Rediscovering Material Design

Game artist Johnny Malcolm discussed the way he creates complex procedural materials with architectural elements, water, and text.

Game artist Johnny Malcolm discussed the way he creates complex procedural materials with architectural elements, water, and text.


Hi! My name is Johnny Malcolm. I’m from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada but now live in Vancouver. I’m coming up on my second anniversary of working in the industry and it has been an incredibly enjoyable ride so far! My first job was at United Front in Vancouver where I worked on World Art on the third installment of Disney’s Toys-to-life franchise; Disney Infinity, specifically for the Marvel Battlegrounds Playset. I also did some character art for Smash+Grab, a second United Front project. As of last November I’ve made the move to texture/shader artist at Next Level Games where I’m currently working on an unannounced project. In addition I teach Environment Art Production for Games at the Think Tank Training Center where I’m also a Student Mentor. Aside from that I spend a great deal of my spare time working on my craft, trying to stay disciplined and push myself artistically. Lately in my spare time I’ve been moving a bit astray of what you would consider traditional video game art and am working on some personal artwork I’ve been interested in exploring.

I’ve always done art growing up, but my journey into the industry started back in Hamilton where I got my degree in Animation, the program had a large 3D component to it but I realized pretty early on that my passions lay more on the modeling and texturing side and not the animation. After graduation I applied to and was lucky enough to get accepted into the Think Tank Training Center here in Vancouver where, like I mentioned, I now get to teach at! I’ve only begun this recently; but already it’s been a really enriching experience to be able to help guide students through the same challenges I faced in my own education. Life is strange in that way, everything tends to come full circle in my experiences.

Working with Substance Designer

While I was at school back in 2014 my mentor, who is a really smart guy, was trying to introduce me to Substance but I was very set on making a more hand-painted demo reel so I stubbornly refused to embrace it. This wasn’t because it didn’t seem artist friendly to me, but I had some wrong ideas in my head about what substance was and thought the handmade approach would always win out in every situation, I was still a student and was too stubborn at the time.

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My lead at United Front, another really smart dude, made me get into it and I fell in love almost immediately. I think it is a massive misconception that Substance is unfriendly to artists, in fact I think the exact opposite is true! At its core art is a discipline concerned with a studious approach to solving problems; any serious artist spends a great deal of their time learning new tools, media and design principles. So even if the Substance Designer workflow is a little “unorthodox”, artists should be well used to getting their hands dirty and figuring out a new medium. Once you have started to figure it out you quickly learn how incredibly artistically freeing the package actually is. Substance helps you to automate a lot of the more mundane, non artistic aspects of asset creation. For example the ability to work in every map simultaneously and not having to worry about copying layers and masks around in Photoshop every time you make a change alone is a massive time-saver. I rarely feel as unrestrained artistically as I do while working in Substance Designer.

Temple Floor

I think everyone sees massive substance and shader graphs and assume it’s all very complicated when in reality the better half of those nodes and functions are all simple things like levels or blends and the like. I respect the fact that with anything sufficiently complex, whether it’s a stone tile floor or the human anatomy, the conventional knowledge is to break it down into its simpler components and work out the shapes individually from the large all the way to the very small details and icing you’re referring to. Usually, before I start a project I will grab the CORRECT amount of reference. What I mean by that is I grab one or two pieces of key art that will inform most of my decision making and then two to three more at the most. I think it’s very important to not flood yourself with reference and instead work from several solid pieces, at least at one given time.

I usually take these key pieces of art into Photoshop and draw over top of them. What I’m doing is looking for things like repetitive forms and overall shape language as well as looking for levels of detail; trying to separate all of the individual elements apart so that they can be appraised on their own. This way I have a good jumping off point for how to tackle and layer on each level of detail one after another.

Grains and Cracks

For these cracks I actually have a custom generator I’ve built. I believe it’s up on Substance Share, and certainly on my Gumroad for anyone who wants to pick it up! It’s nothing flashy and very simple really. I take a Cells node and perform some blurs and levels to get a nice thick line width (depending on the severity of the damaging). After that I run them through a slope blue set to Min for the blending mode and play around with the intensity, usually you don’t need much to push the black values out far enough. The important thing here, stylistically speaking, is to drive the slope of the slope blur with the appropriate map. If you’re going for something more photo-real I would opt for something very noisy like a Clouds 2 or a Fractal Sum. But if you were making a more heavily stylized piece you could use something like a very blurred Crystal 1.

I don’t actually necessarily think the tiny details are always important. In fact, it all depends on what your end goal is. If you’re working towards photo-realism than certainly in most cases the finer you can get the better. But again, on more stylized stuff you may decide to stop at the medium shapes for better clarity and read at distance. What I think is more important than the amount of detail in every case is making sure you use it in a smart manner. Constantly refer to and study your reference and try to pull everything of use out of it. Where is the detail concentrated? Is there any common element to it? Is the detail defined by just a change in color or shape? I find, especially with more stylized efforts that it’s a good idea to fill your composition up with “callbacks” to previous ideas. For example if the basic forms of the texture are very square and boxy, than when I go to do the detailing I also use small square-ish shapes and angular noises to maintain cohesion at every level of the composition.

