A look at how Halo 4's environment was designed

Polycount has a sweet article with Halo 4's Environment Creators which gives a fantastic insight into the development of the game. If you've played the game, I'm sure you'll agree they did an amazing job.


What you’re about to read is a very generous peek into the work of some of the Game Industry’s strongest Environment Creators doing what they do best: Dropping Jaws and Melting Faces. Some protective gear is recommended. Please observe all emergency exits. We cannot be responsible for any messes that occur, or any injuries sustained through wild head turns and furious image saving.

We had some enormous challenges; Building a new team from nothing, charging through the growing pains of a new studio, wrestling with unfamiliar and unsupported technology, learning to work together for the first time, and taking over a beloved universe and all the world wide scrutiny that came with it. Any one of these things would have crippled a normal studio. Not us. We took our share of bruises, but we stepped over the finish line ‘better, faster, stronger’ than a decade of normal development would have awarded us.

The environment team, on top of simply making great imagery, also took on the role of storytellers. It doesn’t just show, it feels. Engaging the goopy, sloppiest part of the players parietal lobes and making the universe a reality, immersing the player in a deep felt experience. The art is emotional, it resonates with story and imagination, it silently speaks to you.

This is art focused, but salutes need to be thrown at the talented teams who fought dragons and the laws of physics to squeeze out more polygons and pixels, who gave us every technical advantage possible, who held our hair back when it was too much. The Xbox didn’t know what hit it.

This team is not made of Steel. It’s made of the crazy strong shit you hire to hunt Steel when Steel messes up and needs to be returned to Steel Justice.

You can probably tell – I’m very proud of this team.
Kenneth Scott,  Senior Art Director


For the first mission of the game the general theme of the industrial design was “space submarine.” We wanted to achieve a functional aesthetic for the UNSC environments.  After the catastrophic damage sustained to the Forward Unto Dawn at the end of Halo 3, and after floating in outer space for over three years, the majority of the remains of the ship were left a frozen, shattered hulk. For the mission itself we wanted it to be cold and claustrophobic; piles of frost have accumulated in the cryogenics section of the ship; ceilings have caved in and some areas of the ship have lost atmospheric pressure.  The environments would also get progressively more damaged as the ship was sucked into the forerunner planet Requiem. The cool color palette would  give way to warmer tones as the events of the mission increased in intensity, culminating in an exciting start to the rest of the campaign.
Paul Pepera, Lead Mission Artist

We put a big emphasis on a high poly workflow for the hard surface assets. Artists would model or sculpt out the high resolution meshes and rip the normal map and ambient occlusion information from them.  The normal tangent space of the engine was synced to that of Maya which allowed the environment team to construct less expensive game res models while preserving a clean normal map bake in the final result.
Paul Pepera, Lead Mission Artist

The majority of the game was lit statically using a baked-in lightmap method. This static lighting solution allowed us to achieve very realistic lighting results with full global illumination and ambient occlusion. A specular term extracted from baked spherical harmonics helped bring out the forms in the modeling work and added a great deal of depth of the lighting. A final color grading pass allowed the art director great control in determining the final look and feel of the game.
Paul Pepera, Lead Mission Artist

Composer, the seventh mission in Halo 4, revels in classic science fiction with a space station built into a giant asteroid from a ruined planet. Sparth brought a fresh visual design to our structures while grounding his concepts in the disciplined functionality seen on NASA spacecraft. The surrounding rock influences the manmade structures by being both a benefit and a hindrance. A delicate foil lined hall may have a rock jutting into the play space because it would be too difficult to excavate but in another section the asteroid provides structural support.
Adam Peterson, Lead Mission Artist

The lighting in Halo 4 needed to be very diverse – it needed to be epic and also guide the player in such a way that the player never got lost. We used light in many ways, mainly to portray feelings and to serve the needs of game play. Halo has a very distinct look that we could not stray from too much. The most difficult thing lighting-wise was to make the environment feel immense and vast; in one mission you might be flying around in a space ship and in another you might be running around in the lush jungle. The rendering system needed to be flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of situations. We also used a lot of image based lighting to make everything fit better together and also to ground scenes. In multiplayer, the lighting is very different than that of the campaign because the lighting needs to balance in such a way that no side gets an advantage. One challenging part of lighting multiplayer is that most of the maps are mirrored but still needed to look very different. The character lighting is also very important throughout the whole game. We used every trick in the book for the cinematic lighting in this game – basically every shot is a hero shot.
Kenny Magnusson, Lead Lighting Artist

Complex is one of the War Games maps. In order to run the game smoothly, War Games maps are restricted by limited memory and performance budgets – a single 1024×1024 lightmap was used for the entire map; no dynamic lights could be used. Therefore, lightmap optimization was an important process needed to retain good lighting quality. Some meshes were set to a higher lightmap resolution priority to allow for better shadow quality while others were flagged as per-vertex lighting. Another challenge lighting PVP maps was to ensure good visibility of the environment and characters for game play reasons, while at the same time create contrast and atmosphere for a good visual presentation. We used proper camera exposure settings to have fine balance between dark and light, and independent character lighting controls  to maintain the visibilities of your teammates or enemies.
Rae Chen, Senior Environment Artist

Knowing what the cameras are is a great advantage to the cinematics environment artist, who can set-dress accordingly. Objects in the foreground can have more polygon density, and the artist is able to concentrate the polish on defined areas. Most importantly, an artist is able to better shape the overall composition per shot.

However, there’s a catch– a  good cinematics environment needs to fade into the background, serving as a platform for the characters to shine. It is important for the environment artist to realize this, and allow the focus of the cinematic to remain on the story, the characters, and their actions. This downplaying of the environment is usually accomplished by being careful with the amount and location of geometric details, shot composition, screen post process, and most importantly, lighting. Cinematics environments are often lit dimmer than their gameplay counterparts, allowing the audience’s focus to remain locked on the characters.
Gustavo Rasche, Lead Cinematic Environment Artist

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