Alexis Khouri from Allegorithmic talked about the history of the company, its search for the breakthrough product and future R&D.
If you are lucky enough to be in the game industry and especially if you are connected with the artistic side of things, you’ve definitely heard of Substance. In the gaming industry, the art toolset is constantly changing, and new technologies are being released almost every year. They come and go, and only a few companies actually remain. We all know Autodesk, Pixologic, Wacom or Adobe. And, somehow, Allegorithmic became one of those household names, a gold standard for texture and material creation. To find out how this happened, we had the chance to talk to Alexis Khouri about the past and future of this outstanding French company.
The Origins: ProFX, Mapzone & Imagesynth
I am Executive Vice President at Allegorithmic and pretty much the right arm of our CEO, Sebastien Deguy. Sebastien is a very product- and innovation-oriented person while I’m the one who runs the business and helps define the corporate strategy. I have a background in business, as well as programming and art, but don’t ask me to write a line of code or draw anything beautiful. I joined the company in 2007, and at the time we had no real product, no community, and very little money.
The company was founded in 2003, and between 2003 and 2007, our focus was mostly fundamental R&D. As you can imagine, there was a lot of “coding in the basement” involved, old-school style. In 2007, we were lucky enough to get funding from a strategic investor, who made a bet on the technology and the people in the company. The outcome of this investment was quite blurry at the time as the initial reason was a project that was canned a little later on.
The initial research took a lot of time and a lot of hard work. Check out those monitors! The company was founded in 2003, and between 2003 and 2007, the main focus was on R&D. On the right: the first patents and interface of ProFX.
After this investment, the whole idea of Substance finally started to grow. But before we started developing Substance Designer and Painter, we released a product called ProFX, which was a middleware solution dedicated to procedural runtime texture generation. Part of this package was an art tool called MapZone. It was a free texturing tool with truly avant-garde tech behind it, but also horrible UI and UX. Let’s say it was awesome for engineers who wanted to create complex random patterns, but definitely not artist-oriented.
The main purpose of ProFX was to reduce the download size of the games. At the time, there was a huge market for PC online games that were developed mostly in China and South Korea. At that time, I recall there were about 250 MMO games in development only for their domestic markets. Basically, Korea and China represented 90% of the whole MMO market in 2008. These massive online game companies such as Netdragon or Changyou were literally obsessed with the downloadable client size. Especially in China, where bandwidth was pretty terrible. South Korea didn’t have the bandwidth issue, but local publishers wanted to export their games in “low-bandwidth countries,” as they were saying, like…the US!
The 5-7 Gb game size was a massive problem. Most people couldn’t download it at once. ISeveral days were needed just to finish a download; as all these games were F2P, they needed to reach the biggest audience possible. This is where Allegorithmic saw an opportunity to sell ProFX to these companies. The pitch was quite simple: you could create extremely compact textures: kilobytes instead of gigabytes. At installation time, these textures would unpack and the game would look exactly the same, with no performance hit, but with a download time cut by a factor of 2 or 3. Although the story was quite appealing, it was quite hard to execute, mostly because the textures had to be created with MapZone, a tool which was obviously super alien for any 3D artist at the time.
Nevertheless, some courageous developers braved the odds and the first ever Unreal Engine 3 game released was actually built using only procedural textures! You can still find Roboblitz, by Naked Sky Entertainment, on Steam 10 years later.
Roboblitz features procedural textures, created with ProFX.
While these products didn’t become huge hits, there’s still a loyal community of MapZone lovers: a few hundred people are still tinkering with it. It actually still has some features that Substance Designer doesn’t have, so you can imagine it was a real breakthrough for its time.
Allegorithmic developed another product during the 2004-2008 period called Imagesynth. This product was co-developed with Luxology (creators of MODO). It was a plugin that allowed creation of “augmented” textures by pulling elements off a set of images and rearranging and blending them into one single final seamless texture in a realistic way. However, Imagesynth was rather slow, limited to 2K and it had a lot of limitations, which didn’t allow use on a wider scale. But this tech gave us lots of insights on how to deal with image processing issues.
Allegorithmic was a true pioneer when it comes to procedural texturing. As you can see, it did not start 5 years ago. Ten years ago we already had something unique and powerful. The main issue with that technology was that it was done by engineers for engineers. The UI, UX and the feature set really lacked input from artists.
