Developers advise on how to best illuminate your games and create a rich atmosphere for players to get immersed in

Eight expert game lighting tips

Chris Campbell, senior lighting artist, Crytek
Photography is a great hobby to complement CG lighting. Nothing teaches the practical application of colour, light, and composition quite like it. If you need reference of a certain time of day, shooting your own reference ensures that you know all the variables affecting the final picture, and can more easily translate it into a game environment.

Joe Davis, developer technology engineer, Imagination Technologies
For high-quality, efficient in-game lighting, the relationship between artists and programmers is critical. Programmers need to understand the technical constraints of all target platforms and explain these to the artists. Artists then need to carefully consider these restrictions and understand what sacrifices are needed to retain the style of initial concepts, while ensuring a high framerate is achieved on all targets.

As the feature set of mobile devices expands, techniques that were once considered desktop only can now be utilised on all devices. For example, deferred lighting enables developers to have many dynamic lights in a scene, although traditionally very memory bandwidth intensive features, such as programmable blending and Pixel Local Storage, enable tile-based GPUs to keep attachment data on-chip.

This keeps bandwidth consumption to a minimum, removing the bandwidth bottleneck and making these advanced techniques very achievable on mobile devices.

Ivan Pedersen, technical artist, ARM/Geomerics
1. Light a level with surface-to-surface light. Global illumination means that we bounce direct lighting from one surface to another around the level to produce the indirect lighting. By positioning surfaces so they can receive and transmit light, you can light a large part of a level with just one source.

2. Position lights far away from the player and deep in the image. This brings out the texture details and enriches the silhouette contrast in the overall atmosphere of the level. Using too many lights creates uniform and boring lighting, hence, dragging in more spotlights into a scene does not improve the lighting.

3. Light always has colour. It’s very rare for the lighting to be composed of grayscale tones only – white light can make the image seem sterile and lifeless. Similarly, shadows always contain some light and this light tints the shadow with a colour.

4. Take a minimalistic approach to lighting and use global illumination to bounce light around the scene. Ensure that light always has colour tone, either from the direct lighting or the surface that it is bounced from to produce a rich image.

Aaron Clifford, 3D artist, Frictional Games
For me, the most atmospheric lighting situations all come from interesting light sources. A lamp in the middle of the ceiling often results in very flat and uninteresting lighting. Light sources can be television screens or lights behind pipes that cast long, interesting shadows. Be creative with your light sources.

John Wendl, content director, Turn 10 Studios
With the new generation of gaming consoles, we have more than enough polygons and resolution. Lighting, atmospherics and surface material response is what brings the game’s graphics to life and makes it feel like a living, breathing world. It’s critical to start with colour-correct source material and physically-based materials to ensure predictable, high-quality results.

Jude Bond, art director, Creative Assembly
The concept of good lighting has a long history in art, rooted in Greek mosaics and thoroughly embraced by Renaissance painters. Not only is it a powerful tool to evoke a particular mood, but it’s crucial in describing 3D form. Lighting is arguably more important than the subject being lit. Good lighting can make a bad model look good, and bad lighting makes a good model look bad.

Alex Grahame, environment artist, The Chinese Room
Whether you’re creating realistic or fantastical art, the importance of taking influence from real life is invaluable. This is especially true with lighting, to engage the audience with your world, making it both plausible and familiar to create immersive and authentic spaces.

Stuart Bugg, principal environment artist, Guerrilla Cambridge
For RIGS Mechanized Combat League on PlayStationVR we establish the core lighting direction and mood in early design greybox. In VR, we carefully consider the sun’s position relative to the horizon so that the player doesn’t find themselves staring into it, and all primary routing is visually well defined with no distractions.

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