Modern game environments are something to behold; no doubt about it. So, how do your environments measure up? Are you that studio that devotes its time and resources to making killer character models but pays the environments lip-service?
Let's take FPS games for example. The environment occupies 100% of the screen, overlayed by a weapon that occupies about 25% of the screen. Does this mean you need to devote all of your resources here? The answer is no, but by using a few tips found here, you can increase the quality of your levels without increasing your budget.
One thing that stands out immediately is levels that are too clean. This is a sign of either a low budget, or lack of vision for the game environments.
A great way to generate useful “junk” in levels, is to creates a bunch of basic props (Bricks, Newspapers, Coke cans, rubble) and then use the built in 3d Studio Max Reactor plugin to create interesting combinations out of them. Set these items up in the air, splayed apart slightly, and then turn on the Reactor gravity. The parts will fall into interesting lay-outs.
You can repeat this over and over to create a series of random static meshes. The next tip is to either buy or build a great library of basic items.
Many indie developers can benefit from buying non-exclusive assets; oh yea, and SO CAN BIGGER DEVELOPERS. You don’t need to recreate that plant for every single game; especially if you have multiple projects going in-house using the same style.
We’re over 6 years into this console cycle, your 80 polygon plant is now 95 polygons; Your audience can’t tell, and it cost you thousands of dollars.
There’s no need to re-invent everything yearly; trust me, being an outsource guy, I don't mind charging you $3 billion for that plant.... again; But I'd rather you keep your money and not lay off your staff at the end of the project.
Use the Golden Ratio to see if your levels are composed in a visually pleasing manner. Set the level up in visual layers, each building on the next. For example, the sidewalks builds on the street as the shops build on the sidewalk. Make sure there is a “connective tissue” to hold these various layers together.
Lastly, make sure your environment people are artists. Don’t stick your amazing art team on set dress duty, then hand those assets off to a gameplay designer and tell them to build a level.
All too often this leads to intersecting buildings, strange assets in exotic places, and so on. Let your designers do what they’re great at, designing compelling gameplay and situations, and let your artists create a world that will amaze and delight the user. You have the talent at your fingertips.