Achieving Realism with Substance Designer

Achieving Realism with Substance Designer

Joshua Lynch talked about some of the amazing materials he created and shared his thoughts on the search for realims in material design.

Joshua Lynch talked about some of the amazing materials he created and shared his thoughts on the search for realims in material design.


The last year has been pretty busy. Right now is a transition period for me, I recently wrapped up at Monolith working on Middle-earth: Shadow of War as a Senior Texture Artist and I am excited to say I am now working at Red Storm Entertainment as a Senior Texture Artist.

As far as my material work I have been trying to focus more on organic surfaces and sharing my workflows via tutorials, mentorships, or talks. Working on more organic surfaces has been and continues to be a really nice challenge for me and I have grown a lot with focusing more on it.

Mentorship program

The mentorships are run by myself which allows a lot of freedom when it comes to how it can work. Typically, the program is 4 weeks long with 6 hours of dedicated one-on-one time between myself and the artist. I work with artists of all experience levels and backgrounds, including students and artists currently in the industry.

What each artist wants out of the mentorship program is unique, this keeps me on my toes which I really enjoy. Typically it is focused on PBR material creation and anything related to that. Sometimes we work on a material from scratch or we refine existing art the artist may have. The mentorship is pretty hands on and I will often times work with their files, helping them overcome obstacles, tips on how to present their work, we will also talk about online web presence and branding.

I also want to mention that Ryan Benno and Xavier Coelho-Kostolny inspired me to start it up after I saw their mentorship programs come online, so thanks to those guys for that and their help .

Sand materials

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Prior to creating the sand much of my personal work was based around something that had a pattern, such as bricks or roof tiles. I wanted to push myself and focus on creating organic materials that tile well without using a pattern. Sand had been a surface I wanted to create for a while so I decided to give it a go.

When starting any material I try to gather as much reference as I can. This can mean finding images online or taking your own reference. I prefer going out and finding my own reference for a couple of reasons. The first is you get a much more intimate experience with the surface because you can touch it, having a mental image of that tactile response cannot be found from online images. The second is you can can see what the surface response is like from multiple lighting scenarios, dawn, afternoon, night, etc.

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I find it best to work with a “macro to micro” mindset when it comes to ‘sculpting’ forms for a material.This method works well for character, props and hard surface assets and can be equally as applicable to material creation! The first thing I created was the macro / larger forms such as the undulating waves and scoops. This not only helped to inform the rest of the material, but it gives me a sense of scale and movement early on. I tried to match the undulated and trafficked sand that I saw in the reference shots. Some of the sand formations came from wind or waves or with what looked like human footprints.


With the larger forms established the next aspect I focused on was the finer level of detail in the sand. When initially working on the sand I was struggling with the look and feel of the surface feeling right, without this level of detail there to give the feeling of finer surface tooth that comes from the grains of sand, the whole surface felt like a molded piece of plastic. When I started to put this finer level of detail into the height / normal it all clicked and felt great!

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After I have established the surface undulation and finer surface details, I put focus on what I consider “storytelling” or “lived-in” details, these details are the extra layer so to speak on top of the base material. This is where I start to bring in details to tie the texture to the world around it, as well as add a touch of personality.

A lot of the reference I was looking at featured bird footprints, pebbles, and trash. I added all of these details in to add some storytelling to the material. I try to keep these details as nondescript as possible. I do this because I want the essence of the detail to be there but I want the viewer to feel the details in with their imagination.

You can find a more detailed breakdown with my tutorial on “Substance Designer Sand”.

Side Note – I find that the more fidelity available in terms of texture resolution the more these finer levels of detail can come through when authoring a material. Even if your resolution is low and they look blurry, I would recommend these details should be there.

How you could use these materials at a higher scale?


These types of textures can fit into the production of console / PC games, virtual reality, or both! Often times we talk about the individual construction of a texture but I would like to talk a bit about putting those individual textures together in a blended material.

For starters, in a typical production environment I would sit with the Art Director / Map Lead and talk about the goals for level. We would discuss the textures needed and once I know that I can start to think about how the blends will come together, then I get to work.

One of the first questions I ask myself when creating any texture is how much area will the texture cover? When you have textures that need to cover large distances, which is often the case with terrain textures, you have to be very mindful of tiling. Deciding how much detail to put in while maintaining a visual balance is almost an art in and of itself.

So what happens if one well balanced tiling texture is not enough and we need more variety? Blends are the answer! They are a great way to add visual interest, move the eye around, and ensure believability in a space.

Reference Examples

Before we look at some in game examples, I wanted to take time to look at a couple of sand reference images and break them down. The first reference image is a lot like the sand I made, where it has a good amount of interest but could tile fairly well.