It Started with Unity
This brings us to 2009, when we had the technology and a certain understanding of the gaming market, but were not talking to artists at all. We were selling our technology to either engineers or big companies like Autodesk, NVIDIA or Intel on co-development side-projects.
Assets for Adam short film were created with the help of Substance tools.
Our first milestone in capturing the hearts of artists was in 2010-2012, when we integrated Substance Engine for free inside Unity, UDK, 3ds Max and Maya. This strategic decision allowed us to address a massive audience of 3D artists that had never heard of Substance before. We had to overhaul our authoring toolsets to make them useable and useful for 3D artists. This was the beginning of Substance Designer 1, which was released in 2010.
Here’s a look at one of the first versions of Substance Designer.
The concept was the same as today: a node-based texturing tool, dedicated to the creation of tileable materials. At the time, it was a bit overkill as the gaming industry was still in the X360/PS3 era, mobile was pretty much non-existent and PBR was nothing other than a famous beer brand. People were just using Photoshop to create their textures and they didn’t really need anything else; it was good enough.
I loved Allegorithmic’s tools and the flexibility they were providing. The ability to both have tiny texture distribution sizes and high-level parameters for dynamic tweaking is the perfect killer combo. (September 21, 2010)
Chief Creative Officer
However, with the release of Substance Designer, we started to grow a community, especially with Unity users. We were lucky to become friends with the Unity founders very early in their adventure. They fell in love with the technology and decided that it could be a pretty good component to be part of Unity, because our technology helped to significantly reduce the weight of the textures. At the time, the key selling point of our technology was the ability to reduce the size of the game client download. Interestingly enough, we don’t talk about this feature anymore. It’s just cool icing on the cake and not the main reason to use Substance today.
Substance also works with UE4.
With a community of a few thousand people, we started to get a lot of feedback from users. We’ve heard a lot of comments on how we could improve the tool, make it more artist-friendly and more adapted to the needs of 3D artists.
What’s Behind Substance Designer’s Success?
The next milestone was when we started to work with AAA game developers back in 2013. Physically-based rendering was starting to spread with the release of PS4 and XB1, and it made a huge difference to Substance adoption as traditional texturing tools were not good enough anymore.
Uncharted 4 proved to be the best demo for the latest version of Substance tools. Naughty Dog was one of the first companies to embrace this toolset. More stuff here.
In 2013, we signed our first major deals with prominent game developers, including Naughty Dog, Treyarch and Ubisoft. With their help, we started working on Substance Designer 4, the first truly successful software from Allegorithmic from a business standpoint.
Substance Designer 4 was the first PBR-ready art tool. It was released in October 2013 and was the result of constant iterations with technical artists working on actual AAA projects. At the same time, PBR was expanding naturally as the new industry standard for shading. Substance, therefore, started to become a viable alternative.
It didn’t take long for Substance Designer to carve out an important role within our artists’ toolset at Naughty Dog. Not only does it allow us to streamline texture workflow and maintain consistent results, but it has also proved to be an incredibly effective place to prototype and define both features and workflows alike.
Naughty Dog (now Epic Games)
Finally, another trigger for Substance Designer success was Steam. We launched the indie versions of Substance Designer on Steam in June 2013 and they were incredibly successful. This also helped us to further grow our community and get a lot of 3D enthusiasts on board. Steam would become an invaluable platform in getting feedback that we could use to better design our products.
The Birth of Substance Painter
The next step was Substance Painter. We knew that there was a fundamental need among our community – the ability to paint directly on a 3D model. At the beginning, this ability to paint was supposed to be a feature for Substance Designer 5. But we quickly realized that it would make much more sense to actually build a separate product.
Substance Painter is the most quickly adopted piece of software Allegorithmic has ever created. This is just a fraction of awesome works created with SP. Check out the official gallery for more.
First, we needed to have a separate code base, which would allow us to develop the product much quicker without having to drag the legacy code of Substance Designer. The second reason for going standalone was that we were actually addressing very different people. Substance Designer was definitely a product for technical artists while Substance Painter was supposed to address all 3D artists who are primarily looking for a familiar environment resembling Photoshop.
And so it began. The very first alpha of Substance Painter was shown to a small private user group at GDC in March 2013. Needless to say, the audience was super excited at what they saw and it was hard for them to keep the secret for almost a year. In November 2013, we released our first Substance Painter teaser showing off a unique particle painting system.
