Mission Critical! Capturing Art Direction
Published 2 years ago
Creating a sense of place in our game worlds is essential for engaging players and establishing the context of gameplay.
As a speaker at Unite 2017, I demonstrated the process I follow to capture art direction and bring game environments to life. Following is a summary of this process with examples and recommendations for game creators.
One of the primary challenges we face is translating the spirit of art direction into audiovisual engine features. In other words, we must convert art direction into engine elements such as lighting, visual effects, and post processing in order to capture a sense of place. Unfortunately, not all art direction is created equal.
Sometimes, art direction is detailed and packed with story:
Sometimes, it's not:
And sometimes, it doesn't really exist:

Art Director: "Just make it look great."

Regardless of what scenario we find ourselves in, the critical first step is to clarify the story implied in the art direction. While there are many ways to "find the story", if art direction is minimal or missing, it can be helpful to consider what it would be like to be physically in that place. For example, if we consider these images:
What do you see? sand, sky, and dust? Or do you see a place where exhausted, you pause for a moment, squinting at the dusty horizon where the setting sun casts long shadows across and endless dunescape. Desperate for water to quench your thirst and rinse the grit from your teeth, you slowly resume the desolate trek as soft sand gives way beneath your tired feet.
This level of detail is very important, because without these details, we really don’t have enough information on which to make decisions about what engine features are needed to represent the setting and create a distinct sense of place.
Let’s try another set:
What do you see? snow, fog, and trees? Or can you hear wind whistling through skeletal trees as snow swirls around you in all directions. The cold air bites at your numb face as you trudge through the gathering snow along a barely visible path.
Again, we are creating the missing story in order to make decisions about how to bring a similar environment to life in engine.
In the age of affordable asset kits, plugins, and PBR rendering, it’s never been easier to make amazing game worlds!
Michael Baker
Tech Artist, Designer, Programmer. - Educator