Urban Empire: Crafting Virtual Architecture

In the following article we’ll delve a bit deeper into the topic of our last Urban Empire developer update (Buildings – From Concept to Final Asset). Mikko Tyni, Creative Consultant and Environment Concept Artist from Fragment Studios, gets down to the details:

Creation of building designs for Urban Empire is a curious mixture of adherence to the historical principles of architecture, fused with the practical requirements and constraints of gameplay requirements. The typical process begins with an extensive search for references, which usually results in dozens – even hundreds – of photos. As the game view is ‘bird’s-eye 3D’, it is not enough to just gather material on how buildings appear when photographed from street level – it’s just as important to understand their rooftop structures and overall composition, as seen from above. Google Earth and Bing Maps provide excellent solutions for that.

Origin of Reference Material

Usually our reference material will be Central European in origin, as the fictional country of Swarelia is supposed to be situated between modern-day Austria and Italy. As part of my background research, I have been traveling extensively through Central Europe, with some of the most important sources for inspiration including Vienna, Munich, Zürich, Brussels and Copenhagen. Certain designs, especially those with a distinguishable Art Deco influence, were inspired by the 1930s architecture of the UK, particularly the works of Charles Holden. I also spent some time walking in the older districts of central Helsinki, armed with a sketchbook and smartphone camera, in order to understand the numerous ways you can solve architectural design problems.

Urban Empire: Building Concept / Theatre

Building Concept: Theatre

Architectural Styles

Because many of the buildings in the game make their first appearance in the earlier historical eras, the architectural styles used most often are so-called ‘revival styles’, such as Neoclassical or Neo-Gothic, which were especially popular in Europe during the 19th century. Moving towards the early 20th century, you then begin to see the distinctive characteristics of newer, more experimental styles such as Art Nouveau and International Style. Eventually, Modernism and Element Construction supersede the more traditional styles, providing rich and varying layers of architecture later in the game.

First Rough Sketches

Reference material is then carefully studied to dissect the most common characteristics of the building in question. Inspiring designs and details get picked, visual notes are scribbled down, and the first rough sketches begin to appear. At this point the nuances and specifics of the game are taken into account. As each building must fit into a plot of a certain size, the overall composition should be a slightly simpler and more compact version of its real-world inspiration. Conversely, game designers are thankfully not subject to the same rules and regulations as real-life architects.

3D Models and Blueprints

A rough 3D model is created to further nail down the intended ‘look’ and to help visualise how the building will appear from various viewing angles. The silhouette is fine-tuned and the resulting model compared with the existing buildings to avoid repetition in appearance and structure. Finally, the 3D model is rendered from a variety of angles, usually from the top, front, back and side at least. The final blueprint is then drawn-up based on these renderings, and additional details such as doors, windows, beams and decorations are added.

Working on a municipal building – the more screens, the merrier the developer ;)

Working on a municipal building – the more screens, the merrier the developer ;)

Final Steps

The last phase involves specifying intended materials, colours and architectural details. For this, cropped thumbnails from the original set of inspirational photos are utilized, and the intended use of these assets is explained in writing or through explanatory drawings. The completed blueprint set, along with a selected batch of reference photos and the 3D model, are then provided to the artist responsible for creating the in-game asset based on all of this conceptual work.

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