Fast forward to GDC 2014 where we released the public beta of Substance Painter on Steam and on our website. This was a major hit and we sold a tremendous amount of licenses at low cost ($75 at the time) that gave us the resources to speed up product development. Particle painting was a true innovation, a real joy to work with and also a powerful marketing tool. However, Substance Painter was much more than that.
Substance Painter was a comprehensive 3D texturing application and people soon started to realize it. Our community helped us enormously in shaping this product. A lot of the features in the final release were actually directly requested by our users during the beta phase. We like to talk about Substance Painter as a “crowd-designed” art tool. To our knowledge, Substance Painter is the fastest selling 3D-painting tool ever made.
Numbers & New Horizons
To date, we’ve sold over 100K software licenses. We have approximately 60K monthly active users of Substance Painter and approximately 25K monthly active users of Substance Designer. Eighty-five percent of all AAA game studios worldwide now have a Substance pipeline as their primary texturing solution (thank you, PBR :)). Today, Allegorithmic employs about 70 people and we are constantly hiring to sustain our growth.
We currently make 70% of our revenues in games, but the fastest-growing market at the moment is VFX/Animation, especially since the release of Substance Painter 2. We expect VFX/Animation to become as big as games for us in the next two years.
Allegorithmic has also started a lot of initiatives in architecture and design with very promising results. For instance, the automotive industry shows growing interest in material design and digital libraries. We are currently in touch with most of the car makers to help them set up the pipeline of the future, which obviously includes VR and real-time components.
The skillsets of architects and game developers definitely aren’t the same, but architects are moving towards game-like pipeline while experimenting with VR and game engines.
By Peter Kolus.
Allegorithmic’s tools are also used to develop materials for soft goods such as shoes or handbags. In these fields, people are really obsessed with highly-detailed materials and specific shapes such as stitches or grids. It used to take weeks to model stitches, while stich modeling can be done with procedural textures in a few hours while producing much more flexible content.
By Valéry Damnon.
For now, our tools remain trans-market. We may add some specific features in the form of plugins, but today the philosophy is sticking to a transmarket approach (a little bit like ZBrush).
And this is just the beginning. The latest version of Substance Painter (and soon Substance Designer) provides the ability to create plugins, which is the first step in having our community develop features as well. We hope the community will embrace this new plugin system and share their creations on Substance Share, our free community platform launched in September 2015.
Last but not least, we held Substance Days, our first big community event last July at Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Games and Animation in Hollywood. It was a genuine success which gathered more than 400 people and for masterclasses and conference sessions with world-class digital artists such as Glauco Longhi and Peter Zoppi. We had A LOT of fun and we’re already organizing other events like this for 2017.
The Next Chapter
We have a “secret” team in Paris called Allegorithmic Research. The team consists of computer scientists who are working on the future of 3D. The things that they are creating are hardly going to be released before 2018, but we’ve decided to allocate full-time resources to this. Not a lot of companies can actually do this, and it’s both a blessing and a risk for a company our size. Our external Chief Scientist is Tamy Boubekeur, and he is helping shape our research department together with Sebastien Deguy.
We’re exploring lots of ideas. Machine learning, new procedural techniques, photogrammetry. We don’t yet have clear ideas on which of these subjects will spawn a product, but we definitely want to explore different fields. We are truly focusing on innovation the same way we did with Substance Painter. This is also what makes my job exciting as we’re coming up with new cool things every month.
I believe, the whole history of Allegorithmic could actually be interpreted in two ways. One could say that we’ve been wasting our time for 7 years, trying to sell a very technical product to non-technical people in China and Korea. On the other hand, one could say that this experience actually shaped our future projects and allowed us to build a decent reputation. During these years we’ve met with incredible people in the industry who supported us all along, who knew there was something to be done and that we were people you could trust.
I believe this story also shows the fascinating background of our technology, which continues to be at the heart of our products. We took our time but we now have an ecosystem that can evolve on solid grounds at a very quick pace
As for the future, I’m really excited to see what our team will come up with next. And share it with our community!
The future is here! Allegorithmic has just released Substance Source, a physically based material library with tons of assets for any type of 3D project, including fully procedural materials, scans, and hand-painted materials. All assets are available in multiple export resolutions, tweakable and ready for your game engine or renderer. Come back next week to 80.lv to read our next big exclusive interview about this project.