"Road to Mount Ardrak" is an environment created in 30 hours, using 14 different assets from Megascans.se and the Unity Asset Store.
My main goal with this environment was to create a high-end graphics environment while improving my skills within areas such as composition, lighting, terrain creation and environment design.
Originally, I chose to enforce a 24-hour deadline on this project in order to create a 10x speed environment design video. I experienced hardware issues with the recording, but decided to keep the deadline in order to challenge myself. 6 additional hours were spent after- wards polishing the environment.
Getting started - References & Planning
Having solid references and a strict plan was crucial to the creation of this environment. Golden hour light, viking architecture, valley environments and a few scenes and songs that functioned as inspiration for setting the mood - those were the four pillars of this project.
If I ever felt confused or had problems deciding anything in the course of the creation, I could always fall back to ask myself: "Am I following the reference?" and make a decision based on that.
Reference images aside, I also created an hour-by-hour plan on how much time I should spend on each step of the creation, to make sure I would not exceed the 24-hour limit.
The idea of creating assets myself got discarded quite quickly. While I do posses basic Maya, ZBrush and Substance Painter skills, I had neither the time nor the required skill to create several assets in a short amount of time that would be comparable to the photoscanned quality of graphics I wanted to include in this project.
I used Megascans.se to sort out the natural aspect of the environment. Five 4-8k resolution rocks/assemblies were enough to create varied rocky parts and a pseudo-cave. Rocks alone are not enough to create an interesting environment though. I needed other, more story-filled assets that hooked the eye of the beholder.
What I ended up doing was picking up several free assets from the “Blacksmith” and “Viking Village” environments found in the Unity Asset Store, and gave them quick visual upgrades. This work mostly consisted of simple things such as altering albedo textures, adding tiled detail textures, and making some switches in the texture's channels (RGBA), so the collection of custom shaders I used worked correctly.
The 14 assets I chose to work with. A mixture of rocks from Megascans.se and edited assets from the Unity Asset Store.
Creating the terrain
With all assets ready, I now needed a base shape to place them upon. I chose to create a terrain in the node-based terrain generator World Machine. A V-shaped valley was the goal of this terrain, as it would help frame the environment and guide the eye towards the center of the scene.
Shortly explained, I started by creating a basic valley shape which afterwards received further details through algorithms that simulate natural phenomenons such as terracing and erosion. Afterwards, I masked the terrain into three parts: Rock (R), Soil (G) and Mud (B).
With the help of the height- and splatmap, I could now - with a custom terrain shader and three materials from Megascans - create a terrain that looked great!
Composition & Light
Achieving great composition has been one of the harder parts with this environment, since I was relatively new to the concept.
I did my best to follow techniques such as 'Rule of thirds' and 'Rule of Odds' in combination with beeing aware of how the shapes, light and contrast affects where the eye is looking. I'm not entirely satisfied with how it turned out, but learned a lot on how to approach composition in 3D environments.
When it comes to light, the setup is not too advanced. A directional light does most of the work, while I use point lights to emphasize the face of the dragons, and spotlights to brighten up areas that turned out too dark. I gave the ambient light a slightly blue tint, as it complements the otherwise entirely orange environment.
I cannot stress enough on how important post-process camera effects were in order to make this environment come to life. Down below, you can see how I take the original source through several layers of effects, added upon eachother, to reach something entirely different.
Several effects, such as HBAO, make a significant impact in performance, but with enough quality-per-performance tweaking they are all worth the difference they make. The most prominent effects I chose to use were Atmospheric Scattering/Fog, Tonemapping and Color Grading, but even subtler ones (conscious choice - you don't want to overdo those) such as Bloom, Chromatic Abberation and Viginette played an important role in the grand scheme.
Potential Improvements & Closing Thoughts
Even though I am really pleased with the final result, there are many things I think could be improved with this environment. The biggest thing I would have wanted to change is the straightness of the road. I would've split the mesh in several parts, created more of a serpentine shape and also added more height differences. More focus on storytelling is on my list of improvements too - this environment turned out too vague and abstract when it comes to conveying a story.
Lots of optimizations could have been done for the performance too, such as using LOD's, baked GI (instead of real-time), tweaking the occlusion culling and spending more time on tweaking the heavier post-process effects.
I had tons of fun creating this environment and learned a lot of things in different areas of environment creation and design. Building a high-end graphics environment in Unity 5 has been a personal goal for a long time, and it is fun to see that the engine is not as far off in terms of graphical features in comparison to Unreal Engine 4 or CryEngine, as many think it to be.