Environment Design For Games – Early considerations & Ideation

This session was originally delivered as part of the Creative Futures – Skillsets programme to both Yr 1 Animation and Games Design students.
The Session currently follows on from a session looking at the wider role of production design and the Production Designer (and related or comparable roles, Art Director etc) in the development of Entertainment Media projects. With a focus here on Games Design.

To recap:

In the last session, we set a Mini-Brief, i.e. : “Adaptation/Production Design Pitch”

“You are to consider a new idea for a game*.

This game is to be based on an existing concept from another media (a story, a novel, or an original performance event, an opera, stage play, song or music album concept, a historic event or a myth, a radio-play, a film, live action or animated, or other media product, any of which will be considered in consultation with your tutors/staff.) but NOT an existing computer game, this existing media does not have to slavishly be represented, but instead perhaps simply help provide a narrative structure in the form of basic plot and character types for your concept. You may also need to consider a second theme, with which to augment your narrative structure.

In the wide world of entertainment media the development or re-imagining of existing ideas has been a staple of the production houses method of developing new properties.

Hamlet + Animated Anthropomorphism (the animal kingdom) = The Lion King

Hamlet + Gritty Urban Setting (the hierarchy of Biker Gangs) = Sons of Anarchy

Journey To The West (eastern mythology) + Post Apocalyptic Future = Enslaved

The Tempest = Classic Fifties SciFi = The Forbidden Planet

Sherlock Holmes + Dr Watson + Contemporary Urban Medical Setting = House

and of course…

Westworld* – out of control SF robot cowboys + Dinosaurs = Jurassic Park*

(*both by the same author) 

“Adaptation Project” Part 2, Looking at ENVIRONMENTS for GAMES:

Stylistic Considerations

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/1264514″>Rolando for iPhone – Teaser trailer</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/simonoliveruk”>Simon Oliver</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

We know there are different styles of games as far as the players view is concerned; isometric landscapes and city/streetscapes; travelling aerial views ; room by room point and click, 2D level games or rolling character games (i.e. those designed for i-phone style interfaces like LocoRoco or Rolando – above); fully immersive 3D environments, BioShock, Halo or Enslaved (below);

…or hybrids like the Gabriel Knight series that mix 2D, FMV (Full Motion Video) and 3D.


<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/7336360″>SUPER HYPERCUBE</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/polytroncorporation”>POLYTRON</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Even experimental games environments like the then cutting edge Virtual 3D (and seemingly completely abstract) games like Super Hypercube (see video above) have considered the look and design of the environment, that you the gamer moves through.

Phil Fish, co-creator of the game, on being asked “Should the screen look that grainy?”.

“Yeah, there is a grain to it. Also some vignetting around the edges. We went for a look that is – hyper modern but retro – Which the game really is, given that it (the game) uses both Digital 3D and anaglyphic stereoscopy.


ITS SAFE TO SAY THAT: No matter the style of game; someone has considered the overall visual feel of the product, usually taking as his or her starting point the over-arching concept of the game, rather than just leaving it to the medium of choice to wholly dictate the finished style.


Okay… So what to consider? What within the overall concept of your game or animation  is going to impact upon and influence your design decision-making when it comes to the development of your environments (and later design elements, Props and characters etc)?

 Well, I suppose understanding how your Chosen Media for the final product may affect your product,

Side-Scrolling Platformers for example aren’t all created using 2D tools any more.

That… and perhaps beyond this, coming to understand the distinct differences between medium and genre.

See this image from Scott McCloud on that difference.

So then, what Genre?… Is your game a Horror? Fantasy? Humourous? Sci-fi, Film Noir, Urban game?

But even these delineations are not the end…

 If you are choosing Horror…is it the classic gothic horror of Frankenstein? Or the contemporary, industrial/warehouse aesthetic we see in horror-movies like Saw and Hostel?

Cultural?Could it be that your story is set in the Far East? Japan? The Japan of today or a far flung tomorrow, or the feudal Japan of armoured Samurai and black suited Ninjas?

Is it set in a fantasy world of your own imagining? If so, what were the characteristics of the civilisations that have shaped that world? Could those traits be reflected in their architecture just as we have seen in the various civilisations of our own world?

Consider the afterlife obsessive Egyptians with their Mega-Mausoleum building, the warring, expansionist Europeans of the middle ages with their castles and military hierarchies, the British Victorians with their faith in building, engineering, prefabricated iron structures and steam power.

You can help make your fictional environments that much more believable or authentic by trying to understand (by which I mean creating, designing, drawing and writing for yourself) a little more about what has shaped them, whether you are looking at the fictional cultural and fictional historical influences on the architecture of your imaginary cities, or the fictional geological upheavals and fictional weather conditions that could have shaped your fantasy world’s natural landscapes amongst which your cultures may have decided to live.

Has war impacted in the look of both of the above? What clues could there be to the events that have taken place there, of the people that have passed through there. What is the function of the building you are designing? What kind of neighbourhood is it? Uptown? Ghetto? What kinds of people inhabit it?

Is it an residential building? A barbershop?