Example 1

The second reference image shows what 2 textures blending together could look like. The upper left features a lot of undulation and footsteps while the bottom right is more flat and eye rested. One thing to note is they share similar “story telling” elements that tie the sands together. Items like pebbles / straw / debris are all visible.

Example 2

I feel it’s important to look at real life examples and how they translate into game art. There is a reason things feel pleasing when done correctly in video games, because we recognize it from real life examples we have seen.

“Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare” Examples

Now let’s look at some in game blends that I made for “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare”.

Geneva Map Screenshots

For this map we focused a lot on asphalt, cobblestone, and water textures working well and that required good blends. Here are some example screenshots from the game and follow up shots with more focused details on each specific texture.

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Water Puddles & Cobblestone

As you can see from the screenshots above there was a lot cobblestone and asphalt being blended with water puddles. This was a huge component of this level with adding visual interest and drama to the scene with the lighting for the level. It was also used as a way to guide or lead the player through the level.

Here are some of the shots of the water puddles being created and tested. The first shot is a very early version prior to the shader coming online. The second shot shows the shader online and working as intended.

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Asphalt Blends

For this asphalt blend we needed to be able to have the asphalt run for large distances and using the blend allowed us to avoid a repeating look. Adding water or dirt on top of it helped even more.

Reference Shots

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In Game

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Rubber / Snow Blends

This particularly blend was used in the campaign mission “Rising Threat”. The map features a lot of snow and frost and flooring so this was a great opportunity to make a blended material.

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 Advice For Students

If I am reviewing a portfolio, I want to see what you make and how you go about creating your own art. If you just have a lot of well done photogrammetry and it looks great thats awesome. However if an artist only has a bunch of photogrammetry work and doesn’t show how they author anything by any other methods that will give me pause. You can’t always go out and scan something, so it’s important to show that you can make art with other tools.

Do you think that this search for the realistic look in game art community is over? 

Personally, I don’t think the search for the realistic look in game art is over. Sure we have PBR pipelines now and better shaders, but to me we are just getting started. I think as lighting and rendering systems continue to develop, consoles and PCs become more powerful, more details can be added, we will see games that have richer looking worlds.

If you look at “last gen” games, they generally feel dark and lacking in rich vibrant visual. “Current gen” titles really pop visually, PBR workflows and improved lighting and rendering in game engines is a huge part of this change. I have seen game engines make bad assets look really good and I have seen game engines make good assets look very bad. Having better tech can make a huge difference.

I am sure I will catch a lot of grief for this, but I think pure realism is boring, noisy, and lacks soul. Not only is it boring, but it looks dated very quickly after a title’s release. For me, I like realistic looking titles that have a lot of soul and personality. Titles like the The Division, Dishonored 2, Uncharted 4, and the recent reboots of DOOM and Tomb Raider come to mind. These titles all have unique worlds that those developers labored over for us to explore, you can identify each title just by a screenshot, and they don’t look dated as quickly.

I find it interesting you ask about stylized visuals. I do think there is a place for them at any given time, but I could also foresee some “photoreal fatigue”. I don’t think its a coincidence that, outside of solid gameplay, Overwatch (very stylized) and Horizon Zero Dawn (stylized realism) are as popular as they are.

How do you like Substance Designer 6?

I have had some time to mess around with SD6 a bit and I love it!

Curve Node – From what I have seen and used of the Curve node it is a huge addition to the toolset inside of Substance Designer. So many use cases for it and it adds that extra layer of control we were never able to get with the Bevel / Gradient Map nodes.

Photogrammetry Nodes – These are great additions to the toolset. As we move forward and photogrammetry becomes more and more common in pipelines it is great to be able to channel that data through Substance Designer and work with it there.

32 Bit – This is huge! Having 32 bit height map data is so powerful. Really excited about this.

Resolution – I think it’s great you can go up to a really high resolution now especially for film quality. I wonder what it will mean as film studios start to use Substance more and more. Could help push the tech forward even more I hope.

How do you think procedural tech in material design will evolve? 

I could imagine tech from NVIDIA, Allegorithmic, or from another source helping out in big ways. Such as creating more natural looking surfaces from understanding the rules of nature what is pleasing to the eye. Surface types that come to mind are terrain or stacked stone walls.

The jump from a a rigid workflow such as ZBrush and Photoshop to Substance was huge in my opinion and these new advancements could be the next big jump. I think these type of advancements get me more focused on quality art and less grunt work so bring it on!

It could also assist with creating “elements’ that could be used in textures. Such as pieces of rock, twigs, debris, trash, etc.

Joshua Lynch, Senior Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 3

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Achieving Realism with Substance Designer