Build Your Dream Environment With Unreal Engine 4
3D World UK|March 2021
Translate your ideas into amazing 3D renders
Ricky Thomas

Developing 3D environments is easier than ever with free software like Unreal Engine and Blender. Often the most difficult part of the process is finding inspiration. Making use of the internet and drawing on real life is a great place to start, but it depends on your goals. If you want to create an environment from your imagination, then coming up with a theme and thoroughly researching it is a good idea. Creating concept art will help you plan before you jump into 3D, or if that’s not your style then being prepared to quickly iterate on your art can also work well. However, if your goal is to further develop your skills for a job one day, then it might be better to put yourself in the shoes of that position and work from there.

For example, this project was developed using pre-existing concept art from another artist (Minjeong Kim), a common workflow in creative studios. This allows you to cut out the leg work and quickly get into 3D. Tackling the process this way helps focus your attention to learn what you want, sharpen your planning skills, and break down a project into easily manageable chunks. This tutorial highlights my method of environment building.

01 BLOCK-OUT THE DESIGN

Using basic primitive shapes, block out the scene as best you can. It’s a good idea to get in a standard character at this stage to keep things to scale along the way; it can be easy to veer off track without one. If you don’t have a figure to use, you can either export the robot dummy from Unreal Engine or simply create a cube with the dimensions of 180H x 60W x 30D.

02 PRIORITISE ASSETS

Once the block-out is complete you should have a much better understanding of which assets are the most important to your design. These will be the larger models and models that are to be used over and over throughout. Focusing your energy on these first will make the environment come together far quicker than spending hours on a small asset you may only see once or twice.

03 DEVELOPING AN IDEA

Websites like ArtStation help a lot with finding inspiration, but it really can come from anywhere. Concept art is usually best – turning someone’s design into 3D can be very satisfying and is good practice! Once you have something you like, fleshing it out with your own ideas can go a long way. Often you find elements need to be changed to make sense in 3D.

It’s important to start with at least a vague idea of what it is you want to display as a final product.

04 UNIQUE LARGE MODELS – HIGH POLY

Starting with your largest and most used assets, begin developing the high-resolution models. For most of these models I created a base mesh in Maya, then took them into ZBrush for sculpting in details. Once you have your final high-poly mesh, you can start creating the game-ready version which will be UVed and have the normal information baked into it. If you’re coming from ZBrush it’s usually a good idea to use Decimation Master to decimate your mesh for other applications like Maya to make better use of.

05 UNIQUE LARGE MODELS – LOW POLY

To get your low-resolution mesh I find it’s often better to just model over the high-res version with fresh, clean geometry. Maya’s Modelling Toolkit makes short work of this process, allowing you to easily snap to the source mesh and make sure you’re tracing it effectively. Use reference of current-gen game assets to see what sort of polycount you should be looking for.

06 SET UP YOUR UE4 PROJECT

You can quickly find yourself with a folder full of mess if you don’t plan ahead here. Create a new Blank Project in Unreal, and head over to the Content Browser. Ideally, you want to set up a folder for Models, Materials, Textures, and Blueprints. Within the Models folder, I often create separate folders for models containing many meshes for more granular organisation.

07 GET IT INTO ENGINE

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