Powering up Art Production With Substance Source at Rebellion UK
Hello, my name is Matthew Baxter. I am the Head of Outsourcing for Rebellion Developments in the UK, at the Oxford headquarters.
We’ve been using Substance Painter and Substance Designer in our art pipelines since 2016. One of our most recent releases, Strange Brigade, is the first title where our artists and external art partners used Substance tools for material creation on all of the game assets. We are also using Substance for the upcoming Zombie Army 4 and Sniper Elite projects.
Moving forward, we plan to use this software for all of our current and future titles, having fully integrated it into the art pipeline with our four UK studios.
Why we use Substance
Before adopting this software, we had previously looked into a number of PBR 3D material painting solutions, but what ultimately sold us on Substance Painter was its ease of use for the artists. It’s quick to learn, with a depth of features that gives our team many options for texturing unique and incredible-looking assets. Substance has really allowed us to push the visual fidelity of our games. With the increasing demands of AAA game development, the software has given us fast turnaround on material creation, high quality of art, and the ability to create iterations and variations of material sets.
We are constantly astounded by the new ways our internal and external art teams are finding to use the software, which is a testament to the flexibility of Substance Painter and Substance Designer.
In particular, we have been very impressed by the support that the Substance team has given to our studio. They have organized on-site training for us, which has been extremely useful and has allowed us to pass that knowledge on to our other studios and any new artists joining the company. They have also assisted us with any technical questions and issues we might have, offering rapid responses and helpful advice.
We have always had important relationships with external art houses, and they are a vital part of our art pipeline. We like to treat them as if they were a part of our own team, instead of as separate entities. With this in mind, we try to share as many tools and resources with them as possible and to keep an open line of communication at all times.
Strange Brigade called for the creation of characters and props, so it was very important for us to maintain a particular aesthetic style and visual consistency throughout. To achieve this, we used Substance to create a library of materials: Substance Designer for the creation of published SBSARs, and Substance Painter for smart materials. We had a series of base materials (metals, woods, etc.) that we wanted the external artists to use as a starting point, and we also provided more bespoke smart materials for specific surface types.
We supplied the artists with specific alpha textures (grunges, patterns), some Smart Masks, and custom export settings. We also requested they give us any new materials, alphas, etc. they created so that we could push them into our Substance Painter library after validation.
In addition to our own Substance Painter resources, we used many of the Substance materials available on the Substance Source website, which we are finding to be an invaluable and constantly growing resource for great materials. We have also purchased a number of Substance materials available from the community. It’s truly inspiring to see some of the incredible materials out there, and the ingenious ways in which artists are using Substance Designer for stunning creations.
We found that the fabric materials in Substance Source were of great use for us in character art, and the many variations in skin materials helped us to increase the visual fidelity of the heads and arms even more.
Substance Source, in particular, has been an invaluable resource for us in terms of speeding up art production. The sheer amount of high-quality Substance materials available on the site and the visually clear way they are presented makes it incredibly easy for our artists to search precisely what they are looking for. Once found, a material can be applied to an asset in Substance Painter within seconds.
This has enabled us to be able to quickly test out different material responses to see what works best, either using the chosen material ‘as is’, or as a base for further layering; to add dirt, wear and tear and other details. What would have previously taken hours of experimentation has now become a simple case of browsing, dragging and dropping. For our artists, it also has the added assurance to know that the materials on Substance Source are all PBR correct to their ‘real world’ values.
Texturing an asset now takes days instead of weeks thanks to Substance Source. Also, Iterative variations – for example, alternative materials for characters clothing – Have become a very quick and easy task to visualise and implement.
As with any game, the development of Strange Brigade presented its own set of challenges. At the beginning of the project, for example, we noticed that some of the materials the external artists had created were either too glossy in their roughness, or too dark or light in their albedo. After doing further research, we found that the Albedo ranges weren’t always being authored in the correct PBR values. To remedy this, we supplied the external artists with the PBR validate filter (which is now standard in Substance Painter).
This inspired us to create a similar feature in our game engine, with a visual mode that allows us to see any material that is out of correct PBR values, displaying colors in a similar way to the filter. Our Metallic values were also initially not being followed, since we use strict black/white values in our metal maps. Fixing this simply required adding a checklist for the artists, to ensure that they were following the correct rules.
We also found a disparity between the viewport in Substance Painter and the values of the materials within our own engine, so we exported all of our cube maps into Substance Painter. At the same time, we exported the Substance Painter cube maps into our engine asset viewer mode. We also set custom values in the tone mapping and color profile options.
The roughness levels in Substance Painter were also distinct from ours. To fix this, we created a filter that sat at the top of the stack, just below the PBR validate filter. This new filter tweaked the roughness values slightly to bring them in line with our in-game values. Occasionally some small post-export tweaking needs to be done, but we try to avoid it if possible, since we don’t want too much of a mismatch between the final in-game textures and the ones exported from Substance Painter.
For prop creation, we needed to use many materials specific to Egyptian archaeology to create the various types of ancient artifact. These included gold, marble, precious stone, and crystal for the older assets, as well as varnished wood and metals for equipment and devices from the specific era the game was set in (the 1940s and 50s).
We created a series of gold metal and stone Smart Materials, slowly building up the layers of wear and tear, dirt, grime, and decay to accurately represent their age. When we were happy with these and how they were represented within our in-game material library, we added them to a networked library of Substance materials. This could then be accessed by our internal and external artists, helping us to speed up art production and maintain a consistent visual look across all of our assets.
As for our weapon assets, we needed to create many different variations in order to visually represent how they were upgraded during player progress within the game. Players start with base weapons that either become more decorative or more magical depending on the upgrade type.
Substance Painter made it very easy for our artists to create variations of base weapons and iterate these changes to other weapons, maintaining the consistency of visual upgrades between weapon types.
Future use of Substance
It’s been very encouraging for me to see how quickly the artists at Rebellion have adapted to Substance Painter and Substance Designer in the studio, to the point that I wonder how we ever managed without these tools. They really have become essential for our pipeline. With the increasing production demands of our future titles, and our growth as a AAA developer, I feel that we are truly lucky to have such talented people at Allegorithmic (and now Adobe) supplying us with such incredible software. Their continued support will help us deliver the high-quality visuals the industry expects of us for the exciting games we have lined up for release in the future.
The art team is interested in trying Project Substance Alchemist, as we are now beginning to implement photogrammetry techniques for some of our future titles. This software will allow us to process and clean up captured textures from photographs and to seamlessly tile and height blend between different sources to create many variations of tiled materials. I can see this being extremely useful and time-saving for our art teams. The fact that height blending and displacement map tessellation has also been added as standard in Substance Painter is a great addition!
Now that Substance has become part of the Adobe family, I’m looking forward to seeing how the software can grow to accommodate the demands of next-gen development. I’m always keen to see what features will be delivered in each new release, and what the Substance team is going to come up with next. Whatever happens, I’m pleased to have helped introduce this software into our art pipeline and excited to see what the future holds.
If you like our work, Rebellion is always looking for talented staff, so don't hesitate to apply!
All images courtesy of Rebellion Developments Ltd.