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DT Exclusive | Building the World for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

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The world of Middle-earth is massive, with books, several movies and a multitude of video games that all build on the lore of the world. The devs over at Monolith Productions recently finished their work on Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. As you may have noticed from our recent game review by game artists, we were really impressed with the work that went into the game and the attention to detail the artists put in to creating a game world that felt like it belonged in the Middle-earth universe. We recently got to talk with one of the Environment Artists Justin Walters who was part of the World Art Team at Monolith. You can read the interview below.

MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Developed by Monolith.

Q

Were there any limitations that had to be put into place when thinking about designing the assets that would live in the environment?

Performance is always king and should be considered a top priority, even, if necessary, at the expense of visual aesthetics. As artists this can be a tough thing to concede at times, but a game that isn’t performing well distracts from the design and overall fun. For the World Art Team it became a balancing act between hitting our designated vertex counts for LODs while maintaining object silhouettes, keeping drawcalls reasonable and being frugal on the usage of expensive shaders, such as blend shaders.

Q

When laying out and creating assets for the levels, what did you have to keep in mind knowing that some of the objects will need to let the character climb?

This was a massive consideration on the project. We had internal documentation on player mechanics and how to make assets work with character movement. Everything in the game had to be compatible with the movement system. An interesting goal for this project was to not only create paths for successful movement, but to design the movement so it was interesting to control. Crafting climbing paths that would result in engaging player movement was a very fun and rewarding challenge.

Q

When creating the environments, knowing that the main character has wraith abilities did anything need to be done when creating the assets to account for those abilities?

This ties into the same idea behind making everything movement compliant. If an asset worked with standard movement mechanics it would work with wraith abilities usually. It was always something that had to be accounted for with regard to performance.

Q

What’s your process like when designing the levels, do you start with a rough layout and slowly build up detail? Or do you jump straight into creating the final layout?

I came onto the project at a point where most of the world had already been defined. When there was a need to revise an area, we would have to heavily consult and work with the design team to make sure their needs were met and any changes weren’t disruptive to any other design elements.

Q

Were there any specific guidelines in place like color palettes, for instance, that you had to follow to ensure that everything felt like it was part of Mordor and the Middle-earth Universe?

Like most productions we would start off working from color palettes that were provided from the concept team. From there we would adjust as needed until everything fit and felt authentic to the world as it was being realized in the engine. At Monolith we had frequent World Art Team critiques and would get regular feedback as to whether or not we were heading in the right direction. Shadow of Mordor’s Art Director, Philip Straub and Lead Environment Artist, Eric Holman, was exceptionally good with color and helped steer the ship in the right direction

MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Developed by Monolith.

Q

When looking for inspiration, did you watch the Lord of the Rings and or Hobbit movies, or did you also look elsewhere for inspiration?

I personally really relished the opportunity to get to work in the Middle-earth universe. I re-watched Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and all of those fantastic behind the scenes documentaries that accompanied them. I’ve always found those particular behind-the-scenes documentaries extremely inspiring. As a studio we all took a trip to see an advanced screening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which was really fun.

Q

What did the delegation process look like? How were artists chosen to design specific environment assets or was each team given a specific area of Mordor to work on?

The World Art Team was divided into smaller groups that would be assigned to work on specific areas. There were, however, more specialized artists who excelled at certain things like terrain, foliage, etc. that would jump around the entire game to create consistency. Broadly speaking though, we all had a wide range of tasks to work on that would shift from day to day. I worked mainly on strongholds, which allowed me the opportunity to work on a lot of aspects of the game. I had my hand in everything from Zbrush work to texture set creation to asset refinement to optimization.

Q

There are certainly many movies to pull inspiration for Middle-earth from, but none of those movies have extensive time spent deep in Mordor. How much creative freedom did you take when creating the assets?

Monolith was a great studio to work at for many, many reasons. One of them in particular was how open to suggestion and critique the art team was in the development of Shadow of Mordor. We had very regular art reviews where the entire World Art Team would get together and be updated on what everyone was working on. In the process of taking the art from its initial concept stage into 3D and finally into the engine, we had enough trust placed in us as artists to make certain visual choices and present them for review. If the idea was congruent with the rest of the game, the universe, and aesthetic at large it would be approved. Having that level of confidence in your team creates a very fun and engaging atmosphere to work in.

MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Developed by Monolith.

Q

What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome when creating the environment assets for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor?

Mostly working with now current gen hardware (Xbox One, PlayStation 4) and testing it out for the first time. It’s always sort of a give and take in terms of finding that sweet spot for performance and desired visuals. The main concerns on the World Art Team were fairly standard to game development. Things like drawcalls, vertex counts, LODs, and the expense of using certain shaders. Aesthetically, the challenges were those associated with working on an established franchise. Making the world look and feel like Middle-earth, while taking it in your own direction and making it something that can be a unique title like Shadow Of Mordor has become. That aspect ties back into what I was mentioning above about the creative process and having a really capable team.

Q

As an Environment Artist do you have close communication with the level designers? If so what’s that creative process and pipeline like?

For this project, communication with designers was very important and was done on an almost daily basis. When tasked with revising or creating any asset for the game to make sure it was design compliant we had to follow our internal movement guide and constantly test out what we were doing in the engine. When it was brought to a point where it was ready for review, we’d grab a member of the design team, demo the character movement and have them give the okay. A lot of assets had to be very finely tuned to get the exact movement required of it.

Q

Thanks for taking the time to talk with Digital-Tutors. Do you have any final words or tips for aspiring Environment Artists who want to get into the industry?

Keep learning. This industry is constantly evolving and you’ll need to be active if you want to stay relevant. I’ve been fortunate enough to have gotten the opportunity to work on some truly amazing projects with incredible artists, but it took an unrelenting persistence and a determination to make it happen. Work hard, network constantly and you’ll make your own luck.

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