Spotlight: Using Megascans With UE4

Spotlight: Using Megascans With UE4

Our research with three artists about Megascans and how things changed when Quixel joined Epic Games. 

A month ago, Epic Games announced the acquisition of Quixel at Unreal Academy London. All Quixel Megascans became free for all artists using Unreal Engine. Quixel’s primary operations remained based in Sweden, and over 100 employees across six countries joined the Epic Games team.

The announcement changed the landscape of the industry. Artists got free access to a vast library of high-quality assets and that's basically a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. 3D art might seem scary and complex as you have to master all those tools. You have to spend hours setting all kinds of assets for your environments and that's a barrier for entry. 

Quixel joining Epic means that you can start creating your scenes in no time. You just need to get your copy of  Unreal Engine, figure our some basic technical aspects (not that challenging considering numerous tutorials available online) and get started. Is this assumption true though? 

We contacted three artists to talk about the way they're using Quixel tools with Unreal Engine, discuss art direction aspects and learn if the announcement changed their workflows. Below you can find some thoughts and environment art tips from Vladimir Somov, Dany Arfan, and Nikita Hrushevskyi. The goal was to get feedback from artists with different skill levels: both experienced masters and beginners.

Please tell us about your latest project in Unreal Engine

Vladimir Somov

Vladimir Somov: "Arrival" is a UE4-based concept art sequence Inspired by Ridley Scott's The Martian. It tells a story of a Mars expedition gone wrong when Rover and the crew got hit by the dust storm. It started as a research project exploring UE4's potential to substitute common rendering tools used for concept art.

The main goal was to capture photorealistic renders that required minimal paint over with multiple camera angles and moods while having the flexibility and speed of a real-time renderer. Once the scene was set up with a sun and the atmosphere that imitated Martian esthetic, setting up each individual shot took no time. Regardless if it was a 360 panorama or a single shot, the scene is fully interactive which provides great flexibility when addressing feedback or working on a sequence of concepts at the same time.

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I knew I wanted to make something simple and exciting at the same time to test out Unrea's potential - that's how I decided on Mars. That way I knew that thanks to Megascans most my terrain needs were already solved and all I had to create was a Rover and a simple character astronaut. The next steps after deciding on a direction for the scene were just a matter of gathering reference from NASA as well as re-watching The Martian of course!

Dany Arfan: It all started the moment I heard about Quixel joining Epic Games and making the entire Megascans library free for UE4 users. I'm a beginning artist learning the art of the vast CG world and I had no experience
at all working with any game engine like Unreal. After the announcements, I thought it will be the right time to pick up UE4 and give it a try.

Dany Arfan

So my goal here was to learn UE4 from scratch and give it a try knowing I can focus on learning technical stuff inside the engine and not worry about assets. The first step was watching a lot of tutorials about UE4. I watched so many speed level design videos before, but never tried to do it myself, so you can say
I had a bit of knowledge on how these levels are made but I couldn't apply it in the engine myself.

After a whole day of watching tutorials and an awesome breakdown of creating a forest on Quixel's YouTube channel, it was time for me to finally try creating something in UE4, so I decided to create a forest scene. Nothing was planned, and I had no idea about the composition of the scene. After sculpting the terrain in a random way I thought it would be cool to take a shot of a point of view looking at the top of the hill, so I tweaked the terrain based on that idea.

Nikita Hrushevskyi

Nikita Hrushevskyi: I’m a self-taught environment artist. In the past, I worked in such studios as Strange New Things and CD Projekt RED. I have a big passion for photorealistic game art and art in general. Also, I’m a fan of stylized stuff. My goal is not to recreate the real world like a photo but to add to my scenes some beauty and colors. 

I was always a big fan of medieval and fantasy stuff. After playing “For Honor” for a bit and quickly jumping into “Skyrim” for a weekend, I was heavily inspired to create this scene.

When I finally had some free time I’ve decided to start some planning. My main goal was to create a really small scene as quick as possible and use mainly assets from the Megascans library, plus some additional premade assets in Unreal Engine 4. Also, I wanted to level up my lighting skills and recreate this “high snowy mountains” atmosphere. I’ve set up a small ref\mood board for myself to figure out the desired directionю

Nikita Hrushevskyi's ref board

How do you work with Megascans? How much time does it usually take to find the right assets?

