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The Giant Laser: Game VFX Production Case Study in Substance 3D Designer

Min Li shared a comprehensive breakdown of a Cyberpunk-style giant laser VFX, focusing on the workflow behind the energy source, energy absorption, and burst effects in Substance 3D Designer. 


Hello everyone, I am a Junior Game VFX Artist who has just entered the gaming industry, having graduated with a master's degree in Entertainment Arts and Engineering from the University of Utah. With a passion for game VFX production, I participated in the ArtStation's Challenge – Neo Tokyo: Exponential Reality – VFX art (real-time) in my spare time.

Now, I want to share with you how I created this effect, as well as some of the thoughts, experiences, and reflections I had during the challenge. Here, I'll attach the original link, where you can find the original video demonstration.

The theme 'The future of humanity in the megatropolis' immediately caught my interest and provided a great opportunity to demonstrate my skills.


Initially, I engaged in brainstorming. The cyberpunk art style, renowned for its unique aesthetic, had captured my interest lately, and this project seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore it. In search of inspiration, I delved into various references such as neon signs, stage laser lights, and fluorescent elements, culminating in the creation of the following basic concept illustration:

In the concept image, the energy source and the point of energy eruption are distinctly identifiable, highlighted by a striking combination of pink, purple, and blue. Moving into the first step of the effect's creation, texture drawing, I aligned with the theme by crafting several textures in the shape of cherry blossoms. These patterns are not only thematic but also symbolically represent Tokyo's renowned cherry blossoms as the source of power:

When it comes to creating textures for VFX, a key step is to first develop different images in grayscale before combining them into a single file for engine import. This approach significantly reduces memory usage and enhances performance optimization.

While I will not elaborate on all subsequent textures, it's worth mentioning that grayscale images can be crafted using standard tools like Photoshop or by importing images into Substance 3D Designer and utilizing nodes for combination. An example image is provided below to illustrate this process:


With the textures prepared, the next step is to implement shader creation within the engine. Drawing inspiration from the neon light-themed aesthetics, I aimed to replicate an effect reminiscent of a flickering electrical glitch. This shader is crucial in accentuating this specific feature. Below is an illustration of the basic shader I developed for this purpose:

For the part where energy erupts, I initially used the Ribbon system in Niagara to provide a rough outline. Here is the illustration:

This is the particle system behind the effects shown in the illustration:

Certainly, at this juncture, we've set a broad direction for the project. While the final visual effect may vary significantly, this foundational shape and artistic tone have laid the groundwork for bringing the giant laser concept to life!

In this next section, I will detail the step-by-step refinement of the special effect. I focused on enriching the colors, shapes, and dynamics while maintaining detail, all within the thematic boundaries of the challenge.

It's worth noting that in real-life game development, the balance often tilts more towards performance optimization. Real-time rendering requires careful consideration to avoid overwhelming the system, and unfortunately, this sometimes means sacrificing certain aesthetic elements for efficiency. This delicate balancing act is a common challenge faced by many in the field of real-time VFX.

Energy Source

Now, let's delve into refining the energy source. In the realm of special effects, force is an integral element that neither spontaneously emerges nor vanishes. It's the backbone that supports every effect, signaling the commencement of the spectacle.

Particularly for the segment where energy converges, mastering the rhythm is key. To create an impactful, explosive effect, the build-up of energy should be gradual, almost as if it's communicating, 'Look at all this energy I've gathered, ready to burst forth!' Thus, a slow and steady build-up of energy often sets the stage for a dramatic effect. Below is a schematic diagram illustrating this phase of energy absorption in the effect:

The energy visibly converges from all directions, characterized by beautiful floating light strips and intermittently flickering particles. In terms of composition, a good distribution of points, lines, and surfaces is key to creating a visually comfortable and balanced experience.

Despite the real-time nature of this effect, where particle emissions are inherently random, it's still possible to broadly orchestrate the composition. This helps avoid large gaps or overly congested clusters of particles.

To achieve this, I employed a fundamental approach: emitting meshes. This involved setting specific orientations for each main ribbon to ensure even coverage across the visual field. The demonstration diagrams and corresponding particle systems provided below offer a glimpse into this process:

The flow of lines is closely related to the shader. The shader graph for the entire effect is not complicated, mostly related to dissolution, focusing on circuit failure themes. I won't elaborate further. Below is the node graph of the used shader:

The mesh employed is a commonly used strip in special effects, as depicted in the accompanying image.