Water Refraction

What I’ve done here is actually just a small trick. Refraction is a light based phenomenon where light bends when passing through certain materials, in this case water. Usually this type of thing gets sort of complicated and involves raytracing etc. Normally in games we use screen-space tricks to get away with this by using thing like pixel depth offset and the like. All I’ve done here is mimic the effect very crudely by warping the ground that’s being covered by the water with a caustic pattern I built up using mostly Cells with some additional warping. It’s baked down into the texture so it isn’t a dynamic effect but I think it adds a little extra kick to the result.

Frozen Vault

This one was a little tougher for me at first glance, the material interaction is a little more complex and I’m not fully satisfied with the result but it passed as a first attempt.

The challenge here is figuring out the blending of the separate materials in a convincing manner. I collected the CORRECT amount of reference and looked at how snow built up on a bunch of patio flagstone I found and tried to mimic it with my material masks. The material masks are probably the most important pieces when doing stuff like this and it requires a lot of exploration and trial and error.

I rendered these off in Marmoset so I had access to some sub-surface scattering. For this effect I also had to author both a subsurface map and mask. The effects are confined to the ice and snow and are actually fairly simple as well. Again, constant study of the source material is the key here.

Do developers have the time and resources to create these complex materials for games? 

I don’t think developers can afford to NOT use Substance at least somewhere in the pipeline. It just affords you so much flexibility. All of the time spent on the set-up and learning the tool will be paid back tenfold on the time you’ll save just on iteration alone.

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That being said, I always believe in the right tool for the right job. You wouldn’t build an entire house with just a hammer. It also depends, in my analogy, on what kind of house you are building in the first place. If you’re doing a very heavily stylized piece I think there is no substitute for a good sculpt. The trade-off here is you’re sacrificing flexibility for an increase in quality and a more handmade feel. On the other hand a lot of the time you can actually get very close to the sculpt quality in Substance. I think it’s best to actually approach making your height maps in the same way you do with a sculpt. I basically start with lumps of clay (Shape Nodes) and add and subtract clay away using other shapes with the max and min blending modes.

For me a lot of the time it’s best to sit somewhere in the middle and use a hybrid approach. Do your sculpting but stick to just primary, maybe as far as secondary detailing and have your Art Director sign off on it. From there handle all of the painting and tertiary detailing in Substance, using your maps baked from the sculpt to drive certain aspects of the final product.

Again, at the end of the day the important texture is the one that solves the problem. In my experience Art Directors and Producers aren`t concerned with how you solve that problem as long as it gets solved. Think of Substance as another tool in your skillset in which to work out these problems and you`re already miles ahead!

Frozen Rune Material Mask Breakdown

  • To build this mask I started from a grunge map I felt had some interesting shapes going on.

  • I run the map through a Slope Greyscale set to Min and drive it with a gradient; this lets me smear the white pixels across the surface as if it’s being blown by the wind.

  • I rotate the map so it’s blowing on a 45 degree(ish) angle and fix the tiling with a make-it-tile node.

  • I add in a bit of an inverted ambient occlusion map masked out by the blurred result from the earlier results. This lets me also allow snow to build up in cracks around where the major buildups are.

  • Crack Generator Breakdown

  • I start with Cells3.

  • These level and blur nodes are used to “beef up” the original cells as it comes in with about a 1px thickness and needs to be a bit thicker

  • This is a series of 3 simple warps each being driven by a different Perlin Noise. This is to break up the Voronoi-like pattern of the Cells3 and make it more organic looking.

  • The slope blue is where the magic happens, I’ve set the blending mode to Min to blur the black out into the white areas of the texture

  • I throw on auto levels on to clamp the texture in at 0black and 1white just so that I have a full tonal range in the final output.

  • Water Refraction Breakdown

  • I start with two Cells3 nodes; both are set to different random seeds to get different variations.

  • The Cells3 get inverted and warped with a larger Perlin Noise to disturb the shapes at a higher level.

  • They get further warped by a more zoomed out Perlin Noise Zoom to break it up even finer.

  • I end with four different versions of the result

  • All of those four results are blended together on Max blending modes to get the final result. The entire portion of the texture submerged by water is warped by this resulting texture.

  • Johnny Malcolm, Game Artist

    Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Comments 2

    • Anonymous user

      Glad you like it. Like, share, retweet.


      Anonymous user

      ·6 years ago·
    • Matt

      Great stuff!  Thanks for sharing.



      ·6 years ago·

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