Detail, scale and creating a VR world

Asia Blog Part 2
By Pascal Eggert, Art Director

We decided to build one master level from beginning to end, and then extrapolate from there. All teams had to start at the same time and work in parallel so we could quickly iterate on both art and level design to figure out what we required for each level.

Our Environment Art Team began by splitting the work into foreground art for the climbable rock surface and the surrounding vista. Simultaneously, the Level Design Team blocked out the actual climbing path and the Concept Art Team composed target concept images for us to aim towards.

The climbable surfaces are very close to the player, so they have to look natural and detailed. In VR, to maintain the presence required to keep players in the world, you have to deliver what the user expects to see. That means a lot of resources have to go into what is immediately in front of them, as anything that doesn't look as detailed as it should be can break the immersion quickly. Even so, the level of detail required for VR was a real learning process for many of us. You would design an object, place it into the engine and you would think, “Wow, I expected this to be so much more detailed." Then you realize that you need a ton more detail.

Take a hook that we might use at save points, for instance. In VR, you can look around an object and inspect it in close-up detail, so you need to be able to see every single groove, every single scratch. You really have to push the detail much further than you would expect for objects that are in your immediate view. And of course, you must constantly test in VR because elements might look more or less impressive than you would imagine. The hook example was one where we were like, “OK, we've got to get to work on this." But then you can be pleasantly surprised too – a two-meter boulder you might create and place in the scene is just a small rock in our level. Up close in VR, however, it can feel and look just like a two-meter boulder that weighs 20 tons. We placed a lot of emphasis on constantly checking the art we created in the VR environment to make sure we were achieving the look, feel and quality we wanted.

The demand for detail meant that the rock faces, and especially the grips you use to climb, had to look very natural. We decided that the best way to make them look and feel realistic was to sculpt the grips into larger rock-chunks by hand – grip by grip. But the grips were still being placed by level design in parallel, so the position of individual grips was often not final. It became a very delicate matter to when exactly we would quite literally set a grip in (virtual) stone. On top of that, the decorative dressing with vegetation and other assets needed to happen as well, without interfering with level design.

The Background Team had a little more freedom, but creating an entire world that runs at a smooth 90fps while looking like a perfect postcard is no simple task. The vista was created first as a rough photo-based white box of the level that represented the intended art direction and captured the feeling of the world. Next all the required assets like mountains, the water surface, and huts could be created and placed in the level. Around the same time, Cinematic Art joined in, to bring in details like birds, boats and fish, adding more life to the scene.

One of the interesting challenges we found when it came to creating the wider world was achieving scale. In VR, scale is immediate, but its effect really depends on where objects are in your field of view. With close up objects in the near field, you have to stay to absolute measurements. It needs to be accurate, as your brain expects. Those objects then become real to your brain – if you reach that accuracy, in both size and detail, that's what makes VR so immersive and impressive. However, in the distance we chose to exaggerate reality and make the already big, absolutely huge, making our views even more arresting.

There were also some interesting techniques we used with scale for our vistas. Flocks of birds, for instance, don't just give a sense of presence and place, but also scale. They make you realize that the mountain they are flying past is large, because they are tiny in comparison. We also had to pay attention to the speed at which they flew too. If they move slowly across a larger object, you realize that they must be far away. These things take on much more importance in VR because your vision works the same way it does in real life – you need points of reference to understand scale at distance.

Once the level was nearing completion, the Lighting Team did a final lighting pass over the rudimentary light that was set initially by the Environment Art Team. Here the final sun position, the look of the atmosphere and sky, plus the individual lighting of each rock surface is decided so we could get the right feel.

Lastly, every department joined forces to optimize the level for target performance while maintaining the desired art look. Thanks to the experience of the team, the way the level was built, and the close collaboration of all departments, we achieved 90fps without any reduction in visual quality. Our Asian setting was the first of our locations in the game and a learning process for us, but we're pleased with the visual quality we've been able to achieve in our hyper-realistic, Asia-themed postcard. We hope you'll enjoy it.

February 03, 2016