The fluidity of the lines is almost perfectly controlled by the particle system. Moving forward, we introduce fine dots as decorative elements. These particles, not being the central focus, offer an opportunity for creative diversity. By employing imaginative approaches, we can craft various textures to heighten the overall intrigue of the effect:

If you observe carefully, you will find that almost every twinkling particle is unique, as I created different styles on a single texture, randomly generated in the particle system, with varied colors and life spans, enriching the overall diversity of the particles.

Energy Absorption

At this stage, the main part of our energy absorption should take center stage. The stage is set, and now the star can shine. Our energy has now converged at a certain point, and it needs a prominent "container" to receive it. This container will inevitably be the most eye-catching part of the entire energy absorption process and must capture people's attention.

Therefore, I deliberately made some basic charging animations, as shown below. To make it clearer, I temporarily hid the energy-absorbing lines and particles that I just created:

I've broken down one of the main particle effects, and here's the schematic:

The five-petaled cherry blossom looks like a five-pointed star, but that's okay. As long as it looks bright and beautiful, what does it matter whether it's a cherry blossom or a star? Below is the mesh display of the cherry blossom:

Regarding the presentation of the animation rhythm, I believe everyone has their subjective judgment, but I feel it's nearly perfect at this point. Next, we move on to the climax – the energy burst.

The Energy Burst

Let's deconstruct the burst effect into two distinct parts. The first part radiates outward from the energy center, as illustrated in the following image:

Predominantly, this segment features the expansion of a cherry blossom motif, symbolizing the full bloom of cherry blossom energy. The underlying shape is akin to a circle, embellished with various floral patterns encircling the energy core, thereby enriching the structure's completeness and visual appeal. Accompanying thematic breakdown diagrams demonstrate how manipulating the speed and rhythm of each element enhances its visual impact.

Regarding the shader for this part, it adheres to the same principles as the dissolution effect shader I previously discussed, so I will refrain from delving into those details again.


Moving on to the centerpiece of our design – the laser itself. I applied a similar breakdown method as before, starting with a comprehensive illustration:

The burst, upon closer examination, occurs quite rapidly. Energy is swiftly ejected to form the laser, which is then followed by a more gradual fading process. This dynamic, marked by a swift onset and slower dissipation, is visibly discernible and lends the effect a sense of raw power and a hint of destructiveness.

To set this laser apart from typical pure energy lasers, I incorporated a variety of patterns reminiscent of neon signboards, complete with several neon-like elements, including effects akin to malfunctioning lights. The following is a detailed breakdown of these components:

As you can see, for the burst laser, I put a lot of effort into the color and the light-dark relationship to highlight the neon effect. To reflect the intensity of the overall effect, I also added rings to control the rhythm.

These rings vary in their design, adding to the complexity and dynamism of the scene. The method used involves emitting through meshes and controlling UVs within shaders to achieve the desired animated effect.

Final Polish

By this stage, the core of our effect is largely realized. The subsequent steps involve adding screen effects and post-processing, which are critical for crafting the desired atmosphere and providing the final polish.

Ensuring clarity and distinction between the primary and secondary elements of our effect is vital; a lack of this clarity could result in visual confusion, making it challenging for viewers to identify the key aspects.

To better control the coordination of various particle systems, we can create a sequence and put all the planned effects into it. We can then arrange everything through the sequence frames, as shown in the image below:

The final step involves controlling the camera to capture the effect from every conceivable angle. Given that this is a 3D real-time particle effect, its beauty can be fully appreciated from all viewpoints.

With that, I mark the completion of my challenge. Despite its imperfections, this challenge has been a profound learning experience, enhancing my skills and allowing me to bring to life the vision I had in my mind, leaving me with no regrets.

I extend my heartfelt gratitude to everyone who has taken the time to read this article. Transitioning from a novice to someone capable of penning an article on special effects fills me with immense pride.

My special thanks go to all who have supported and guided me in my pursuit of a career in gaming, with particular mention of Ashley Lyons and Todd Bilger.

I will continue to dedicate myself to my craft, hoping that one day I’ll become an elite in the industry as well and leave my own brilliant mark in the gaming world!

Min Li, Game Special Effects Artist

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