My Terrain/Heightmap Creation Workflow

So I’ve been doing some experimenting with different work flows for terrain and landscape design. I purchased World Machine (WM) about one year ago, and I have been using that mainly. It’s certainly capable enough, and it seems to be the go to application for heightmap generation and design. I’ve made a couple of discoveries however, at least for myself. Maybe other people are already doing this.

Well, I looked into a Photoshop plug-in called 3D Map Generator. A tool with a workflow that is optimized for designing maps for mobile games or other similar applications. What I liked about it was that it allowed you to easily extract heightmap data from Google Maps by simply zooming in on the area you want. The plug-in is 21 dollars, and it is a perpetual license (for once…).

Well the ability to take terrain data from Google Maps has really decreased the amount of time I have had to spend in WM. Instead of starting out with an advanced perlin generator and customizing the terrain from there, I simply combine 2 or more heightmaps from Google Maps and then proceed to customize the terrain. I feel like a big part of putting together your landscape is working in WM, and using data from Google Maps helps to reduce that immensely.

And then…I started learning how to create terrains/heightmaps in Houdini. I use Houdini as my main DCC tool. I never really considered using it for terrain in the past. My gosh it’s an incredible tool. I really love working in there. In my opinion, much easier to achieve the look you’re going for when compared to WM. However, since I already have WM
I’ve been using it in concert with Houdini.

So between WM, the 3D Map Generator Plug-in for Photoshop, and Houdini I’ve been able to create better looking terrain in less time. I don’t have any screenshots at the moment, but when I do I’ll post some. Of course all of these tools cost money (Prices listed below). They have proven to work very well for me so far though!
I thought I’d just share my workflow with you good folks just in-case it might help somebody. Maybe you, like me, already have WM and Houdini.

WM: 99 to 250 dollars depending on desired capabilities (Perpetual License)

Houdini Indie License: 260 per year

3D Map Generator: 21 (Perpetual License)

Photoshop: 20 per month (this one is kind of annoying, but I use Photoshop a lot so…)

As a side note, just in case it comes up, I already looked into any possible copyright issues with using Google Maps data in your heightmaps. From what I read, there doesn’t seem to be any issues unless you advertise that the data was collected from some source other than Google and there data providers.

Very nice. I’ll share too.

As I’ve only just started learning UE, I’m not about to invest in any new expensive software, but wanted a cheap and quick way of getting terrain into the engine to play with.

So I found an almost free (if you happen to own Zbrush) alternative to the likes of WM that produces amazing results:

I start with real world height data pulled from
Then I pull that into Zbrush, roughly sculpt in additional details, and run this amazing plugin (Only $2.50!) on it to simulate various types of errosion and sedimentation.
I then simply export the height map.

It has a lot of confusing and poorly documented controls, but there are a bunch of presets that give you amazing results.

I like this toy:

That sounds awesome! A nice blend between procedural generation with artistic control. I can’t wait to get Zbrush one of these days!

So I too followed a similar arc of terrain generation. I started in World Machine, which is a very fun and interesting program. Regrettably it didn’t really hit the spot for me, I wanted to have much more customization. I had grand ambitions. I wanted to be able to see the terrain and edit its corrosion in relation to cliff faces that were separate 3d generated volumes. No there program I could find gave this type of versatility with terrain editing. So Houdini has been my saving grace. Heres my flow structure for terrain generation:

  • Produce a base layout in World Machine with erosion
  • Then import the height map info into Houdini and resize it to the scale I want
  • I resample it to a higher resolution then edit
  • Add volumes across the mountains and cliff walls using the slope degree
  • Break the volumes into separate sections
  • Procedurally generate rock fractures on each volume created
    … This is where my flow kind of breaks up …
  • Usually I go into UE4 build my Mats and apply the result then procedurally add vegetation using a layout generated also in Houdini
  • Pretty much done with the macro processes

Im probably leaving stuff out but all that to say Houdini is amazing and is a must for those looking for super fine controls with a well valued engine.