project is a very important aspect of the early face of game development. While there are examples where games changed their style and look drastically throughout the development it is generally very important to decide early on what the game should look like. 

The wrong art style can change the tone of a game’s story and ultimately ruin the mood and impact of the narrative. Imagine “The Last Of US” in a very colorful cartoon look. While that might be an interesting idea it would be a very different game. 

Environments of The Last of Us Part II build the atmosphere of a down to earth post-apocalyptic world. With zombies.

Choosing the art style is the job of the game director and the art director. It’s important that the art supports the gameplay and the story of a game. It can’t be viewed as a secondary or detached aspect of a game in my opinion. 

— Are there any genres or settings where the quality of environmental art would be more important than, say, character art? Why? 

Games that come to mind are “Journey” and “Dear Esther”. Both games, especially Dear Esther, put the environment forward as the main “character”. The player is driven by the beautiful environment and motivated to explore to find out more about the world. The environment itself reveals its story by exploringing it. 

The examples above are maybe the obvious choice as there is an entire genre of the “walking simulator”. But that proves how strong a narrative can be told by a great environment art. Or to be more precise: a great environment art that works perfectly in sync with the story. 

Where do environmental artists get inspiration from? What to use as a reference, when the object you are building has never existed before?

I love photo books. It’s a fantastic source of inspiration. Traveling is great as well. Everything you see and experience can add to your inspiration. Of course movies, games and artstation is great as well. 

If the object, or the environment I want to create does not exist it probably is inspired by something that exists. A futuristic spaceship may borrow elements from insects or real airplanes. An experienced artist can grab elements of existing elements to create something new and unique out of these elements. 

Can you break down what hero assets, modular assets, props and vista assets are? Is there usually specialization, like go to Jane, she’s the best at creating hero assets or do you have to be a master of all? 

Hero assets are the centerpiece assets of a scene. A remarkable object of interest that draws attention. Usually these are especially detailed and take a good amount of time to plan and design the look. 

Modular assets are sets of assets that can be used to create larger structures or objects that are usually made out of repeating elements. Buil;dings are generally made by modular assets. For example, a wall asset, a door asset, a window asset and so on. These are best seamless fitting together and require some planning. 

Props are all smaller or medium objects you would find in an environment, tables, trash bins, barrels and so on. Each of them can work by itself and add fidelity, storytelling and detail to the environment. 

Vista assets are background assets that are not seen closeup. Imagine a far away rock or a castle on top of a mountain out of the player’s reach. These assets are made less detailed to save time and performance. Usually they only have to work from certain camera perspectives and therefore can be nicely optimized and arranged. 

There is a high level of specialization in most environment art teams. There are experts for props, vistas and so on. The asset pipeline is complex and grows more complex as games and game environments get more and more detailed. Specialization is highly necessary.

What are the main limitations environmental artists have to deal with, when working on a level?

Main limitations besides performance is the design. As an environment artist you want to make sure that the art is not in the way of the gameplay and the player. There is almost nothing as frustrating as getting stuck or “dying” in a game because the art was limiting your movements or simply was not clear in showing the player where to go. 

It is very important to work closely together with level and game design to make sure the players experience is as best as possible. Compromise is necessary when working with design. “Gameplay first” is a phrase often quoted. And it is true. Even a great looking environment can’t make up for bad playability. 

How to make sure your beautiful environments don’t hinder gameplay? Who keeps track of that and who do you discuss it with? 

That aspect of environment art also plays closely together with readability and playability of an environment. Where to put noisy detail and where it’s better to keep an area clean and easy to understand is not only an art direction decision. The environment serves the purpose to guide the player and leads the player through a level as designed.

If the level or game designer wants the player to get stuck in a room in order to solve a puzzle, the environment artist can hide the actual exit in the art more. In contrast to an action scene where the game wants the player to quickly run through an area. Here the artist needs to make sure the player can easily read the environment and find the exit. 

Playtesters and a fresh pair of eyes is the best advice to balance the details to a level. Playtests will find parts of the environment not clear to the player. And a fresh pair of eyes of a colleague can point to areas that lack detail or are too oversaturated.

«It is very easy to get “blind” for your work»

Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy are very similar, but Lost Legacy expanded open world segments of the series. Later we saw a large open world segment in TLOU 2. What would be the main difference between working with open world areas and linear levels? 

In open world segments it’s harder to control the player’s experience. The player can go left instead of right and get a different experience and pacing. It is more likely that a player can miss an area or simply gets lost in a large open area. On the other hand, there is way more freedom and the player feels his decisions actually make a difference. 

It’s always a matter what the game designer wants the player to experience. For the environment art production there is mostly performance and player guidance a concern. Of course an open environment may also require just more space to be arted up. Linear games are easier to plan and to build as the designer and artist can predict where the player would go or look.

Back in the early 2000s you could always tell which door on the level is part of the background and which one is actually interactive by looking at its level of detail. Nowadays, even background objects are highly detailed. What techniques do you use to guide the player through the level? 

