We are launching a new section where professionals from gaming companies talk about their careers. It's called "Profession." The first article in the series is about the work of an environment artist (level artist/environment artist). Timur Ozdoev, the lead level artist on the project SPINE—a Nekki game for PC and consoles—explained what this job entails. Timur previously worked at CD PROJEKT RED on Cyberpunk 2077.

SPINE — Nekki (in development)

Timur Ozdoev

A Level artist (environment artist) is a specialist who creates game environments. They are usually responsible for the visual aspect of the level, the gameplay, and the emotional experience of the player.

Originally, there was no such profession as a level artist: there were only level designers who handled the visual aspects, the creation of game maps, and the gameplay. However, we owe the split to the fact that modern games now look much more artistic and well-thought-out in terms of locations. Today, level designers design level maps, while level artists fill levels with objects and visualize them. But the goal of both is the same—to create an interesting game and give people an unforgettable experience.

This is a creative job. Currently, I am working at Nekki on the cyberpunk game SPINE. We are creating a deep, dystopian world where various styles and eras clash. For example, a city-organism where a struggle is taking place, contrasting with the simple everyday life of people. This work involves constantly searching for new solutions, exploring the project, and wanting to bring something new that players will remember.

Cyberpunk 2077 — Timur Ozdoev

Scope of Duties

In game projects, besides the level artist, there is also a prop artist who creates 3D models. The prop artist works more on objects in the 3D editor, while the environment artist focuses on placing these objects and creating compositions of various scales directly in the game engine.

Overall, the work of a level artist is based on four "pillars."

  1. Understanding color and composition. This is necessary to set a beautiful frame and fit it into a pleasant and balanced color palette.
  2. Basic level design. This provides an understanding of how level geometry can influence gameplay, navigation, and player attention.
  3. Understanding the technical aspects of working with a game engine. To ensure that the level fits within performance budgets, looks beautiful, and meets modern graphic standards.
  4. Basics of architectural lighting. Often the lighting method is pre-planned into the shape of the space, where light can be used as a building material. Beyond this, light reveals the emotional potential of the space and also serves as a navigation aid.

An environment artist must possess both excellent technical skills and artistic abilities — first, you need to envision the picture, and then find a way to implement it in the engine.

SPINE — Project team work

Work Stages

The work process of a level artist varies from studio to studio but generally includes three stages:

  1. The level artist receives a blockout of the level and thinks through visual solutions for it. Sometimes references are sought, and sometimes concept art is created.
  2. Creating the artistic composition, filling it with assets and textures, and setting up the lighting on the level.
  3. Testing the level. In environment work, it is very important to understand how this level will actually be played from the player's perspective.

There are times when the visual locations have already been prepared by the level artist, but at another stage, the mechanics are not yet refined, or new changes are made to them. In that case, the level may be reworked.

How to Make a Level More Interesting?

Through atmosphere and emotions. An emotional response can be elicited using style, shape, color, and lighting. Even the weather can convey a mood, and this should be used as a tool. The main question in the work is what the player will feel at that moment and what are the key things that will make them feel that way.

The attractiveness of a location can be determined by:

— introducing mystery;

This could be a teaser for an additional space that the player cannot yet access or adding secret spots to increase motivation for exploring the location.

— conflict and drama in the environment;

This could be the clash and struggle of eras and styles, as long as it looks harmonious and fits into the concept of the game world.

For example:

1) Half-Life: Alyx — the invasion of brutal alien technology destroys the European city from within with its metal and technological structures.

2) Wolfenstein Young Blood — elegant white Parisian buildings are buried in massive ugly dark concrete blocks built by the occupiers.

3) Deus Ex Human Revolution — uniquely combines the styles of the Renaissance and technological science fiction.

— dynamism in the environment;

Moving elements always attract interest and attention.

— intentional imperfection that gives life to the environment;

What do you think makes a fictional character come to life? They usually make mistakes. Or imagine a painting where the artist leaves crooked lines or careless strokes (but does so masterfully). Our world is imperfect, and when this is cleverly reflected in art, it gains a bit of life.

— storytelling through the environment;

In a game environment, every detail can be filled with meaning and reveal the story of the fictional universe—that's one of the reasons why playing games is so interesting.

— contrast;

One of the basics of art, used not only in color but also in style, massiveness, and shapes. Contrast and balance of masses, light and shadow, even the rigidity of materials. This also includes contrast between the expressiveness of form and brightness of color.

— verticality;

This applies more to composition decisions, but when a level has a variety of vertical lines, it definitely makes it more interesting.

— dominance and accents;

This also pertains to both color and surface shape and style combinations.

— varying scales of environment detailing.

A general rule for various art disciplines where the frame includes large, medium, and small degrees of detail. Detailing is distributed according to the universal principle of 70-30 or 80-20, where there are more detailed areas and cleaner areas for the eye to "rest."

Cyberpunk 2077 — Timur Ozdoev

What You Need to Know to Be a Good Specialist

If we discuss specific skills without which it's impossible to develop in this profession, you need to be able to model in 3D (Blender), work in popular game engines such as UE5, Unity, Source, create textures, set up materials, work with procedural materials in Substance 3D Designer or photogrammetry. Knowing Houdini and understanding procedural geometry can be a big plus. It's great if you have sculpting skills — here, the same Blender, Zbrush, or 3DCoat can be used. Familiarity with SpeedTree and Gaea, which are very handy for creating natural assets, wouldn’t hurt either. AI is also indispensable; you need to optimize your work and find new sources of inspiration using it.

A good level artist can work both with interiors—arranging furniture, setting up lighting inside, etc.—and with open spaces, as there is usually no clear division in projects.

A video game is a small model of the real world, its reflection in virtual space. In a game, we convey our own experience, and the more experience we have, the better the final result will be. You can gain experience by studying the world around you: listening to what streets, and whole cities tell us. Searching for what resonates with us in the history of a city, its residents, and infrastructure. Street photography helped me develop my artistic taste; therefore, I highly recommend trying it out to understand how light, camera, color, and composition work, and expand your own visual library.

SPINE — Project team work

Where Do People Come From in This Field?

This profession attracts those who are passionate about games and want to create them from an artistic perspective.

When you start your journey in this profession, you are given simple tasks that you do under the supervision of more experienced artists. Then, you take responsibility for key and quest areas, and eventually, you gain enough experience to help younger colleagues grow—the circle of life.

What to Play to Develop an Eye for the Profession?

A level artist needs to play a lot of games—this will help you grow in your profession. Play, analyze the environment, and pay attention to details. This develops a critical eye and helps determine which genres you prefer, as there are so many of them.

My favorites are immersive, emotional adventure games with deep plots: Prey, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Observer, Psychonauts, Alien: Isolation.

There are plenty of opportunities for growth in this profession. Knowledge and experience come with practice. I believe the most important thing is that it brings you fun and enjoyment; otherwise, it will be challenging to grow. But if you find it fascinating and are willing to invest in your own growth, then you will succeed.

Good team understanding, creative freedom, and fair compensation allow you to focus on creating incredible things.

Study the "pillars" mentioned above, play, practice more in creating game levels, and growth will follow!

By the way, we are currently expanding our project team and looking for another Level Artist. You can check out the job posting here.

SPINE — Nekki (in development)