What Is Greyboxing in Videogames?
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Oct 5th 2022

A greybox, also sometimes known as a blockout, is where the game's Level Designer creates a super simplified version of the environment to test the layout for gameplay purposes. When creating a level, there's a lot of important questions that need answers, like is this hallway big enough for a vehicle to travel along? Are these platforms close enough that your character can jump from one to the next? Are there large areas to travel through that are boring? This lesson will give you a brief overview of what makes up a greybox, and then focus on how a concept artist is most likely to interact with a greybox environment.

You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in the video below, or read the full text.



What is a Greybox?

A greybox, also sometimes known as a blockout, is where the game's Level Designer creates a super simplified version of the environment to test the layout for gameplay purposes. When creating a level, there's a lot of important questions that need answers, like is this hallway big enough for a vehicle to travel along? Are these platforms close enough that your character can jump from one to the next? Are there large areas to travel through that are boring? These are some basic questions that need answering as soon as possible to ensure that the best player experience.

A greybox environment is traditionally made with grey cubes, but these days you'll sometimes see colored cubes or cubes with simple grids on them. I've even seen a few with super simple textures, but in general you don't want to add too much detail to a greybox level since the whole point is to test the flow without getting caught up in the details. In the film industry, the closest match to this sort of job is layout or previs. In those jobs the camera work tends to be more of a concern, but you also create simple environments to check scale and make sure your shots work.

Here's a few greybox setups from the videogame Disintegration. These were posted online by artist Rick Lesley, and you can see the greybox level, and then the final level once all of the detailed models were added. And note, this does not include all the props that the final videogame level would have in the arena.









So as I'm not a level designer, I can't speak too much more into the thought and theory that goes behind making a good greybox environment. But as a concept artist, I've had to deal with greyboxes many times, and so that's what I'll focus on for the rest of this lesson.

In the beginning of a project, you're likely going to be making more loose paintings, you're a little less concerned with scale and metrics, and you're trying to find the mood of the game, the color palette, the design language. But after that phase, a job you're likely to do is paint over greybox models showing what the level could potentially look like using those rough concepts you did earlier as inspiration.

Here's an example of this again from the game Disintegration. I was asked to concept a base up in the mountains, first I was given a bunch of reference material from the art director, and then I started designing the basic buildings and shape language that the level may have.



Next I fashioned my own greybox level from a greybox provided from the client, you can see it's mostly simple boxes with a grid.



If you're a concept artist that prefers to work primarily in 2d, then the next step is to make some perspective grids over the greybox image and start painting. But if you're a concept artist that uses more 3d in your workflow, get an export of the greybox model from the game engine and bring them into your favorite 3d app. In this example, the greybox is in 3dsmax, and I then used the layout to build some simple 3d buildings. I tend to find painting architecture in 2d takes a of of time, and it's faster instead to model the architecture in 3d so the perspective is all handled for you. Here's the result of the modeling process. Again, these are concept models, they can be helpful for the people who will build the final assets for the game, but your goal at the concept phase isn't to make perfect assets, its to create stuff that's flexible so you can make changes quickly.



Now the final step, I went in and used a combination of hand painting in photoshop and photobashing to create the final scene.



After a revisions process with the art director, the image is handed to the team to give them some idea what the final scene will look like. Modelers will break down the concept and decide what models they'll need to build, texture artists look at the concept and start to prepare the materials. And of course, it's totally possible big stuff will change, maybe the greybox has changed since you did your paintover, but the concept is still helpful to answer a lot of design details even if the exact level doesn't appear in the final game.

Conclusion

So if you plan on becoming a concept artist for videogames, hopefully this gives you some answers on what greyboxing is and how you'll be working with them to create final concept images. And if you're a level designer, hopefully this answers your very first questions and gives you the inspiration to search on the web for more detailed explanations from actual professional level designers. There's a lot of great stuff out there, including the twitter trend "Blocktober" where level artists post their greybox environments every month of october. So check it out!


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