Trust me. It is far easier to design something specific like a barber-shop than a “generic” building. So taking a little bit of time to think about seemingly irrelevant details like the uses of the various buildings in your street scene, or the economic history of your (ultimately fictional) city block, it may well save you time later on. So, you have your overall concept and now you are looking at designing a scene… try starting with a basic aerial plan of the scene. Just a rough thumbnail to identify the layout and what elements you may have to design.

If it is an interior you are looking at, what kind of person uses the room you are visualising? What fingerprints to their personality have they left there?

Environment design, particularly those environments that have been shaped by people/characters, is just an extension of character design, albeit Character Design, In Absentia.

Who has been here? What have they left behind? What about this environment would have been different if an alternative personality had helped shape it, what unique traits can be seen in the residue of these personalities.

Sherlock Holmes Living Room.


During your design phase you will produce a number of drawings/visuals (some of which may be using 3D tools)

It is tempting to always just straight to the final medium. But you miss out on a lot of the opportunity to fully explore your ideas this way. Often resulting in a less than appropriate response that is based upon your commitment to completion of a complex digital rendering process, more than your belief in your works appropriateness in terms of a solid solution to the problem at hand.

Don’t worry about producing work that is not the finished artefact.

Abandoned design works and images are a natural part of the process of creation.

And think about what media is the most appropriate for the task in hand.

“Drawing with an old fashioned pencil is still very, very hard to beat for the sheer simplicity and speed with which you can record ideas and share them with others.”

– Scott Robertson, The Skillful Huntsman

“All good design starts with an idea and then is conveyed to your audience with strong drawing and then rendering skills.

Over and over I have observed with my my students that strong drawing skills go hand in hand with strong design skills. Good drawings support better looking designs.”

If you are not confident at drawing. DO NOT avoid it. PRACTICE!


…It is worth considering before your start each piece, “What is the purpose of this visual?

What, and to who, are your trying to COMMUNICATE, through this piece of work. And also… just how long do you have to communicate this idea? So what tools will you use…

Are you trying to get a feel for the atmosphere of a scene? Or are you trying to show detail or layout of an area to aid in the building of that setting for the 3D model-makers?

These two ideas can occasionally be seen together in the same visual, but for the most part you will find them separated.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 13.54.39

Images taken from The Art of Final Fantasy IX

The images above both show designs for the same game, yet they have very different properties and qualities due to their function within the design process. The images on the left with their aerial view, clean lines, clearly showing each object and prop and its place within the scene is what we might call a “design”. While the image on the right, with its preoccupation with mood, atmosphere and the character’s/player’s POV (point of view) is a “visualisation”.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 13.54.43



If you are struggling for inspiration, get up and get outside (or simply take a closer look at the building you are already in). USE YOUR DAY-BOOKS, make notes on how the light glints off that modern structure, get a thumbnail sketch showing the shrubs and small trees growing out of that abandoned building; the un-boarded, broken windows in that run-down street; graffiti; air-con units; unique window details; the exposed industrial materials on that warehouse. Look at the way those roof planes interlock showing how the buildings have slowly piled up on each other.

Though currently existing in a contemporary setting, elements of these type of details can be used regardless of whether your environment is a modern urban setting, a futuristic cityscape or a Tolkien-esqe fantasy world.

In animation these environments can be used to enhance the narrative, with key locations almost becoming “characters” in themselves.

Of course games design has its own unique characteristics to consider. Especially in fully immersive 3D games, where low polygon counts of game assets are crucial, as is “iteration” (or the use of repeated objects or assets in order to improve a games performance). But at the concept stage discussed above it is probably not worth completely “cramping your style”, allowing yourself a freer hand. You can always “value engineer” you concepts in the later design development stages.

Try working up your own mini-briefs that test your ability to rapidly develop ideas.


“Adaptation Project” Part 2,  OBJECTS, PROPS, VEHICLES & WEAPONS etc.

What sort of objects or props could there be in your environment… Could it be something your player character needs (a weapon, a vehicle) or just something that adds to the feels of the design? Boxes and crates? Furniture?


If you want a guide to 3D games design/entertainment media concept art in one great book, you can’t do much better than the “The Art Of Final Fantasy IX” from Brady Publishing, 2000. ISBN 0-7440-0050-5. It has some great layouts covering characters (inc’ character comparison sheets), props, objects, weapons, flying machines, creatures and a whole stack of environments, as both designs and mood visuals that works almost as a “how to…” reference book. Another great book for this kind of work (though not a great film) is “The Art Of Judge Dredd The Movie” from Boxtree Publishing, 1995. ISBN 0-7522-0666-4. You should be able to pick this up second hand for very little, it is full of great concept art covering everything from furniture through to costume designs and interior and exterior sets. It also has some good examples of storyboarding.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 13.54.52

Finally, don’t forget to pick up one of the various periodicals occasionally, even if it is just to flick through in Tesco’s without actually buying it… “Edge” magazine has some excellent in depth articles, and January’s edition of “360 Gamer” mag’ had that great little article on Mini Ninjas, which flagged up a lot of points we are discussing in these sessions (I’ll make sure there is a copy of the article scanned and saved somewhere in your dept, in fact it might be worth making an arch lever file that you can add inspirational visual and written resource to yourselves).

~ by hesir on October 19, 2016.

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