Vladimir Somov

Vladimir Somov: I started using Megascans from, well pretty much the beginning. I think it was still in beta version at the time and the library didn't have any 3D assets - only materials, and I've been using it since. Finding the right assets is always a breeze. At this point, I have a good metal library of the 3d assets and surfaces available. So while I was researching how the Mars surface looks like I already had an idea of what I would need to download to achieve the desired effect.

Regardless of whether you have years of experience with Megascans or not, Bridge provides a great search engine that makes it very easy to find the right assets. You just need a bit of planning ahead of time. Since Megascans has thousands of assets now it is very easy to get overwhelmed and download way more assets than you need. A simple principle is to focus on what's important in your scene and look for the simplest solution, which means that you really don't need a ton of resources to create a believable terrain/architecture render. Environment artists can learn a lot from classical painters actually. You don't need details everywhere and sometimes it's okay to just hint. In fact, adding too many details to your scene brings CG closer to an uncanny valley making it a lot harder to achieve the appealing look without a lot of work.

Vladimir Somov

In terms of integrating base Megascans models into the scene, I tend to use a very simple approach of changing saturation or tint of albedo and sometimes adjusting the contrast of the roughness map. Base Quixel shaders have most of the functionality you need, so all I had to do is add a few of my own parameters like albedo saturation and roughness contrast. Since this scene didn't have any close-up shots of terrain I got away with very little work on the level dressing aspect of it.

Dany Arfan: I found that Epic has already added a meadow pack from Quixel on the marketplace alongside a few more beautiful packs so I downloaded them, plus som other assets I found using Quixel Bridge.

Very quickly I started adding assets that might fit in the scene so it was a very simple process of importing what I wanted from Bridge into Unreal and from there it's up to your personal taste, so it's just placing assets and foliage here and there. 

Nikita Hrushevskyi: So my first step was to create a landscape. Nothing really special here, just some high peak snowy mountains with small “plain” part in front of them. Great spot to place my ruins. Then I opened the Megascans library to find some good assets to start with. I knew that I want some structure and not just random parts of the castle and the “Old Chapel” parts were a great fit for my scene.

Megascans assets

I’ve spent some time to discover all thematic assets. The library is really huge and it gives you probably an unlimited number of ways to create or fill your scene with different assets. So, take some time and try to explore it before starting the actual work on your scene. When you’re ready to start, Bridge comes into action. It is a really useful and quick tool for importing stuff from the Megascans library into UE4. After gathering all the assets which would be useful for my scene I’ve started to play with their material parameters. I wanted to lower the “mossiness” of the assets and lower the overall brightness\contrast\colorness of them. Thanks to the Quixel team, you can change those parameters in material instances on the fly. After some experiments with their parameters, I’ve ended up with some sort of a blockout.

Then I started to play with the snow shader. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on it so I’ve ended up with a really easy addition to Quixel’s master material. So the idea was just to add a snow material on top of the assets with vector normal blending, displacement option, and some subsurface color.

Here are some screenshots:

Here is the result:

Then I started to play with more assets from the library, trying to match the scale, color, and atmosphere of broken ruins.

This was the most fun part for me, just like playing with pieces of LEGO. You’re building something unique and trying to match your imagination or references. After spending a good amount of time on level art for the scene and playing with materials I ended up with this result:

The scene was lacking some additional details, I added some frozen grass and plants, few decals, more small and big stones, footprints and a castle flag with fake wind shader.

The main goal for the lighting was to catch the warm sky effect and cold weather. I’ve used some additional assets outside the Megascans library. The skybox and cloud cards were taken from Brushify.io pack for UE4. The Brushify assets also provide you with tweakable parameters that fit your needs. All the FX’s comes from official Unreal Particle Effects. The quality is incredible and they were matching my scene really good. I’ve added also exponential height fog with volumetric fog enabled and atmospheric fog for the sky.

I tuned up directional light with a skylight, added a few reflections to the scene and then moved on to the post-processing. I’ve also added a LUT. It’s very useful and you can dramatically change the overall look of your scene look, but don’t go crazy with this. Too much is never good.   

Do artists face limitations in terms of art direction when using ready-made assets?

WIP GIFs by Vladimir Somov

Vladimir Somov: There are limitations of course, especially if you try to build your entire level with nothing but assets from the library which is of course far from an ideal approach. I see Megascans as a supplement to my world-building process to enhance the scenes, not replace the asset production completely. Once you understand what these tools are designed for, you will never feel limited by them. Working with premade or scanned data will never limit your creative vision when your creativity comes from things like composition, lighting your environmental and cinematic storytelling and so on.

When fundamentals of the scene are established, you sprinkle Megascans on top to make you look like a much better environment artist than you really are.