Most common techniques are lighting, color and shape language. The human eye is drawn to high contrast and to bringt spots. This can be used to create areas of interest to subconsciously guide the player. Colors can do a similar trick. Orange or white highlighted edges may indicate a spot to climb. Shapes can tell the player, danger or not accessible. Spiky sharp shapes may indicate a combat area or a trap. 

Brighter relief ice on walls and ledges communicates to the player that the area is interactive.

Round objects may show that the area is safe or simply not a climbable wall. All of these elements can be used to slowly teach the player the language of the game. If a bright flickering light usually indicates the exit of a level, the player will learn and starts looking out for these lights to find the next level.

How to organize the work on environments effectively, so that not to get stuck on polishing one single corner in a dungeon? 

It’s best to start working on the environment from rough, big shapes and details down to more and more refined art. Starting with the basic size of a room, adding windows and furniture  in the next step, and adding all small details like outlets, trims,  books last. It allows for quick changes early. Let’s say the room is too small or it needs to have more windows. It also creates early on a good representation of the environment and gameplay space. 

Usually I would then start a small area, and bring it to a close to final art quality. That is best to get a good idea and feel how the rest of the level will look like. From there on it is best to add more and more detail throughout the level without getting too carried away in just one area. 

Do you tend to work on different levels simultaneously, or do you focus on one environment until completion? 

— In game development there are usually several tasks assigned to an artist. It all depends on the studio of course. I personally tend to work in passes if the schedule allows for this. I would work on one environment to a certain level or quality, switch to another assignment and do the same there. Just so I can switch back to my first environment and bring it to the next quality level.

It is very easy to get “blind” for your work. To build a game environment to final quality can take years. To keep a fresh eye, be able to spot errors or unfinished areas more easily, it’s best to step away for a bit, and come back with new ideas.

How to tell good stories through the environment? Do you work with narrative designers on this usually, or do you have creative freedom to tell little stories on a level? 

— When I start working on an environment, there is usually a rough story about this place existing. From there on it is a collaboration between design, narrative and artist to create the environment supporting the story intended for this location. Not every environment has the same needs for story telling. Some environments are combat places, others are puzzle rooms or they can be story and exploration areas. 

In detail there is a lot of room for the artist to fill the environment with story elements that help tell the overall narrative of the game and the specific level. For instance: If an environment contains several apartments and shop interiors to explore for the player, as an artist that is a great opportunity to tell small stories within these spaces. What shop is it, what happened here before the player entered, who lived in this apartment, etc. Narrative and Design may have blocked these spaces roughly. But they need to be filled with art and detail. That’s where the Environment Artist jumps in.

Work of an environmental artist seems to be strongly tied with the work of a level designer. Can you describe this cooperation when creating a dungeon for example? 

— First Design would create a blockout for the level or the dungeon. Designers also playtest these spaces to make sure it is fun and serves the purpose within the game. Is it a story bit, or a boss fight? These questions are answered by the designer before the level is handed over to the artist. From there on the artist is adding detail, textures and so on. At the same time Art and Design stay in close connection. I would show my progress to the Designer to make sure that all needed requirements for gameplay are met. If I have an idea that involves bigger changes to layout, that must be discussed to avoid any complications. As mentioned earlier, gameplay is first. A beautiful level that plays bad or simply does not match the gameplay needs just wont work. 

How do you deal with criticism during work or after release? How do you know that the feedback is valid? 

Every feedback is valid as long as it is constructive. My job is to soak the feedback in, think about it, compile a list of actions I do want to do, and change the things I found are worth changing. Art Direction requests are met as they do have their eye on the overall look of the game and view the project as a whole, while as an artist you may only get a picture of your specific assignment. Art is a very opinionated field. Everybody knows what looks good for them. It is a matter of experience to filter the feedback that actually improves the quality rather than just make a change to please a specific taste. 

«I love to create worlds»

Your team at Blizzard consisted of around 15 artists. How big is your current team and how is your workday organized? 

The entire Art team includes 5 Environment Artists on side including me. Plus we have two concept artists working remotely for us. We like to keep the structure very flat and open. All ideas are welcome. As we are super early in exploring the style and look of our game we experiment a lot and keep tasks as open as we can to give flexibility and creative freedom to the team. 

As a Lead artist do you spend most of your work days helping your teammates improve their pieces or do you still work on creating your own assets from scratch? 

My daily job mostly consists in attending meetings, giving feedback and direction to the team and currently also setting up the foundations for the environment art pipeline. Naming conventions, Folder structure, tools, etc. 

Luckily that’s more or less around half my day so I do have time doing assets or world building. But ideally I make myself available to my team and other departments for feedback, direction and idea brainstormings. 

What’s the most exciting part in the work of an environmental artist? What do you enjoy the most in your job? 

I love to create worlds and tell stories inside them. It is the subtle tones that add to a world and make it come alive. It is great to watch a lets play of someone playing through the level I helped to build. Where do they go or look, what do they find.