[WIP] [UE4] Emerald Hills

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LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2
Hey all, my name is Cam and I'm trying to make an environment piece every 2 weeks that would be considered game ready. I've been trying to meet deadlines along the way to simulate an actual studio environment, so I when I get a job within the games industry I'm not blindsided by the pace. I'm seeking critique as I go so I can improve my art.

Today I started this weeks sprint to be completed by 2/19. I plan on updating this thread daily with my progress. So what am I doing in these two weeks?
I'm taking Emerald Hill Zone from Sonic 2 and turning it into a stylized 3d environment that sticks to the sonic conventions and looks as if it's a proper part of a level. So checkboard cliffs and grass, sparking sea and vistas overlooking some surreal geometry.

I spent the morning looking at what I would need to create based off of how Sonic Generations did Green Hill Zone. So I went around artstation and in game finding pieces that either matched the style I was after, or would help me further inform my scene and composition. I have compiled a list of them here for your viewing pleasure.

I then went about blocking out the scene in unreal using some stock unreal assets just to feel out the flow. I know I wanted to show off the sea, a little bit of hills, and then room enough for some in the back geometry. What use is speed without some sights?
One of my biggest issues with my last project is I didn't use a model for scale and it really showed. I also didn't play with/understand enough about how Unreal Engine's lighting worked. So I've spent some time trying to make a nice bright vibrant scene that has enough variation in its shades and forms. I'm planning on using world aligned materials and some fun tricks with normals to unify all the rocks I'll be making tomorrow to create a unified looking wall.
I followed Alysson Soares' amazing stylized cliff video  to inform the initial shapes of this, and then started to apply a more angular and crass look to it. This is still a work in progress and needs to be tidied up, it looks more like failed realism than intentional stylization. I'll also be assembling the ground grass texture so I can start to import the rocks.


The initial test rock came out a bit overcooked if I'm being honest with myself. Those normal details + my rock texture are going to be too much visual noise on the normals. I have to go back tomorrow and start the rock over again but that's okay, I have a really fast workflow for rocks, especially now that I know more of what not to do.

Hit me with some good critique so I can iterate and improve, and thank you for reading my thread.

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  • LumoBlaze
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    LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2
    Alright I really hated that rock I made and it didn't match the reference images I was using AT ALL so I did anther pass to create some high poly rocks in the time I had today.

    I'm really digging the second one the most, but I think it's gonna be wise to make layers of rocks as their own individual objects, detail them, and then merge them. I can't take much more time on these if I want to meet my deadline though.

    Tomorrow I want to have all the high poly work done so I can start on the lowpoly and unwrapping.

    Give me some of your thoughts, I think my workflow might not be the most optimized here.
  • LumoBlaze
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    LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2
    Today I finished up all the rocks and started on the materials and implementation. I might have to recreate world aligned textures somehow as I'm not a big fan with how the textures are blending together


    The texture itself ended up overpowering the normals of the rocks that I spent so long sculpting. So I have to experiment a bit with the blending. The texture is also kind of washed out when put into light which isn't very Sonic. So I'll be adjusting the texture to be a bit brighter with a bit more pop. I want to change a couple of small things about it manually, so no matter what I'm going to have to touch it up a bit more.

    I'm not sure if I like the World Aligned texture, it looks a little subpar. I was hoping to use it to keep the cliffs looking like one large rock face when made of many small rocks. They all share the same Material in attempts to keep draw calls down, but I think in this instance it might be to the scenes determent. I'll do some experimenting tomorrow morning and report back.
  • LumoBlaze
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    LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2
    Thank you for the insight! I agree with you that it's looking a little bit un-Sonic. So I went back around and gathered some screenshots from Sonic Generations, I also decided to look around some fan-art as well as more stills from the movie. I completely missed the mark on the rocks and should 100% take more time to plan more. I'll update my moodboard/spreadsheet when I start working tomorrow.

    Tomorrows task is going to be doing some thumbnailing to figure out how I want things to go and seeing if tuesday will be ready for a resculpt of some of the rocks. I think the more square ones can still work with some adjustments. If the project needs be pushed back I will, fundamentals come before speed. I think having a proper grass texture in here would also help, so to break up the painting tomorrow I'll be doing the grass texture in Susbtance Designer.

    I did play around with using default unreal cubes like you suggested with the texture right now and it does look much better than a lot of the lumpier, more granite like shapes I had used. I'll probably use it in tandem with some squarer, more cuboidal rocks.

