How do you give an era a different look and feel?



This is a tutorial on how to change the look and feel of an era in your environments. In this tutorial I will use the Roman period as an example based on my graduation project. In this tutorial I will convert a typical Roman Courtyard into a futuristic environment. I will show you how to do this in a quick way, what challenges it will give, how the context and function will change in the environment, the narrative that comes with it and how it will affect the player experience.

So what will you need in order to complete this tutorial?

  • Programs to create your art (whether it is 3D or 2D related does not really matter, but I will be focusing this tutorial around 3D).
  • An era which you can transform towards a new design
  • A specific object you can use as base and build design rules from.
  • Your creativity!

What will I be using for this tutorial?

  • I will be used 3ds Max and Substance painter for modelling & texturing during the making of this project.
  • I chose the Roman era and transformed it to make it feel like a futuristic environment (scifi).
  • I chose to use a pillar as my base object because it is one of the most common structural objects in the Roman times.

Creating a ruleset to come to a design

I believe the biggest challenge will be finding the right balance between the original era and the "layer" you are trying to put over it. When is it not enough or too much? This is why the testing and gaining feedback is so important that I mentioned earlier. The feedback will assist you in seeing what works best for your environment and the idea behind it.

Another challenge is to make sure everything keeps making sense. When you build upon something already existing it can be very easy to break the feel of the environment. Because you are building on something that exists/has existed in the past you will want to keep it logical and realistic. Make sure the pieces blend well together and that you have good reasoning why you are making things the way they are.

How does the context and function change of the environment?
When you are building upon something already existing the context and function changes of that environment. Because you want to add another layer of depth on it. So it is important to find good reasoning why you are making it in that specific way.

In my case I had the luxury of the triangle of Vitruvius that was used in the Roman era. It is an important ruleset for architecture that is still being used in the current age. It is as followed:

Venustas: Aesthetics and beauty
Firmitas: Structural integrity and durability
Utilitas: Function/ usefulness

Now the roman pillars checked each of these boxes already of course because they were designed with these points in mind. So the beauty of the pillar is mainly in the capital of the pillar which sometimes contained beautiful sculptures and shapes. The function of the pillar was of course to carry the weight of the structure. The materials the Romans used were very durable as well. This is also why some of their structures have survived for ages and are still standing this very day.

So to improve to that I redesigned the pillar on each of those points:


I turned the pillar into a device that can store energy into batteries. They are connected to the roofs which have solar panels. These pillars are their main supply of energy for their technology.


Another challenge is to keep the balancing consistent throughout your environment. The reason why this is important is because it will make the environment feel like one thing instead of pieces put together. To make sure this will work it is a good idea to create your own little ruleset based on the object that you have designed in the right balance. My ruleset was as followed:

- Roman concrete as a base for all larger structures.
- Metal plating that has a purpose of both decorating and strengthening.
- Cloth that was also available during the actual time period.
- Glowing lines to decorate the structures and show the power flowing through them.
- All base structures need to retain the original Roman design.
- All structures need to have a proper function and follow the triangle of vitruvius.
- The metal plating needs to stay simplistic yet effective.
- Using mainly the original material colors that were used in the original time period.
- Red will be the most present color as it was the most commonly used color in the roman time period.
- Use patterns on larger surfaces that will reflect Roman decorations but feel futuristic in a sense (more modern).

Applying the ruleset on new objects

Now that we have created our ruleset we can start applying it on other objects too. I will give two more examples of applying it to objects and then do a full scene example.


How do we apply our ruleset on other objects?
When I created my ruleset in the previous chapter you might have noticed that nothing is specifically tied to a single object. Which means we can reuse it on everything else. However this does not mean you should apply it on every object as it will feel like repetition to the viewer and could overdo it. So when you apply these rulesets take a look at the object you are creating and think when it needs changes and when it does not. 


The Brazier

The next object we will focus on that is found in my scene is the brazier.
So let's see what information we can get on applying the triangle of Vitruvius on an original roman brazier:


Utilitas: The function of the brazier was what fire brings to the table itself. Heat and light. So the brazier itself has the only function of holding the fuel and fire in its place. However this also gave an opportunity to make it look appealing through decorations. So it also has the function of decorating an area.

Now the big question is what do we want/need to add to the original design to make it fit our scene. Based on the information of the triangle I wanted to mainly improve its durability and Aesthetics. Since we were already using metals in our pillar we won't need to come up with a new material based on Firmitas. I also did not feel the need to change the usage of the brazier as its prime function is all I needed.