Art by Dany Arfan

Dany Arfan: Ready assets can limit sometimes but the majority of them can be used in so many different ways depending on the storytelling in the scene. One piece of a rock can be used as a big part of a cliff or scaled-down, copied several times and used as scatter on a road. A good-looking tree can be used as a normal tree or placed deep down under the terrain to hide the roots and used as a small bush just by scaling, rotating and tweaking depending on your needs. Just be creative and don't be afraid of making good use of ready assets.

Nikita Hrushevskyi: It really depends on a library of premade assets and your needs. Sometimes you really need something special, so you will probably make it yourself. But in general, if a scene is meant for a realistic setting then there won’t be any problems with finding something useful in the Megascans library and implementing it within the scene.

How much time can you save when using Megascans? 

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Vladimir Somov: It's hard to calculate precisely how much time I saved by using Megascans assets but I'm pretty sure that at least a couple of days of work were boiled down to a few clicks and a short wait for a download. Having access to premade assets allows me to assemble and render simple scenes in less than a day. The time I saved on sculpting yet another generic rock can be dedicated to solving creative problems instead.

A scene by Dany Arfan made with Blender and Megascans

Dany Arfan: Using ready assets is definitely a huge time saver, that's why high-quality assets can be expensive. They are made to ease your work, allowing to save time on the process of creating them from scratch every time you are working on a project.

I can't imagine myself creating all the assets I used in this scene by myself just for the sake of learning to work in UE4 as it might tool me a few weeks to create all the assets.

As a hobbyist, this is exactly what I needed in order to start creating. Sure, everyone looking to become an Environment Artist should know how to build custom assets, but that doesn't you should avoid using premade assets. Even AAA studios that make our favorite games use ready assets here and there.

Nikita Hrushevskyi: Megascans assets are incredible time-savers. I made this scene in 2 days. To be honest I would probably make a similar scene in 2-3 weeks if I chose to create everything from scratch. I really enjoy working with Quixel’s ecosystem. It is comfortable to work with exporting\importing stuff between Mixer, Bridge, and UE4. By the way, I’m still using Quixel Suite 2 at home to texture my assets.

What do you think about Quixel joining Epic Games? Will it make more people start creating their own 3D scenes?

Vladimir Somov

Vladimir Somov: I want to believe that Quixel joining Epic is a great thing for Quixel and for the entire community at least from a consumer point of view. If you think about it selfishly, of course, a lot of artists and I lost certain exclusivity since Megascans was a paid service before. But I genuinely think that having more artists with access to the Megascans library will fuel a healthy competition and elevate the overall quality of work we produce as an industry. But just like with any new tech that becomes available to an artist, if you just a beginner it's easy to skip on practicing your fundamentals. If you can download a perfect rock or a cliff edge it doesn't mean that you don't need to know how to sculpt one by hand. The same applies to material creation or everything else in art. It's all about a healthy balance.

Dany Arfan: In my personal opinion, Quixel joining Epic Games will have a big impact on the industry. I believe this move will remove the limits of creativity for artists as having such a powerful engine like Unreal with a huge library of free assets from Quixel at your disposal is just phenomenal. There is nothing holding you back from stepping in and start creating. On behalf of myself, I can't thank them enough for giving me an opportunity to start working toward becoming an Environment Artist!

The scene you see here is an example that nothing is impossible as it was the first time I created something in Unreal Engine, Using Quixel assets, I was able to reach such quality and I'm sure more creative minds will do the same.

How will it affect the industry? I think the industry will become even more competitive and will push artists to keep improving and again encourage and help more people to start creating/

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Nikita Hrushevskyi: That’s awesome! In the past, Quixel has already lowered prices for all assets and it was great but this latest announcement is just mindblowing. I definitely think that the number of artists and scenes will increase drastically. I’m also waiting for the new Mixer updates and hope we will get them really soon.

The Megascans library is growing very fast, and every day they’re adding more and more stuff. I believe that this move will be useful for the whole game art community.

Quixel joining Epic will definitely persuade more people to create all kinds of projects. Still, you have to understand that in order to master 3D artist you have to constantly evolve and learn basic things, and Megascans will be by your side to help you save time and add details. Did I miss something here? Share your thoughts and discuss how the announcement affected you. 

Vladimir Somov, Environment Artist

Dany Arfan, Self-Taught 3D Artist

Nikita Hrushevskyi, Environment Artist

Interviewer and Author: Arti Sergeev

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