    Thank you again for the feedback :D
  • LumoBlaze
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    LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2
    Alright so I missed yesterday but have basically been doing thumbnails to figure out where I want to go with this. I finally settled on one that was kind of close to my initial draft, however it comes with a lot of major shape changes.
    I'm not the worlds best digital painter but I'm good enough to get my concept across through a kind of rough sketch. Looking at a lot of Sonic Generations/Forces/Unleashed and the Sonic Movie's screenshots, I noticed the trend of amazingly smooth walls. Shapes that are almost square, but not quite. So from here I went about separating it into meshes within the image

    World aligned textures were 100% a poor option for this project and didn't bring much to the table in the way of consistency or coherence like I wanted. So that's getting the axe in favor of traditional UV mapping. I used the assets I already had to create a rough blockout with a lot of placeholder textures hanging around. Just to kind of feel the composition a bit more.

    While I'm not liking the scale of the textures on the wall or anything, the scene feels a bit more put together compositionally. I'll be making newer proper rocks that more closely fit in with the sonic style tomorrow and then playing around with a better way to make these larger rock faces.

    I like it when portfolio projects challenge me like this. It makes them interesting.
  • LumoBlaze
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    LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2
    Alright, today was more playing with shapes, I made a couple of cube rocks to play with and get a better feel for everything


    I ditched world aligned textures and it's looking a bit better. I finished my contract work for the week so I can spend a bit more time on actually assembling all the parts tomorrow, which is very exciting

    It's not fully where I want it but it's looking a lot more sonic. The lighting isn't going to work the way I want it to but I think I can manage with that. I'm listening to Andres Rodriguez talk about the pipeline they used on Uncharted 4 and seeing if I can learn anything from it. I think I'm approaching the rocks/walls entirely incorrectly.

    But it's coming along a bit better. I cant wait to play with this more tomorrow.


  • LumoBlaze
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    LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2
    Today was shaders shaders shaders and a lot of playing with shapes.

    I Played with the shapes and scale a bit, and added a couple more rocks. Something about the shape language isn't reading to me and I can't tell if it's the lighting or the meshes. I'm going to be experimenting a lot tomorrow. I also think it might just be the textures, I'm experimenting with a couple of shaders to try and make more unified but diverse faces if that tracks at all.

    They're not pretty but I'm optimistic for this approach with more research. I'm going to be doing a lot more research into how Modular Cliffs and Environments work. If I can see it and dissect it, I can figure it out.


    The world aligned texture sure does not look.... passable. More research is required.

    I also touched up my grass material to tile a bit more to give a greater sense of sonic's stripey grass
    I"m happy with how the grass came out for the most part. It could use some touch ups but that's not super high priority when I'm still on borderline blockout phase.

    If anybody has any tips on making modular cliff faces, I'd love to hear them. I'm spinning my wheels a bit but hopefully won't be after tomorrow.



  • teodar23
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    teodar23 polygon
    "The world aligned texture sure does not look.... passable"
    increase the triplanar contrast.
    i would recommend that you find another approach to this blending method, maybe use vertex colors to mask out the grass and use normal UVs instead of triplanar

  • JustAfterDark
    You need to decide which direction you wanna go. Either realistic or "Sonicesque" (allow me the word XD). You can also go for photorealistic vegetation and blocks for rocks and mountains, but what I see now is a mix of the two and it doesn't look right. That grass doesn't look good.

    I made a quick sketch since I already had the tablet plugged in to exemplify what I mean:
    You can go full block and mix two tones of realistic grass, I think that would make it look very Sonicesque :P Good luck!
  • icegodofhungary
    When you make your textures, really focus on making your normal maps look good. Your rock should look like rock without any color or roughness. Same with other types of surfaces. If you're going to use tri-planar (world aligned) textures, make sure your textures tile nicely. Your grass texture, for example, has some seams in it from the tiling. You also usually use tri-planar in conjunction with vertex blending to break up the repetition.

    Also decide to sculpt or just use textures. You sculpted rocks, which aren't too bad, but then you applied a strong texture over it that doesn't seem to match your sculpt detail. If you're using uniquely baked objects, you don't really have to use tiling textures over them. If you're using tiling textures, you don't have to uniquely sculpt everything. You would be doing more work than you have to. Imo use tiling textures for your ground and cliff walls. Then use your uniquely baked objects to break up the repetition. Then add in some vertex blending.

    For inspiration look at the Spyro Re-ignited trilogy and the Crash Bandicoot remaster as well. There's also that Ratchet and Clank remaster game too. These games do a good blend of PBR texturing that's also stylized.
  • LumoBlaze
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    LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2
    Alright so the feedback you both gave me was absolutely phenomenal and really helped me start walking in a solid direction with this project.
    I think it's better to show how it progressed

    First things first I completely redid the rock texture to me more in line with the actual Sonic 2 Emerald Hill Zone Texture. Not only is it super cuboidal, but its also very flat with the occasional checkerboard in it. It's also really flat. So I did some research and discovered how to do Height Blended Vertex Painting which really helped pull the rocks together. I ended up having to retexture and in some case remodel all the rocks but the effort was so worth it. They look far more cohesive even without the world aligned. The moss is still world aligned, and has been redone to look more like moss.

