THE ROLE OF ENVIRONMENT ARTISTS & LEVEL DESIGNERS
"This blog will explain the differences within each role, so that you can pursue the role that is right for you."
The roles of an Environment Artist and Level Designer are understandably defined differently across the industry. They share so much space with one another and so often times people get confused as to the responsibilities of each role. So much so that an individual working in any of these roles, has to better define their role each time they join a new studio or start a new project. Therefore it is important to understand the differences in each. In the last few years, working in various roles, both in Environment Art AND in Level Design, I've learned as much as I can about these different job titles; how the needs and requirements change for each are different, all the while allowing me to discover which role is truly right for me.
To see where we are now, we have to first look back on the games industry's past and examine what has changed. The process for creating or developing a 3D video game level years ago, especially in the mid to late 2000s, typically started with: the game needs a level, the designer works out the requirements of said level, maps a simple layout that fit the needs of the user experience, then an artist would later approach the design, enhancing it, adding to the visual quality. But most importantly in this process, there is a back and forth between the two roles and the two departments, leading to a more positive experience for the player and a smoother working day for the developers.
But over the years, as we see an increased demand for high quality experiences, games development has become more complex, especially in the AAA space. More advanced tools are required, departments have grown larger in their capacity, processes have become more complex, all to accommodate the needs of the consumer for a bigger, higher quality, expansive, multi-million dollar blockbuster. The process might have remained largely the same, but drawn out to a much, much larger scale. As a result, most roles have become more and more specialised.
"In order to work on larger projects, you learn that you must surrender more of your creative control to others, so as not to confuse the process and compromise the vision of the project."
However in a more analogous way, some roles as a result - in a way - become 'smaller', duties shrink to allow others to become more focused. In order to work on larger projects, you learn that you must surrender more of your creative control so as not to confuse the process, which is perfectly understandable. This is done to avoid problems with mismanagement such as the 'too many cooks scenario', while also allowing studios to deal with a higher workload and complete more taxing work faster. Processes are even streamlined with new software or custom in-house plugins, so as to avoid any future problems and speed up production, thus ultimately saving money. This is all common among larger studios, especially in the AAA space.
The other side of this coin however is that due to the scale of such projects, there are some trade-offs for the individual on the ground. Some production schedules might not allow too much room for iteration or creative input, or responsibilities may become thinner, but the workload larger.
"No studio (even the very best) is 'just right', i.e. perfect! Unlike in Goldilocks, every studio will have it's own unique problems that each developer must learn to deal with (or challenge) in their own way."
For example, at other studios, depending on your role in the department, work scales differently; for example some junior artists in other studios might create the LOD meshes (lower detail meshes seen at a distance) for the various super structures placed throughout the game, fairly low risk work with little room for creative input. Or if look for another example, rather than authoring bespoke work it might instead become a part of procedural generation process in order to speed up production, but this means that creative control might become stifled or constrained, it's only limits are the technology - and time. There are many examples and these can be extrapolated differently, some exacerbated depending on the role and on the studio. Many individuals take no issue with this kind of process, as it helps them to develop more work faster. Everywhere and everyone is different!
Knowing this, let's talk about the role of an Environment Artist in AAA, a title I had for many years.
An Environment Artist in AAA typically manages and handles most of the visual elements seen inside of a level. A designer would give the artist a level at a blockout standard, typically from which to base their work, and so long as the playable space is not compromised and the original blockout is still considered, the artist can 'set dress' with assets; add complexity to the more simple shapes and draw out the aesthetic quality of the scene. These artists typically form the bulk of the art team; as it is usual you need a lot of different environments in games and the expected standard of quality is very high.
As these departments are often times HUGE in order to match the usual significant workload, senior roles typically become more 'specialised', focused, in order to meet the specific project requirements and the ever rising, high standards of the industry. Artists will train from a Junior to reach an Intermediate level once they have mastered all the basics, and it is usually from this point where artists might be given a path towards seniority, handling specific areas of the game or even given a specialism. Most Senior Environment Artists do not have their job title changed, though they might have similar responsibilities to those below. However, inside of AAA you may often see the following roles credited:
One who works exclusively on creating high quality 3D props, large and small, but does not dictate where they are placed or use in in-game levels (if at all). These artists often work with rigs (animation) as this high quality work is often used by characters in cinematics etc. However, it is important to note, in-studio Game/Prop Artist roles are exceptionally rare while highly sought after, and so applicants have to be highly exceptional at what they do in order to secure the role. See the credits for Wolfenstein from Machine Games or the credits of Arkham Knight from Rocksteady. These artists can also fill entire outsource teams, a topic I will cover further in this blog.
