Rad Rodgers: using Substance Designer with Style
Hey Guys! My name is Chris Pollitt, and I'm the Art Director at Interceptor Entertainment.
We've been around for roughly 5 years now, and have worked on games like Duke Nukem Reloaded, Rise of the Triad and the recent Bombshell. Recently we started a Kickstarter for our next game, "Rad Rodgers", which is a throwback to the classic 90’s action platformer.
We’re a small independent studio located in a city called Aalborg in Denmark.
We use a pretty uncommon work methodology, where our leads and directors are located here in Denmark in our office space, while the rest of the team is spread across the globe. Each lead has a small cluster of team-members working virtually together.
It’s a super cool model, and it allows us to seek out great talent regardless of their location.
Currently we’re working on a brand new game called Rad Rodgers. It’s our first Unreal Engine 4 and Substance project, so it’s been quite a ride!
Rad Rodgers is a 4th wall-breaking, 3D action side-scroller in the vein of the classic side-scrollers from the early-mid 90’s. We really wanted to bring back that feeling you had when you were playing your first sidescroller, and many of us did that first on the PC. Games like Commander Keen, Jazz Jackrabbit and even Amiga games such as Ruff ’n’ Tumble were huge inspirations.
In Rad Rodgers you follow a young boy called Rad Rodgers, and his sentient old console called Dusty, on their adventures inside a videogame world. You can check out the game on our Kickstarter, which you can find right here:
Rad Rodgers is a very stylized game with a hand painted look for a lot of its assets. So you might wonder how Substance Designer, an application which is primarily used for realistic AAA games, would work with such a cartoony style. Remember, as with any tool, its versatility is only limited by its user.
For this small project we used a mixture of methods but kept the same ideology of smart materials, giving us the flexibility of repurposing assets in different level styles. For Bombshell we focused heavily on a gradient map pipeline, using AO + RGB Mask & normal map for assets. For Rad we still used this workflow for some aspects but wanted the option for more hand painted albedo textures by artists, as although this is a UE4 PBR project its albedo’s would be similar to the heavier information of last gen’s diffuse textures due to the style of the game.
However you would be surprised as to which assets look hand painted that are actually made in Substance Designer. Let’s take a look at the opening scene in Rad.
Sure, those rocks and stony earth are easy to make stylized in Substance Designer, but the swirly tree bark? You’d think that would need to be sculpted.
Well, let's open it up.
Here’s the mesh for this asset. You can tell that our pipeline is heavily based on a fixed camera, taking full advantage of that single direction of view (Amongst our Kickstarter updates I’ve made a video specifically about optimized level construction for a fixed camera, blending from 3D to 2D and faking distance using perspective scaling. So check it out if you’re interested.)
You can see in this top view how it goes from 3D to cards for the foliage.
The material itself is a tiling wood texture which can be applied to multiple tree meshes. Here’s what it looks like inside Substance Designer:
It’s a relatively simple Substance with only 1 other graph for the wood grain. The aspects which really define its style are its gradient map with added color variation and the swirls of the wood knots. The swirls were created using warp nodes with a series of sphere masks transformed into the places where I want the swirls to be.
If we zoom in you can see how this works:
Here you can see the mask composite of all the wood knots. I used a sphere transformed into an oval for the long curving effect. This animated GIF shows me how it looks when I move one of the knot sphere masks around:
While this may seem like a technical approach to something you could just as easily sculpt, this workflow allows for much more flexibility as sculpting would require a complete remake each time. This saves a ton of time and was generally quicker than it would have been to sculpt it in the first place.
The rest of the wood’s general waves are created using a warp with Perlin noise for the mask.
For the wood grain I used a similar warp approach, with lots of Perlin noise again:
Which I then also plug the knots into to match up the grain:
Before getting into the color I made some mid and top layers by blurring and leveling the heightmap, which I added back to itself. This was so I could have more room to play with the gradient map when defining the color map. I also added some subtle but specific thick color variation outside of the gradient map so it’s not so uniform, like the trees in the original concepts for this area.
As you can see, I kept the gradient map very simple. I think that is one of the big differences between using it for realism versus stylized, as for realism I’d have a very dense gradient map with tons of pegs.
One aspect of utilizing a smart material line of thinking was having axis-based projection, so we could quickly generate assets with grass or moss on top of rocks or wood.
We’d define the blend using a heightmap in the G channel of the RGB mask.
Here’s an example of this feature on an asset:
With it, the asset can be scaled or rotated at any angle and always have a consistent coating of moss on top. We use this for grass on assets in a lot of the first level.
The moss itself is a simple blend of noises and a splatter node or two of alphas:
I hope this small peek into Rad Rodger’s workflow shows how well Substance Designer’s capabilities and consistency can definitely benefit any style if you know how to use it. Although Rad Rodgers is a small project by a small team, we love it and it saves us a ton of time. It is so non-destructive in terms of alteration and variation that I’d recommend it to any developer, AAA or indie. Personally, it was such a delight to jump straight into it coming from using Unreal’s material editor for years. It’s a good advancement and almost merges Unreal and Photoshop. I know a lot of artists tend to overlook it and focus mainly on Substance Painter, but it’s not as complicated as it looks at a first glance: we’ve all adapted to Zbrush's UI and don’t even think about it anymore. So stop wasting time and jump in already! :D
As well as art direction, Chris specializes as a Character Lead and Technical Artist: