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In a recent post I provided an outline for learning to draw video game characters. In this article I will cover game environments and how to conceptualize and draw them.  Game environments involve a number of different elements, including terrain and landscapes, buildings (houses, factories, etc.) and built elements (bridges, highways, etc.), and any other items that could be considered background in games. Imaginative environments are key to building a great story and universe and one of the most important considerations in game design.

Environment Design

Environment design is the process of conceptualizing the environment or world for a game and implementing that vision in game art assets. An introduction to environment design in games:

Careers in Game Art

Game art is one of the most exciting careers out there.  The most jaw-dropping game graphics of the past 20 years will show you how far we’ve come in a relatively short time, and the future is very bright.  New platforms and devices as well as improvements to graphics and processing will continue to up the ante.  We’re already moving into territory nearing photo-realism, for instance, and cartoon and animation styles are continually evolving.

To get a sense for what a career in game environment design looks like, Darren Quach is a game concept artist who specializes in sci fi.  In the following video he describes how he started his career, and what types of skills are critical to success in game environment design:

You should also check out our interview with Brian Thompson, Big Fish Studios Art Director on How to Become a Successful Game Artist and Tips for How to Be a Better Game Artist.

Getting Started

Many game artists conceptualize their work using traditional methods like pen and ink, charcoal, water colors, colored markers, and acrylic or oil paints. As games are developed, concept art is one of the elements used to articulate a game’s vision and setting.  Numerous genres are utilized, including sci fi, fantasy, historical, manga/anime, and various imagined universes.

In professional settings a number of digital tools are also used, like Photoshop, Maya and ZBrush.

In terms of your academic pursuits, coursework in art, sculpting/modeling, graphic design, environmental design, architecture, drafting, etc. are a great foundation.  It’s also important to build a portfolio of work and continue to develop your skills by drawing or painting as often as possible.  Finally, exposing yourself to a wide range of creative inputs is also critical:  the Web, movies, books, magazines, comics and games will expose you to design ideas that you can incorporate yourself.

Design Thinking

A good universe designer thinks through all of the elements that make up an environment or game universe:

  • What is the overall vision for the game?
  • What is the back story?
  • Who are the characters who will inhabit the universe?
  • Where and when does the universe exist?
  • What are its physical properties? (Is it an entire world, or individual levels?)
  • What types of things would one see within the landscape?
  • What kinds of flora/fauna might exist?
  • What would the cities or residential areas look like?
  • How do residents get around? (cars?  flying cars?)
  • What kind of architecture would the residents build?
  • What would they use for decoration?
  • What color palette would dominate?
  • What types of lighting would be present?
  • Are there photos that can be used as reference?

Environmental design and architecture are both fundamental to the design of environments in games.

Plan environment design by understanding the context of a game:

  • What platforms are you creating concepts for? (mobile, pc, tablet, etc.)
  • What are your limitations in terms of graphics and performance?
  • What graphical assets already exist?
  • Is the game 2-d or 3-d?
  • What are the desired camera angles or view/perspective (POV)?

Online Workshops and Tutorials:

Environment Genres to Explore

Books and Other Resources


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