The biggest flaw of the original brazier is that because of the excessive use it would deteriorate over time. So I came up with the idea that only the top part of the brazier needs to be replaced and designed a hover element in there so it was even easier to replace it. This would save the cost of materials used.

Not only were braziers used for their light and warmth, it was also used for scents. I designed my brazier to not actually use coals as fuels as seen in the end result but they are mainly there to give off a scent and increase the overall experience of the newcomers to the city. But it also kept the image more of the original brazier.

With this I mainly improved on the durability of the brazier because this was the only point I found that had a need for improvement when it comes to technological advancement.


The Shields

Let's grab one more object to analyze, this time it will be the shields both roman and gauls were carrying. Normally the Triangle of Vitruvius is mainly applied to architecture but you can pretty much use it to design anything. So let's once again apply the rules but this time on the original shield:


Utilitas: The function of the shield is to protect its user from incoming blows. And because of its materials the shield was light as the Romans needed to carry it while marching.

So what can we improve and adjust with the idea of technological advancement in mind. So when looking at its flaws we come across the vulnerability to heavy strikes but preserve its lightweight as much as we can. Since my version of the romans already mastered the advancement of storing energy in their pillars we might as well use that for our shields too. So now our shield is running on energy provided for the pillars. The reason why I chose for a more futuristic option when creating the shield is because it gives us three advantages:

1; The shield can now be turned off and folded in to make it easier to carry.
2; The shield now runs on our solar energy giving our pillar energy a bigger role as it is the main feature in the scene.
3; The use of wood is now not necessary anymore as we now just use the center metal part (with the extensions to make the shield rectangle).

So not only did we improve mainly on its durability we also made it easier to use and carry around keeping the light weight but making the shield itself stronger against incoming attacks. Aside from that since our shield is now 70% energy our decoration that would normally be on the wooden surface was now not possible. So I decided to instead make the center shield part more decorative and keep the shield balanced and interesting that way.


How do you apply it to the narrative of the environment?

Besides having reasons to make things a certain way you will also need to keep the story in mind as it will affect how the environment will function. For example my project was a Roman courtyard that needed to show technological advancement in their own time. So I wanted to make it into a warzone to make the environment feel more alive. So the environment had to reflect those events. The best way to approach this is to make a storyboard and compile a list of objects in the scene that could reflect it. In my case it was the following:


  • Fire 
  • Smoke 
  • Dead bodies, shields, weapons and banners 
  • Rain/Stormy weather 
  • Revealed mechanical parts


These specific elements together will convey the story by creating an ambiance of war. 


It is important to plan where you want to place these elements. How they are placed within the environment will tell the story. I personally made a basic storyboard of the scene and its story. If you just place some here and there it will not make much sense and questions from your players/viewers will arise. So draw it out so that the scene remains one image.



How does the technological advancement affect our story

The baseline of our story would obviously not change much as war stays the same no matter what you bring to the table. However the changes to our environment and characters weaponry will create quite the impact. And our entire scene rests on the fact that they discovered the gain of solar energy. Every piece of technology heavily relies on that.

Attack options
So when the Gauls would attack the city normally like in actual history they really had only 2 options which were either break one of the gates to gain entrance or climb the walls. But now that the city completely runs on energy they could use that to their advantage. (for example cut of energy in certain weakspots to gain easier entry). 

Aside from the energy grid being disabled there are also chances of explosions happening thanks to our batteries in our pillars. We went from regular ol' fireballs to some real Michael Bay movie action. These explosions could heavily impact local fights as the batteries could technically be used as a weapon. (as in roll them towards your enemy and boom goes the dynamite.)

Depleting Energy
And do not forget their weapons and shield will eventually need to recharge. Even though they were obviously made to last a good time they will not be charged forever. And since it runs on solar energy attacking at night could potentially give you an advantage as they can not regain their energy at that time. Only using their supply they gained from the previous day.



What does it do with the player experience?

When building the scene your story and gameplay are tied together into the overall player experience. You need to keep in mind what the player will be doing in the environment that you are creating. It needs to play smoothly and feel right. The environment needs to give the player the feeling what they should feel if they were actually there. When building the environment it is smart to use testing to keep in check whether the experience you are giving is the same as you had in mind. You can use a storyboard for this as well so that you can clearly define what the player will do, see and interact with.

Thank you for following this tutorial!

Now that you went through this entire process I would love to see what you have made! Don't shy away from contacting me through the contact page or through social media. I'm always open to answer questions or help you with your design process.

About Sander

I am Sander, A graduated interaction design student and am now close to graduating on Game Art too. My main goal is to become a great 3D environment artist in the game industry. So in this portfolio you will see a big focus on that.