One who authors and often times handles the many materials, textures and shaders displayed in the game. The artist is responsible for manufacturing these materials, often using Substance Designer to do so. These materials then form a library that other artists can utilise. See the credits for The Last of Us Part II from Naughty Dog or equally the credits for God of War from Sony Santa Monica.
One responsible for the creation of the various trees, plants, flowers and other fauna found in the game. These artists have developed such an understanding of the process to create natural organic 3D assets, that it has become its own role, due to the unique difficulties and processes for authoring such specific work. See the credits for Forza Horizon from Playground Games, or the credits for Horizon Zero Dawn from Guerrilla.
Now we arrive at the topic of outsource in AAA. To the surprise of some, Env. Artists in most teams will not themselves author most of the 3D assets that are seen in the game. This development is rather new. Instead, in-studio artists might typically create a simple blockout of an asset, a blockout that is then exported to an external outsource team who handle the rest. These outsource teams are managed by either an Outsource Manager or perhaps even the artist themselves, who provide regular feedback. For this reason, it is important for artists have a fully fledged understanding of the environment art development process, while knowing the requirements of the chosen art style and constraints of the project so as to provide accurate and actionable feedback to others. This decision allows the AAA studio to churn out more high quality work, multiplying their output, allowing them to create bigger, higher quality content much faster than ever before.
However some might be surprised by this, especially artists, as their role becomes something akin to an 'Environment Manager', set dressing a level provided by the designer, then surrendering the craft of that artwork to the outsource team elsewhere. In Indie games development however this is rarely the case, that where studios may not have the affordance of a bigger budget or a world renowned intellectual property, you do typically get to create the 3D artwork yourself.
For example, early in my career I worked in an Indie (independent) studio, where I was able to do many and all of these things, even explore areas of game development outside of the traditional remit of my department, such as UI and lighting. In AAA, my schedule was hyper focused, Environment Artists handled the Environment, while authoring bespoke 3D work which was left to others among the team to develop further or to outsource teams elsewhere.
Environment Artist Responsibilities:
A rich understanding of complex art processes and techniques with 3D modelling software such as Blender, 3DS Max or Maya to create optimised game ready models
A detailed understanding of texturing software such as Substance Painter, Quixel and even Photoshop
Understanding of the process of environment art development, from creating art elements such as assets, trim sheets and decals to name a few, to assembling large scale environments
To take level design blockouts from design and work collaboratively to help contextualise them further with art assets, to create high quality game level environments while maintaining the design intension and integrity of the level
Working to create game environments that convey a desired art style
The ability to listen to and provide clear feedback
To have a keen eye for detail
3D Modelling Software: 3DS Max, Maya, Blender
High Poly Modelling Software: Mudbox, Zbrush
Texturing Software: Quixel Suite, Substance Painter, Substance Designer, Photoshop
Engine Software: Unity, Unreal Engine
Knowing all this, let's talk about the role of an Level Designer.
A level designer is a particular role inside of the design department, basically a designer who focuses on the player experience inside of the level blockouts they create, that best utilises and includes the different mechanics seen throughout the game, to create interesting challenges, challenging encounters or puzzles etc to satisfy the players actioning within the spaces that the Level Designers create. These designers then pass on their work to the art team, who develop the level further - artists still keeping consideration to the original blockout (artists we don't just scrub a blockout and start again) - adding detail, contextualising it, filling-in for any gaps etc. There is a lot of back and forth between the level designer and the artist, at each stage and with each iteration, before the level is finally approved and the game ships!
Control of their work is largely limited by the system mechanics of the game that they player can make use of, the project scope (time and budget) as well as a few other guidelines of production. Because they work to incorporate many different aspects of the game, it is important for designers to be effective communicators able to collaborate and talk with various disciplines, but also visually communicative in their work, so as to convey intention, interaction and mood.
"When you begin to describe and think of the spaces you create using verbs as opposed to adjectives, you begin to think like a designer!"
A level designer's role can vary wildly from studio to studio. Some become fairly acquainted with tools, whether coding or blueprinting, or others might have to deal with the narrative aspect of the game and how the story develops throughout the game. Some, a bit of everything!
But nonetheless, the level designer loosely fits the bill as an architect of sorts. They have to understand patterns, layouts, structure and space; focusing primarily on the function, but holding in focus, the form (visual) of the space.
