3d & animation

What Is Game Environment Design and How to Get Started?

Learn how to build immersive video game art, and discover top tips to consider as you design, model, and render fantasy environments

At its core, a great game combines engaging mechanics with an exciting and memorable world. In the words of Leartes Studios (@leartesstudios), you’re trying to “leave a fingerprint on people’s minds” through an immersive experience they’ll treasure forever.

Great game environment design is the process of developing a coherent world and attention-grabbing levels, which form the overall sense of place. To get you started, here we explore the core principles of designing game worlds, and five key design decisions that impact your end product.

Game design environments by Leartes Studios.

What is environmental design for games?

Game world design is the practice of designing and building a playable location where your story will be set. It’s a multi-step process that may involve game design and writing, concept art, models, rigs, animations, renders, and more. Perhaps you’re part of a large team where each task is covered by a different team, or perhaps you’re an indie studio taking full control.

The scale of your game is important here: are you building a side-scrolling game with just a few level mechanics, or an enormous open world with totally free exploration and no linear narrative? There are many limitations (good and bad) to be considered, but from the beginning, it helps to define two key elements: the world design and level design—read on to learn more.

In their course, Leartes Studios walks you through designing a level environment in a cyberpunk style.
In their course, Leartes Studios walks you through designing a level environment in a cyberpunk style.

Two key steps to start making a great game world

What your final environmental game art looks like (and how your players interact with it) revolves around two different disciplines.

1. World design

Your world design encompasses the overall mood as well as the lore (i.e. backstory). Genre, time period, and theme are all considered here. From this concept—usually spearheaded by a lead designer)—a top-level map might be created, which generally revolves around the central goal of the playable character(s). For example, the antagonist might be situated in a castle at the most distant point on the map, encouraging exploration of the other locations first.

2. Level design

Level design is concerned with the immediate play space: where is the player right now and what can they do? From an open field to the top floor of a skyscraper to the control room of a spaceship, level designers should guide the player through their current objectives via objects and obstacles in their environment.

5 things to consider for your game environment design

Now you have a basic understanding of the concepts involved in environmental design, let’s dig deeper with five tips from Leartes Studios, who specialize in creating seamless game environments for clients such as Marvel Studios, Activision, Epic Games, Ubisoft, Microsoft.

In their course, Oguzhan and Serdar walk you through how to create a cyberpunk video game environment from scratch using Unreal Engine. Throughout the process, they cover each of these design decisions and more.

1. Choose your style and aesthetic

This refers to the visual style of your game. How do you want players to feel when they experience your game? If you want them to be relaxed, and the genre of your game is a puzzler or a life simulation, you might choose low-poly art in a simple color scheme, for example. On the other hand, in their course the Leartes team aim for high realism with a neon, cyberpunk aesthetic which suggests a game full of action, high-speed chases, and mystery.

Low poly environment by Daniel Gutiérrez.
Low poly environment by Daniel Gutiérrez.

2. Find the right engine

The software you use to make your game can be tailored to your needs. Consider the presets and assets you require, and research which engines have been used by other creators and studios, to get an idea of what will work. In their course, Leartes Studio demonstrates their cyberpunk city scene using Unreal Engine 4.2.6, as it’s an industry standard and has tons of tools for making hyperreal worlds.

The UE4 interface as demonstrated in Leartes Studios' course.
The UE4 interface as demonstrated in Leartes Studios' course.

3. Source your inspiration

For their cyberpunk examples, Oguzhan and Serdar offer Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Cyberpunk 2077, and Deus Ex as inspirations. Finding good sources is essential to understand the history of a genre and your audience expectations.

Blade Runner, image via IMDb.
Blade Runner, image via IMDb.

4. Define your mood with lighting and color

When considering their inspiration, Leartes Studios explain that memorable scenes and moods are captured with deliberate choice of light and color. In cyberpunk, a gritty mood is usually expressed with low light in a night-time setting, and highly contrasting neon colors (which often guide the player). In their favorite films, they point out that minimal, one-color palettes often dominate. Every tiny detail helps to construct your world, which leads us to the final tip…

5. Details

Remember that you’re not just designing a world, you're designing an experience that players want to explore and progress through. You need enough detail in your models and renders to get the kind of immersion you want, but even more you need key touchpoints to be highlighted so that players naturally move towards their goals. Don’t forget: your game art is the medium through which the narrative is told.

Develop an immersive game with these resources

1. Learn how to create cyberpunk scenes using Unreal Engine in Leartes Studios' full game environment design course.

2. Use a low poly style to make beautiful games, with this course by Daniel Gutiérrez.

3. Speed up your workflow with these keyboard shortcuts for Unreal Engine 4 and 5.

4. Learn more about what concept art is and how it underpins a game.

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