Combining Zbrush and Substance Designer for Games

Combining Zbrush and Substance Designer for Games

Dannie Carlone from Crystal Dynamics talked about the way he creates awesome materials for high-profile AAA-games.

Dannie Carlone from Crystal Dynamics talked about the way he creates awesome materials for high-profile AAA-games.


Hey Everyone! My name is Dannie Carlone, and I am currently an Environment Artist at Crystal Dynamics. I grew up in San Bernardino California and studied at The Art Institute of California in Inland Empire. I have been working in games for a little over 5 years. I’ve been lucky enough to work for a handful of studios such as Crystal Dyanmics, Sony Santa Monica, and Vigil Games. working at these studios has given me the opportunity to work on great projects like Rise of the Tomb Raider, God of War: Ascension, and Warhammer.

Modern Materials

PBR changed everything; the way you go about making materials these days is a completely new beast. Previously, we used to throw the kitchen sink into our diffuse maps, and they were extremely dark with tons of lighting information that you just don’t do with PBR. Now with PBR standards it has become more of a science to get materials looking correct.

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Nowadays materials have either a high poly model or Substance Designer driving your textures. Whereas previously, textures were either photosourced from a texture library online, or you scouted your own.

PBR changed material workflows by changing them to a phyically based system. Each material has its own parameters for values: how dark or light the material is, and what kind of roughness it has. Previously, specular maps weren’t accurate or were guesswork. Now, PBR has made the materials come across more life like and has made them more grounded. The fidelity and interest you can get in a material now is far higher than the previous generation.

Materials’ Function

As an Environment Artist story is the king. When telling a story it should establish the location and tone for the level. Materials play a huge part in that, and should ground the environment in the games style. I personally look at it as they inform and enhance the setdressing of the area and give context to the assets in the scene.

Combining Zbrush and Substance Designer 

I love Zbrush, I sculpt every day. I can’t get away from it. I’ve always been into traditional sculpting, but Zbrush is where I truly felt free from restrictions. I use a combination of Zbrush and Substance Designer because I feel each program should be used for their strengths. Nothing beats Zbrush for sculpting in my opinion, and nothing beats Substance Designer with their texturing tools. Combining them just seemed obvious to me. I can get exactly what I want in the modeling phase in Zbrush and get exactly what I want in the texturing phase with Substance Designer.

Is it more time consuming? It depends on the sculpt, but not overly so. I don’t really look at it as I need to crank out this material as fast as i can. I want to make high quality materials and this is how I go about that. I also prefer to bake from a physical model to get physically correct AO and Height information.

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Custom Brushes

As I mentioned before, I love to sculpt. I asked myself, how do I improve my workflow using zbrush as much as I can? I decided to make some brushes to jump-start my texture sculpts. The goal was to make tools for me to start from, and it just took off from there.

When making a brush, I look at reference and start sculpting a mesh. Once I’m done, I capture that model’s height information and Bam! New brush.

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I use the brushes to help start my sculpting and use them as a foundation and build from there to speed up my sculpting in a productive way.

I currently have two ZBrush brush packs out right now and a combo pack with an assortment of rock, stone, noise, wood, and damage brushes. They are available on my Gumroad page.

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Implementing Substance Designer

Substance is great; the flexibility of generating an infinite amount of noise patterns and blending them into each other in a non-destructive way is invaluable. Once I’m done with my sculpt, I will make a mask in Zbrush using the flat MatCap material. I then bring that into Substance, and it drives my entire texture process.

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From there I create some noise patterns and make a gradient map for my albedo and continue to blend into each other until I have something I can start from.

I take advantage of the noise generators to make the small fine detail that I just wouldn’t do in ZBrush and it makes all the difference.

Avoiding Repetitiveness 

When sculpting my textures, I make sure I have a high level of detail and also make sure when it tiles it doesn’t look too repetitive. Blending between materials is incredibly important these days, and making sure your texture foundation is great will only make your environment sing even more.

I use the standard 200 unit plane in ZBrush as my grout or ground. I place the mesh on the far end of the plane. I duplicate the mesh and offset in the deformation tab by 200. This way, the sculpt will always tile.

I also take advantage of morph targets in ZBrush. I get asked a lot about how I tile the grout in ZBrush. I set my brushes to wrap mode 1 and make sure I have a morph target set. I constantly check to make sure my texture is tiling in a non-offensive way.

Dannie Carlone, Environment Artist at Crystal Dynamics

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 3

  • kyl3r

    @Andy Domonkos, what YOU need is Substance Painter, not Substance Designer!



    ·3 years ago·
  • Andy Domonkos

    I just started my grand attempt at using Substance Designer in conjunction with my zbrush sculpts to produce something slightly more appealing than my usual stuff.  

    From this article I gather that really you are just working on a flat, 2 dimensional map?  I had it in my mind that substance designer was about painting directly onto a model for some reason, which sounded better to me than linking nodes together, which I've always struggled to understand.  

    I guess I'm just confused about where to start in Substance Designer.  I have the model, the maps (diffuse,displacement, normal) all ready to go, what map should I be working on in SD?  



    Andy Domonkos

    ·3 years ago·
  • Anonymous user

    Epic Article! So informative and valuable. Thanks for that! Those pics from Rise of the Tomb Raider look incredible. I wonder what the TD in this game is. What a mindblowing material and environment job. Beyond inspiring.


    Anonymous user

    ·4 years ago·

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