Rightfully so, there is a lot of emphasis placed upon the technical side of creating environments. As with anything, you need people who physically know how to do something in order for it to be done well. But! You must back up sound mechanics but with proper design and creative direction in order to truly create a great product. In this we’ll highlight 3 key factors that are necessary for 3D environments but are too often overlooked.
Get Inspired and Plan Accordingly
Before sculpting, modeling, or anything remotely related to programming is done, you need to know what it is you’re making. The 3D environment of a walkthrough, game, film or training must be carefully planned beforehand. To do this, figure out the exact ‘feel’ you want the environment to produce.
The easiest way to do this is to first clearly define the purpose of the action that will transpire in the 3D environment. Do you need a realistic farm for a tractor training or steampunk train station for a futuristic shooter? Once this is decided upon, look for references that can be used to help you settle upon the desired ‘feel’. The internet is full of high-quality 3D environments, available for your perusal. For the purposes of a reference, 2D images are also perfectly fine. Your objective isn’t to simply copy these images; the objective is to find material that help spur ideas of what components in the environment are necessary to generate the desired aesthetic atmosphere.
Flourish and Function in Concert
It can be of critical importance when designing a level that there is due attention given to maintaining a balance between visual perfection and usability. In this sense there are fundamentally two distinct modes of thinking and its takes a superior 3D designer and modeller to direct the two in tandem.
The visual appearance of the 3D environment is critical for producing the initial impression on the user/gamer. Make it too dull and from the onset, the user will expect the rest of the product to be similarly uninspiring. At the other end of the spectrum, however, is the danger of over stylizing the aesthetics to the point that it obscures the functionality of the setting. High level modelers with a keen artistic edge may wish to embellish the flowers and devote significant resources toward the perfect light. Pursuing this path may satisfy your desire for proving your creative prowess but it will alienate the vast majority of users, who lack truly top-end high-functioning processing systems.
Behind the aesthetic layers, lies the true ‘structure’ of the environment: the assets, the collision geometry, the spawn locations, etc. The user won’t see this layer – as it will be covered by layers and renderings – but they will certainly notice it. Make sure you keep your collision geometry simple to avoid the highly frustrating and immersion-breaking hitches in which a user becomes stuck on an edge of a leaf. Additionally, try to make the most of resizing and re-orientating a single asset in order to give the impression of a rich, diverse space without sacrificing huge amounts of processing power.
Make the Environment a Central Actor
The best environments surpass the status of mere backdrop and adopt a role that corresponds to the content of the scenario. In an applied sense, this can mean a few different things depending on the actual application.
If the 3D environment is going to focus on anti-insurgency training for soldiers in a city, then the environment itself needs to take on a form that actually resembles how it would feel in real life. Soldiers in such a setting don’t perceive a city has an empty palette from which combatants appear but a living, breathing danger of stalls, buildings and people. Make the city a character in itself that offers no easy answers but only hustle, bustle and confusion. .
Now let’s imagine you’re creating a children’s virtual reality adventure about a little kid searching for a lost dog. In this case, the environment should operate as puzzle that is weighted toward helping the user. Children don’t want excessive information and convoluted plot-lines, for them everything should be intuitive and engaging. With this in mind, it should be designed to induce a natural flow of movement that moves the user through the story. In effect, the environment drives the plot.
The Three Keys Recapped
The best 3D environments draw the user into another world and invite them to lose themselves. Back this up with smooth, internal structuring and you are sure to create an impressive experience. Once you’ve got the technical skill sets in place, just remember: give time to preparation, balance flourishes with functionality, and let the environment take on a primary role beyond simple backdrop.