Let's explore this example further. An architect - for example when designing a museum building (the level) - has to first consider the function of the space (game type). The Architect must be able to answer the following questions: How do people enter the museum? How do they move around? Do they have enough space? Where are the exhibitions placed? Are these rooms easy to navigate? Is there a natural flow to the space? All of these questions and many more have to be answered and they have to mean something for the experience, otherwise why build it at all? All the while, the architect has to keep in mind the process of building the space: How it is constructed, and what the constraints are of the project/build etc. Because if a plan - or in our example, a blueprint - cannot be actionable, it's not a very good plan. This same thought process is entirely relevant and comparable to that of a level designer.
A level designer is simply one who architects intention into a design and who communicates that intention clearly to the user; in the case of a video game, the player. But is an architect closer in definition to an artist or a designer in this analogy one might ask? A building is a visual, no? I would instead answer that an Architect must show a competency and fundamental understanding of both areas of design, in order to be good at what they do, paying attention to both function and form.
And like an Architect in this regard, we see that in this industry, art can be design, design can be art! But both are a part of the user experience (UX) - and that if there is a communicated intention, there is a design!
Level Designers must understand each, in order to be optimal and effective in a team. Level Designers must know how their game plays - but they must know how their players think., Therefore, some might find it advantageous to explore and learn about human psychology. For example, what does the player think or feel they're able to do - when they see a closed door in a video game? Does it communicate a barrier? A challenge? An Interaction? Or does it even communicate a danger? All of these questions have different answers depending on the circumstance and the context. But level designers orchestrate the circumstance and the context of the game situation, that the player finds themselves in, which helps to evoke a particular feeling, emotion or thought in the player - this is all by design.
A lot of Environment Artists also possess an understanding of the core tenets of these design principles (especially as they work more closely with design metrics). Such as when purposefully creating positive or negative space to compose a view, to the rules of composition and how the human eye works, or how to evoke emotion through manipulation of imagery and shape - a complex visual language that we all as human beings understand.
"One focuses more on form (as well as function), the other focused on function (as well as form), yet they work within the same space, think a similar way"
This is why both departments must work so closely together; marrying the two disciplines to create a cohesive, ordered design that has a designed purpose! However, one role focuses more on form (as well as function), the other focused on function (as well as form), yet they work within the same space, think a similar way. But just as they both share space in the pipeline, they must be careful also not to encroach on one another's space. A Level Designer is not a dictator, a game master; they must understand where their role ends and begins, they must understand that ideas flow back and forth, that game development is a collaborative effort, and that their work - if performed well - is largely invisible.
To summarise, to have an understanding of theory (the why), craft (the how) and player action (the do), is all important in order to be an effective Level Designer working in the video game industry.
These roles liaise with multiple departments in order to find the best course of action for development and to incorporate others into the process. They must also clearly document their work where possible, to describe their design intentions in written format - as well as visually - through detailed documentation, usually through Confluence, OneNote or other design documents, so that everyone across the team can easily reference their work, especially when working across sprawling open worlds and large AAA action-packed titles.
Level Designer Responsibilities:
Marrying game mechanics with the gameplay space; working closely with all teams to create a desired experience
Creating detailed block-out prototype levels that communicate a spatial design, paired with gameplay elements and logic
Creating and following metrics (rules) in the development of game levels for a smoother production pipeline
Writing and maintaining clear and readable documentation on design tools and features
Constructing mission AI and other prototype logic through the use of scripting tools, creating interactions, activities etc
Creating combat scenarios that deliver memorable player experiences, iterating on them to the highest quality through peer feedback and user testing
To be a good communicator, a trouble-shooter and a team player
3D Modelling Software: 3DS Max, Maya, Blender
Engine Software: Unity, Unreal Engine
Scripting: C++, C#, Visual Scripting Knowledge
I hope you have found this blog post educational. Thank you for reading!
A final caveat: like I have already mentioned, in some studios these roles are different and teams are organised differently, the workload varies and the project goals change - this is all my opinion and I could be terribly, terribly wrong.
However, I have spent many years inside both of these roles, working inside of many different companies, from Indie games development, to AAA. Nonetheless, I encourage you to explore as much as you can about these roles and as best as you can, so that you can make the right decision about which one is right for you. There are a tonne of resources online where you can learn more, such as CGMA, UDEMY and others, where you can learn about the very processes of development for each specialism. I will continue to update this blog with new entries discussing processes, pipelines, techniques and advice, so please stick around for more content and take care!
Thank you for reading!