Who is an Environment Artist (Level Artist/Environment Artist) — A Column by Nekki

We are launching a new section where specialists from game companies talk about their professions. It's called "Profession." The first article in this series is about the work of a level artist/environment artist. Timur Ozdoev, the lead level artist on the SPINE project—the first PC and console game by Nekki—discusses what this involves. Previously, Timur worked on Cyberpunk 2077 at CD PROJEKT RED.

SPINE — Nekki (in development)

Timur Ozdoev

A level artist (environment artist) is a specialist who creates game environments. They are typically responsible for the visual aspect of a level and the player's gameplay and emotional experience.

Initially, the profession of level artist did not exist; there were only level designers who handled visual design, map creation, and gameplay. However, the separation of these roles has made modern games much more artistic and well-thought-out in terms of locations. Today, level designers design the layout of levels, while level artists fill them with objects and visualize them. But the goal for both is the same—to create an engaging game and provide players with an unforgettable experience.

It's a creative job. Currently, I am working at Nekki on the cyberpunk game SPINE. We are creating a deep dystopian world where different styles and eras clash. For example, a city-organism where battles are fought, contrasting with the simple everyday life of people. This job involves constantly searching for new solutions, exploring the project, and striving to bring something new that players will remember.

Cyberpunk 2077 — Timur Ozdoev

Work Scope

In game projects, besides the level artist, there is also a prop artist who creates 3D models. The prop artist primarily works on objects in a 3D editor, while the environment artist focuses on placing these objects and creating compositions of various scales directly within the game engine.

Overall, the work of a level artist relies on four "pillars."

  1. Understanding color and composition. This is necessary to frame beautiful shots and fit them into a pleasant and balanced color palette.
  2. Basic level design. This provides insight into how the geometry of the level can influence gameplay, navigation, and player focus.
  3. Understanding the technical aspects of the game engine. Ensuring the level fits within the performance budget, looks beautiful, and meets modern graphic standards.
  4. Basics of architectural lighting. Often, the lighting method is predetermined in the layout, with light being used as a building material. Additionally, lighting reveals the emotional potential of the space and also serves as a navigational aid.

An environment artist must possess excellent technical and artistic skills—they first need to envision the picture and then find a way to implement it in the engine.

SPINE — Teamwork on the project

Work Stages

The workflow of a level artist varies from studio to studio, but generally consists of three stages.

  1. The level artist receives a preliminary layout of the level and conceptualizes visual solutions for it. Sometimes references are sought, other times concept art is created.
  2. Creating an artistic composition, filling it with assets and textures, and configuring the lighting for the level.
  3. Level testing. While working on the environment, it is crucial to understand how the level will be played from the player's perspective.

Sometimes, the level artist has already prepared the visual locations, but the mechanics are not yet fully developed or are being changed. In such cases, the level may need to be reworked.

How to Make a Level More Interesting?

Through atmosphere and emotion. An emotional response can be elicited through style, shape, color, and lighting. Even the weather can convey mood and should be used as a tool. The main question in the work is what the player will feel at this moment and what key elements will make them feel that way.

The attractiveness of a location can be determined by:

— adding mystery;

This can be a teaser of additional space that the player cannot yet access or the addition of hidden areas to motivate exploration.

— conflict and drama in the environment;

This can be the clash and confrontation of different eras and styles, as long as it looks harmonious and fits into the game world's concept.

For example:

1) Half Life: Alyx — the invasion of brutal alien technology disrupts the European city from within with its metallic and technological structures.

2) Wolfenstein Young Blood — elegant white Parisian buildings are engulfed by massive hideous dark concrete blocks built by the occupiers.

3) Deus Ex Human Revolution — uniquely combines Renaissance styles with sci-fi tech.

— dynamics in the surrounding environment;

Moving elements always attract interest and attention.

— intentional imperfection, bringing life to the environment.

What do you think makes a fictional character come alive? Usually, it's when they make mistakes. Or imagine a painting where the artist leaves crooked lines or careless brushstrokes (but does so skillfully). Our world is imperfect, and when this is skillfully reflected in art, it gains a bit of life.

— the story of the world through the environment;

In a game setting, every detail can be imbued with meaning and reveal the history of the fictional universe – this is one of the reasons why playing games is so interesting.

— contrast;

One of the fundamentals of art, used not only in color but also in style, massiveness, and shapes. The contrast and balance of masses, light and shadow, even the hardness of materials. This can also include the contrast between the expressiveness of form and the brightness of color.

— verticality;

This is more about compositional decisions, but when a level has a variety of vertical lines, it undeniably makes it more interesting.

— dominance and accents;

This also concerns both colors and surface shapes, and combinations of styles.

— different levels of environmental detail.

A general rule for various artistic disciplines, where the frame includes large, medium, and small degrees of detail. The distribution of detailing follows the universal 70-30 or 80-20 principle, where there are more detailed areas and cleaner areas for the eye to "rest."

Cyberpunk 2077 — Timur Ozdoyev

What do you need to know to be a good specialist?

If we discuss specific skills that are essential for professional development, you need to be able to model in 3D (Blender), work in popular game engines like UE5, Unity, Source, create textures, configure materials, and work with procedural materials in Substance 3D Designer or photogrammetry. Knowing Houdini and understanding procedural geometry is a big plus. It's great if you have sculpting skills – here, Blender, ZBrush, or 3DCoat are applicable. Familiarity with SpeedTree and Gaea is also beneficial as they are very convenient for creating natural assets. AI is also indispensable; it's important to optimize your work and find new sources of inspiration.

A good level artist can work with both interiors—arranging furniture, developing lighting inside, etc.—and open spaces, as projects usually do not have a clear division.

A video game is a small model of the real world, its reflection in virtual space. In a game, we convey our own experience, and the more of it there is, the better the final result. Gaining experience can be achieved by studying the world around you: listening to what the streets and entire cities tell us. Look for what resonates with you in a city’s history, its residents, and its infrastructure. Street photography helped me develop an artistic taste, so I highly recommend trying it out to understand how light, camera, color, and composition work and to expand your own visual library.

SPINE — Project Team Work

Where do people come from in this field?

This profession attracts those who are passionate about games and want to create them from an artistic perspective.

When you are just starting in this profession, you are given simple tasks that you carry out under the supervision of more experienced artists, then you are responsible for major and quest sections. Eventually, you'll have enough experience to help younger colleagues grow — circle of life.

What games to play to develop an eye for the profession?

A level artist needs to play many games — this helps develop in the profession. Play, analyze the environment, pay attention to details. This not only develops an eye for detail but also helps you determine which genres you like the most, as there are many.

My favorites are immersive, emotional adventure games with deep storylines: Prey, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Observer, Psychonauts, Alien: Isolation.

There are ample growth opportunities in this profession, and knowledge and experience come with practice. I believe the main thing is that it brings you fun and personal enjoyment; otherwise, growth will be difficult. But if all of this interests you and you are willing to invest in your personal growth, you will succeed.

Mutual understanding in the team, creative freedom, and fair compensation allow you to focus on creating incredible things.

Explore the "pillars" mentioned above, play, practice more in creating game levels, and growth will not take long!

By the way, we are currently expanding the project team and looking for another Level Artist. You can check out the vacancy here.

SPINE — Nekki (in development)

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