    That does come with some issues that the contrast couldn't solve no matter how I cranked it, so I just have to paint around it. But overall I really like the effect of it seeping through the cracks.
    Pushing it more into the cuboidesque design also made things a lot simplier. I wanted to redo the tunnel to make it one mesh but I also wanted to leverage some tools I had already made. So I redid the tunnel as a spline mesh, same with the wall.

    I also added grass, but its old super stylized grass that I want to redo, I just wanted to get something down to see how I felt about it. I couldn't get a material to do the coloring across world coords in a way that I liked, so instead I just have two grass types I paint next to one another. Simple Solutions are always good.
    Here is how everything looks so far, could use some more vertex painting, but tomorrow I'll do the new grass, the railing, and the palm trees.


    A better look at the tunnel. It's not perfect but it's a really nice tool to have. I have to clean the mesh up to prevent the obvious seams.
    And finally, here's our texture dump

    I put together from left to right, an edge damage, a new main rock, and some new moss. All using cubes as their primary shapes to keep the theming.

    Thank you again for the critique and advice! It really helped me find the direction this project should be headed. I was stradling the line between stylized and sonicitized too much.




  • LumoBlaze
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    LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2
    Also decide to sculpt or just use textures. You sculpted rocks, which aren't too bad, but then you applied a strong texture over it that doesn't seem to match your sculpt detail. If you're using uniquely baked objects, you don't really have to use tiling textures over them. If you're using tiling textures, you don't have to uniquely sculpt everything. You would be doing more work than you have to. Imo use tiling textures for your ground and cliff walls. Then use your uniquely baked objects to break up the repetition. Then add in some vertex blending.

    For inspiration look at the Spyro Re-ignited trilogy and the Crash Bandicoot remaster as well. There's also that Ratchet and Clank remaster game too. These games do a good blend of PBR texturing that's also stylized.
    You're right on the doing more work than needed, especially for this scene. I'm gonna be sticking to just textures for the most part from here on out because that seems to be working (With some light baking just to get normal data) I'll do some tests with uniquely baked objects to break it up and see how the scene looks after. This whole project has been a lot of testing new concepts I learned from critiques and it's been a super good learning experience.

    I'll scout some more reference from Spyro and Crash, it was some rocks from the CTR remaster that actually inspired this project so it makes sense to get more reference off them. I had forgotten that the Spyro remaster happened when I was looking at reference. Which is a bit of a goof on my end.

    Thank you for the response :D
  • LumoBlaze
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    LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2
    Alright so today's work was adding in some trees, a railing, and just trying to refine the scene and the lighting a bit. I redid the vegetation but after baking it seems there's some issues with the normals so I'm going to try and clean that up tomorrow. I was sadly slogged with my contract work today so not a lot could get done, but for what I did get done, I am proud.

    The trees are all Spline blueprints I can control individually to create more varied and interesting shapes. It needs to have the tree pieces be rotated along the rotation of the spline but its a solid first step. The fence follows the same pattern. Any tools I can make now will increase my speed in projects further down the line. I'm going to make some textures to push my uniquely sculpted meshes tomorrow as well, bake everything down and play with them in the scene to see how it feels on a composition level. I also need to make some flowers, vine flowers, and vines to add a bit more wild depth.

    It feels like it's shaping up, I just need to refine it a good deal more.
  • LumoBlaze
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    LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2

    Today was a lot of refinement, I adjusted the lights, corrected a bunch of normals, redid the tree mesh to not have incorrect texture bugs, and made some foliage based off the initial games screenshots. The grass lost its hue when the image is viewed on another monitor so I need to up the contrast on the lighter grass. I'm starting to really enjoy how this is coming out though, it's slowly coming together!
  • LumoBlaze
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    LumoBlaze polycounter lvl 2
    Today was more refinements and playing with the lights. I got my spline mesh vine meshes working with small white flowers to break up the scene a bit. I littered them around like mad but it looks more like city 17 got all natural than it does vines growing off of a rock structure. So I'll refine those down tomorrow. The grass also looks very very very harsh, I'll do more research into proper grass shaders.
    The flowers I made also look kind of out of place against the grass, so one of these things will have to change. I also need to replace the totems with the updated totems I used on the palm trees. There's also some weird lighting issues on almost every spline mesh which I cannot pin down.
    I added the small patches of flowers from the screenshots from Sonic 2 HD. They look pretty nice on the grass but once again, something is wrong with the grass shading. 

    Today was the original due date but I'd rather this look nice than be on time. I'll keep working for another week but at that point I just have to take the L on it


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